Matthew Tree

Matthew Tree was born at the tail end of 1958 in London. He moved to Barcelona in 1984, having taught himself Catalan. He has written and published 14 books in this language with mainstream publishers. In 2006, he started to write in his mother tongue again, in which language he has published a collection of articles (‘Barcelona, Catalonia. A View From The Inside’) and two novels (‘SNUG’ and ‘If Only’).

Just Looking (Extract)

I’d forgotten that that night was the cruise ship’s Gala Evening, during which everybody was supposed to converge on the Supreme Eatery – an immense dining area with chandeliers and oak panelling – wearing full evening dress. Sally had always found occasional formal dressing fun. Never saw the point of it, myself. As my glass-walled lift descended slowly to the cabin decks, I had a panoramic view of the main mall – that artificially lit array of pongy pizza counters and chromed-up ice cream parlours – along which women dressed in dresses with a sheen and carrying pointless pochettes and men in dark suits, white shirts and bow ties, were all ambling, not quite as proud as peacocks, in the general direction of flunkey heaven. When the lift was a just couple of floors above the mall I caught sight of Jean-Pierre and Helen walking with the flow, the pair of them dressed up like dogs’ dinners. I knocked on the glass and they looked up. I gave him a what-the-fuck? frown. Jean-Pierre answered back with an only-doing-my-job grimace. Helen tipped a stuck out thumb in the direction of her mouth, by way of telling me her husband would be putting away a bellyful at dinner. I smiled understandingly: if I worked for that stupid daily I’d have been on the sauce myself.

                                                            *

My cabin felt smaller than when I’d first installed myself, at Marseille. It was hospital clean. The bed had been swaddled tightly, as if to stifle any urge the sheets might have to wrinkle. I threw my copy of La Tribune Gauloise onto it and opened the balcony window, sniffed the emptiness of the all but black sea, stepped outside and plonked myself down on the single white chair. The water was but a whisper.

            I patted the chair’s plastic arm. What a present I’d given myself. Two decades of marriage come to an end with a whimper, and you try to take it on the chin by purchasing a ten day trip on this, this….this barrel of canned laughs. All the time I’d been with Sally, I’d never imagined that this particular sadness – this blend of emptiness and loneliness I was now feeling – would be in store. I tried to make out the horizon. A waste of bloody time.

Once she had left and was from then on dead to me – and I to her – my head had started to fizz and pop as if someone had poured sherbet into my ear, and I wanted nothing better than to get away, to leave London and its large stock of Sally-related memories behind. So I browsed holiday sites on the internet, and the ones promoting luxury cruises struck me as being just the ticket, enticed as I was by the photos of laughing couples who weren’t too young; of the en suite cabins with their yellow, green and blue furniture; of the whirlpool spas, the tribute bands, the mini golf courses, the robot bartenders… All this tickled the froth in my brain pink. Fun, that was the only thing I could think of after twenty years of relationship. Which was crazy because fun was something Sally had been pretty good at. She’d always had a light, innocent feel to her, even when making love, even, for example, when she’d been on her knees spreading her buttocks expectantly. Before meeting her, I’d always been something of a moper, a bit of a grouch, a wet blanket, a plonker. Sally, now that I was thinking about her in front of that invisible maritime horizon, had offered me an easygoingness I’d never felt before. How could I have ever imagined that her absence would herald fun? Here I was, two days into this supposed fun of mine and just the thought of the word was starting to squeeze two tears out of my self-pitying eyes. I wiped them away and decided to get something to eat. I slammed the balcony window shut and gave my yellow and green table a kick as I left the cabin. I took the newspaper with me.

I wandered over to what was signposted as the Casual Dining Rooms, meaning you could stuff your face there no matter what the hour. I wandered amongst the offers. There was an apparently Japanese restaurant that was offering mainly Chinese dishes. And a German bistro that served nothing but a range of differently coloured sausages. In the end I opted for the Wet Gull Gastropub because unlike the other places – each of which had two or three lonely looking passengers tucking into their fare – it was utterly deserted. I sat down at one of the tables. In one corner of the restaurant, a screen showed that we were on course for the Corsican capital, Ajaccio. A smiling, bearded man in a red apron strode over with a menu.

“Welcome to the Wet Gull, sir.”

I ordered the dish of the day, a hamburger called the ‘The Simon’.

He grinned.

“Very good, sir.”

His name badge – I noticed as he dropped the smile and turned away – had SIMON printed on it. I returned to the menu. One page was dedicated to the Wet Gull’s international range of vodkas: over sixty, from the five continents. Even India and Pakistan, it turned out, produced their own vodkas, as did Korea and New Zealand, not to mention France. Which made me think of Jean-Pierre. Why wasn’t he here? He would have a field day testing out this little lot. Then I remembered: he was with Helen and most of the rest of the boat at the Supreme Eatery’s Gala Evening.

My hamburger arrived. On top of the burger itself, Simon had placed a large slice of soft cheese whose goo was already oozing down the side of the meat. I opened the paper at a page I hadn’t yet read, and took a first bite.

The door opened, something which amounted to an event in the customerless void of the Wet Gull. I wiped a gobbet of cheese off of my lips. Blow me down if it wasn’t the gazelle girl, still in her light-brown dress, still on her own. She had, I could now see, an attractively alert face and long, straight hair that was a slightly lighter shade of brown than said dress. She was peering about to see if the Wet Gull Gastropub was her cup of tea. She spotted me – I was, after all, the only person in the room – then did a double take. She narrowed her eyes.

“Haven’t I seen you somewhere?”

I held up La Tribune Gauloise.

“We saw each other out of the corner of each other’s eyes, at a newspaper kiosk.”

That mildly humorous comment whose spontaneity surprised even me, seemed to put her at ease. She looked over at the bar. Simon wasn’t visible. She turned back to me and in a confidential stage whisper, asked:

“What’s this place like?”

  She had an accent, but I couldn’t tell which. I held up the menu.

“It’s got more brands of vodka than you can shake a stick at.”

She smiled at this turn of phrase I normally never, ever used and stage-whispered again:

“I meant the food!”

I pointed to my Simon and grimaced.

“You have a sample of it here. If I were you I’d hold the cheese.”

Another smile. She took a couple of steps in and looked around again.

“I think I’m going to feel silly if I sit on my own in an otherwise deserted restaurant. Would it be OK if I sat at your table?”

Would it be OK? Would it be OK? I almost spat out a half-chewed morsel of minced beef. With what I hoped was unwolfish naturalness, I gestured at the empty chair opposite me.

“Be my guest.”

She took the seat. I calculated between twenty-five and thirty, telling myself that there was no way, absolutely no way, that a woman as young and attractive and beautiful-eyed as this one could have any ulterior motive for sharing a table with an unprepossessing divorcee nearly twice her age. I handed her the menu.

“What would you like to drink?”

I started. Simon had appeared at the table so fast he might have sprung out of a trapdoor. She looked at him:

“A Perrier, please. And…” She flipped open the menu. “A salade Niçoise.”

“One Niçoise, coming up.”

And Simon was gone. She looked at my Hawaiian shirt.

“You’re not dressed up for the Gala Evening?”

“Or any other. I mean, why do people do it? Who in their right mind can think an evening is going to improve if they put on a bow tie and a dinner jacket?”

Simon served the Perrier and the salad.

            “Enjoy.”

            And he was off again. She smiled at me.

            “My sentiments exactly.”

My heart fluttered and my crotch twitched. I tried to remember what it was like to be thirty or a little under.

“What’s your name?”

“Jim. Easy to remember.”

“And yours?”

“Raluca.”

“Raluca? Where’s that from, if I may ask?”

“It’s Romanian.”

I knew next to nothing about Romania, so decided not to say a word more about it.

“Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t exactly look the cruise ship type.”

She nodded, and swallowed some lettuce.

“I’m here to do some research.”

Research? For a moment I wondered if anyone was on this boat just for a holiday.

“You’re not a journalist, are you?”

“What? No. Sociologist. I’m studying social behaviour on cruise ships for my master’s degree.”

I feigned interest.

“At a Romanian university?”

“At the American University of Paris. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship.”

She looked down at her plate then back up at me. For my part, I looked at her dark green eyes, bright with intelligence.

“You’re not researching me, I hope.”

She laughed. I felt flattered.

“No, although the solitary passenger is a recognised type on

cruise ships.”

A few minutes later she finished her salad. I sliced into my burger once more and blobs of cheese shot over the edge of the plate onto the tablecloth. I put down my knife and fork.

“I’ve had enough of this thing. Too much meat. Far too much cheese.”

Raluca picked up the menu.

“I think I’m ready for something stronger. You said they had a selection of vodkas, right?”

She perused it.

“Wow! That is a lot of vodka.”

She looked up at Simon, who had come to take our plates away.

“What would you recommend?”

“The Slovakian Double Cross is excellent.”

“A double with lime.”

Before he flew off, I added:

“And one of the Ukrainian ones for me. Neat, please.”

“Certainly, sir.”

People had been calling me ‘sir’ for about a decade. In front of Raluca, it made me feel self-consciously old. She frowned inquisitively.

“Are Ukrainian vodkas the best or something?”

“I’ve no idea, but I’ve got Ukraine on the brain today. And Belarus too,” I said, reaching for La Tribune Gauloise. “Ever heard of the Mashubians?”

I started turning the pages.

“Mashubians? Is that a type of animal?”

“Only for the editors of this paper. They’re an Eastern European people hailing from Ukraine and Belarus. Look at this.”

I handed her the paper opened at the article and the quiz. She read it properly.

“My God, that’s disgusting.”

Simon served our drinks.

“My sentiments exactly.”

She raised her glass. I raised mine. The ensuing clink turned out to be the starting pistol for a long whirligig of a conversation washed down with vodkas from Belarus, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Mongolia and the Netherlands. We started by commenting on the quiz in the paper and went on to talk a bit about prejudice and racism and then we lightened up, laughing about the kind of people who went on cruises, which gave her a chance to tell me about all the other classified types apart from the solitary ones: the family groups, the old timers, the business people on junkets, and the couples trying to revive a wilting sex life on the high seas. I could have sworn that she slowed her speech when saying ‘sex life’ so that the two words, especially the first one, carried a weight they otherwise wouldn’t have had, and no doubt it was because of that that we began talking about past relationships and where they’d gone wrong – although, as I didn’t want to talk about Sally, I cast my mind back to the affairs I’d had before meeting her, such as they were – and this conversation entailed us talking in a circuitous way about, well, sex, which we went on to talk about in a less circuitous way, and finally in a surprisingly frank way until Simon appeared again to tell us it was closing time, lady and gentleman please. I was relieved that Raluca hadn’t asked me what I did, so that I didn’t have to tell her that I’d thrown in the towel and hung up my gloves. Perhaps, I suspected from the enthusiasm with which she expounded her own past, current activities and fleeting thoughts, she was more interested in herself than in me. That struck me as being logical enough. My sentiments exactly. I stood up.

“Whoa! I think I might need a little help getting back to my cabin.”

She gave me an I’ve-already-made-up-my-mind look.

“Please allow me to be of assistance.”

                                                            IV

Reader, I made love. Or better said, we made love. Reader, in various positions. What could have turned out to be a drunken mistake proved to be a display of increasingly successful passion. Reader, she came. Twice. I just managed the once – out of practice as I was – but when I did, at least I instantly remembered what it felt like to be two decades younger. Through the night we would slumber then wake up and make love and slumber again. And when morning made its presence felt through the gap in the curtains, the sea, far from being the meaningless mass of black water that I had gazed at morosely the previous evening, now suddenly made wonderful, perfect sense. I glanced from it to the slim, fine-skinned body breathing next to me and I felt I had been awarded a prize when least expected. I couldn’t help wondering why she’d done it. Bored, maybe. Or maybe there really were women who had a thing for older men. As for Sally, she had retreated far from my thoughts, without quite bowing out altogether. I ordered breakfast from room service.

            The smell of coffee and buttered toast woke Raluca up.

            “Oh, that’s just perfect!”

            She sat up in bed, the sheets pulled up around her breasts, shaking her hair out of her eyes. I felt a fart coming on and headed, naked, for the bathroom. When you get to a certain age, you start to regret your body. When I came back, having donned a dressing gown, she was chewing on a piece of toast and frowning at yesterday’s La Tribune Gauloise.

            “Hey,” she said through the bread, “that survey you showed me yesterday…”

            She did a bit more chewing.

            “What about it?”

            “Well, the results should be out today, right?”

            I gestured at the Mediterranean.

“But we can’t get today’s newspaper. There’s no delivery out in the open sea.”

She stared at me, transfixed.

“How old are you, really?”

“What?”

“The survey was done via a social networking service called Twitter, which means the results are online…”

“Of course, silly of me…”

She gave me a bright, actressy smile.

 “…so we can see them on a device known as a mobile phone. Be so kind as to pass me mine.”

Feeling diffident, I went to where her dress was lying sprawled on the floor and rummaged in the pockets until I found a largish smartphone. I handed it over. She took a sip of coffee, put the tray to one side, and patted the empty space next to her. By the time I was back in bed she had tapped the link to the newspaper and was scrolling through the items. Then she paused, used finger and thumb to enlarge the text, and read.

“Oh, wow.”

She passed the screen on to me, holding it horizontally. The people at La Tribune Gauloise had devoted an entire page to their findings. The headline read:

ENOUGH, ALREADY!

The response to yesterday’s survey turned out to have been massive. Indeed, the questionnaire must have gone viral, because it just wasn’t possible that so many people were bona fide readers of La Tribune Gauloise. The respondents – whose regions of residence were listed in an impressive array of columns – had tweeted from all over France and the French-speaking part of Belgium, and over eighty per cent of those tweets had employed the hashtag #lerayrepatriés. In other words, most of the voters wanted the Mashubians to be packed off back home. Back to their drought. The rest had opted mainly for #leraytemporaires: a work permit as long as these particular immigrants found a job. A tiny percentage, less than two per cent, had tweeted the hashtag which recommended the granting of a temporary residence permit. Next to all this was an op-ed piece. I enlarged the text some more, not wanting to have to get out my glasses.

THEY KNOW IT MAKES SENSE

There is a current of opinion in France which shies away from suggesting that recent arrivals to this country who are undergoing hardships in their native land should be repatriated. We have no doubt that those who opine thus, do so with the best of intentions. But the results of this survey, the response to which was even greater than we had expected, would indicate that a majority of French men and women believe that common sense trumps any well-meaning but misguided wish to help invasive collectives who simply do not fit in to the French way of life. Now that the citizens of Le Rayol know what France thinks of their plight, one can only hope that the authorities will take appropriate measures.

Raluca and I looked at each other.

            “I find those results amazingly sickening.”

            The tone of her outrage brought Sally momentarily to mind. Sally had always loathed any kind of bigotry. Like me. That, we had had in common. I nodded:

            “Me too. And you know what?”

            “What?”

            Beyond her head – oh, that head of hers – the sea stretched calm and blue. I handed her back the phone.

            “Yesterday I met someone who works for this paper.”

            Her eyes widened.

            “On this boat?”

            “Yep.”

            “I certainly wouldn’t mind having a quiet word with him.

            “Oddly enough – or maybe not – he’s not at all like the paper he works for. Quite the contrary.”

            At that, she humphed.

            “Do you know his cabin number?”

            I shook my head, and gave a knowing little smile which I suspect came out as smug.

            “But I have a pretty good idea where we’ll be able to find him.”

            She sat bolt upright, the sheets falling from her large, unsaggy breasts.

            “So what are we waiting for?”

            I looked at my talking watch.

            “It’s a bit early. We’ll have to wait at least an hour or so.”

            “Oh.”

            She turned to look at the seaview and took a deep breath of the fresh, fresh air that was waltzing in through the gap I’d left in the sliding window. Then she turned to me, raised her lips to my right ear and said, with that pleasing dash of accent:

            “So let’s fuck.”

            Reader…

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