SHORT STORIES: Ilona
The dense heat of summer in the city left it deserted by day, but a crowded euphoria in the cool of the night. Those who held lodgings in the city would escape on a train in the early morning and pass the day in the cool of the mountains, or in the breezy shade of the Riviera towns, and being rooted deep into the city centre, Jacob did just this.
He was woken by the sun streaming in through his undrawn curtains, and as he opened his eyes to the brightness, he recoiled violently to bury his head in the pillow. There was an unmistakable haze surrounding his actions, and a gently pulsing pain from his left temple left as the consequence of the previous night.
He had sauntered into the city centre after the baking swell of the daylight hours, and quite soon found some friends and ended up in the old port area, but from then on he had really very little recollection of the night. His sleep had been disturbed by frequent and considerably bipolar visions, which now he tried to recall as he tried to find further darkness in the down for his aching sockets.
There were bright lights, there was fearful running, a grazed knee, a concerned search for a lost friend, and he could tell from the ringing in his ears that they had invariably been in a club. This sort of drunken escapades were not uncommon, but for some reason, despite the pain in his head, he felt warm inside. It was an unplaceable glow, which he had not felt for a long time, and was wholly appreciated.
After some uncomfortable shuffling, he reluctantly climbed from the bed to get ready to leave the city, fuelled purely by the desire not to be there at 10 AM, when the inevitable smoggy sweatbox would close over the towers and villas. He dressed, grabbed his bag, and stopping for a pastry on his way, walked to the station.
On the coastal train, he pulled the window wide open, and basked in the breeze which rattled through the train, all the while trying to reassemble the jigsaw of the previous evening. As he reached for the book in his back, his heart leapt in surprise at what he saw: The word “Ilona”, scrawled on his arm, in a smudged red that could only be lipstick. Suddenly everything came back into agonizing focus. What a fool he had been not seeing it sooner! Bloody wine!
Now, with the night’s events woven together by the smudged crimson thread, he began to replay his soiree. He and the boys had gotten into some irrelevant trouble at the first bar they entered, and a chase ensued. Louis was lost during the misadventures, and found with a considerable graze, where he had clambered over a stone wall to hide, but then as the evening settled down for the boys, it picked up pace for Jacob.
She had been sitting at the bar, her red dress and matching lipstick, perfectly complimenting her rich olive skin, and as Jacob ordered, she had turned, seen him, and uttered a phrase which deconstructed his conversational reflex in a second: “You have beautiful eyes.”
His mouth hung open, and after a few eternal seconds, he abruptly replied: “You are the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen”. How had such words left his mouth? There was no thought process leading up to it, it was simply an instant reaction. She smiled broadly, and invited him to stay for a chat, once again, his subconscious answering before he could even really consider.
They talked for a long while, and being both rather well-oiled by this point, their conversation was intense, and deeply personal. Thinking back Jacob felt foolish sharing so much, but no matter how much he said, she would lift the edges of her deep red lips and tell a similarly pathetic tale.
As the bar began to close around them, she pulled his hand into hers, and revelling in its soft warm grasp, he was pulled to a club. There they danced rapturously into the early hours, before stumbling back out into the moonlight, where they both sat down in the gutter. She pulled her dress down towards her knees, he slipped his arm behind her neck, and they rested for a while in the dusty alley.
Jacob began to doze gently, but was woken by Ilona printing her name onto his forearm, which still hung limply over her shoulder. He looked at the deep red lipstick type, and felt a strange intimacy in the situation.
“Same place tomorrow,” she whispered, before climbing to her feet, blowing a kiss, and walking off into the darkness.
“Oh for a real kiss what I would give”, thought Jacob, before realising his position and also standing to return home.
As the train roared through the damp tunnels, he smiled for the first time in what seemed like a long time. He had found someone truly special, someone he felt comfortable with, and what joy he found in that.
His glee sustained his rehydration, and he collapsed onto the hot sand of the beach with the same grin he wore on the train. But as he ran his fingers through the sand, his joy turned to horror as a cold light dawned on him. He could remember Ilona’s dress, he remembered the exact shape of her lips, and the colour of her eyes, but the remainder of her appearance was lost in the alcoholic fog.
Surely he would recognise her? And she would recognise him? But what if he approached the wrong girl and she was watching? Or worse, he blanked her? Desperate to distract himself from the questions which raced around his head in rapidly widening circles, he lowered his body into the cool surf, before paddling towards the horizon.
The sun in his eyes, he swam relentlessly, still unable to answer or ignore the swarm of questions, until much to his surprise, he saw someone floating delicately on the surface on the calm ocean. Startled by his stroke, the head soon popped up, to reveal long brown hair and an unmade up face whose eyes squinted back across at him. He seemed to recognise the face, but he could not place who it was, so he continued swimming that he might pass by slightly closer. The thin eyes continued to look across at him, but seemed to be struggling with the bright reflection of the sun on the sea.
Having passed, Jacob still could not put a name or an association to the perplexed face. He then turned back towards the shore, only to see her cutting across his previous path, all the while trying to get a better look at him. He could hear her breathing heavily, and it became apparent that she did not usually swim so fast, particularly when a few metres later she stopped to tread water and replenish her lungs. Jacob then cut back across her path, and they slowly continued to helix back towards the beach, both piqued by curiosity, but still unsure of the others identity.
Jacob struggled his way through the breaking waves back onto the beach, but when he turned, the girl had gone, and he returned to his towel. What a peculiar occurrence. This encounter had distracted him from the Ilona situation, but soon after it ended, the voices of turmoil began to shout once more.
He caught the train back to the city in the evening, all the while wondering whether he should go to meet Ilona. Would it really be so unforgivable not to go? Being stood up is surely better than the potential humiliation of mistaken identity.
The heat usually left him without appetite, but today he ate with a mechanic hunger, and as he did he decided he would go. He could not stand to do to Ilona what others had done to him. What a pity the lipstick had washed off in the sea. It may have been a useful tool of recognition. He tidied himself up, and shaved meticulously, before striding out into the twilight.
He walked the long way to the bar, paused for courage at another watering hole, and stopped for a long while as he wrestled once more with his doubts. He had wasted almost an hour by the time he got there, and sat up at the bar, just three seats down from where they had sat the previous night. He turned to survey the bar, and saw a girl wearing a black jacket and skirt, who seemed to be conducting herself with similar sleights as Ilona, but he was unsure.
He couldn’t approach her, as she was with another man, but quite soon she approached the bar, and leant onto the varnished wood just next to him. She ordered, and Jacob tried to ascertain through the corner of his eye whether it was her. She had the same colour eyes, but her lips weren’t the same red as yesterday, and he thought her perfume was different.
“Hello,” she said nervously, having caught him looking.
“Good evening,” he replied tensely.
There were a few seconds of silence before her drinks arrived and she returned to her table. It can’t have been her. His spirits lifted again at the prospect of her entry. He longed to see her elegant figure once more, and feel the warmth of her embrace, and he passed a good while thinking of this. Suddenly he became concerned that she might not be coming. What if she regretted last night? What if she thought me nothing but a drunken idiot?
The questions began to clang around in his head, until he felt quite unwell. He resolved to have a drink to settle himself once more. What if Ilona arrived while he was in such a state?!
He looked up from his empty glass to catch the eye of the bartender, but there was no one there. He turned and spotted him collecting empties, but he also saw a sight which left him feeling like he had been dealt a hefty blow to the chest: The girl in the black jacket and skirt, had pulled a lipstick from her clutch, and lifted the man’s arm onto the table. She then haphazardly began to trace letters onto his arm. Every fibre of Jacob’s being began to ache desperately, and a shortness of breath left him with a sensation which felt like his entire being caving in.
I, L, O.
By this point he was simply falling apart. His eyes blinked at twice their regular speed, a sweat had broken out on his forehead and he had to hold the counter to stop his hands from trembling.
The inevitability was heart breaking, and he closed his eyes for a moment, so that he didn’t see her writing the final letter. She then applied the lipstick to her lips, kissed him on the cheek, and left the bar.
It was her. It was so obviously her! Those perfect red lips could belong to no one else! But she hadn’t recognised him, and he hadn’t recognised her! Was she also too drunk yesterday? A rush of further questions flooded Jacob’s thoughts, and he held his head in his hands on the bar. Soon after, the man who had been with her, beaming profusely, came to the bar to order, resting his arm next to the scorned, where he could read with agonising clarity the childish type.