The World Apart
The sun lay on top of us like a heavy lover, and we, naked as the day, sprawled semi-dozing at the edge of the empty pool. Our world was circumscribed by the scent of pine trees and an unremitting chorus of cicadas. It was forever mid-afternoon and the scrawny shadows refused to broaden. The sky was an immense gong, struck by the sun, reverberating with heat and light and faultless blue.
Lily said it was the cruellest thing to have a swimming pool that we couldn’t fill. She threatened to dive in anyway, either crack her head on the cracked tiles, or find herself buoyed by thin air. The memory of water, she called it, drawing idly inaccurate parallels with homeopathy and a necessity of conviction, before the heat hammered out her line of thought into an unfinished sentence.
The night before, like every night before, thunder grumbled beyond the horizon. Dim throbs of lightening had barely troubled the stars in the lower portions of the sky. Somewhere, very far away, storms raged, rain fell and people were relieved. But not here. Our vicinity had been sealed, airtight, dehydrated. Desiccated pine needles and dust. Nothing moved. We breathed in shallow puffs, our nostrils burnt by the hot air.
‘What are you doing,’ I asked.
Lily had her arm up in the air. ‘I’m going to throw an imaginary stone into the imaginary pool of water.’
I stopped her. ‘What kind of stone is it?’
‘So, you must have imagined it. What size is it?’
She described a smooth pebble, neat in the palm. It was green, she continued, polished, possibly jade. I suggested it was too precious to simply throw away.
‘But I’m not throwing it away. I’m throwing it into the pool. I’ll dive in later and fish it out. Anyway,’ she said and began to raise herself from her towel.
‘Anyway, I don’t want to play this game.’
She moved with such deliberate slowness that I had to watch. Upright, she paused to reconsider, then stepped into her flip-flops and over to the edge of the empty pool. She tried to shade her eyes with her hand, but the sun was everywhere; it bounced from the ground, poured from the white-tiled empty pool. She stared into the bright void. She glowered at it and the sunlight glowered back.
The triangular stencil of an abandoned bikini was still clear across her buttocks. The skin, though, was reddening; no longer quite so contrasted with the rest of her nut brown body. It was like a coy and isolated blush. After a few days, our nudity was forgotten. I had the odd presentiment that when, eventually, we went back to clothes, embarrassment would accompany our dressing, that it would make us feel estranged. With our nakedness we belonged to a different world, we had set ourselves apart – much more so than just the fact of our being secluded from other people and everyday behaviour, we felt ourselves members of a different race. It helped that the property was miles from anywhere, from anyone. There were just the pine trees, and the cicadas, and at night the winking stars.
She sighed and sat with her feet in the pool. A flip-flop fell and hit the bottom with a slap.
‘I’ll have to get it now,’ she said and sighed again.
The chrome ladder was on the other side. In due course, she got there, kicked off her remaining flip-flop, and descended into the deep end and out of sight.
‘You can get your precious stone while you’re down there,’ I offered, but she didn’t respond.
I waited. I counted my breaths, imagining her underwater. I counted to one hundred, propped myself on an elbow and called her name. In the heat-thick air, the sound of my voice barely registered, but in my head it boomed. Perhaps I didn’t call out at all. Something prevented me from trying again. Her silence.
I waited some more. The cicadas all stopped at once, and their silence and her silence combined and I had to break it.
‘Lily,’ I said, purposefully projecting the syllables. I got up and my head swam. Having stooped and steadied myself, I made my way across the burning tiles and looked into the pool.
She was sitting, squeezed into a corner where a thin wedge of shadow had gathered. Even from this distance, and despite the brightness and dryness of it all, I could tell she had been crying. I could tell from the way she jutted her chin, it was an unconscious show of strength after a moment of weakness.
As I deliberated what to do, she acknowledged me without looking up.
‘It’s okay, I didn’t drown.’
I tried to smile for her, but gave up and simply nodded. I sat where she had sat, feet dangling into the emptiness.
She huffed. She shrugged. ‘It just feels inappropriate to grieve in weather like this. It’s too bright.’
Her voice carried a slight echo from the tiled walls and again I suffered an uncertainty as to whether I could hear things properly, or if it was all in my head.
‘It should be raining, and grey and miserable,’ she carried on, ‘it’s just not appropriate.’
And then a sound came, and it sounded like rain, and we looked at each other in disbelief. But it wasn’t rain. It was a breeze, hot as a hairdryer, but a breeze all the same, shushing in the pine trees and stirring the finer dust on the ground. A breeze all the same. There was movement left in the world.
I went to the ladder and stepped down into the pool. I sat beside her, close, but not enough for our skin to touch. I wanted to tell her that the breeze was a good sign, that things would move again, but I found that I couldn’t speak, down there in the deep end.
I think she understood, anyhow.