Wednesday, May 29

Lunch With Emilia

I HAD BEEN unemployed for a very long time, so when I got the job offer as denture technician at Great Muddy Dental Services I accepted it gladly. Great Muddy is a village that sits in the very flat country I had known all of my life. One does not particularly notice a village like Great Muddy, even as they are driving through it, however I thought that it did not matter where I worked as long as I was being paid, and began my job on the very first day of summer, as the country was heating up. It did not take long before I grew bored with my occupation – even after months of mundane unemployment – and the days galloped on without a sound as I struggled to separate one from the other. In the evenings, exhausted and frustrated, I drove back home and saw the sky start to die in the most fluorescent of colours and all of the colours bled over one another. I had not made any friends in Great Muddy. I had tried, mostly in the local pubs after work, but they never accepted me and laughed in my face. To entertain myself and to break up the day I started to go for walks in the fields and forests around Great Muddy. Lunch breaks were an hour long, no more, so with my quick pace I was able to cover a large distance, varying my route everyday, eating my lunch on the move and returning to work sweaty from the heat which didn’t let up. As I moved through the forest, with the sounds of sleepy birds and restless leaves in the breeze, I daydreamed daydreams.
That is how I spent my lunch breaks.
That is how I spent my lunch breaks until I met Emilia.
I was walking along a small road that led out of the village. Apple trees from a garden overhung the pavement and upon the branches young apples grew. You could smell them. No cars went past. All was quiet. It was a small road I often walked down. Lost in thought, I almost bumped straight into a girl who was standing in the middle of the pavement. I begged her pardon and she begged mine. She remained standing there as I went to walk around her. It was apparent that she was studying something, as she said to me – ‘Look at that. Look at him.’ I followed her finger and on the other side of the road was a man in a white linen shirt and black jeans staring at the pavement. ‘He’s been stood there for ages,’ she said, whispering for fear that the man might hear and be distracted, but there was only us and him. He was too immersed to notice us.
‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.
She did not seem to hear me so I repeated my question.
‘I think he’s counting the bubbles of light that make it through the leaves of that tree…!’ She added an exclamation mark with a gulp. It did indeed look like he was counting the bubbles of light that fell on the pavement. ‘And whenever the wind shifts the leaves he loses count, gets angry and starts again.’ After a moment, the wind blew and the man stomped and then began counting again. This made my new friend laugh.
‘Hush,’ I told her – ‘He’ll see us!’
‘He doesn’t give a damn about us. He’s too interested in his leaves.’
Without sound his lips moved with numbers.
The wind blew; the leaves moved – ‘He almost counted them all that time,’ she said and gave a little snigger. She was taking some measure of pleasure from his frustration.
‘Why’s he doing that?’
‘You never seen it before?’
‘No.’ Come to think of it, I had paid very little attention to Great Muddy; absorbed in my daydreams, my surroundings never sank in.
‘You’re not from round here, then?’
‘No. I just work here.’
She sighed, as if recalling the explanation for the two-hundredth time that day. ‘Some people in Great Muddy have this problem, this obsession. It doesn’t happen to everyone here but it happens to most; they develop an obsession for something. They could be obsessed with stealing cars or making sure their satsuma peel is removed in one piece or they could obsessed with their grandmother’s hands or – as is the case here – with light.’
I was struck. I had never heard of anything like it – ‘I’ve never heard of anything like it!’
‘A lot of folks seek help; see psychiatrists, doctors, take pills for it; try golf, yoga, red wine. Anything just to lose the obsession but many can’t.’
The man was counting again whilst playing with the buttons on his white linen shirt.
‘How terrible.’
‘Tell me about it. I used to be obsessed with my period blood. I’d try and keep it in the freezer but it dried out. My mum took me to a psychiatrist and now I don’t obsess over my period blood anymore. It was a pretty colour, though.’
I thought it was appropriate that I introduce myself at this point, so I did.
‘I’m Emilia,’ she said, before continuing – ‘My younger sister was obsessed with light, like that man right there.’ He was still counting and cursing. ‘Especially light on water. There is a pond she used to visit in the forest over there, Oatwood Forest – she’d roll her dress up and just gaze at the light on the water of the pond. She still does it, though not as much as when she was a teenager.’
Emilia was too pale skinned to spend much time in the sun. She had on a thin black dress that ended right up her thighs. Her hair was dyed red so that it growled very fiercely at me whenever I looked at it. Her lips were small and thick and I had not seen a mouth like hers before.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Just for a walk,’ I said.
‘Come with me. I’ll take you to Oatwood Forest, to the pond where my sister used to go.’
I admit that I was a little frightened of being contaminated with obsession, which I suspected I could be, spending as much time in the village as I was, and yet strangely interested in what I might be obsessed with. We walked around the other side of Great Muddy to Oatwood Forest. The trees were tall and pale green. There was no telling how deep the forest was. Each trunk was very near the other and Oatwood’s innards were solid with darkness. Still, I followed her and we walked in silence until we came to a small clearing with a pond in the middle. Afraid of water, the trees had parted and a cylinder of light passed down on to the water’s surface. Bugs and pieces of foliage marred the pond and mosquitoes were born with enough energy so that they could dance very badly in the sunlight in poorly arranged balls of buzzing. We stood there looking for some time. The water was a kind of green, an unsanitary green, a green that had drunk too much the night before. ‘My sister stood there for ages, hours at a time, just looking at the sun before it went behind the trees. My mother was terrified when she first went missing. You can sort of understand why she obsessed over it, can’t you?’ I could. ‘There are so many obsessions in this village. I suppose that to an outsider – like you – it’s all quite funny. This one man who is friends with my father is obsessed with an old pair of boxing gloves he had as a kid. He doesn’t stop wearing them or smelling them. This other woman in my mother’s book club is obsessed with phone-calls. She sits by the phone all day ringing people up and asking them how they are. Her house is a mess, apparently, because she never makes time to clean it. Just a whole load of mess and a pristine telephone.’ The forest rustled and tweeted. Its sharp leaves pointed in all directions and jostled for attention. The pond lay there, burping and hallucinating underneath a veil of midday sun. There was no wind, just still.
‘But,’ said Emilia putting her foot on the stump of a tree – ‘if it’s light you want, I know the best place. A lot of people in the village obsess over light and in the winter they get so miserable they burst into tears in supermarket queues and cinemas. But I know the best place for light – natural light, the best light – in this whole village.’ Whenever she mentioned the village it was with an air of wonder, because the village was her whole world. ‘There’s always a bit of shade on the edges of the light that falls in this village but I know where you can find pure, uninterrupted light. Give up?’
I waited for an answer.
‘On a rooftop. All rooftops are overshadowed … except one.’
‘The church?’
‘No, that has the cross and the weathervane to shade it.’ Emilia cleared her throat. Her brown eyes bore into me. There was a craziness about her that I had not originally detected but I was at a loss for friends and her waist was very small, so I ignored her craziness. ‘No, the roof of the insurance building.’ I knew that building: it had a maroon sign and gold lettering, both had faded with time, and the large windows on the front of it were useless because of the yellow blinds that hung down the length of them all day, all year. ‘Come with me. I’ll take you there.’
‘What time is it?’ I asked myself and looked at my watch. I was late back for work. I had completely forgotten about it. Panicking, I ran away, back through the forest and behind me I heard Emilia shout – ‘Meet me at the same place tomorrow and I will show you the best light in Great Muddy!’ but I could not turn. When I returned to the office I was wetter with perspiration than usual. My boss was nowhere to be seen. I resumed my tasks and thought of Emilia because she was all I could think of.
Work could not go fast enough the next day and my stomach was unsettled. I was very excited to see her again. She was where she had said she would be – ‘The man counting the bubbles of light is not here today,’ she said. Indeed he wasn’t.
The sun warmed the backs of our necks.
‘So how do you know about the roof of the insurance building?’ I found it difficult to talk to her. The night had not diluted her stare, which she still flung upon me and I could not grow used to it.
‘A man obsessed with stealing things named Thieving Percy stole my TV set and I claimed it back off of the insurance company. I never bought another TV set, so I still have the money lying about somewhere. There’s quite a lot, maybe six-hundred quid. I don’t know what to spend it on. Anyway, when I came out of the insurance building I looked at the roof and knew that it would be a good place to be, to sunbathe. Do you sunbathe?’
‘No.’
‘Me, neither. I burn. I mean, I don’t usually sunbathe, but I like to lie in the sun up there. I like the feel of the sun, it’s like a when you have a bath after standing in the rain.’
At midday the village was quiet, dead, as if a curfew had been imposed upon it. No cars or pedestrians passed us. The temperature was sweltering. The sky was blue, the pavement burned, the grass sparkled. We got to the insurance building and Emilia’s delight was tangible – ‘We have to climb the drainpipe around the other side. You any good at climbing?’
‘I’m all right.’
Once more she led the way. Out the bottom of her dress, as she climbed the drainpipe, I saw her knicker’d bum and that was my view as I maneuvered up behind her. The roof was a flat affair, graveled in white pebbles that gristled beneath our feet and all I could make out was brilliant sunshine and a perfect blue sky. Emilia had been right; there was not a sliver of shade to be seen upon the roof and down below, on one side, was the motionless village, and on the other a vast wilderness. From the insurance building’s roof I could see Oatwood Forest. It didn’t look so magnificent when it was far away.
Emilia had her hands on her hips and I saw how thin her fingers were. She calmly lay down on the gravel. Her eyes were closed when she asked me – ‘So what do you do, anyway?’
I took my place beside her. I was very happy to be beside her – ‘I’m a denture technician.’
‘That’s a good job title.’
‘Maybe it is. It’s my job to make dentures. You know when old people have dentures, it’s our job to make them, and to make them just right.’ Her eyes were closed when she made a face and I saw it because I was watching her face very closely as it was white in the rooftop light. ‘Sometimes we get casts – for whatever reason – and we have to make dentures just like them so that when the person gets their new set, they’re exactly like the teeth they used to have.’
She opened her mouth wide – ‘Ill eye eeth.’
So I felt her teeth. They were good teeth. She did not mind my fingers in her mouth and, when I thought about it, neither did I. In fact, I enjoyed her teeth so much that I kept on feeling them, letting the tips of my fingers go into every groove and nook as if I were a blind man presented with the holiest of Braille. She lay there, mouth wide open, sun on her. As I felt, I saw how closely the dress she wore clambered upon her body, the fine hairs on her arms, the remarkable details of her face. I reclined back down and rubbed her saliva all over my fingers. In the quiet I could hear Emilia breathing; not that she breathed loudly or with a blocked nose, but because I found myself tuned into her.
And that is how we spent my lunch breaks.
It became that all I lived for were those lunch breaks with Emilia. Every day I met her and every day the weather was perfect and every day the village slept and every day we lay on the roof of the insurance building, its white pebbles prodding our backs. Nothing made me happier. When I slept I dreamed of Emilia and when I awoke I thought of Emilia. ‘I told you the light was good up here. And just think of that man still counting the bubbles underneath the apple tree.’ Some meetings we wouldn’t talk at all and it was always perfect. I spent my lunch break with her, then, heartbroken, I returned to my job in the muggy offices of Great Muddy Dental Services. As the rendezvous continued, our friendship grew. I brought packed lunches for both of us; she ate delicately, as if she were embarrassed, without a sound, and helping me finish everything I brought. Then I took along some red wine and in an hour the whole bottle was gone. On the eleventh day, after the red wine, she asked me – ‘Do you mind?’ And I didn’t. That was the first time she urinated in front of me; hitching up her dress, pulling her knickers to the side, I watched – too fixated to flinch – as she squatted and peed on the white pebbles and the wet pebbles glistened as the dark pubic hair presented slices of coral. What a sight! She had not faced away from me and had not minded that I did not turn away. There was only the cozy sound of urine falling on small stones.
By association with my lunch breaks, I looked forward to work. It sounds foolish when I recall this now, some years later, but what had been joyless became joyous and I could not have complained to you about my life if I had tried. During my drives into Great Muddy I saw Emilia in my mind and smiled. My colleagues could not understand this shift in my mood. It baffled them and I was smug because I knew that none of them had known their own Emilia, nor would they ever.
Emilia, sun at my side. Emilia, incorruptible in red and white.
On the eighteenth day she turned up in a blue dress that I had not seen her wear before. It was blue, like the colour of the sky as it rubbed up against outer space. It was almost transparent and clung to her. So there, like many nations of the world, she was three colours: red, white and blue; the hair, the skin, the dress. She smiled at me and the day danced all over her.
‘May I sunbathe?’
She had never asked me this before and, naturally, I said that she could.
There was nothing underneath her blue dress and she was naked. She kicked off her shoes. Her waist went in. Her hips formed an upturned pentagon with the tip burrowing into her fold which flowered in the dark pubic hair that had fragranced my dreams. Her skin was dominated by white, pearlescent, and her knees and nipples and knuckles were fragile tributes to pink. I stared. She did not mind. Not wanting for awkwardness to occur between me and a friend, I stripped down as well. Even motionless I perspired. We had eaten and the food lay in our guts and our glasses of wine were by our side. It is always a pleasure to lie down after a meal.
She squinted an eye open, craning her neck to look at me – ‘You mustn’t ever tell anybody else about this place.’ She really meant it. I swore I wouldn’t.
I continued to look at her. The sun got in my eyes and stung, but I continued to look at her. When she was horizontal, her lips were like sand dunes.
Then next day, as a gesture of friendship, I presented her with a set of dentures. I had memorised her teeth when she let me feel them and very soon I had made a full set, identical to her own. I had been secretly making them at work; I would have to work late or weekends to catch up on the quota my boss gave me but it was worth it when I saw her face as I presented them to her. They were pure white and immaculate. Her sand dune lips smiled and she embraced me, putting her full weight on my chest. She stared at them all afternoon, all the way through lunch, she crossed her legs, sat up and stared at them. I was very glad that she liked them. A change was starting to take place in her, I could tell, and something did not feel right. In my foolishness and in my willingness to enjoy her whilst I could, I ignored it.
On the twenty-first day we were sunbathing side-by-side after a lunch of cherries and pitta bread and two cold beers each, when I felt a hand upon my stomach. I flinched. The hand stayed there. Her tremors tickled the hairs around my navel. She lingered before starting to stroke me, her finger dipping in, and then running south to where the sun was stronger. Her hand went into my pubic hair and, with my eyes closed, she took hold of my penis. As if it were ikebana, she manipulated me with arousing delicacy. A lone car, the first in over a half hour, passed the insurance building. She climbed upon me, guiding me very slowly into her so that my most skyward point felt her every texture and fold. A river ran between our legs. Her rocks began to shake the foundations of the insurance building. Our fingers interlaced. I did not know what was happening. The sun tiptoed on my face in the beating shadow of her movements. I thought of the bright red flushes that broke out on her breasts and clavicle and shoulders when we sunbathed. She held on to me very tightly. I could not tell what sweat was mine anymore. Long, thoughtless gasps, an aching spine, taught leg muscles, curled toes; I arched and came. She did not stop, ignoring my spasms and the thick come that she whisked in the space where we joined. She came and her clasps around me forced my eyes open.
Emilia washed us both off with the last of the beer in our bottles. The light of the day was ours. On her face, as we dressed ourselves that afternoon before I went back to work, was a smile I had not seen before and I suspected that she was as fond of me as I was of her. Right then I was overwhelmed and it was the greatest feeling I could ever acknowledge. We stood opposite each other, putting on our shoes.
That lunch break was the end of Emilia.
It still pains me to say that:
The end of Emilia.
The next day she did not show at the insurance building. She did not show the day after that, nor the day after that. I never saw her again. I felt nauseous that first day, from then on becoming more worried and sick. Even the sun sank and I was draped in the loose grey shawl of August cloud. Work resumed its oppressive grip over me. Lunch breaks were spent searching the village. Life regained its drab melodies. There was nothing or nobody to comfort me. Solace could not be distilled by my flights of drunkenness in the evenings. I talked to no one because if it was not Emilia then it could be no one. Very seldom did people talk to me – colleagues, parents, old friends on the telephone – but their words were ridiculous and I could not hear them very clearly. I did not want to tell them about her because, quite simply, they would not understand. She still haunted my dreams so that waking up was all the more upsetting. I began to consider that I would never see her again. I became so drunk off wine at night – wine that I would have drunk with her on the insurance building roof – that I vomited and my eyes watered. I could only wipe my mouth and continue.
I carried out daily searches of the whole village for her. I scoured the insurance building and the Oatswood pond, then the streets, then the fields and I could not see her. Though often her red hair mirage’d in the distance, it turned out to be nothing.
I asked the man counting bubbles of light if he had seen her – ‘The girl with the red hair and the blue dress and the white skin.’ He frowned at me, informing me, angrily, that I’d made him lose count.
No one in the insurance building knew of whom I was talking about. They couldn’t even find Emilia in their records.
After almost a month since I had seen her and searching ever since, I walked into the one of the village’s newsagents and asked the old lady behind the till if she’d seen her – ‘The girl with the red hair and the blue dress and the white skin.’ I had asked her before, of course, as it was one of the busier shops in the village, but I kept asking all the shopkeepers in case she had shown. Many of them were irritated by my regular purchase-less visits.
The old lady thought with a finger on her lip – ‘Ah, yes, I know the girl.’
‘You’ve seen her?’ My lungs started to bang against each other.
‘Yeah, she came in a couple of days ago.’ Some customers behind me in the queue were getting very impatient with my questions. ‘Strange girl.’ I did not care for her calling Emilia strange. ‘She bought up all my sweets.’ The sweets aisle was indeed empty of its usual colourfully packaged produce. ‘I said to her – “You’re gonna rot out all your teeth with those!” and she told me that that was the idea. Very strange girl. She spent a lot! Hundreds on sweets! Just on sweets!’
I walked out of the shop and stood there on the pavement to consider everything I had heard. I knew right away that Emilia was planning to wear the dentures I had given her, but first she had to rot all of her own teeth. I walked back to work and felt a breeze flow through me where there had once been a storm.
Things have not quite returned to normal, even after all this time. I still see her in my dreams, my thoughts, and in the fantasies I enjoy at night. I have not met anyone like her. Every girl on the street is not worth a lash on the eyes that have beheld Emilia in the midday sun. Just over two years ago I began introducing odd teeth into sets of dentures they didn’t belong in; they were Emilia’s teeth, molded from memory. I would introduce only one. We never got any complaints from the customers. I had to make the teeth during my lunch breaks and my colleagues were always amused at me working during lunch, so much so that they laughed at me and called me names, yet I kept on making teeth exactly like Emilia’s and slotting them into somebody else’s dentures.

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