Ever since he had settled in Manila, Cedric Ramanathan’s greatest pleasure had been golf. There was nothing he liked better than to whack a ball down the fairway and then stroll after it with no thought in his head except whether to use a seven-iron or a six for the next shot—the occasional plonk in the pond or hook into the rough his only tribulation. He had been given free membership at an exclusive Greenhills club as part of a deal he had done on Japanese sprinklers—his speciality. Eighteen holes on a Saturday morning, followed by a Caesar salad and a session with Arnold at home, in the afternoon, was as close to a life in heaven as he could imagine. But this morning’s round had been a disaster. He had fluffed every shot. Afterwards he found the salad was off and now, back at his house, it looked as though Arnold was going to be late.
Cedric took his putter and stepped out into the neat front garden. He clamped his lips and tried to get the ball into the metal-tongued tray that served as a portable hole. No luck. To sink a long putt on a silent green used to be such bliss. He frowned and checked his watch.
At two minutes to three, a little Fiat pulled up at the bottom of the garden. A small wiry man popped out of the car and took out a flat, folded trestle table from the back. “Salamat … ma’am,” he bowed and stepped stiffly away. The Fiat trundled off and he proceeded up to the house with the maroon table neatly tucked under his right arm.
He saluted Cedric, who had retreated behind a lime bush as though suddenly ashamed of his crumpled blue shorts and tatty sleeveless vest. “Time, sir?”
Cedric unbuckled his watch and shoved it in his pocket. “On the dot, Arnold,” he conceded. The potted shrubs on the patio looked limp. Cedric picked up a watering can. “Water is the thing, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Very hot day.” Arnold fan-ned his face with his fingers. He liked Cedric’s house: the well-tended lawn, the abundance of plants, the voluptuous goldfish in the pond—though it did have the air, Arnold felt, of belonging to a man who perhaps had had more than his fair share of luck. Still, Arnold was always given a spiced bun and custard tart with his tea at the end of the afternoon. None of his other clients had such tasty refreshments. The tea was from Darjeeling, Cedric had once explained, pointing out the location on a map of South Asia he had pinned to his study wall.
“We’ll use the new games room today,” Cedric said, leading the way.
Arnold nodded, eager to get on and already a little hungry.
The new room was an add-on to the main house. The back patio had been walled in with concrete blocks and covered over with a low tin roof. It had the look of a bunker. Two golf bags stood like sentries by the door and a strip of green baize on the floor simulated an interior practice green. Several towels had been piled up on a chair in one corner. Arnold unfolded his trestle table and locked the metal struts in place. He laid out two of the towels over the maroon leatherette and then called out to Cedric. “OK, sir. Ready.”
“You got a lift today, Arnold?” Cedric put away his putter after a quick wipe with a polishing cloth. Usually Arnold came in a taxi. An added charge to the bill.
“Yes, sir. Last client change the time this week. So she dropped. Very nice Italian lady.”
“Not Miss Silveri, is it?” Cedric asked, only half-seriously.
“Yes, sir. Madam Betsy. You know her, sir?”
Something hard and round tightened in the pit of Cedric’s belly. Did he, heck? Betsy Silveri was the one who had pitched him into limbo, and upset everything.
It had happened at the Aguinaldo reception in the ballroom of the Manila Hilton on Tuesday night. He had put in an appearance mainly to pick up a few business cards, nothing more. Then a swirl of silk like some concupiscent fantail had bumped into him by the central water feature. Carnal thoughts were not alien to him, but ever since he had discovered the principles of comfort and convenience that came with maturity and a franchise in Manila, he was able to channel these into the well-oiled grooves of the neon meat-market between Taft and Roxas Boulevard without too much fuss. Next to the spouting pipes and coloured pools that night though, things were happening that were startling for one whose passions had not extended beyond the controlled arc of an imported sprinkler system for years.
He had been aiming for the cheese titbits, and she the chilli dip.
Betsy tried to catch his flailing arm. “My goodness.” A spray of red wine misted the air and small mosaic tiles of Edam fluttered to the mock cathedral floor. “I am so sorry.”
The small red dots turned to bruises on his shirt—a crisp embroidered barong—and the cheese lay like confetti between them.
“It’s okay,” he said, staring at the tiny silver cross jiggling on her plump freckled chest.
“I just wanted the hot sauce.” She brandished a small sausage impaled on a toothpick.
“I shouldn’t have jumped.”
“I am Betsy.”
“Pleased to meet you.” He held out his hand, careful not to go too far. She looked at him with such intensity that he thought he was about to be whacked. Her eyes were dark. Fathomless. He met her gaze and realized he had never really looked into a woman’s eyes before. He had heard of how one’s whole life could pass in seconds when you were drowning, but why was it happening now when he was breathing so hard? And why was she beginning to smile?
“I think you need a bit of salt.” The lids of her eyes were painted green.
Cedric was well aware that he lacked a bit of go, sometimes. But salt? Was he so evidently sodium-deficient? “Actually, I feel fine. Just got startled, that’s all.”
Betsy reached forward for the hem of his shirt, which hung untucked just below his belt. He felt seriously unsafe. “Hold on,” she said and stuck the cocktail sausage in her mouth. He did not know what to hold, but she reached across to the table and picked up a salt shaker. He held her hand which held his shirt and they swayed like dancers on the deck of a sinking ship.
“Salt now?” he asked, imagining being force-fed into hyperactivity.
She finished her mouthful. “We should do something straightaway. Those spots look bad.” She sprinkled the salt over the wine balloons.
“Really, don’t worry. I do sprinklers all the time.”
She looked a little puzzled but smiled charmingly. “I think I better get you a new barong, it’s the least I could do. Shall we meet tomorrow? Tesero’s on Mabini have some lovely ones. I work very near the shop.” She let go of the hem and he felt the course of his life change. His mind flew to scenes of a whirlwind romance in Technicolor, down the coast wallowing in the glow of her smile.
“I … I wondered about … whether you like the music?”
“I like jazz.”
“I’ve got to go, Cedric. But I’ll see you tomorrow. Twelve-thirty?”
Cedric took off his cotton vest and shorts, and climbed up on to the maroon table and lay down before Arnold. Why had he not torn off the shirt that evening and flung it at her feet on bended knee? If only he had shown the fervour he had felt instead of watching her wobble baloney on a stick. The next day had been fraught. He had an early-morning foursome with a potential client—a hotelier and his two cronies—and every time he tried to speed up, he missed a shot, which slowed the group down. At the clubhouse, despite the prospective deal, he bowed out of lunch pleading a headache, but was corralled by the Greenhills manager over a malfunctioning pump. He admitted culpability and made a dash for the car. He drove thumping the horn like a maniac but only inching his way through the traffic. By the time he had got to Tesero’s, it was after one. There was no sign of her. He went again the next day, at noon, as though two wrongs might make a right. Betsy was not there. He walked up and down the street trying to imagine where she might be working. Not one of those dicey massage parlours, surely? But he looked in a couple all the same without success. By the weekend he had given up, but she kept barging into his thoughts. And every time he teed up, all he could think was how that last wretched round had ruined his chances before the full brunt of middle age knocked him completely out of the game.
Arnold slapped his shoulder hard with his trademark start-up. “Ho. Ease up, sir. We begin.”
“You do her on this, too?”
“Madam Betsy? Yes, sir. On this table, yes. Very strong. Where else, sir?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Cedric remembered how her eyes seemed to reach down through his into some inner recess, cleaving through his whole body as he swayed in front of her. “I thought she might have only wanted her feet, or something, done.”
Arnold was a master of other people’s muscles but could not control his own much. His mouth widened like a ripped sail as he blew out his breath. A small gold tooth glittered. “Feet? No way, sir.” He sucked in more, noisily. “Full body, sir. Head to toe. Always the full works.”
“How else? Like you, sir. Just like this.” He pushed a knuckle between Cedric’s shoulder blades.
Cedric grunted and saw small pricks of light in the red mist behind his closed eyelids. He wanted to turn tables and exchange places with Arnold and went into a spin trying to imagine he was both Betsy on the bed—no, table—and Arnold, all thumbs and fingers, knuckling her vertebrae, rolling her over, pressing all the buttons of her bare being, cupping the steam rising from the areola broadening in his hands. “Wait.”
He looked over his shoulder at Arnold. Yes, it was still Arnold standing there, and himself disjointed on the table. His beloved putters—the hefty Ping and rugged Schenectady—were pinned to the rack on the wall like implements of torture. “You married, Arnold?”
“Ai, naku. Of course, sir.”
“What does your wife think of your job with ladies like Miss Silveri?”
“She is very happy, sir. Ma’am is very generous. She gives her pukka Italian handbags.”
Cedric flinched. Pukka? He wondered how that got into Arnold’s Pilipino vocabulary. In all the months his body had been pummelled, the word had never escaped Cedric’s lips. “She has met her?”
“No, sir. My wife is in the provinces, no? I take the handbag when I go home. Ma’am has many bags and when she finds one too uncomfortable for her shoulder, I rub it and she gives it, la.”
Arnold demonstrated and Cedric felt another muscle turn to putty. When he was young—before golf usurped his dreams—he wanted to be a buccaneer like Errol Flynn. He would imagine himself sailing across the Pacific and wielding a cutlass against the gold-toothed swine who were after his treasure, leaping from deck to rolling deck. A simple cut and a thrust would deal with any problem and the perfect swing was one that would dispatch the enemy into oblivion. A bag of woods and irons, the rage of middle age, were poor substitutes for the swashbuckling adventures with damsels and mermaids he had once conjured with. Now, lost in the doldrums, all he wanted was to twirl his fork around a bowl of spaghetti and watch Betsy Silveri’s pukka bosom heave with pride, her wide and tender Roman tongue slip between her lips as she smiled and melted his own inner beam swinging like a boat’s boom in a darkened cinema.
Cedric shifted his sacrum and tried to loosen up. “She has her clothes on, of course? For this rub of yours?”
Arnold applied the edge of his palm as though he wanted Cedric’s shoulder flattened to something close to a slice of Parma ham. “No, sir. She has to take off everything.”
“A towel, sir. I put a towel here and there. Nothing else. Like normal.”
“Good grief, nothing else?” Female nudity in broad daylight was a foreign country that Cedric had not visited since an unexpected holiday on the Adriatic coast on his way back from Lourdes three years ago—due to his sciatica—and even then he had been too shy to take a proper look.
He adjusted the thin striped cloth that lay across his middle and let his bones sink. The idea of his skin pressed to the same leatherette that had been touching her bare body, soaking in her sweat where the towel had scrunched up here and there, like scent from Desdemona’s handkerchief, made his blood surge.
“Sir, you should empty your head for this.”
Cedric snorted. The more he tried not to think of her, the more he did.
Arnold paused. It was not uncommon for his clients’ flesh to part from their better judgement: the clenched buttock, the popped nipple, uncontrollable dilation and sly tumescence were all conditions he had learned to handle with aplomb. His job was to please his clients and exercise their muscles; he never shrank from his duty.
Betsy Silveri was his favourite because she knew what she wanted and made her physical requirements abundantly clear. On the very first occasion, when he had finished rolling her corrugated cellulite into smooth silk and had patted her towelled buttock, she had raised her pelvis and sighed. He had not hesitated; he had gone into his special repetoire with vim and warm coconut oil. After that, exactly thirty-five minutes into their every session, she would make the signal by arcing her back, and he would sing.
“Sir, you want something else today?”
Cedric’s body tensed up; all of Arnold’s hard work on the upper shoulders and the lower back evaporated. He might as well have strung a bow. “I want a bloody cigarette.”
“Sir, what about your legs?”
Cedric reached for the pack of cigarettes on the shelf. He shook one out and lit it with a thick silver lighter. Try as he would he could not empty his head, could not imagine an innocent scene with Arnold’s bony fingers and Betsy on the table. “What does she like?”
“Same as you, sir.”
Cedric looked at Arnold suspiciously. “Like what?”
“Stretch. Pull. Roll. Afterwards she likes to have a cigarette and tea, just like you, but iced.”
He drew some smoke in. “Iced?”
Arnold smiled loosely again. “Iced tea, sir. Otherwise same-same. She likes the same thing you like. Lucky Strike, Gerry Mulligan, cool sax. Tea.”
“But iced.” He contemplated the smoke drifting towards the window. Why did it seem more intimate when it was between a man and a woman, rather than a man and a man? “So, you did a whole pukka session with her—head to toe—before coming here?”
“Just now, sir. Came straight from her house.”
“After she had her iced tea?”
“Cigarette, sir. No tea today.”
“You know, Arnold, I would like you to do something for me.”
“Anything, sir. I will do anything for you. I like to please my client and you are my best, sir.” He started to work on Cedric’s left calf. “My hands are your hands.”
“I need your mouth, Arnold, for this, not your hands.”
“Sir?” He gave Cedric a sharp slap.
“I want you to talk to her. Tell her that I am very anxious, I am very, very sorry, I am wanting to…I mean, I want to…”
Arnold clucked unhappily. “No, sir. This is not a good message. Ma’am is not so interested in anxious gentlemen.”
“She likes a strong man. Straight. You must act decisively, sir, without hesitation. Take what is given, you know?”
“I have not been given anything except a lot of bloody wine stains on my best barong.”
Arnold pulled back the brown emasculated leg and bent it. “You want to meet with her, sir?”
The cigarette glowed as Cedric sucked. Decisiveness was not one of his strengths. He could steer a course once it had been set, but found it impossible to choose one for himself. Even in business, he went with the flow, trusting the trade winds. He had been sent to Manila by his company because of his golf. He played at the level his Manila clientele appreciated.They liked his game and bought his sprinklers more for his handicap than anything he said. He found the commercial world plain sailing compared to the emotional. His head hurt and he longed for a fairway with clearly marked hazards.
“Yes.” He took another drag, enlarging his grey-haired chest. “I suppose that is what I want to do.”
“Enough then for today, sir?” Arnold looked around for some sign of his afternoon snack. “Next week, sir, she wants to do the same time again. If you are at the gate when she drops me, you have the chance. Speak to her direct. Offer iced tea. Tell and pull, sir.”
Cedric looked at the masseur suspiciously. How could he know what she would do?
The week passed slowly. On the big day Cedric was ready early. He fixed a canopy over the front patio and put out two new deck chairs and a special brass tea table.
Then he took his new driver and a couple of irons out to the front lawn. He had to improve his swing. To sort things out. To relax. To listen to the wind whistle, to hear the grass brushed by the clubhead, to feel something flow. Just before three o’clock, he abandoned the golf clubs for the watering can. He wanted to be at the gate when she arrived, and so he kept watering the roses next to it over and over again. He was on the fourth can when the Fiat puttered around the corner and came to a stop. He looked up. The water trickled all over his feet. “Holy fuck,” he said, a little louder than he had meant to but her windows were up and the little car was wheezing loudly. He took a deep breath and remembered his tee-box mantra: keep your head down, stay balanced, follow-through.
Arnold shoved open the door. Cedric quickly went to the car and peered into it. “Oh, Betsy,” he said as though he would never have expected to find her there. “Hello.”
She smiled back at him in delight. “So, this is where you hide.” She laughed, which made him almost petrify.
He gulped. “You like a cool drink?” She wore the skimpiest dress he had ever seen on a driver; her bare skin glistened as it pulsed. “Must be hot in there,” he added. What else could he say? He thought of mentioning Pompeii, where he had been once and felt curiously at home. “I’m sorry about the other day …”
“I have the air-con at full.” She revved the engine.
Arnold, who was standing next to the car, stepped out of the way. Cedric looked at him, alarmed, and then again at Betsy. “A glass of nice iced tea?”
“Yes. Very iced.” He could see a small spark of interest in her eyes. Her lips opened. Her teeth were bright and white and he caught a glimpse of her pink tongue as it curved behind them to hide. She was looking at him. Searching his face, reaching out. He felt he was on fire but also being doused from all directions. He put the watering can down on the sodden ground. His face was bathed in sweat and at any moment now he knew he would drip like a slob onto the half-open window. He moved back a bit, anxious not to smear the glass, but worried in case it looked as though he was back-pedalling. He searched his pocket for a handkerchief, or a stopcock, but found only a bent tee.
“That sounds lovely, Cedric, but I just had a coffee and I have to go.”
“Coffee?” He looked at Arnold who made a tiny, almost imperceptible, shrug.
“I guess the spots must have come off after all,” she added a little sadly.
“No, I am sorry they didn’t.”
“What a shame you didn’t come then.” She too glanced at Arnold. “Well, enjoy your afternoon. Ciao.” Her hand fluttered and the car eased away.
“Wait,” Cedric tried to move forward, but he was too slow. He twisted the handkerchief he found mysteriously clenched in his hands and slung it around his neck like a bandana. “What the hell is this business with coffee, Arnold? You said tea. What’s going on?”
“She wanted something hot, sir.” Arnold patted his folded table. “Maybe next week, better luck. Offer your special Darjeeling, sir. Hot Indian tea.”
Cedric stared at Arnold, uncertainty lapping, his heart sinking. He said nothing to him and started back towards the house. On the way he picked up one of the clubs that he had dropped on the lawn earlier and tested its weight. A big driver. He had not got the hang of it. The head was made of silvery metal. All his muscles hurt: his arms, his legs, his middle back, his neck, his scuppered loins. He did not think Arnold could ease the tension in them this time. Not with those short clammy prurient fingers, no matter how hard he kneaded. The man may be a master of manipulation, but Cedric’s blood was too thick and hot and stymied to be so easily placated now. A few yards away, the canvas rigged up over the front patio was loose and flapping. An ocean foamed in his head. There must be a way, he thought, to retrieve one’s dreams. The club swung like a cutlass in his hand. He remembered the duels of his boyhood, the galleons he captured, the freebooters he had slain. He could do it then with his eyes open, night and day, blending hope and reality into a life everlasting like a story on a screen. But what could he do now, with time running so short? Wait another week?
He turned to look at his useless masseur and saw a small nervous gannet, yearning for a snack.