Today I’m posting a short story that I wrote about a chance encounter between two elderly women on the Amalfi coast in Italy. I hope you enjoy reading it!
Love, Revenge and Limoncello by Katharine Johnson
“Do you mind if I sit here?”asked Joan.
“If there’s really nowhere else,” replied the figure sprawled out in the cane chair as she lifted and lowered enormous sunglasses.
The woman fanned the front of her large-print floral dress, exposing an ample, reddened cleavage that formed deep cracks as she rearranged herself against several cushions. Her legs propped up on a second chair resembled two glistening hams.
“I’m afraid there isn’t,” said Joan.
She wasn’t going to let this woman spoil the first day of her holiday. The lemon-clad pergola framed the view of twisting pine trees, explosions of bougainvillea and glittering sea. Rough stone steps spliced through a series of terraces to the water’s edge. So rare to find somewhere that surpassed the description in the brochure.
“Isn’t this glorious?” she said, removing her hat and feeling the gentle breeze ripple through her short hair.
Her companion harrumphed. “Seen one piece of paradise you’ve seen them all…”
How sad, thought Joan. I hope I never get to be so blasé.
She took a gulp of the icy yellow drink that the waiter had proffered and felt her head crowd with pleasurable thoughts.
“Araminta Fitzhughes,” barked the woman.
“Oh. I’m Joan. Joan Baker.”
The drink hit her stomach, a mix of fire and ice. Devilishly good. And then without thinking she added, “I knew an Araminta once, years ago when I was a student. Ghastly woman!”
As the words left her mouth something told her to stop. But it was too late. Nothing to be done. She couldn’t see the other woman’s eyes behind the glasses but she felt them on her like sharpened screws.
“Girton, Cambridge ’58-’61?”
Joan felt her smile freeze. This old woman was hardly recognisable as Araminta Hill as she had been called back then. Araminta who Joan had once wished with all her heart would die a horrible death. She felt herself colour as she recalled her fantasies about Araminta losing control of her car on a mountain road or getting a debilitating disease. Now that she thought about it there was something familiar about the voice.
“Yes,” she murmured.
The braying laugh was unmistakable. “Well at least I made an impression. Let me see – Joans were two-a-penny back then. Were you the one who was sent down after being caught cheating in her exams?”
“No I was not.”
“The Joan who auctioned herself as a slave for rag week and…?”
“Certainly not. I believe her name was Jane. Or Jean. Jean Something.”
Araminta tutted. “Then you must have been Mousey Joan.”
“I suppose I was.”
She’s forgotten. Thank God she’s forgotten.
But after some minutes her companion added drowsily, “Didn’t you have a thing about my Rupert?”
She might as well have inserted a needle into Joan’s kidney. Half a century after the event the remark still winded her. She felt the blush creep up her face and she couldn’t blame it entirely on the drink.
“He was my Rupert first,” she said through tight lips.
“Well he’s neither of ours now,” said Araminta. “Died years ago. Crashed his car. Ended up a complete vegetable. Not a pleasant thing but he brought it on himself. Too much of this.” She threw her head back and made a drinking gesture. “Such a waste for a man once tipped to be Prime Minister.”
Joan swallowed. Somehow she managed to say, “I’m sorry.” For a moment she found it hard to breathe but she mustn’t show it. When? How? she wanted to ask.
Anger burned in her stomach. One thing she was sure of: Rupert wouldn’t have turned to drink if he’d been with her instead. If things had turned out differently.
“Comes to us all,” said Araminta.
Freshers Week 1958:
Joan hovered in front of the notice board outside the dining hall trying to look purposeful. Groups of fiercely intelligent young women jostled past, talking intently. Did they even see her? She shouldn’t be here. This whole thing was a ghastly mistake. She’d only applied because her Classics teacher had told her she must and she hadn’t liked to disappoint her.
The sea of gowns parted to allow through the most exotic creature Joan had ever seen. Toweringly tall with polished gold hair, the girl was obviously used to other people’s silent adoration.
“Classics?” she asked Joan. “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other then. A few of us are going for cocktails. Coming?”
Joan tagged along feeling small and dull and wishing she could think of something interesting to say. But as it turned out, that was the night she met Rupert.
He wasn’t the first person you would notice on coming into a room – not the tallest, the darkest, the loudest or the wittiest – but he was the one whose impression would stay with you afterwards. Something in his smile made Joan feel known.
How it happened she could never be sure but within a few minutes of meeting each other they found that they shared passions for Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Irish wolf hounds, the smell of nutmeg and the world of silent movies.
“Time for some dancing,” announced Araminta, springing open a vanity case that turned out to be a record player.
“I don’t know how to rock and roll,” stammered Joan.
“Neither do I,” he said. “Shall we just make it up as we go?”
She found herself being pushed, pulled, turned and twisted. They collided a few times and she laughed so much it hurt.
“Into my arms,” he ordered.
She jumped. With a scream, she found herself rolling around his back. Somehow she landed on her feet. He grabbed both hands and she slid through his legs, then back up again. She blushed as all around her people burst into applause. She didn’t want to stop.
When the record finished he gave a little bow and said, “For God’s sake let’s get out of here.”
They walked along the river where the punts were tethered. He took her arm to guide her round obstacles as the moon dipped behind a cloud. She told him things about herself and he listened, prompting her with questions. “What made you do that? – How did you feel about that? – If you could live that moment again…?”
He played down his own background (“Nothing interesting about it”) but made her laugh with tales of irate teachers and classmates with revolting habits.
“How do you know Araminta?” she asked.
“Minty? Oh God, we’re related. Distantly. Our mothers are cousins of some sort. I’ve been in love with her since I was ten but she won’t have me, just keeps me dangling.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
He laughed and shook his head. “No, it’s a long-running joke. She’s got all sorts of habits that drive me mad. I wouldn’t have her now if she asked.”
They watched the sun rise over Grantchester and he pulled her towards him. She felt weightless, dizzy, drunk. That night she smoothed down a new page in her diary and recorded the moment. Afterwards she couldn’t sleep, thinking about it.
That kiss was the start of everything. Cycling to lectures over the cobbled streets, gowns flying out behind them, staircase parties, moonlit walks, punting up the river for picnics under the willows. Tickets for the May Ball. It all went down in the diary.
Sometimes she questioned herself. Why did she need to capture it all on paper like a crazed butterfly collector? But surely she owed this to herself? To be able to look back when she was old and know that it had really happened. Reading over the pages she’d written before she met Rupert, she cringed at how insipid her life had been. Each day now was intoxicating.
And yet Araminta was always there. Ruffling his hair, blowing kisses, throwing her arms around him, making flirtatious comments.
“You don’t mind, do you darling?” she asked Joan. “None of it means anything. You know that, don’t you?”
And yet there were times – things Araminta said, looks she gave Rupert – that made Joan curl her hands into fists. The only outlet for her frustration was her diary – a friend that listened but didn’t judge.
Two nights before the May Ball the love affair ended. Rupert seemed like a stranger. That cold dismissal. “I’m sorry. I think we both need some space.”
Although it turned out he didn’t need so much space after all. Araminta accompanied him to the May Ball and Araminta was engaged to him by the end of the Final year.
“It was your own fault,” said Araminta, sensing Joan’s thoughts as they sat under the pergola. “You drove him away. Your silly jealousy, your insecurity, your neediness…I only offered tea and sympathy but it turned out we were good for each other.”
“But I never expressed those feelings,” said Joan. She had been so careful. Only the diary had known the truth. And nobody knew about the diary except…
“You read my diary,” she said, seeing at last. “And you showed it to him.”
That night Rupert broke off with her she had reached for the diary in agony, desperate to make sense of it all. It had gone. She searched everywhere. She blamed the cleaner although the woman denied it.
“You had no right,” she said to Araminta. “You turned him against me because you wanted him for yourself.”
Araminta erupted into a honking laugh. “All’s fair in love and war, girl. Turned out for the best in the end.”
A breath of wind rustled the trees. A lemon fell, rolled along the ground and split, releasing its scent into the air.
“Except it wasn’t quite the end.”
Joan felt blood rise in her cheeks as she said it. She should stop. It was childish and petty and so long after the event. No, she would say it anyway. “I met Rupert again – ten years after we graduated. Quite by chance. In London. I was teaching at a school in Putney.”
Araminta had gone quiet.
“It was raining. He was standing in the road trying to read a map. It kept folding up in the wind. I offered to help him and we recognised each other. We ducked into a coffee house to escape the rain. Found we still had a lot in common. The old spark was still there.”
“Oh?” An attempt to sound bored but it failed.
“I asked if he had any regrets.” Joan didn’t seem able to stop herself now. “And I’m afraid he said he’d married the wrong woman.”
Araminta snorted. “Did he now?”
Joan stopped talking. She was thinking about the year that followed. A year of secrets and lies, of snatched moments at stations, guarded telephone conversations, dinner in anonymous restaurants, hurried good nights before returning to the empty bed in her school boarding house.
But then she’d spoiled it, hadn’t she? “I can’t go on like this,” she had said one evening in the car outside the station. “I’m not cut out to be someone’s mistress.”
He looked stricken. “What are you saying? Are you forcing me to make a choice? You must realise what that would mean – the publicity? And Minty’s not well. She’s so unstable at the moment I don’t know what it would do to her.”
She bit her lip. “I don’t know what I’m asking. I’m going away at the end of term. I saw an advertisement in The Lady. A cottage in Cornwall. It will do me good – give me somewhere to walk, paint – think about what I really want.”
He caught her arm. “I’ll join you.”
She lifted his hand. “Only if you intend to stay.”
“How will I find it?”
She rummaged through her bag and wrote on the back of an envelope. “Port Quin. Lavinia’ Cottage.”
A wisp of cloud drifted across the bay, laying a veil over Capri.
“The affair was no surprise to me,” said Araminta. “I knew he was seeing someone. Hopeless liar. Found a theatre ticket in his trousers and the receipt for a meal at a restaurant I always refused to go to – the chef didn’t wash his hands. I gave him an ultimatum. Me or the Other Woman. I didn’t know it was you. If I had, I wouldn’t have worried.”
Joan wished she was fifty years younger. If only she could seize Araminta and hurl her over the rocks into the sea. Despite everything Rupert had said, he had chosen Araminta. Again.
Joan had waited and waited in the Cornish cottage, listening to the rain battening the windows and the waves grating on the beach below. For the first few nights she prepared dinner for two just in case. At midnight she blew out the candles, threw the dinner in the bin, locked the front door and went to bed. He didn’t come the next week or the one after. He didn’t write to explain. But thinking about it she felt such a fool. Saying those silly, needy things, driving him away again.
At the end of the summer she told the school she wouldn’t be coming back and took the train to Paris where she enrolled at a language school, teaching English.
“It’s obvious you’ve spent your whole life feeling bitter about it,” Araminta was saying. “What a waste. I feel sorry for you.”
“Please don’t. I have my memories.”
A smile crept across Araminta’s face. “Yes but that’s all you have, isn’t it? Whatever happened between you didn’t last. A meaningless fling. And what were you left with? Nothing.”
Joan looked out to sea. “That’s not how I see it,” she said quietly.
“Well I don’t know about you but I need another drink,” said Araminta clambering out of her chair. “Where’s that blasted waiter? There he is, all the way down there chatting up that young girl.”
She leaned over the parapet, waving her arms. “Hello? Up here! More of the lemon curd drink please.”
People on the terraces below turned to look up, shielding their eyes from the sun. The waiter stood up and started walking towards the steps. Araminta squinted, took a step back and felt for the chair behind her. “Shouldn’t have stood up so quickly.” Removing her glasses, she wiped her face.
Emboldened all of a sudden Joan asked the question that had been on her mind throughout. “When did Rupert have the car crash? Where was he?”
Her old friend recovered quickly. A look of triumph passed over her old face. “1972. You see, my dear, we weren’t the only women in his life. He had a bit on the side down in the West Country too. Crashed at a crossroads called Indian Queens. Pulled out singing at the top of his voice apparently. Hit a tractor. You can guess the rest.”
Joan’s heart hammered. “Indian Queens? That’s in Cornwall isn’t it?”
Araminta shrugged as though it was of no importance. “Bit of a detour from Birmingham, that’s all I know. Suitcase in the back, packed with a few more things than necessary for an overnight stay.”
“So,” said Joan, her stomach jumping now, “he was leaving you.”
Araminta tutted. “Moment of madness, that’s all. So drunk he didn’t know what he was doing. And yet I took him back. What was left of him. Not many women would have done that.”
“No,” said Joan, frowning. “So why did you?”
For a moment she wondered if Araminta had heard her. She had to lean in close to hear what she was saying.
“With every spoonful of mush I fed him in the months that followed I asked myself that same question. Love. It isn’t easy loving someone when you know you don’t have all of them. Whatever you do you know there will always be a small part of them that belongs to someone else. I didn’t know who she was but I felt her presence all the time. And when he had the accident I thought at least he would be mine now. After all, nobody else would want him. I told him he’d been stupid and this was his punishment but I wouldn’t abandon him, not like the other woman.”
“Abandon? I hardly think that’s fair.”
Araminta didn’t seem to hear her. Her voice had taken on a brittle quality. “But even that wasn’t enough. One day after everything I’d done he fixed me with a horribly knowing look and said quite distinctly, “I don’t want you. I want her.”
Her features were twisted now, lines radiating from her tight mouth, eyes unfocused. Her voice was cold and dangerous. “‘You don’t know what you’re saying,’ I told him. But he wouldn’t stop. Just wouldn’t.”
Laughter rose up from the terrace below as a group of guests greeted each other. A seagull wheeled overhead.
Joan felt a chill spread through her stomach. “So what did you do?”
Araminta laughed a bitter laugh, but she didn’t reply.
“You finished him off?” Joan whispered. “You”re a monster.”
Araminta waved her arm as though erasing it all. If only she could. “Prove it.”
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
At last the dark hair of the waiter appeared at the top of the steps. Something about his long, loping stride and the swing of his shoulders made Joan’s heart dance. Araminta stared at the figure silhouetted against the sun.
“It can’t be.”
And suddenly Joan saw what her old friend was seeing. It wasn’t the waiter at all. She was seeing Rupert, not as she had seen him last but when he was young, confident, filled with light. Rupert in his prime before his marriage went sour, before his wife’s nagging and rages had driven him into the arms of someone else. Before the accident robbed him of the ability to do anything for himself.
“Joan, do you see him?” Araminta whispered. She shrank back into her chair, mumbling something like, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t…”
He was young and beautiful, breathing and unharmed. An avenging angel walking towards them.
“It was an accident. That tube just came out.”
But he kept walking. Araminta tried to say something else but her voice didn’t see to be working. Ignoring her, the young man held out two hands to help Joan out of her chair.
“All right, Mum?”