WEDGEWOOD (AN EXTRACT)

February 23, 2015

by Emily Kathryn Utter

 

Portugal was the farthest away from home she’d ever been. Even as they’d boarded the plane she couldn’t believe she was going to Europe (she’d been to Britain before but Continental Europe seemed different somehow, less like home). For months she’d been looking at travel books and brochures, imagining herself walking the white sandy beaches and swimming in the pure turquoise water. She’d packed three novels—one for each week—which she thought was a lofty goal but not unrealistic.

She had to admit to herself that she was more excited for her honeymoon than she had been for the wedding. The wedding had been compounded by expectation—her own and everyone else’s—nerves (were there enough hors d’oeuvres for everyone?), and the inevitability of her father saying something humiliating in his speech. Portugal—The Algarve (it sounded so exotic, she’d been rolling the word off her tongue for months, pretending she was so cultured that she just assumed everyone knew what she was talking about)—would be serene, quiet, and as far away from her father as she’d ever been in her life.

“Greer, what the hell possessed you to get married at Christmas?” her sister, Elsie, had barked as their car slowed and wove between the masses of other vehicles, jostling for space at the departures drop-off at Pearson Airport. “I mean, just what the hell.”

Greer couldn’t remember the exact reason they’d picked December twenty-third. It had had something to do with her fiancée—her husband—George, being able to take holidays from work. They’d coordinated everything so that they’d be home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, before flying out Boxing Day afternoon. Of course she’d told everyone it was because Christmas was her favourite holiday and she loved the idea of a holly-filled bouquet. She did quite like winter: freshly fallen snow—the blanketing effect it had on the rough corners and grey pallet of the city—and the quiet, muffling effect that accompanied it.

She’d been too excited to sleep on the plane and had instead spent the nine hours dividing her time between rereading her guidebooks—quietly mouthing some of the more easily pronounced Portuguese words under her breath—and fidgeting with George’s watch—(turning it round and round his wrist as he slept deeply beneath his blanket and eye mask). George was well travelled, and this nine-hour haul was “nothing compared with a flight to Beijing.”

They had a two-hour stopover at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning, and Greer was amazed to find the terminal bustling: the shops were open, the restaurants were even serving beer and liquor with breakfast. It occurred to Greer that time seemed to be inconsequential in an airport—boarding and take-off times merely markers, for it could be breakfast time for some travellers, and dinnertime for others, work hours for some, and bedtime for the more weary people she passed who were stretched out across a row of seats or tucked away in a corner. George had strolled over to the duty free to browse the Scotch selection whilst Greer wandered through Harrods—she’d promised to bring back some tea for her mum and sisters.

They arrived in Lisbon just before noon, where they hired a car to drive three hours to Albufeira, in the Faro District. For much of the journey they were able to take the A2 highway and there was little to see on the drive—it was winter, and though the temperature outside was mild, the fields were mostly barren beside the highway. Occasionally they passed a field of cattle, dirty, unkempt beasts with mud splattered up their legs and matted in their haunches, but otherwise the farms appeared abandoned and vacant.

When they did pull over at a rest stop so George could stretch his legs, Greer bought a quart of green olives and a small bag of dried cherries from a roadside stand beside the petrol station. She watched George as he stood leaning against their car, the gas pump in one hand, his other hand casually tapping the hood of the car—some beat, or rhythm, that she couldn’t hear from where she was.

“We’re really quite lucky,” he said when they were back in the car. “Europe’s having a mild winter this year. The guy inside said it’s been unseasonably warm down along the coast. We’ll have better beach weather than we thought.”

“Dad always said if you can swim in the Bay at Thanksgiving you can swim anywhere,” she said, popping an olive in her mouth.

Greer had never tasted olives so plump and full of flavour before—she guessed that the delicious tinge of saltiness derived from the ocean itself, that it somehow flowed up through the rivers, directly to the trees. George would say that most agricultural land is brackish, and miss her point completely, so she kept her thoughts to herself. George had little imagination, but she took pleasure in his apparent interest in the bag of cherries—he kept reaching across to steal them from her open hand.

When she’d eaten her fill, Greer turned to look out the window. The sun, beaming in past George in the driver’s seat, was warm on her legs and getting warmer as it rose higher in the sky. George had put on his sunglasses and was absent-mindedly humming along to the radio—a Portuguese station was playing traditional folk music, interspersed with bouts of low static.

“Remember that summer after we were first engaged?” George asked, suddenly. Greer had been on the brink of drifting into a nap, her head cushioned against the window by a sweater.

“What about it?” She yawned and stretched her arms above her head.

“I was just thinking of that drive we took to Kenora.”

“Oh?” Greer feigned ignorance, though she knew why he’d brought it up.

“All those bed and breakfasts we stayed in, and the motels—and how we’d stop for lunch and share a beer?”

Greer allowed herself to smile slightly. “Yes, I remember that.”

“Remember that one evening, we were quite late getting to the next motel?”

Greer did remember, and she felt the heat rise up from the neck of her t-shirt, flushing her cheeks. They’d stopped for a late lunch, and Greer had drunk, at George’s insistence, another pint of beer to herself. She remembered that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was on the radio when they’d pulled back onto the road, and something about the hot afternoon air blowing in through the open windows had triggered a sudden sense of detachment. She was in a car many miles from home, on a stretch of road that her mother was probably tracing with her finger on a map back in Toronto. She was conscious of the side-view mirror, and had begun to watch her own reflection. She stole glances at herself every so often, and noticed the bronzed skin of her arm as it rested along the window, and how small her angular face appeared, overwhelmed by the Serengeti sunglasses she wore. She fluttered her fingers in the wind and placed her feet up on the dashboard.

A giddy sensation had risen up from her stomach and into her chest when she’d looked at George: relaxed, and leaning back slightly in his seat, one hand on the wheel and the other absent-mindedly fiddling with his hair. She felt as if she might burst. If it hadn’t been for him, she’d be at home, tracing the non-existent outline of a future she wouldn’t have had—no ring on her finger, no way out from under her parents’ roof. She couldn’t think of the right words, but she wanted to show him how grateful she was, and in the moment, emboldened, perhaps spurred by the heat of the day and thrilled by the idea of doing something she wouldn’t have otherwise done, she unbuckled her seat belt and leaned over the centre-console…

Greer kept her feet firmly planted on the floor in front of her. “Yes I remember that too,” she said, cautiously.

“Well?” said George. He raised an eyebrow at her.

Greer surveyed her new husband in the driver’s seat. From the moment she’d brought him home four years ago, her sisters had referred to him as a “Kennedy type.” He came from old money, wore polo shirts, and had rowed varsity in university. As such, Greer thought he was quite unlike her father, who had been born into a poor immigrant family but had been unusually gifted, and thus marginally successful. It had been a surprise to find that the two of them got along so well.

During the years they were dating, Greer’s sisters were fond of teasing her about how lucky she was to have been “chosen,” since she, unlike George, only had one middle name, as if this somehow reflected poorly on her credentials as a mate. In fact, her sister Bryce, still referred to George by his entire name: George Henry Tate Bell, every time she saw him. It sounded like four people were coming to dinner rather than one.

She realized she’d hesitated long enough that George had begun to fiddle with the zipper of his trousers.

“Well what?” Greer asked. “It’s daylight out.”

George’s hand slowly took up its place on the steering wheel. He sighed deeply, shook his head ever so slightly, and looked out the driver’s side window, away from her.

Greer watched him for a minute, willing him to turn and look at her, to give her some conciliatory sign that he wasn’t angry.

She wasn’t sure why she’d refused him—why this drive seemed any less appropriate than the drive to Kenora. It was her honeymoon after all, and she wanted them both to enjoy themselves. She needed to loosen up—that’s what her sisters were always saying.

They spent the rest of the drive in silence, carefully avoiding each other’s hands as they intermittently reached for the cherries and olives.

During the first few days at the hotel, Greer made every attempt to appease George. She signed them up for a port tasting in the dining room, even though Greer’s knowledge and like of port was limited to the tiny glass her father served following a festive meal—usually from a bottle that had been sitting in the cellar for too long. He’d never bother to filter the contents before he served it, and the tiny grains of sediment always collected in the fissures of her molars, causing her to grind her teeth back and forth until she could excuse herself to the bathroom to rinse her mouth.

George seemed to be enjoying himself—he was engaged in conversation with the bartender, going over the distinctions between tawny and L.B.V. ports. But for Greer it was too sweet, and the purple tinge it left behind on George’s lips reminded her of sloppy kisses and Christmas cracker hats.

Though she enjoyed the snorkelling and swimming, tennis and beach volleyball, she was hesitant when George suggested they take one of the small sailboats out. For a number of summers when she was a child, her parents had owned an old eight-metre, Gulliver, that her father had once planned to refurbish. Having no sailing experience himself however, the boat sat most of the year in general disrepair at the Christian Island marina. On the odd occasion he felt the urge, they’d pack up a lunch and load into the old boat—excited at first at being out on the water—and attempt to make a go of it.

Her father’s inexperience combined with her mother’s lack of initiative and the fact that there were three relatively young children present, made for a horrible time—he’d yell and scream and scold them for being in the wrong place, getting in the way, or for untying the wrong knots, sending them in the wrong direction. By the time they’d returned to the dock her mother’s nerves were frayed and she and her sisters were shaken within an inch of their lives—by his temper, and by the waves on the bay that smashed against the sides of the old wooden sailboat.

“I think I’ll stick to the beach today,” she told George. “But you go—I’ll watch from here.”

By the second week of their honeymoon Greer was on the verge of working up enough courage to join the other women, tourists and locals alike, topless on the beach.

“Oh, just live a little,” George said. “It’s not like we know anyone, and it wont be out of the ordinary.”

“I’m not sure if that’s an insult or not,” Greer responded. George rolled his eyes.

“If I had a choice between you and your bathing suit or you and no bathing suit, which do you think I’d choose?”

Greer blushed. She wasn’t sure how it ended up being his choice, but so far she’d managed to avoid further disagreement since the car ride from Lisbon, and wasn’t in the mood to argue. “Fine,” she said, and stuffed an extra towel into her bag.

So it was that they ventured out that morning to one of the more secluded areas of the beach. They sought out the most advantageous spot, away from the other early beach goers, and far enough from the water’s edge to avoid the tide when it approached later in the day. Greer stood with their bags while George ran up to the small beach hut where they could rent the chairs and loungers. She closed her eyes and inhaled the smell of the salty sea air. It was barely mid-morning but the sand under her feet was already warm from the sun. An elderly gentleman, his skin as brown and leathery as a catcher’s mitt, was wading out into the water, the bald patch on his head shiny with sweat or tanning lotion. He wore a Speedo—as all the Portuguese men seemed to do—and the sagging skin of his paunch and hips rolled over the waistband.

“Not much in the way of food really,” George said as he came huffing back, dragging two blue reclining chairs behind him, umbrella under his arm.

“That’s okay, I’ve packed the sausage, cheese, and olive bread,” Greer said, turning from the water. She was immediately relieved that she’d thought ahead. One thing she’d realized about travelling with George was that if she didn’t feed him every few hours he would become petulant and disagreeable.

“Excellent. They’ve got beer, so we’re set.”

Greer beamed, as if he’d praised her directly.

They spread their towels out on the loungers and faced them in the direction of the sun. When it seemed like George was completely engrossed in his magazine, Greer discretely undid the ties of her bikini top and slipped it down into the front pocket of her bag. She’d already counted three women in passing who were without their tops, so it didn’t seem like there was a time frame in which this sort of behaviour was appropriate. That is, it appeared perfectly acceptable to expose one’s breasts before noon.

The sun was bright, and she guessed the temperature would climb as the day progressed, but there was a faint chill in the air when a cloud passed over the sun—perhaps a sign that winter may be on its way yet. When the air was still, she felt quite content without her top, it was only when the breeze picked up she noticed that the thin downy hairs on her skin stood up and the small bumps on her areola became more pronounced, like goose pimples. A couple walked past their chairs and nodded, barely giving Greer a glance. She marvelled, for a moment, at the Europeans’ ability to see the human body for what it was—just flesh, and hair, and bones, and fat. Not to be covered up—hidden—nor to be gawked at.

Over the course of the day they wandered in and out of the water, nibbled at their lunch and drank Sagres to keep themselves hydrated. They strolled down to the very end of the beach, hand in hand, and wrote their names in the wet bronzed sand along the surf. They watched as the waves rolled in until the letters melted, and George’s name looked, simply, like Gooooo.

It wasn’t until they got back to the hotel and Greer got into the shower that she realized how badly burnt she was: the water, barely lukewarm, stung and burned like white-hot pins and needles all over her body. Lifting her arms up to wash her hair was nearly impossible—the skin on her breasts and around her bra line, having never seen so much sun before, had borne the worst of the damage and felt now as if her flesh might tear from the bone at any moment. She turned the hot water off and stood in the cold for as long as she could endure it, finally emerging, hair and body unwashed, to lie on top of the bed covers.

“I’m burnt,” she said.

“Oh,” George responded. He was sorting through his suitcase, searching for something to wear to dinner. “Badly?”

“Very badly.”

“Can you go down to eat?”

Greer pictured herself, skin pink and shiny like she’d just had a full-body chemical peel, sitting at the table, casting off enough heat to warm the entire dining room. No—she couldn’t imagine eating or drinking, wine made her feel flushed enough as it was.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why didn’t you use sun cream?” George asked, standing over her, fists planted on his hips. She realized how ridiculous she must look, lying on her back, spread-eagled, as if she were a little girl again, making a snow angel. The thought of cold snow was appealing, and she held onto it as George settled his weight onto the bed beside her. She was momentarily embarrassed by her nudity, but it brought a wave of scorching pain to the surface of her skin, and she closed her eyes to the humiliation.

“I forgot.”

“Well, I can bring you something from the dining room,” George said. “Or you could order room-service.”

“I just want water. Water and a painkiller. And aloe.” She felt puffy—and swollen—and raw, and though her back was not nearly as burnt as her chest, she seemed able to feel every wrinkle in the sheets, every fibre in the linen—every cross stitch, and fold.

She remembered vividly the family ski holiday to Utah, and how Bryce had suffered such severe sunburn from the reflection of the sun off the snow that her face had come up in blisters and sores. Greer opened her eyes and lifted her head to inspect her chest and stomach. No blisters—not yet—not that she could see. She envisioned her body, covered in blisters, erupting and oozing. She struggled upright and began squeezing at the tube of aloe gel that George had brought her from the bathroom.

“You should know better,” he said, scolding her. He rose from the bed and wandered to the window, as if distracted by something outside.

“I know, I know,” she said, applying the aloe with one gentle finger to her chest, and each of her nipples.

“You know, because of your mother,” he continued.

Greer stopped and looked at him. He was watching her from what seemed like a distance further than the other side of the room. It wasn’t repulsion on his face, however. To Greer, it seemed to be almost triumphant, like he was congratulating himself for having pointed out the irony of her situation. He was, of course, referring to the bout of melanoma her mother had been in treatment for a year ago.

“Yes. I know,” she said forcefully, slamming the bottle of aloe down on the bedside table.

George pulled a sweater over his t-shirt and kissed the top of her head before he left the room. She lay there for a long time, envisioning his movements in the dining room three floors below. Was he sitting by himself? Or was he chatting up some Portuguese tart at the bar? Greer fell into a restless sleep, imagining George downstairs, drumming the fingers of one hand on the bar counter, and slipping his wedding band into the pocket of his trousers.

The blisters appeared the next morning, the worst of them wet and shiny around her nipples. Greer confined herself to the room since she couldn’t stand to wear anything other than her thin cotton nightgown. Even in the shade, the heat outside made her sweat and itch. Sleeping was almost impossible, and of course George had understood when she said she simply could not have sex—she could barely stand to touch herself, never mind be touched. But as the final nights of their holiday approached, Greer sensed that George was growing frustrated and impatient. At dinner, with only a few days left of their trip, he made his position clear:

“I hadn’t planned to spend one night without touching you, never mind five.”

Greer blushed and looked down at her plate. In an attempt to salvage their final nights, she’d forced herself to get dressed for dinner—though she wore a shapeless sundress, and no brassier.

“I didn’t plan for this either,” she said. “I was so stupid not to have worn sun screen. If it makes you feel any better, I’m paying the price for it.”

“It doesn’t make me feel better,” George said. He crossed his arms and looked out over the dining room at the other diners—couples mostly—who were sitting much closer to each other than he and Greer were.

“I feel much better tonight,” Greer lied, sensing that it was up to her to make the first move. George wouldn’t touch her without her permission of course, but he would pout and look downcast and, Greer thought, that was just as unbearable. It was, she realized then, what her father did when he didn’t get his way: he never laid a hand on them—not really—not except for the spankings, and those being especially brutal at Christmas. Instead he took his stance at the line between appropriate and not—he never crossed it, not so far as she could remember, but it always felt like he did, like there had been some kind of violation, though there was no soreness, blood, or bruises to say so.

“Really?” George asked, uncrossing his arms.

Greer realized she’d been staring blankly at her wine glass. She looked up at George, still thinking of her father. “Yes, really.”

Back in the room Greer bought some time by going into the bathroom to put on the last of the lingerie she’d packed. The black lace of the brassiere was expensive and fine, but she still felt as if every thread was catching like Velcro, digging tiny fibres into her skin. The blisters were slowly healing, but she was extremely tender. She removed the gauze she’d been using to protect them from her clothes, and tossed the faintly stained pads into the bin.

“You look amazing,” George said as Greer emerged from the bathroom. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, removing his socks. His face was flushed—from the wine or from expectation, Greer didn’t know.

“Thank you,” she said. She shifted her weight awkwardly from foot to foot, unsure of how to stand. Before the sunburn, she’d worn the lingerie to dinner, under her evening clothes, and George had slowly undressed her once they reached the room. That had felt natural enough, a normal progression; now it felt as though she was expected to put on some kind of show.

“Well come over here,” he beckoned, opening his arms to receive her.

She sat beside him on the bed, braced between the hands that gently gripped her just above her elbows. She let him kiss her shoulders, her neck, her mouth, and found she could not distinguish between the pleasure of being caressed and the nagging irritation of the close-fitting lingerie she wore. She reached her hands behind her to undo the clasp on her bra but George stopped her.

“No, keep it on this time.”

Was it because the lingerie was especially lovely? Or because he wished to avoid looking at her injured breasts?

“Alright,” she mumbled, placing her hands flat on his thighs.

George guided her back onto the bed and pulled her panties down her thighs, over her knees, swiftly unhooking them from the heels of her feet. It was some minutes before Greer realized she was breathing in short, clipped bursts; her eyes closed against the pain of George’s weight on top of her—his body rubbing against hers, his chest hair itching and scratching against her skin, and the lace brassiere creating even more friction as it pulled and rolled between them.

“I can’t, I can’t!” she said, pushing up on George’s ribs. “It’s too painful.”

George rolled off and away from her, breathing heavily. He closed his eyes and brought his hands to his face, taking a deep breath as he pressed down with his palms, as if to stifle a yell.

“How are we going to do this then?” he said after a moment, letting his arms fall down to his sides. He looked at her, not unkindly, but clearly desperate to finish one way or another.

“I’ll… We’ll…” Greer wasn’t sure.

“Roll over,” George said.

“What?” Greer was suddenly alert. They’d rarely made love in any other position than missionary in all the four years they’d been together, the exception being the time George had persuaded her to join him in the bow of his father’s sailboat. Due to limited space, she’d had to straddle him while he sat with his back against a crumpled up sail and an old propeller.

“I don’t like that,” she pleaded, “and you’ll see everything.”

“Just—it’ll be fine—come on,” George said. He was already repositioning himself and fluffing the pillows up. She rolled over.

Her face, she was sure, was scarlet, but she would have to be brazen; there was nothing for it. On her hands and knees the pressure she’d felt on her chest was relieved, but she felt exposed, unable to see what was going on behind her. Unable to see George, she had no way of gauging his pleasure, or displeasure—whether she was doing the right thing—and she felt entirely at his mercy. Were his eyes open or closed? Was he seeing her? Or someone else? If he couldn’t see her face, what difference did it make who she was? She could be any body. No—they were married—that meant something, and she forced the thought away from her.

George reached a hand under her and, in what he probably felt was a reassuring gesture, squeezed one breast. She winced, and was glad he couldn’t see that at least.

As he heaved and shoved behind her and dug his fingers into her hips, Greer buried her face in the pillow and clenched the linen between her teeth. She was almost frighteningly aware of everything that was going on, of the burnt skin in the creases of her wrists, and the tops of her knees as they supported hers and George’s weight—she felt each bead of sweat as it left his body and spattered on her back.

Afterwards, when they had both collapsed onto their stomachs, she turned away from George, towards the wall. She hadn’t looked into his face in what felt like hours, and it didn’t seem necessary to do so now, to say their “I love yous.” He didn’t speak, and before long, his uneven breathing turned into the steady rhythmic snoring of sleep.

Greer got up out of bed, careful to make as little noise as possible. She undid the clasp of her bra and pulled on the cotton nightgown she’d folded under her pillow that morning. She crossed to the window and looked out over the beach, to the dark glitter of the sea, the waves rolling in and out from shore, almost in perfect synchronisation with George’s breathing, like the ocean itself was a porous, fluid-filled lung.

She suddenly longed for another body of water—for the Bay—one that was fresh, and clear, and home.

She crawled back into bed and began to make a list of all the details from her trip she would share with her sisters—of course she’d have to tell them about the sunburn—though certain details could be omitted. She replayed the trip over in her head as she compiled the events into a respectable order, and just before she fell asleep, she envisioned a hand—male, with a dusting of hair across the knuckles, not George’s hand, she realized even as she slipped into unconsciousness, not George’s hand reaching into a bag full of olives and cherries. ♦

 —

ABOUT

Wedgewood is part of Emily Kathryn Utter’s PhD “thesis,” and follows three sisters who, in the wake of their estranged father’s death, must dismantle the family cottage on Georgian Bay. As they work through their father’s hoard, uncover childhood memorabilia and find items that belonged to their late mother, they begin, finally, to unpack a lifetime of conflicted shared experience and memory. Together, they try to resolve the different ways in which their distinct and separate relationships with their father have manifested in each of their lives, and in the lives of their own children.

Emily Kathryn Utter is currently in the final year of her PhD in creative writing at the University of Aberdeen. Her research topics include memory, the significance of place, and gender differences in recollection. She has published short stories in Causeway/Cabsair, a journal of Irish and Scottish Writing, and Queen’s University’s The Lamp. Emily is originally from Hamilton, ON.

 

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