The Watermark (part 2 of 3)
So that was how life was at 'The Love Shack,' as it started to be known around the scene. From day today Thomas found it curiouser and curiouser! The house -- a mix of bar workers and artists, and hangers-on would from day to day swing from merely strange to utter madness! The next day, it seems Carl had had words with Greg and Kent, and one or two others in the Hot Rats, about the stunt they'd pulled on Maggie. He told them they had gone too far! And they say, it had almost come to blows, when one of the bar staff made a sick joke about Maggie and Carl! Well that was at least typical of the old Carl, thought Thomas; he was always chivalrous! And he hated bullies!
Over the following days Carl showed Thomas around the town, taking him in the bars and introducing him to whoever they met. Sunday after taking coffee on the square, they strolled down to the beach to one of the beach-bars – the place to be – where every Sunday a lot of the off duty bar crews hung out, drinking, playing volleyball, or swimming.
Monday, was Thomas' first day at school, and even though he was really nervous, everything went without a hitch, just as Carl had said it would. He only had to spend a little time looking over the planed lessons to understand what was expected of the students. He had only five hours a day, three days a week. His working day was from twelve until five. The classes were small, a maximum of eight students, mostly in their twenties. The lessons were only forty five minutes long, which enabled him to sit in the garden and smoke a cigarette, and prepare for the next lesson. It only took a couple of weeks for Thomas to really get the heft and hang of it, and he found himself actually enjoying it. His days were from Monday to Wednesday, from two till seven, while Carl worked from ten until three – Tuesday till Thursday, so sometimes they met over coffee in the school garden.
He got the impression Carl was a little aloof from everyone there, which he couldn't understand.
Greg and Kent had, after the incident with Maggie, started referring to Thomas as Norman Bates, or just Norman. Whenever he appeared they would mimic the music from the Psycho shower scene; 'DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA!' Thomas took it stiffly, would force a sliced smile; he felt uncomfortable around them. He was becoming an easy tease. Greg was dry and sarcastic, while Kent was more jolly with his banjo-playing-smile. Both it seems were a couple of blades with the ladies. Whenever he came home he never knew what would await him; they seemed to have an unending reportage! A theatre of indiscretion and bad taste! But he also realized they were just young, and weren't really bad guys. And when they were alone each became more agreeable characters.
Amanda, the painter lady, Thomas thought interesting, but they rarely met. She spent a lot of her time in her studio on the ground floor, or trying to sell her work from a stall in the square. She was reserved, and except for Carl – the only one invited into her studio --- she didn't mix much with the people in the house. Thomas would say hello when he saw her on the square, surrounded by her pictures; mostly of the harbour. But Sundays, she was always a part of the scene at the beach-bar. Always wearing a skimpy light blue bikini. Thomas couldn't keep his eyes off her, and she always swam topless.
After a week or so, Carl stopped taking Thomas out. He said he was cutting him free – leaving him to his own devices – that he should start to explore Lagos for himself.
Thomas thought Carl had really changed over the years. He thought about how he used to be – how they used to be, and then how he was now. He thought about that first night on the patio – had Carl put on a show for him -- with all that talk of Quantum Physics and stuff – was it all to impress him? It was obvious Carl was popular here, as he would be anywhere. He always seemed to have people to meet, or somewhere to be. Sometimes he would be gone for a couple of days – or for a long weekend on the West Coast; 'to get away from the tourists,' he'd say. He would always show up just in time for his lessons at the school. Greg would tell Thomas, 'Carl having another dirty weekend teaching beach!' Or 'He's getting jiggy, or throwing shapes on the West Coast with one of his students!'
Thomas was also having trouble with the weather. He was always too hot! The sweat would run into his eyes, and his shirt would stick to him, sometimes it was just so irritating..., and at night it was difficult to sleep...! He would lay on the bed with the window and door open, trying to let some air into the hot little room, which would also let in all the sounds coming from the packed square: the monotonous sound of the panpipes of the Peruvian musicians, or the bars playing loud rock and roll, and the voices of the crowds from the square humming like a hive of giant bees.
When it all became too much, Thomas would walk down to the beach, or to the Rooftop, a bar, Carl had shown him, which was actually on a roof top, and was cooler, and you could listen to the Fado singers till the early morning. This was where many of the barworkers came after work – another one of the places to be!
The streets were crowded with tourists – so full you had to walk very slowly among them. Carl would sometimes suggest different places for Thomas to go – where he could eat at reasonable prices. Thomas would follow his instructions of how to get there, and he would end up in some god-awful, grubby, little place in the back streets, where no one spoke English, and he didn't feel safe. At which, Carl would laugh when he told him.
So he had begun eating at the more expensive places in the square, or along the promenade. He had his redundancy money, and the money from the school, so felt he didn't have to economise. During the day, when he wasn't working, he would hang out in the cafés or go to the beach bars, or to Lost Nights to drink a beer and chat with whoever was working there.
Evenings, Carl would often turn up at The Rooftop with a woman, or a group of friends, whom Thomas had never seen before. Carl would introduce him to them, as his friend from England. Most of them would ask him if he was on holiday. He would make a point of saying he worked here – it sounded good not to be a tourist. These people were always arty types, who Thomas found hard to talk to. He felt something was being measured in him, or against Carl. He wasn't sure if he was up to that...
Time seemed to be going fast. And he was spending most of it alone. He began to feel he didn't fit in! Felt excluded from everyone, and Carl just didn't seem to be Carl! He had become an unknown element. Whenever he met people, who Carl had introduced him to, they would always finish up talking about Carl! And the things they said about him never sounded like the Carl he knew. It was as if they were talking about a total stranger!
The thing to do and place to go on Sunday afternoons was down to the beach-bar; the scene switching from the cafés of the square in the morning. Those who arrived first always got the shady places to sit under the awning or the outer standing large umbrellas, which had waiter service, and was where the in-scene always sat.
Thomas, so far, had always come too late, to get any table, and had to sit frying in the hot sun on his towel on the sand wait hope to get a place in the shade, and feeling out of. It wouldn't be long before he'd take-off back over the dunes to the shade in town. Thomas had decided he wasn't really a beach person.
But this particular Sunday, Thomas set off early, determined to get one of those comfortable places. He was so early, there was only a couple of tourists sipping long cold drinks. He ordered a cheese toasty and a beer, and sat under one of the umbrellas closest to the awning, so as to be near to where the in-scene would sit.
Half an hour later, as he sat reading a book, Amanda appeared. They said hello, and she sat under the awning quite close to him. She was wearing a bright red warp over her blue bikini. They had hardly spoken more than a few words since he'd arrived in Lagos. Now she asked him about the book he was reading. He passed her the paperback.
'Eyeless in Gaza, I never read that one.... is it any good? She was reading the summary on the back page. 'Is this one also brave and new?'
Thomas smiled and said 'I don't know, I haven't read enough to decide.... it jumps about a bit. Carl gave me it -- he thinks its good!'
'Oh! Well,' she smiled, 'then it must be good – he's read almost everything!' she said, with mock conclusion in her voice. Yes,Thomas thought, he had noticed Carl's shelves of books in his room. 'And you, too, I expect,' she added? 'Carl told me you were a bookworm.'
Thomas didn't deny it, even though he hadn't read so much in the last years, much less after he'd married Julie! She wasn't a reader, and had begrudged the time he'd spent reading – she thought it was boring! She liked her TV.
'Do you read much?' he asked.
'Not as much as I would like.... more when it gets slow on the square, then, I can get through two or three a week. But not so many in the Winter, cause I'm mostly painting for the Summer.'
'I like your paintings!'
'Do you? I don't!'
'You don't?' He said surprised.
'No, it's really not my thing, but it pays the rent!'
'Do they sell well?'
'Reasonably. You know... if they can hold it up in front of them, and compare it to the harbour to their left, then they might buy it. So, essentially, I paint the same picture over and over! Always sunrise, sunset – my only fun is moving the boats about. All I'm really doing is selling plastic dreams from a stall. It can get really, really boring! You know, you can just look straight through those pictures.... The stuff is so accessible that if you did actually hang it on a wall, in a couple of weeks they would look so dead and finished.... just like looking at dirty wallpaper!'
'Carl told me you were also a writer.... are you any good?' Amanda tested.
'I don't know! What did Carl say?'
Amanda laughed, although Thomas hadn't meant it as a joke. But he quickly smiled to take advantage of the serendipity.
Smiling, Amanda said, 'Well actually he doesn't really know; he said he hasn't seen your stuff for years. He's been waiting for you to show him something...
'Well, he didn't ask! Thomas heard the snap in his own voice.
'Well, that just isn't the way... Carl's under the impression that you will show him something when you are ready!'
'Did he say that?'
'In so many words.'
Thomas was silent as he thought over what she'd said.
'Well, Thomas, you should give him something if you're ready.'
'Sure,' he said, I have a few chapters I'd like him to see.'
He asked about Carl's writing. What had she read?
'Most of the short stories – and a lot of the book.'
Short stories! Book! Thomas was surprised. Carl had said nothing, he hadn't asked him to read anything – he felt totally let down... He thought about his own writing, The truth was, he hadn't touched his book for a couple of years – he could still hear Julie taunting him 'You and your “Fantasy book!”' – a left jab to his chin!
The mood at the bar changed as people started arriving; bar people with a few hours, or the whole day, off; the crew from the Hot Rats, including Greg and Kent, who came and sat under the awning. One group had began punching a ball to and fro over the net on the make-shift volleyball court.
As the terrace became quite crowded, Amanda moved over to Thomas' table. Someone passed her a joint, which she pulled on a couple of times and passed to Thomas. Who surprised himself by accepting it! But, after pulling on it self-consciously a few times, he'd passed it on, he felt nothing..., and concluded the stuff was overrated!
Amanda said, she wanted to swim, and asked Thomas to look after her bag. As she headed for the sea she pulled off her warp. Thomas, entranced, scanned her small brown twitching buttocks, her swaying hips, and her long slim bare back all the way down to the water, until she dived, and disappeared into an almost flat blue sea.
'DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA-DA- DA – watch out guys Norman's lining up his next victim!' Greg joked.
Kent and one or two others laughed, but most of them didn't seem to get it. Thomas couldn't help laughing! Well, it was funny! He felt quite relaxed. His eyes and thoughts went back to Amanda bathing.
As Amanda returned, She picked up her bag and told Thomas, she was going to take a walk along the beach. To his surprise, he heard himself asking if he could join her.
Sure, she said casually lifting her shoulders. As they were leaving, Greg and Kent were nudging each other, and giving Thomas undisguised winks, which he hoped Amanda hadn't seen.
They walked slowly, close to the slow lapping water. Thomas felt an urge to hold her hand, but in the end didn't. She asked him about himself. He told her about his life with Julie. Had he been happy, and why was he divorced? Thomas avoided most of the gory details of his break-up, and said, they had simply grown apart. She asked about his friendship with Carl: when and how had he and Carl met? What was he like at school? Was he always a good writer?
'Well,' said Thomas, 'neither of us ever really wrote very much: a few short stories and poems, and such – it was more just kids dreaming – we didn't have much to write about!'
After ten minutes or so, she stopped walking, and asked if he'd like to sit awhile. They spread their towels next to each other and sat watching the sea. She made a joint of pure grass, and passed it to him. He took it, but coughed each time he inhaled it. But nonetheless, suddenly he could feel its pleasant effect, very calming!
He asked her about her life, and listened without questions, while she spoke in a matter-of -fact way about herself.
'The Black Sheep Story,' she called it! Middle class; well, lower middle class, from Middle England; daughter of an engineer. She had studied art in Liverpool, then moved to London to 'live in poverty' – the starving artist bit; off-galleries, communes, jolts around Europe, then married – her biggest mistake! – never again – a disaster movie! A junkie, who wanted to possess her and bring her down to his level. But she had been saved – she looked thoughtfully out to sea for a moment before she carried on – 'he over dosed!'
She had then begun to focus afresh on her painting -- a kind of meditation. 'Art as religion!' Really! She loved her own real painting! She said it was maybe time to return to London to concentrate again on her own work. She thought most people didn't understand art. 'Who was it said, ''The philistines be upon thee?''' Thomas wished he knew. 'Being cultured,' she thought,'was something like coming to terms with oneself – you had to have asked certain questions of yourself, looked at yourself in a certain serious, objective way... and maybe we artists are the ones who ask, and try to answer all those hard kinds of questions with our expressions...' For her it was how she escapes the mundane, and stops her thinking about all the silly conventions.
He found her talk intoxicating – he was impressed. She spoke knowingly and richly, she quoted people: Wilde, Nietzsche, Camus, Proust. He had never met this kind of woman; this was the stuff of novels.
Although he had the ambition to be a writer, and had worked with books for the last fifteen years, he wasn't, in fact, so well informed. When he thought about those last fifteen years: well, he didn't know what to think about those years... At first, working at the library had been like a child in a sweet shop: reading everything, but spoilt for choice. But then he had just slowed down. The true readers were the regulars in the library; it was they who had prompt his choice of books with their endless enthusiasm, and inquiries and searches!
Amanda talked about her love for the sea – the beach. But how she loathed the swarming tourists in the summer. And how every Thursday she takes the day off, lets a friend takeover her painting-stand in the square, and heads up the coast to the nudist beach. She told him how this beach, though not very far away , was in fact, away from everything; the tourists never find it! She packs lunch and a bottle of wine, and spends the whole day just soaking up the sun. And if it gets too hot, there is plenty of shade from the dramatic cliffs. 'You should come along,' she said, 'a bit of chill-out-time would do you good!' He said he would love to join her. Thomas' imagination zoomed off the edge of reality! He saw himself making love to her – both naked in one of these shady places!
He lay next to her on his stomach, she on her back, her bevelled brown body exaggerated by the shadows cast by the strong sunshine. She suddenly sat up, and said, she was going to give him a massage. Thomas was overwhelmed, He enthusiastically turned on his stomach, and she straddled his back with her long brown legs, and began gently kneading his flesh. Her hands seemed to melt into him. A current –like a wave of electrons smoothed him out and put his stoned mind into the alpha state – a singing moment.
He lay there his mind buzzing, dreaming of making love to her on the nudist beach, and telling himself that when she was through with the massage he would take her in his arms and kiss her. But in fact, when she did stop he felt so stoned and unsure of himself, he didn't have the courage to take the situation to its natural conclusion. There was a moment when she looked at him in silence – her eyes so penetrating – eyes that seemed to be full of that same fluent energy that now sought his inner self. But Thomas looked away.
That had been the moment to act; ahe felt it had been an invitation, which he had let pass. Later he cursed himself for not following his inclination. He was baffled and maddened at himself. 'Why was he always so timid?'
As they walked back to the beach-bar he became very aware of his body; it seemed he somehow moved more smoothly and nebulously over the sand back to the bar.
There was a volleyball game in full swing. Carl was now among the group sitting under the awning. Thomas and Amanda took their chairs, which Greg had saved for them, and soon they became absorbed into the stream of repartee, laughter, dope and beer with the others. Thomas sat with Amanda by his side feeling more relaxed than he had felt since his arrival in Portugal. He sometimes had to struggle to keep his thoughts off her and on the banter. Then he gave up! He couldn't take his eyes from her long, brown, shapely legs. He was sure she knew he was watching her. He thought her the loveliest creature he'd ever met! His stay in Lagos finally seemed to be turning into the adventure he had hoped it would be. And he also thought the smoke was interesting – it wasn't as he'd imagined it! – not like alcohol – hard to describe... But it certainly lightened everything up! The world seemed to be expanding in front of him, and his soul seemed to stretch in response!
Later, leaving, Amanda, Carl, and he were a part of a group walking back to the town over the sand dunes, Carl and Amanda dropped behind and were lost in talk. Thomas feeling happy hummed to himself; now Thomas never hummed...!
That evening, he took the manuscript of his book to Carl's room – who looked surprised. Thomas didn't say anything about his talk with Amanda.
'Just tell me what you think – don't pull any punches. I can take it!' Thomas said.'
Carl didn't say much, only, 'Yeah, yeah, sure Thomas. And I've something for you.' And he pulled a manuscript out of a draw by his bed. Thomas read the title. It was a collection of short stories – 'Stories Lost and Found.'
Thomasa didn't see Carl until the following Wednesday. They met at the school, and during a break they took a coffee sitting on the patio by a small lawn. Thomas was excited to know what Carl thought about the chapters he had given him.
He had read Carl's stories; he couldn't believe how good they were! Stunningly good! He had read them in one sitting, long into the evening! He couldn't put them down! They were so imaginative, intelligent, full of love, sex, drugs, travel, and ironic wit! He found it hard to believe these stories, with their rich almost flesh and blood characters, could have come out of Carl's imagination – the Carl he had known!
'I loved your stories, Carl! I couldn't put them down! I read them in one night!
'Really! you liked them?'
'Yes, really great Carl! I loved them all! You must really try to get them published. I'm sure they'll jump on them!'
'Well, I am working on that. A friend of mine is trying to get an agent for me – she says it's the way to do it. I may have to move to London to help it along, though!
'Oh! London! Well, I'm sure you'll have no problem. I loved them all... And the novel, is that ready?'
'No, not quite, but it won't be long, a few more chapters. I'll let you look at it when it's there.
'Did you get a chance to look at mine?' Thomas asked.
Carl's face became that of a messenger of gloom.
'Well, Thomas, you told me to be honest.... I.... it didn't really work for me.... Some of it was good, but I thought, maybe it's the subject matter... It was your dad's war, after all! Your heart didn't seem to be in it! It had all the dates, but I didn't feel the characters could have been real people... you tell us who they are, and what they did, but they don't seem to feel what is happening to them – they don't seem to become who you say they really are... you know, what keeps them awake at night...?
Thomas looked drained. A long mulish empty look hung from him.
'Mmmm...', He couldn't raise his eyes to meet Carl's. 'I must look at it again,' he mumbled.
'Well,' Carl ventured, bending and taking some papers from his briefcase. 'You should see what's good about it, and work with that. I made some notes for you to look through..., but if they don' make sense, you should just ignore them. But added, 'that's what it's all about, Thomas! I've done so much rewriting... you wouldn't believe it!
Thomas was overcome with disappointment, he had expected Carl to be enthusiast. He sipped at his coffee, hoping to cover up his welling feelings.
'Sure, I mean, I'll go to work on it. It's not even a first draft anyway, and I think I need to do a lot more research...'
'Maybe you should try some shorter stuff....'
'Mmme,' was all Thomas said. He felt torn!
'So, Amanda told me you were getting stoned on Sunday!' Carl said, changing the subject. So now you're a weed-bird!
'Yeah,' Thomas said through a forced smile. 'I really liked it, I felt so relaxed..... I wanted to ask you where I could buy some. I have a date with Amanda tomorrow at the nudist beach, and wanted to have some to smoke with her.
'You have a date?' Carl looked surprised.
'Yeah, she invited me last Sunday. It's not far is it?
'No, ten minutes on the bus.' Carl was quiet for a moment before he added, 'You can get some smoke from Casey, or ask Kent or Greg.'
There was a sucking silence. Thomas then asked Carl if Amanda was seeing anyone. Which Carl answered sharply by asking, 'Didn't you ask her?' Thomas looked at Carl, then said Angrily 'Well, no, I didn't – the situation didn't arise. What's the problem, Carl?
Listen Thomas!' said Carl, 'Amanda....you know... she's a…. free agent.... And yes, a bit of a flirt, But she doesn't do boyfriends...! So please, just don't get too serious with it! That's all I'm saying!'
Thomas found this so condescending, he snapped 'No, you listen, Carl! I like Amanda – yes, she's maybe a free agent – but I also think she likes me! Although, you don't seem to think that's possible! Or are you afraid she might be just trying to snare me, you know, like Julie...?'
Carl looked shocked, he shook his lowered head, then raised it, and said simply, in a calm, and controlled voice, 'fine!' He stood up and simply walked away, leaving Thomas shaking at the table, and nursing his cold coffee.