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Jorge was sixty-five and looked remarkably like a bloated cherub. On the terrace, he set his blue, bloodshot eyes on mine and said: I’m going to talk sexually now. He told me that he was unhappy at home, that his wife and daughters bullied him, that his country lived under the German boot. He cupped his chest with both hands delicately and explained that the problem with plastic surgery was this: nobody had considered what it would feel like for the man to touch.

Hours earlier, I had sat alone at the table when a small child came out of the restaurant to greet me. He wore polished shoes and a crisp white shirt. And those eyebrows—very solemn. How I can say this? His actions were precise in a way that relaxed me. He placed a paper sheet over the cotton tablecloth. Then he went inside to retrieve, one by one, the menu, knife and fork, salt and pepper, vinegar and olive oil. I ordered the swordfish, boiled potatoes, tomato salad, a carafe of white wine. When it came, I ate all of it quickly, as I am wont to do when no one else is around.

I was feeling full, a little tipsy, warm in my travel pastels. That’s when I saw him: Jorge, the owner, striding towards me, brandishing a tray with what he warned me was no French oyster.

I looked at the colossal mollusc in front of me. Lay my hand beside it to compare for size. Its taut grey belly—as large as my palm—and gelatinous folds all coated in a filmy dew. My stomach spoke for me, said: No, no, no. But Jorge was already sitting opposite, lifting one from the tray and repeating that this was not some dainty oyster from poo-poo France. He opened his mouth and seemed to swallow it whole, gave me a look that was at once proud and bashful. He reached across the table to pick up the lemon wedge from my plate, squeezed his hand around it as he doused the oyster over. This will be very tasty, he said.

The giant oyster, pooled in juice, was laying on stray bits of romaine lettuce and glistening in the afternoon sun. I did not want to eat it. I do not want to eat it! I yelled at Jorge, if only in my head. Instead I smoothed my napkin and gestured casually towards the restaurant doors. Your son is very elegant, I said. Son? said Jorge. He is just some boy.

On the wall behind him a bougainvillea was strangling the trestles that held it. Just what was I doing in this fishing village with its lagoons and its spoonbills and its tombs full of dead men?


That morning, I had crossed the Roman bridge with my suitcase rattling. I had watched a group of children squabbling; could tell they were arguing not by the indecipherable amalgamation of their vowels but the ascending pitch of their voices. Taking refuge inside a snack bar, my bags now nestled between my legs, I had ordered a coffee. When the stout, strong thing came in a little chipped cup I sipped it under the silent gaze of the other patrons. This was not what I imagined when I boarded the plane.

At my desk in the library, on the train home, even in the crying room, everyone had said: Go, Louise, you should go. They said: Leave the country for once in your life, Louise! They said: The Iberian Peninsula isn’t crowded and everyone speaks English. They said: I lost my virginity there when I was eighteen! But no one had said anything about an oyster—an oyster so large; an alien-like oyster—that appeared to be breathing on the table in front of me. No one had said anything about how I might approach eating such an oyster, a gift from a foreign man.

I thought I might cry. Usually I take pleasure in the act, but this was an embarrassed cry, very different. I had that thick feeling at the throat. And, just like that, I was reminded of my reason for leaving my country in the first place. A week earlier, I had taken flight from my aggressor, Mr Wallace, who liked to whisper insults as he walked past me stacking the shelves though later wrote emails full of kind words and encouragement. Keep up the good work! You’re the best! Thanks for your speedy response! These lies would appear in my inbox within hours of having encountered him alone in the lift, or at the back of the library where I liked to eat my lunch, where he would mutter: Not crying again, are you, Louise? Or: Had another catastrophe today?

Mr Wallace had no patience for matters of the heart. No emotional intelligence to boot. He was a logistical man who dealt with data and figures. He wished for nothing more than all of his columns to align. He did not like the way my calves were bigger than my thighs. Such particulars disrupted his day. He was distracted by my choice of dress: bright patterns and billowy sleeves. His adoration was for streamlined documents and little ticks in the very centres of boxes. Oh, how I hated Mr Wallace! How I feared him even in this fishing village, thousands of kilometres away, in the company of my oyster-giver—an angelic-looking drunk. A lonely restaurateur with a flushed red face, bulbous nose and those bouncy white curls: Jorge!

There he was, sitting in front of me, chin tucked into his collarbone as he lit his next cigarette. Such a short, thick neck! Smiling as he exhaled and then nodding once more towards the tray; encouraging—no, insisting on—the eating of that ugly oyster. I could feel momentum coursing through my body. I was summoning my competitive behaviour. It had saved me once before. Taking slow, deep breaths, I transferred the oyster to my plate, took up my knife and began to cut it in a criss-cross pattern, like one cuts a mango. I spoke to myself reassuringly as I did this. Like a mango, I said. Meanwhile, Jorge looked on intrigued, then somewhat alarmed, as I picked up the shell and scooped out the squares. The mush of the butchered oyster was lumpy, briny, acidic, slippery, slightly sweet. I was surprised not to feel it clawing in my stomach.


The next day, still buzzing from my triumph, I put on palazzo pants, my boonie hat, and a long white shirt to thwart mosquitos. At the same snack bar that had snubbed me earlier, I drank my coffee with eyes steady on the proprietor, showing him just how nonplussed I was by his silent gaze. We were the only two in the establishment, and I took my time, staggering my sips between long intervals, drumming my fingers on the wooden bar, flicking the little packets of sugar. I left my coins on the table in a hasty pile.

Outside I saw a line for bus tickets and joined it. I tapped the woman in front of me and inquired as to where she was going. She was headed for the famous beach too, only the name sounded better coming from her mouth. I practised it until I reached the front and bought a round ticket. The last bus back left at seven in the evening; there would be no more until the following morning. I went to wait in the white-domed shelter underneath the large palms.

When the driver finally arrived, ten minutes late, he offered no apology and kept the doors firmly shut. Retrieving a squished blue cooler bag from beneath his seat, he proceeded to eat his lunch. I had the good grace to wait until he finished his foil-wrapped roll, his beer and his cigarette, before I knocked on the glass. Without turning to face me, his raised his index finger and waved it side to side. This was obviously not a country that understood promptness. Can you believe this? I said to the woman standing next to me. She made no reply, only smiled meekly as she adjusted her mirrored aviators.

And then we were on the bus and moving. The landscape on either side of the highway all flat, dusty rock. Some lonely trees. Every now and then, a rest stop with a petrol station. Billboards advertising unappealing restaurants. At one point, the driver took out a book and rested it on his knees, glancing up only once in a while at the long stretch of straight road in front of him. I calculated the difference in hours and saw myself—in my alternative life—coming home from work on the train, riding the escalators from the underground lair of the station with its bright lights and violent-sized screens blasting news updates. Saw myself walking my tree-lined street, which was nicer than the parallel one with its pubs and all that human drama. Saw myself checking my mailbox, tossing aside the letters for past tenants that looked important, and hiding in the fire escape when I heard the footsteps of my cruel, hoarder neighbour. Breathing a sigh of relief as I made my way through the front door, now safe in my apartment, putting some water in the saucepan for my evening egg. Switching on all the lamps, opening the windows and watching the trees outside sway from the southerly. My favourite part of the day—this nightly ritual. The sanctity of the space a comforting reprieve from all that hostile energy at the library.

The bus made its way down the dramatic slopes towards the beach, which looked almost exactly as it had in photographs online, only less hyper-coloured. The end of the earth. The coastline stretched all the way down to the very bottom of the country, a corner feared by sailors for its dangerous currents. In the car park, Enrique Iglesias bellowed from a stereo system. We filed out. A rental van pulled up beside us, and as the group went to buy beers from the small kiosk I thought I heard the hooting sounds of my countrymen.

I took off my shoes and socks, and rolled up my pants, the Iglesias song faint as I walked towards the roar of the waves. Had I been at home, on a beach in my own city, I would have lamented the intrusion of this particular song. But here, on the vast coastline, the strings swelling underneath, the chorus summoned only an odd sense of recognition; familiarity amid an unknown place.

You must understand: I meant only to dip in my toes and then return to the designated part of the beach meant for day visitors—a section with fold-out chairs, umbrellas and welcome signs displayed in several languages. But once I started walking I found I could not stop. I had a desperate desire to reach the end. I could see several rocks rising from the sea in the distance. One resembled the shape of a horse. I wanted to get close enough to touch them. I wanted to know what was beyond. I had read that the beach was twelve kilometres long. It was unruly—the kind of beach I like. Nothing but mountains on one side and the Atlantic on the other. I walked facing the sun. At about halfway, I took out my phone and saw that I had lost reception. It was five, then suddenly it was six. Still I walked, on and on, further and further, the end point seeming no closer—a trick of perception. Those jagged rocks became smaller, not larger, the nearer I got to them. The tide was steadily rising. The heat from the day was dissolving.

When I got to the end, my skin was burnt and the sun was almost setting. I sat on the narrow strip of sand and thought of the last bus that would soon be leaving from the drop-off point at the other end. I took off all my clothes and waded naked into the ocean, turning my back against those first waves, as I knew to do. I made my way out to the sandbar as the sun merged with the water, turning everything gold and then pink, a ridiculous purple. I looked back at the shore, which was empty, not a soul to be seen, and saw stars blinking in the sky above the mountains. I felt strangely calm. I did not regret missing the bus. Was not thinking about being alone on the beach without food or light or warmth. Was not troubled by the cold air engulfing the cliffs. Was not fearful of the swirl or the increasing pull of the tide. No, in that moment, as I lay among the bubbles in the shallow waves, my body bobbing like a cork in a glass of champagne, I felt something close to pure happiness. A difficult period in my life had ended. The night stretched out in front of me.

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