I had some previous experience of Europe, but none of it brought back fond memories. I flew into Bosnia when the Balkans were aflame with civil war. Did me no good at all. Got me kicked out of the US Air Force. And I flew into Belfast when Northern Ireland was similarly occupied with violence. That little episode got me kicked out of Ireland. Neither experience was any way pleasant. That was about the limit of my European experience until I began this tour.
I poked my nose around in Ireland because my kid sister was killed there by a roadside bomb. That was when I met Penny and took her back to the States with me. She’d been a Belfast stripper which might have put off some men, but not me. And I was right about her. Life was hot-damn good for both of us to start with. I was flying regular 747 long-haul flights for American Interstate on the Asian routes, and we had a baby on the way before we married. It seemed like things couldn’t have been better. But all that ended when Penny’s heart gave out during the birth. They cut the baby out of her, but it was stillborn. After that, life seemed to have no purpose.
I can’t be sure why no other woman came into my life in that fifteen months after Penny died, unless it was that terrible grief I wore openly on my sleeve. It seemed like I was the only four-jet captain in the company who never enjoyed a mile-high orgy with the stewardesses on the Far East route, even though it was a regular hot-bed of sky-high sex.
We carried two crews on these long-haul routes and the aircraft were equipped with bunks where the flight deck crew could get to know an obliging stewardess or two. More than one senior captain arrived at his destination too tired to land the aircraft himself. But I was always the odd one out, the seemingly virgin pilot.
Then Simone came along, and Viola Bracewell. Sensibility versus sensuality.
If ever there was a sight which was going to get my adrenalin flowing it was the alluring image of Viola Bracewell as I stepped aboard that cruiser. She had put aside her unattractive clothing and she now wore a man’s shirt. Not just any old shirt. This was most obviously a very expensive shirt. Even at first glance I could tell that the person who bought it had more than a few dollars to spare.
Her bare legs suggested that the shirt might have been all she wore. And her face, despite the bruising, still had that look of a little-girl-lost. Goldilocks on her way to see Grandma. Her virginal expression was framed by burnished hair that shimmered and danced as she moved.
When I looked back at the quayside, I noticed that only the burly youth and the tweed-suited guy seemed to be interested in Viola. Maybe the rest of the local men were getting blasé about the sight of a beautiful young woman? The thought made me momentarily glad I wasn’t a Frenchman.
“Hello,” I called out to her, rather hoarsely. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Careful on deck,” she replied, “It’s still a bit damp. I’ve been washing and tidying up.”
It looked like it. The Sunseeker was immaculately tidy both on deck and inside. Especially the inside, which was sparkling with polished mahogany, shiny brass fittings and leather seats. As I passed through the galley, I noted the spotlessly clean worktop and the neatly stacked utensils.
Viola scrambled down into the saloon behind me. “I’ve been busy. Is it all right, do you think?” she asked anxiously. As if I had any reason to complain!
“Does this all come with a butler and housemaid?”
“You’re teasing me.”
“Teasing is a habit of mine.”
“A bad habit.” She led me through to a short corridor ahead of the saloon, pulled open a sliding door and ushered me ahead of her.
“This will be your cabin.” She stood back, as if waiting for me to comment.
“The maid’s done a good job here. Double her wages.”
“You’re teasing again.” But this time she managed a wry grin. “I try to keep everything neat and tidy for…” She never finished the sentence and I saw fit not to ask.
It was clear to me that she had done more than just try to keep things in good order. The cabin was as smart and clean as the rest of the boat, and the air bore just the vaguest hint of roses. Images of a New England summer came to mind: sunlight in a fresh rose garden, cocktails on a newly mowed lawn. She really had been busy.
“You keep a smart ship all round,” I said. I made no comment on her own appearance. Beneath the shirt, the jut of her breasts begged for a reaction.
“Thank you.” She smiled shyly.
Now that we were safely out of sight from the quay, I brought up the matter of the two guys outside. “Tell me, who are those two men out there watching you?”
“I’d rather not talk about them,” she replied, softly and calmly.
“Not exactly friends of yours, I take it?”
“Please don’t interfere. It jolly well doesn’t concern you.” Her tone changed and, just for a moment, she sounded like an English governess. Prim and highly respectable. If ever looks contradicted a voice, that was the moment.
“You’re the boss,” I conceded.
“Come and have something to eat when you’re ready.” She turned away and took herself off towards the saloon.
I changed into fresh clothes and packed away the few belongings I’d brought with me. Then I joined Viola in the saloon. We sat either side of a solid mahogany table where the reflection of my plate shone in the polished surface and we ate with little more than the odd polite word passing between us. Her cooking was every bit as good as the rest of her, but that wasn’t the reason we ate in virtual silence. For the time being I just couldn’t figure out where to start a useful conversation and she didn’t seem to want one.
When my plate was empty, I clasped a warm coffee mug in both hands, sipping slowly while I covertly inspected the young woman opposite. Her auburn hair hung round her head like curtains hanging either side of what would have been a priceless painting in an imperial palace, but for that nasty bruise. And then there were those round, appealing eyes. She was, to all intents, a helpless little kitten needing to be protected from the wicked world outside. Big Bad would make mincemeat of her.
“So, this isn’t your own boat?” I said slowly. By now I’d had time to consider my next move and decided to let her bring up the name of Hassim.
“Oh… no.” She looked down at the remains of her meal. “I told you that. I’m just ferrying it for someone.”
She nodded, but kept her head lowered.
“Tell me more.” I said carefully.
“Tell you what?”
“What about the man who owns the boat?”
“I’d rather not talk about him.”
Once again, I was too close to hitting a raw nerve. I should have backed off right then, but I didn’t.
“Why? Is it personal?”
“Please don’t ask, Mr Bodine.”
“Call me Henry. Mr Bodine is for formal occasions.”
“It’s none of your business, Henry. I already told you not to interfere.” She stood up suddenly and took the plates back to the galley. It seemed like her way of saying the conversation was at an end.
I watched her silently as she walked away. She was right. I had no just reason to interfere in something that was none of my business. Not unless you counted the fracas I’d witnessed in that courtyard, the gunshot I’d witnessed on the quayside, and the young gorilla’s attack that I’d been willing to put a stop to.
I turned my attention to my own business, allowing my mind to stray back to Simone. Sophisticated Simone with the smart suit and starched white blouse. Seductive Simone who wore not a stitch of clothing underneath. Sexually experienced Simone who was fantastic in bed. Was she the sort of woman who might take over where Penny left off? It was a thought worth hanging on to.
Then, with a sudden jolt, my mind raced back once more to Penny. Dear, sweet Penny, who I missed more than I could ever explain to anyone. There was far more to our marriage than sex, but it was the cream on the donut. I remembered the day I asked Penny how she had first learned about it. We were lying on our backs, side by side, after a particularly satisfying bout of love-making. I could sense her chest rising and falling as she recovered from the physical strain. After some minutes she pushed herself up onto her elbows, turned towards me and placed a soft, warm hand across my stomach.
“The way everyone learns,” she replied in her rich Northern Irish accent.
“Really? How did you get to be so good?” I asked.
“Who said I’m good? I’m really a spiteful little bitch.”
I laughed at her joke, even though it was in poor taste. “I know. But how did you learn to be so good at sex?”
“Learn?” She sniffed. “By doing it of course. How else do you learn? You can’t get a school certificate for it, you know.”
“Great idea though.”
“The practical exams would be interesting.”
“What I really meant was… well, when did you first actually have sex?”
“Oh,” she responded, waving a hand airily as if the subject was of no great importance. To her, it probably wasn’t. “I don’t know. It must have been when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I suppose. I really don’t remember it.”
“It wasn’t a big event in your life?”
“Good heavens, no. Just something I did because all my friends were doing it.” She sat up and wiped her hair back from her face. “I learned at a very early age that you should try to experience everything in life as soon as you feel like doing it. Except incest and playing the bagpipes. Everything else is fair game. I had a distant uncle in Glasgow who played the bagpipes. After a while he went insane.”
“Did you enjoy it, that first time?”
“I don’t expect so. But I’ve learned a lot since then. Now I only have sex with someone I love.”
“Sounds like you have some genuine feelings for me.”
“Yes. But don’t take it for granted. I’ll carry on loving you only until you buy a set of bagpipes.”
“That’s gonna give us one hell of a lot of time together,” I told her. She was three months pregnant at the time and I was not aware of the tragedy that was lurking just around the corner.
I shook my head to bring myself back to the present and stared again at Viola as she set to work cleaning up the dishes in the galley. Of course her affairs were none of my business. Or were they? Hadn’t I been involved right from the time I came upon that fracas in the courtyard? My intention of staying out of the girl’s affairs suddenly vanished in an instant.
“That boy must have had a reason to attack you,” I called out to her on a sudden impulse. “You know who I mean: the big boy on the quay.”
“I told you not to interfere,” she replied.
On a sudden impulse I pulled out that blood-stained handkerchief from my pocket and walked up behind her. “Is this yours, Viola?” I held it towards her to display the embroidered letter V.
She spun round to face me, hands still lathered with suds. “What? Where did you get that?” Her face registered sudden shock.
“You know where. What were you doing in that courtyard?”
She wiped her hands on her shirt and gingerly took hold of the handkerchief. She took a moment to think before replying. “Hiding. Someone was following me so I tried to hide.”
“And he found you. What did he want?”
“Please don’t ask.”
“I already did.”
“Well, please don’t ask again.” She opened a drawer and put the handkerchief away. “This can be washed tomorrow.”
“You spilled a drop if your blood, I see.” I switched my gaze between her bruised hand and her bruised face.
She sniffed and wiped a hand across one cheek. “Why do you keep on at me?”
“Touchy subject, eh?”
This time she made no reply.
I went back to the table and sat for a while quietly nursing my empty mug, listening to the sound of her working. A few minutes passed before I went out onto the deck. It was a warm evening and people were coming out from the confines of their homes to stroll along the quayside. The big, scruffy youth had gone, but the swarthy-skinned man sat on a bollard, only yards away from the boat. I wouldn’t have noticed him except that he gave me a piercing look. He was much older than me, but with the sort of good looks women go for. After some minutes he stood up and walked away.
Moments later I heard a sound behind me and turned to face Viola.
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said, her face and voice both soft with contrition. The expensive shirt was splashed with dishwater. She had her arms wrapped defensively about her chest.
“My fault.” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t stick my nose into other people’s business.”
“You didn’t mean to be rude either.”
“Well, I’m sorry anyway.”
“His name is Ali Hassim, the owner of the boat.” She seemed halfway to being relaxed now and I wondered if there would be any mileage in digging deeper.
“He must be a very rich man.”
“He’s a banker.” She lowered her eyes, avoiding looking at me as she went on, “He looks so handsome and he lives in a beautiful home near la Gacilly. A mansion.”
She went silent for a moment. Once, she opened her mouth as if to speak and then thought better of it.
“Looks like something’s bothering you,” I said. “Want to spit it out?”
She chewed at her lower lip for a few seconds. “Do you think I’m too young to have a baby?”
“Good God! You’re pregnant?” I felt a sudden shot of alarm. And the desire to remove the young gorilla’s testicles went up a notch or two.
“No! I am not pregnant. There are other ways to have a baby.” She looked at me hesitantly and then lowered her gaze. “I think it is good to have children. A man will stay with his girl if she has a baby. Don’t you think?”
“Doesn’t always work out like that,” I said. Whatever she had in mind, it sounded pretty dumb-ass.
Suddenly her head came up. “We were going to be married, Ali and me.”
I guess I’d half expected it, but I was puzzled by her use of the past tense. They were going to be married. Seemed like it was all over.
“I suppose it didn’t work out,” I suggested, feeling my way carefully. I knew now that it would be too easy to cause offence and put an end to her outpouring.
“Something like that.”
“But you’re still good friends.”
“I like to think so. Maybe we will get back together again when…”
I let the unspoken thought pass. “And now this guy wants his boat back?”
“Yes. He needs it down at La Roche Bernard as soon as possible. He asked me to ferry it down there for him.”
“He asked you to…?” I frowned. “After you’d broken off…?”
She didn’t pick up my astonishment, probably too tied up in her own thoughts. She shrugged. “There were reasons why I had to break off our engagement. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to desert him completely.”
“You mean you still love him?” Strange, how difficult it was to get the words out of my throat. Who she loved was her business, not mine.
She shook her head sadly as she replied, “Deeply.”
I digested the implication slowly. The boat was owned by a rich banker, and in my experience bankers were usually powerful men who got what they wanted. Despite their break-up, Hassim was making use of the girl to get his boat ferried down to La Roche Bernard.
“I suppose now you’re thinking that I’m some sort of whore.” Her chin was lowered towards her chest, her voice a dull monotone. Her arms were tightly clasped about her breasts.
“Nasty word; whore,” I said.
“Other people think that’s what I am. They talk about me behind my back and they call me a whore and all sorts of nasty names. I know they do. And I suppose you think the same now that you know about me and Ali.”
“No, of course I don’t.” I was astounded by the outburst, not sure how to react. “Why should I think that about you?”
She kept her head down, hair falling forward across her face. “Because I was engaged to a much older man.” She paused. “People assume that because he was so much older all he wanted me for was sex. Even my own brother thought it. I heard him tell my father that I needed to be kept under control because I was dropping my knickers for a dirty old Arab. It’s jolly well not true though, even if you think it is.”
“Now, hold on a moment. Just you look here, young lady.” I moved closer and tried to attract her eyes towards me. “I never said anything of the sort.”
“You never said anything of the sort, I’ll grant you that, but I’ll bet you thought it. My father thought it, and my brother. Older brothers always think the worst of their sisters, you know. It’s a well known fact.”
“Well known facts are sometimes not very well known. You’re just making things up.”
“No I’m not. They think I was his whore, but I wasn’t. I never ever slept with him. Never had sex with him. Never. The truth is, I’m still a virgin but they don’t believe me. Do you believe me?” Her eyes were wide, staring at me. “Well, do you?”
Those round, appealing eyes, the half-open lips, the soft air of innocence; they were impossible to ignore. So was her hurt expression. Goldilocks thought she was confronting Big Bad wolf, but she’s got the wrong ID.
I decided to play the nice guy. “Yes. I believe you.” I didn’t bother to add that I also thought she was a foolish little child. I’d delved too deep already into her private affairs and now it was time to marginally change the subject.
“Look, Viola, I don’t mean to keep interfering, but how would it be if I took the boat down the river for you. You could hop off here and now? It might save you some problems later.”
“No!” It was the first time I had heard her raise her voice in anger. “No! I have to do this for him. I love him.”
She turned and strode away into the saloon while I drew deeply on the evening air. I could feel a deep throbbing in my temple. Could be I had let myself in for something I wouldn’t be able to handle.