Set on board a yacht sailing the Whitsunday Islands in The Great Barrier Reef, and in the river city of Brisbane, Australia, Silent Goodbyes introduces forty-five-year-old Emilie Anderson as a new central character.
When a particular set of emotional triggers forces Emilie to grapple with her insecurities, what begins as a weeklong sailing trip becomes a journey into Emilie’s heart and soul.
Excerpt begins on p. 130
Skipper by day, dishwasher by night. Great dinner, though. Thick slices of Atlantic salmon nappées with lightly spiced cream and salmon roe. Delicately delicious. The tab for me lies in the washing up in our diminutive sink. In the process of splashing water over the comparatively gigantic cooking implements, I’ve drowned yet another box of matches in a tsunami of dirty water. Luckily the galley light is not strong enough to shame me into mopping the rubber linoleum. Not right now, please! Not just before bedtime.
Up the ladder, I go, struck as always by the visual effect of a handful of mast-lights gathered together, seemingly suspended in mid-air to form a frail gateway to the galaxy. I turn around. She’s at the bow. Feet dangling under the safety lines, forearms resting on the steel railing of the pulpit, she seems lost in thought. Maybe she’s simply absorbed by the mesmerising, endlessly changing colour patterns that dance on the moonlit ripples of Indian ink. She didn’t jump off the boat today, she didn’t even complain about the weather. She’s been good and being good doesn’t give her any feel-good feelings. Being good makes her droop and wilt.
After a light breakfast, we had snorkelled in tandem, her hand on my back. She’s a much stronger, more natural swimmer than I am but during our morning snorkels over the reef I propel myself a couple of flipper flips faster than she does. At one time, while we were hovering above the twenty-metre abyss, I thought that the great gloomy depth, sucked inside the eerie, slanted chasm of brown coral and particles trapped in filtered sunlight, might entice her.
We had been skirting the abyss side by side but while I made sure my belly remained somewhat protected by swimming a couple of metres above the coral reef-bed, Solange swam totally exposed to anything that might have been lurking deep within the dim waters below.
Her hand left its position on my back and through the foggy Perspex of my mask, I saw her veer away from me, propelled by the yellow blur of her flippers. My breathing stopped inside the hollow plastic snorkel. I lost sight of her when the yellow of her flippers had totally dissolved in the water ahead. Coral cluttered the shallow depth ahead. The gloomy gorge of unfathomable depth hovered at my left. Exhaled air chugged through the snorkel. I remained where I was, softly flicking my own flippers, determined to go on with my underwater promenade. Movement at ten to twelve on my left, right above the chasm. The emergence of a pale shape.
We looked at each other goggle-eyed. Her hair fanned and floated around a face a few shades paler than when dry. Eyes large and wide but all other expression lost behind the fluoroplastic of the mask, lips stretched over the rubber mouthpiece. She swung into a wide circle and closed it with her hand once again on the small of my back. She let me lead her a little to the right and her body, too, was safer above the rising coral bed.
Schools of fish, soft and pink, fluorescent yellow, coated in velvet colours had passed below us. Fish with a purpose. Clams had clammed up as they detected the shadow of our presence, their thick lips of luscious iridescent purple, green, and mauve clenched tight between the two valves in foot-wide clownish grins. Large parrotfish had swum past foraging between coral stems with their parrot beak.
Shafts of sunlight, floating plankton, blue-tipped antlers, pink bouquets of spiky stems, little oasis of colour atop decimated colonies of brown coral, big round balls that resembled bulging throbbing brains, all had been laid out for us. But the clownfish and the more exotic sea anemones had yet again eluded us.
I could go over to the bow now and sit beside her, interrupting her reverie but I’d rather stay back a while longer and simply look at her as if I couldn’t simply walk over and sit by her side. As if I didn’t know her. As if I could only observe her from afar. Unseen. Unnoticed.
And I choose to stay at the stern, leaning against the wheel locked in place for the night. I breathe in the stillness. I inhale the quiet. The only sounds once again emanate from the dinghy’s underside. Quiet peaceful soft-mouthed sounds like those of a gentle and contented suckling mammal, one that, though no longer hungry and about to drop off to sleep, still holds on to the nipple. Unconsciously wary of tomorrow. Involuntarily afraid of letting go.
Solange. My grey-eyed lover bundled into the bulky sweater that matched the colour of her eyes on a wintry morning, legs warm inside her old grey fleecy trousers, hasn’t heard me come up the companionway. Maybe I should, after all, sidle up to her with two glasses of chilled Tatachilla as a peace offering though there hasn’t been a war. Then I could say, ‘a penny for your thoughts’. I could but I won’t. I prefer to stay back while allowing her more time in which to let herself be drawn into the golden patterns cast by the moon as they float on a sea the colour of Indian ink, on a sea as glossy and slick as silk. The Southern Aurora glints and shines above us.
Solange. The woman whose recklessness, exacerbated by the unstable environment that is a yacht at sea, in an area where wild water creatures are at home, stresses me beyond reason. The woman through whom, I know, I could learn something important about myself, if only she and I were wired a little differently. If only she and I were a little less the way we are.
I often feel I should somehow backtrack twelve months or so. Backtrack to the end of our period of grace, of our honeymoon. Backtrack to recapture the early liberating thrill of being with her. The thrill before the fear.
There was a time when I felt that if I could emulate a little of her trusting nature—trusting of the moment, trusting of people—I might be able to redirect my insecurities away from the basic belief that something could always go wrong and would if I ever became careless. If ever I relented in my caution.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. I guess I haven’t allowed it to happen that way. Instead, I’ve become passively resistant. And all I now think of her insouciance and intrepidity is simply that she might well be suffering from the James Dean Syndrome; youth and fitness, as in her case, are invincible. The thing is that she’s some twenty years well past mature teenagerhood. I’m hoping that tomorrow, our last full day on board Lazy Moon, will come and go by quickly. Uneventfully.
After Gisèle and her cool approach to love I had, for a long time, shied away from older women. That, in turn, had cast me in Gisèle’s role, though not in her persona. At many levels, I just didn’t have what it took to emulate her. Strangely enough though, as I healed my very first heart-splitting ache, I neither hated nor resented her. Already then, I had understood that she was too beautiful, too sensual, too sexual for just one lover. All the same: chat échaudé craint l’eau chaude, says my mother. Something about the fact that a cat, once scalded, is fearful of hot water.
That evening back in Paris, I had gone to Place des Vosges to catch the launch of Mikael’s month-long exposition of oil paintings and large mixed-media assemblages. I had, intentionally, gotten there late, more than fashionably late. I wanted to make sure Gisèle had already arrived by the time I got there. And she had. It’s the shine of her silken black hair, alight under the ceiling spotlights that caught my eye as soon as I had pushed through the glass doors.
The room was full of people doing what people do at vernissages: they chat, drink, eat, and, in those days, they smoked. They whisper, too, in hushed tones as they move from one piece to another. Very few buy right there and then. Though some buy on impulse, most of us seem to need to be prompted by a lingering feeling, by a recurring memory brought upon by that particular piece.
A heart tug that won’t go away until we return to it, to that piece out of some stranger’s psyche. To that piece that’s triggered something deep inside us, a longing, an almost lustful urgency, a need to possess. Some of Mikael’s frames already carried the round red dot that signified the piece had already been sold, I suspect well ahead of the vernissage.
Chatting with a group of five people, Gisèle was somewhat off-centre to the middle of the room, her back to the entrance. Her hair swayed gently from side to side as she turned her attention from one in her entourage to another. Dark and Daliesque Mikael towered nearby with his own retinue of admirers.
From where I was standing, near the buffet set near the left-hand wall, I could see her, striking, in a simple, black, backless dress that ended just above the knees. Well-defined calves and thin ankles led the eye to black escarpins, flat-heel shoes, that matched perfectly the tone and feel of her dress. She turned slightly to her left to accept the thin champagne flute from a waiter’s glistening tray. A quietly elegant gold brooch enhanced her décolleté. It glinted, caught in the light from above.
And out of nowhere came a woman. There was nothing particular to note about her except that she wrapped her arm around Gisèle’s waist in a proprietorial gesture. Her lips touching Gisèle’s ear, the woman whispered something that made my lover laugh. Though there was nothing particularly unusual about this woman’s movements as such, my heart had lurched. Maybe because I didn’t know who she was. Maybe because I was raw from Gisèle’s early morning admission, I painted that woman, the one who still had her arm around my lover’s waist, in the role of The Other Woman. I never found out whether she was the one or not.
What’s the connection between Gisèle and Solange? Is it that both are attractive women and both are careless? Yes, Gisèle was careless too. Careless with people, intrepid too, but only in matters of love. In matters of sex.
The moon is reclining comfortably portside, lazy on her axis, looking very much like the supine blood-tipped, honey-coloured curved horns of Isis’s headgear. Isis, often depicted with tears, is tonight too thin and frail to shine down on us.
Solange is still absorbed by the silky dark shimmers on the water’s surface and I watch her watching them. And the longer I stand my back against the wheel, watching her pale shape draped over the pulpit, the more I feel the tug of love. That tug is the reminder I need that beyond her idiosyncratic behaviour that collides with my own search for equilibrium and equanimity, she is the woman I love; a woman attentive to my other needs. And they are many. She’s also a woman who is hard working, self-driven and caring.
A woman who takes pleasure in cooking gourmet meals. A sensual woman totally clear about her sexuality. None of that I should ever take for granted.
The moon is low. The other boats are anchored some two hundred metres away, closer to the strip of sand. I close my eyes as I breathe in very slowly, pushing the air deep inside to the deep tip of my lungs and slowly I let it out. I visualise the expelled breath in varying shades of soot.
On the back of each exhalation ride accumulated tension induced toxins and dingy remnants of curdling resentment that have been constricting my abdomen, backed up all the way to my collarbone. Again, and again I force deep breaths down below my ribcage. These deep breaths force me to straighten my spine. Again, and again I exhale feathery volutes of smoky grey soot.
With my eyes closed, newly conscious of the gentle rocking of the hull under my bare feet, I know that if I went over to her and sat behind her, I know she would edge back a little to fit more snugly between my legs.
I know we would just sit amicably, together enough, yet separate, for a little while. As her body warmth began radiating from her back to my chest, I would bring her back a little more into me, against me, so as to lean my back more comfortably against the slanted cabin hatch. Her hips wedged between my thighs, her back against my breasts, my hands folded over her stomach, my mouth near her ear, we would not need to talk.
Words haven’t been good for us these last few days. No. No words. We must not speak. I would just brush the top of her head with my lips and inhale the furry warmth of her hair and rediscover the tattoo she has there, that of a tiny little bluebird caught gliding forever, never getting anywhere. She had had it done at a time when she wore her hair very short.
The little bluebird sat high on her nape, just below the cut of her hair. Many a love session has begun in that position, with her wrapped snugly against my stomach and chest, my face buried in her hair breathing warm kisses on the little bluebird. The little bluebird was more of a free spirit back then, wings wide open, visible to all, getting its share of light and sunshine. Now that she wears her hair brushed back in longer strands, days go by without my catching a glimpse of the little tattoo. And so now, my back to the wheel, I imagine the little bluebird gliding, invisible, behind a curtain of dark tendrils.
I would part that curtain of salty hair and kiss the little forgotten bluebird. Ever so slowly, I would run my tongue over its shape and she would remember. She would bend her head exposing more of her nape to my lips. And so, I would kiss behind her ear. Slow measured, firm kisses to compensate for the warm wetness left within its fold knowing the crisp night air, finding it there, would pick it up. I would slip my cold hands under her thick sweater. Her nipples would harden and rise. But my hands would know to rest on top of her T-shirt until she reached for them. I would not allow them to roam freely. Not until they had been warmed by her warmth.
And so, in between the two layers of her clothing, I would slowly, dreamily, run my hands over her stomach, her chest, her breasts, her erect nipples and feel them tighten a little more as each of my fingers wandered inquisitively over them. Lips and breath near her ear, I would tighten my embrace around her. She would fit perfectly snugly inside my legs, inside my arms, against my heart, against my sex.
Sometime later, she would push her lower back against me and reach for my hands, lifting the thin layer of her T-shirt, welcoming them in against her skin, warm, smooth, responsive, vulnerable against my palms. My hands would take over heady with the permission she had given them to take her, to love her. Empowered by her need and spurred on by mine, they would glide under the top of the fleecy trousers she wore rolled down at the waist, ballerina style, to keep them from sliding down her hips. And press against her sex. And my hands would caress her thin hips and round they would go across her stomach and back over her breasts. And her nipples, hardened by desire uncoiled inside her loins, would catch ever so softly, ever so slightly, under each of my fingertips.
I know that she would take my hand and slide it down to the edge of her nascent short curls. Her hand would cover mine for a brief instant, just long enough to convey a silent order to mine. And my hand would understand. And familiar with the shape of her sex, it would move and curl around the nexus of her desire. Her breath would stand still in her throat until it found its release in a soft moan.
There against her sex, my hand would linger to play, to decipher in Braille the contour of her need while my heart would pound against her shoulder blade.
My own loins, electrified by her arousal, would press back against her hips. Lips swollen with desire. Her lips, her tongue velvety moist inside the palm of my other hand, tracing the length of my fingers, teasingly firm over my fingertips, nuzzling, nipping. Hot breath, hot lips close around the contour of her ear, insistent now, hungry for more. Wanting to close around the softness of her sex. Wanting to taste the satiny smoothness of her sex. Here. Now.
And because I know all that, because I know my own desire, I duck below deck to retrieve a pillow. And I will sit behind her at the bow. I will lay the pillow against the cabin hatch. I know she will edge back a little to fit more snugly between my legs.