Beauty

Everyone is beautiful at some time in their lives. Julia was beautiful for a week.  It was something she didn’t plan or expect but there’s no disputing that, for a short time in her life, Julia was beautiful and she knew it.

If you had asked Julia before this event if she considered herself beautiful, she would have looked at you oddly. Understandably: because it’s a question only a child would ask. “Am I beautiful?” says a little girl to its mother and wants only a reasonably honest reply. There is, as you know well, a scale of beauty that varies with time and place and geography and every child has the task of working out its place on that scale. Once that knowledge is acquired, there’s usually not much more to be said.

Julia had long grown used to the idea that, while she was not grotesquely or embarrassingly ugly, she was not pretty enough to get the kind of attention that was spontaneously lavished on her sister. She accepted this and, perhaps wisely, did not expend energy and time trying to change it. Most of the time she was not unhappy or lonely and enjoyed her life as much as it was reasonable to expect.

Then, when Julia had just reached the age of seventeen, she met Derek who was at university and had a promising career in computers ahead of him. They had little in common but somehow drifted into a relationship. A few months later, she had met his parents and, to her faint surprise, become engaged. Derek was proprietorial and sometimes bullying towards her but she did her best to overlook it. Their friends and family all thought they were very well suited and the practical side of her nature told her that life with Derek would at least be comfortable and secure.

An arrangement had been made for Julia and Derek to go on holiday with Julia’s sister and her current boyfriend. Then, at the very last minute, Derek was invited to attend an important computer conference that was vital to his career. Julia wanted to cancel but Derek insisted that she go; everything was paid for and it was far too late to get a refund.

The flight was an ordeal with long delays and they arrived at their hotel late. Julia was hungry and, while her sister went off to bed with her beau, she took herself to the almost empty dining room where she ordered a seafood paella and ate it in a leisurely fashion while she finished her novel. She was looking forward to two weeks of similarly leisurely days and nights when she finally got into bed.

Unfortunately for Julia she woke up some time later with a churning stomach and a violent headache. Staggering to the bathroom, she vomited copiously and continued until there was nothing left in her stomach. In the morning when her sister knocked on her door, she found Julia curled up under her blankets, shivering and sweating and in a pitiful state.

The hotel called in a local doctor who gave her a foul tasting liquid to drink and prescribed a spell of bed rest. Her sister was sympathetic and, for the first day at least, popped in frequently to see how she was doing. On the third day however they were due to depart and Julia, although much better, was still not well enough to face the ten day sailing trip that had been planned.

Julia’s sister offered to cancel the trip and stay with her but Julia refused and the offer was not that sincere anyway. Luckily the boyfriend seized the opportunity to make a good impression and went to see the hotel manager. By bargaining and the use of veiled threats over the food poisoning incident, he arranged for Julia to stay on at the hotel in a more luxurious room and a nominal rate until they got back.

Everything was settled and Julia made her sister promise not to tell Derek about the change of plans. Her sister was doubtful but Julia was uncharacteristically insistent. She said she didn’t want him to worry and that she would get in touch with him when she felt better.  In truth she was guiltily looking forward to being out of reach of Derek’s hectoring for a while. As long as he believed she was on the boat, she’d be left alone. There’d be time later to think of an excuse.

So Julia’s real holiday began. At first she rarely left her room. Her food was sent up to her and she was only disturbed when the maid came to clean the room once a day. She spent long periods of time just sleeping but often she would sit out on her balcony where she could hear the sea surging distantly on the shore. Her stomach was still tender and so she ate very little and, after a while, her normally healthy appetite diminished.

As the days went by, she felt better and started to go out. The season was over, the hotel had few guests, and the town was quiet, sated by the summer tourists. She was free to wander about on her own without being bothered too much. In the late afternoon, when the heat was subsiding and it was cooler, she went for long walks along the coastline, going a little further each time and encountering hardly anyone.

Returning from one of these walks, and feeling a little thirsty, Julia decided to go into the hotel bar for a drink. She sat down on a barstool and ordered herself a cocktail. She was sipping her drink and contemplating her plans for the next day (she realised regretfully that she had only a few days left before her sister returned) when the animal part of her instincts warned her that she was being watched.

A group of young men were sitting a few yards away at a table. They were looking towards her and obviously talking about her in their own language. Then one of them got up and approached. He tried to engage her in conversation but his English was too broken for her to understand. Smiling and shaking her head, trying not to give offence, Julia fumbled for the money to pay for her drink so she could escape. Each time she offered it to the barman however, the young man pushed her hand away.

She was beginning to feel desperate and a little trapped when a calm voice behind her spoke a few words to the young man which caused him to frown and go back to his seat. She turned around and saw the owner of the voice was an older man with a lined and deeply weathered face.

“Please,” he said and turned. “Finish your drink. Nobody will bother you.”

“Thank you,” she said gratefully. “Whatever you said to him seemed to work.”

“I told him . . .” he smiled at her and paused to see her reaction. “That you were my niece.”

“Oh,” she said and found herself blushing.

His dark eyes were looking at her with a veiled amusement.

“It seemed the most easy to believe,” he said. “You don’t mind?”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be rude. I just couldn’t understand him.”

“He was asking what a beautiful woman was doing alone,” he shrugged. “You must hear this all the time.”

“Hardly,” she said and gave a self-deprecating little laugh.

“No?” he said.

“My sister is the one who gets the compliments, not me.”

He raised his eyebrows: “Why?”

She blushed again. “I just mean, I didn’t mean to sound …”she faltered. “It’s just a fact. My sister has always been the attractive one, that’s all.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked. “You don’t think you are beautiful?”

She examined his face closely but she could read nothing in it except honest puzzlement and enquiry. “No,” she said finally. “I don’t believe so.”

“Then you don’t see what I see,” he said. “Look there.” He gestured.

There was a mirror behind the bar and she did involuntarily glance at herself in it for a second. He gestured again and, just to humour him, she looked again, this time more carefully. She scrutinised her appearance and noticed there had definitely been some changes.

The sun had created coppery highlights in her hair. The sea air had scoured her normally pasty skin; giving it a healthy glow that helped to accent her eyes which although small were a pale green and probably her best feature. This was also helped by the dress she was wearing: a sleeveless cotton turquoise frock she had purchased yesterday from a market stall on a whim and which showed off her lightly tanned shoulders.

More tellingly: the combination of healthy exercise and dieting had shed pounds from her frame. The shape of her face was more defined and her neck appeared more slender. Her arms, which she’d always thought of as podgy, were shapelier now, their paleness off set by a light dusting of freckles on her forearms.

The fact that she hardly recognised the women in the mirror shocked Julia profoundly. It was like realising that she had been walking around naked or with her underwear on show.  Her first impulse was to bolt and she reached for her bag but the man, as though sensing her fright, laid his hand on her wrist and spoke to her in his calm voice.

“You have a saying in English, I think?” he said. “Beauty is in the eye … ”

“Of the beholder,” she said.

“That’s right,” he nodded. “It is true. We say: it is the gift the eye is glad to receive.” He gestured with his hand. “Look around this room now …” She hesitated but he lowered his voice and leaned forward:  “Please … go on.”

She did as she was told, glancing surreptitiously to her left and to her right. The bar had begun to fill up while they were talking and there were many more groups of people. As her gaze moved amongst them she was frequently aware that she was drawing attention in an unexpected way. Men would catch or attempt to catch her eye and smile at her. Women would give her a cool look that was sometimes challenging. Even the barman was grinning at her ingratiatingly.

“You see?” he said seriously. “The gift is yours, as I told you …but you have to give it with …” He groped for the word in the air.

“Style?” she said. He considered and agreed with her: “Style”. They nodded solemnly at each other and then laughed. He offered to buy her another drink and she said yes.

While he paid for their drinks, she peered again at the woman in the mirror in a more calculating way. This must be what my sister is used to, she thought. How strange. It was an alien sensation for her and yet oddly thrilling. Narcissism had never been one of Julia’s vices but she was starting to understand its appeal. Of course, she mused, a full figure isn’t a disadvantage in this part of the world. In fact they approve of it.

It was a thought she continued several hours later as she looked at herself naked in the bathroom mirror of his suite. She had never been exactly shy about her body before but, if she was going to be truthful, she had simply regarded it as something to maintain and look after; an adjunct of hers, rather like an imperfect child that needed care. She had never looked at it with the admiration and approval she felt now.

He had been a good lover, gentle and experienced, rather as she expected. Their lovemaking however had been a revelation for quite another reason. She discovered within herself for the first time in her life a power she’d never suspected she had. He’d taken and she’d given but with a kind of regal generosity that came from a completely new sense of herself. It was another surprise. “Magnifico …” he had gasped. Yes, magnificent, she murmured to the woman in the glass. It was how she felt now. She marvelled at quite how much had changed in such a short space of time and changed irrevocably.

Her sister noticed it at once. It was difficult not to be aware of how the new Julia moved and carried herself and how other people reacted to her, especially men. It was perplexing and not a little irritating but she could pry nothing out of Julia that shed any light on the transformation and eventually she had to learn to accept it.

Julia said nothing to Derek either when he called to find out how she was enjoying her holiday. She was placatory on the telephone but the minute they returned, she broke off their engagement. She never got married from choice but she did have a succession of lovers. Julia was never beautiful again. That occasion where the bloom of youth and a rare combination of circumstances made her beautiful for a short while never repeated itself. But men pursued her throughout her life, and even when she was quite an elderly lady. Beauty is something transitory after all; but magnificence is quite another matter.

© David Clough 2009

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