A richly mythic, colour-saturated tale from Deborah Levy exploring the violently primal bond between mother and daughter
2015. Almería. Southern Spain. August.
Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else.
So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I.
My screen saver is an image of a purple night sky crowded with stars, and constellations and the Milky Way, which takes its name from the classical Latin lactea. My mother told me years ago that I must write Milky Way like this - galaxi´aV ku´kloV – and that Aristotle gazed up at the milky circle in Chalcidice, thirty-four miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki, where my father was born. The oldest star is about 13 billion years old but the stars on my screen saver are two years old and were made in China. All this universe is now shattered.
There is nothing I can do about it. Apparently, there is a cybercafé in the next flyblown town and the man who owns it sometimes mends minor computer faults, but he’d have to send for a new screen and it will take a month to arrive.
Will I still be here in a month? I don’t know. It depends on my sick mother, who is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool. When I gaze at the star fields on my screen saver I often float out of time in the most peculiar way.
It’s only 11 p.m. and I could be floating on my back in the sea looking up at the real night sky and the real Milky Way but I am nervous about jellyfish. Yesterday afternoon I got stung and it left a fierce purple whiplash welt on my left upper arm. I had to run across the hot sand to the injury hut at the end of the beach to get some ointment from the male student (full beard) whose job it is to sit there all day attending to tourists with stings. He told me that in Spain jellyfish are called medusas. I thought the Medusa was a Greek goddess who became a monster after being cursed and that her powerful gaze turned anyone who looked into her eyes to stone. So why would a jellyfish be named after her? He said yes, but he was guessing that the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes.
I had seen the cartoon Medusa image printed on the yellow danger flag outside the injury hut. She has tusks for teeth and crazy eyes.
‘When the Medusa flag is flying it is best not to swim. Really it is at your own discretion.’
He dabbed the sting with cotton wool which he had soaked in heated‑up seawater and then asked me to sign a form that looked like a petition. It was a list of all the people on the beach who had been stung that day. The form asked me for my name, age, occupation and country of origin. That’s a lot of information to think about when your arm is blistered and burning. He explained he was required to ask me to fill it in to keep the injury hut open in the Spanish recession.
If tourists did not have cause to use this service he would be out of a job, so he was obviously pleased about the medusas. They put bread in his mouth and petrol in his moped.
Peering at the form, I could see that the age of the people on the beach stung by medusas ranged from seven to seventy- four, and they mostly came from all over Spain but there were a few tourists from the UK and someone from Trieste. I have always wanted to go to Trieste because it sounds like tristesse, which is a light- hearted word, even though in French it means sadness. In Spanish it is tristeza, which is heavier than French sadness, more of a groan than a whisper.
The oldest star is about 13 billion years old but the stars on my screen saver are two years old and were made in China. All this universe is now shattered.
I hadn’t seen any jellyfish while I was swimming but the student explained that their tentacles are very long so they can sting at a distance. His forefinger was sticky with the ointment he was now rubbing into my arm. He seemed well informed about jellyfish. The medusas are transparent because they are 95 per cent water, so they camouflage easily. Also, one of the reasons there are so many of them in the oceans of the world is because of over-fishing. The main thing was to make sure I didn’t rub or scratch the welts. There might still be jellyfish cells on my arm and rubbing the sting encourages them to release more venom, but his special ointment would deactivate the stinging cells. As he talked I could see his soft, pink lips pulsing like a medusa in the middle of his beard. He handed me a pencil stub and asked me to please fill in the form.
Name: Sofia Papastergiadis
Country of origin: UK
The jellyfish don’t care about my occupation, so what is the point? It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a café in West London – it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi‑Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso . . . so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation’.
The student tugged at his beard. ‘So do you anthropologists study primitive people?’
‘Yes, but the only primitive person I have ever studied is myself.’ I suddenly felt homesick for Britain’s gentle, damp parks. I wanted to stretch my primitive body flat out on green grass where there were no jellyfish floating between the blades. There is no green grass in Almería except on the golf courses. The dusty, barren hills are so parched they used to film Spaghetti Westerns here – one even starred Clint Eastwood. Real cowboys must have had cracked lips all the time because my lips have started to split from the sun and I put lipsalve on them every day. Perhaps the cowboys used animal fat? Did they gaze out at the infinite sky and miss the absence of kisses and caresses? And did their own troubles disappear in the mystery of space like they sometimes do when I gaze at the galaxies on my shattered screen saver?
The student seemed quite knowledgeable about anthropology as well as jellyfish. He wants to give me an idea for ‘an original field study’ while I am in Spain. ‘Have you seen the white plastic structures that cover all the land in Almería?’
I had seen the ghostly white plastic. It stretches as far as the eye can see across the plains and valleys.
‘They are greenhouses,’ he said. ‘The temperature inside these farms in the desert can rise to forty-five degrees. They employ illegal immigrants to pick the tomatoes and peppers for the supermarkets, but it’s more or less slavery.’
I thought so. Anything covered is always interesting. There is never nothing beneath something that is covered. As a child, I used to cover my face with my hands so that no one would know I was there. And then I discovered that covering my face made me more visible because everyone was curious to see what it was I wanted to hide in the first place.
He looked at my surname on the form and then at the thumb on his left hand, which he started to bend, as if he were checking the joint was still working.
‘You are Greek, aren’t you?’
His attention is so unfocused it’s unsettling. He never actually looks at me directly. I recite the usual: my father is Greek, my mother is English, I was born in Britain.
‘Greece is a smaller country than Spain, but it can’t pay its bills. The dream is over.’
I asked him if he was referring to the economy. He said yes, he was studying for a master’s degree at the School of Philosophy at Granada University but he considered himself lucky to have a summer job on the beach at the injury hut. If the Coffee House was still hiring when he graduated, he would head for London. He didn’t know why he had said the dream was over because he didn’t believe it. He had probably read it somewhere and it stuck with him. But it wasn’t his own opinion, a phrase like ‘the dream is over.’ For a start, who is the dreamer? The only other public dream he could remember was from Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I had a dream . . .’, but the phrase about the dream being over implied that something had started and had now ended. It was up to the dreamer to say it was over, no one else could say it on their behalf.
And then he spoke a whole sentence to me in Greek and seemed surprised when I told him that I do not speak Greek.
It is a constant embarrassment to have a surname like Papastergiadis and not speak the language of my father.
‘My mother is English.’
‘Yes,’ he said in his perfect English. ‘I have only been to Skiathos in Greece once but I managed to pick up a few phrases.’
It was as if he was mildly insulting me for not being Greek enough. My father left my mother when I was five and she is English and mostly speaks to me in English. What did it have to do with him? And anyway the jellyfish sting was what he was supposed to be concerned about.
‘I have seen you in the plaza with your mother.’
‘She has difficulty walking?’
‘Sometimes Rose can walk, sometimes she can’t.’
‘Your mother’s name is Rose?’
‘You call her by her name?’
‘You don’t say Mama?’
The hum of the little fridge standing in the corner of the injury hut was like something dead and cold but with a pulse. I wondered if there were bottles of water inside it. Agua con gas, agua sin gas. I am always thinking of ways to make water more right than wrong for my mother.
The student looked at his watch. ‘The rule for anyone who has been stung is they have to stay here for five minutes. It’s so I can check you don’t have a heart attack or another reaction.’
He pointed again to ‘Occupation’ on the form, which I had left blank. It might have been the pain of the sting, but I found myself telling him about my pathetic miniature life. ‘I don’t so much have an occupation as a preoccupation, which is my mother, Rose.’
He trailed his fingers down his shins while I spoke.
‘We are here in Spain to visit the Gómez Clinic to find out what is actually wrong with her legs. Our first appointment is in three days’ time.’
‘Your mother has limb paralysis?’
‘We don’t know. It’s a mystery. It’s been going on for a while.’
He started to unwrap a lump of white bread covered in cling film. I thought it might be part two of the jellyfish-sting cure but it turned out to be a peanut-butter sandwich, which he said was his favourite lunch. He took a small bite and his black, glossy beard moved around while he chewed. Apparently, he knows about the Gómez Clinic. It is highly thought of and he also knows the woman who has rented us the small, rectangular apartment on the beach. We chose it because it has no stairs. Everything is on one floor, the two bedrooms are next to each other, just off the kitchen, and it is near the main square and all the cafés and the local Spar. It is also next door to the diving school, Escuela de Buceo y Náutica, a white cube on two floors with windows in the shape of portholes. The reception area is being painted at the moment. Two Mexican men set to work every morning with giant tins of white paint. A howling, lean Alsatian dog is chained all day to an iron bar on the diving-school roof terrace. He belongs to Pablo who is the director of the diving school, but Pablo is on his computer all the time playing a game called Infinite Scuba. The crazed dog pulls at its chains and regularly tries to leap off the roof.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2016
Plunge into this hypnotic tale of female sexuality and power - from the Man Booker shortlisted author of Swimming Home
Two women arrive in a village on the Spanish coast. Rose is suffering from a strange illness andher doctors are mystified. Her daughter Sofia has brought her here to find a cure with the infamous and controversial Dr Gomez - a man of questionable methods and motives. Intoxicated by thick heat and the seductive people who move through it, both women begin to see their lives clearly for the first time in years.
Through the opposing figures of mother and daughter, Deborah Levy explores the strange and monstrous nature of womanhood. Dreamlike and utterly compulsive, Hot Milk is a delirious fairy tale of feminine potency, a story both modern and timeless.
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