It was 5.30 in the grey morning. Carmen Frazer, who slept lightly, was already dressed. With thickening fingers, she pinched the yellowing leaves from the bottom of the chilli plant on her kitchen windowsill. The plain white saucer had two tartar tidemarks of lime scale and a mascara of grit in the remaining dirty water. Her passion was gardening.
She was 66 and had been retired for seven years. Her sturdy rubber-tipped cherrywood walking stick leaned in the corner. Arthritis of her left hip had made her job at Oxfam impossible: she was co-deputy editor of JobsWorth, a small in-house magazine. But the stairs were too difficult. Manoeuvring herself into the car wasn’t easy either. She was in constant pain, despite the anti-inflammatories. Toothache the length of her leg, touching a nerve. For her valete in JobsWorth, she made a little joke: who put the ‘ouch!’ in touch? (Colleagues at Oxfam had always found her ready, nervous laugh irritating. Anything – the weather, mention of a queue at the post office – could activate that bright, brief, unconvinced laughter, a door-chime of high soprano, a joke alarm at the lowest setting.)
A second rubber-tipped beechwood outdoor walking stick stood in the hall. Her walk had a dramatic list to the right as she took the weight off her stiff left leg. To spectators, it looked as if the trouble was in the right leg. As if it were shorter by six inches. Wrong. The hitch was like some South American dance step – a secret weight change in the tango. Except that it wasn’t secret. Only misleading.
In 1964 she had taken a boat to Valparaiso. It flew the Liberian flag – easily mistaken for the Stars and Stripes – but was called the Regina del Mare and was crewed by Italians mainly, with four Russians who smoked together in the evening – cigarettes with pinched cardboard tubes. It sailed from Liverpool. She was 22. She was going to marry Frank, her fiancé. It was the first and, as it proved, the only time she ever went abroad. The fare, one-way, round Cape Horn, was £275 and fifteen shillings. It included two meals a day. The journey by sea took ten weeks. In that time, she spoke only five words of English: yes, no, please, thank you. Her laugh, she found, was multilingual, a kind of Esperanto. She became familiar with the horizon. She read and then re-read the ten Agatha Christies in her travelling trunk.
When the ship anchored in Montevideo, to provision and take on fuel, at night she heard for the first time the stridulation of insects like an automatic sprinkler system. In the morning, when she walked to the consulate, carefully watching her sandals on the pavement, she glanced up and saw a Negro wearing a stack of panama hats. Maybe twelve. She never forgot the bandoneon of brims, the perfect stutter of hat. There was no mail waiting for her at the consulate.
On the way back, keeping to the shady side of the streets, she saw the bronze scrotum in a bronze church bell. She waited a while, wanting it to strike, staring at the dark metal bruise where it had struck before. Where it always struck. When it struck. But not today, a Saturday.
At the docks, there was a large white ocean-going yacht like a bride. A member of the crew, in white ducks, was leaning out, awkwardly swabbing the white sides with a chamois leather at the end of a long cleft stick – a ginkgo leaf of gold leaf.
How dark her cabin after the aching sunlight, as if she were about to faint. She turned her waistband, undid the zip, stepped out of her skirt and lay on the bunk in her slip. She was trying to think what the sway and the slight bounce of the gangway reminded her of. It came to her. It was like the ship – when it was calm.
At Valparaiso, there was no Frank. There was a messenger who spoke her name as she looked about her, shielding her eyes, her other hand on the green, brass-bound trunk. ‘Misshess Carmen Frasseur?’
He was wearing a double-breasted dark blue suit with sandals. His toenails were dirty. There was an oil stain on his left lapel. His features, though, were handsome. First he showed her a small snapshot of herself – lifting a glass of stout towards the person (Frank) taking the photograph. She was smiling, tensely. Then the messenger held up his left hand, paused, patted his jacket and produced from the inside pocket a letter curved by his ribcage. Then he turned and disappeared between the stacks of dockside crates. No name. The envelope was blank – except for a pastel smudge, franked by the messenger’s thumb, which she smelled. Coffee grounds.
Frank’s letter was written on lined paper, the top edge a ruffle where it had been torn from a spiral notebook. What it said – that he was sorry, that he had fallen in love with someone else in Chile, another English woman actually, and he had married her – was of no importance. There was no address. But she had his address in her passport and also in her purse. There was a telephone number. She decided not to ring it. Instead, she beckoned a Negro boy with a porter’s brass lozenge and paid him to carry her trunk back on to the boat.
The ship was a week in port before it began the return journey of eleven weeks. For some reason, the return journey took a week longer. She had money for the return fare with a goodish sum left over. She had been saving for a long time. In Valparaiso she never left the boat again. She had been on the dockside for ten minutes, including the time it took to read Frank’s letter.
On the voyage home, she was, she could tell, a figure of interest, of speculation. Of mystery, in fact. Mainly because she hadn’t cried or even looked upset.
She felt insulted and wounded and yet it was a relief.
On the last night in Valparaiso, there was a fireworks display, to celebrate the departure of the plague in 1572 which had claimed 150,000 lives in less than two years. She decided not to watch it. She had seen fireworks before and she wanted to think. The porthole of her cabin bloomed and flickered, tarnished and brightened, like the iris of someone watching fireworks. ‘Some bearded meteor, trailing light.’ She smiled. She smiled and listened to the bombardment overhead. It lasted thirty minutes and had a surprising dynamic range. The crump of grenades, all grades of ordnance, tracer, tormented shrieks, viciously beaten bass drums, glissandos. A great orchestra of violence, deprived of visual distraction.
She was thinking about the messenger – the way he put his dark glasses over those friendly, handsome eyes, the way he went between the crates, like a pigmy. Or like a giant in Manhattan.
And she came, with a definite jerk, for the first time in her life.
Sharp, then strangely long, like an injection.
Every evening at sea, to the music of Joe Loss on a portable gramophone, she watched two sisters from Slough, in their late thirties, efficiently dancing, breast to breast, on the tiny sloping dance floor. They both worked in the exchange department of Lloyds bank. They had identical wristwatches, equally high on their freckled forearms, and they were going to marry two twin sailors from Valparaiso when they returned in six months’ time. They took turns as leader and follower.