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FINDING PENELOPE



JAMES LAWLESS


Also by James Lawless


Novels

Peeling Oranges

For Love of Anna

The Avenue

Knowing Women

American Doll


Epub Short Stories

A Prostitute’s Tale

The House of the Fornicator

Lovers Who Wound Blame it on the Storm

Dream Lover


Poetry

Rus in Urbe

Noise &Sound Reflections


Stories for Children

The Adventures of Jo Jo


Criticism

Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world.


First published in 2012 by Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.

Copyright ©James Lawless 2017.


















‘I never pretended to offer such literature

as should be a substitute for a cigar,

or a game of dominoes, to an idle man.’


Robert Browning.











for Marguerite and Ava

Author's Preface


Apart from casting a wry glance at the phenomenon of chick lit and treating of the role of patriarchy in a family, the novel Finding Penelope is essentially a love story marking a growth in self-realisation in the protagonist Penelope Eames. It delves into the drugs culture and its associated criminality in Spain (where a lot of Celtic Tiger money wound up laundered), Ireland and the UK. The prompt for the novel was from Cervantes and a motif may be interpreted as a sort of modern day parallel of Don Quijote's attack on the proliferation of romance novels of that time. As seventy per cent of readers are now female, I wanted to understand more of the female mindset. So I picked the brains of women of my acquaintance, including two adult daughters and I researched contemporary women writers and books like Everywoman, and I reread with new female (or at least androgynous eyes) my well-thumbed de Beauvoir, Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. Simultaneously, I was studying the crime culture on the Costa.

The result was the character Penelope Eames.








She hears the voice on the sand, gravelly and authoritative like that of her father’s. Press the button and reject, that’s me, she thinks, Penelope Eames, that’s how I feel, or rather how I’ve been made to feel over the years, by him. Oh yes, the former esteemed professor of Histology and Morbid Anatomy with textbooks and learned articles to his name, who couldn’t teach compassion or filial love. The early Spanish sun is lulling her, making her mull over things, things that she had decided belonged to the past now, to another country. The top of her left breast is burning slightly, the new red bikini being skimpier than her usual black swimsuit (she should have thought of that), and then the skin is more sensitive there after submitting to the knife. It was Sheila Flaherty, her agent, ironically who had suggested she go in and get the implants – her breasts were an average size. ‘Good for your image,’ Sheila had said.

She was reluctant at first, considering it a vanity to don the anaesthetic mask to undergo an inessential butchering of oneself (she never even put a tint in her hair, for God’s sake). Sheila had had the job done a year ago, transforming her into the well-upholstered blonde that she now is. And for what?

For men.

Yes.

It was then they discovered the lump in her left breast. Quite young for that, the nurse had said, and Sheila tried to make a joke of it – ‘you’re the lump out and I’m the lump in,’ and the nurse taught her breast awareness.

She hears the voice on the sand, the smoker’s huskiness reeking of pseudo-wisdom; he thinks he is the cat’s miaow. ‘Not at all, my dears,’ the voice (clearly English) is saying; ‘on the contrary, chewing your nails is good for you; rich in protein you know. If I could reach my toenails, I...’ Men, stupid old men, but maybe there is a humour there – who can account for taste? She looks up coyly from under her straw hat to locate the provenance of the voice: that elderly guy a few yards away with the silver ponytail sitting under a huge parasol in the canvas chair. He is holding forth with a bevy of young sycophantic beauties – just like him. Trying as he is to be youthful-looking like a born-again hippie or something out-of-date, just like him, the slate blue eyes, her father to a T.

Except of course for the ponytail.

The fine fawn-coloured sand she slides freely between her fingers, letting go, easing her life. She is delaying. The sun has made her lazy. She should be gone back to the quiet of her apartment to work on that recalcitrant second novel, before the sun reaches its zenith. She knows that, and to avoid the sunburn. There is a sound of laughter. She can just make out through the rising waves of heat: grinning young males (is the broad bronzed chap one of the lifeguards? She thought she saw him earlier on his perch) and two females among them playing volleyball as she gazes up into the sun from under the awning of her hand (for she has removed her sunhat which was chafing her forehead). She hadn’t become aware of the net before. There are shouts in Spanish of ‘Anda’ and ‘Olé’ subsuming the elderly guy’s utterances. The young men, in a veil of light and heat, are laughing at a monokini-clad girl who has just missed the ball. The putdown. What always emanated from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her as he was of Dermot, her younger brother, when he started on his science degree. Oh, such voluble praise. A scientist in the family. Mixing chemicals and potions in Quinlan’s Laboratories. How right, how prophetic he was. And earlier her first book which she stuck at, she was sure he’d be proud of; she was hoping  her first novel to be published  but all he did was wonder if anything could be done about it, her writing that is, as if it were one of his studied pathologies.


Her right arm is going dead from resting on her side. She turns. Svengali of the bitten nails is calling the girls in from the sun. They are gabbling in different tongues – mainly Russian she thinks – among themselves, and in strained broken English to him. ‘You’ll sizzle up, my dears, out there.’ She can see him clearly now as he looks this way and that, his ponytail bobbing like a pendulum. And the girls come running. And he sits on his chair like a king on his throne, his harem in the shade at his feet, and the blonde who had been playing volleyball without her top  the shameless hussy. It’s a different matter to lie prone demurely in a topless state, Penelope convinces herself, with the towel on the ready to cover for any required movement, but to flaunt oneself in such a manner at sporting males, and he talking about fingernails... really! The girls are ignoring the taunts of the volleyball boys to come and play; they’re concentrating on the mature man, positively drooling over him. Is he some rich dude? Is that it? They’re after his money, or maybe he’s a powerful film director  the chair, after all, in its canvas making could be interpreted as directorial. They’re looking for parts; that’s it, to be made famous in his next film. And the chrome-haired lecher pulls at the string of the nearest girl’s bikini bottom.

Her father always called for Dermot, never for her when he wanted something, whether to announce or to confide, he made his bonding with Dermot. Dermot, the scientist, the proud son, the drug addict – pick the odd one out. Oh yes, Father did not know. In a moment of pique and green-eyed envy, which occurred when he called for him, she thought of telling her father, of releasing the cat from its miaow as it were, and of revealing to him what his whitehaired boy was really up to all those purblind years. The cocaine habit that started after their mother’s death at the in-set college parties, the social round of Dublin’s elite (some of whom less canny are reduced like Dermot now ironically to the gutter). The mutual admiration society was what she called it, of all that talent and intelligence of neophyte lawyers and doctors and dentists and financiers, and scientists, a veritable whirl of brilliance in a newly vibrant country.

But he called for him, at the first sign of failing, for this junkie. It was like a dismissal to her, a rejection to one who had been tending to his needs all along.

All those needs. All along. All those demands. All her life. The best years.

And the last time Dermot came  Penelope had found him with the help of the drug unit in a down-and-out place: a lane, she can’t remember the name of it – Crow’s Lane, that was it, strewn with bottles and syringes and faeces and a pungent stench of urine which was trapped in the narrow street by overhanging buildings, so that, she mused, junkies would find their way home like animals by following their own smell.

Sometimes she wished her pain on both of them for all the years, not of material neglect  she was never left short in that regard  but for all the years of indifference. It must be the cruellest of wounds to inflict on someone, she considered, to do something unaware of or indifferent to the harm it would cause: to impose on one a habituation to worthlessness.

But – and she looks down at her wriggling toenails like a chorus to her thoughts – she is not worthless. She is a writer. She wrote to stitch the wounds, to seek affirmation from other sources. The great world out there.

She had her first story published in a teen magazine. ‘Shows a lot of promise,’ the editor had said. The story was about an orphan girl. What else could it have been about? she realises looking back, indulging the warmth of the Mediterranean sun at its height now (cajoling her to linger). And then her first novel several years later, Smelling of Roses, a romance about the unfulfilled yearning of a young woman until she met the dark foreigner on a beach just like this one, feeding into what her father deemed the frenzied imaginings of impressionable females.

Men, she muses, as the waves beat rhythmically (she will venture into the water soon; she is sweating; she can feel the drops meandering into her cleavage). She was able to give up her job  her last job where she’d worked as a temporary tour guide in a Dublin museum, after a previous disastrous sojourn in a bank and an earlier stint at Telesales. She had wandered through an Arts degree but did not know what to do after it; had no one to guide her. ‘Any dolt can get an Arts degree,’ her father said, and that was the end of it as far as he was concerned. In contrast, she remembers some of her college friends with their careers mapped out for them by doting parents; the sang-froid of those young women, she marvelled at, as single-mindedly they pursued careers in the media or the diplomatic corps or later appeared in the society columns marrying some rich lawyer or dentist.

She bought an apartment on the Costa del Sol on the recommendation of Sheila (‘Such a romantic country’) from some savings she had, abetted by the royalties of her first book and the advance for her next one. A sequel, well not really, but in the same vein, more of the same, that’s what they said, don’t change a winning horse. Another love story maybe with a bit more umph this time, yes that is what they said. She could afford to be more daring in this second one – it is the twenty-first century after all, Sheila said, as if Penelope were not aware of that. Not exactly a bodice ripper no, we’re not looking for that, but quality of writing and candour of expression, those are the things we are seeking in a novel for the independent woman of today, who is not afraid to venture forth et cetera et cetera. But there is a problem this time: Penelope’s mind is in a flutter. After all, the first novel had been completed before her mother had died and before Dermot really went downhill. A mind needs, if not a stability, at least the semblance of it to write. She is thirty-three now, and has to think of her future. All the time previously, because of her father’s conditioning of her (she blames that), she thought not of what she wanted but of what men demanded. But not anymore. Better not to have got hitched at all than to painfully suffer afterwards as her mother had done – such acrimony, and she was a witness to it all. Penelope Eames had run the whole gamut of negative emotions before she left her teens, and without having to put a foot outside her family home.

She feels a palpitation as Mr Nails folds up his chair to make his departure. It’s like she’s missing him already in a sick sort of way, her father who is waning now, she has to admit, no matter what. She is afraid of loosening chains. Wanting and fearing at the same time. How had she come away? In what manner? The stubborn defiant Go if you must of his followed by the demented Where are you off to? And he refused to go into the nice nursing home in Booterstown which she would have arranged. To let someone else look after him, to take her place. But he would have none of it. Always winning the moral battle, to make the guilt hang on her.

Mr Nails has folded up his chair, his flapping gaudy shirt revealing a bush of wiry hair on his tanned, high-ribbed chest. He is moving away, the line in the sand filling in already from the mark of his chair as his seraglio disperses.

She must get back too, and forego the swim. But how to write, to concentrate, not knowing where Dermot is, her only sibling, her kid brother. She thought it would be easy, just a matter of coming away to leave such preoccupations behind her, but it’s not so easy, she realises now; for such thoughts travel too and find their own berthing. Dermot started his disappearance act after their mother’s death; he would vanish for days, for weeks on end, and then reappear out of the blue with his dirty laundry and expect her to skivvy for him, while he chilled out, just as she did for her father. Penelope was caring towards Dermot; accepting it in the beginning with the way their mother was. Even to know where he is, no matter what travail he may be going through – it is self-inflicted after all. But it would be a relief; it would put her mind at rest, just to know he was all right, still on the straight and narrow where she had tried to place him before she left, for she could not in her heart have abandoned him callously in the condition she had found him in Crow’s Lane. She brought him to the drug recovery unit on Merchant’s Quay before he realised where he was going, driven there, she remembers, to the repugnance of the taxi driver. After a few days with her cajoling (the strain of it she still feels), and on a course of methadone, he slowly improved. She spruced him up in a tie and suit, got him a job, not the big scientific position, no, none of that now, but part-time work in a Supervalu off-licence. She knew the manager there who had worked with her in Telesales. It was all a rush but at least it was something to keep him off the streets before she departed for Spain.

The day she was leaving, she gave him her mobile phone number and her forwarding address.

‘You’re fucking off on me,’ he said trying to make her feel bad, just like their father had done.

‘If you ever want to come over...’

‘Ha.’ The sneer.

‘I mean it, Dermot...’

But she didn’t mean it, she knows, as she looks out on the crystalline water.


No, she has not settled here yet, despite the apparent tranquillity of the surroundings: the rolling hills, the lenitive evening beaches sufficient to provide the balm but not the longed-for obliteration. But she is only a few days here after all; one must give time a chance to exact its healing powers. Her skin has hardly changed colour; she is still pasty-faced. Who used call her that? Dermot yes, pasty-face, he used to say, and he ironically always more pale than her. She intends to stay a full three months, at least, what Sheila had recommended. And who knows she may stay longer. Who can tell? She may even stay permanently; after all, who wants to go back to what she had left behind. But a full three months gestation period is needed to make inroads into a novel, Sheila had said, thinking it was her only reason for her move to Spain, for Penelope never revealed the intimacies of her family to her. Once that initial foray has been got over, Sheila told her, it can all be tidied up in gloomy old Dublin during the dark autumn evenings. And ‘the bleak midwinter’, Penelope adds mentally, finding masochistic consolation in the sadness of a song. And she looks now at the Spanish sky and is dazzled by the light. But – and a panic seizes her – she has made no encroachment, not even the slightest indentation on that carapace of the imagination, and nothing to constitute the happy ending that is de rigueur for her publishers. ‘God knows,’ Sheila said, ‘there is enough misery in the world, without adding to it in our imagination. Write that blissful ending first, and then go back and recount the obstacles.’

So what am I to do? she wonders. What are the obstacles to happiness?


Her own life now.

She can’t be worrying about Dermot. He’s what? Twenty-five years old for God’s sake this June, a full quarter of a century. And yet the words: ‘I want out of it, I want out of it,’ which he kept repeating in Crow’s Lane, are haunting her now, the cry of his, rebellious but hopeless it seemed to her, that time she met him sprawled as he was in the slimy alley, calling out to the world that he wanted to get off. Oh, will he relapse into that state again? That is the fear that is haunting her. And, as for their mother, where was she during all of this filial malformation? She was on a metaphysical journey of her own incapability through a fug of alcohol and self-pity. An unloved woman, a woman scorned, the cruelty of the words hurled at her by her overarticulate spouse. How can one be overarticulate? No, but over-endowed with the bad words, the cutting words, the saw words that fell one. A woman betrayed many times, and she looks towards the sea and a girl dipping her crimson toes in the water’s edge. Betrayed by his fawning acolytes who frequented the professor’s room in the hope – in exchange for some momentary fleshy transaction – of summa cum laude in the examination. All done and dusted behind closed doors in those pre-PC days. She saw one such creature with her own eyes the day she went to summon her father when her mother had taken an overdose of analgesics – they didn’t kill her, but they were an alarm bell. She remembers the rumpled girl, freckled blue-eyed, blushingly exiting, straightening down her skirt. Young enough to be his own daughter. To be her! And she remembers the monosyllabic dismissiveness of her father, ‘What, what is it?’ as she entered; the decoy of tidying his desk, lifting documents and placing them down in the same place again. ‘Why did you not contact the secretary with such matters?’ ‘The secretary? About Mam, Daddy?’ Did she not realise how busy he was, or could she not wait till he got home? Was it really that urgent? Not the first time. Not the first time, he repeated, that she had abased herself in such a manner. And there was an uncharacteristic dishevelled look in him too, she remembers, a Brylcreemed hair out of place, hanging tellingly over his high brow.

A volleyball lands near her, tossing up sand, forcing her out of her reverie. She hears Spanish boys shouting, ‘Bravo’ to a good smash. And as she stares, here he comes, the lifeguard (it is he) towards her, that handsome, young man in his cornflower blue togs with their yellow side stripes, and that quiff of raven hair falling like a wave so... so sexily over his right eye. He is what? in his late twenties, thirty at the most, just right for her to snatch him away if only in her imagination. She sighs as he stoops to retrieve the ball so unhurriedly, so maturely, unlike so many impatient young men, such as... yes, such as her brother. ‘Lo siento,’ he says. ‘It’s all right,’ she says understanding the phrase. ‘It’s quite all right.’ She smiles but is conscious of the tremor in her voice. And someone shouts, ‘Ramón,’ and he turns, answering to the name.






Her apartment in the town of Felicidad is a two-bedroom unit on the third floor with a pine kitchen which she particularly requested rather than the standard cherry wood, and a horseshoe-shaped balcony, the front of which looks out on a communal pool, which she has yet to use, not that she is in any haste to do so, preferring to bathe in the sea to keep, as her next door neighbour Gwen says, her own bacteria to herself. And to the right of the apartment she is afforded that view, laterally of the sea, which is down a sloping road and near enough especially by night to be comforted by its primeval roar. A quaint fishing village, Sheila had said in her typical euphoria. She didn’t say what year, for Felicidad is a cosmopolitan town now. And Penelope had purchased in good faith from the plans before the apartment was built. She had left it all to a lawyer, preoccupied as she was at that time with the promotion of her novel. Such little forethought, she acknowledges now, not without some regret, as she witnesses the erosion of those rolling hills with the mushrooming of tower blocks and all the big yachts crowding the newly extended marina. And there was no mention of noise near the diaphanous blue waters: the brain-shattering trepanations of electric drills, or the human cacophonies of an expanding population. Still, to be within sound and sight of neighbour she accepted of course, not wanting to be too removed from the social contact; such views and communal engagement, she realised she needed to ignite the spark of her imagination. And Gwen to the right, that is to say the side affording the sea view, of her balcony.

There are Russian and eastern European prostitutes – she learned that to her chagrin only later – who have taken up residence without any apparent legal opposition on the left side, which is to say the road side, of her balcony. Complained of to no avail by families who said they taunted their children on their way to school. She could picture it: painted tarts provoking the innocent like the world is undergoing a great corruption and our roles are preordained. They are just there waiting for the crime to happen. If she were Ruth Rendell or P.D. James, she imagines, she’d be willing it on, solely for the purpose of her work of course. But she, Penelope Eames, is categorised into the genre of romance (for evermore?) and she must look elsewhere perhaps; she must not cross boundaries or she knows she would incur the wrath of her publishers.

But she hadn’t even focused on such things previously (no more than she had on the handsomeness of the lifeguard, until that moment...). And she considered another irony: a writer, an artist  although her father would have laughed at her calling herself that  so engrossed in herself, in her own little microcosm, failing to take stock of the world around her: the tottering of moralities, of old traditions, failing to witness a new unfettered universe unfold. She reaches under her matching red bath towel for her mobile phone, and texts Sheila – it’s fine, it’s easy to do, she’s on Roaming. Sheila will be wondering how she’s getting on. Once you get into it, Sheila said, the first one thousand words are the hardest. Funny, Sheila always saying that, presumably to all her clients, but she had that knack of giving the impression that you were the only one of concern to her with all that exhorting and advising, without her ever lifting pen to paper, except for editing purposes. And still – she felt her left breast sting not from the sun this time but from the memory of the knife – she owes a lot to Sheila, who had discovered her, who had promoted her, got her all those reviews in the press, and media interviews which really challenged her diffidence. She had to be pampered and cooed over by the redoubtable Sheila (‘You can do it, Pen. You can do it’), and she was grateful to her, to hear a woman’s words of affirmation undoing all the years, she is convinced, of paternal belittlement. And she knew  and that is why she fought to overcome the shyness  that without such promotions, there would have been no bestseller. So a little brief message to her mentor would only be right, to say she has settled in and started on her new book. Yes, how simple it is just to tell a white lie. And now she feels peckish and she ponders as she opens her wardrobe door: the little ivory number, if she could squeeze into that.







She is sitting at a table for two in La Paloma Blanca. At a white linen tablecloth freshly laundered unlike the ubiquitous paper cloths that bedeck so many cheaper restaurant tables which are dotted around the town. She had discovered the place in a side street as she walked away from the commercial hub. It is not tackily touristy, but authentic with Serrano ham hanging from sharp steel hooks on walls. If food were displayed in such a manner at home, she would say it was unhygienic, but not here, no; here it fits into the ambience of the place like the heat as it competes with the electric fan whirring from the ceiling and the wine cellar in the corner and the keg of something or other just abandoned on the floor.

She’s feeling fine after her shower and her new resoluteness. Her hair with its auburn sheen she was always proud of – one aspect of her at least which was universally admired – and there was nothing, not a thing her father could do to detract from that (but would it endure the ravages of sea water? she wondered; she must buy a good quality conditioner). But for now she feels its wavy texture as it hangs shoulder-length above her ivory cotton dress – another reason for self-affirmation, for she fitted into that dress without any difficulty whatsoever, despite not having worn it since last summer. Her waist has not changed as she still manages a size ten. She feels a pleasant tickling from the endtips of her hair as it brushes against her neck and the pearl necklace which once was her mother’s, and her mother’s before her. Heirlooms provide the continuity, the anchor for those who break away. She sips her white Marqués de Riscal, waiting for the waiter to arrive with her lemon sole. She is tempted to have a cigarette which she is known to have recourse to in moments of stress, to complete the occasion as it were, but there is no reason for that, with such a good feeling possessing her now. She has been doing well considering, abstaining from that habit since she settled Dermot into what she hopes and prays will be some sort of regularity of life. Nevertheless, there is always an unopened packet of Marlboro in her black leather handbag – that soft calf leather which she is convinced that only Spain can produce. But she knows  and she finds solace in the knowledge  that the packet is there merely as a surety, just in case things ever became intolerable. She smiles, as a young waiter in a maroon-coloured waistcoat sets down her plate. The sole looks nice but much larger than she’s used to at home.

‘¡Qué aproveche!’

‘Gracias.’

She remembered that phrase ‘to enjoy your meal’. She must practise her Spanish more. She has the rudiments, self-taught from that Teach Yourself Book with the CD included which she bought when she decided to invest in Spain. The wine, she feels, as she replenishes her glass, is strong and mellow, filling her stomach with warmth. Like company. Ah yes, company. How everything is binary in this world. But she is not overly selfconscious, no; she is growing, she likes to feel, gaining in confidence. She is left to her own devices in this cosy restaurant. No staring males as on the beach. People are too busy with their own mastications. Still, is one ever happy? An odd male stare can do the heart good, like telling you you’re still desirable.

And coming out of the restaurant swimmingly, swaying a little – boy, that wine was strong – she sees him under the light of a hunter’s moon walking towards her: Ramón.

‘Ah, you,’ he says recognising Penelope as he draws near. ‘I struck you on the beach with the ball, yes?’

‘Not really,’ Penelope says blushing slightly.

‘No?’

‘It was just a little shaking of sand.’ Besides it wasn’t he who had caused it but that awkward topless one missing the ball.

‘Oh, still, I am very sorry from my heart,’ he says stabbing his fist into his chest.

‘It’s quite all right,’ Penelope says flattered by such an effusive demo of emotion. ‘No harm done.’ (What an inane statement, she realises too late. No harm done).

‘Please allow me to... buy you a drink.’

‘Oh, there is no need. I’ve just...’

‘But I insist. A little something.’ And he is already wheeling her towards an outdoor table where a candle flickers in a gentle breeze.

‘And your name?’ he says holding the chair for her.

‘Penelope,’ she says.

‘Ah, like Penelope Cruz. She is my favourite actress. You should go and see her film, Volver. It is showing in the Centre.’

‘Maybe I will.’

He summons a waiter. ‘What would you like?’

‘A cup of tea.’

‘A cup of tea?’

‘Yes, please.’

Oh how she would’ve loved, as his soulful eyes shone in the candlelight, to have said Sexonthebeach right there and then.








She walks through the streets towards her apartment oblivious of the crowds going out for their Saturday night revels. Her mind is suffused with him. He had offered to walk her home but she said it was not far, that it was all right and, what she liked about him was he did not press her. But he has done something to her. Touched her like a demon lover. No, not a demon, but touched her nonetheless, somewhere intangible in her deepest self; like he’s lit a flame inside her. How strange that people can instil such a feeling of beneficence in another, and she thinks of her father, and its opposite. Oh, it’s easily done. But he’s not here now to put his dampener on her feelings, she realises, as she dovetails in and out of passers-by, of raucous teenagers in the main; how like birds they are in their flocks with their shrill-pitched crowing. She can think of him, Ramón. How dashing he looked in the half light in his short-sleeved white cotton shirt, enhancing his dark features. And the shirt so perfectly ironed – did he do it himself? (Something her father or Dermot would never conceive). Oh to graze the smoothness of his skin, to drink in the kindness of those peat-brown eyes, more apparent then in the flickering candlelight, in the off-duty revelation of the real man beneath the brawny exterior, exuding sensitivity. And such politeness, holding the chair for her as he did.

She, despite the tea, is still feeling a little tipsy from the wine, and conscious of swaying. No, it is not swaying; it is just a stepping out of someone’s way – that bleary-eyed child with the ice cone. Penelope was always in control, of her physical propensities at least; she took pride in that, unlike her mother, as she feels the pearls on her neck, the falsity of their symbol; or her brother too, for that matter. What is it like to soar without any reins to pull one in? The thought fills her with apprehension. She passes tourist shops still open, assistants putting in long hours peddling wares to mainly middle-aged couples (the younger ones are ignoring the shops and, painted up to the nines, are shrieking all the way to the discos) with flipflops on the women and straw hats and some still in bathrobes camouflaging their swimsuits. They scrutinise souvenirs: ashtrays, trinkets, necklaces and earrings with zirconia stones. She passes by the blue sign (what sort of blue?), the gentian violet neon of La Caverna. Would she go to a disco? Would she venture in? It’s been a long time since... A queue is forming and two bouncers in their bounden black are standing at the door which looks like a vortex with its tunnel shape ready to suck one in. She looks towards the bouncers who, it seems to her, are vetting more than their remit as they gawk beyond the queue at the young females passing down the street. One of the bouncers catches Penelope’s eye and throws her a loud vulgar kiss. ‘Hola, guapa.’ And he beckons with a flourish of his hand for her to enter. She averts her eyes and walks on.

Someone is shouting up the street. A tall man in a tam-o’shanter and encased in sandwich-boards, is handing out cards for Paddy’s bar: two drinks for the price of one. A place to be avoided, she decides; may as well be at home as go in there, for tribal gathering or noble calls for homesick blues. The night is young, she repeats and she realises she is sounding like a heroine in a novel, thinking the world romantic. Oh, she fully intended to make another stab at that first chapter. To get through that fog, she concluded, would enable her to be on her way in the morning sunshine on her balcony ready and bright and cheery. Was he asking her to go to the cinema with him? That time he mentioned the Centre? But not tonight. Fatigue was there – from the sun and the sea and of course from the alcohol. She therefore told Ramón that she must return to her apartment, that she was feeling... ‘¿Cansada? ‘Ah yes,’ Ramón had said with such empathy in his eyes. She thinks of her mother, the real reason perhaps why she was always reluctant to let herself go. She could never bring herself to love her, to love such a person who was so weak-willed, not only in her drinking, but also in the neglect of her appearance especially with her hair; she remembers the growing infrequency with which she washed it, as if there was no need any more, that she was beyond caring. Not that she despised them, her mother and her brother; despising after all was her father’s domain. It was more an anger she felt towards them for allowing themselves to be subjugated, to be in thrall, as both she and her son were with their respective dependencies.


There are late swimmers (more adolescents) still shouting and splashing in the pool as she arrives at her complex. She passes through the bar where a group of young adult males and one out-of-place female are seated on high-legged stools shouting at a television set. ‘Real Madrid,’ someone exclaims with an English accent, as she presses the button for her lift.

It’s a balmy night. One could hug oneself with the feeling it exudes; not overpowering like the day was. She places her laptop on the balcony table with its glass top and stares at the stars and the bright moon like a lantern lighting up the sky and diminishing all those garish dangling artificial lights down below. Are they left on all night? She never considered that. She can make out the Plough, so clear. But enough! She steels herself to concentrate and, disdaining the urge to make a cup of tea (another cup?), presses open the lid of her laptop. The noises from the pool have subsided; just the sprinklers are to be heard now on the lawns like cicadas sounding. Someone has started singing in the bar, a booming ballad, but that in time fades too. She types, just words that come into her head to get a flow. Get anything down, Sheila had said. And soon she has a rhythm, and words and phrases and sentences even are looming and gelling before her eyes on the liquid screen, as if they are separate entities from herself, divorced from the action of her fingers. She hears a sound, the door opening of the adjoining apartment. The door closes. There are voices, muffled, difficult to make them out: a couple of words in shrill foreign accents, and then the voice in English, haggling over a price. She turns sideways to look towards the lighted window: a tall blonde in a skimpy red skirt appears and pulls down the blind.







Penelope throws back her bed sheet as the sun is rising and beaming in at her through her balcony window and she feels that wonderful life-affirming heat, so cheering, unlike that dreary drizzly so-called summer weather she left behind in Dublin; another reason to justify her staying, she convinces herself. She breakfasts lightly, not through any conscious effort of reducing; no need, but would that always be the way? Would she in time grow bloated too like her mother, and she with a particular puffiness around her eyes, those self-pitying globes that looked like they were going to burst into tears at any moment (she had a weeping left eye owing to some duct problems which augmented her appearance of sadness). No, she is more – and she hates to admit it – like her father in her gaunt ways. She sets the table on her balcony, still wearing her salmon pink cotton pyjamas; she never  and she gives a little wriggle because no one can see her­  paraded around the house like that at home. Even as a child. Could you imagine it? What her father would have said – decorum being his pretence of course. And here she is now on a balcony in public view and he can sod off. It is, she feels, showing the nonchalance of a person growing more comfortable with herself, with her own body, the freedom engendered by distance. She sits at her balcony table to settle into an orange juice and tea and a croissant semi-hard which she’d bought yesterday on the way home from the beach. The temptation strikes her to go out to the panadería or is it the pastelería? and buy fresh croissants. She’s a Kellogg’s Special K girl when at home, but found the packet too bulky to fit into her suitcase. Maybe they sell it over here; she hadn’t spotted it as yet in any of the shops. She misses it though; funny, after only three mornings; apart from cereal, she missed that auburn-haired girl in the red swimsuit on the cover, sitting at the edge of the swimming pool dangling her feet, that Sheila said was the spit of Penelope. That’s what prompted her to go out and buy (not the cornflakes; she chuckles), but a bikini of the same colour. To draw the image closer. So if she were writing a book, which of course is what she is doing, if she were describing herself as a character, she would simply refer the reader to the girl on the special K cover to furnish a clear picture (worth a thousand words) of her. But she is not a painter; she is a wordsmith and she must get down to work. Anyone would think she was on a holiday the way she was going on, such dawdling. There must be an ascetic code to the artist, she tells herself, for time she cannot afford to fritter away. Maybe tomorrow as a special treat, she would pop down to that panadería, but only if she gets some work done today.

The sun enhances the turquoise blue of the pool below, making chlorinated water look good, camouflaging bacteria, she ruminates, as she gazes over her balcony. It’s all right, she tells herself, just settling her bearings before she starts. A couple of early elderly sunbathers (the younger set, she presumes, are still undercover nursing hangovers or whatever) – a square hulk of a man and a bronze-tanned woman – are setting up towels. Are they German? she wonders, or is it all a myth about their early rising and claiming reclining beds with their towels while they go off and have breakfast? After all they are blonde, but they could be Swedish or any nationality for that matter these days, with the dyed blonde look in vogue universally now and indeed for both sexes; and besides, as a writer she realises she must not enter such a world of stereotypes. Two huge books act as weights on their towels. What books? she wonders. Large colourful tomes that look like sandwich boxes from up here. The pool is still and silent with an air about it, she feels, of expectation with the early sun glinting on it, and those garish lights that hang all around the pool in competition with the moon last night, are turned off now, and their presence is almost invisible in the light of day, except maybe when a little breeze blows to dangle their wires. She clears her croissant plate and returns her orange juice carton to the fridge and moves her glass table to a shady corner of the balcony. She sets her tea – her second cup – down and starts to type.


The doorbell rings.

‘Penelope.’

‘Gwen.’

Gwen is a small woman somewhere in her forties with a big round face, like a clock, Penelope thinks. Her sunglasses are propped, almost concealed, in the purple of her tinted hair; and very English in her summer floral dress, rather out of date, making her look like an older generation despite... well she is older generation, but like a lot of expats on the Costa who seem, at least fashion-wise, to be trapped in a time warp and, contradictorily, try at all costs to prevent the impression of ageing. More cosmetic jobs are done on Costa inhabitants than anywhere else in Europe, she had read that. Gwen had jobs done, it was clear to Penelope, on face, chin, neck, but she doesn’t blow about it like Sheila does. ‘So you finally got here?’ ‘Yes.’ Gwen is holding a green plastic bag with El Corte inglés repeatedly printed on it ‘You were shopping,’ Penelope says. ‘I was in Málaga. It took an age to get back. The four o’clock bus, you know what time it arrived? Twenty-two minutes late. Spanish transport,’ she says, and in the one breath, ‘It’s only when I returned, when I heard your table scratching on the balcony tiles, I realised you’d arrived.’

As they pass into the hall, Gwen says, ‘The painting.’ Penelope fixes on a square of cerulean blue, slightly brighter than the rest of the wall. ‘It’s gone.’ ‘I noticed it too,’ lies Penelope, ‘the first thing when I arrived. Someone must’ve taken it when I was away.’ ‘Well, I never. Who would do such a thing?’ says Gwen clearly disappointed. ‘Could it have been one of the cleaners, or was there a workman in? Spaniards, you know,’ Gwen says. She had bought the painting for Penelope, as a house-warming present. It was an inferior mass-produced copy of a sailing boat on the horizon of where? Of nowhere, Penelope decided. There were no specific demarcations, no familiar area one could identify; it was just an abstract nonentity produced from a machine rather than from the heart. Penelope hated the painting and had disposed of it discreetly. Besides, she thinks, reinforcing her argument, arbitrary and subjective things like paintings chosen by others are tricky enough at the best of times, like intrusions into one’s own private aesthetic. It was like, she felt, here is Gwen, prescribing taste for one like an old English overlord with subterfuge colonising one’s pad. Penelope wanted her apartment to be her own, to be free of the influence of others; that was the purpose of her buying it in the first place. Surely Gwen, the unwitting, the non-connoisseur of art, could have bought her something else if she had a mind to buying her anything at all. She had noticed it in Gwen’s own place, all these cheap tacky supermarket pictures festooning her walls, which Gwen thought were wonderful. ‘You’ll have to paint the wall again,’ Gwen says resignedly. ‘I know, I know,’ Penelope says. ‘There’s so much I have to do.’ ‘Until such time as I get you a new painting.’ ‘There’s no need for that.’ ‘It’s no trouble,’ Gwen says. ‘Next time I’m in that hardware store I’ll pick up another one for you. Would you like one maybe with horses next time? I’m sure I saw a pretty one with horses.’ ‘That would be nice,’ Penelope says, ‘but anyway, Gwen, I must apologise. I’d fully intended to call on you. I’ve been trying to work on my book, you see.’ ‘Oh, a new one?’ ‘Yes. Now come on,’ Penelope urges, ‘we’ll sit out on the balcony.’ ‘I hope there’s going to be plenty of humour in your new book. A good laugh is what’s needed around here. I’m looking forward to reading that.’ ‘You’ll be waiting a while,’ Penelope says adjusting her hat to counter the rays of the sun. ‘Do you want a hat, Gwen?’ ‘What, and lose my light under a bushel?’ ‘I’ve only started,’ Penelope says. ‘That’s why I came to Spain this time. I thought maybe I could make some progress on it here. No...’ – she was going to say distractions – but thought that Gwen might take that personally – so she says, ‘no family here to interfere.’ ‘Ah ha, family,’ Gwen says, and Penelope waits for her to elaborate, but all she says is, ‘I’ve brought some croissants,’ and she proceeds to take them out of her bag.

‘Well, tell me,’ Penelope says as she pours boiling water over cringing tea bags in two tall green mugs. ‘You don’t want butter on that?’ Gwen is already making incursions into a croissant. ‘No, jam usually is what I put on them,’ ‘Don’t have any. Didn’t get around to...’ ‘Never mind. I’m watching my weight anyway, or trying to.’ She sighs. ‘Not making a good job of it, am I?’ she says holding her tummy. ‘You look fine,’ say Penelope, thinking her floral dress is a good disguise, except for her bare freckled upper arms which she has to admit appear a little more bloated than last time she saw her. ‘Any news from Aubrey?’ Penelope says. ‘Oh, that’s all fixed up. About time too. Four years of wrangling over entitlements.’ Aubrey, she knew from Gwen, had money; was a successful London businessman, into stocks and shares but slow to pay out seemingly, to settle the divorce. ‘He’s whizzing around the green fields of England in his Lamborghini with that flaming redhead of a young secretary at his side, tickling his vanity. That’s what men want, isn’t it? They like to have their vanity tickled, and the thing is when you don’t comply, when you get fed up with it all, they say cheerio and look around for a younger plaything. That’s Aubrey, the balding, for you now. Oh dearie me,’ she says and stuffs another piece of croissant into her mouth. ‘But at least I’m free now.’ ‘I’m glad,’ Penelope says. ‘I’m open to offers though,’ she says hooding her eyes coquettishly.

Penelope blushes, feeling the pause between them uncomfortable. ‘Drink up your tea,’ she says, ‘it’s going cold.’ ‘Ah yes,’ says Gwen sipping. ‘Aubrey was someone who could colour your view of men for life.’ ‘You don’t really mean that?’ Penelope says and the thought of her father crosses her mind. ‘Oh I do,’ Gwen says breathing in, drawing Penelope’s eyes towards her enhanced bosom. She’s not wearing a bra, Penelope realises. Still, nothing odd about that in a hot country. ‘But I still party,’ Gwen is saying, ‘only with the expats of course. What some of them get up to,’ and she throws that look again towards Penelope who, despite herself, is forced to cast downwards, ‘would quite surprise you. In fact, what day is tomorrow?’

‘Friday,’ says Penelope.

‘It is Friday. I’d almost forgotten. Would you be up to going to a party?’

‘Where?’

‘In Charlie Eliot’s villa.’

’Oh I don’t know, Gwen. Who is he?’

‘You don’t know Charlie?’ Gwen says. ‘Everyone knows Charlie.’








The words she types on the VDU, what are they? They’re not feel-good stuff, that’s for sure, that is oozing out of her head. They are of sadness, words of loss, of fathers, brothers, mothers, all the people lost. The world was made round so we can’t see ahead. What is this? she wonders. Is she going through a depression? Is that what has been wrong with her all along? Only now revealing itself through the creation of words. It is because of Dermot, she knows that. Where is he now at this precise moment? she wonders. Is there any hope for him? Many drug addicts recover; lots and lots; their stories are all over the tabloids every day of the week, a feel-good story, what people want: how I came back from hell, that sort of thing. She rests her hands at the sides of the keyboard. Could she have done more to help him? The guilt; it is worse over here, despite the contrary expectation that distance would rid her of such feelings, interlaced as it is with absence and loneliness and helplessness. She can’t enquire. Still in a huff with her for going away, he had refused to give her the number of his mobile phone. Is he sticking at the off-licence job? Is he going to the group therapy classes she recommended? Oh, what if he has lapsed again? She can’t go and search for him anymore in the back lanes of Dublin. He is beyond her reach from here. And that’s what’s blocking her now in her writing. But it is not a block; it’s a different direction her writing is taking; she must go with it, let it lead her to wherever. She writes: A young woman is hurrying down a dark sidestreet. It is raining and her hair is matted. She is scared. She can’t find a way out of the street. There are no side turns. There are doors along the walls all padlocked. The street has no end; it keeps going and going like a train tunnel, and...

Her mobile phone rings, startling her, that loud William Tell overture. She must change it; it’s too over the top. It’s Sheila, responding to the text message, wanting to know how she is getting on, which translates as how is the novel progressing? Sheila is not one for heart-to-hearts, which is what Penelope longs for at this moment. Even her talk of her breast implants was scientific and boastfully libidinous. Sheila is unflappable, which is, Penelope admits, what she has to be to be a good agent, and she is that. Getting on? ‘I’m getting on fine,’ Penelope says. ‘Yeah? You sound hesitant.’ ‘No no, I’m fine honestly. You caught me in midthought, that’s all.’ ‘Oh sorry about that, Penelope,’ Sheila says. ‘I hope it wasn’t a climactic moment.’ She gives a hoarse laugh. Is she still smoking those cheroots? Penelope wonders, to complement the dark trouser suits she is fond of wearing. ‘No, you’re fine.’ ‘You’re well into it then, I take it?’ ‘Well...’ ‘The first chapter, the magic first thousand word hurdle surmounted?’ ‘Well, nearly. I’m doing a bit of planning at the moment, plot structure you know, just to get it right before I plunge in.’ ‘That a girl,’ Sheila says. She hears the flicking of pages of what she knows is Sheila’s yellow ring-backed notebook. ‘I have a few things lined up.’ ‘But I...’ ‘Just to have things ready you know, keep you in the public eye after the success of Roses. We don’t want anything to flag now, do we? I’m keeping their interest on hold. All those readers. Nothing like a bit of suspense, eh Penelope? One on radio three and one with Tiffany.’ ‘Tiffany?’ ‘You remember Tiffany Pringle who gave you a good review in The Female on Sunday?’ ‘Oh yes.’ ‘Well she’s anxious to do a full length profile of you. Is that good news or what?’ ‘Oh yes, that’s very good news.’

Oh God, this is what she dreaded. How can she do an interview after what has happened with her father and her mother and with Dermot the way he turned out? What can she tell this journalist about them? Some novelists, she realises, have no qualms in that area; take positive delight in fact in revealing family privacies, warts and all; are even known to embellish matters to their own advantage. Oh, she’s read some of those so-called memoirs, in many cases their coloured accounts paying little heed to the pain they may inflict on the rest of the siblings. She is not one for that: gaining sympathy from the reader by fair ways or foul, the ego drawing the reader to her person as much as to her work. The work, she is beginning to realise only now, should be paramount, should not be subsidiary to the person. But tell that to the media people. Isn’t it quicker and easier and more lucrative to read about the scandals of artists than to struggle through their tortuous prose?

She thinks of her mother and the deep-rooted burial of subconscious things. Would that sort of subliminal stuff surface, escape through the leaks in her own self-confidence? What Freudian slip would she make? The last time, for her first novel, the excavation had not yet begun. But now she is Penelope Eames, public figure. The package, as Sheila says.

‘Penelope, are you there?’ ‘Yes, sorry.’ ‘The line must be bad, but listen, there’s the possibility that she could go over, I mean do the interview from over there.’ ‘No hurry,’ Penelope hears herself saying, ‘give me some time on that.’ ‘Time to get a good suntan, right? To look your best, not that you don’t always look ravishing. We have to maximise your potential, don’t we? They’ll want photos. That’s what they all want now, poses of young sexy authors. That’s what sells the books.’ ‘Sex, I know,’ Penelope says unconvincingly.

‘Oh, and another thing I was thinking,’ Sheila says. ‘What?’ ‘Now that you’re over there...’ ‘Out with it, Sheila.’ ‘In Spain I mean. Why don’t you pen a couple of hundred words on the expats?’ ‘The expats?’ ‘Yeah. Why not? You know it could even feed your novel with a few extra ideas. Who knows it could even give it a new dimension. And who would you have to thank?’ ‘You, Sheila.’ Sheila laughs gratifyingly. ‘Ha ha. We could use the article. I could get it into a few of the chic magazines for promotion; some of those glossies they read on the beaches you know; may even get it into Cara.’ ‘Cara?’ ‘The Aer Lingus in-flight magazine? Yeah, why not? It’s relevant and topical and will keep you in the public eye. All those holiday makers going back and forth spreading the news. Remember a bit of romance blooms there too in those circles, I’d say.’ ‘Actually, Sheila,’ Penelope says, ‘I am invited to a party. So, I may be able to do something.’ ‘That a girl. Remember, keep the romance in the air. And don’t forget the bit of umph. Frills and Bloom are not what they used to be, you know. They’re coming out of their closet now, believe you me. And the happy ending, don’t forget. That’s a constant.’ ‘I know.’

Penelope sighs. Is Sheila’s life really like this? she wonders. Does she possess all those ingredients of the romance novel? Does she have a happy ending every night going to bed? ‘We always have to keep the end in mind, don’t we?’ Sheila is saying. ‘Yes, we do.’ ‘What your readers want.’ ‘Now you’ve said it.’ ‘You’re building up quite a fan club, you know.’


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