Oh God, I'm so fat! I used to have a nice firm bosom and slim
hips. Look at me now. Flat on top and fat round the middle.
Forty-seven, fat and fading fast. Skin's not too bad, though. Not
too good either. This is a terrible mirror! It shows up all the
lines on my face. Lines give a woman's face character. Those
aren't lines: they're wrinkles. Let's call a spade a spade. Hrnm.
Oh, come on, pull yourself together. Stop feeling sorry for
What was that? Sfax? Did the newsreader say Sfax? Darnn
this radio! It needs a new battery. Yes, it's a programme about
Tunisia, so he must have said Sfax. Fancy hearing it again after
all these years! Sfax. No, not 'Sfacks'. 'Sfakh', like the 'ch' in
'loch', I think. I never did learn to pronounce it properly.
'Hello. I am Tunisian. I am from Sfax.' His first words to me,
Fancy remembering the exact words of a conversation I had
twenty years ago! (Twenty? No, nearer thirty. Where did all the years go?) I met him on the coach from
London to Oxford. I remember, we were the last ones in the queue at Victoria Coach Station, and there
was only one seat left. He got on first, and I sat next to him.
'Are you going to Oxford?' he asked.
What a silly question! I was on the Oxford coach, wasn't I?
Oh dear, I thought. He's trying to pick me up. Why do men always think that a woman on her own is
fair game, just waiting for a man to come along and turn his oily charm on them? Men. Anyway, as it
turned out, he wasn't trying to pick me up. He was just being friendly. He was very sweet, really. He
was sort of innocent. Childlike. I found that very hard to resist.
'Do you live in Oxford?'
'Yes,' I told him. I'm a student.'
When you said that, everyone thought you were at the University. Actually, I was a student nurse at the
Radcliffe Hospital, but it sounded better if you just said you were a student.
'Please tell me your name.' No, he wasnt just another tiresome male trying it on. He was just being
'No, not Silvie. Sylvia.'
The way he drew out the last vowel was really beautiful. A shiver ran down my spine. When he said my name
it was like a caress, like the caress of his hand on my cheek, like the way he ran his fingers through
my hair, later.
How is it possible to meet someone at nine-thirty in the morning and be head over heels in love with them
by midday? That's what happened to us. He was very good-looking. No, he was beautiful. His eyes were so
blue, the colour of summer skies. And his hair was fair, almost red. I loved the feel of his tight curls
under my fingers. Blue eyes. Blue loving eyes. Funny, an Arab with fair hair and blue eyes.
He was on holiday, I remember, and had just one day to see Oxford before going back to Tunisia. To Sfax.
I was young and green and pretty then. I wish I still felt as young and pretty now. We spent the whole of
that day together. It was glorious weather. June's the best month to be in England. I can still feel the
warm sun on my neck as we walked through the gardens of St John's College. I can still feel the warmth of
his lips the first time he kissed me, the warmth of his body against me. I remember being terrified that
I might start to sweat. Everyone was terrified of BO - 'body odour' - in those days. I can remember how
cool and dry his hands were when he caressed me . . .
Is it really possible to remember such things? Come on, you're a respectable, middle-aged, married woman.
Get on with the housework and forget all this nonsense.
It's amazing. I can remember the smells and the sounds of that wonderful June day. I can remember the
dizzy feeling of falling in love. Hands, hands holding, touching, caressing. And the sweet words, and
the sweet moments of silence when only our eyes talked. We made love, I remember, on the bank of the
River Cherwell. Made love. Nowadays people 'have sex' - what an ugly expression! No, we made love, we
created love with our eyes and our sighs and our kisses. It was all very innocent. And so, so beautiful.
Come on, Silvia - 'Silviaaaa' - you cannot afford to cry. You look dreadful enough as it is, without getting
your eyes all red and puffy. Robert will be home soon. He's a good husband. I'm very lucky.
After he left - I saw him on to the coach back to London 1 went back to the Nurses' Hostel, locked myself
in my room and cried my eyes out. I had the most terrible migraine. I was ill, really ill, for three whole
days. Love. Happiness or pain? Both. I suppose I knew, even then, that I would never see you again,
my fair-skinned Arab. But I saw you a thousand, a million tirnes in my dreams. Even now I can see your
clear blue eyes, hear your soft, warm voice, feel your hand stroking my hair. I can still remember, too,
the way we held on to each other, fighting back the feeling of sadness creeping up on us as the go evening
and the moment of parting got nearer and nearer ...
When was it I met Robert? It must have been about two years after 1 left the Radcliffe, three years after
you took the coach and went out of my life forever. Now with Robert and me, it was no whirlwind romance!
It took us ages to make up our minds to get married. Ages after we met, I finally told Robert to marry me.
Well, there was no point in waiting for him to make the decision. Poor Robert! I do love you, Robert,
even if you are just a little bit boring sometimes, even if you are getting a bit fat round the middle.
Like me. Ah well. What it was to be young and pretty and green and slim! Sfax. I never thought I'd hear
that word again. Yes, he was handsome, my lover for a day, my sweet Tunisian. Ah, my long lost lover,
with your summer-blue eyes and your springtime smile, how I loved you! Now, nearly thirty years on, sweet
man, I cannot, for the life of me, remember your name.
Source: The Penguin Book of Very Short Stories, pp. 55-58
1. If you had to describe Sylvia to someone else, what would you tell them about (a) her physical appearance; (b) about her character?
2. She said that they were 'head over heels in love by midday. Can such things really happen? What if they had got married?
3. We are told very little about her husband, Robert. What can you find out about him from the story? What kind of a man, and what kind of husband must he be?
4. From what you know about the features of a short story, name three which would best apply to this story. Substantiate your answer.