Wednesday, March 17, 2010

.....The Pool

August in Provence. The landscape shimmers purple and blue. Purple fields of lavender stretching in one direction, purple rows of grapes in the other. Purple hills on the horizon. Blue sky, no clouds. No wind but the heat, the searing heat, makes the air shiver and tremble so the landscape seems alive. The song of cicadas vibrates.

The villa: white-washed, green-shuttered, shadowed, long, low. Once a cow-shed, now converted into an elegant holiday home, rented for two weeks. The swimming pool is set in a terrace below the villa. Paving stones, too hot to lie on. Blue water; cool, deep, on this sizzling day. Four people. The woman, bikinied and white from centuries of English, aristocratic breeding. She lies out on a chaise-longue, hands lax at her side, sun-glasses screening her eyes. Her body is limp but her mouth is tense. The girl sprawls: head in the shade, reading; body in the sun, slowly turning brown, maybe red-brown if she loses herself too much in her book. The boy, gorgeously tanned, puppy fat just hardening into adolescent muscle. He floats in the pool; bored, unwilling flotsam in an impressionist painting. The man. Tall, broad-chested, long legs. Hair iron-grey but thick and springy. "Distinguished", comes to mind, "well-preserved. In good shape for his age."

The man stands on the walled edge of the terrace above the pool. He surveys the landscape stretching before him. He has bought all this. His money, his hard work bought him all this - this elegant European life-style; his young, aristocratic wife; his mistress waiting in London for him. He smiles. Not bad for a poor American boy who grew up without a dime to his name. Like the cow-shed, his life has been renovated beyond recognition. His chest swells. He raises his arms high above his head as if to touch the sun, then lowers them again.

"Davey," he calls to the son of his third wife. "Davey, watch this."

Again he swings his arms wide but this time he lifts off the wall and elegantly swallow dives down ten feet to the pool below. He comes smiling to the surface, ripples radiating applause about him.

"Do you want to try that, Davey?"

Davey looks at his father with something akin to hate. Is there nothing this man, this three-week-a-year father cannot do?

"Nah," he says, "I don't want to."

"C'mon, Davey, I'll show you how." The man truly wants to be a good father. He's had one child from each of his first three wives. The two elder children grew up across the world from him. He regrets this now that they are adults. With Davey he has another chance. And maybe even yet another chance with Sophia, his fourth wife, lying there as one dead. He looks at her. Then again, maybe not.

"C'mon, Davey, there's nothing to be frightened of." He smiles coaxingly, but the boy knows the gauntlet is down.

"I'm not scared, I could if I want to."

"Well, c'mon then."

Ralph swings himself easily out of the pool and bounds up the steps two-at-a-time to the upper terrace. Resentment makes Davey clumsy and he lumbers in his father's wake.

They stand, side by side. The pool stretches below them - but not quite below them. From the bottom of the terrace to the pool there are several feet of paving stone. You must jump up and out or be dashed upon them. Davey's heart clutches painfully.

"I'm hungry," he says. "I'll do it later," and he disappears into the villa. Ralph watches his retreat with some exasperation and some scorn. That boy is being too molly-coddled by his mother. If he just lived with Ralph for a year, he'd turn him into a man.

He turns back to the pool. "Watch," he commands to the women below. The girl tears herself away from her book - he is her employer after all. Sophia turns her head a little so the sun-glasses face her husband, but no-one knows if her eyes are open or closed.

Again he executes a perfect swallow dive. "Truly," the girl admits grudgingly, "he is a multi-talented man."

"Well done," she says politely. But she's a New Zealander and doesn't like his American showmanship.

"Very good, Ralph," says Sophia drily. Ralph hates that, when she says something and he doesn't know if she's complimenting or insulting him.

"Why don't you girls try?" he asks jovially.

Jane smiles and returns to her book - it's at an exciting bit. Sophia turns her head slightly so once again her sun-glasses look away from Ralph.

"Not now, Ralph," she says, meaning, "Ralph, I won't play your games any more."

This sets the pattern for the next few days. A family holiday. Ralph arranged it because all the British go abroad in summer and Ralph desperately wants to be British. He's got everything he wants except that elusive, that damnable confidence of the British who are born knowing they are superior. Even his marriage into the upper class has not helped. Indeed, in some ways he's even more excluded than ever. Sophia came, not really because she thinks it will improve their marriage, but to keep up appearances until it falls irrevocably apart. Davey came because he had to. Jane came because she answered the advertisement which was too good to be true. A paid holiday to Provence, ostensibly to help with the cooking and with entertaining Davey. Now, she realises she's here to be the buffer zone, the neutral ground. Uncomfortable, certainly, but Provence is splendid.

No-one relaxes though. Ralph cannot help pushing, teasing {taunting}. Under his smooth American exterior he is angry that things aren't right. And he misses his mistress. She at least is loving and warm. Sophia is frigidly well-mannered. Davey is frankly sullen. Jane just keeps out of it all, reading her books and watching.

"C'mon, Davey!" The soft American accent doesn't get louder but it does get more insistent. It pierces the hot, still air, day after day. "You said you'd try." He doesn't mean to, but can't stop himself from goading. "You're not chicken, are you?"

Davey gnaws on his scarred knuckles and doesn't reply. There's nowhere he can hide in this open landscape, on these flat, bald terraces.

"Leave him alone!" Sophia finally snaps. "No-one wants to jump, Ralph."

"That's because you're all scared and it's easy, really it is."

"We are not scared," Sophia explains in her well-modulated tones that he once loved, "we just can't be bothered."

"Garbage! I want Davey to be a man, not a coward."

At that point the phone rings and Ralph bounds into the house. He speaks softly. Sophia's fingers twitch at her side. When he comes out, his expression is rueful, regretful. He says, "Tomorrow evening I'll have to go back. There's a crisis at the office."

Sophia's mouth grimaces just a fraction. She has been waiting for this, for him to get summoned back to London without her. Jane now knows why she was brought. She's to be Sophia's companion for the final week. Ralph may look rueful, but his eyes sparkle.

"Great," she thinks. "When Ralph goes, we'll all relax." She is fond of Sophia, who is quite charming and friendly when Ralph goes into the village for supplies.

Davey is torn between delight and bitterness. He's saved but only because once again his father's work is more important than he is.

That night Sophia's smooth surface begins cracking. They sit out on the terrace, drinking vodka from the deep freeze. Its icy bite is delicious. The purples and blues of the landscape have run into each other in the dusk so now the scene is smudged in shades of indigo. Jane has prepared fish and salad for dinner. Ralph eats heartily but Sophia barely touches a thing. She keeps refilling her glass, however.

Afterwards they play Trivial Pursuits. Ralph shines at most categories but Sophia is superb on entertainment and Jane doesn't do badly on Literature. Davey, as his father's partner, is required merely to sit back and be appreciative. He manages to fulfil the first requirement.

Then it's time for bed.

"Time for bed," says Ralph standing and stretching luxuriously. Tomorrow night he'll be back in Lisa's arms. Perhaps he should bring her back here at the end of summer when he's on one of his "business trips". At least Lisa would enjoy herself, unlike this sullen crew.

"I'll follow you later, Ralph," says Sophia. But she doesn't. Instead she sits drinking and smoking. Jane, knowing that this is why she has been brought here, sits up drinking and smoking too. When Sophia is sure Ralph is asleep, she cracks right open. Tears and recriminations come streaming out. Neither can be staunched so Jane doesn't try. She pats Sophia awkwardly on the shoulder and says, "Don't worry, it'll all be okay." Meaningless words because she and Sophia both know it never will be.

"What I can't stand," says Sophia, "is the way he keeps going on at Davey. I'd love to have a baby but how could I, to a man like that?" She throws back another glass of vodka.

"He thinks he's so bloody clever, diving off that wall. And he scorns us all for not doing it. Measuring us by his silly little games. You know what," she says, standing up and swaying, "I'm going to jump it."

Jane, whose head is also swaying, says, "Okay, if you will, I will too."

So at 2.00am, under the full, cold white moon the two women stumble into swim-suits out on the terrace. The pool shimmers with underwater lights, below them.

Sophia stands on the edge of the wall. She looks down then she tosses her head back defiantly and shouts "Geronimo!" as she leaps in. Jane thinks, "Geronimo?" and then, "Why not?" and she too launches off the wall.

"Geronimo!". The coldness of the water, the madness spark off the vodka in their blood. They laugh hysterically and clutch each others' arms. Together they lurch back up the steps and again jump off. "Geronimo!"

Then Sophia says, "We must get Davey," so he is dragged from his bed, bewildered but enchanted. He watches his step-mother and Jane jump off together shouting, "Geronimo!" The next time they jump, he's with them too, and he surfaces with a grin of pure delight they've never seen before.

"Geronimo, Geronimo!" he shouts as he jumps again and again and again. They jump in pairs, in threes, singlely. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo... Eventually the cold night air and the late hour dowse the bravura of vodka and relief so they all go to bed and sleep late the next morning.

Ralph is having his final swim before leaving for London. He stands on the terrace and looks down at Sophia, lying inert, shielded by sun-glasses and at Jane reading yet another book. Where's Davey?

He turns and here comes his son to stand beside him. He smiles affectionately. He truly loves his spoilt, sullen son.

"C'mon, Davey, will you jump today?"

"Sure," says Davey and leaps off crying, "Geronimo!" Sophia's lips twitch. Jane smiles into her pages.

Ralph is thrilled. He's a chip off the old block, after all! He dives in beside Davey. "That was wonderful!"

He and Davey jump together, then he teaches Davey to dive - not a swallow dive of course - maybe next summer - but a dive nevertheless. Davey frollicks like the young adolescent he is.

"C'mon, what about you girls?" calls Ralph to the two women.

"Not now, Ralph," says Sophia. Jane pretends not to hear.

"They're chicken," Ralph winks quietly at Davey.

"Chicken, chicken, chicken!" shrieks Davey, hysterical with the relief, the joy of acceptance. Last night is quite. quite forgotten.

They stand side by side on the wall. Their shadows stripe Jane's book; their reflections fill the double moons of Sophia's sunglasses. The pool lies below them but the women are far beyond.