She stands at her living room window, looking out at the beach across the rooftops of old fishermen’s cottages long since converted to bars and ice cream parlours. It is still only April, but already, two people are swimming in the sea––tiny, shapeless dots bobbing about in the waves. She has almost convinced herself that they are not people after all, but discarded buoys cut loose from the fishing boats that cruise inshore, sweeping up shoals of supposedly protected tiny fish. One of the swimmers starts waving. A line of poetry comes back to her, some half-forgotten piece she learned at school. Stevie Smith? Maybe. It was a long time ago. Now the other swimmer is waving.
Something is wrong. She sees a crowd beginning to form on the beach––agitated Lowry figures, gesticulating and calling to the bobbing heads in the water. She cannot hear anything for the double-glazed windows that keep her hermetically sealed in her warm little flat but she can sense the agitation. One of the bobbing heads disappears under the waves. She waits for it to reappear. The crowd becomes more agitated, and one of the Lowry men rushes into the sea, fully clothed, and heads out towards the swimmers. Despite the double-glazing, the wailing cry of a siren penetrates her home as a car speeds along the beach. Someone has summoned the Guardia Civil.
Now the good Samaritan has reached one of the swimmers. It is hard to see what is happening––the two men appear to be dancing in the waves––a water ballet––alternately dropping below the water and resurfacing in a flurry of foam. She sees no sign of the second swimmer.
Cold grips her heart. Some treacherous underwater current has dragged him down, deep into the sea. She shivers. What must it be like? Are his eyes open? Does he see his life drifting away from him as he struggles for breath and only water fills his mouth, his nose, his stomach, his lungs? Does he fight against it? She turns from the window, trembling. She is determined not to let these thoughts take over. She has tamed them all these years. They must not resurface now.
Nancy walks over to her American style kitchen. That is how the estate agent described it, conveniently disguising the fact that this bijou kitchen––another of his words––is sitting in the corner of her lounge. She fills the kettle and plugs it in. Martin made her replace her old kettle with this electric model after she left it on the gas and it burned dry. He accused her of nearly setting the apartment alight and insisted on removing the gas stove, so cheap to run and familiar to her, and installed the safer, more expensive, electric one. She asked him if he was going to pay her electricity bills for her. He scowled. She would be grateful in the long run, he said. She was still waiting for that feeling of gratitude to envelop her.
There is a light knock at her door. Who can it be? She looks at the clock, it is only nine-thirty. María comes at ten. She always comes at ten to make Nancy’s bed and put the mop over the floor. María is Nancy’s minder. Martin likes to think of her as a carer-cum-cleaner, but really she’s his spy. Nancy doesn’t trust Maria. She is overweight––fat even––and she treats Nancy as if she were mentally deficient. Nancy has never trusted fat people. They hide, behind their jolly exterior, a sense of superiority over the thinner members of the world. The knock on the door repeats, this time louder. She peers through the spy-hole. It’s a young woman. She’s wearing glasses and has the same long, silky black hair as all the other young Spanish women in the neighbourhood. But who is she? Nancy retreats to her desk, a large round table that occupies most of the space in her living room. It is covered with books, newspapers, lists, and notebooks. Somewhere under it all is a diary. She finds it beneath a book about Van Gogh that Martin gave her for Christmas. Now the difficult part. What day is it? She glances back at the clock. It has a traditional face with large, clear numbers, and in the centre is the date: 23rd April 2014. She opens her diary to the appropriate page and there it is, the woman’s name is Ana Álvarez. Underneath, she has scribbled ‘bio’. Of course. She has come to help Nancy write her memoirs. She hurries to the door, pulls back the top bolt, then the bottom one, takes the key with its bright red lasso from the hook on the wall, and unlocks the door.
‘Buenas días. Señora Miller?’ the young woman asks. She shows no sign of irritation that it has taken Nancy such a long time to open the door. She smiles warmly.
‘Come in, my dear,’ Nancy says, smiling back. ‘You must be Ana.’
‘I’m sorry I’m a bit late,’ the woman says. ‘There was a hold-up on the beach road. There’s been an accident, ambulances and police cars everywhere.’
She stops and looks around her. ‘What fantastic paintings,’ she says. ‘Are these yours?’
‘Yes, the ones I decided not to sell.’
‘They are wonderful,’ the woman says. She crosses the room to look at the one Nancy painted of the lighthouse at Fuengirola. ‘They are so vibrant. The colour of the sea is extraordinary.’
‘Someone drowned,’ Nancy says.
The woman looks bewildered. ‘Here?’ she asks, pointing to the painting.‘No. This morning.’
Nancy locks the door behind Ana, then walks to the window. ‘I saw it all
from here,’ she explains.
The crowd of people on the beach has dispersed, either from boredom or moved on by the Guardia Civil. The ambulance is still there, its doors open, the paramedics in their yellow jackets bustling about. Was the swimmer rescued, she wonders. What about the other one, the one fighting for breath? Is his body now drifting with the current only to be tossed up later on another golden beach?
‘There were two of them,’ she tells Ana. ‘I think one drowned.’
‘That’s terrible. You saw it all from up here?’
The young woman’s English is perfect, and she seems to appreciate art. She will do well, Nancy thinks. ‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks.
‘No, thank you. I’ve just had breakfast. Would you like me to make you a cup?’
Surprised, Nancy snaps, ‘I’m quite capable of making myself a cup of tea, thank you.’ As if to collaborate her statement the kettle begins to boil.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I thought maybe you’d like to get your notes together before we get started,’ Ana says, blushing with embarrassment.
‘Oh. Well, don’t take any notice of me. It’s my son’s fault. He makes me so defensive, always fussing around me. He has me only a step away from going into the funny farm.’
She sees the girl frown. ‘Funny farm?’
‘A mental home, a place for old women who’ve lost their marbles.’ To help the girl understand, Nancy says, ‘He thinks I should be in a home where I’ll be cared for twenty-four hours a day. Then he would have a clear conscience and wouldn’t have to come round to check up on me all the time.’
She knows this sounds ungrateful but she can’t help it. Martin cannot understand how she needs her freedom. If she went into one of those places she would wither and die. She saw what happened to her own mother, and she didn’t want that to happen to her.
‘I expect he wants the best for you.’
‘No doubt about it. He brought me a glossy brochure of one of those “Residences of the Third Age” as they euphemistically call them. “Third Age”? I ask you! What are the other two ages, I wonder? Does anyone ever refer to the “First Age” or “Second Age”––apart from Tolkien that is? Of course not!And why stop at third? Why not fourth or fifth? Why not final? Or why not leave it as the good old “old age” everyone is familiar with? With luck, we know that will come to every one of us.’
She pours a little hot water into the teapot and swills it round before tipping it down the sink.
Cautiously, Ana asks, ‘What is it like, the home?’
‘Expensive. Luxurious. Martin is not one to be mean with money. “El Paraíso” it is called––“Paradise”. My God, it wasn’t my idea of paradise. Swimming pools, tennis courts, massage parlours, nursing staff on call––the only people under seventy are the staff. And, of course, there are social activities, designed to keep the inmates, if not happy, at least docile. Karaoke nights, bingo, musical evenings––not Beethoven and Bach, mind you. No––Barry Manilow and Perry Como. They alone could finish you off. I told Martin that if he put me in one of those homes I’d save up all my sleeping tablets and take an overdose.’
Nancy smiles. She can see that Ana doesn’t know whether to laugh or look shocked.
‘Don’t worry, my dear. I’m not suicidal. I just like my personal space, and I mean to keep it.’
Nancy measures two spoonfuls of tea into the pot and pours in some hot water, stirring it briskly.
‘Sure you don’t want a cup?’ she asks.
Ana shook her head.
‘Right. Well, let’s get started then, shall we? Where do you want to sit, on the sofa or at the table?’
The girl looks at the overloaded table. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ Nancy says, ‘I’ll make a space.’
She piles the books at one end and sweeps the newspapers onto the floor, creating a small island on the shiny oak table top where they can work.
‘Where shall I begin?’ Nancy asks her visitor.
‘Like all good stories, at the beginning,’ Ana says with a light laugh.
Nancy warms to her. She is going to enjoy working with this woman.