BY PAUL GOODWIN
Copyright is held by the author.
The ACCOUNTANT’S devilled chicken was still untouched. He could have been dictating to a private journal, documenting his holiday hour by hour. He’d counted the length of the queue at immigration and cursed the unsmiling official who’d mocked his passport photograph. After that, I’d already forgotten where he’d been.
“But the toilets were wonderful,” his wife chipped in.
“More wine?” I asked, hoping this would stem the flow of foreign scenes turned abstract, dry as figures on a balance sheet.
“Oh, thanks,” he said. “And then we got to Sicily . . .”
My brain was seizing like a machine crying out for oil. I wanted to bang the table and beg, “Please, please, no more.” But I squeezed my cheeks into a forced smile and nodded with encouragement each time he paused for breath. Behind his glasses, his pale eyes were fixed on me. I held my loaded fork inches from my mouth as if his tales were so astonishing I’d suspended animation. Anyway, it would be embarrassing, stuffing myself within his gaze.
He took us through the streets of Palermo. He told us the height of the balconies, the number of scooters whining through the narrow alleyways beneath washing lines, the city’s population, the price of ice cream, and the size of pizzas. He lost me again somewhere on the way to the docks.
It took me a moment to realize he’d paused for a mouthful of food. “So, you holidayed at the same time as us,” he remarked. He turned back to his plate as if the statement was posed for politeness rather than as a cue for further information.
“Then, while we were waiting for the ferry,” he resumed.
I felt a stab of annoyance. “Since you asked, we went to the moon for a week.”
My wife gasped. There was silence. Glances were exchanged.
“A bit cold,” I added, “but lovely views. We swam in the Sea of Tranquillity.”
“But there’s no water on the moon,” said the accountant’s wife.
My wife intervened before I could assure her there was — that the waves were six metres high because gravity was weak. “My husband has an odd sense of humour. Sometimes it misses the mark,” she said. She put on her false laugh, the one that sounded like a distressed bird.
No one else laughed.
“Do tell us more about your holiday,” she said.
The accountant cleared his throat and glanced at me. He seemed worried that more holiday statistics might provoke more extra-terrestrial revelations. “Well, after Sicily…”
I interrupted him, “Could you see the moon from Sicily?”
“Well, er, yes. Of course.” He looked puzzled and irritated.
“We could have given you a wave,” I said. “Though now I remember we were bathing in the nude. We’d have covered up if we knew you were watching us.”
The accountant’s mouth stayed open as if he was short of oxygen. His wife gave a nervous chuckle.
“Were you watching us?” I demanded. My voice was louder. I surprised myself. “I’ve seen people pretending to be bird watchers on nudist beaches with their binoculars glued to their faces. Is that what you get up to? Are you that sort of man?”
It was thrilling saying whatever I wanted — like a drug, but there’d be a coming down soon. I had to continue to keep it at bay.
“Did it hurt your neck, having to look up at the moon? I bet it was worth it, though. Jenny looks good, doesn’t she, for her age. No stretch marks for her.”
The accountant stared at his fork, twisting it as if it merited close inspection. His wife was studying me like a doctor weighing the odds of different diagnoses.
She gave her husband a gentle elbow. “Dear, it’s late.”
The accountant stood up, wiping his mouth, his plate almost full. “I’m sorry if you didn’t like my story and Sicily. I think we should be going.”
He turned to my wife, throwing the napkin onto the table with disdain. “Er, thank you for the meal.”
“So, Sicily wasn’t enough for you,” I said. “You had to cast your voyeuristic eyes to the heavens to get your kicks. Proud of yourself, are you?”
“I’m so sorry,” said my wife. “I don’t know what’s brought this on, but I understand it’s best that you go.”
She ushered them to the door.
They chose to put their coats on outside despite the cold. I pushed my head between the curtains. A full moon hovered over the rooftops. They were heading up the driveway towards their car. His arms were pounding the air as if he was remonstrating. I opened the window. My wife tried to pull me back.
“Why not look up there?” I shouted. “You might see some bare flesh, though thankfully, it won’t be ours this time.”
I heard the tyres squeal as they drove off.
“How could you?” shouted my wife, “All that nonsense about the moon. You do realize how important that guy is to my job, don’t you?”
A chill breeze billowed the curtains. In an instant, the elation deserted me. My stomach felt hollow. My lips were rough as sandpaper. I buried my mouth in my hand.
“Hell, I wish I was on the moon,” I said.
Paul Goodwin lives in a small town in Somerset, England where he spends time contemplating the challenge of his 45-degree sloping garden, jogging between injuries, and writing books and short stories. His books include Forewarned: A Sceptic’s Guide to Prediction (Biteback Publications) and Something Doesn’t Add Up (Profile Books), and his short stories include The Dog (published by Literally Stories).