At the Hotel El Loro, the pool tended to empty by six o’clock. Families would drift up to their rooms to dress for dinner, staining the marble stairs in the reception with shiny footprints. The heat of the day was swallowed by the cool tiles, in such a pleasing way that some residents lingered in the foyer, pacing skin-to-cold surface until bodies chilled and became comfortable again. Kimberley was one of those who hung by the lifts and flowerpots, inching her way slowly up and down the corridor in bare feet. By the end of the first week it had become a ritual; she would leave the others on their sun-beds, pink and salty, and drift inside the El Loro where the air was scented and the sound of the kitchens echoed outwards. For while, until her mother trailed the rest of them in, Kimberley had peace.
She liked the pool, though. The weekly swimming lessons at home came into use; Kimberley stretched out her body on the water with an ease that made people watch. She lengthened her arms to touch the sides, turning like a minnow.
There was a mosaic at the bottom of the pool. Her sister wore goggles and snorkled above, following the blue and green blocks of colour shaped like a parrot. Kimberley could dive down to it, under six feet of warm chlorine, and touch the tiles with her fingers. The cotton wadding of the water was welcome and precious; her mother could not swim so did not venture into the deep. It was Kimberley’s own glassy jewel and held her tightly.
There were parrots everywhere at the El Loro, of course there were. The girls did not take Spanish at school – the top sets took German and Mum took care sure they made the grade – so Dad explained the meaning of the hotel’s name. The birds were in the foyer, painted along the walls, in alcoves behind the bar, even on the dinner plates. Chloe was entranced. It became her hobby to count them and she noted how many she’d spotted each day in the back of her diary. She did not know – though Kimberley did and hadn’t told her – that the biggest parrot of all was carved into the reception ceiling.
“I’m up to two hundred and seventy-one,” Chloe said. She walked in front, down the stairs, and held Dad’s hand. Steep steps still scared her. Dad smiled and they giggled, the frothy sound passing between them. “Has Mum noticed yet?” Chloe whispered.
Mum had but played along. Kimberley frowned, annoyed at being set outside the rim of knowing. As they rounded the bottom of stairs she saw. Chloe had bought a necklace with her pocket money, from which dangled a shiny red and blue parrot. The girl was thrilled with it. Kimberley tutted, relieved that was all it was.
The hotel dining room was full. The family stood in the doorway, watching the guests in their varying shades of red, wrapped in bright kimonos they would never wear at home. A waiter nodded towards them and lifted up his finger; he would be with them in a second.
Mum pursed her lips. “I told you we should have come earlier. Now we’ll never get a table.”
“Relax.” Dad put a brown hand on the small of her back and Kimberley watched as his fingers pressed down. “If we have to wait we can have a drink at the bar. What do you say, girls?”
“Coke, Dad!” Chloe beamed. “You said I could have a glass every day.”
Kimberley rolled her eyes and her mother noticed. “I thought I told you green eyeshadow didn’t suit, Kimberley.” Mum closed her own eyes as she spoke, blinking out the sandy shade she wore. It made her tan look deeper. Back home, Kimberley knew she would talk about going to a salon to keep it topped up, but when it came to it, when her purse was open in the supermarket, Mum would spend the money another way. But during these two weeks in Spain, Mum became a little less grey, and she and Dad seemed to step away from the girls. They moved into a space where, sixteen-year-old Kimberley imagined with embarrassment close to horror, Dad’s fingers might press in other places and be employed for uses not related to tidying hair into pigtails or showing tricks around a chess board.
The waiter bustled over. He was young and winked at Kimberley. “The Rathbones!” His tongue rolled on the surname and Kimberley blushed. “Your last night, yes? I ‘ave just one table. This way, it’s next to the Gregorys.”
“Oh no,” Mum said faintly so only Kimberley heard her. They followed the waiter to a table at the far end of the room, beside the open French windows and some distance from the buffet. Bright blue plates sat atop a red and white checked tablecloth and, as a table decoration in the middle, was an ugly pot parrot. Chloe squealed and clapped her hands. “Two hundred and seventy-two!”
“Good God, Chloe, sit down.” Kimberley was imperious, conscious of Keiron Gregory at the next table bent over his plate. She tossed her head, glancing in his direction. The young man – for he could no longer be called a boy – wore his own tan well, the same colour as the beach across the promenade. He was shaped like the modern, free-standing uplighter in Kimberley’s living room at home; wide shouldered, thin hipped, splayed feet. When he stretched out beside the pool, his stomach became a scooped hollow and Kimberley, swinging round to talk to him, was conscious of her own shape, aware suddenly of bumps and rough flesh. She stopped reading her Harry Potter outside the hotel room because of what Keiron might think. He read by the pool – not the wizard books or the holiday thrillers Kimberley’s parents picked up at the airport, but books that spoke of an attractive, intimidating world – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac. He had told her he was going to university in America in September.
Graham and Valerie Gregory stopped eating. “Jean, Alan!” Graham bellowed. “We wondered if we’d see you before the airport!”
Dad nodded as he pulled back Mum’s chair and slid into his own seat. “Graham. Food good tonight?”
The fat man’s wife, wearing a startling cerise dress, waved a chicken leg in answer.
“Hi Janey,” Chloe said shyly. Keiron’s sister beamed over, showing the salad between her teeth. Mum coughed and slid her glass over towards Dad.
“Fill it up, sangria please,” she said smoothly. Kimberley looked at her, suddenly hot.
Janey sucked on her salad and scrapped her chair to one side, making a space between her and Kieron. “Want to sit with me, Chlo?”
Chloe glanced at Mum, eyes wide. She wanted to, Kimberley could see that. Her young body strained to slip free of the rope tying her to the table. Her fingers curled on the cloth, as though she were gripping to the edge of a springboard, waiting to drop, almost ready to drop. She bounced on her heels.
But Kimberley willed her to be silent. She did not want her to pose the question, to ask Mum and receive the crush of smiling denial. Mum was too well rehearsed to allow a scene or tolerate disappointed tears; she would lean over and tap a hand gently but with warning, reminding the girls they were still within the ring of control.
Chloe had lost from the moment Janey shortened her name – Mum detested nicknames. So Mum shook her head and Chloe sank, trembling mouth, into her seat.
“What time do you fly tomorrow?” Graham asked. He unwrapped a toothpick and sat back leisurely. He’d spilt something on his shirt, something yellow and sticky.
“Not till five,” Dad said, reappearing, two dark red glasses with bouncing fruit in his hands.
“You’ll have time to join us by the pool then!” Valerie Gregory’s wide smile was a mirror of her daughter’s. “You’re a good swimmer, Kim. Our Graham just loves watching you.”
Kimberley pulled her lips up, uncertain, and Mum ruffled in her seat. It was an odd, uncomfortable thing to hear, made worse by the “Kim”; but Kimberley had become used to Mrs Gregory’s strange ways in the past fortnight. She had watched, bemused, as the woman dived into her children, grabbing their bodies close to her – Keiron’s, too – raining kisses on cheeks, necks, shoulders, even feet – even feet! – as they lounged by the pool or mooched by the slot machines. Valerie Gregory thought nothing of leaning over and wiping away a smear of icecream from Janey’s mouth and licking her finger, nodding approval at the flavour, and she inspected Keiron’s shaved face like a mother gorilla, pulling at errant whiskers or poking at razor cuts. There were no boundaries around Valerie: she was like a cracked egg, her love and maternal interest oozing out towards her children in sticky, translucent streaks.
The dining room hummed around them. People moved back and forth between tables and buffet, ribs, chicken wings, cheeses, spilling from their plates. Dad disappeared again and returned with a plate of starters – rolled ham, prawns on skewers. He picked up the gaudy parrot in the centre of the table and paused, hand in the air. Then, with a quick whip over his shoulder, he emptied out the plastic flowers and rolled it in a napkin. “Here,” he whispered to Chloe. “Hide it and we’ll take it back to the room.”
“Alan!” Mum’s voice was raw, the shock of Dad’s action stripping it bare. Chloe blinked, taking the rough parcel in her hands.
On their table, the Gregorys laughed and Graham tapped out his approval with the toothpick. “Don’t blame you, mate. Prices they’ve charged this holiday, we should be putting the chandeliers in the suitcase.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Mum said, only just audible. She smoothed her hands over her dark blue, almost black dress. Chloe, torn, held the hidden parrot in her hands.
“Three Euros for a beer? They might have worn a mask.” It was a joke Graham must have told many times, for Keiron snorted, but not in a way that signalled amusement.
“Truth is,” Valerie Gregory said, leaning over conspiratorially, “this will likely be our last holiday, as a family, you know.” She glanced at Keiron quickly, who now had his eyes closed. “If our Keiron gets the grades, he’s off to Duke.”
“Duke? What’s that?” Chloe had given in to longing and stashed the parrot down the side of her chair. She reached for a prawn and avoided her mother’s glare.
“It’s a university in America,” Kimberley said. She noted that the edges of Keiron’s mouth turn up and felt the heat of her mother’s stare move to her.
“North Carolina,” Graham said. “Keiron has the promise of a scholarship if he does well this summer, but we’ve got to find his living costs.”
There passed a bashful look between Graham and his wife, and Kimberley saw Valerie’s foot snake out under the table and rub her son’s leg. Kimberley could tell they were unused to this kind of bragging. It sat awkwardly with them, like a lush cat they wanted to embrace but were wary of its claws. Keiron smiled and sat forward over the table, letting his father ruffle his hair.
“Duke?” Dad pulled on a chicken wing. “Some achievement, Keiron.”
“He’s never got his head out of a book,” Valerie said, her face flaming. “I can’t think where he gets it from.”
“Not from me!” Graham announced proudly and stood up, pulling at his tight waistband. “The newspaper keeps me occupied enough.”
“But you taught me to read, Dad,” Keiron was quiet, and his eyes were open now, brilliant white. He arranged his face into simple lines. “You made sure I could read before I went to school.”
Father and son shared a look, lingering a few seconds longer than a brief, conversational glance. Kimberley was struck by its power and by the sense that she was, again, on the outside of something. That something passed between the Gregory men like static, wrapping them to each other and crackling out to the onlookers in waves, pressing them into silence. Kimberley rubbed her fingers together, aware of her mother next to her.
It was her mother who broke the silence and spoke first. A needle in the warm ballon. “So what happens if you don’t get the scholarship, Keiron?” Mum dipped her head over a prawn skewer. “Will one of our Universities be enough for you?”
Dad cleared his throat.
Keiron smiled at this, a big breaking grin. “I should think I’d be happy to make do with Oxford.”
Graham guffawed and slapped his shoulder. Valerie, tutting out her pride, turned to face Mum. “Of course, he’s going to pass his exams. Our Janey is already planning her trip out to see him next summer. All those handsome frat boys, eh Janey?”
Janey chewed on a piece of carrot. “Mum…”
“You mean she’ll go on her own?” Mum widened her eyes at Kimberley. Her daughter knew she’d be in for it later. A sulk was headed her way. Just knowing about Keiron’s brazen plans made her complicit.
“Of course,” Valerie winked at her daughter. “She’ll be fifteen then. We’ll put her on a plane and Keiron will meet her at the other end.”
“You have it all planned out.” Mum swallowed her prawn, her throat bobbing.
“I’d love to go to America,” Chloe said dreamily.
“Come with me!” Janey yelped, clapping her hands. “You’ve got my address – let’s write to each other all year and plan it!”
Valerie looked on amused whilst inwardly Kimberley shook her head. Chloe had no idea of the brewing storm.
But even Chloe saw that the invitation – hardly a real invitation – would not merit a word from her mother. It would be pointless to even raise the subject after they holiday ended.
So Chloe threw a sad smile across the table to her friend and looked down at her side. The bright, garish parrot grinned up at her, beak poking from the napkin.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2013, Rebecca Burns