The airport bus lumbered along pot-holed streets lined with flimsy huts and gawping villagers. Judith shrank from the window, glancing warily at her fellow travellers. ‘Sunny Singles Solutions’, the website had said. And yet, here she was in a country clearly on its knees, and part of a group which (with a couple of ropey exceptions) was entirely female.
The sight of the white, palatial hotel was a relief, even if the pitiful dwellings stopped just short of it. Inside were spotless marble floors and air-conditioning. Tall glass windows showed off a handsome swimming pool, fringed by sunbathers and scarlet flowering shrubs. Beyond, stretched a vast reach of sand, the sea a silver band on its horizon.
Once on her sun-bed, Judith closed her eyes, sick with the courage it had taken to get there. Her fifty-eight year old body, white and mottled, was not made for swimwear. In her bright green costume it bulged rebelliously. Her cheap sunglasses slid on her nose.
‘Welcome to the Paradise Hotel’.
She blinked. A sleek, ebony-skinned young man was holding out a tray of fresh pineapple. She took a piece, nodding appreciatively. The fruit was juicy and sweet. She lay back, trying to relax. She was on holiday after all her long-widowed, wheelchair-bound mother laid to rest at last. Twenty years of love and bitter duty. She deserved some reward, surely?
The beach was deserted. Judith squinted longingly at the ribbon of sea. She didn’t much care for pools. Thousands of lengths in her local had left her prone to skin allergies. Over the years it had been something to do, like the evening classes – keeping a foot in a closing door.
Tying her towel round her chest, she left the poolside and headed down to the beach. The hot sand filled her flip-flops, making it hard to walk. She thought of her mother, missing her, realising that two decades of daughterly devotion had provided protection as well as enchainment.
After a few minutes she had attracted a motley crew of followers: a woman clutching silk beach-wraps, a boy with a carved fish, an old man twirling leather bracelets round his fingers. ‘For the pretty lady, yes?’
Judith tried to walk on, but they barred her way, waving their wares. She was close to panic when a tall, sinewy young man in a sarong appeared. He flung unintelligible words at the hawkers, sending them scuttling.
‘I am Joseph,’ he said. ‘I will look after you. I will show you crabs. Over there – a million at least.’
Judith stared where he pointed. ‘Okay.’ ‘Tomorrow I take you to my cousin. He has shop where you buy good things – very cheap. I look after you very well. I make you happy in Gambia.’
At the poolside buffet that night Judith noticed a few women, some older than her, enjoying tete-a-tete dinners with local young men. Men like Joseph…she dropped her cutlery, flushing at her own stupidity. So it was a ‘singles’ holiday, just not the kind she had imagined.
And why not? she scolded herself, lying on top of her sheets a little later, her sun-burn throbbing. Why bloody not? Joseph wasn’t exactly the chisel-faced soul-mate of her fantasies, but he was something. He was nice. His brown eyes were kind. He would know about taking sensible precautions.
The next morning she waited as instructed, outside the front of the hotel. Joseph arrived in sandals and an orange sarong, his big hair pressed into a red baseball cap. ‘Good morning Judith. I look after you.’ He grinned, the whites of his eyes luminous. ‘Come.’
The locals emerged from their shacks to watch them pass, snotty babies on hips, bare dusty feet.
‘You have family?’
‘No. Just a cat.’ She laughed nervously. The cat was her mother’s, a bad-tempered tortoiseshell, whom her neighbours had promised to feed. ‘And you?’ ‘I have three brothers. They also work with tourists.’
Oh God, a family of gigolos. She gripped her purse-belt, hoping she had brought enough.
But it turned out there was a cousin. And a shop, crammed with hand-carved treasures. By the end of the week Judith had both an over-full suitcase of mementos and a deep, perverse sense of personal failure. Had Joseph chosen her and changed his mind? Was she that repellent?
Back in England, the neighbours reported that the cat had disappeared. Judith pinned ‘missing’ notices to a few rain-blackened trees and spent the rest of the week in her dressing gown. Not to be wanted, even by a cat – it was laughable. When a phone call reported the discovery of an animal fitting its description, she almost put the receiver down.
The caller turned out to be a frail, elderly lady who chattered eagerly, offering her tea. The cat lay purring in front of an electric fire. As Judith approached it eyed her steadily, without acknowledgement. At which something inside her surrendered. Setting the cat-box down, she said tea would be grand. She was good with old people, after all. It was what she did. ‘I could pop in again, if you like, do a spot of shopping?’
‘Oh no, my son does that. His wife passed away last year, but he’s managing well.’ At that moment the front door slammed and a grey-haired, broad-shouldered man in a rain-spattered anorak strode into the room. ‘Vic, here’s the lady about the cat.’ Judith raised her head slowly. Vic. It was a nice name. The grey hair was thick and he had dark blue eyes. She offered him a warm smile and asked if it was still raining. Cats and dogs, he replied, and they all laughed. Not exactly Shakespeare, but it was a start. Next to them the cat stretched, as if in celebration of a job well done.