Excerpt

Hot Milk

Deborah Levy

August 15, 2016 
The following is from Deborah Levy’s novel, Hot Milk, recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts before becoming a playwright. Her plays include Pax, Heresies, Clam, Call Blue Jane, Shiny Nylon, Honey Baby Middle England, Pushing the Prince into Denmark and Macbeth-False Memories.

Ladies and Gentlemen

The diving-school dog is already pulling at its chains and it’s only 8 a.m. He stands on two legs and lifts his scabby brown head above the wall of the roof terrace, snarling at the beach life below it. Pablo is shouting at the two Mexican men painting the walls. They can’t shout back because they don’t have the right legal documents to give him the finger. The louder the dog howls, the louder Pablo shouts.

I am going to free Pablo’s dog today.

I walk to Café Playa which is next to the diving school and order my favourite coffee, a cortado. Obviously, I want to inspect the way the waiter froths the milk, given that I was trained for six long days at the Coffee House to perfect my milk-foaming techniques. The waiter’s black hair is gelled so that it sticks out in a number of directions. There are so many things his hair is doing with gravity. I could look at it for an hour instead of freeing Pablo’s dog. The cortado is made with long-life milk, which is what they mostly use here in the desert. It is the sort of milk that is described as ‘commercially stable’.

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‘We have travelled a long distance from the cow with a bucket of raw milk under its udder. We are a long way from home.’

This is what my boss told me, in her soft, sad voice, on my first day at the Coffee House. I still often think about it. I think about her thinking about it. Is home where the raw milk is?

The diving instructors are wheeling their plastic petrol canisters and oxygen tanks across the sand. Their boat is waiting for them in its specially roped-off part of the sea. When will it ever be the right time to free Pablo’s dog?

I stand up to find the women’s toilet and have to walk past the village alcoholic, who is eating a plate of luminous orange crisps with his morning cognac. The doors to the Señoras resemble the saloon swing doors of a bar in a cowboy movie, they are slatted and painted white. I’ve seen them in Westerns where the barkeeper stares suspiciously at the moody stranger when he makes his entrance. While I am peeing, someone walks into the next cubicle. There is a gap between the floor and the partition between the cubicles and I can see that this person is a man. He is wearing black leather shoes with gold buckles on the side. It’s as if he’s waiting for me. He is standing very still, I can hear him breathing, but he does not move his feet. He is lurking. I suddenly feel observed. Perhaps he can see me with my skirt hitched up round my waist. Why else is he just standing there? I wait a few seconds for him to make a move or to leave and when he doesn’t I start to panic. I quickly pull down my skirt, push open the saloon door and run to find the waiter.

He is busy with the coffee machine and he’s toasting bread and squeezing oranges at the same time.

‘Sorry, but there’s a man in the Señoras.’

The waiter grasps the cloth hanging over his shoulder and wipes the stainless-steel wand, which is dripping with milk. Then he turns round to take the stale baguettes off the grill and slides them on to a plate.

‘What?’

My legs are shaking. I don’t know why I am so frightened. ‘There’s a man in the Señoras. He was looking at me under the door. He might have a knife.’

The waiter shakes his head, irritated, he doesn’t want to leave his machine with all the cups and glasses standing in a line under the steel tubes. It is complicated to make multiple coffees, each requiring a different shape of cup or a different kind of glass. ‘Maybe you walked into the Caballeros? They are next to each other.’

‘No. I think he’s dangerous.’

He walks briskly with me to the door with ‘Señoras’ written underneath a roughly painted red lace fan and kicks it open.

A woman stands by the basin, washing her hands. She’s about my age and she’s wearing tight blue velvet shorts. Her blond hair is tied in a single thick plait. The waiter asks her in Spanish if she has seen a man in the Señoras. She shakes her head and continues washing her hands while the waiter nudges open the other door with his boot.

‘The only man in here is you,’ the woman says to the waiter. She’s got a German accent.

I look down at the floor, humiliated, and while my eyes are down I see that the woman with the blond plait is wearing the men’s shoes that I glimpsed in the other cubicle. Black leather shoes with gold buckles on the side. I don’t know what to say, I’m blushing and I feel the same panic jitter again in my chest. The waiter flings up his hands and stamps out of the Señoras, leaving me and the woman alone.

We stand in silence and I wash my hands just to give myself something to do, but then I can’t work out how to turn off the tap. She thumps it with her palm and the flow of water stops. When I look up at the mirror above the basins I can see her slanting green eyes looking at me. She is about my age. Her eyebrows are thick, almost black. Her hair is gold and straight.

‘These are men’s dancing shoes,’ she says. ‘I found them in the vintage shop up the hill. I work there.’

My wet fingers are now in my hair and I’m fidgeting with it. My curls start to frizz while she stands there calm and poised.

‘I sew for the shop in the summer. They gave me these shoes.’ She tugs at the end of her silky plait. ‘I’ve seen you around with your mother.’

A man in the village square is shouting into a loudspeaker from his truck. He’s selling melons and he’s obviously in a bad mood because his hand is slammed on the horn.

‘Yes. My mother is a patient at a clinic here.’ I sound like such a loser. For some reason, I want her good opinion, but I’m not very impressive. My heart is still racing and there’s water all over my T-shirt. She is tall and lean. Two silver bracelets circle her tanned wrists.

‘I have a house here with my boyfriend,’ she says. ‘We come here most summers. I’ve got a pile of repairs to do for the shop today. After that we are driving to Rodalquilar for supper. I like driving at night, when it’s cool.’

Her life is the sort of life I want. Her fingers are still stroking her plait.

‘Are you going to drive your mother to see the sights?’

I explained how we have to pick up our hire car from the clinic but I don’t drive and Rose has got problems with her legs.

‘Why don’t you drive?’

‘I failed my test four times.’

‘That’s not possible.’

‘And I failed my driving theory examination, too.’

She screwed up her lips and stared at my hair with her long-lidded, eyes. ‘Can you ride a horse?’

‘No.’

‘I have been riding a horse since I was three.’

There was obviously nothing to recommend me to anyone.

‘Sorry about the mix-up,’ I said. I walked out of the Señoras as fast I could without actually running.

Where shall I go? I have nowhere to go. This is the fear the posters on the wall of my mother’s mortgage company were signalling we shared. They are right. I walked to the plaza near the Café Playa to pretend to buy a watermelon.

I am saving the rinds for the chickens which are still, miraculously, laying eggs in the summer heat. They belong to Señora Bedello, whose husband died in the civil war, fighting Franco’s fascist army.

It’s not a man selling watermelons, it’s a woman.

She’s sitting in the driving seat of the van and she is beeping the horn with her small brown hand. I am so confused. I had an image in my mind of a sweaty male driver with stubble on his face, but she is a middle-aged woman in a straw hat. Her blue dress is dusty from the desert road and she’s leaning her vast breasts against the steering wheel.

And then I remembered I hadn’t finished my coffee.

I returned to Café Playa and gulped down my cortado like the village alcoholic downing his morning cognac.

There she is.

The woman in the men’s shoes is standing by my table. Straight and tall, like a soldier girl. Looking out to sea. At the boats. At the children swimming in giant plastic rings. At the tourists who have laid out umbrellas and chairs and towels on the sand. The diving-school boat is now loaded with all its equipment and pulls away into the ocean. The brown Alsatian, who I have not yet freed, is still rattling his chains.

‘My name is Ingrid Bauer.’

What is she doing standing so close to me?

‘I am Sophie, but Sofia is my Greek name.’

‘How do you do, Zoffie?’

The way she says my name is like a whole other life. I’m ashamed of my sad white flip-flops. They have turned grey in the summer. ‘

Your lips are splitting from the sun,’ she says. ‘Like the almonds split on the trees of Andalucía when they are ripening.’

Pablo’s dog starts to howl.

Ingrid looks up at the diving-school roof terrace. ‘That German shepherd is a working dog and should not be chained all day.’

‘He belongs to Pablo. Everyone hates him.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m going to free the dog today.’
‘

Oh. How are you going to do that?’

‘I don’t know.’

She looks up at the sky. ‘Will you make eye contact with him when you undo the chains?’

‘Yes.’

‘Wrong. Never do that. Will you make your body still like a tree when you approach him?’

‘A tree is never still.’

‘Like a log, then.’

‘Yes, I will be still like a log.’

‘Like a leaf.’

‘A leaf is never still.’

She was still looking at the sky. ‘There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies. If you are going to unchain him, you will have to take him to the mountains and let him run wild. In that way he will be truly free.’

‘But he will die in the mountains without water.’

Now she was looking at me. ‘What is worse? To be chained all day with a bowl of water, or to be free and die of thirst?’ Her left eyebrow was raised, as if to ask, Are you a bit of a hysteric? You’ve had a waiter push open two doors to find a man who isn’t there, you don’t know how to turn off a tap, you don’t know how to drive a car and you want to free a feral dog.

She asked me if I wanted to walk on the beach.

I do.

I kicked off my flip-flops and we jumped over the three concrete steps that separate the café terrace from the beach. There was something about that jump, the fact that we did not walk down those steps, which made us both run at the same time. We ran fast across the sand, as if we were chasing something we knew was there but couldn’t yet see. After a while we slowed down and walked along the shore. Ingrid took off her shoes and then she looked at me and threw them into the sea.

I heard myself shouting No No No. I hitched up my skirt and ran to grab them from the waves. When they were finally clasped to my chest, I walked out of the sea and gave them back to her.

She dangled one in each hand, shaking out the water and then she laughed. ‘My God, these shoes. I didn’t mean to frighten you, Zoffie.’

‘It wasn’t your fault. I was frightened anyway.’

Why did I say that? Was I frightened anyway?

We kept on walking, dodging the sandcastles that children were building with their parents, intricate kingdoms with turrets and moats. A girl of about seven was buried to her waist, her legs buried alive, while her three sisters sculpted a mermaid’s tail. We jumped over her and started to run again until we arrived at the end of the beach. When I dropped on to a bank of black seaweed by the rocks, so did Ingrid Bauer. We lay on our backs, side by side, gazing up at a blue kite floating in the blue sky. I could hear her breathing. The kite suddenly crumpled and began its descent. I wanted my whole life so far to slip away with the rolling waves, to begin a different kind of life. But I didn’t know what that meant or how to get to it.

A phone was ringing in the back pocket of Ingrid’s shorts. She rolled on to her stomach to reach for it and I rolled over too, and then we moved closer. My cracked lips were on her full soft lips and we were kissing. The tide was coming in. I shut my eyes and felt the sea cover my ankles and what came to mind was the screen saver on my laptop, the constellations in the digital sky, the swirls of pink light which are gas and dust. The phone was still ringing but we kept on kissing and she was holding on to my shoulder with the medusa sting, squeezing the purple welts. It hurt but I didn’t care, and then she broke away from me to answer her phone.

‘I am on the beach, Matty. Can you hear the sea?’ She held the phone towards the waves, but her slanting green eyes were lookingat me. At the same time, her lips were mouthing, I’m late, very late, as if I was to blame for whatever it was that had made her late.

I was so confused I stood up and walked away.

When I heard her calling my name I did not turn round. The mermaid girl who had been buried in the sand by her sisters now had a full fan of a tail, decorated with shells and small pebbles.

‘Zoffie Zoffie Zoffie.’

I kept on walking in a daze. I had made something happen. I was shaking and I knew that I had held myself in for too long, in my body, in my skin, the word anthropology from the Greek anthropos meaning ‘human’, and logia, meaning ‘study’. If anthropology is the study of humankind from its beginning millions of years ago to this day, I am not very good at studying myself. I have researched aboriginal culture, Mayan hieroglyphics and the corporate culture of a Japanese car manufacturer, and I have written essays on the internal logic of various other societies, but I haven’t a clue about my own logic. Suddenly that was the best thing that ever happened to me. What I felt most was the way she had squeezed the medusa sting on my shoulder.

 

From HOT MILK. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Deborah Levy.




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