Jo-Anne Foster is a traveller and a people-watcher. Her short stories and screenplays focus on the funny side of everyday life. She has a short story published in Blackbird New Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre and a flash fiction story in Bath Flash Fiction Volume Four.
She has written and directed three short films and a documentary in her home country Aotearoa / New Zealand.
Donna and Robbie Williams
Donna’s tattoo looks a nasty grey colour as she steps up out of the Lido. It’s poking out above her bikini pants, running up her back like some old grubby spear. I take another bite of my Magnum and sink lower into the deck chair. What a stupid choice! Why hadn’t she chosen a butterfly or a small swallow? Why some ancient Maori or Polynesian symbol inked onto her white body? Some sacred motif of people who live thousands of miles away.
I’m still ranting about tattoos a week later to my mate Angus at our local The Three Sisters. ‘Robbie Williams is to blame,’ I say. ‘He has to be. What with him covering his whole body and arms with ancient tattoos from the South Seas in the ’90s. He’s probably never even stepped foot in any of those countries. Some stupid English git gets his arms and body covered in native signs and the world follows. Beats me!’
Angus takes a long sup of his beer.
‘Let me entertain you,’ I say and push the hair back off my forehead, ‘by taking the mickey and getting everyone to follow my bad example. I mean those tattoos have meanings, ancient meanings, they tell stories.’
‘What like I love Mum tells a story,’ Angus says, laughing too loud at his own joke.
‘Nah, listen,’ I say, ‘can you imagine all those tattooed bodies in rest homes in 20 to 40 years’ time being washed by nurses with pure un-inked bodies. All that blue ink wrinkled, folded and sagging across their chests and arms. You could never decipher what it originally was. It’ll just look like some blue splodge. Like a jellyfish under water.’
‘Nah, people will always have tattoos,’ Angus says.
‘Nup, by 2025 you won’t see young people getting tattoos anymore. That phase of covering yourself with blue ink would’ve faded out.’
‘Nah, I’m not so sure.’
‘There’s evidence of it. Look there’s not that many 17, 18 year olds getting their bodies inked now is there?’
‘Yeah. I dunno, you could be right,’ Angus says and finishes his pint.
I met Donna at a Friday night works do. Once a month at Westfield shopping mall there’s a staff night for the forty-odd stores. The customers leave and the doors are locked. The mall management place a couple of trestle tables on the second floor next to the plastic palms and bench seats. The escalators are turned off — something about saving power. All the downstairs shop workers walk up the non-moving escalators, moaning. Every one stands around with their thin plastic cups sipping warm Asti Spumante and fake smiling a lot.
Sometimes a guy from Mall Management will give a speech. He’ll talk about the camaraderie between the different stores and how retail is an emotionally draining profession — nice light entertainment. Over the mall speakers the elevator music seeps through and most people only stay for one drink before heading down the escalators trying their hardest to rally up some enthusiasm for the Friday night ahead.
The night I met Donna, the guy from HMV pulled a speaker out to the front of the store and soon Guns N’ Roses and the Foo Fighters were completely drowning out the Muszak. That night people stayed a bit longer. Donna was standing with a group of women from Oasis Fashions. There was a woman in tight skinny jeans with an enormous muffin top squashed into a red lurex shirt. I guessed that she was the boss. Not by her age but by the way she held herself, all pert and proper, amongst the younger prettier women. A sure sign of a woman terrified of ageing. Donna smiled at me and I did a comical look over my shoulder, to make sure no real handsome guy was standing behind me. Nup, she definitely smiled at me. Donna edged to the side of the group as I walked over. I was in my PC Direct uniform, black trousers, black shirt with blue trim, which is pretty bad but nothing much I can do.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I said, trying to sound relaxed.
‘Oh, you know, same old,’ she said.
‘Yeah, these things are pretty boring aren’t they?’
‘Yeah, I didn’t want to come but I was sort of pressured.’ She raises her eyes up and sideways and I guessed she meant the Muffin Top.
‘Is she your boss?’
‘Yeah, unfortunately, 50 going on 18.’ I laughed and Donna smiled back at me. ‘Isn’t it a sad state when women dress like that? I mean, even when I’m selling clothes I will always offer alternatives, if the look’s too young for them,’ she said.
‘I know, it’s like they’re hanging onto their youth with clawed fingernails, painted red. Ah no, painted black. That’s the popular colour now, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, it is’, Donna said, and smiled at me again.
‘All the girls I work with at PC wear black nail polish.’ We chatted for about another hour and then the HMV guy closed up his shop and everyone headed off. I asked Donna if she wanted to meet up sometime tomorrow. She said she swims every Saturday morning at the Lido. I bought myself a pair of swim shorts and the rest is history.
After six months of being boyfriend and girlfriend I paid for two tickets to Palermo. I surprised Donna at the Lido one Saturday morning. I’d printed the boarding passes at work and had them poking out of her towel when she came back to the deck chairs. She yelped and danced around a bit and I felt great. I booked our accommodation at an Airbnb place in a small village called Aspra, a short distance from Palermo. Online, Aspra looked like a quaint fishing village where coloured boats lie on a pebbled beach.
And now it’s our first holiday together. On the flight over Donna squeezes my hand and talks to me in her urgent voice. This voice of hers is halfway between serious and bullshit. It has the tone a dentist would use before they extract one of your teeth. They’ll say something like, ‘It’ll be all over before you know it,’ and you’re certain they’re totally lying.
Donna says, ‘I’m so happy with you, Adam. You are the only boyfriend who has trusted me.’
I squeeze her hand and say, ‘I’m pleased’.
It’s true, I am pleased. But I want this conversation to end. I pull out the flight menu from the back pocket and say, ‘Let’s have two bottles of red wine.’ A while back she’d told me about a boyfriend she’d had who didn’t trust her. She’d left him. I hated hearing this story of how he’d followed her and waited outside places until she came out. I’m not sure why women feel the need to tell new boyfriends about old ones. A guy doesn’t do that. It may be in our heads, things about old girlfriends but that’s where it stays. Women just have to spill it all out.
On the first night in Aspra we go down to the small piazza overlooking the beach and have a pepperoni pizza.
‘This is how they are supposed to be,’ Donna says, with her newly found knowledge of everything Italian. ‘Us Brits just love thick bread,’ she says, ‘it’s like we’re brought up on it. You see how slim-hipped all the Italian men are compared to British men, and the women too. It’s bread, yeast, that’s where the extra pounds come from.’
It is true the pizza bases must be the thinnest in the world. But I’m also thinking it’s not just bread. It’s our Anglo-Saxon genes, our beer-drinking culture and our cold weather — all of these help the extra pounds hang around. I rub my stomach and have another slice.
This is what Donna is like, you can’t really have a soft conversation with her. Everything is either right or wrong — nothing in between. If it’s a subject she finds interesting or is passionate about she won’t stop until her opponent is either leaving the area from lack of brain function or they’ve simply laughed at her and said, why do you care so much? No one really gives a toss about the subject in the first place, and Donna has dragged it out for so many minutes that it’s completely parched. It falls into the grey matter tray which is filled with all the other subjects that you never want to discuss for the rest of your life.
‘But the Italians like the thinner slice,’ she says and smiles at me. She’s right and she looks beautiful – so what do I care. The long white dress she bought at the market this morning drapes across her shoulders and I can see a bit of colour coming into her skin. Donna smothers herself with sunblock, but I think if she ever lived in a warm climate she’d eventually go brown and stay brown.
I’m not sure if I love Donna. How do you really know if you love someone? It’s not like the movies or the soppy Valentine’s cards. That crystal clear knowledge that this is the only person you want — have to have – the one you need – the one you want to spend the rest of your life with. To me, the question is – can you imagine your life without that person you are in love with? Yes, of course you can. Because up until now you’ve lived your life reasonably well without them being in it. It’s only after meeting the precious one that you can’t imagine your life without them. It’s a bit like those stag-head ferns that attach themselves to large trees. The tree was doing fine, growing, bathing in the sunlight until the stag-head came along. Now the tree can’t remember its life without the fern’s attachment, the sucking of energy and water from its veins is normal everyday life.
Our five days of holding hands, making love and eating fabulous food is over too quickly and before we know it, it’s our last night. Donna is bored, she’s sitting out on the small veranda which peeks over the terracotta rooftops and down to the deep green sea. A soft breeze is blowing and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. It’s so good to have time just to sit and do nothing. When we get back to Watford our lives will be exactly the same as they were. Work, friends, shopping and pubs, nothing would’ve changed. ‘Come on, let’s go back out again,’ she says.
‘We’ve the flight back tomorrow. I thought we could have a night in and drink our Bailey’s.’
‘We can do that at home. We should see as much as we can while we’re here.’
After 20 minutes of toing and froing she agrees to stay in and decides to go down to the local bar, get some snacks and bring them back to our room.
After an hour she’s not back and I’m a bit worried about her. Her phone is on the terrace table, I pick it up and go out. The streets are dark and empty. A couple of locals walk past but because it’s Sunday most of the bars are already closed. I walk past a laneway and see a small café at the end with its lights on. When I look in I see Donna’s back, she’s sitting at a table with two men. One of the men has his arm draped across the back of her chair. I walk quickly past. I stop at the end of the lane and breathe. Don’t want to be that boyfriend. Trust, trust, the words are written in the sky. The best thing to do is go past again and get a proper look. This time the guy’s arm is back by his side and it looks like she’s leaving. Back in the room, I open the Baileys and pour a good measure.
After another half an hour she’s still not here. When I walk back into the laneway the lights in the café are out. I peer through the window, the chairs are stacked on tables and a dim light is coming from a beer sign above a fridge. I knock on the door, ‘Donna are you in there?’ A window above me opens and an old man stares down. He starts yelling in Italian and spits not far from my feet. ‘English, English girl, bella’ I say. A lot of useless Italian words come into my head. ‘Have you seen an English girl?’ He yells again and closes the window. I should’ve gone into the café. Fuck worrying about being that boyfriend.
I run down to the Piazza. Everything’s closed. A ginger cat rubs itself against my legs. I hear a laugh like a shriek, far off. Then another one. I run as fast as I can and stand on the concrete pier looking down at the beach. There’s Donna. Swimming. The two Italian guys from the café are sitting on the sand, smoking. ‘Donna, Donna,’ I call out and wave. The two guys turn slowly and look up at me.
By the time I walk down the steps, one of the two has stood up. ‘Hey, I’m Franco,’ he says and holds out his tattooed arm.
Donna has seen me by now and calls out, ‘Hi, come in, it’s beautiful.’
I look at the two guys and say, ‘I’ve been worried about her.’
‘Worried?’ Franco says, as if he doesn’t understand the word.
‘Yeah, you know, concerned, upset. I didn’t know where she was.’
‘Ah comprende,’ Franco says and speaks in Italian to the other guy. I think he’s interpreting what I said.
‘No worry, Mister Donna, Italy is safe place, especially Palermo.’ I think this must be the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I look at Franco to see if he’s joking. He’s not. I get a blank stare.
The guy sitting on the sand uncoils his long legs and stands up. He pats his jeans and holds his hand out.
‘George,’ he says. I take his hand and feel instant pain, his grip is so tight, I splutter out, ‘Adam. My name’s Adam’. I pull my hand back and put it behind my back, shaking it to bring the blood back.
Donna’s dress is lying next to the spot where George was sitting. I can see her taking off her dress in front of these two guys. They’d have seen her tattooed spear when she walked down the sand. I can’t see her bra and panties, I hope she’s swimming in them.
‘Come in, Adam, it’s so warm,’ she calls again.
‘You’re not swimming,’ I say.
Franco flicks the black curls from his face, laughs and says, ‘No only tourists swim at night-time in Sicily.’ There is a tone to his voice that wasn’t there before.
I call out to Donna, ‘OK, I’m coming in.’ I bend down pick up her dress and walk a couple of paces towards the sea.
When I look back the two Italians are talking in low voices, ‘I’m going for a swim,’ but they’re not listening. George turns towards me and gives me a heavy look.
‘OK, Mr Donna. See you, Ciao,’ Franco says and they both walk slowly off the sand.
Donna calls out, ‘Ciao brothers.’
Franco turns back, waves and calls out, ‘Ciao Bella.’
George keeps walking.
I get down to my boxers and walk to the shore line. The water is warm. I look up at the stars, run and dive straight in. The sea holds me. Across the black water I see the two men walking back up the hill. Donna swims over to me and splashes my face.
’Hey you should have come down with me, those guys were really interesting. They told me all about the history of the village. Way back—you know the time of Vesuvius.’
‘Oh right,’ I say, not really listening. I float on my back while water sloshes in and out of my ears.
This is how I want to remember Sicily. Black, wet and cool on the skin. We swim around, splashing each other and then Donna wants to get out. We both stand on the sand with droplets racing down our bodies. I look up at the stars. Donna pulls her dress over her head, her face pops through and she smiles up at me. I cuddle her and tell her, I love her. It’s the truth, the total truth. It dawns on me that we can only say one thing, on one day, at one time. On this small beach now, in Sicily, at this precise moment in time, I do love Donna Trantham.