"Oh, the time we-ee spent together," the old man crooned, "So lo-ong ago-oo."
She stood in the doorway, watching them peel off their clothes into a pile on the beach. Grandpa just keeps singing, don't he?
"Ju-ust ye-ee and mee-e, on the baa-ack o' that horse, troddin' away wi-ith out re-eeemorse."
The smell of freshly squeezed grapes, boiling into defrutum. It was a sweetener, and in the lead cistern, a contraceptive. The fragrant odour drifted out the door. The vat was boiling down, steadily, down to half. The chimney smoked away.
"Oh, the-e time we-ee spent together, just ye-ee a-and me-ee!"
Almost gone and lost his hearing. She had her gaze fixed on the waters, where the naked men waded across the sand bars. Not like them handsome things. That eunuch can sing, and that man, well, he can swing...
"And what yo-oou do-on't know ca-an't hurt yo-ou," his voice cracked, "'Cause ye-ee do-on't kno-ow! 'Cause ye-eeee-ee don't know, ye don't know, ye don't know!"
His hands upon me, I felt like more than a common whore of the Slough. She drew a hand to her fading, wet blond hair. The saffron dye was running, with the rain.
"I ne-ever did te-ell ye-ee 'bout the wee-eeeeek that you were go-ooone."
She watched the reflection of the firm muscles of Johm's back, as hands rubbed water upon every crevice of his body. She wished the water was calmer, so calm that she could see through the rippling reflection, to what lay beneath.
"I never did te-ell ye, 'bout the giii-iiirl in Gabe. And I never will, though I wo-onder why-yy!"
They must have some headache, hearin' gramps sing like that, with a hang-over to boot. She could smell the boiling grape juice. She could smell her sweet mixture, to cleanse her sins.
The old man stopped singing, and his fingers struck a final dissonant chord. He smiled, "I can smell it, darlin'. The sapa is done. Ye sure it's the right time of month?"
"I know my body, gramps." Senile old coot. And she stood, there, beside him on the porch, going over the previous night in her head.
"Don't be takin' it just to be palin' yer skin, Marlew." Ain't been easy gettin' rid o' her stillborns.
Momma didn't die on this stuff, Marlew drained the cistern through a filter, and threw away the empty remains of the grapes. She died 'cause she was weak.
"Ye listenin' to me, Marlew?"
She remembered the deep, rich sound of the fagotti. It stirred her heart, the way no other instrument could. Staring across the room, dreamy-eyed, at the red-haired man who sang along homophonically with the instrument. Johm.
The young girl across the bar had broken her silence, "Do you want a drink, Marlew?"
"I won't be drinkin' tonight, doll face," she had told the girl. "I got my eyes on that bard."
The girl frowned, "I dunno, Mar, he was singin' before you came in - I don't reckon he gots any plums, see. Probably ain't interested in what you got to offer."
"No, the other one." I don't like 'em skinny. Tall is nice, but he ain't broad.
"Oh! The red-head?" the girl had watched her nod. "I dunno, Mar, I heard some'n pretty sad 'bout that one."
Marlew had cocked her head to one side with interest, yellow hair bright in the lamplight.
"See, the two o' 'em gots ordered by Crownlake to skedaddle o'er to the Queen's Court. On penalty o' death, see?"
The prostitute had heard something fiercely sad in Johm's voice, then, as he sang.
"Left a fiancé behind. Got paid beforehand, to travel, 'n' in his fearful excitement, proposed right then 'n' there. Bought her a pretty bauble of a bracelet. Then he got scared, an' left town with that there sopranino eunuch."
Marlew had just looked at him, then, from across the room, and thought she understood every tender nuance of his song. She had seen the heartbreak on his lips, then, and wanted him all the more because of it.
The girl simpered with amusement, "Y're all glazed over, Mar. Don't work too hard on that man, eh? You listenin' to me, Marlew?"
"Sure, Gramps," she said, walking back outside to the porch. "I hear you." But I ain't listenin'.
Marlew untied her skirt, and pulled off her skirt. Now scantily clad in thong and raggedy brazier, she ran from the porch.
"C'mon, dear!" he yelled after her. "C'mon back and drink it while it's warm!"
Her feet ran across sand and grass, through reeds, and onto the old rotting dock. It was nothing compared to the fancy harbour at the west end of the Slough. It was like her life, broken down and shabby. The shallow end of things. She kept running, and running, and then jumped off the end of the pier. Diving into the water, the saffron washed away completely.
She swam inland, towards the bathing men. All he'll remember from that night is my hair. He'll have been too drunk to notice anything else. We are strangers, now.