issue 49: July - August 2005 

 | author bio

The Performance
Nicholas Royle


You could do as much or as little as you liked. That was the appeal of the place. Activities were laid on for those who wished to join in, but there was no pressure on those who did not. Thus, a stressed-out pharmaceuticals executive who wanted to spend his week’s holiday reading trash novels could do so while his wife attended aerobics classes and perhaps took out a small boat when the wind freshened after lunch. Their children, meanwhile, would be looked after by a fleet of highly qualified nannies and nursery workers.
      The set-up suited comfortably off hard-working couples who needed time to unwind and found the rigours of childcare incompatible with relaxation. But the resort was also popular with childless couples, who appreciated the fact that other people’s kids were kept out of the way. Whether you’ve been unable to reproduce, or simply chosen not to, other people’s children are rarely ideal company.
      The day of the performance began like any other.
      The sun rose around 6.30am, although most residents didn’t become aware of it until a couple of hours later. Breakfast was taken outside. A hundred tables in a grid, all laid with starched white linen, filling the space between kitchens and pool. There was a canopy that could be pulled across when it rained, which it did infrequently but spectacularly, accompanied by an electrical storm. The first meal of the day was a leisurely business for all except those intent on water-skiing, which kicked off early.
      My wife and I chose a table close to the pool and Eleanor watched the peaceful undulations of the water’s surface while a beautiful young waitress brought us coffee, croissants and fruit. I sat with my back to the pool and observed the steady influx. I saw the Television Actor and his wife pick a table in the shade. I had lost count of how many days we had been at the resort – we had entered that phase of any holiday when time becomes meaningless – but it was long enough to have put names to a lot of faces. Fictitious ones, of course, since we hadn’t actually met and spoken to anybody apart from exchanging the briefest of pleasantries. The Television Actor bore a resemblance to a rising small screen star married to a slightly more famous film actress. He enjoyed the same kind of prematurely greying good looks and gently expressive features, defaulting to an amused half-smile. His wife was not particularly attractive and compounded the misfortune by wearing garishly mismatched combinations – a floaty dress over homemade cut-offs, a Hawaiian shirt with floral-print shorts – but husband and wife seemed comfortable in each other’s company.
      At the table next to our own, the Reading Man and his wife sat down. The Reading Man had started the holiday promisingly with a fêted literary thriller by a young Scottish woman writer, but as the week had progressed, his books had become progressively trashier and correspondingly thicker. Still, though, he appeared with a different one each morning. I read the name on the cover. A successful British crime writer, if not one I had ever read. The Reading Man was already a good thirty pages in. His wife stared beyond the pool at the haze over the mirror-smooth turquoise sea. The slightest of muscular spasms betrayed her impatience, which failed to register with her husband. Printed on the sleeve of the Reading Man’s T-shirt was the web address of a pharmaceuticals business, almost certainly his own.
      The resort was exclusive, prohibitively expensive, and it was safe to assume the logos and URLs on the polo shirts and baseball caps of most of the middle-aged male residents were advertising their own companies. Any labels on their wives’ clothes bore the names of top designers.
      The Queen Bee (‘B for bitch,’ Eleanor had said on the first evening) entered with her three daughters, their father tagging along behind. The Queen Bee was a statuesque blonde in her mid-40s who always dressed and made herself up with extreme care. Her daughters ranged between 14 and 18. She smiled rarely, presumably to discourage the development of facial lines, yet every day she occupied a sunlounger by the pool from the moment breakfast was finished until either the sky clouded over or lunchtime arrived, whichever came sooner. Her daughters arranged their long, lithe bodies around her, similarly stretchered under the fierce sun, while their father sat at a table in the bar area, smoking cigarettes and studying the pictures in a magazine devoted to walking shoes and climbing boots.
      We had noticed the Queen Bee leaving the plane on landing at the nearby international airport surrounded by her family and then again on the evening of our arrival at the resort. Once we had unpacked, we had come down to the bar and ordered cocktails. Like everyone else, we turned our chairs to face the sea, as if awaiting the start of some kind of spectacle. The Queen Bee appeared with her youngest daughter. They passed swiftly through the bar on their way to the hotel reception, mother’s brisk stride requiring daughter to trot alongside. Her face a mask of annoyance, the Queen Bee was berating her daughter, too angry to lower her voice for propriety’s sake. The snatch we heard was dopplered like a police siren: ‘… ruined my holiday before it’s even begun…’
      Once breakfast was over, my wife took a beach bag over towards the lines of loungers and sun umbrellas that ran parallel with the water’s edge and what passed for a high-tide mark. I was intending to go for a walk as far as the perimeter fence at the far end of the beach. First I helped myself to a second cup of coffee and watched as Eleanor made her way slowly across the beach, looking around her at residents who were staking out their territory for the morning. The light poured through the sarong she wore wrapped around her waist allowing me – and anyone else who might be looking – to appreciate the length and deceptive youthfulness of her legs.
      When Eleanor had passed out of sight, I drained my coffee cup and collected my baseball cap and key. I would go back up to the room before heading out. Walking between the tables, I was surprised to see the Crossword Man sitting alone on the edge of the grid and altered my route to pass directly by him. Head down, silver pen gripped in meaty right hand, he was solving a big puzzle in a paperback book full of them.
      The Crossword Man was another, like the Queen Bee, whom we had noticed before the holiday had even begun. At Heathrow Airport, he had been ahead of us in the queue to check in. The flight was delayed, we had read from the monitors, but the Crossword Man – then, of course, we had not yet given him the name – appeared neither to speak nor read English and he was trying to make sense of the check-in clerk, who merely turned up the volume and slowed down her delivery as she repeated herself: ‘The flight is delayed by two hours. If you take this voucher to any of the restaurants in the departure lounge, you can get a complimentary breakfast.’
      The Crossword Man was drawing attention to himself. Firstly by his stubborn refusal to leave the check-in desk until he understood what was being said, and secondly by his dress. In spite of the early start and the somewhat chilly temperatures for late April, he had elected to travel in his holiday clothes, an orange and white Hawaiian shirt and beige shorts that were a size too small. Snorting and shrugging in typically Gallic fashion, he kept saying, ‘Je comprends pas, je comprends rien,’ looking around for support.
      In schoolboy French, I did my best to put him in the picture. Placated, he wandered off to claim his complimentary petit-déjeuner.
      I was surprised to see him still working at his crossword, because usually by this time he was to be seen walking in the sea. Twice a day, straight after breakfast and just before dinner, he would walk, chest deep, in the sea in a straight line parallel to the shore. He would start at one end of the resort and make his way to the other, a distance of about half a mile, and then come back.
      As I passed by his table on the edge of the grid, I took a sly look at a creased manilla envelope that lay on the table next to his crossword book. It seemed as if he might have been using the envelope to protect the book. Perhaps it was the very envelope in which the volume had been sent to him. I was able to read the name and part of the address: M. Jean-Daniel Lang, 1020 Bruxelles.
      Upstairs in our room, I stripped off and took a shower. I stood in front of the full-length mirror inspecting my body with a critical eye. The hair on my chest was turning a little grey. I was thickening around the middle. Some of the male residents with whom I had played beach volleyball were completely relaxed about removing their T-shirts and exposing the evidence of their high living. I wasn’t doing too badly myself, but I would remain covered up. Wrapping a towel around me, I walked through the bedroom to the balcony overlooking the sea. Because of the trees in the foreground, I couldn’t see Eleanor, but I did spot the Crossword Man – or Jean-Daniel Lang, as I would now have to call him – pushing his bulk through the water. Because he walked where it was deep, right on the edge of the shelf just before it fell away into the dark, he encountered a considerable amount of resistance. His habitual activity provided him with rigorous exercise.
      I didn’t see Eleanor until lunch. She had dozed in the morning, she told me. I told her I hoped she had used the sun cream.
      ‘Where did you get to?’ she asked me.
      ‘I walked down the beach,’ I said, pointing. ‘There are some rooms down there, as you know, but beyond that there’s a patch of scrub and then a chainlink fence. I followed that down to the beach where you climb up a rocky incline and guess what you see when you get to the top?’
      ‘What do you see?’ asked Eleanor, as she signalled to a waiter that he should bring us a bottle of wine.
      ‘There’s a little inlet, with a small boat tied up, and then the beach continues for a mile or so until those mountains you can see at the end of the bay. On the beach in the distance I saw some locals.’
      ‘So real people do live here, then?’
      We had seen little sign of them on the bus ride from the airport.
      ‘They were too far away for me to see them in any detail. It was very strange. It reminded me of Eastern Europe, seeing people going about their lives on the other side of the frontier, as if… as if…’
      ‘As if what?’
      ‘I don’t know. As if they lived normal lives just like us.’
      Eleanor gave a sharp laugh as she poured two glasses of wine.
      ‘The Reading Man,’ she said, as she stood the bottle, streaming with condensation, in the middle of the table.
      I turned around slowly. The Reading Man and his wife were three tables away. She was staring at a point over his head, while he remained oblivious, his nose buried in his book, which he was now more than a third of the way through.
      ‘I saw the Queen Bee,’ said Eleanor. ‘She and her daughters occupied the umbrella next to mine this morning.’
      ‘I thought you were asleep,’ I reminded her.
      ‘Not all the time.’
      We went and got our starters from the buffet, our plates piled high with cold meats and chunky beetroot. The food was all paid for in advance and we would leave at least half of it. As we returned to our table we passed Jean-Daniel Lang, whose book was folded open at a new puzzle next to his plate.
      ‘Why does a single Frenchman come here?’ Eleanor asked once were were sitting down. ‘He doesn’t seeem to know anyone, or make any effort to get to know anyone. I mean, why doesn’t he go to a resort run by a French company?’
      ‘He’s Belgian, darling’ I said. ‘Not that that answers your question, but he is Belgian and his name is Jean-Daniel Lang. He lives in Brussels.’
      ‘I see.’ Eleanor’s smile told me she believed I was still playing the game, inventing an identity for the Crossword Man.
      ‘He’s a widower,’ I went on. ‘He used to come here with his wife, who was English. They lived in Crawley. After she died he moved back to Brussels, but carried on coming here. He solves crosswords because… well, because he can.’
      ‘So he’s not a paedophile, then, come to ogle the adolescents?’
      ‘Absolutely not. The only time he looks up from his crossword book is when he’s walking in the sea.’
      ‘Darling, if he had been married to an Englishwoman and living in Crawley,’ Eleanor argued after a few moments’ pause, ‘would’t he be able to speak pretty good English? Especially given his love of language.’
      ‘His English is quite good actually,’ I said. ‘He was just pretending at Heathrow. Winding the woman up. He understood perfectly well what was going on.’
      Eleanor didn’t bother to reply. I could see that she was bored. I was bored as well. Everyone was bored. Perhaps that was the point. She pushed her plate away and poured herself another glass of wine. I waited a moment after she had put the bottle down before picking it up and filling my own glass. If she noticed, she gave no sign.
      ‘What will you do this afternoon, darling?’ I asked.
      ‘I don’t know, darling. Doze? Read?’
      At home, if we called each other ‘darling’, the word would be loaded, the delivery making it clear that irony was in play. Here, it became reflexive. Part of the routine. As much a function of habit as wearing flip-flops around the pool, or dressing up for dinner.
      At the front of the resort, away from the sea, there was a court for boules or pétanque. On my way back to our room after lunch, I heard a metallic click followed by a deep, theatrical groan, and turned to look out of the open window. Two floors below, Jean-Daniel Lang was playing boules with Michel, the lone Frenchman on the resort staff, a student on his gap year. Michel’s ball appeared to have struck one of Jean-Daniel’s, knocking it aside and sidling up to the cochonnet. Jean-Daniel protested good-naturedly as he threw a decent final ball, then ambled up the side of the court to inspect his position. I watched Michel take aim, then dispatch his own last ball with a wayward flick of the wrist, sending it right to the end of the court. Jean-Daniel seemed pleased and stepped inside the court to measure the relative distances of his own nearest ball and that of Michel’s.
      The distances were similar, although it was clear from my vantage point that Michel’s was very slightly closer, but I noticed Jean-Daniel shrug as he compared them on the ground. Michel pointed to his own ball and shook his head, kicking it away with his deck shoe. Jean-Daniel looked satisfied as he rounded up his boules.
      Michel explained that he was on beach duty and Jean-Daniel nodded. The two shook hands and parted. I went to our room where I changed into my swimming shorts, thinking that I would divide the afternoon between the pool and the beach.
      Residents began taking their seats in the bar area soon after six. Eleanor and I had not seen each other since lunch, despite my having spent half the afternoon on the beach. Our paths had not crossed. Having been up to the room to change into a linen suit and open-neck shirt, I chose a chair in the bar and pulled up another one next to it. Both were facing the beach. I angled mine so that I could watch the bar as well as enjoying the view. When Eleanor finally appeared -- long after the Reading Man and his wife, the Television Actor and a new character, the Emeritus Professor, who affected a straw Panama and smoked thin cigars – I watched her looking around the bar, her gaze skating over me three times before she spotted me.
      ‘Didn’t you recognise me?’ I asked as she settled into the chair alongside mine.
      ‘After a while everyone begins to look the same,’ she said.
      ‘Good afternoon?’ I asked.
      ‘Relaxing. You?’
      ‘I swam.’
      ‘All afternoon?’
      ‘Not all afternoon.’
      ‘Did you read?’ she asked.
      ‘No, I feel somehow let off the hook by the Reading Man. As if he’s reading for all of us.’
      ‘How’s he getting on?’
      ‘He’s just there.’
      He was sitting a few chairs along, reading a surprisingly thin book, about the size of a theatre programme. His wife sat straight backed, staring out to sea and cooling herself with a fan improvised from two or three postcards that she must have bought from the hotel shop.
      ‘Maybe he finished his book for today and didn’t want to start another big one until tomorrow?’ I suggested.
      ‘The Queen Bee has surpassed even her own high standards,’ Eleanor said, looking over at the bar, where the blonde mother-of-three was leaning on one leg to pick up a drinks order from the bar, accentuating the transparency of her dress, which was pulled revealingly taut over her impressive behind.
      ‘Now that’s how to wear a thong,’ remarked Eleanor.
      The Queen Bee carried her tray of cocktails towards the lines of chairs facing the beach. Her husband, who I now knew was called Stewart since we had shared a beach volleyball court in the afternoon, put down a pair of binoculars with which he had been scanning the horizon, and took the tray. The girls helped themselves to their drinks, smiling over the little umbrellas and pieces of spiked fruit.
      I looked beyond them towards the beach. Some clouds had formed, running across the top of the sky where they gathered the deep velvet oranges and russet-pinks of the impending sunset, and trailing faint skirts either side of the main part of the beach. Following one of these wispy drapes of cloud down to the sea, I saw Jean-Daniel Lang already chest deep in the water, walking in a straight line parallel with the shore.
      His chest angled slightly one way, then the other, he forced his bulk step by step through the deep water. A hush fell across the rows of hotel guests sitting facing the sea. I watched the Television Actor lean over to accept a nut from the outstretched hand of his wife, without either of them taking their eyes off the Crossword Man. The remaining free seats were quickly taken as residents stepped away from the bar, drinks in hand. The distance between the line he was walking and the rows of seats in which we were all sitting was perhaps as much as fifty metres, so I wasn’t sure if I could make out the expression on his face. I wasn’t even sure if there was one. I would have said that he looked the same as usual: impassive, unselfconscious, even self-involved. He must have been concentrating on the mechanics of his sea walk, taking care over the placing of his feet.
      He was just over halfway past the main part of the beach, where small waves lapped on to a slight rise in the level of the sand, creating the impression of a proscenium, when he stumbled. Aware of a collective intake of breath, I waited for Jean-Daniel to right himself and continue, but he had lost his footing and obviously failed to make contact with the sandy bottom. He began slowly to topple, his arms wheeling, grasping at air, then to subside. He was falling seawards. Maybe at first his left foot had still been touching bottom, but he seemed now to have lost even that tenuous contact.
      ‘Can’t he swim?’ whispered a voice in the row behind me.
      ‘Apparently not,’ came a hissed reply. ‘That’s why he walks in the sea. He likes going in the water, but he can’t swim.’
      Lang’s head disappeared under the water and I sensed the audience around me sit up even straighter in their seats. The Queen Bee reached out and took her husband’s binoculars, which she trained on Lang. His head appeared above the surface, and, despite the distance, we could now all see the look on his face. It was one of surprise. And then it was gone again. A gentle swell washed over him and this time he didn’t come bobbing back up.
      We waited. And waited. But the sea had closed over his head and was not about to give him up. He had gone.
      There was a moment of absolute silence, then the first clap was heard. A woman in the second row stood up as she applauded. Within a few seconds, the people around her started to join in, clapping and, in some cases, getting to their feet. I saw the Television Actor and his wife stand up together, clapping furiously, their faces wreathed in smiles.
      ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ shouted the Emeritus Professor as he, too, rose to his feet.
      The Reading Man, his books forgotten for once, was showing his appreciation. Even his wife was standing and contributing to the applause, the tension flowing out of her facial muscles, allowing her to grin.
      I turned to look at Eleanor, and found myself looking at her waist, because she too had jumped up to applaud.
      Slowly, I rose and followed suit. I glanced alongside at Eleanor, who smiled at me with unrestrained joy.

© Nicholas Royle
image: Thomas Lieven

 'This electronic version of  'The Performance' appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It first appeared in Matter, issue 4, a  Sheffield Hallam University-based literary magazine.

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

N. Royle - photoNicholas Royle was born in Manchester in 1963. He is the author of five novels: Counterparts, Saxophone Dreams, The Matter of the Heart, The Director's Cut and Antwerp, just out in paperback (see TBR review). He has edited twelve anthologies including A Book of Two Halves and Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing. He a regular contributor to Time Out, Zembla and the Independent. Royle lives in Manchester with his wife and two children.
see also in TBR Trussed


issue 49: July - August 2005 


Nicholas Royle: The Performance
Suhayl Saadi:
Sufisticated Football
Cyan James:
Lewis and Clark, Bryce and Tony


Josh Capps: Soldier of...

picks from back issues

Ann Cummins: Where I Work
Todd Sandvik: The Note


‘Marys’ in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz, Food and Drink in Literature

book reviews

Antwerp by Nicholas Royle
The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth

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