Fiction by Dilys Rose
Cilla is dreaming of a pirate, of the swashbuckling, buccaneer variety—roguishly handsome, with a luxuriant beard and glinting earring but none of the stink and ingrained filth that are part and parcel of the trade. No eyepatch or knotted headscarf but he is brandishing some kind of bladed weapon, a cutlass, surely—isn’t that what old-school pirates ran with? He is a distance away and yet somehow close enough to smell pipe tobacco and seadog rum on his breath. She hears herself murmuring ‘sea-green eyes’ when Frankie’s querulous voice barges into her dream and dispatches the brigand.
Cilla. Cilla! We’re anchoring in ten. If you don’t get a move on, we’ll have to wait for ever!
If they’re anchoring in ten, they’re already too late. Everyone wants a place on the first batch of tenders, and queues for the escalators will already be dozens deep. Cilla rolls over on her bunk and peers through the porthole of their shared cabin. In the distance, squat, blocky buildings line the quay against a backdrop of parched scrub. At least they won’t be spending their shore day there.
She’d only meant to close her eyes while Frankie wrapped up her morning flirt with the waiters, not to actually nod off. Cilla blames the food. There is always so much on offer, and quality food at that. The kitchens work round the clock to turn out ever-more tempting dishes and the aroma of freshly baked bread infiltrates the ventilation system at all hours. Though Cilla always sticks to the Light Continental Option, even on a shore day when everyone stocks up on breakfast, the waistband of her favourite holiday trousers is already beginning to pinch. Frankie, damn her, can tuck into a Full English every day without any change to her coat-hanger frame.
After being marshalled by bumptious, semaphoring stewards onto a packed escalator descending to the lower decks, the two tramp the gangway to their allotted tender where, by means of some sly elbowing, they secure a spot from which to view their approach to The Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean. More queuing and more gangways before Cilla and Frankie, lurching after several days at sea, join the hordes pouring through the archways of the Old Port and onto the paved, mediaeval streets.
The journey from the deck of their cruise ship to Dubrovnik—a distance of no more than a few kilometres—has taken the best part of the morning. Preparations for lunch are underway and the city reeks of grilling meat and fish. Their first stop: queuing at the ATM for local currency; their second: queuing at the adequate but overpriced public toilets; their third: securing a bench in the shade so Frankie can apply sunblock.
You could always cover your arms, says Cilla.
I could, says Frankie, but I don’t want to.
As ever, Cilla has dressed for comfort and concealment. As ever, Frankie has opted for style: a sleeveless white dress with a gold border at the neck and hem, strappy gold sandals and matching toenail polish. Her colour coordination is marred by blazing epaulettes of sunburn, from lounging too long on the lido the previous afternoon, ogling the ship’s all-male dance troupe as they leapt and flexed, rehearsing for the final night’s extravaganza.
There’d better not be loads of stairs, says Frankie, squinting through a gold-trimmed visor at a slice of ancient wall, glimpsed between rooftops.
Frankie finds stairs difficult. If they’d booked a city tour, a workaround for those with mobility issues would have been on offer but Frankie prefers to soldier on and kid everybody— including herself— that she’s still in her prime.
We don’t have to do it, says Cilla.
What’s the point in coming at all if you don’t do the main sights? Who goes to Paris and doesn’t do the Eiffel Tower?
I’ve never done the Eiffel Tower.
But that’s just you, Cilla, trying to be different. Cilla went to Paris and didn’t do the Eiffel Tower. Cilla went to New York and didn’t visit the Statue of Liberty. Cilla went to Agra and didn’t see the Taj Mahal—
I did see the Taj Mahal. I sent you a postcard.
Did you? Nobody bothers with postcards any more. Must have been a while ago.
It was. Cameron and I were on our honeymoon.
Oh, Cameron, says Frankie. Ancient history, then.
Not to me it isn’t!
Cilla takes slow, deep breaths while Frankie bats her eyes at a bronzed hunk, smoking in a coffee shop doorway, and resolutely ignoring her. She has never married and considers Cilla’s twenty-five-year marriage and ensuing decade of chaste widowhood a huge yawn. Though Frankie’s own life—if her version of events is to be believed—has been awash with steamy and/or stormy affairs, she shows little sign of abandoning hope that Prince Charming may still rock up and sail her off into an incomparable sunset.
The two women have been friends for fifty years. Not always the very best of friends but, despite jags of rage and corrosive irritations borne of long familiarity, their lives now peg along on similarly solitary lines. Since Cilla became a widow, they’ve taken their annual holiday together. They’ve done self-catering cabins, budget packages, city breaks and bus tours but as this is something of a watershed year, they’ve splashed out on a cruise. It’s a pity, they agree, that their budget hadn’t stretched to single cabins.
I so want to do the wall, says Frankie. If only my stupid feet are up to it.
Perhaps we need a Plan B, says Cilla, leafing through her guide book. The cathedral has paintings by Dalmatian and Italian artists, including one by Raphael.
If they only mention one Raphael, nothing else will be worth bothering with.
The reliquary contains the head and a leg of a thirteenth-century saint.
Who wants to see creepy old body parts?
The maritime museum hosts a fine collection of seahorses.
Fun for five minutes, says Frankie. Which way to the wall?
Cilla indicates the slow procession of crumpled shorts, bulging bum bags and floppy hats: no longer an invading horde but a vast herd of docile cattle, plodding across flagstones buffed to a sheen by centuries of feet and hooves. The streets are so congested it’s hard to appreciate the mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture the city is renowned for. In the main square, in front of an ornate town hall, a band of men in white shirts, black trousers and crimson cummerbunds sing in doleful unison to a loose horseshoe of audience.
Klapa, says Cilla. They sing about tragedies at sea, lost love and such.
Oh, let’s not stop for the doom and gloom, says Frankie. They’ll be passing round the hat in a minute and we don’t have any coins.
As soon as they pass through the ticket booth and begin to climb the first flight of steep, uneven stairs, the heat hits them. Frankie, who insisted on leading the way so she didn’t have to play catchup, gasps at every step. Cilla’s heart begins to thump assertively. She, too, must pace herself. She presses against the sun-baked stone to let a group of nimble Japanese matrons squeeze past. Oblivious to the tailback, Frankie continues upwards. Perhaps she doesn’t hear their gentle twittering. Frankie is quite deaf but refuses to admit it.
When they reach the ramparts, the Japanese group patter past Frankie. Cilla catches her breath, takes in the shimmering expanse of sea. Frankie, groaning, massages her ankles.
Couldn’t they have got us here before it was so hot?
What a view! says Cilla.
The colour of the sea’s a bit wishy-washy, says Frankie, standing on tiptoe so she can see over the perimeter wall. Reminds me of that mouthwash of yours. By the way, I used some this morning but I don’t care for the taste.
Bring your own, then.
Surely, Cilla, you don’t begrudge me a capful of mouthwash?
That’s not the point.
The point is that Frankie crams every beauty product imaginable into her toilet bag but forgets some essential item, like soap or toothpaste. Always.
The sky is unbroken blue. It is almost noon and fiercely hot, with only the thinnest slivers of shade. Encrusted with tourists, diamond-shaped ramparts encompass domes, steeples and pitched roofs and the seaward sections extend over sheer cliffs. The walls were built in the thirteenth century to protect the city from invasion, Cilla reads. In the fifteenth century, numerous towers were built upon them; some are still standing. There’s one! she says, gesturing to where the Japanese women are arranging themselves for group photos, their laughter dipping and darting like bright birds.
Spare me the history lesson, says Frankie. My God, look at all those stairs!
We don’t have to go all the way round.
But if we don’t go all the way round, we haven’t really done it, have we?
Does it matter? says Cilla.
It matters to me, says Frankie.
The taverna where Frankie insists they have lunch—persuaded by the moustachioed hunk touting for trade at the entrance—is packed but does have terrace seating beneath a vine-laden trellis.
I never want to see that wall again, says Frankie.
But we did it! says Cilla. And you have to admit the views were sensational.
My feet are killing me.
Shall we treat ourselves to wine?
If you say so, says Frankie, though God knows what the local stuff is like.
They have Italian wines as well.
No, no, says Frankie. When in Dubrovnik—
When the waiter—yet another Adonis—arrives, Frankie quizzes him about the wine list, only to settle, eventually, on a carafe of house white. Having read that sharing plates are the norm, Cilla enquires about portion size but, despite his eloquence on the wine list, the waiter is vague. Not that it matters. Frankie has set her heart on the local speciality—squid ink risotto—and so Cilla, who’s allergic to seafood, has no alternative but to order something else.
This is just another tourist trap, says Frankie. Do you see any locals eating here? It can’t possibly be authentic.
You chose it.
We were hungry, Cilla. We had to eat somewhere. I’d just have liked to eat somewhere authentic.
Do you think they’d have such hot waiters in an authentic place? Or linen tablecloths, traditional music? If you want the real deal, the guide book says, expect a surly proprietor, Formica tables and blaring MTV.
You’re such a smart-arse, says Frankie. And I bet that guide book is way out of date.
Like us, says Cilla.
Speak for yourself, says Frankie. I keep up, Cilla. I keep up.
The wine arrives promptly, the food tardily. Thirsty from so much walking in the heat, both women drink deep.
I don’t know why you have to bang on about portion size, says Frankie. Anyone can see you don’t exactly starve yourself.
You eat as much as I do, says Cilla. A lot more, in fact.
Maybe, Frankie preens, but I can get away with it.
Do you have to be such a bitch?
I just tell it like it is, Cilla.
Well, don’t bother. I know how it is.
The wine has gone to their heads. They are talking too loudly. Not that it matters; everybody is jawing away and drowning out the weeping strings. The food eventually arrives and the portions are enormous. Frankie wrinkles her nose at the purplish-brown mound on her plate, samples a forkful suspiciously and, loudly enough for half the terrace to hear, pronounces it revolting. She summons the waiter—there really is no need for the finger-snapping—and tells him to take it away.
You want something else?
No, dear, she says, stroking the waiter’s smooth, golden forearm with a mottled claw. My friend doesn’t like big portions. We can share her dish—can’t we, Cilla?
With a shrug, the waiter departs, skinny hips snaking between closely packed tables, Frankie’s rejected plate of squid ink risotto held aloft.
By the time they have polished off Cilla’s more-than-ample chicken salad, drained the carafe of wine and paid the bill, the terrace is all but deserted.
We’re running a bit late, says Cilla.
Just a quick look?
We’ll have to be quick.
Tipsily, they veer off the main drag and plunge into a web of backstreets, only to find the gift shop shutters drawn, their doors and grilles bolted. The only sign of life is a slit-eyed cat, basking on a dusty windowsill.
I thought you said they don’t do siesta here, says Frankie.
They don’t. Maybe it’s some kind of local holiday.
So, we’re not going to get any souvenirs? I promised my yoga teacher I’d bring her some lavender oil.
She’ll cope, says Cilla, opening up her map. I don’t think we’re going the right way. We have to work out where we are, and which direction we’re facing, before we go any further.
But we can’t be late back! says Frankie, a rattle of panic in her voice. The tenders won’t wait. No exceptions, they said. No exceptions!
I’m trying, says Cilla, to prevent us being late. We could have asked a shopkeeper for directions but as you can see there aren’t any shopkeepers to ask.
That’s a fat lot of use, then! says Frankie. But I wouldn’t trust a local, to be honest. Remember that bus driver on Crete?
It was Corfu.
Same difference. That guy screwed us around on purpose, says Frankie. Bastard. I bet he bragged about it to his pals in the Ouzo bars.
I’m sure he had better stories to tell, says Cilla.
At the end of their week in Corfu, which until then had been remarkably hitch-free, they’d decided to save on the shuttle and take a municipal bus to the airport. The guide book had made it seem straightforward enough but despite asking the driver to let them know when to get off, the bus clattered past the airport and was miles down the road before they realised. They had no choice but to lug their suitcases off the bus, drag them across the road and wait, amid maize fields teeming with locusts, for a bus from the opposite direction to return them to the airport. It was quite a wait. They only just made their flight.
Come on, Cilla. We don’t have time to stand around while you ponder that map.
We don’t have time to take a wrong turning.
Oh, for God’s sake! I told you we should get somebody to put Google Maps on our phones.
But we don’t know how to use the App, says Cilla. And you said it was more trouble than it was worth. You said you’d rather rely on common sense—
I don’t remember saying anything of the kind, says Frankie, but we really must get up to speed on technology if we’re to survive in the modern world. I mean, you can’t even operate a self-service checkout, can you, Cilla? You need somebody to help you buy a loaf of bread! You should have asked that boy of yours to set us up with Google Maps. You’re always banging on about what a whiz he is with techy stuff. What’s the point in having children if they can’t help out when you need them to?
They are standing at a fork in the road. Cilla folds her arms. Frankie digs her knuckles into bony hips. Their mismatched shadows—one short and skinny, the other tall and stout—are cast across the intersection, like Laurel and Hardy squaring up for a scrap.
If we’re late, they’ll go without us! Frankie bleats. They’ll hand over our passports to the ship’s agent and we’ll be left high and dry!
Could be worse, says Cilla, at least we have our credit cards. But the thought of missing the boat, of having to negotiate repatriation with Frankie and she’s breaking out in sweat. Her chest tightens. A glittering confetti fills her field of vision. Is it the wine? Is she having a panic attack, a stroke? She takes slow, deep breaths, blocks out Frankie’s bleating and concentrates on a plain, dark door until the confetti begins to evaporate and her pulse rate subsides.
Cilla has never been great at map-reading and the print is so tiny it’s barely legible, even with her new glasses. The sun bites into the back of her neck as she compares the branching backstreets with the street plan.
Maybe Frankie is right: if they’d had Google Maps, a mechanical voice would be issuing instructions on which way to turn and how long it would take to reach their destination. Hot, tired, footsore and not a little anxious, they might have found the default voice annoying but they could have relinquished responsibility and tottered on, trustingly, without making decisions, or bickering, or having to think.
Okay! she says, I’ve got it. It’s this way.
Are you sure? How can you be sure?
If we leg it, we should get there in time. Just.
Can’t we just take a taxi?
We’re in a pedestrian precinct, Frankie. Do you see any taxis? The whole city centre’s a pedestrian precinct.
But I’m so tired! My head hurts. And my feet! My poor, stupid feet—
Just one push, Frankie, says Cilla. It can’t be far.
Cilla hopes that she will never again find herself at this crossroads: its crooked sheaf of street signs, its closed doors and shuttered windows, its pitted mediaeval walls and time-smoothed paving stones. Determination battling with desperation, she sets off; every so often she glances over her shoulder to check that Frankie, her friend of fifty years, is keeping up.
About Dilys Rose
Dilys Rose lives in Edinburgh, and is a novelist, short story writer and poet. She has published eight books of fiction and four of poetry, most recently the novel Unspeakable (Freight, 2017), set in seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Her poetry pamphlet, Stone the Crows (Mariscat Press), was published in 2020. A fifth collection of stories is due out in 2022. She divides her time between Edinburgh and a small studio on the East Lothian coast, where, throughout the pandemic, she has been writing and making collages.