Winter on a Groovy Isle
A clear black night wrapped itself around the house with full embrace. New Year’s Eve is cold on Ibiza; soon an icy night in 1970 would become a frigid morning in 1971. In the main room the fireplace did its best to warm things, but it was the only heating in the house and could not do much, contributing more smoke than heat. The low beamed ceiling was black, and smoke hung there, rippling, seeking height. The other rooms were very cold.
The two brothers sat each with guitar on thigh, head bent, fingers moving over the strings or pausing arachnid-like to press the frets and wobble there, emphasizing a phrase. Their voices filled the room, sometimes tender, sometimes loud; bounced off the adobe walls and came back reassuringly; folded over them.
Sheldon, the elder, wore a bandana tied around his black curls; his eyes were dark, lids large. When he looked up mischief was in them as a slice of light across the depth. He sang again the refrain: I always come in a yellow cab,/ No, I never miss a ride…
His brother’s voice was tenor, his pitted face somehow softer, more girlish; despite the strength of its features, its black brows and large nose. His face seemed to say, I know I am not such a success in the world of swashbuckling coolness as my dear brother; so I will turn inwards, to my guitar, and find some comfort there, unworthy as it might be.
A bottle of the rough local red sat beside Sheldon’s tapping foot, and thick glasses perched on the untidy table along with packets of rolling papers, a baggie of weed, crisp and powdery and dark as spiders. There’d been a sort of feast – the eternal scrambled eggs, chalky, unsalted white bread, mantequilla de cacahuetes – and Starlight had cooked sliced onions in the big pan with a few gnarled vegetables, chopped up with a dull knife. Every crumb had been eaten, as always; but for this crowd the wine was the real thing, even if it was puckery with tannin and far too young.
The others sat in the straight-backed rope-strung chairs, tapping their feet and singing along off-key where they knew the words. It was a catchy tune. Every once in while someone would roll another joint and pass it round.
Starlight by this time had little tolerance for these nostrums, though she tried her best; they made her cloudy and uneasy, and seemed to erode the foundations of her being; of her connection with herself. Her body was refusing more and more the nourishments on which the rest of the crew depended.
It wasn’t midnight yet, but she was tired, and these incessant evenings of music were no longer novel, no longer fun. She could not tell Sheldon that she resented his guitar as she would a mistress. Never ever could she betray how uncool she was in herself – how un-free, how possessive, how insecure. She had to pretend, and try hard to be a better, more enlightened person. So she put up with Lady Guitar and stayed up as late as she could. But now it was enough -.
The pale weight of her hair fell down her back as, candle in hand, she mounted the wooden stairs to the upper floor. It was so hard to wash hair here – she had to heat water in a blackened pan on the fire, pour it into a tin bucket outside, add cold water from the pump, use a cup for the wetting, washing, rinsing. Bathing required the same sort of labor. They didn’t bathe or shampoo often, and everyone’s hair was dulled with smoke. Even her own beautiful golden waterfall could not be relied upon to hold Sheldon’s love, then. When she’d risen to go up the stairs he’d barely looked up – though she could see that his eyes were alert to her, just for a moment.
Up in the room, she tipped the melted wax from the candle’s burning end onto the bedside table, and then stuck the wide end of the taper into it and waited, holding it steady, while the wax cooled and trapped the little white pillar fast. She undressed as quickly as she could, laying her garments on the chair, and got into the low bed under the woolen blankets. None of them possessed nightclothes, of course, except for Mercer, the brother; he had a pair of brushed cotton pajamas in midnight blue with fraying, tarnished white piping, and he was generally accused of being an old maid.
So Starlight just had to lie there till she warmed up. She felt like a skinny white root under layers of cold burlap.
She looked about her at the familiar whitewashed walls, ceiling beam, the three wooden pegs jutting out of the wall for clothes. Two patched granny dresses hung there, one green, one Indian bedspread paisley in autumnal shades. A hole-y sweater of Sheldon’s hung beside them, getting its shoulder poked out. Behind the bed, stretched on the wall, was a woven wool hanging; she’d managed to put it up there herself, tying string through its corners and wrapping the cord around the hinges on the shutters of the two windows flanking the bed. And then she’d tidied things, made it all look nice. And Sheldon had been so angry! “This is bourgeois!” he’d railed. “You’re no better than my mother! I could have stayed back in Oakland, with her coming around interfering all the time!”
Starlight was a little warmer now – though her feet, her shoulders, were still cold. She leant over and blew out the candle. Closed her eyes.
She could hear the singing, the twanging, the melody, coming up the stairs, imperfectly through the closed door. They would go on for an hour or two yet. She settled down to wait for Sheldon – for he excited her. Worried and upset her. She could not know what he would do.
It was midnight,of course, when she heard them all outside, banging and crashing on whatever pans and things they could find, whooping and yelling. It didn’t last long – then the door could be heard closing as they retreated inside to resume their drinking, puffing, and song.
It was not too long after this that it happened: suddenly a great THWACK as something hit the end of the wooden bed! Then THWACK again! The bed shook! It was exactly as if someone had taken a wooden stave and hit the bedstead with it. THWACK! THA-WUMP! THA-WUMP-WUMP-WUMP-WUMP!
Starlight became still; very still. This was impossible. This was terrible. She barely breathed.
THA-LUMP! The bed shook again. Then there was quiet.
Oh god she wanted to run downstairs and get Sheldon! – But how could she get out of bed, naked, and cross the room? Something was here with her! …And she knew who it was; it wasn’t hard to guess. The old man who had died here the week before they’d moved in; that’s how they’d gotten the finca – his sister was eager for the money. Oh god.
She lay frozen for what seemed like hours till finally Sheldon, alert as always – he both bragged and mourned that he could never get really high, and had written a song about it – pushed open the door, came in, undressed in the dark, left his clothes on the floor, got in bed beside her, his cold limbs brushing hers. And then she told him. And, of course, he scoffed.
That night she dreamed…
She’s on one of the hilltops nearby their remote house; there is a kind of twilight everywhere. She has a fancy to fly, so she pumps her arms and pushes with her thighs, her feet moving like a baby getting born; and next thing she is airborne!
But then – some force pulls her suddenly high above the earth, all at once! And then hurls her back down, so that she almost hits a different hilltop; then again she is pulled out, so that she can see the earth far below her, violet with twilight, with copses and hedges and islands and sea…and then again she falls, fast, but does not hit…she just bounces back up again.
This is all delightful, if startling; she gives in to it, there is nothing else to do; until at length she finds herself drifting in an archipelago of little dry islands; and next she is sitting atop a rock on one of those, and the stone is warm beneath her as if there had been sunshine on it all day.
She looks around and sees that someone is sitting at a little distance away – and she recognizes him without being told who he is. It is Juan, the old man of the bedstead, formerly resident of the finca where she is living; Juan the ghost. But now he is young and robust, in a short black jacket and loose trousers and a white shirt that glows particularly alongside the sea around them as it gathers up the last of the light.
“Juan!” she cries, in the dream. “I’m so happy to see you! But please, don’t beat on the bed again – it scared me half to death.”
Juan nods, his mustaches grand and dark, his eyes lively in the gloaming. “It was necessary, Chica,” he says. (In the dream they speak the same language.) “I had to get your attention.”
“Why?” asks Starlight.
“You are sleeping on my bed,” he replies. “I don’t mind you there – not in the least – but that young idiot you sleep with! That is the problem!”
“He’s not an idiot!” protests Starlight. “In fact, he’s some kind of genius – he told me so!”
“All men are geniuses when there is a rubia around,” observes the ghost.
“No, really!” cries Starlight. “He can play the guitar, write beautiful songs – speaks three languages! And everything I only wonder about the world, he knows the answers to! He wants to be a leader of people,” she adds piously.
“That is very bad,” says Juan. “Muy mal. And he is a drunkard, and so many drogas! That is not a real man.”
Starlight cannot follow this line of reasoning. She finds Sheldon amazing, provocative, masterful; slayingly so. Not a real man? He is more man than she’d ever known before.
“I don’t want him in my bed,” says Juan firmly.
“But the other beds are full!” cries Starlight. “And he is my old man! Of course we must sleep together!” and she shivers with the fear of losing Sheldon’s arms around her in the night.
“Watch out, watch out,” says the Juan with a sinister lift of his eyebrow. “You’ll see.”
Starlight woke late. Sheldon wasn’t beside her – he must be drinking coffee by the fire. She pulled over her head the granny dress she’d made back in California, the Indian bedspread one; it had long pointy medieval sleeves, and long cords which she criss-crossed under her bosom and tied round her middle, with cord left to hang halfway to the hem. Her bare feet on the floor were cold, but wool socks just didn’t go with the dress.
In the kitchen Sheldon was staring at the wreckage from the night before – cold half-burnt wood in the fireplace, ashes spilling out onto the floor; dirty glasses, empty bottles, guitars leaning against the wall in the thin early light.
He looked up at her. “All dressed up like an Indian restaurant,” he observed, sourly, she thought. She flinched. “Let’s go to town for coffee,” he continued. “We can’t make good coffee here.”
And so the day went on in the direction of all the others they had passed here – cafes, beverages, dope deals made over little round leaning tables in muddy lanes; makeshift dinners, and then the long night of music and wine and, so often, love. When he stared into her eyes in the dark, petted her hair, said tender things suddenly, or hard things that purported to be true, about her youth and immaturity; and kissed her with his thin, bitter-tasting mouth and wound his skinny limbs about her and came to some sort of very meaning conclusion whilst she tried to keep up, and found that trying never helped at all; and never came to any conclusion herself at all.
Two days later he announced to her that he was about to begin an affair, and he hoped she would stay with him, because jealousy is nonsensical; he still loved her, but he would explore another girl too, and it would be good for everybody. Good for their growth.
The other girl, Perugina, was a short Italian with a deeply indented waist, large full breasts, and tiny feet. She had been, in their cafe conversations, deeply philosophical; she seemed about seventy in her mind; nothing bothered her. She accepted Starlight’s presence, and even invited her into bed with Sheldon and herself. Starlight endured these experiments as an actress must; and emerged even more chastened, and disgusted too as well, as if she’d been made to dine on slugs, if friendly and willing ones. There was something swamplike about Perugina when she was prone that made Starlight’s vitals close and turn away. But to refuse such an invitation was unthinkable. She would betray herself as less than ‘together,’ less than cool. She might miss something she must gather and understand if this life was to be successful. She might.
And so, after one of these encounters, Starlight would go for a walk alone, along the harbour and up a ways into the dry hills, past rosemary bushes and sun-warmed thyme; under the junipers – feeling herself poetical, tragic, and confused. How was she to become a person of value? So that Sheldon would respect her and find her indispensable? How was it helping, hanging out on this dark-limned island? And she would watch the crows picking insolently by the road, milling and talking among themselves; or watch them flying in their well-structured society, not prone to doubts and stumblings as she was. What was wrong with her? She scarcely knew who spoke when her mouth was open and words came out. She did not feel herself coherent, gathered-together, one; she was scattered as crows scatter when alarmed. She knew that being ‘together’ was the aim of any young person nowadays; and she was not. She trailed disconsolately up and down hills, feeling that her very soul was haunted. Even Juan was whole and healthy compared to her.
Perugina was very wealthy, and had a yacht which was moored in the harbour; she invited all the household there, and the usual pattern of the nights was repeated on board, with the addition of hash cookies, and spaghetti suppers prepared by Perugina’s manservant who was also, of course, her lover; these suppers were appreciated by everyone so much that they nearly succeeded in mopping up the excess chemicals everyone was consuming – but not quite.
There were eight or ten of them then, this haphazard crew that gathered to shut out the world with some pretense of camaraderie – an accidental grouping, coming together for no reason but to spread out and enjoy themselves as best they could – for was not freedom all and everything? Along with pleasure, along with…well, something – some further redemption everybody sought but nobody was quite clear about at all. (But the missing of it made them edgy, and their mouths turn down, young as they were.)
Starlight did not like the yacht’s rocking, or its narrowish bed they were all three supposed to fit on but somehow she was the one always left with her bottom out in the cold. She found the spaghetti, like the island’s bread, insufficiently nourishing. She longed for salad, but there never was any. She longed for Sheldon to be there for her alone; and knew that wish was unworthy.
The others had found and lost liaisons among each other; no chemistry that might be occurring seemed strong enough to justify more than a night or two together. But Starlight had noted one thing: the way Mercer’s river-green pupils with their white, gleaming surrounds followed Perugina as she moved about the roomy cabin of the boat. She liked to make pudding – a certain recipe from her grandmother, she said – involving blanched almonds and tinned cream and a real vanilla bean in a glass vial, and a great deal of sugar. She carried these ingredients with her wherever she sailed, she said, and made the pudding as therapy, as meditation; it soothed and uplifted her to make it and to eat it. And she served it to everyone in little glass dishes, and to Starlight (who loved sweets) it had a nasty under-taste, of old ladies and underwear drawers and things past their prime. But Mercer, sensible, practical, doubting-Thomas Mercer, ate his up every bit, and gazed at Perugina’s long hair and little shoulders and the dip of her blouse where her bosom parted and swelled and rose and fell with her breath and her laughter.
Sheldon thought everything wonderful. He realized soon that his brother coveted his mistress; he stopped short of inviting him for a menage a quatre – just as he had never offered him Starlight, come to that. (At this thought Starlight shivered again, for though Mercer was a good fellow, sensitive and true, he did not appeal to her at all in that way. Extremely not. He was a poor thing – he was not Sheldon!) But Starlight knew that Sheldon was considering some consolation prize for his brother in order to mollify and comfort him, and lead him off the track till he himself had had enough of the curvy Italian. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did.
Sheldon never lost his cynicism though nor ever gained the ability to lose himself in the pleasures he arranged; nor to find himself in them either. There in the middle, he rocked with the boat and expected each girl, whichever was under him, on top of him, to receive his gift. The gift of him.
A few dayss later they were back at the finca for a much-needed rest and washing of clothes. Sheldon went off to the outhouse to relieve himself; he came out with his mouth open, his pointed brows comical above his astonished face. He was trying to do up his jeans but his hands wouldn’t obey him.
“Damn!” he exclaimed when Starlight came to him from the back door, “Damn. I’m taking too many drugs. I’ll have to stop.”
“What happened?” asked Starlight. She was eager to be of service. Perhaps she might prove herself after all?
“You know those newspaper squares all hooked on the wire – that wire loop on the nail -”
“Yes,” replied the girl, adding to herself, “Eeeuyuk!” (She’d learned not to complain about this sort of thing. It made the men cross.)
“The fucking thing – lifted up off the nail – I didn’t touch it! – and came flying into my face! My face got, uh, scrubbed with newspaper, as if somebody’s hand was holding it! It almost smothered me!”
“No!” cried the girl. “Really? Are you sure?”
“I think so,” replied Sheldon dubiously. “Am I that far gone? I’m hallucinating!” And he wore this sort of elder, mature-man-looking-inwards expression that made Starlight feel like she was losing him, and her throat pulsed and contracted.
The ghost’s campaign against Sheldon proceeded into more small violences, one nearly every day: his guitar is mysteriously right in his path as he’s heading out the door for a pee in the early morning, and he stumbles over it and nearly breaks his neck. The cup of Nescafe with milk in it he sneers at but drinks, tips over from the table into his lap while he’s sitting in a chair; he’d leapt up, roaring, but his jeans prevented damage. A bucketful of hot water he tips over his soapy hair has become ice cold, and he roars again. His cigarettes keep moving about, ending up in the outhouse, or a dusty, cobwebbed corner, or in the fire – the pack just seen as it melts into ignition. One day a jar of thin sickly jam slides very fast and decidedly across the table and crumps into an empty wine bottle; both fall to the floor and break, and there is much cleaning to be done whilst watching out for injury to bare feet.
On that particular day they had a visitor; Deedee (known as ‘Dodo’ or “dirigible’ behind her back.) She was a big, loud and buxom American girl with a very straight bang and a very wavy mass of russet hair; she spoke through her nose in declarative sentences: “Int’s awfuuul. I hanve a funcking BLAAANDER INFENCTION! AGAIN! I dunno whadda DO! I WANNA PAINKILLNER GODDAMNIT!” She was always running off to the toilet, or in this case the outhouse, about which she also richly complained. Everyone knew she was the mistress of the Jefe, the Chief of Police; a bulky man with a sadistic air who wore crisply ironed khaki and had the blackest of black brows meeting across his nose, and a bandito mustache. He was a parody of Guardia Civil officialdom, and was much feared. He had deported people for all sorts of minor transgressions as well as the usual major, drug-related ones. The males among the island hippies planned and schemed by the hour how to outwit him.
But Deedee, on seeing the galloping jam-pot, set up a new wail: “Onnh NO!!! It’s haaaaunted! Your hounse is haunted! Youn’ve got a PONLTERGEINST! I’m gonna tell my FREIIIIND!”
And so next day everyone smoked all the dope up and hid whatever they thought needed hiding, in preparation for a visit.
A day or two later Deedee dropped by to see if anyone had any grass – she was out – and that was the moment the Jefe chose to come by and inspect the ghost. He was off-duty, so was dressed in trousers and a shirt; and on his arm was his other mistress – who, it turned out, was none other than Perugina herself.
To say that Starlight was delighted would be to overstate the case – she was by that stage in the adventure quite difficult to delight – but certainly she felt a lightness in her chest, a lift in her knees, a certain gurgling, almost of laughter, somewhere back in her throat; even as she chid herself for this. Grownup doings were yet beyond her, and she could only sit and gawp as Deedee saw what she saw; lumbered to her feet, all bosom and spite, and stuck out her fleshy elbows for battle.
(Mercer, Starlight observed, simply turned away – and the complexity of expressions to be glimpsed on his subtle face was a wonder.) (Who could guess that two years hence he would be sending back postcards from exotic ports of call, manservant vanquished somehow, Perugina ripely and happily expecting their first? For God, even the god of the hippies, works in mysterious ways.)
Sheldon was rooted to his saggy straight-backed chair, a roll-up – straight tobacco this time, he’d taken to these as his cigarettes had vanished -. His big canny eyes took in the wiggling maiden in her bell-bottom trousers and gauzy top, her little sailor jacket, the way she clomped purposefully in platform shoes, her newly-cut shag waving like a field of half-shorn grain, her head just reaching the Jefe’s broad shoulder. He saw it all – the damp in Perugina’s fertile V at the top of her trousers; the bristle in the Jefe’s mustache. He saw it all – and Starlight, looking on, knew she was safe for a little while longer; though only that.
Later she thought that the screaming could not really have gone on for half an hour, as it seemed; it was probably five minutes. And though Deedee’s voice was definitely the louder – “WHANT ARE YOU DOOOOING? He’s MIIINE! Yannh, his wife, thant’s onhkay, bunt not YOUUUUU! URRRNNNNHH!” But Perugina stumped with queenly dignity to the table, sat down on an empty chair, took a pack of cigarettes out of her bag, and lit one up, without offering any to anybody. She blew the smoke upwards, and did nothing at all. Aplomb rustled around her like leaves.
Then suddenly her eyes flared open, she turned on her chair, and began a rapid diatribe of Italian right at Deedee – a formidable performance, rising and falling in rich waves of sound, full of rolling R’s and things that sounded like the curses cats make on dark nights; interspersed with trills and railroad-like trippings-over-the-ties – how could one tongue move so fast?
The Jefe backed out the door and stood out in the yard with his hands out at his sides. He seemed, thought Starlight, about to bolt. Where, she wondered, was Juan when he was most needed? “Juan? Juan?” she hissed within herself. “Come on! More tricks with jam! Please!”
She thought she heard a faint giggle. And suddenly there was a scrabbling sound from the chimney. Dust, smoke, ashes, fell with a whomp onto the cold fire, and then there they were – a dozen crows in the kitchen with them, flying about in an angry panic! Claws tore through hair! A window shattered with a thump-crash!!! And a black shape fell onto the bread-loaf, picked itself up, and flew out the door right onto the Jefe’s back! The Jefe wheeled, cursed, the bird climbed his face and rushed away with beating wings, leaving a truly mountainous greeny-white mess, looking like oil-paint where the oil’s collected at the top…right on the olive temple, from where it dripped down to the resplendent mustache. The Jefe roared like an angry bull and wiped at his face with his brown and hairy hand.
Perugina coolly batted a bird away and looked at the Jefe…his grimace, his furious digging for a handkerchief, his seriousness as he wiped his whole arm down his face, ruining his shirtsleeve – she saw him as if he was in a pink tutu, squeaking with a high voice, twirling and bleating and shuddering in dramatic charade. And she began to giggle…thinking that this should be a test for all great and powerful men – doll them up in pink ballet clothes and put them where a bird will drop its doo on them, and see how they handle it…that would be the thing! And she laughed….and laughed…until she nearly toppled off her chair – and Starlight couldn’t help it, she laughed too – even as she despised any accord with that talented, satin-skinned girl – and they both laughed, and fell off their chairs, and clutched at each other, and at their own stomachs – and, for a moment, each knew triumph in her own way, over her own tyrants.
And in Starlight’s yellow hair there had appeared a dandelion – she saw it, looking down, at the left there – a small, bitter, pretty, yellow dandelion, good enough, during a bleak winter, to eat. She held it in her hand and marvelled.
The Jefe was gone, his jeep spitting and grinding off down the hill. Sheldon stared in amazement, and when he lifted his arm to push his hair back, his hand came away with oil paint on it too. And then he laughed, for he was an intelligent man really; and went to find some soap and water – though there were no cloths or towels, and he had to use his wool jersey to dry himself, which didn’t work at all. So, how intelligent is that, really?
The crows left splots all over the house, and fled through the broken window and open door.
Nobody wanted to cook or clean up; and so they went out to dinner instead, though by now only Perugina and Deedee could afford it; but they didn’t offer to pay for anybody. They sat at opposite ends of the table and glared mildly at each other through the meager food on into the plentiful wine, while Shel and Mercer and the other men laughed in relief that they’d escaped official harassment, and said knowing, cool things about the afternoon’s happenings.
Three days later they were all deported – every one. The Guardia Civil came in the early morning and took their passports. They could get them back only at the dock when the ferry was in. The Jefe, at this official visit, was not present among his men.
“Thank you, Juan,” thought Starlight, straight to him, wherever he was.
A fly, out of season, appeared above Sheldon’s head as he argued patiently with the policeman who held his passport. Starlight could see Perugina on her yacht, in white bell bottoms and a striped top, her manservant nearby in full livery. She was waving, almost shyly. Deedee was bent over, complaining that her stomach ached and that she needed a pill. The other guys milled about, thinking no doubt each of his next adventure. They all settled on the boat at two small tables pushed together under a broad window. Sheldon went to the bar to get a bottle of wine and some glasses.
“I don’t want any,” said Starlight primly. She went and asked for a glass of water.
“Why,” asked Sheldon conversationally, as he’d asked before, “did you name yourself after a bar and lounge?”
And, as so often, she had nothing to say; but she thought: “Could I bring myself to sleep with his brother, just to prove a point, to rescue myself? Might Shel respect me more – he’s always telling us to do outrageous things to wake ourselves up. So that we’re not stuck in Bourgeois Sleep. That would be outrageous, wouldn’t it? But can I – Mercer’s skin is so…sort of clammy; his lips look too soft. Not manly somehow. I’m not attracted to him at all! But he’s kind…ought I to do it, just because I don’t want to? In order to grow, and to show I’m strong?”
But Juan couldn’t help her; he was tied to the finca, except when he flew.
Might he, she wondered, fly right out now – after that wonderful circus – go through the portal – there must be a portal – and be free? And, if he could fly by on his way, and tell her something….what would it be?
But then a ray of sun fell on her as she stood abstracted, water-glass in hand. And she felt curiously alone all of a sudden, and as if inside her there was nothing – not the usual crowd of fears and opinions all jousting with each other; just…a cool nothing-much-ness. And she did nothing to dissuade it, and just stood..and then by and by she felt as if a little rivulet of joy climbed her, inside her body, and came up to her heart.
“Tell Sheldon everything,” she seemed to hear Juan say; “all the concerns your heart has. Tell him the ways you try to prove yourself, and how it doesn’t work, and only makes you sadder and more scattered. How you want to find out what you are here for, and apply yourself to it; how you long to have order and peace and diligence, as well as love. That however anyone has made love to you, it has never been good enough; and that you suppose it your own fault, though it might not be. How you don’t want to waste yourself, that you are precious. Tell him. And if he doesn’t like it – and he might not – wait, wait…even if it’s hard for you. So very many more things will happen. Things you cannot dream of now – places you have no notion of will be familiar to you, people will appear who will teach you how to rest deep within yourself.
“For it’s natural to head towards that which is free.”