Thursday, 10 April 2014

‘Hard White Towns’ by Ken Elkes

They found themselves, suddenly, old. She felt fat and he missed his hair. So they booked a fortnight and flew to Spain, blew too much money on a wheezy car from a backstreet dealer. They headed for Andalucia, a favourite from years before.

She tossed the map through the window and wore a pair of children’s sunglasses. He drove barefoot and a little too fast. They survived on dusty apricots bought at roadside shacks and plates of tapas in silent bars.

When they stopped to rest they daydreamed in the shade, listening to the rasp of cicadas and the old car, clanking, beating, settling in the heat.

She tried ennui: “I feel like I’m not living anymore.” It didn’t take.

On the road she pointed out things - a donkey, sad-faced in ribbons, a grand piano shaded under a tree, a one legged man, dozing. At night he read aloud from the petal-soft pages of a guidebook he had stolen, twenty years out of date. 

Sometimes they found a village that seemed just right and parked haphazardly, then sat in the square, letting time drift, waiting.

A week in and each day was a revolving door. They started waking early, irritable from night sweats and talked, shyly, of home. She bought some lace to take back and he put on shoes because the car’s stiff pedals bruised his feet.

“Beer makes me sleepy,” he said the night she proposed sex. But really it was because he feared how the night fell too quickly and that he dreamed of hard, white towns in the rear view mirror, more coming through the heat haze ahead.

The last night they treated themselves to a meal in a castle, candles on the table and good wine. Beside them a couple ate and talked the whole time. The woman was overdressed, with a pendant of spindly creatures trapped in amber around her neck. The man sucked at a lobster, left greasy smears on his beer glass. Later they looked over and raised their glasses, together, as if in toast.

On the plane home, half-asleep, he saw her looking out at the thick clouds that stretched to the horizon, heard her say something about how small they were, among all of that.

They caught the 94 bus to get home. She had forgotten to pack their travel umbrella and he cursed because it was raining and cold.

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