Ellie once visited Positano on the Tyrrhenian Sea and what she came away with was that faded old quote from John Steinbeck: ‘Positano bites deep’. It seems hopelessly trite to visit a place and be left with another writer’s pithy reflection on it – but in the years since, the Steinbeck quote has served her well. That jutting, white and apricot town clutched to the armpit of a rocky hillside did leave her a little burnt.
Ellie and Robert were both twenty-two in 1972. They had married in the cavernous wooden Methodist church in the centre of Wellington the year before. On the day of the wedding the wind was blowing so hard that two of their guests had had their hats snatched from them and spun up in to the trees as they walked from their cars to the church. Ellie wore a heavy cream satin dress with three quarter length sleeves and a primly high neckline. Her great-aunt had designed and made the dress with very little reference to the bride’s wishes, but Ellie wasn’t one to protest. Robert scandalised all their older relatives by showing up with his hair curling past his collar. He was tall and thin as a rake and his trousers were too short. He laughed when he saw her floating up the aisle in her veil and later told her she looked like a ‘bride of Christ’ in that demure get-up. She had felt sick with nerves throughout the ceremony.
A year later they both threw in their jobs and went to England by boat. Ellie was ill throughout much of the sea voyage. The surge of the ocean raising and lowering the ship’s narrow halls and cramped cabins as she moved about steeped her with unease. A week or two out from Panama a flu virus swept through the ship and Ellie and Robert both spent several days in their cabin, laid low with aches and feverish coughing. When they recovered enough to pull clothes on and move about again they went up on deck, looking for company other than each other. Ellie got talking to a tired-looking Scottish woman in a dark wool coat. She told Ellie she was married to a dairy farmer in Te Awamutu and that she was heading home to Glasgow to visit her ailing mother.
‘You look awfully pale, you poor wee thing. Did it hit you very hard?’
‘Not too bad really, I’ve just had to take it easy for a few days.’
‘Better off than some then. You know they’re saying that an old lady on Deck 2 died three nights ago. A young man I met at breakfast this morning told me that her body was wrapped in a sheet and that they slid it into the sea that very night, without ceremony.’
Ellie couldn’t believe this was true – surely there were rules and procedures to be followed and the ship must have had some kind of storage facility for these kinds of eventualities. Still, looking around at the peeling and creaking insides of the ship and the closed and surly faces of the crew her nausea had risen to a new peak. Later when she told Robert the story he wasn’t as disbelieving as she’d hoped.
‘Well I wouldn’t put it past these roosters, this boat’s on its last legs and I’m not surprised to hear they’re not overly concerned with regulations. But Ellie, don’t dwell on it. We’ve only got a few days to go.’
When they arrived in London they bought a pale green Volkswagen Combi van with Ruth and Alan, two friends from their university days who were keen to travel the continent with them. After buying the van the four of them sat in the dark back room of a pub and sloshed beer over the map of Europe Ruth flattened out on the table between them. Ruth was almost as tall as Robert and she had long dark hair pulled low at the base of her neck and clamped into a pony tail. Her eyes were wide set and her eyebrows high and arched. Ellie scratched at her tights and felt the oily damp of the wet streets outside soaking through the toes of her boots. She was eager to be out of England and on the road and she promptly agreed to all of Ruth’s itinerary suggestions, while the boys fidgeted and joked and flicked coasters at each other across the table.
The journey from the ferry at Calais down the length of France and northern Italy was a blur to Ellie. Robert drove while Ruth navigated and Ellie and Alan were left lounging in the back of the van. The van’s back windows were slung with garish flowery curtains that were difficult to pull open and so most of the time Ellie and Alan had no view of the countryside they were passing through. Instead they lay on their backs on the double mattress and drew pictures with chalk on the ceiling of the van. Ellie drew portraits of their friends back home and lecturers they had all suffered through, making Alan hysterical at times. Ruth twisted her head around from the front seat every now and then to snap at them to pipe down. One afternoon she yelled at Alan, ‘For God’s sake, we’re trying to find this turn off. Could you just shut up for a few minutes.’ Her tone stung him into silence and he whispered to Ellie, ‘Bossy!’ and they both muffled their giggles in the tangled pile of sleeping bags.
The drive along the Amalfi Coast was harrowing. Ellie was again twisted with nausea as the van navigated the cliff faces and lurched its way through several near misses with scooters on hairpin bends. They arrived in Positano feeling rattled and desperate for a drink. As usual, Ruth had ideas about where they should go and the other three followed her obediently to a cliff top bar she had circled in her jealously-guarded guidebook.
On a terrace they drank sticky limoncello in cold ceramic glasses and watched the evening light settle and fade into the ink-dark sea. Ellie felt her breath come back to her again as she sat listening to Ruth give a run down on the bay’s attractions while Robert’s warm hand circled her knee under the table.
The next day the boys set off to climb what the guidebook referred to as ‘The Perforated Mountain’. It was a steep, shingly hike up to the top of the hill where a fist of rock bore a tear-shaped puncture mark about twenty five feet tall. Ellie decided to leave them to it and she spent the morning with Ruth on the hot, pebbly beach, raking her hands lazily through the stones to find little pieces of smooth coloured tiles. At lunchtime they ate pasta, bruised black with octopus ink, and shared a carafe of chilled white wine. Ruth, softened by the wine, began to tell her about her worries that Alan would never propose to her.
‘I’m 27 now Ellie, you know, I’m starting to wonder if it’s ever going to happen. My parents have been asking me what’s going on with us. They don’t like the fact that we’re clearly living together in London.’
‘Have you asked him? I mean does he know that it’s bothering you?’
‘Oh God no, I can’t get Alan to be serious most of the time. He hates talking about these kinds of things. He thinks we’re still kids – that we can drift on and things will fall into place in good time.’
‘Maybe he’s right about that you know. I didn’t enjoy our wedding. I sometimes wish we’d waited.’ Ellie pushed at the hair falling in her eyes. She was hot and sleepy from the wine. The empty plate in front of her patterned with oily black lines where her fork had scratched at it.
‘Oh but you two are so young. It’s easy for you to talk about waiting. I want to have a baby. I want to go home and plant a veggie garden. Soak nappies in a bucket and string them out in gleaming white lines. Gossip with the neighbours. I’m ready for all of that stuff now.’
‘It sounds awful Ruth, really. Be careful what you wish for.’ Ellie paused and then said, ‘I need to go for a swim.’ She got up quickly and was aware that Ruth’s eyes were narrowed and her expression stung. She walked back across the beach and flopped down again near the tide line, letting the pebbles settle and press back into her skin.
Hours later she woke up with her face feeling tight and the blood pounding at her temples. Ruth was sitting beside her on a towel eating a peach, with her knees drawn up and the guidebook perched between them. Ellie could smell the warm flesh of the peach and in the water she could see Alan drifting on his back.
‘The boys are back already?’ she said. But Ruth jerked her head away and adjusted her position so that she was lying on her side with her back turned to her. Ellie got up slowly and moved towards the water, which was unbearably glittery in the late afternoon sun. She closed her eyes and stepped into the sea and as she sank under she heard Alan’s voice call to her,
‘Hey Ellie! Come for a float with me.’
She swam out to Alan and paddled a couple of idle laps around him, enjoying the cooling of her skin. Alan made a few jokey grasps at her as she swam and she flicked water at him and laughed at his attempts to grab for her wrists. He was laughing too and the skin under his eyes and on his forehead looked crinkled and sunburnt from the climb. He made a sudden lunge towards her and caught her by the elbow and the shock of it caused her to swallow water, so that she was laughing and coughing at the same time as he brought his left hand around to grip her other arm. She shrieked, a little too loudly, and she knew that Ruth would be watching from the beach, that it would make her tetchy, but she also felt a certain justice in that.
Then Alan’s legs were snaking around her under the water. He was tangled in her and they were both dropping below the surface. She felt him holding her too tightly with his legs, the cord of sinew at the back of his knee biting into her and the rough hair above there scratching at her thighs. She was laughing and then she was crying out for him to stop and the water was suddenly cold and stony and the cliffs above them fierce.
‘Stop it Alan. Jesus Christ, I mean it. Get off.’
The smile dropped from his face and he looked blank and then suddenly angry with her.
‘Ellie, don’t be…’
She turned and swam with her head down in an awkward, shaking over-arm, the breath straining out of her in wet gasps. When she pitched up on to the beach she knew Ruth’s eyes were fixed on her and she looked up but her expression was stiff and unreadable. Then she saw Robert ambling towards her, his hands full of dribbling gelati.
This is what she thinks about now when she thinks of Positano. Not the painful clarity of the light or the dusty white houses or the seams of stony cliffs running up to the perforated mountain. Her young husband – amiable, amused – walking towards her with the melting ice creams in his hands and his face brown and easy. And Positano was that ‘dream place’ – not quite real to her in that dying afternoon, but after she and Robert had packed up and gone it seemed to come back to her over the years. They caught a bus the next morning and left their friends with the van and the maps and the sleeping bags and from there they started out again.