More Moments of Sheer Joy
Islands are like moments; sheer moments of joy in water. Tiny perfections lasting a finite time; situated in a particular space and occupying the ecstasy side of the brain. The more moments you have the more you want. Just like islands. One is rarely enough.
I wonder if you can get addicted to the things.
The boat, approaching the island, an iridescent mass of shellac, green, and blue in the ocean, clunks to a stop. Waves sting at my hands. Another island waits for me. The boat rocks; the boatman steadies himself. A breeze lifts from the water and runs through my hair with a lover’s touch. I look at the boatman opposite as he steers. He is so tanned, so healthy-looking.
I can smell the island. Smell its limits; sense its end and sheer joy of completion. An island, no matter its actual shape, is like a circle. It completes and surrenders itself. It is perfection composed of granite, earth, and sand. I set foot on an island and am infused with joy like a religious ecstasy.
I am waiting for the moment to begin. The boat swerves, the man, silent, weather-mocked, pointed ears like they’d been wind-bitten, tries hard to keep it still. Children, like small mannequins, brightly coloured and shoeless, just like in the Sunday supplements, race to the pier; sounds of thumps on wooden-slatting, bright smiles, laughter, tiny hands. Around them annoying insects flit over small, distended puddles in sand. The air exotic, warm, consuming.
I am not alone.
Back on the main ferry I saw a man. Just an ordinary man, hair the colour of sodden matchsticks, face delicately shaped like fragile wax mouldings, legs thin and elegant like a tango dancer, bending over, tying up his shoelaces and then he knocked his head on the railing and smiled sheepishly at me, looking quite silly. His smile made me ache. I decided then it was time I had an affair. I didn’t ache for him in particular: more a general ache for fresh faces, fresh skin, and moments in my body to match the exquisite islands. I remembered my husband then, for a moment.
You leave me parched. I lie spread out before you, your semen dribbling down my thigh. Everything about me is vulnerable and more honest than any moment in my life. If you would but look. Look at me, I want to scream, look at me. Can’t you see now is when I want you? Now! Don’t leave me like this. You think I am done just because you are? My head bent towards your toes, my back bending away from your head, you lying flat beneath me, my hips uplifted, my body expectant. This is me. I have moved for you. I have tried every trick I know and still you finish. Oh so satisfied. Read me, just read me. Read the words of my body, read the contours, the shapes I am making. I make these shapes for you. For me. For us both. I stretch out my arms before me—it triangulates me—and lift my hips slightly away from you, my cunt contracting as if grasping for air or flesh; my body would beg if it could say the words. I shape the words... I want to feel you so much, feel you against me and inside me. I wait, pressing down on my hands. I wait. You’ve not seen, you’ve not guessed I need more touch than what you’ve given me. You think that’s it. I wait still. You lift up your leg, you smile, I move away, you kiss me. You are happy and wordless. You leave me parched.
The first step onto the island is always the most important. Someone takes a picture of me and I smile. A practised smile. I shake hands with important people. Large hands. I say how happy I am to be here in this tropical paradise. They tell me what I will see: waterfalls, lakes, rivers, interiors of excellent schools, hotels for exotic carefree tourists. I move up dark-tiled stairs and into a white and yellow hotel room, an anonymous shower and coolness on my body. Water drenches me. Yellow tile patterns on the wall, making the image of a fat box.
The first island was cold, and off Norway: Bolga—far north, a small island, freezing water everywhere, with views of other islands: Storvika, Åmnøya, Meløy. My intent is to avoid the major islands, as I said in my press release. Just minor islands; islands off islands. They asked me how long it would take. I said a year. They asked how my husband felt about me being absent so long. I said it was for charity. He understood. He agreed with what I was doing. He could join me on any island. It didn’t need to be a lonely sojourn. He was welcome any time.
Now I am glad I am alone. I have been doing this for five months three weeks and five days, and possibly forty minutes. This is island number fourteen or is it fifteen? Norway and then Bornholm, Elba, Sicily—including smaller islands off; islands caught in a day sweep round the coast, like fish in a net—Malta, then Greece which was a dream. I wandered around the Cyclades like Odysseus.
Yet I yearn to see Zanzibar: a place strangely exotic, unknown; to walk the Stone Town with the scent of cinnamon in my hair, sleep with the aroma of cumin on my pillow, enclosed in the drifting aroma of cloves on the night air: somewhere completely unreal. Impossible, yes.
Sponsors give me money for mentioning their products everywhere I go, for the publicity I get for them and for each island I visit. Sometimes islands give me gifts and money, though I usually leave them with armfuls of sponsors’ products. On Karos, in the Cyclades, I was given a donkey, which I had to leave behind. Good publicity usually breeds more money. The time the ferry sank off the coast of Turkey, and I had to pull in unexpectedly into southern Cyprus, brought me in more money than I could ever dream of. I pledged I would raise a million; when I’ve reached that figure I can go home. How many more islands before then?
On Maderia I caught chickenpox after my lucky Buddha fell into the water. It was small, shiny red and much touched, for reassurance, and now it’s in the harbour water, run over by fishing boats and pleasure cruisers. On Madeira a French man in a dark suit smelling slightly of petrol and coffee walked over to me and we talked. He walked me into an alleyway. I was scared. I smiled at him. He reached his hand towards my neck, resting behind me on the wall, pinning me from escape. He was pretty in a grown-up sort of way. Pretty and charming with grey hair. I could have just let him finger me, at least. I wish I had. I wasn’t ready then.
The islands seem to be getting smaller. I’ve been to medium islands and then large ones—avoiding the really big country islands, continent islands, such as Australia, Japan, and now back to intimate islands. How many islands are there in the world? Has anyone ever counted? And Asia is like one big splodge surrounded by hundreds of lesser dots. Now on the smallest of the British Virgin Islands, fearing that when I get to Polynesia I may slip off the edge of an island and vanish into the ocean. I could spend my life doing this and never go back. This place is truly paradise. Oh, such horseshit clichés. But just look at it. I don’t want to leave. There is only one other thing I would need to keep me here. What is my life in England to compared to here?
A yacht moves into focus, pulling in for the night. A big yacht. Four sails in a beautifully symmetrical pattern, like dancers. The yacht glides in, like Arthur’s boat floating to Avalon. Just two people on the beach. Can a place be more unreal? My footsteps on the wooden-slatted balcony confirms its physicality. How is it that some people get to live in such a place? Endless bougainvillea round the door, clean white floors, a balcony view overlooking deep green hills and the ocean. The endless ocean. Down below is the beach: fine, wide, empty. This is a tiny island. I could go snorkelling, scuba diving. I’ve never had sex underwater! I don’t need to ever leave. I think I am going to cry or die or blow up fat like Big Daddy. Become an eccentric Welsh woman gone mad under the sun, drinking mint juleps by the ferry load. Here I could have a lover who fucks me in daylight, on the beach, under trees, spreading my body over a rock, water at my feet, sun burning me, his body over me, in me. We’d meet casually on hot street corners and run to a sheltered spot, brushing over reaching bougainvillaea from our faces. I’d feel alive and wanted. I’d feel alive.
Here I am. Alone, doing almost exactly what I want to do at this moment. All the books say you should do what liberates you. It says listen to your inner voice. It tells me what I want. It tells me I have to look after number one: (“and number one is you—! Yeah!”) What happens when bolstering your self-esteem hurts others?
I send you a postcard from here, portraying big fluffy clouds, blue sky, azure waters—the whole caboodle of clichés. I send you a postcard from every island I go to. They are pictures of the world I now inhabit. Of course you have the photos people take and the sponsors keep you informed and you see me in the press—once placed just inside the front page to now hiding further and further into the back pages; no doubt you’ll expect to see me on the tiny gossip pages soon enough! Do you expect me to fail? I think you do. I send you love and kisses and describe what I see. Indeed I do love you. Sometimes I even miss you.
You deserve the best.
Both of us can’t deserve the best when the best is conflicting.
Once I had a lover who knew how to treat me. Many lovers, even, before I met my husband. Lovers who knew their way joyfully around a woman’s body; lovers who excelled teasing and taunting and licking my clit; lovers who lingered and lovers who knew when to be aggressive, when my body needed force and when I needed delicate beautiful tentative strokes inside me, who knew when to turn me round, how to touch me inside to make me squeal and leap from the bed in amazement, touching the ceiling with the thrill of it all; lovers who would caress me with words and music and wine, as well as the power of who they were. Lovers who were certain of themselves. I miss that. It’s been a long time.
I remember Zeb, who would spend hours with me, whole afternoons, in a sun-drenched room, central heating way up, wandering the Victorian flat naked, drinking wine, talking, dancing energetically to Cuban music on the stereo. His speciality was to make sure I’d come at least three times before he did. He had seduced me when I was nineteen. His body shone. He was fit, young and toned. I loved running my hands over his body, having him caressing my thighs, stroking me, looking at me, telling me I could do anything I wanted. Filling me with confidence from his sure touch. He would kiss my thighs, kiss my labia, kiss every part of me, loving the taste of my juices in his mouth. I loved those sun-soaked hot winter afternoons.
I take a trip on a sleek yacht, polished, chromed, and efficient like an ideal robot. I tie back my unruly hair—a mass of maddening brown curls, and thrust my bikini-clad body into the sun. We land on an uninhabited rocky island where my host and I stride about the barren place like conquerors. He’s tall with an Irish voice, blue eyes and wrinkles from too much sun; too much sailing round the world, and is a master of harbours and islands and weather conditions. He cooks exquisite cleanly sharp meals on a tiny hob and I marvel at the tiny space he inhabits physically and the infinite space he roams mentally. I think it would be good for him to touch me. I look at his thin bony freckled hand. Those fingers that untie knots so deftly. I smile at him.
The sand is hot. The speckled rocks are hot, covered with vibrant insects. The air is full of them and the sound of birds. I watch the small boat bobbing, tucking my legs under me, admiring the depth of tan I am acquiring.
Island number sixteen. I hope someone has taken a picture. I shout to the guy left on the yacht, over the small chasm of water, “Hey get the camera! Take a picture of me! I need proof!”
Without proof I cannot get the money. All those corporate sponsors and their tax-deductible donations, garnering free publicity and great PR. Look, they care about African Orphans, Disappearing Cheetahs, Research into Cystic Fibrosis. The charity I’m doing this for right now is for gorillas and orangutans.
Where do you start choosing who is the most deserving? I began with my distaste for the trouble humanity embroils itself in—even though it may not be each individual’s absolute fault, and my love for an old toy orangutan I had when I was eight called Herbert—and picked an animal charity. You have to start somewhere.
Is there really anything more worthwhile to life than passion? Without it what are you?
We are alone on the island; exploring red-sand cliffs, red the colour of the evening sun, exploring the edge of the water, the tide-marks, the rock pools, the inner oasis, the greenness of the ground past the soft sand. I laugh uncontrollably when, standing under the cliff, he asks to sleep with me. He doesn’t touch. He doesn’t reach down to me, my back rubbing against the hard rock, to touch my cheek, or pull down a fragile bikini string, or unravel my hair from its loose tie, but instead he looks at me as if I am immobile, and says, “Rachael, let’s lie down under this rock and make love.” Without touch it is simple to refuse. When actually I want the authority of touch on me, skin on skin. There is nothing like it. Not even islands can compete. He brushes against me in the yacht. I lean against him so one breast presses against his arm. But he does nothing. He uses his voice when I want his skin. I wish I could say yes. Zeb would be able to seduce me easily.
It’s empowering to go for your dreams.
I have a strong fantasy life. Sometimes I take refuge in there for hours at a time, especially at night, or alone in my bed in the morning. I am like a teenager imagining her first kiss. I don’t caress my arm, but if it wasn’t so silly maybe I would. Sometimes what I imagine frightens me but it’s only thoughts and dreams.
People on the island ask about my life at home in England. I have a strange English accent, they say. I laugh and say that’s because I’m Welsh and grew up outside Hay on Wye, a town of bookshops where literary men come once a year to pontificate. We’ve had presidents, ex-presidents, famous novelists bothered by controversy like wasps on a summer’s afternoon. Now I live in Canterbury, a town of sacrifices and martyrs. The town is a martyr to tourists. See how it subjugates itself. Henry II would adore it.
They ask about children. They are sweet, these islanders. Some incomers are runaways from America. The hotel owners are obviously gay. Their cooking is superb: shrimp so fresh, so tender and crisp, I swear I saw it out in a small rock pool just hours earlier.
I say I have one child, Elissa, with her speech impediment and fascination for insects. She is six—the same age as my marriage. Doesn’t she miss you? Oh, yes, I imagine. Don’t you miss her? Indeed, more than you can know, but I have to do this. Sometimes I wonder how I could have left her. But she is safe with my husband. It is only for a year.
My mind is like a black box whose hinged lid you have no way of lifting. It used to embarrass me. The dreams I could see. Daylight with you makes me bashful. There, I am no one a friend would recognize. I am no one daylight would greet with familiar smiles. Now I can truly let my inhibitions fall away like coverings. I can dream openly of what I want, now I am away from you. I can imagine a lover who explores my body, who takes time and care who has fingers that probe and delve and search and liquefy. A man to whom I could shout aloud “Fuck me” without it sounding silly, to whom I could invite into my ass without fear or trepidation of reaction. A man who could pull my nipples and bite me and tease my clit with his strong teeth. A man whose hands would firmly, delicately grab my throat as I was about to come. A man who could wrap me in soaking sheets and pull me to him. I dream of such freedom. I don’t know when it changed or was it you that changed? All I want to do is marry the world of imagination with daylight. Is that so wrong? And I will do so but without you.
“Rachael! Rachael! Rachael!” Children and parents are shouting and waving. The boat pulls away. They have covered me with cerise and white flowers. Big white petals with cerise spots like dribbled blood. Flowers fall on the quayside as if I am a wedding departure. This is all too much: I am only a small businesswoman with a flair for spotting talent, for spotting an idea and going for it. I am no goddess, I want to shout to them. All I did is come to your island, bring reporters and cameras, and leave again. I didn’t even fuck! My flair is flawed.
Airports and dry hotel rooms. I am an expert at quayside tasteless coffee and at keeping my sweet tooth amused with fat Snickers bars and popcorn in a packet, while waiting. I come ashore on America, like a seasonal tornado. I miss my moments. I miss my islands already.
There is something about the limitations of islands. Pure pleasure whereas the mainland seems infinite and thus the pleasure diffused. Some islands are long and thin, some curl round and touch its other side. Some are two but called one. Some are dots literally and one big wave would swallow them. Some are mountainous. Some are windblown and empty.
What your life is now is unacceptable; not good enough. Take control. Say it to yourself and you will be convinced.
We all need more moments of sheer joy. What is the point of it all without it? The bathroom here has flaking yellow wallpaper. I can see homes of spiders and cobwebs round the windows. I sit on the toilet sit and think of tomorrow: of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket. Sometimes I just decide to call in on an island on the spur of the moment. I see a name on a map and I want to go there. Islands in Chesapeake Bay look interesting…or the islands down the coast from Savannah. Are there are any countries that don’t have islands at all?
I stare at maps to give me answers. I love just figuring out how an island once fitted, slotted in like a jigsaw to the mainland. I do that at night when everyone has gone to bed and my feet ache and the lights are low and I pool light over my map and my malt whisky and I lie naked on the bed, if I’m somewhere hot. It’s hot tonight. Mainland America. I miss Europe; its smallness, odd customs, like driving on the right side of the road, like saying the word curtains, and posting something instead of mailing. People here are rather too friendly. Not a surly voice in the lobby. Even the press ask me nice questions. Rachael Driscoll comes to America, like some otherworld circus clown.
How big this place is—I have a map open now. Even the mainland is composed of islands: Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Island. Florida isn’t real. Is it? It sticks out the bottom like a monkey’s tail. Night falls. The hotel is quiet. It’s hot. Unbearably hot. The air conditioning makes too much noise. I shall never sleep. I have with me, on the side cabinet, as I do wherever I go, my wedding photo in a small metal frame, a plastic purple beaker covered with white daisies that Elissa gave me for water. The bed is yellow. Cowardice.
Change your reality.
I do not know much about the man who is helping me now, only that his name is Daniel and he interests me. Everything thrills me, even this clean harbour here on the west coast of America; I raced through islands like a baby suckles milk, and now we are preparing for the islands off Los Angeles, and then Guadeloupe and then Polynesia. I am resigned, almost to never seeing Zanzibar, which feels like the end of the world.
I say to Daniel, “It’s got to be the end of the world. How many other islands have two zs in them? Do you even know where it is?” He hums and ahs and guesses. “Wrong coast of Africa,” I say.
It’s September; we are short of a million by just £100,000.
You seem very far away from me now. I don’t even know if you exist, even though you sent me a letter and here it is on my bed waiting for me unopened. I guess you’ll tell me the summer is over in England, before it even began. I guess you’re going to tell me Elissa wants new trainers, or braces, or wants to stay up all night to watch MTV. You’ll be saying in these fragments of news that I should come home. You’ll never tell me so openly. But that’s what you think. You’ll say the garden misses my touch and should you paint the kitchen in yellow? And your mother has to go into hospital and your father wants to buy a new car even though he’s nearly eighty. Your boss is driving you mad. I can guess all these things. I can’t even begin to tell you what I am thinking, that I do not miss your touch. I want touch. But not yours and yet there is an inexplicable bond between us still, it is as if you planted a spirit within me that watches and holds me tight, constricting all movement but thought. Am I haunted? I am not looking for love, I say. Rest assured. I don’t want fissure. I just want to be reached where you cannot reach me. I am a selfish woman. Is it your spirit in me that stops me being truly uninhibited? I am moral; it is tearing me apart.
More moments. Never to see Zanzibar. It is too far away, and my time is nearly up. I fret at it. I look it up on the Internet. I stare at its shape on the map. I point it out to Daniel beside me. I have discovered that he is from Boston originally, his accent is kind of quaint and tortured, and sometimes I cannot understand him. He has trouble with my Welsh vowels and so I tone them down just for him. He cannot understand my fascination with Zanzibar. I say its name over and over again: Zanzibar. It speaks of myth, dreams, spices, fragrance, and Arabs. It speaks of something unattainable. We touch accidentally over the map of Africa. I can smell him, sense him, imagine him touching me. I lean towards him. I wonder if he’s a caring empathetic lover, and how his mouth will feel on my mouth. He rests his hand on mine as I point out the coastline of Zanzibar on the map. I have to go there! I shout, looking at pictures appearing on my laptop screen. Coconuts, cloves, little islets, the House of Wonders, Aldabra turtles, 560 carved doors.
“Sublimation is a dangerous thing,” he says to me with so much understanding I feel like shouting. I look at him. He touches my shoulder. He pulls on my hair. My cunt wants him so badly I almost am not me.
“You sound like a self-help book.”
I decide on Mexico instead of Guadeloupe. Mexican islands; there must be others. Daniel accompanies me smelling of cinnamon and ginseng shampoo. I am in a boat travelling down the length of Baja California, stopping off at islands with beautiful Spanish names. Cameras capture me climbing onto the island of Margarita, smiling. My last island. Daniel tells me, enthusiastically, how the name of California came about, from some Spanish guy’s book.
It’s not Zanzibar. The world doesn’t come to an end. They take their last photos; I am a success; they leave me alone with one New Englander who is holding my hand delicately, and a dozen Mexicans in light clothing watching me. It feels so alien. We have the million pounds for the furry creatures. I have to return home. Rachael Driscoll returns home in triumph.
The wind gets up. Plankton float past. Mosaic water glints and washes. We head back to the boat, stand on the water’s edge. I make sure the spirit of my husband is left in land, on Margarita with the children and the trees. After all I am so far from home. This place is so unreal, surely the rules don’t apply here? Surely now I can take a moment from my marriage, from my promises and have just one moment for me? Daniel’s hand holds onto mine even harder. He turns and begins to unbutton my shirt. The sun hits my breasts. I glance up into the sky looking at the sun, feeling heat, seagulls flying, sounds of wind in exotic trees. Heat on my breasts as he runs his hands over them, cups them. Everyone is gone. There is just us on the water’s edge, his head bends down. I can see his dark hair. I touch his hair as his lips wrap round a nipple and firmly begin to pull softly between the very white edges of his teeth.
He lifts up and smiles and removes my sarong, my shirt, and my underwear. I stand naked, water on my feet. He looks at me and smiles again and puts one finger between my legs. I spread. For a few minutes I close my eyes as he fingers me. Abruptly he stops, takes my hand, leads me back across the wooden-slatting into the boat. No sounds on the boat. No one here at all. Just seagulls in the sky, and heat.
Lost in the moment, eyes closed breathing hard, lost in the moment the island purple mosaics flashing tunnels inside outside going through hands gripping feel your breath. The blue sea the sheer blue sea, islands that kiss like crabs, the swaying boat-deck, the sound of gulls. Wet wood beneath my feet. He touched my breast his lips, his hands, his pinching fingers his fingers inside me naked now his mouth and tongue between my legs, he holds my back, holding me with the palm of his hand, stopping me from swaying from falling—I can feel his concern for my body with every touch. This exultation of touch is what I needed. The caress of his cock, the feel of it. He pushes me to the floor with the force of his body. He says nothing but I can feel his breath on me. The mad touch he’s inside me now. I’m on the deck, legs spread out no shame no embarrassment he’s looking down at me he holds his cock—I love that—a man proudly holding out his cock, pushing now inside of me, riding me like this is all he has thought about since we met. I can feel and feel it and it’s beautiful breakthrough I can’t believe I can’t believe is there anything more than this? Best feeling air kissing skin clouds as voyeurs stranded spirits catching up with me.
I am on the sofa. The key in the door. He is home. I open my eyes, close my legs, jump up to meet him, and smile, scattering mementoes: cloves and maps.
Islands have long fascinated me. Some of my favourite fiction deals
with islands, from Christopher Priests amazing novel The Affirmation to D. H. Lawrences short story The Man Who Loved Islands. My story reveals a lighter side of islandsa sensual idea of the island as a place of freedom and liberation. But the question at the end does leave the
whole story open to another interpretation. And of course I would
love to visit Zanzibar!
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