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Flash Fiction: Strangers

By Tina Morganella

The African man selling trinkets looks less out of place than me. In jeans and slippers he lopes over the sand, going between beachgoers calling out, “Signora, buon prezzo”, promising a “good price” in an accent that will never sound Italian. His smile is docile but nervous as he approaches three elderly Italians, plump and soft, golden and wrinkled, walking along the sand in their bikinis. He calls one of them by name. Regulars. They pluck at the jewels on offer – great hoops of gold-coloured earrings, chunks of necklaces with matching bracelets. They slip them on and turn their wrists this way and that. They gently prod each other and admire or admonish. The trinket seller senses a sale. He nods and offers other similar items. He’s gently insistent, but there are also unnerving silences that sound to me like desperate appeals for help. 

One of the ladies starts to haggle over the price of a bracelet. She halves the number and he looks betrayed and disappointed. He offers her another number in return and she shakes her head. She’s starting to move away now, waving her hands dismissively. He tilts his head to one side, holding out the bracelet, willing her to take it. She hesitates and takes it in her hands again. But then she makes a decision and brusquely hands it back to him. She says once more, sternly “No”, and walks away. One of her friends lingers for a moment, still listening to his appeal, trying to be kinder and smiling at him apologetically. But then she too turns and joins the others.

He looks angrily after them, “What do you want lady? You talk and talk and talk….” He rearranges his wares, shrugging them on his shoulder, over his forearm, around his neck, and lopes on. “Signora, buon prezzo, buon prezzo.” The call is woeful. The sun forces him to squint as he forges on.  

When he approaches me next my sympathy melts in the sun. I barely glance up from my book, my mouth a line, my eyes unsmiling, avoiding contact. When he, in English, offers me matching sets, I say no, no, several times, loudly, clearly. Annoyed. And as he walks on I’m immediately ashamed. Forgetting that in front of me was a man earning a living.  A man who felt the sting of “no” like anyone else would, and who perhaps heard it ring in his ears long into the night, disturbing his sleep. I watched him move slowly down the beach, hovering gently between groups, being waved away, sent on.

Under a hat and glasses, shaded by an umbrella and mostly clothed, the trinket seller had immediately recognised me as a fellow foreigner. I am overdressed, over cautious. On my own. Pale and cloudy, not sharp and strongly outlined like the Italians. They are minimally dressed, drowsy and lolling in the direct sun – professional couples on holidays feed morsels to small dogs; couples stroll hand in hand, slick with love and affection; and teenagers scoff and jab at each other, all bluster and swagger. The murmur of the ocean is a gentle and lulling hum, still discernible over the laughter and chatter. But behind me violent cliffs loom skyward, the blue sky presses down, heavy and suffocating. I’m half way between the wide expanse of blue, both sky and sea, and the menace of the earth.

Someone asked me earlier whether my beach at home looked out to the ocean or the sea. I had no idea what he was talking about. Confused I kept asking him to repeat himself. Voices were raised. When I finally understood what he meant, I faltered – I didn’t know the answer. What does it matter? He smiled patronisingly at me: “Never mind.” But what does it matter? I want to know. He wouldn’t say.

A shadow falls over my book. Before I can even look up an elderly woman is saying, in Italian, “Scusa signorina, can you look and tell me if my ear is completely covered by the bathing cap?” She assumes I will understand, and I do understand enough. But I still stare at her for a moment, processing. That she assumes I will recognise her words, her request, pleases and puzzles me. She has a sweet face and a patient smile. She is very plump, and is very pale for an Italian. Despite her obvious age, her eyes are lit with youth. She is standing quite still, waiting for me to get up and check her bathing cap.

“No, it’s not….,” I tell her, “wait”.

“Oh thank you. I’ve had an ear infection and my doctor said not to get water in it. But I have to go for my swim, of course.” She is serene.

The nape of her neck looks damp, threads of silver hair escape the cap. I try to tug the plastic over her ear. Her skin is soft and hot. I realise I have to tug reasonably hard and she braces herself and nods encouragingly. I touch her earlobe, brush her cheek. Then I gently nudge her to turn, so I can check the other ear. She obliges; it’s ok. She seems unmoved by the intimacy but I shiver at touching a stranger. Not in revulsion, but breathless and moved by her trust. 

I tell her, “You’re ok now,” in English. She pats her covered ears, satisfied.

“Come ti  chiama signorina?” she asks.

“Mi chiamo Serena.”

She nods once and smiles, “Grazie Serena.” Then turns towards the sea. I sit down again and watch as she shuffles slowly towards the water, wades in up to her thighs and then pushes herself under. I see her arms move rhythmically, her cap peaking above the gentle waves. I watch her until she becomes a pinpoint and I can no longer recognise the stranger.

Tina Morganella is a freelance writer and copy editor with an MPhil in creative writing from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Tina is most interested in short fiction, memoir and travel literature and has most recently been published in Rush (US), STORGY Magazine (UK), Tulpa Magazine (Australia), Sky Island Journal (US), Entropy (US) and Sudo (Australia). She also has nonfiction articles published in the Australian press (The Big Issue, The Australian, The Adelaide Advertiser).

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