Perfect Day

By Mary Pomfret


A sweet young summer, all those years ago.

I hate you. Tumbling tears.  I hate you, Fred.

I wasn’t staring at her. Punching the air. Julia, you know I only love you.

Liar. You’re a liar, Fred.  Running off, not looking back.

But later, just as the sun was setting on the horizon, they’d found each other in the secluded inlet where the beach was white and clean. Together, in the warm sand, they sat holding hands, staring out at the low tide until the moon blessed them, and they made the promises they thought they could keep. And hadn’t they been so in love back then, when Lou Reid was ‘the coolest man in the world’?

Time passed: a forty-year marriage, three boys, two granddaughters and a hefty retirement package. But still, at least once a year, Julia insisted they revisit the little sheltered cove—their special place.

Fred parked the car in a beach-side street and lifted the picnic hamper out of the boot. Julia thought she heard him say something under his breath.

What was that Fred?

He didn’t reply. She’d noticed he had been doing that a lot lately: hissing under his breath.

Julia and Fred, each carrying an arm of the wicker picnic basket, walked together down the mangrove-lined path towards the inlet. No breeze to speak of, water calm and glass-like, sky almost cloudless, bright blue and clear.  Again, they sat down together on the sand, and breathed in the fresh sea air.

Oh darn. Julia had left the serviettes on the back seat of the car. Won’t be a minute. She waddled up the sandbank and walked quickly back down the path. She reached into the car and grabbed the bundle of serviettes –green, red and white with gold stars.  Remnants of last year’s Christmas. Still, it didn’t matter. They’d do the job.  She stopped for a moment, bent down and took off her white sandals. She wanted to feel the warmth of the sand beneath her feet. The vein on the top of her foot looked more raised and bluer than usual. She would have to get it seen to. One day. Just like she was always promising herself to go on a diet. Fred seemed happy enough with her, though. He never complained about her appearance. How many years since he had last made love to her? Maybe three?  But it didn’t matter, did it? She knew, because other women had told her so —they talked about it often—men after a certain age just lose it, it just falls away. Impotence. Isn’t that what they called it in medical circles?

Broken shells hurt the thickened soles of her feet and Julia walked across the sand towards Fred. She could see him from the back—his familiar form, slightly stooped in the mustard-coloured jumper she had knitted him years ago—still sitting as she had left him, on the wooden bench.  Here you are. Julia handed him a serviette. The ghost of Christmas past, she laughed, but he didn’t answer, didn’t move. Fred?

A young woman had appeared at the water’s edge.  Fred’s gaze seemed locked, transfixed. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t shift his gaze. Julia followed his line of sight to the young woman in front of them. She stepped out of her shorts. One foot out, then the other.  The woman glided slowly, swanlike, out though the satin water of the inlet, barely making a ripple on the still surface. Julia’s eyes shifted back to Fred’s face. He was mesmerised, in awe of this mermaid figure. Julia felt complicit in the gaze, an accessory after the fact, guilty by association with Fred and his long, sustained stare. She waved a garish green serviette in front of his face.

Fred. Fred, she called in a voice that sounded strange to her own ears. Do you want some smoked salmon?  Fred gripped the edge of the bench and, as if by force, shifted his gaze to Julia. But he turned back to face the young nymph who now stood waist-high in the water, her long hair plastered to her body in thick, wet ringlets.  She turned and glided through the water towards them.  When she reached the shore, the beautiful one reached down to the sand and picked up her shorts, wrapped her orange and blue-patterned beach towel around her waist and walked gracefully away.

Fred. How could you? In our special place, of all places. How could you?

Fred’s cheeks were bulging with smoked salmon and crusty bread. He seemed to have bitten off too much. He began to cough and spat out his mouthful of food. Still coughing, he managed to gasp, water… water…  Julia picked up a bottle of water—she had filled a four-litre bottle with iced water before they left—unscrewed the red top, held the bottle above his head and tipped the entire contents of the bottle over her husband of over thirty years.

How could you, Fred? In our special place. How could you?

Fred’s coughing stopped instantly, but he didn’t move, as if he had been turned to stone. Like a woman late for the last train home, she began flinging the picnic lunch back into the basket she had packed so meticulously hours earlier.  The forgotten overripe mangoes were still on the table. Julia picked them up, one in each hand.

And to think I bought these especially for you.

She flung them, one and then the other, over the top of Fred’s still frozen figure. Let’s go. I’ve had just about enough for one day.  She snatched up the picnic hamper and stumbled barefoot through the sand to their parked car. It wasn’t the bloody ‘Birth of Venus’ you know, she shouted into the wind, not caring who heard her as long as Fred heard her. She was just a young girl going for a dip.

Fred’s now sodden woollen jumper cleaved to his body like a second skin. He began peeling it over his chest, then his head.  For a moment he felt a surge of claustrophobic panic. Stuck.  Trapped.  At last, he managed to pull his arms out of the tight sleeves, and he threw the jumper on the wooden picnic table.  It landed like a carcass, a dead thing.

He shook his head, ran his fingers through his stringy hair and spread the thin strands over his bald patch. You could use a special shampoo, Julia had said to him a few weeks back. She’d offered to get it from the discount chemist. Just like Julia to notice his bald patch and not his careful weeding of her roses. Fred trudged his way back to the car. Julia was already sitting in the driver’s seat. Did he hate her? At that moment he did. He despised the way she picked on him for every little thing. No wonder he couldn’t get it up with her anymore.

Julia stared out at the road ahead. She drove in silence. He had fouled their special place with his lechery. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he ever showed desire for her, if he ever reached for her across their king size bed.  It wasn’t her fault he couldn’t get it up anymore. And whenever he kissed her, he kissed her on the cheek.  Not even a kiss. More of a peck. Sometimes she felt like he was holding her with tweezers so that his body would make the least contact with hers as possible.

Julia was sure Fred was getting a rise when she’d interrupted his leering encounter with the young woman on the beach.  And when the lithe young thing glided through the water towards them, Julia noticed her chest was almost flat. Maybe she was a girl and not a young woman at all. Surely, Fred hadn’t become a sexual deviant. Maybe that’s what had happened. The beach scene was no Stephen Daedalus epiphany that’s for sure. Two things Fred wasn’t: an artist or a priest. He could well be becoming a pervert though.

Fred slumped in his seat. He pulled down the sun visor and looked into the small mirror to arrange his hair over his bald spot. The face that looked back at him was the face of a forlorn old man.

Julia drove on in silence. She could smell Fred’s body odour.  It must be the wet shirt, she thought.  It needed a good wash. There was a pile of Fred’s washing in the laundry. His sweaty singlets and baggy shirts from his gym visits.  He went to the gym every day.  Fred? she said, somewhere between a command and an interrogation. Yes, he answered, somewhere between fury and despair.  Julia waited a few moments before she delivered the blow. You know the gym you go to everyday? I think I will join you.

Julia join him at the gym? Come with him wearing her daggy exercise gear?  That would be the end of his jokes with the pretty little receptionist, the end of his chats with the personal trainer with the pert boobs and nipples that showed faintly through her top. And he might have to sit in the sauna with Julia instead of the woman he’d been getting to know in the spa. Why the hell would you want to come to the gym? he spluttered. Out of the corner of his eye he could see she was smiling widely. Because I think it’s something special that we could do together. Don’t you think that would be nice?

No, he thought, that would be bloody terrible. Going to the gym made his life bearable. Lately, it was the only thing. And to have her tagging along…  It wasn’t as if she didn’t have her own interests. She had her ballroom dancing, after all.

Julia took her eyes off the road for a moment and glanced at Fred. So, what do you think?  I can come along to gym with you. Fred shifted his body in his seat and stretched his legs and then crossed them. He ran his fingers through his hair. It was drying slowly. So, you come to the gym with me, hey?  I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t I come to ballroom dancing with you? How about that Julia?

What? You’d come to dancing with me? Did he really mean it? Julia’s heart turned over. She’d asked him so many times before and he’d always refused. So, what had made him change his mind, Julia wondered. To dance the modern waltz as a couple—she and Fred—now, that would be really something. They used to dance together in the early days. How wonderful it would be now, to dance together as a couple again. Fred would have to hold her, to touch her, just like he used to, naked hand to hand, thigh to thigh, heart to heart, all those years ago.

 That’s a wonderful idea, Fred. I do hope you have dried off now. I’ve had the heater on all the way.  The car rolled into the driveway with the familiar crunch on the gravel. Fred got out of the car and followed Julia into the house they had shared their entire married life.

A perfect day, he hissed under his breath.

Yes, Fred. Almost a perfect day.



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