Anna Lewis

High Hopes


Calypso adjusted her glasses. She could feel sweat seeping from her

cheeks and the centre of her forehead, and the bridge of her nose was

growing slippery. She tugged out the paper napkin from beneath her plate

and bunched it between her hands, rubbing the damp from her palms.

When she looked up, Donna had lit a cigarette and was leaning back on

her chair, beckoning the waiter. She tossed her hair over her shoulder as he

approached. “Can we have another glass of white each, please, my love?”

“Not for me,” said Calypso quickly.

The waiter nodded, and turned to Donna. “Just one, then, Madam?”

“Oh, please, call me Dolores!” Donna winked across the table at Calypso.

“It’s Spanish. My father was a merchant sailor.”

“What a lovely name. It suits you.” The waiter looked at least forty, roundfaced

and thick-chinned, but he simpered as he spoke, glancing at his

feet. Donna dipped her head and blinked slowly, beating heavy eyelashes.

“It’s a lovely terrace you have here,” she said. “A gorgeous view.”

“Oh – it’s only the best for our – our lovely clientele.”

“Oh, sweetheart!” Donna batted a hand in the air as though swatting a

wasp, and the waiter blushed as he backed away.

Calypso rolled her eyes. “Donna, do you have to?”

“Oh, it’s just a bit of fun. Girls’ weekend away. You should get into the

spirit, love.”

“Well, he’s about twenty years too old for me. Not for you, obviously.”

Calypso shifted round in her chair to look out over the sea. The tide was

beginning to retreat, leaving a band of darker sand at its edge, much like

the faint moustache that dappled Donna’s upper lip. A speedboat arched

across the mouth of the bay, while in the shallower water parents jumped

the waves with their children, foam bickering around their shins.

The waiter returned, bowing slightly as he set Donna’s glass on the table.

“Won’t you have one?” Donna grabbed Calypso’s wrist. Her fingers were

hot and bony, and Calypso shook her off, glaring at the waiter. “Can we

have the bill?”

The waiter looked at Donna. “Madam?”

“Oh, if we must. These young kids can’t keep up.”

After the waiter brought them the bill Calypso opened her purse and

began to poke half-heartedly through the coins, but Donna pulled a face.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “My treat.” She finished her second glass of

wine in a few gulps and tucked a crumpled banknote under its foot, then

led Calypso down the steps from the terrace to the promenade and away

from the busy seafront, in the direction of the harbour. Calypso walked

with head lowered; the sun seemed to spin against every glass window

pane and the metal of every passing car, its glare wheeling straight into

her eyes.

“We could take a boat trip this afternoon.” Donna pointed at a chalk board

propped up against the harbour wall, offering “Historical Coastal Tours”

along with “Cruising with Dolphins” and “Island Ferry Trips”. They crossed

the narrow road and stood peering down at the sign.

“Dolphins? Round here?” Calypso asked doubtfully.

“I shouldn’t think so,” said Donna. “It must be a trick. What about the

Historical Coastal Tour? That sounds nice, relaxing.”

“I suppose so.” Calypso shaded her eyes with her hand. Beyond the wall

a small herd of sailing boats jostled in low water, clinking and creaking on

their moorings. The air smelt of petrol.

“I think it would be nice,” said Donna. “Then we can have a little stroll

around town, maybe go back to the hotel for a bit, then go out and get

some dinner. There’s a nice pub I saw near the seafront, the Old – Old

something – looks like they do all sorts in there. Pasta, curry, steak – how

does that sound?”

“It’s a b&b, not a hotel,” said Calypso.

“Well.” Donna ran her fingers through her hair. “Whatever. You want to go

on the Historical Tour?”

“Okay.”

Donna linked her arm into Calypso’s and pulled her back the way they

had come, towards the seafront. “I think I saw a kiosk by the loos, selling

tickets.”

“Great.”

 

The boat was smaller than Calypso had expected: no more than a motorpowered

dinghy with a wooden bench running around the inside of its hull,

already wet with spray. A young man stood with one foot on the jetty, one

foot on the boat’s lip, helping the passengers on board with a strong hand.

He had untidy black hair and pale blue eyes that were too big for his face.

Donna giggled as he took her hand and guided her into the boat. “Hello,

sailor!” she yelped. The man smiled politely and held out his hand to

Calypso, who felt her cheeks grow hot. “You’re not sunburnt already, are

you?” asked Donna as Calypso balanced herself on the bench beside her.

As the boat stuttered out into the bay Donna closed her eyes and leant

back against its rim, her face tilted up to the sun. Calypso took a deep

breath, trying to ignore the stink of petrol, and twisted around to look

down at the swell. The sea at the jetty had lightly swung to and fro, limply

clipping the side of the hull, but now blunt shoulders of water collided

against the boat with force, shattering into white rubble on impact. After

a few minutes the boat slowed down and began to follow the line of the

coast. The young man threw up an arm to the scuppered castle on its

mound between the east end of town and the sea.

“I’m sure you’ll all have already noticed the castle,” he announced,

then began to speak quickly, as though reciting. “The castle was nearly

destroyed in the thirteenth century by warring Welsh factions. An army

from the north attacked from the sea, and for weeks if not months after

the battle, bodies from both sides washed up on the beach.”

The passengers murmured sadly. Donna elbowed Calypso; one of her

false lashes had come unstuck at the end, and it drooped down over the

corner of her eye. “Pretty gruesome,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Calypso.

“The Great Wall,” said the man, indicating a strip of stonework that curved

behind the beach towards the castle mound, where it suddenly broke off.

In parts it towered over the seafront, but elsewhere it straggled almost to

ground level and then rose again. The boat droned forwards slowly. “It

dates from around the same time as the castle. It was built to safeguard the

town from any danger – from attack, or just from stormy high seas. But as

you can see, it didn’t really hold up to expectations, and by the late Middle

Ages it was fatally damaged – it no longer really served as a wall at all.”

Calypso glanced sideways at Donna. Her eyes were closed once again

and her head lay back against the boat’s lip, lolling from side to side with

the motion of the water. Her stiletto heels were splayed awkwardly against

the bottom of the hull and the tip of her nose was beginning to burn, but

she was smiling, her hands loose in her lap. The boat picked up speed

and slowed again as it approached the headland.

The young man was pointing to some darker patches in the cliff. “We can’t

go any closer,” he called, raising his voice above a squall of circling gulls.

“There are sharp rocks further in, under the water. But here you can see

the smugglers’ caves – and the largest one is there, the High Cave. Local

smugglers used to keep their goods hidden inside – alcohol, tobacco,

sometimes firearms. The cave is set high in the cliff so it’s rarely reached

by the sea. But if there was a sudden storm and the sea levels rose, that

would be that – all their contraband swept away. Disaster.”

The passengers nodded. Calypso nodded too. Donna was silent, her eyes

still closed, her lips a little apart. Calypso thought she was sleeping, but

when they pulled back into the jetty half an hour later she sat suddenly

upright, eyes clear. “I can’t be bothered with all that history stuff,” she

whispered to Calypso as the man jumped onto the jetty, ready to help his

passengers disembark. “I reckon they make it all up. He has a nice voice,

though, hasn’t he?” She squeezed Calypso’s hand and stood up, nudging

past her to get off the boat.

 

The pub was called the Old Lighthouse, although it was a square-shaped

building only two storeys high. It stood on a bend in a narrow street

dwindling downhill to the promenade, and was separated from the road

by a small cobbled yard, where Calypso and Donna sat with their drinks

in the sinking light. At the bottom of the street a wedge of sea was visible,

purple now in the dusk, the sky above it pebbled with red cloud.

Donna smoked a cigarette, breathing deeply. When she went inside to

investigate the toilets, Calypso pulled her mobile from her pocket.

“Hi Susan, it’s me.”

“Callie! How is everything going?”

“It’s okay. We’re about to have dinner now.”

“Have you had a good day?”

“It’s okay. It’s very sunny.”

“Well, don’t forget to use the sun lotion. Is she behaving herself?”

“She’s being okay. She’s just Donna.”

“Well, so long as you’re getting on –”

“ – she told the waiter at lunch her name was Dolores.”

Susan’s laugh was beaded with static. “She doesn’t stop trying, does she?

Never mind. Just try to relax and have a nice time.”

“I am trying.” The front door of the pub scraped on the cobbles and

Calypso said goodbye, hung up quickly. Donna picked up her glass from

the table and drained the last of her drink. “Are you ready to go inside? I’m

starving.”

“Sure.” Calypso got up, glass in hand, and followed Donna through the

front door.

Inside, the walls of the pub were painted in thick blue and white bands

that made Calypso feel slightly dizzy. Wooden ship tillers in various sizes

were hung like paintings, and stuffed sea birds stooped along varnished

shelves. Calypso and Donna sat in the corner; at the centre of their table

was placed an old wine bottle with a candle jammed in its neck, cold

ribbons of wax spilling down over the glass. A waitress brought them

menus and lit the candle.

While they waited for the food, Donna told Calypso about her new job

– she was working as a receptionist for a dentist’s practice; it was only

temporary, to cover someone on maternity leave, but it was all good

experience – and about her new boyfriend, Carl, who was assistant

manager of a small restaurant. He wanted kids; they’d been trying but

nothing was happening, it was probably too late. She’d been looking up

IVF on the internet but it seemed like a lot of hassle – easier for Carl to go

out and find a younger model, truth be told. We’ll see.

Calypso digested the news in silence, pouring herself a second glass of

wine before Donna had finished speaking. She felt blurry, her thoughts

several beats out of time with her body, and she was glad when the food

arrived.

“You’d want another child? Really?” she asked after a few mouthfuls.

“I thought you never even wanted to have me.”

Donna exhaled through her nose. “Not when I first found out I was

pregnant, no, that’s true. The last thing I wanted was a baby on top of – on

top of everything else. But then I got used to the idea, and started to look

forward to it.” She twisted her fork into her spaghetti. “I thought everything

was going to change, when you were born. And when the midwife put you

in my arms, it was like – well, it was like sunshine and music and a triple

measure of Caribbean rum, all rolled into one.”

Calypso shrugged. “Maybe it was the epidural.”

“Look, I know it didn’t work out as I wanted – I know I haven’t been enough

– but it was all more difficult than I thought it would be.” Donna lifted her

fork from the plate but kept turning it; the spaghetti wound deeper and

deeper around its prongs, like wool around a spindle. “And it all worked

out for the best, I think, you going in with that nice family – what are they

called, Richard and Susan, and the kiddies – they did a better job than I

would have, you know. Really.” Her eyes across the table were huge.

“Except I didn’t go in with that nice family straight away, did I? There was

your mum, then the home, then back to your mum, then that other family,

then back to the home –”

“ – and then Susan and whoever. You’ve come out of it better than most.”

Donna glanced down at her fork. The prongs were invisible, entirely

bundled in spaghetti, and half a dozen strands still connected the fork

to the plate. “For God’s sake.” She snatched up her dessert spoon and

turned it to one side, using its edge to slice through the strands. Calypso

stared, her glass halfway to her lips. When Donna looked up, there were

pink blotches on her cheeks. She shook her head and stuffed the fork in

her mouth. Calypso lowered her glass back to the table and looked away.

Later that evening, Calypso learnt more about Donna: that she wore

pink pyjamas with red and gold sequins, that she slept on her back with

her mouth open, and that she snored. Donna’s snoring was louder than

the in-coming tide beyond the bedroom window, and just as rhythmic.

Calypso tried burying her head under the pillow but she couldn’t breathe,

she tried lying on her side with the duvet pulled up over her ears but she

could still hear the snoring, and was too hot, her skin clogged with sweat.

She thrust back the duvet and thumped her feet to the floor but the noise

from Donna’s bed continued, uninterrupted.

Calypso marched to the window and pressed her forehead against the

glass – the cold bit into her skin and she stepped back with a gasp, then

rubbed her forehead and leant forwards, keeping her face an inch from

the pane. She stared out at the sea and the arc of the cliff beyond the

town, a black mass punched here and there with vague circles of light.

Without her glasses she could make out no detail, but could just tell where

the tatty castle staggered on its mound, and could guess where the wall

that was no longer a wall curved around the front of the town and broke

off, all hopes of protection fallen away. She could guess where the High

Cave was tucked in the crook of the headland, lined with dry rock and the

odd half-rotted tangle of seaweed, flung into its mouth on those occasions

where the sea was too strong, too swollen, and the cave failed to live up

to its name. On the far tip of the headland a light switched on, then off,

then on, warning any present-day smugglers or marauders to watch out

for the rocks beneath the surface, to keep clear.

 

In the morning Calypso felt sluggish, with an ache at the back of her head.

Donna was cheery; Calypso could hear her singing tunelessly in the

shower, the water clapping off her body. She emerged from the bathroom

wearing only a thin towel wrapped around her torso, her skinny arms and

legs red from the hot water. Calypso looked down at the carpet.

“It’s a shame we’re only here one night,” Donna said. “There’s lots more to

do I think, lots of pubs we haven’t been to. But it’s back to work for both of

us tomorrow, I suppose.”

“Not for me, actually,” said Calypso. “I don’t work Mondays.”

“You don’t?” Donna was sitting on the edge of her bed roughly towelling her

hair, the other towel fixed around her body with an insubstantial knot. “Why

didn’t you say? I could have taken tomorrow off, I’ve got leave owing. We

could have made a full weekend of it.”

“I need to use the shower,” said Calypso. “Can I have that towel you’re using

for your hair?”

Donna looked at the towel in her hands and shrugged, then passed it

over. “It’s a bit wet,” she said as Calypso took it. “You’d think they’d have a

hairdryer.”

Breakfast was served in the basement, which had been painted a soft pink

and furnished with comfortable wooden tables and chairs, but still bristled

with an underground chill. Seagulls tacked back and forth on the pavement

outside the window, just above eye-level. Donna poured Calypso’s coffee

from the pot, then her own.

“Milk?”

“No thanks,” said Calypso. Donna set down the tin milk jug unused.

“Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this holiday, Calypso,” she said.

Calypso nodded, her mouth full of toast. She wasn’t hungry, but thought

some food might soothe the bruise in her head. “Good,” said Donna

eventually. “Good.”

Calypso swallowed her toast and sighed. “It’s been nice, Donna,” she said.

“You’ve – well, you’ve really tried to make it fun. And it has been fun. Thank

you.”

Donna’s face fell open into a smile. Without the false lashes glued to her

eyelids she looked younger, sweeter, her eyes brighter than usual. “I’m so

pleased,” she said. “So pleased.”

Calypso smiled briefly and looked down at her coffee. Dark grains spun on

its surface.

“Calypso,” Donna said slowly, and Calypso looked back up. Donna was

leaning forwards across the table, her smile smaller but her eyes still vivid.

“I have something to ask you,” she said. “I know it might seem odd at first – ”

Calypso waited.

“Do you think – only if you wanted to – do you think – you could maybe

call me Mum?” Donna paused, and Calypso could smell the coffee on her

outward breath. “Not Donna, I mean, but Mum?”

The steam that twisted from Calypso’s coffee was mesmerising, parting

and merging in new shapes, new directions. Donna was still leaning across

the table, the muscles twitching at the corners of her smile.

“Not yet,” said Calypso. “You’re not what Mum means.”

Donna’s face didn’t change, but she pulled herself back into her seat.

“That’s alright,” she said. “I thought you’d say no.”

Calypso took a sip of coffee, then another, and watched the seagulls

stamp their feet above Donna’s head.

“Eat up, love,” Donna said after a moment. “We’ve got to check out by 

ten.”