She met him on her daily walk along Smith Street, passing the Mango Reef Bar with its artificial palm fronds and flashing neon ‘To The Beach’ sign. She deftly avoided the calls to buy from various traders, their wares spread out on threadbare cotton sheets; a jumble of plastic beads, belts and carved animals competing for space with sun-glasses, out-of-date peanuts and brightly-coloured paintings of Gambian village life.
He thrust a filigree necklace, shaped like a porpoise, into her hand. Her eyes climbed slowly up his tall, slender frame, until they came to rest on his smile.
“Twenty dalasi,” he said.
Suddenly, she couldn’t speak, lost in the beauty of his skin, a soft charcoal-black bloom which seemed to absorb the heat, unlike her own harsh whiteness which shrugged off the brightness of the sun with an awkward blush.
“I’ll have it,” she replied, staring down at the necklace in her hand. “It’s beautiful.”
“And so are you,” he laughed, drawing a giant ‘S’ in the air with both hands. “You are shaped like a bell. I love a woman with big hips.”
She smiled, running her fingers along the arch of the porpoise necklace. In her twenties, if a man had told her how curvy she was, she would have been offended. But now things were different. She and her sixty-year-old body had become one; warm and secure, no longer–as she had once been–detached and critical of every mark. And now, how did this beautiful Gambian boy see her? He saw her as an instrument. Like a bell.
“Good God, woman. Have you gone completely mad?”
Geoffrey was livid. She had decided to call him late, from her hotel.
“If his only chat-up line is to tell you, you look like a bell, I’d run like the bloody clappers.”
“Very droll, Geoffrey.”
“You of all people should know the Gambia’s famous for it, you stupid old bird.”
“Famous for it?” She stretched on the bed, hearing the hiss of water from the shower, and smiled. “Famous for what?” she asked again, determined that her tight-lipped friend should be made to suffer.
“Women of a certain age getting off with young, opportunistic local boys.”
“God, Geoffrey. You don’t half sound old-fashioned.”
“My dear, I wish I could say the same for you. You’re in your sixties. A fellow of the Royal Academy. A famous potter. I mean, have you thought… well, have you thought about the possibility of… you know…”
“Diseases.” This last word was spat down the phone, like a cobra striking. Geoffrey’s Victorian fastidiousness was all part of his charm. “Honestly, think about your art. Your public. You went out there to observe the wildlife.”
She laughed so hard, tears began to pour down her face. Dear Geoffrey–wrapped safely up in his obsession with seventeenth century carriage clocks. If he had even had the merest sip of what she had been experiencing these past few days, he would not be talking to her this way.
The line clicked dead. She sighed.
The boy appeared in a cloud of steam, rubbing his broad, bronzed shoulders with a towel; a tree god appearing from the mist. He turned off the light and climbed into bed. Her flesh immediately orbited about him, absorbing his body greedily for all its youthful energy and beauty.
“I want to come home with you,” he whispered, “I have never been to England.”
She smiled and sighed: “Of course.”
Of course? Of course it was a dream. That’s what she had meant to say. After all, it wasn’t practical. Her public, the press, her dealers, would all laugh at her, bringing home this simple Gambian boy. The past few days had been a lie, in the perfect velvet darkness. A beautiful lie.
The following morning she awoke to find a note penned in a childish hand on her pillow, saying he had gone to work. He hoped to see her for a drink before dinner in their secret meeting place, third tree on the right. He had signed it, ‘with love’, followed by three wobbly inky kisses, that, struggling to stay in a straight line, had over-balanced and almost fallen off the page. She clutched the note to her heart and shook her head. He was, she had decided, her muse, nothing more. She smiled, thinking of how much you’d have to pay a model in London these days. Here, it seemed, the inspiration came free, with love.
She pictured herself at the potter’s wheel, forming a perfectly symmetrical bowl; the feel of wet porous clay against her fingers, the finest of grit forming under her nails. She could see herself painting his shape, his legs lolling like two boughs of a palm, his profile immortalized by her hand.
She sighed, feeling the bitter guilt of ownership that the artist has for her model. Perhaps she was rather leading him astray. After all, he would never see the work, but to be immortalised was enough, surely? Giving him money, like some wide-eyed tourist, would only cheapen the experience. And with that, she began work on the drawings, entitled: ‘Gambian Boy’.
Later, they met under the third tree on the left. Moving towards him, she took him in her arms and they kissed. With his hands on her shoulders, he looked deep into her eyes.
“Listen, I don’t want to waste more time,” he said, in an excited whisper. “A lady. She’s bought me a ticket. To England.”
Suddenly, the bowl felt rough in her hands. His profile looked clumsy and the glaze was now dull. She broke away from his embrace.
“I’m… sorry,” he muttered. “You can give me money instead of a plane ticket. I need a mobile phone.” He smiled and stroked her cheek. “I will have to call my family while I’m away.”
It was then that the bowl broke away from her hands, its sound ringing out like the birds in the Gambian night.
Celeste Goschen has worked as a Model, Musician, Bread Seller, Film-maker, PA and business owner. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines, papers and ezines (including Every Day Fiction). Winner of Writers Billboard Flash Fiction & PrimeProse. Work awaiting publication in Delivered, EDF and EarlyWorks Press. She is currently working on a radio play and her first novel.