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Transits of Venus.

By Martin Sorrell.

SERENA’S FOREHAND AND backhand and overhead smash and screaming got too much for her Polish opponent, trying to defuse 120 mph heat-seeking missiles. Another Wimbledon final. Once the Pole had been pronounced dead, Ms Williams fell to the ground; there was the moment of disbelief, then she was on her feet again to start the whooping and skipping and kissing of air. The BBC’s microphone closed in. “Your fifth Wimbledon crown. How does it feel?” Serena searched for brand new words.

I went out onto the balcony and looked at the sea. We were staying at the Sis Pins, the oldest of the hotels on the Pine Walk, which follows the perfect curve of the bay at Puerto Pollença, and the only hotel with a hint of charm. It was mid-July, the temperature well into the 30s. The breeze brought up to our balcony the sound of children, boat engines, and, from way over the other side, the dinky yellow sea-plane used to fight mountain fires. Soothing, analgesic, white noise. Matt Munro sang ‘Moon River’ on the cafe tannoy below, as he did most of the day. Across the Pine Walk, on the Sis Pins’ private patio, holidaymakers, mainly Scottish, covered six tiers of sun-loungers. Amy and I would have joined them, had they not beaten us to the beds every time. So we’d bought ourselves a couple of rush mats, which we rolled out on the little strip of sand between the patio and the water. No turf wars there.

It was time to overrule the tennis. I turned off the television, changed into swimming-trunks, and went down to the sand; as usual Amy was at book. I suggested a dip. No, she was too smitten by John Burnside’s memoir of his appalling childhood. So I swam out alone, into the middle of the bay. Swam is boasting; it was more of a slow-motion walk. I had to cover quite a distance before the water reached even my navel. Once I was up to my neck, I stopped and stood facing the horizon, the sun hard on me; beneath my feet the sand was flawless. I tried to think Buddhist, closed my eyes and offered up to the sea a year’s worth of aches and pains.

After a while, I sank below the surface, and, staying underwater, turned for the shore. Half a minute later, I came up for air, and as I inched towards land, reflected that at that very moment Serena’s body also must be undergoing extravagant attention. She was due on Centre Court again in the evening with sister Venus to challenge for the Ladies’ Doubles title. There remained three or four hours for her body engineers to effect an overhaul, renew muscle and tissue, run checks and tests. Recalibrate the 66 kg of high-precision, high-octane machinery. Not forgetting Serena’s mind. She could have done a lot worse than spend an hour floating in my perfect bay.

I looked for Amy. She was immobile, in the same position. Sun hat, spectacles, Burnside. Further along our strip of sand, two women lay stretched out. As I got closer, I saw that both were very tanned, very topless, and asleep. The angle I was coming from made it seem that they were in a loose embrace, as after love. I could see the arms and legs of one, spread-eagled, and just one leg of the other. Fully available to the eye, though, were two pairs of breasts. Those of one woman were beautifully shaped and small; the other’s beautifully shaped and large.

IT WASN’T RIGHT to keep staring. I began a splashy swim, some crawl, some back-stroke, more crawl, and by the time I’d put my feet to the sea floor, I was a good few metres nearer the shore. As I stood looking once more, and as casually as I could, at the two women, the one with the larger breasts, and who was slightly hidden, suddenly sat up. From flat on her back to bolt upright in one single, fluent movement, without the slightest sign of effort. No easy stages, no twisting, no use of arms or legs. I stared in sheer admiration. At that moment Amy must have looked up and seen what I was up to. She dumped her book and waded out to me in the shallows. When she was near enough, I asked: “Do you see what I see?”

“You’re making it bloody obvious,” Amy replied.

“No,” I said, “have a proper look, but be discreet.”

She did, then: “You’d better watch yourself, sweetie pie.”

I asked: “Is that really all you’ve got to say?”

Amy said: “OK, they’re fabulous.”

But what was holding my attention now was something else: the possessor of those breasts had no arms. Both left and right arms terminated just a few inches down from the shoulders. Somehow Amy had missed that detail. I pointed it out, then teased her: admit it, she’d been blinded by a splendid bosom. She said I might have a point. We forced our gaze elsewhere. We laughed and frolicked self-consciously, pretending that whenever our eyes happened to stray towards the two figures on the sand, it was an accident. Then the second woman sat up; her busy arms and legs made her actions much less elegant than her companion’s. She reached into a bag for cigarettes, took one from the pack and lit it. I thought she might place it between the other’s lips, but she smoked it herself. She, the smoker, now was fully visible to us. Her companion was not; the lower part of her body remained covered by a beach towel. But, in another operation as dexterous as the first, she leant forward, took a corner of the towel between the stumps of her arms, acting like pincers, picked up the towel and dropped it to one side, then rose from sitting to standing position.

This transition to the vertical was as swift and fluent as had been the movement from lying to sitting, and even more startling. For what we saw, as she stood there, ramrod-straight, was that she had only one leg. The other one ended well above the knee. But there she was, perfectly balanced, perfectly still. She said a few words to her companion, presumably about a dip. Five hops took her into the water. For a minute or two, she simply floated; then she started to move. I wanted to see what sort of stroke she could be doing, but Amy nudged me and said “Come on”, and we swam away. A few minutes later, the woman was back in the shallows. I trod water, and watched as she emerged, head, bust and torso, hips, finally her leg, which, without any pause in the transfer to dry land, took her hopping up the beach and to her outspread towel. There, she stopped, and again stood in easy equilibrium while her companion patted her down with another towel, then unzipped an oblong bag and took out an artificial leg. In a movement so swift I missed it, the leg was fixed to the stump. Then a full-length blue-grey skirt was passed over the woman’s head, adjusted, and smoothed down. Finally, a large pair of sunglasses was put in place. Fully mobile now, she walked onto the little jetty alongside our beach and stood contemplating the bay. When she turned her head and stared in my direction, as casually as I could I adopted a floating position on my back and feigned a keen interest in the sky; then I struck. Once out in deeper water, I turned to look back. She was still on the jetty. Her foreshortened arms were held upwards, gathering sun, as her breasts had been. Amy drifted alongside me. She saw where I was looking. “Venus de Milo in Ray-Bans”, she said.

THAT EVENING, SHRIEKS came from the television in the lounge of the Sis Pins. The ladies’ doubles at Wimbledon; four finalists in full cry. I stood to watch. Each point, won or lost, it didn’t matter, was met with high fives. The contest was a noisy business, adrenalin-charged, graceless. I turned away and went outside to stroll for a bit. Then I sat down on a bench to wait for Amy, beneath one of the ancient pine trees that give the hotel its name. Eventually she joined me, announcing that Venus and Serena had won their match. Wimbledon was over for another year. We set off along the pine-walk. It was the soft part of evening, women in summer dresses and sling-back shoes, but men dressed much the same as during the day. The hour of finding a place to eat that might be different from the night before. Amy and I did the same. A few minutes and a few rejected eateries later, we saw the women from the beach. They were splendid; they eclipsed everyone around them. Venus de Milo, now sans Ray-Bans, was wearing a ravishing dress of crimson and ochre and turmeric, the perfect complement to her sumptuous skin. Her hair was even darker in the evening light, and glossy with health. But more than her dress, her hair, her skin, it was her bearing that held the eye. She was not particularly tall, certainly not among the Northern Europeans lumbering about, but she seemed tall. Her bearing was imperious, the essence of poise, so much so that her limp and absent arms seemed to have no reality. The two women passed by, indifferent to the crowd. I turned to follow them with my gaze, to watch her before they disappeared. Amy grabbed my arm and started walking, and that was that.

The next morning they were gone. I thought of making enquiries at the hotel desk, but I didn’t. At breakfast, I said to Amy that had Venus de Milo had all her limbs, she’d surely have been a model or an actress. But, Amy said, why shouldn’t she be either, now, just as she is? I took the point, though one thing she could not be, I insisted, was a tennis-player. She would never meet the other Venus across the net.

Not a tennis-player, but an athlete? A month later, back in England, I began to watch the Paralympics on the television. Until the fortnight of the games, I’d not realised that athletes with what I’d have considered impossible disabilities would be running, rowing, swimming, throwing, jumping, shooting. I’d not anticipated that many would be missing not just one limb, but two. Were there any events which accommodated athletes missing three? I watched every women’s event I could. Each day I hoped I’d switch on and find Venus in her Ray-Bans standing on the podium, perfectly straight, perfectly still, ready for gold to be placed on her breast.

Martin Sorrell is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. Among his publications are Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems,  Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems, Federico Garcia Lorca: Selected Poems (all OUP), Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry By Women (University of Exeter Press), and Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Oneworld Classics). In June 2010, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in the Fortnightly Review‘s New Series.

More in The Fortnightly Review: Read Rimbaud’s Mad Boat: Some thoughts on translating poetry and John Ashbery’s illumination of a mercurial adolescent, both by Martin Sorrell.


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