Rediscovering sensations on Elba
With one deft movement Alessandro parked the mini bus between a row of oleander bushes and a tall chestnut tree. He pointed towards the beach and waited for the gasps of admiration and delight that he knew would come from his captive audience of tourists as they took in the sight of the soft white sand and turquoise sea. He never ceased to take pleasure in the enthusiastic reactions to his island home and stood up to smile at them all, opening the door and telling them to be back in two hours.
Alessandro held out his hand to help the English family down the steps. The woman, Penny, was looking very hot and her ample flesh bursting out of her tight sundress was a dangerous shade of red. Her blonde hair was frizzy and unkempt and her mascara was smudged around her eyes. She turned and gave him a smile of great sweetness and when she thanked him, he was struck by the kindness in her eyes. Alessandro’s father would probably have given her a discreet pinch on her bottom and sent her on her way with renewed faith in her feminine attributes, but that sort of thing wasn’t allowed any more.
Her husband Paul waved away Alessandro’s offer with an impatient swipe and stuffed his phone in his pocket with a furtive glance. The son Ben, stumbled after his parents and walked behind them with his eyes down.
Alessandro sighed and looked across to the beach café. He could see Silvia, his girlfriend handing out ice creams, her generous curves enticing the fathers to buy two large scoops of coffee and vanilla ice creams and hurry off licking at the cornets as they raced across the hot sand back to their families. She beckoned him over and served him his favourite iced coffee.
‘You’re late today Ale! I’ve missed you. When you’ve finished come with me across the bay for a Spritz.’
Ale nodded, sipped his coffee and covered her hand with his.
‘This group are really interested in the history of the island and have been asking lots of questions about Napoleon, Maria Countess Walewska, his Polish mistress and why he would ever have wanted to leave such a beautiful island.’
Silvia kissed him and then went back to serve a group of children who had just finished a game of beach volley and Alessandro closed his eyes.
Penny watched the exchange between Alessandro and his beautiful girlfriend, the way they looked at each other and their graceful movements. She was painfully aware of the contrast between the young girl’s tanned and supple body and her own, plump and reddened by the sun. Ben was sitting hunched over his phone, his hat pulled down and his whole body tense and distant. Paul was rolled on to his side and she could tell that he was messaging on his phone again.
Everything seemed to have gone wrong at once. She had become middle-aged and frumpy, her husband was always working late, her son had transformed from a cuddly affectionate little boy into a sulky, taciturn teenager and her widowed father had needed constant attention.
An unaccustomed feeling of anger rose within her. She leaned across Paul to peer at his phone. He tried to hide it but she was too quick and grabbed it from him. She read the message, saucy and hinting at a great intimacy. She stood up, screamed and then hurled the phone into the sea, heedless of the stares of the people around her and stalked off across the beach.
Something about the island had seeped into her, awakening sensations that had become unfamiliar to her. All that talk about Napoleon and the way the island had embraced his flamboyant presence, his beautiful Polish mistress that came to keep him company, his sister and her naked swimming. Then there were perfumes and the legends and the way Alessandro had made them all aware of an atavistic sensuality and appreciation of all that the island offered.
Without realizing it, she had arrived at Paolina’s rock. Alessandro had pointed it out from the road. He’d told them how the islanders had been enchanted by Napoleon and his entourage. His favourite sister had been the only one to help him when he was exiled to the island, helping him with money and organizing parties and balls to entertain him. The islanders had been encaptured by Paolina’s habit of nude swimming and dedicated this rock to her.
Penny looked down into the clear crystal water. There was no-one around. She took off her sundress and slid down into the water. She sighed in relief as the cool water calmed her sunburn. Her body felt light and free, she twirled around reveling in the feeling as the water flowed around her. She felt part of something wonderful, she felt like laughing. All her worries flowed out of her into the sea, her legs brushed against each other, her arms floated up and she lay back, aware of all her senses, the gentle lapping of the sea, the cry of the sea birds, the sweet smell of the Mediterranean herbs, the cool softness of the water, the salty tang on her lips, the deep blue of the sky above.
A shadow fell over her and she looked up to see Paul watching her. She beckoned him to join her, like a siren tempting her prey.
She watched as he undressed without turning away and as he swam up to her she saw desire in his eyes. She put her arms round his neck, her heart beat fast. She didn’t know if she would be able to forgive him, or if he even wanted her any more, but she would enjoy this moment and keep it close to her to help make her strong again.
Ben carried on texting on his phone without looking up as his mother stormed off and then his father followed. He shook his head. His family seemed to have fallen apart. They used to have such great holidays together, building dams and fishing in the lake District and Cornwall, making sandcastles, building fires on the beach. It was his mother’s idea to come to Elba. She said she wanted to celebrate his GCSEs. There wasn’t much to celebrate, he hadn’t done well at all, just scraping enough to get into the Sixth form. Ben knew he could have done better. His phone pinged, another text from Will Fowler. He had failed his GCSEs and wanted Ben to leave school like him. He also wanted Ben to help him with his deals. Will had started to shoplift and found other ways to make easy money and was trying to get Ben to help him.
On the tour of the island Alessandro had shown them the prison at Porto Azzurro. He had looked straight at Ben as he told them the origin of the name of the little hill top town called Capoliveri. Alessandro had explained it came from Latin words caput (head, or perhaps cheif place) and liber (free). He’d talked about Romans and Etruscans, slaves and prisoners. He took them to an old mine and gave them a hammer to extract some iron ore from the earth. Against his will Ben had found himself listening intently, riveted by Alessandro’s story-telling that brought the history of the island to life. He mentioned freedom again and again. When he stopped he invited the group to breathe in deeply, to smell the pines and the herbs, to look at the great expanse of sky and feel the warm sun on their faces. Then he told them to close their eyes and imagine being in a cell, locked in with a key.
Ben had shuddered with fear and then opened his eyes in alarm.
Now sitting on the beach he watched his parents return, holding hands and his mother giggling like she used to. He stood up and walked towards them
‘Would you two like an ice cream before we get back on the bus, I’ve got some money from Grandpa left?’
His father slapped him on the back, then drew him towards him, putting his arms round the three of them, he laughed.
‘Why thank you Ben! Coffee and vanilla for me please!’
When everyone was settled back on the mini bus Alessandro clapped his hands to get their attention. He could see the English family sitting together, smiling and looking at him with interest. They looked different, lighter and happier.
He had one more story to tell them on the way back to the hotel.
‘Many of you have asked me why Napoleon would want to have left this beautiful island. Well, legend has it that when Napoleon arrived at Waterloo he was asked that question and his famous answer was, ‘I’d run out of beer.’
The men laughed and the women rolled their eyes, they could all relate to that.
Alessandro proceeded to tell them the legend of Napoleon’s beer. His sister Paolina made it for him specially, gathering malt and hops and adding honey made on the island. He grinned as he told them about the bee stings on Paolina’s bottom and was pleased to see Penny blush and Paul give her a squeeze.
He stopped the minibus at a shop near the hotel where they could buy Napoleon’s beer to take home and drink with their friends and tell the legends of his island home.