A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.
The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.
The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.
That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.
The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.
As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.
‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’
The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.
Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.
English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.
And all the time he talked.
The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.
The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.
Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.
His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.
Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.
She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.
The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.
People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.
‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.
Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.
The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.
She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.
A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.
Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.
He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.
She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.
A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!’
Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.
‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.
Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’
Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.
Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.
Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.
Anneliese proposed a farewell party.
‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.
‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.
Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.
The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.
Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.
Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.
‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’
‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’
‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.
‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.
The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.
The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.
He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.
Sarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.