Women of Quality
It was in the country, at Brunasandur, too long ago for me to remember, that I used to start the day by climbing onto the kitchen table and pressing my nose to the window- pane to see if the Vatnajökull glacier was still there.
‘He’s gone, good-bye! In the night! But why?’ I would repeat again and again if I couldn’t see it.
And I called the glacier VATNI because I couldn’t say the second bit, JÖKULL, and I would say ‘Vatni’s come back! Hello, you’re back,’ if I could see it later in the morning, and would repeat the words, dancing to their rhythm.
On the rare occasions in summer that my father was not fishing he would come by plane or car all the way south from Akureyri to Brunasandur to stay with mother and me. This saved me my early morning climb to check on the glacier, because my father, always up and about before me, would lift me onto the table. He would hold me in his arms to stop me falling and the two of us would point to the glacier, reciting either one refrain: ‘Vatni’s come back! Hello…’, or the other: ‘He’s gone, goodbye…’.
The last time he recalled for me those early morning jingles on the kitchen table was the day before he drowned, when he sang for me my nonsense song about Vatni – or ‘Teddy’ as the name became, if those who could understand baby-babble at the time got it right.
When Bárður and I fell off the glacier – a fall of two hundred metres –
and we were missing for ten hours, my mother was quite easy in her mind and told anyone who cared to listen that the glacier, with which, as a local, I had a special pact of long standing, would deliver me back, safe and sound.
That’s something I readily acknowledge: a special pact. The fall was like falling from the church tower of Hallgrímskirkja three times over. Bárður and I never thought for a moment that we’d make it when the jeep’s wheels gave way and it began its nose dive: this was the end of the world, a world now confined to that ghastly descent in what seemed an up-and-down aerial lift, buffeting against the glacial wall while countless swirling white claws grabbed greedily at my arms, trying to pull them off, so that I kept them as close as I could to my side while hearing them shatter as my end drew near… that was one time in my life when I could have wept with pain and with a sense of loss greater than loss itself.
That eternity in the air must have lasted seven seconds before changing tack and coming to an end with an almighty thud and crash, after which silence took over, and silence watched over us as we hobbled across the border into the land of the living, where the first question that came into my mind was whether our instruments, those expensive seismometers that were on loan to us, had got damaged.
Bits of the jeep and our belongings, as well as boxes containing instruments, were scattered all around us, in among the fallout from the avalanche, within a two- hundred-metre radius. The rescue team had never seen anything like it, and simply could not believe that two people, a woman and a man, could be found in such a shambles still showing signs of life.
And the glacier delivered up not just me, in accordance with the special pact of long standing, but also Bárður Stephensen, in poor shape, it’s true, with a winding, blood-stained track behind us, the track of a strange, four-footed beast which had dragged the tent away to safety after the first rush of snow had fallen on it; yes, the
glacier delivered me up at the last minute…dusk had begun to fall and I had got so short of breath that I wouldn’t otherwise have survived through the night into the faint light of dawn, in the tent which had turned into a body bag – not containing a corpse on its way to a wet grave, no, it was a bag containing two battered survivors from the glacier, who, as their faces showed when they were exposed, had been waiting for death.
La donna volante
Around the time that men had just about stopped giving me the eye, women started to do so, but I didn’t notice it at first. Not for quite a bit, in fact: I go for long periods of time without noticing things around me, especially if they have nothing to do with science.
This novelty of women eyeing me up is pretty unsettling, and is making me hypersensitive, not least because I can’t imagine what they see when they look at me: a woman who has started to neglect her looks and dress, perhaps, and is already a bit heavy, not just where kilos are concerned?
And this one, too, is giving me the eye, this elegant, Mediterranean-looking woman who’s sitting on the other side of the aisle on the plane to Paris. Her eyelids are fluttering, just like in the Bible, where women are said to attract men with their eyelashes; and there are other little facial hints, too, giving momentary glimpses of the tip of her tongue. It’s a sharp-pointed tip, and genuinely so, it seems, unless she has a trick or two up her sleeve.
She’s tall and slim, dressed in black from top to toe and has pitch-black hair, woven into a thick, twofold coil which covers her shoulder and presses down on her bosom, which is turned towards me. This woman’s whole style is refined down to the smallest detail, but it’s the hair and the massive gold cross which make her unique. The trouble is, though, that the congruence between the two main elements here, the cross and the coil, doesn’t work; their position in relation to each other needs to be adjusted for the effect to be perfect.
We experience sudden turbulence, and the woman just manages to save the glass on her table: she gives me a frightened look. I give her a motherly look in return, a look of gratitude for having thus been relieved of the fear of flying, for having not been in the loo: I can’t bear loos on planes, least of all when turbulence comes just as one is sitting down on them.
The passengers are instructed to fasten seatbelts, put tables in upright position, and an effeminate steward takes the woman’s glass with exaggerated attentiveness. She looks at me again, panic-stricken, apparently seeking protection, as if I were a mountain shelter for a frightened sheep in a thunderstorm.
But I’m not a mountain shelter, she’s not a sheep, and there’s no thunderstorm, and all of a sudden I get annoyed: I give her a dismissive nod of the head, as if to say: ‘That’ll do, please don’t go to the bother; I was a man-fancier to my fingertips when I last checked.’
I had planned to use the time on the flight to go over the lecture which my old professor, Peter White, had challenged me to give at the Clermont-Ferrand conference about the danger of ash-fall from the Bárðabunga eruption, but I’m tired from lack of sleep and can’t concentrate, so I resort to John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, clap on my pink reading glasses and lose myself in the book, which I’m now reading for the second time, as if it were a first-time read. I’m good at remembering nothing that I read unless it has to do with work.
When I remember the woman with the cross I use the sidelong-glance technique which I adopted when Diddi, my husband, had a fit of bad temper. It angered him when I looked straight at him to see if it was safe for me to reopen the conversation, so I had to use a cunning sidelong glance instead. I see now that my brusque gesture of dismissal has hit home: the woman has a dejected look. And on top of that she’s frightened: the plane’s making all sorts of sinister noises.
I carry on reading, though the shaking of the plane makes this difficult, and take note in my surreptitious way of what the Mediterranean woman is asking the steward. She wants some whisky as an antidote to her fear of flying.
She has a remarkable voice, both soothingly gentle and gratingly rough. The accent is Italian, but the speech rhythms are her own, rhythms home-grown in the far south, in the country where the sun warms and fattens green and purple olives among silvery-green olive leaves.
And the steward says that the turbulence is nearly over, there’s no danger; he puts his dainty little hand on her shoulder, the shoulder bearing the coil of hair.
Her voice, la donna’s voice, echoes in the cabin: it sounds like Rod Stewart’s voice singing: I am sailing, salty waters…
Rod Stewart on that old videotape which A, my best beloved, was so fond of, with Rod Stewart sailing off Manhattan with a girly look of sadness on his face and wearing a sailor’s hat… to be with you… to be free…
La donna looks no more cheerful now, even though the air waves have settled and even though she’s had a drink to calm her down. Is that a look of disappointment on her face? Am I at fault? She must have noticed my absorption in looking at her; I must have given something away. How are we supposed to know for certain what signs we give of wanting to make contact? Half of it must be false anyway, because we both want to and don’t want to, and don’t know what we want though we think we do…
Was that what let me down? Wanting and not wanting? Was that the problem, that I both wanted and didn’t? Was that what scared him off? The man whose loss I mourn and whom I still dream about, after all these years? Or was it not me but him, was it he who scared himself off, for reasons unknown?
I dream and dream of him. Last night was the last time, and in the early morning, as I was on my way to Keflavík airport, the dream went round and round in my head.
He was driving me in a Chevrolet I had when the two of us were together. I got out of the car at his place: I needed to anyway, to get into the driver’s seat. It was wintertime, and he was wearing a lambskin jacket. He held me to him in the dark, enfolded me in his soft, lambskin arms and whispered something in my ear.
‘I can’t hear,’ I said.
‘SURE,’ he said, in English.
‘I sure am glad to see you again.’
I wanted a kiss which I didn’t get, so I gave him a goodbye kiss on the cheek. Every single dream about him is a dream of hope, a dream of hope unfulfilled,
the kiss that’s about to happen but doesn’t, the hope that is offered and then withdrawn. I still weep for him in my dreams, but I’m no good at weeping when I’m awake.
When our time together ended I stopped writing poetry. I still have somewhere the poems I wrote about him when we were together, including ‘Time to say goodbye’. It’s a poem that no-one has seen and no-one’s ever going to see. I did show him the poems about himself, beautiful ones they were, but that was a mistake. One should never lay bare one’s soul to anybody, least of all to one’s best beloved. Love is a matter of tactics: if one can’t combine intelligence with feelings, one loses the person one loves. But perhaps one loses him anyway; it’s hard to say, because love is a mystery and so is the ending of love. Why is one person attracted to another? What does each of them see in the other? What is the effect of the loved one’s touch?
And then there’s happiness. Is happiness anything other in the long run than a banality, smiling at one out of books and films? Who in his right mind believes that untrammelled happiness is possible in the long term? Wasn’t it clear long since that human beings can’t handle happiness? That man isn’t made that way? That man is just weighed down with ill-luck and has no choice but to bear his ill-luck with dignity, and make the best of it? Make the best of it…
It may be possible to achieve a state of balance, and that is indeed worth striving for, but it’s the longing for happiness that gets in the way, and it’s the bliss of my former life that I still dream about, the bliss that was, in spite of everything, mine, for weeks of which I know the precise number. I know what it is, that happiness – and shouldn’t I be grateful for it? And shouldn’t I be grateful too for having fallen victim to ferocious grief because of it? The question is: what did it do to me, that grief? What did it turn me into? Because what I’m left with most of all is grief and a sense of loss.
If it wasn’t the loss of a father, then it was incurable love-sickness, and if not that, then the loss of a baby, and if not that, then the two-hundred-metre fall from the shelf of snow, plus the divorce: you can see it all in a person’s face, and it’s me I’m talking about. I’m swollen around the eyes from grief and sleepless nights, and the strain of work doesn’t help. When I happen to look in the mirror I see an appalling, afflicted look, which I do my best to counter with a persistent smile, but I can be dead sure every time that the affliction will show through.
For a long time I was fortunate in that none of this showed. The woman with the face of a smiling elf, if there is such a thing, with something of a snub nose, light- blue eyes and a mouth turned up at the corners, even when I was depressed, and nice dimples, that was me. But now it’s all gone: the mouth’s turned down at the corners, the dimples look like enlarged wrinkles, there’s little lustre left in those light-blue eyes, and the snub nose is no more than a hummock between vein-threaded, swollen cheeks.
‘SURE’ was what he said. My best beloved has started talking English to me in my dreams. I still call up in my mind the hidden thread between us, the time when the two of us dreamt the same dream, when I went to the door before I even heard his footsteps on the pavement. And he read my thoughts like an open book, he read my body and its responses in such a way that he is the only man with whom I have ever merged totally in love-making; thanks to him I have known what it is to be as one with another person.
La donna puts down her glass of whisky with a thump that gives me a jolt; I look accusingly at her across the aisle. But she looks at me with sympathy. She’s been
reading me, and could see the gloomy state that I was in, that I’d been startled out of my reading into a world of lost happiness.
I take a better look at her, which she seems not to mind. In her beautiful face, where her dark green eyes dominate, a prominent nose and full lips are finely chiselled. Her make-up is unobtrusive but very thorough. She must have sacrificed a much-needed hour of sleep in the early morning doing her face before the flight. Her grey and black eyeshadow has been perfectly applied, mat and sparkling by turns, and her coral-red lipstick extends to just above her upper lip. Her hands, too, are carefully manicured, with silver varnish on her beautifully formed fingernails.
The main thing about this woman, though, is not her beauty, her pristine quality, or her style of dress, but her grace, her manner. The respect she shows the cabin steward is such that I put her down as a woman of quality through and through. None of the languages of which I have any knowledge has a word for this special characteristic except French, and perhaps Italian. The Icelandic word elskulegheitin doesn’t convey it; nor does English kindness. It’s the French word gentil that we’re talking about here, or Italian gentilezza. She’ll hear this from me personally, la donna, if we ever become acquainted. But we won’t become acquainted, or not if I have any say in the matter. An upheaval of that kind is the very last thing I need. Dying of boredom would be better. So I’ll just have to be content with my volcanoes – they have life in them, as far as they go. And who’s ever said that I would take any pleasure in lesbian love?
It’s a week since a woman last gave me the eye in earnest, and I’m only now getting my head round it, as is the way with my long periods of not noticing things: I call to mind the expression on her face at the Melar food shop. We were each buying half a saddle of lamb, nicely hung in the way they do it there. She was a woman of my age, somewhat unkempt, but with a graceful manner and a pleasant mouth. She looked at me as if something altogether remarkable, even unique, had happened when I asked for half a saddle of lamb just after her.
When I collected my meat, which I did just before the woman with the nice mouth because my old favourite of a shopkeeper is quicker off the mark than the young man behind the counter, her hand brushed against my elbow, and she looked the other way. Then she looked at me, deep into my eyes, as if, as I now realise, she had some business with me. I did not realise it then. If I had, we might have cooked one of our two saddles of lamb together, at my house on Sólvallagata. Instead I ate one half of my half alone, as I often do, having the other half cold the next day: dining alone on home-cooked, top-quality food.
The extent to which I am alone has finally and fully come home to me. I’m alone at restaurants, in hotels, and in my own house. And in everything I do. And at work I find I’m taking on too much. This is partly because I’m no good at delegating, and also because I work faster than others: I’m too impatient to wait for my colleagues’ results. I make good use of my bouts of sleeplessness: it’s a rule of mine not to toss and turn in bed for longer than ten minutes if I can’t sleep. I seize the moment and start working on the computer for an hour, perhaps, or two hours, until I start falling asleep.
At home of course there’s no-one else around to wipe the tables, pay the bills, cook, or take out the bins. This seemed to me at first quite natural after Diddi and I
divorced: it seemed somehow part of the deal that I would then be on my own, but now, with the passing of time, it’s become a burden. So much so in fact that I’ve even thought of ringing Diddi to ask if he wouldn’t mind coming round and doing the floors, as he used to do, or just taking out the bins.
I do sometimes think of getting myself a man, of even making a beeline for one, but that’s becoming a difficult proposition now that men have stopped noticing me. A nice widower over seventy might be a possibility, if it weren’t for the risk of one’s turning into a geriatric nurse. And there’s a serious catch to the prospect of a new man in my life: I haven’t the least desire to take my clothes off for another man, still less to sleep with him, and couldn’t safely assume that even a seventy-year-old man had altogether lost interest in sex. Not according to what the books say, at least.
But there is the matter of the daily chores: they do weigh on one as the years pass, and it would be a great relief to have someone around again with whom to share those endlessly insurmountable tasks and daily meals, and the opinions of the day; and someone to hug one gently at night so that one didn’t have to face that unpleasant sense of emptiness alone. But it would be good to know what sort of ‘someone’ that might be, when no-one, surely, would satisfy the demands one would make. They are not excessively high, those demands, but there are a few, and the problem is that no one man would satisfy them all. So it’s altogether a forlorn hope. As the case of Diddi shows.
My husband Diddi was a friendly soul for the most part, and always clean and tidy: a good cook, good in conversation, and very much a handyman. He was quiet, hard-working, and meticulous with the hoovering. A careful driver. On top of that he was good in bed: a more-than-once climaxer. He was moody, though, this Diddi of mine. One couldn’t rely on his getting out of the bed on the right side for more than about 125 days in the year. On the other 240 days he went in for early morning rows, which got so much on my nerves that I started going off on journeys, above and beyond the requirements of my job. In the end I decided to leave him rather than be forced to travel around so much, most often on my own, sometimes with a limp because of my gammy knee, and no-one to carry my bags.
Let’s suppose I did manage to track down a friendly old gentleman who was fit and agile, upright in word and deed, whom I didn’t need to sleep with, and who didn’t present the problem of moodiness. Let’s suppose that this kind person of my imagination had all Diddi’s good points except one: that he lacked Diddi’s love of cleanliness. Supposing I caught him using a dishcloth to pick his nose. That day would mark the end of the relationship – but who wants to be known for having been so cruel as to separate from a seventy-year-old man?
An additional point in this connection is what’s to be said of my own advantages and disadvantages. Whoever gets saddled with me, and that’s no-one, will have to find them out for himself. I’m not one to parade my own imperfections, though there’s plenty of scope for doing so. I’m against self-accusation and self- torture, a game which women know well how to play, women who are concerned about their reputation, wearing themselves out, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their work, their ungrateful children, their families, their friends.
She’s now adjusting the cross and her coil of hair, again and again, the dark- clad signora, while she looks at me in a way not unlike that of the woman with the
saddle of lamb. As if she has some business with me. Such as what? Laying me down on a bed, on my back, or even on my side, and doing something to me? If so, what?
The plane starts shaking as we begin to land, there’s a side-wind, and the Italian woman, if that’s what she is, on the other side of the aisle is again alarmed, and puts her hand on her armrest, letting it dangle over it, as if she’s asking me to take this horror-struck hand with its silver fingernails and hold onto it: no, thanks! Now her long fingers, too, find a task, trying to keep in check the long coil of hair which is becoming unravelled and tumbling over the armrest into the aisle. Curiosity grows in me as to how long her hair really is, while I continue looking down at the beauty of the earth below, untroubled by the world’s side-winds, and think what fun it’ll be to have a Turkish bath in Paris: something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never done.
It’s a gentle landing, for all the strong wind, and the passengers clap. One of them shouts ‘Hooray for Icelandic pilots!’ La donna gives an audible sigh and a low titter in the humming tone of Rod Stewart, bringing her hand to her mouth to keep the sound down, because she’s so elegant that she cannot allow herself to sigh, far less to titter, unless, perhaps, there’s some reason for it, and that reason is fear of flying.
She stands up, a majestic figure, and fishes down her ash-grey suede cabin bag from the locker with the movements of a ballerina. I recognize its famous trade mark from shop windows in Paris: it’ll have cost no less than two hundred thousand kroner. And she’s draped in choice garments from top to toe, all in the height of fashion. She’s wearing silk next to her skin, a blouse that’s dark grey rather than black, and over this over this a long woollen jumper, thin black woollen trousers, and black suede high-heeled ankle boots (what sort of vanity can possibly make people go on planes in high heels?). Silk, wool, and fine suede; and the three-quarter-length coat she’s putting on now, that’s suede too, and bluey-grey, like the sea seen dimly in the distance.
I collect my old backpack and reflect with irritation that I’ll have to trundle along with a suitcase. I foresaw that I would need proper evening dress for the Clermont-Ferrand conference. And I’ll be semi-smart when I go out to dinner in Paris with my friend Bárður Stephensen. For that I’ll need better shoes, a coat over my dress, and the season, unreliable as it is – spring, and April at that – will call for a jumper: this eight-day trip of mine will prove in the end too much for my travelling- companion – my backpack, that is.
I curse aloud after impatiently shuffling my feet by the carrousel for twenty- five minutes with no sign of bags arriving from Keflavík. La donna is standing by the carrousel opposite me, rather like someone on guard. Her coil of hair, sleek and glistening, falls naturally down between her breasts to her stomach, with the gold cross above it seeming to hold the hair in place.
I look at the shockingly expensive suede cabin bag and ask myself if I would throw away my money like like that if I were rich. Wouldn’t I prefer to give a starving person a hundred and fifty thousand kroner and be happy with a bag costing fifty thousand? But having lots of folding stuff is something that those who have to put up with ordinary earnings can’t possibly imagine. I’m not able to put myself in the position of someone buying in cold blood a carry-on bag costing two hundred thousand kroner.
Fortunately, given my impatience, my case is the first to sail forth on the carrousel, so I grab it and start to sweep out of the room, nodding graciously to la donna as I go. I receive in return something that is called a smile, but it has nothing in common with ordinary smiles: primordial energy is being released here, a smile that is smiled all the way, as far as it is possible to go. I know only one other person who smiles a smile of such openness, the smile that says: I am all yours. Take and be glad. And being reminded so mercilessly of the man I love stabs at me, not in the heart, but in the temple, reminding me most of all of a wasp sting in my distant past.
I would have had some opportunity, even in my extreme hurry, to smile back, but I see little honour in producing a meagre, ice-cold smile in the face of that radiance from the south, so I stride through the airport lounges, take a cab, give the destination in the fourteenth arrondissement, smiling now at last, smiling at last because this incident with la donna mia is amusing, and the sunshine fills the car so that I put on my dark glasses which give protection even from the Icelandic sun as it shines on the glaciers, and the side-wind isn’t rocking the car, which is in fact a Peugeot of the kind I’d like to have.
Except that I’m not overfond of dead things. That is one of life’s burdens from which I’m free. I can regard myself as highly virtuous, in fact, in the sense that I’m frugal. I do like to be well supplied with food and drink, that’s something else. But dead things – there I’m economical, just like mother and father. I’ll patch up a rickety chair myself, as well as other things that break down, something that Diddi did when he was around. I get my shoes repaired, and also my clothes. I wear the same clothes endlessly. Last New Year I noticed that my long dress was more than twenty years old, going back as far as my time with A, but it still serves its purpose; why should I get a new one? It’s one of those dresses from my past which I can still wear to good effect.
It was cloudy weather, not sunshine, that was forecast, but the midday sun knows nothing of that: it gleams in the glory of the city without a cloud in the sky, ça roule bien, the traffic’s moving rapidly and the fourteenth arrondissement draws near, just as I make the firm decision to make the best of this trip to France, keeping out of harm’s way, calling to mind only the best of the past, and closing my eyes to those long clouds of mine when they drift by overhead.
I chose the hotel for its location: the very end of a walking street. I had a rough idea of what this part of the fourteenth arrondissement was like, but did not remember in detail how much life there is in the street: a chocolate shop, a honey stall, and all kinds of restaurant. It’s crowded too, but in a nice way, with well-dressed people strolling by in waves, some with dogs and some without. As soon as I’ve hung up my best dress and coat I join the flow of people in the sun in those amazing streets which run unabashedly through Montparnasse cemetery and are lined with the houses of those who live no longer.
María on hot stone
I’d like to have had my friend Ragna with me in this welter of women without a stitch on. As it is, I can’t be part of this swirling heap of flesh in the dancing steam: I’m just one Icelandic woman in a foreign bath house. If my good friend from home were with me she’d join me in ladling water from the tub and would splash it over me and wash my back, and I would splash her and wash her back, and we’d add to the languages spoken there by jabbering away at each other in our native tongue, that secret language of which so few people in the world have any knowledge.
But here I have to cope on my own in the heat and humidity, without knowing the system, alone in the tiled world of a thousand and one nights, with the scent of almond oil and mint all around me, surrendering to the flow of a stream of women’s bodies and listening to the chatter of many voices: a woman on her own, keeping silent.
It’s into the shower first, for a wash from top to toe with the black soap, then into the steam for at least fifteen minutes, and then rinse… it has to be done in the right order. It was just as well I hit on the right procedure because the attendant is taking to task a bungling woman from Scandinavia who got the order wrong: her stern gestures show that the client in question is in trouble, whereas this one, María, is sensitive to ridicule and wants no embarrassment of that sort: I take special care with what I’m doing and thank my lucky stars it wasn’t me that got it wrong.
But it’s all she can do to act with aplomb, this sensitive María, with those veins showing on her calf, and those extra kilos. There’s some seven or ten of them, depending on how they’re counted, and they do absolutely nothing for me. They have a trick of settling in the worst possible places, such as the cheeks, which doesn’t go well with a small turned up nose. And on top of that my extra weight has arranged itself in such a way that I now have something of a pot-belly, and a pot-belly is the physical defect I dislike most. A small paunch is harmless enough, but a pot-belly is a fatty, masculine monstrosity. And as if that wasn’t enough, I’m weather-beaten and broken-veined from dancing with Iceland’s answer to Jack Frost. With my thick wrists and bristly hair I look like a new make of troll doll, and only hope such a creature won’t be too disctinctive in the harem.
I’ve just found, though in no way deserving it, a bathing partner, a Turkish goddess, who splashes me and I splash her, and we giggle because the water in the tub is cold after the heat of the steam. With our splashes and giggles we’re in tune with the other women in the bath-house, who are speaking in many languages: one can catch the sound of Slavonic and Scandinavian languages on top of French, Turkish, and Arabic… there are clear voices, deep voices, quiet women, noisy women, soft- spoken women, in the showers and splashing away between the stages of shower and steam.
The women whose voices are heard in the steam are tall or short, slim-torsoed and plump-bottomed, or the opposite, or anything in between, some blonde, most dark-haired, some twenty, some sixty years old. They were from the south for the
most part, women with wonderful skin, goddesses of the bath-house, cultivators of the complexion. Their bodies are beautifully looked after: there’s not a hair out of place, not on the leg, the eyebrow, the groin or under the arms; the pubic hair is neat and trimmed, forming a close-cropped triangle as if mapped by a ruler. I can’t help feeling that this is not altogether natural.
And María has lain down on the marble for the first time: she’s lying on her back with the towel over her; the woman at her side has no towel. This is MARÍA ON HOT STONE, the person who investigates the earth’s innermost heat, the foremost researcher into Bárðabunga and the world’s hottest underlying mantle plume, who tries to analyse the movements of the earth by X-ray, to map the inflow and outflow from the magma chambers, and who visits naturally formed hot pools in Iceland whenever the opportunity arises, in midwinter, spring, autumn or summer; she has landed on the kind of stone that heats to the very core. Used for mortuaries and headstones, it can also have the function of conducting heat into a living body, and weather-beaten María, whose life’s work involves busying herself with volcanic rock and dossing down on Icelandic stone when she needs a rest, now lies with no bones about it on a bed of heated-up meridional stone, and dozes off.
Heavy as lead and boiling hot, she turns over onto her front when she half wakes up. Then the sight on the next marble bench meets her eyes; it’s within touching distance.
Golden-brown Mediterranean skin on a body which in specific details is a masterpiece, while the overall effect seems hallucinatory, like a three-dimensional painting of a statue: high-slung breasts with somewhat of an overhang at exactly the right gravitational point, and light-brown nipples of moderate size. The waist is not far below, surmounting slim, flexible hips, the thighs are long, and each leg ends in a slender ankle and a well-arched instep. The toes are nicely shaped and their perfectly positioned nails look like a delicious mouthful, the work of a star chef, and I’m reminded of a description of beauty in an old Irish book where an account is given of a much-loved woman’s beautiful heels. She turns over onto her stomach and such is María’s curiosity now that she stands up with the sole purpose of looking at the woman’s heels, and sure enough, they’ve come freshly baked from the tiled oven, and the woman with the glove has yet to add to the glow of the newly baked skin that covers such perfect forms.
A lot of work goes into being a well-groomed woman, and my good self, María, is now face down on the skin-scraping bench with the veins in her calf there for all to see, and yes, the women are giving me the eye, not all of them as one, but they are giving me the eye, it’s a woman they need, a woman’s caresses, and that’s why some of them are here, no two ways about it, and why not? I close my eyes, and it turns out she’s a hard woman, the one with the glove, one might say hard-handed: she says, ‘It’s a long time since you last came,’ and I say, ‘Yes, it’s a long time’, when the truth is that I’ve never had a Turkish bath before, and have never let this woman with the glove scrape the dead skin cells off my body. She’s especially hard on my bottom and the backs of my thighs, and I close my eyes. It’s not bad, not so bad, but not good either, and I’m starting to worry about lying on the bench on my back and the glove feeling its way towards my breasts and groin: if I find her getting too close I’ll say, ‘Hold on, my skin’s a bit sensitive here, in the groin,’ and it seems I have a
point, for once I’ve turned over I find one of the clients is standing over me and watching me, María, enthralled, with an eager look in her eye, while the hard, gloved hand follows its planned route over María’s front, and María submits to its itinerary, making no protest: there’s no sensitive skin anywhere now, she’s waiting for the massage stage, as they’re surely tremendously good, these Turkish bath masseuses, who, all in due order, make their appearance once the dead skin cells have been scraped off, and then massage again and again the scraped skin surface until the glow of the living cells shows through once the dead ones have been cleared away.
The woman who runs the bath house, a woman of dusky, delicate complexion, points me in a new direction with an elegant gesture. There’s one more tiled room to visit, where the flowers on the wall are dark red and mixed with sea-green plants, and the air is full of hints of delicious tastes: argan oil, rose water…
My masseuse appears, a short, stocky woman, clad in a pink tunic. She is barefooted, and has amazing toes: they’re all the same length. Where I come from ‘mannish’ would have been the word to describe her, toes or no toes.
I’m in the process of lying down on the bench, holding the big towel firmly in my hand, when the woman who runs the bath house points out to me that my masseuse is très gentille.
I ponder this excessive friendliness in my steamy state and imagine that it’s code for service that exceeds the bounds of traditional massaging. And so it may be: here we are in a highly sophisticated bath house with centuries of sensual pleasure behind it, and what we need after all the scrubbing and the steam is a massage, and total relaxation in the hands of an expert who is très gentille. A woman of quality.
The mannish woman is silent as the grave: does she even know French? Or is she altogether speechless? Not such a bad thing if that’s what being très gentille means, who’s to say? She performs her task with assurance, with clockwork efficiency, showing particular skill in finding the lumpy bits, and is hard-handed like the woman with the glove. I abandon thought: I just let myself go with the flow of the massage. I’m nothing other than María’s body, and the time has come to free the head from the body, this head which does nothing but get in the way, except when it’s doing research.
And María’s body on the bench is calm and content with the undulation of the massage, with the wave that caresses her belly and thighs until she lets herself sail with the wind as the wave conveys her out into the blue, the blessed blue.
In the room where the women rest after their bath and massage there’s an effect of twilight: candles flicker from the multicoloured glass lanterns both high and low on the walls. I’m just closing my eyes when I catch a glimpse of a long black tail of hair hanging from a couch on the other side of the room – and la donna from the plane comes into my mind.
Before the sweet-smelling expanses of sleep take over I try to touch my arm, to touch my belly. There’s new skin there under the old skin, skin that is young and soft. It never occurred to me that I would have new skin under the old, once the dead skin cells were scraped away.
So what’s she going to do with her new skin, this skin-changing woman? That’s not a pressing question: maybe the woman will do nothing at all, but it’s enough of a question for her to make her pass the tips of her fingers over her breast,
her thighs, to pass her fingers ever so gently over her body’s newly acquired, silken covering.
Some peppermint tea brings me to consciousness, to thinking in down-to-earth terms, for all the heavenly laziness I’m experiencing. I hear my friend Ragna’s oft- repeated words:
‘You have to look after yourself. You’re killing yourself with work.’
‘I wouldn’t want to kill myself any other way’, I reply, as usual, and that’s true. But I needed a Turkish bath to find out that I’m not looking after myself.
Going hiking is not the same thing, whether done privately and personally or as part of work or otherwise, and nor is swimming, which I used to do long ago; they’re not the same as letting hands pass over one’s body, massaging one’s shoulders and back, and scraping off the dead skin cells: to ‘look after oneself’ is to stop looking after oneself, and that is what is needed: it’s the same thing as letting others look after you, so that you can stop looking after yourself and can disconnect from your body that menace of a head which does nothing but get in the way, except when you’re investigating volcanoes, those lords and masters of your life, from all angles.
I had probably started talking to myself as I sometimes do, because one of the women looks in my direction with a little smile, while the women around me chatter away over glasses of tea and biscuits, and I find myself joining in their low-voiced chatter in at least three languages and cease to think about thinking about, or looking after, myself… I go with the flow, I’m going where the flow takes me, where worries are not a problem…physical pains… worries about work… thoughts… of the imminent eruption of Big Stubby right next to a certain capital city… dark thoughts about everything I’ve lost, about the big gaps in my life, gaps which are sometimes bigger than life itself… and I rid myself of the question, leave it behind, this question: ‘What’s the point of living if the gaps in life are bigger than life itself…what’s the point?… why?… for goodness’ sake… why?’
Translated by Rory McTurk