Every so often she crosses herself.
Her hand flutters, a cabbage-patch butterfly against the dark material of her clothing. Head, down, left, right; lips mumbling a small prayer or benediction, perhaps a memory, perhaps a curse that she has forgotten to remember. Her face is in profile when I look – I try not to – and in the lines spreading from her nose and the corner of her eyes I can see etched the suffering for which she mourns, and will mourn, for every remaining day of her life.
And I… I sit on the other side of the bus, trying so hard not to look at her, trying to keep my gaze fixed firmly on the dry, mountainous Greek countryside passing slowly beyond the window. When my concentration slips, when I do turn to look at her, I see her through the haze the sun’s glare has left inside my eyes. As I turn from the window and cast my gaze across the aisle, she is a dark phantasm in my line of sight. Only slowly does her nebulous shape resolve itself into concrete, a human being; ageing body swallowed in dark clothes, black headscarf about her head. The constant contrast between the outer view and that within makes my head hurt even more than it did already; a trial for my delicate eyes. I do it as little as possible. But despite this, it is not the sun that makes me want to look the other way; mind elsewhere.
I would like to say that it is totally with Charlie but the truth is more immediate. My thoughts are with her.
So indistinct, her features as I left, face half-buried in the pillow, sheet barely covering her shoulder as she lay on her side; tourist or local, I cannot recall. The last thing I thought I would think of was Charlie, the last time we were here, the last time we cruised the bars and tavernas. His smile; all-conquering smile. I wish a smile could come to my face at the memories. Tourist or local, I cannot recall her face.
The trip along this mountain road has been long, the heat fierce and I am glad that I chose this side of the bus. It truly is the lesser of two evils. Now, at this late stage of the journey, I am a lone island in my row of seats, she – on the sunny side of the bus – mimicking in hers.
And up at the front, listening to a small transistor radio which sounds as if tuned between stations, is the driver. I can see the back of his head, the roll of meat that is his neck, his large shoulders above the seat in which he is squeezed so tightly. When I climbed the steps into the bus, I thought he looked trapped by seat and steering wheel. His arms looked as wide as my leg, his own legs as my torso.
The grinding of the bus’ gears is almost constant as we go up and down these hills. It annoys so, so easily.
I am hot. I am bothered.
I might be dying already; it may be killing me at this moment. I was unable to face it when they took him in. They all would have expected me there, by his side, watching as he deflated, as it sapped him of all the vitality he had once held. I just couldn’t face it.
He would have wanted me here, wanted me where we ran free, where none could better us. Here.
The t-shirt I wear is soaked with sweat ever replaced as the bus rolls on; we three the turkeys in this oven. I thank something once more that I have chosen shorts for the journey; despite the plastic seat sticking to the underside of my legs, despite the imprint of the ruck-sack which sat on my lap for the first five miles of the trip, despite my legs being as hot as anything, I am glad for the shorts. Only a small amount of the air that enters through the tiny sliding window reaches my legs, cooling the skin of my thighs slightly. The headache is still strong but finally receding. For the moment, I choose not to drink any of the water in the side pocket of my ruck-sack. I’m all right. For the moment.
Again her hand travels in that imagined crucifix before her. The rustle of the heavy, black clothing she wears is a welcome relief from the string of beads clicking and clacking together as she moves them in her fingers. Her lips move though the sound which issues is barely more than a whisper. Finally, she returns to silence, save for the beads. Up at the front of the bus, the driver crunches the gears again as we hit an upgrade – breaking the moment like a gatecrasher at a funeral. He swears aloud, although I assume somewhat more quietly than he would were the old lady not present. They all have respect for these women, it seems. I have never seen a single man of this country who has not deferred to the black clad widows when the necessity arose.
I guess I’m already mourning him. As far as I know, however, he is still curled up in the bed he occupies at the hospice, buddy by his side. His buddy by his side and me far away in the heat of the greek sunshine. Says something, doesn’t it?
The headache has still not left me.
I can’t forget the feel of her skin last night. True, I have forgotten her name and the finer details of her face but the texture of her skin – the deep tan rendering her indistinct in subdued moonlit gloom, silver glow through slatted wooden blinds, striping the room – is ever present in my thoughts.
The drink. I wish it could be blamed but that would be a lie. The habit of lust needed no inebriated assistance when she came to my table, sat by me. Part of me wants to say that I did it for Charlie, for his memory, for the times we spent here, running our wild way. I guess I’m just looking for the excuse, however. There is none.
I left before the sun rose, fleeing as ever my type has; scared of daybreak, scared of daylight, scared of hungover truth. But more, I was scared of what Charlie would say if he knew, if he could see. The time had long gone that he would share in the joy of the hunt; leaving as soon as he became the prey.
She had been snoring earlier – as I momentarily surfaced from drunken slumber – but her breathing was shallow and soft by the time I gathered my clothes from the floor and walked to the door, opening it as quietly as possible. I turned to look at her before I shut the door but I could not see her, did not know why I had looked in the first place. I did not whisper goodbye. I did not say anything.
I left her name behind as I closed that door. Charlie had always said that.
“It doesn’t matter that ya remember ’em. Just that ya did ’em.”
I returned to the room I had rented for the night, dawn beginning to spread behind the eastern mountains which bordered that sea-front town, packed my things and made my way to the bus station. She would not come here, would expect me in the same taverna that night, the same smile on my face, the same desire in my eyes and manner.
The next bus through the mountains was not until noon but I was content to wait, sleeping a little, trying to find a comfortable spot on my bag to rest my head; headache roaring in the Greek heat, stomach turning, the feel of her skin: products of the same drunken night, each as hard to suffer as the other.
I cannot recall the sex. Only her skin. Fine hairs; texture.
The old woman entered the bus station twenty minutes before the bus was due. Her hands were swamped by the bags which she carried. I counted six cloth sacks in all, every single one packed with food and other supplies. Her feet moved in small, shuffling steps and the bags banged together as she made her way to the ticket office. On reaching the window, she placed the bags carefully on the floor. She did not sigh her relief. Instead, she crossed herself four times.
I could be dying. Even now, as countryside flashes past these shaded windows of the bus, as I see Charlie’s eyes again, the sadness in them when he told me. Even now, I could be dying.
I had watched her as she entered, watched her as she shuffled through the station, moving from the white sunlight of the doorway into the shrouded stillness of the building itself. Never once had I contemplated offering to help her with her load. I was hungover. My arms ached. I wanted to suffer quietly alone until it was time for the bus to leave.
When she left the ticket window, her hands once more laden with bags, she walked out into the sun to wait for the bus. There were still fifteen minutes left until it was due, still seats within the station, yet she chose sunlight over shade, heat over relative cool.
I couldn’t be bothered following her outside. Not then. When the bus was ready to board maybe, but not then.
They wear black to remember, these women. That’s what Georgiou, one of the taverna owners, told me when I asked. Nothing more, nothing less. Simply to remember. He had been a young man, Georgiou, but his eyes looked sad and old when he spoke of the women. His voice had slowed; no bravado, just himself. Pretty soon, though, he had been laughing and joking with the customers again.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell Georgiou about Charlie. True, we had drank there before, Georgiou a holiday friend. But it did not seem right. If it had been over. Perhaps then. But not before, not while he was still alive.
I met her at the taverna. She sat down. I offered her a drink. I was thinking of Charlie again; drinking a double, the way he would drink a double. I hoped she would help me forget – or at least avoid – my thoughts for a short while. Had I been planning to sleep with her then? Before all this with Charlie, the answer would have been simple and unanimous. But now? I wish I could blame the drink. I know I cannot.
Crosses herself once more. Head, down, left, right. I try not to watch, try not to think of what it all means, who she remembers. I could be dying.
The room had stank of us, despite the fact that the windows were open – blinds the only privacy from the outside world; animal scent of last night’s sex and clothes drenched in cigarette smoke. My breath felt smeared on the inside of my mouth. I wanted a cigarette. I could smell the sweat coming off her, the stale odour from myself. I felt sickly nausea as I swung my legs out of the bed, placing my feet on the matting that served as a carpet, my head spinning as I drew vertical.
I felt dirty. And she even dirtier.
Am I mourning him already?
These women, they remember someone, something, they have never known aside from the handed-down laws of a book, the truth of the love they have been told they should give. They love blindly. They adore. They care not for the rules of love, for the games of love, for the love of lust. They simply pledge themselves at the mercy of a love they cannot hope to understand or question. Their only belief is that love. They remember, these women.
But they couldn’t give a toss about Charlie, these women. Couldn’t care less that my best friend is stricken with a disease that kills so easily; underhand.
“Just that ya did ’em.”
And that it happens to them and not you.
As I sit on this bus, my head is beginning to lose the dull thud of the hangover’s force. My mind seems cleared. It would be nice to say that I am looking at things in the cold light of day but it would be patent untruth as I sit with sweat dribbling afresh from my pores, re-soaking my t-shirt; my legs burning. But face the truth of last night I must. I have no choice.
I might have said that I loved her. In the dark of the room, with my mind concentrated on what was passing between us, I might have said it. I might have.
It could be living in me even now, growing in me, making its plans for my death. Even as I sit and try to avoid the sight of the old woman dressed in black sitting over there on the other side of the bus; sun coming directly in on her, magnified by the windows, roasting even the shade where I sit. It is a distinct aisle between us, headed by the fat driver at the front of the bus. But there is more to separate us than the space between these uncomfortably sticky plastic seats.
Unselfish in her love, in her devotion.
Part of me wants to tell the driver to turn the bus around, take me back. I do not want to leave it this way. For as surely as I do not remember her name this day, she will be at a loss for mine if asked.
Last night, when we danced our single dance beneath the sheets of her bed, the heat of the Greek night making us sweat, mingling our scents – ourselves – we danced together. But this day we are alone, alone with the knowledge that either one of us could have killed the other last night. We might both be dying. Alone. And if we were to die, our memory would survive only with those who’d known us. For how long? Would we be cherished or would people go on holiday before we’d even died, trying to recapture history rather than confront our deaths?
It all seems so fucking messy now. All of it. I don’t want to blame you, Charlie. You’ve got enough on at the moment. I want to be there, let you know that I remember you, that your friend remembers you. I want to be there, mate. I want… Oh yeah, that’s why I ran all the way over here. That’s how much I wanted to help you Charlie. That much. I’m already thinking of you as dead.
The sun glints off the driver’s radio, the steely glare hitting me square in the eye, burning in, blinding me. I have to…
Do you know who you caught it off, Charlie? Do you?
I want the driver to turn his bus around, drive me back. I want to go to her, tell her my name so that she will remember me even if my worries are unfounded. I want to tell her that I would not desert her if she were stricken, that I would help her through, help her.
But her name. I want to know her name, I want to know her face. I want to know that she does not blame me, for her to know that I do not blame her. I want it to be yesterday afternoon, I want to be buying her that drink afresh, talking to her for the first time. I want to be spending those moments again, making the most of it, making sure that this time I remember everything. I want to live everything. And this time, I want to make it so that we would both remember with happiness, with fondness when the dawn came. I want so much more than I have settled for up until now. So much.
But mostly, I want to cross the aisle of the bus and take a seat beside the old woman and ask her why she sits in the vicious sun, why she wears her black clothes, why she carries her load with no complaint, why she murmurs her small prayers, why she wants for no-one, why she crosses herself every now and then. I want to cross the aisle to where she sits, unselfishly devoted to one she has never known aside from handed down memories of him. I want to make my way to where she is. Where she is.
Who will remember me?