Born in England during the Late Pleistocene Age, Michael Joll has called Canada home since shortly after Confederation. He has held many jobs, from selling Continental Delicatessen in Selfridges on Oxford Street in London, to temporary part time deck hand and purser on a car ferry plying the North Reach of the Bay of Quinte. In between he was gainfully employed for forty years too many. Retired since 2004 (“The hours are great, the pay not so much”) he has spent most of that time writing fiction. He has lived in Brampton, Ontario since the mid-1970s with a wife (his own) and the memories of the dogs with whom he has been privileged to share his life.
A HANDSOME WOMAN
by Michael Joll
He studied her through binoculars from the shade of his second floor suite balcony at the Fairmont Colony Hotel. A handsome woman, he concluded. Lissome. Striking even, with her thick, wavy red hair pulled back and tied behind her neck. The late afternoon sun caught the silver strands in her hair and set them glinting like quicksilver.
She stretched her long limbs, arched her back and reached behind her neck with her fingers extended and her toes pointed, a springboard diver about to enter the pike position. She pushed her sunglasses up over her forehead until they rested above her hairline, and swung her legs over the side of the padded chaise lounge until her feet met the patio pavers.
The Barbados sun had travelled along its prescribed arc and the umbrella no longer cast its shade over her. She reached past a magazine and a thick paperback novel on the table at her elbow and picked up the plastic bottle of 60 sunblock. She squirted a generous amount onto her palm and smoothed it into her thighs.
He wished he could do it for her.
Her thighs firmed to her touch while she massaged the lotion into her skin. She bent forward as she worked her quads, squeezing the firm muscles as expertly as a masseuse She turned her attention to her shins and calves and leaned further when she spread the lotion over her ankles and feet. Her breasts moved with her, straining to escape the skimpy bikini top that revealed a tantalizingly generous, freckled cleavage. He held his breath, hoping for an accidental wardrobe malfunction. When none occurred, he took in the polished toenails and matching fingernails, and the freckles dotting her arms and cheeks.
He sighed. Without question he was in love with the red-haired goddess lounging beside the pool.
He set aside his binoculars and rubbed his eyes. A bead of sweat ran from his temple, along his jaw line and under his chin. He made no attempt to mop it as it disappeared into the tangle of grey chest hair sprouting from his pale skin.
Her calisthenics over for the moment, the goddess sat up again. She applied another generous helping of sunblock to her abdomen and over her breasts and throat, slipping her fingers beneath the cloth of her bikini top. Making sure she had all the bases covered, the man decided, the binoculars back to his eyes again, regretting that he was too late and too far away to offer help. She undid the elastic back strap, reached behind her neck to untie the shoelace thin straps and let them dangle at her side while she held the top in place with one hand. Inviting. If she knew what she was doing to him . . . She pulled the front of her bikini top down until the interesting bits almost peeked out, leaned against the backrest of the chaise and applied lotion to her face and shoulders. Satisfied, she dropped her sunglasses over her nose and glanced over her shoulder toward the hotel.
He held his breath. “She’s teasing me,” he muttered. “It’s as if she knows I’m watching her.”
A slight commotion coming from the beach disturbed the man’s thoughts. He aimed the binoculars in the direction in which he saw several people pointing. He focused through the palm trees near the water’s edge, and then he saw them: a shoal of flying fish breaking the surface of the Caribbean, their fins flailing the surface into a maelstrom and showering the still air with a million diamonds. Hard on their heels a pod of dolphins surfaced, basket-weaving their sleek bodies over and through the lazy waves in search of dinner.
He turned his attention to the woman at the pool edge, on her feet now and clutching her bikini top to her chest with one hand while shielding her eyes from the sun with the other. She turned to a white-haired woman at her side and pointed out to sea. The old woman followed the line of the outstretched arm and jumped with excitement at the sight of the dolphins in full chase. He saw the women exchange words, then resume their seats once the show was over.
The redheaded goddess hooked her bikini top back together and pulled her chaise into the shade of the umbrella. The man saw her lean toward the elderly woman and say something. She opened her beach bag, reached in and pulled out a diaphanous chiffon top, which she wrapped around her shoulders.
The show was over for the man, too. He put the binoculars down and turned to his crossword puzzle. He only did the cryptic crosswords, and always in ink, never pencil. He didn’t make mistakes. Not any more. He had made too many in his life. He sipped at a cold bottle of Banks beer, its sides dripping with condensation in the February heat while he wrestled the crossword into submission.
A movement caught his eye. He glanced up from his crossword in the direction of the redheaded nymph. She stood up, and now she wandered towards the pool edge. He grabbed the binoculars and watched her dip a toe in the lukewarm water, sending ripples scurrying away from her. Her bare, freckled shoulders shone in the sun. The flimsy top lay abandoned on the chaise, a sleeve draped over the side as if it still contained its wearer, the cuff touching the concrete paver. A slight breeze fluffed life into the cloth before fading away, leaving the sleeve a study in still life.
The goddess slipped into the pool with scarcely a ripple to betray her entry. She surfaced and pulled her hair behind her, squeezing water down her back. She smiled as she spoke unheard words to a young man close by. The man on the balcony overcame a momentary pang of envy, envy that she should be speaking to a good-looking, tanned and lean-muscled young man, and even a little jealous that his own body, now well past its best days, could not hope to compete with that of a narcissist half his age.
She swam several effortless lengths then hauled her body out of the pool in one movement and sat on the edge with her feet in the water. From the vantage point on his second floor balcony, the man noticed that the young Lothario had already moved on to a trio of much younger women with whom he was obviously flirting. She moved her head. For a moment he thought the woman might have glanced up to his balcony. No, he decided, she hadn’t, but he imagined he caught a hint of a smile flick across her lips before she looked back at the pool. Or maybe not. His rational brain told him that a human heart does not melt, do backflips or any other such nonsense, including standing still. He froze for a second, and then turned his attention to his crossword. 14 Down. Backflip. He wrote the four missing letters in the empty squares, and set his pen aside with a satisfied smile.
He thought of lighting a cigarette, a Sobrani Black Russian, his favourite for twenty years, ever since his business allowed him to indulge his weakness and he could afford the premium price. His hand twitched involuntarily in a gesture all too familiar, reaching out. The cigarettes were not within reach. They were back home, where he had deliberately left them, in a silver and tortoise shell cigarette box on the desk in his den, the box unopened for four months as a test of will power. He studied the twin purple-blue ridges of the long scar running down his sternum, and the marks left by the staples, a now-permanent reminder of his open-heart surgery the previous fall, and knew he was lucky to be alive. His heart had indeed stopped. Once.
The sun cast long shadows across the hotel’s spacious palm-studded grounds. He searched the pool for the goddess, but she had vanished from sight. Through the binoculars he sought her by the beach, but could not find her. The large, open sided pavilion where they served breakfast and lunch, accompanied by hummingbirds, lizards and the occasional inquisitive parakeet bent on sharing a meal with the guests, surrendered no trace of her. He noted with satisfaction that the young man with the muscles had also departed the pool. So, too, had the trio of scantily clad women the young man had been trying to impress.
Then he caught sight of her, the goddess with her skin now aflame in the orange and red fires of the setting sun. A gentle breeze tugged at a strand of unruly hair at her temple. She rescued it with a finger and hooked it behind her ear. She turned, and when she looked towards the hotel he saw a yellow hibiscus blossom tucked behind her other ear, and her chiffon top tied loosely around her trim waist like a bronze sarong, softening the sharp triangle of her bikini.
He knew he had to go to her. He had to speak to her, to bask in her presence.
He left the suite and took the stairs to the ground floor. He pushed through the French doors of the hotel’s art deco rear entrance and stopped on the patio, his head swivelling from right to left, searching for her. He spotted her, standing alone, gazing out to sea, one side of her slim, lithe body illuminated by the flame of a tiki lamp flickering by her side, the other cast in shadow. The sun had almost set, dipping the bottom edge of its disk in the sea like a nervous swimmer testing the water. In minutes, night would cloak Barbados in velvet and the steel pan band would begin its off-key duel with the tone-deaf cicadas.
She turned as the man neared her. Her face registered neither surprise nor fear at his approach. He slowed and came to a stop a step from her side. He tugged at the hem of his Hawaiian shirt, lurid purple and pink glowing in the sunset, and for a moment stared away from her at the silhouettes of the palm trees. Then he lowered his gaze to the flame coloured hibiscus printed on the front of his shirt. He shuffled his feet, fighting to suppress the nervousness that had bedevilled him since he was a gawky teenager with acne and braces and horn rimmed eyeglasses, trying to summon the courage to ask a girl for a date.
He looked into the eyes of the red haired Athena standing as immobile as a Greek statue. A quizzical and slightly bemused smile crossed her face. He took in the freckles on her cheeks and the tracery of crows’ feet radiating from the corners of her eyes, crinkling with her smile. Her eyes glowed emerald green and sapphire blue with flecks of gold and amber to add to his confusion. He had never beheld a woman more serene or beguiling as the one who stood before him now, eyeing him with curiosity.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi, yourself,” she replied with a broad smile. Her hand strayed to her hip. It swayed slightly, provocatively as she twisted round to face him fully.
His licked his lips nervously, covered his mouth with a hand and coughed lightly. He gazed into those bewitching eyes again and took a deep breath.
“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “how glad I am that you married me all those years ago.”
THIS AND OTHER STORIES APPEAR IN MICHAEL JOLL’S COLLECTION
CHECK OUT MICHAEL’S BOOK HERE
by Michael Joll