Middle-aged women find the sailors of their dreams in the Caribbean..
I had known Conrad and Felicitas for a number of years, having had a brief affair with their daughter. They lived in a charming old farmhouse about twenty miles from Essen, on the outskirts of a sleepy little German village where Conrad was the provincial doctor and Felicitas his secretary.
They were a curious couple for when I first went to stay with them, I found that Felicitas shared her bedroom with her young lover, Hartwig, a potato farmer, whilst Conrad had the master bedroom to himself. I remember feeling distinctively uncomfortable as we sat down for breakfast, Felicitas at the head of the table, her husband on one side and her muscular lover on the other. But the trio appeared quite unconcerned and behaved as if the arrangement was the most natural thing in the world.
Conrad was in the early forties, a tall, lean man with wavy black hair combed to conceal a balding crown. He had a long, gaunt face with hollow cheeks, a high forehead and small, intense dark eyes. His nose was somewhat prominent and he wore a trim Vandyke. His arms were long and his hands delicate and if I had not known that he was a doctor, I should have imagined him to be an artist or musician.
He was a serious man given to serious pursuits and I gathered that his interests were confined to medicine, opera and white wine. However, since he rarely allowed himself more than two glasses of the latter at any one time, I supposed that any pleasure he might derive from the grape was minimal.
He spoke barely a word of English and I spoke none of German and so our exchanges were necessarily limited. From time to time, however, he made great efforts to appear courteous by way of conversation and on these occasions I had the opportunity to embarrass myself by demonstrating my ignorance of his own tongue.
Unfortunately, Conrad had a severe stammer which further complicated the already complex nature of our attempted communications and, furthermore, he insisted on prefixing every sentence with my first name – sufficiently awkward even for those unafflicted by impediments of speech – and so an extraordinary degree of concentration, patience and guesswork were required if I was to understand a single word he said.
Felicitas was somewhat older than her unfortunate husband but, mercifully, had some knowledge of English. She had neat, brown hair, tinged with grey, and bright, sparkling eyes, alert with intelligence and good humour. You could see that she had been a good-looking woman in her day and, though now exhibiting some of the stoutness of middle age, she was spruce and elegant and wore her clothes well.
She had a lovely, kind smile and used it often. There was something youthful about her. Quite apart from the unconventionality of her domestic arrangements, she displayed an effervescence that was contagious. She was no aging matron striving to recapture her youth but, rather, a gracefully matured lady who had never lost it. I took to her immensely.
One summer I invited Conrad and Felicitas to spend a few weeks with me in the islands. On their arrival, Conrad seemed bewildered by his new tropical surroundings and as we drove up from the airport, he gazed in awe at everything around him. The wooden chattel houses, the lush banana plantations, the throngs of noisy West Indians chattering animatedly in their pidgin dialect were all a new experience for him, a far cry from the clinical symmetry of his own life.
Felicitas, on the other hand, though equally unfamiliar with such sights, smiled delightedly at everything she saw, asking innumerable questions and greeting every local fellow she came across. She seemed to be quite in her element.
When we arrived at my house, I settled them into their room, a simply furnished suite with a large bed, a fan, a mosquito net and an adjoining bathroom. Felicitas wandered out onto the patio, savouring the cooling sea breeze and entranced by the night chorus of whistling frogs and crickets.
Conrad remained indoors and, noticing that he was eying his bed with some alarm, I brushed away a small gecko that was lounging comfortably on a pillow. Conrad gave a pained smile and unconvincingly tried to appear as if the discovery of a reptile on his bed was an everyday occurrence.
I wished them good night, and then it occurred to me that perhaps the intimacy of the sleeping arrangements, to which he was unaccustomed, had accounted for the look of alarm that I had attributed to the presence of the lizard. I dismissed the idea. They were husband and wife and as far as I was concerned, they could share the same bed whilst in my house.
For the first few days of their visit, I did my best to show them as much of the island as my time allowed. After a week, even Conrad seemed more relaxed and allowed himself the occasional tight-lipped smile.
One weekend, I took them sailing on my yacht. Conrad, in restrained tones, said that he had somewhat enjoyed the trip. But Felicitas was ecstatic. This had been her first experience of an ocean-going yacht and now that she had had her first taste of life afloat, she wanted to learn how to sail herself.
This, I told her, would be no problem, for my company ran a small sailing school and we had in our employ an English sailing instructor who currently had no engagements. I promised her that I would arrange for her to start sailing lessons and, assuming that Conrad would want to accompany his wife, I set off to inform the instructor that he could expect two new clients the following morning.
The instructor’s name was Frank Bailey. He was in the fifties, a short, stocky fellow with an enormous belly that fell in elephantine folds over the waist of his shorts. He was a first-rate instructor, having spent many years in the British Army’s marine section, teaching young recruits how to sail. He was a man of no affectations. But physically he was somewhat unsettling.
His face was broad and fleshy, slightly freckled and with a red glow about the cheeks that betrayed an excess of sunshine and rum. He had small, mean eyes and rather large ears and a wide mouth with a drooping jaw that gave the impression that he was slow-witted which, from a professional standpoint, was certainly not the case. He had no chin and I have to confess that whenever I think of him, the face of a toad springs to mind.
Frank walked with a lumbering gait, his squat arms bent at the elbows, akin to an intimidating wrestler entering the ring. He was a modest man with few pretensions and, after a hard day’s work there was nothing he liked better than to sit down with a pint of beer and a plate of meat.
He was not an educated man, but typified the sound, dependable Corporal who had done his best without ever excelling and who, after more than 25 years in Her Majesty’s service had earned himself a respectable rank and a tidy pension. I imagined his reports would have described him as “steady”, “eager to please”, and “a good fellow” but I doubted you would have come across any superlative tribute.
He was divorced from his wife but often liked to show me a wrinkled photograph of a person he referred to as “my woman back home” and he spoke of her with genuine passion. She was plump and plain and no longer young.
Stuffing the photograph back into a grimy wallet, he would then tell me, with evident delight and in sordid detail the particulars of the numerous liaisons he claimed to have enjoyed with several other large ladies. Frank liked his women – and the more mature and less attractive they were, the better.
“The ugly ones,” he proclaimed, “are the best! They’re easier to pick up – and they’re grateful!” Glancing at his own unattractive figure, I suspected that he knew what he was talking about.
From time to time, I would come across Frank in some fancy restaurant entertaining one of these matronly ladies. He was an impeccable gentleman. What he may have lacked in good looks, he amply made up for with his polished manners, courtesy and charm. In their company, he was no longer the coarse, vulgar Army Corporal suggested by his appearance; he was transformed into a lively conversationalist – fluent, engaging, well-read and sympathetic.
He could converse with ease on such topics as literature, haute couture and Oriental cuisine. He was an attentive audience, compassionate when they recounted their woes, ready to offer sound advice when they sought it.
And, as if this was not all sufficient, he could also dance.
It was a touching sight to see this short, pot-bellied character, plucked straight from the pages of A.A. Milne, gracefully waltzing with some heavy-limbed dowager after an intimate soiree in some cosy dining establishment. The ladies, naturally, adored him for, in this day and age, it was unusual indeed to come across a fellow who was not only an unqualified gentleman – but also an excellent dancer.
Inevitably, he had his way with all of them and I could not help but admire the skilful manner in which he employed the restraint and wisdom of maturity to achieve his purposes. Younger, better-looking men, looked on in awe, unable to comprehend how it was that this squat, smelly fellow was invariably in the company of some woman (after all, a plain woman is better than no woman) whilst they spent long, fruitless hours loitering in the shadowy corners of bars
I told Conrad and Felicitas that I had arranged for them to take sailing lessons with our instructor. Conrad looked mortified and, with some difficulty, made it known that he had no desire to learn how to sail. Felicitas would go on her own and he would amuse himself with a book and, perhaps, a glass of wine.
I drove them to the dock where Felicitas was introduced to her instructor. With a gleam in his eye, Frank offered her a formal bow and took her hand, guiding her down to the waiting yacht whilst Conrad stood perplexedly at my side.
Felicitas and Frank returned from her first sailing lesson later that afternoon. Felicitas was intoxicated with the experience. The yacht, she said, was magnificent – sleek, fast and comfortable. And Frank, she added, was a wonderful teacher – patient, coherent and possessed of a natural teaching ability. She announced that she had already made arrangements to go sailing the following day.
After about a week, Felicitas came to me and said she wanted to have a quiet word. I listened. She had a problem, she said, with Conrad. What, I asked, was the problem?
“Well,” she replied, “When I touches him … you know … ‘down there’ … well, he is very funny about it and gets angry with me. I mean, I am his wife – but he don’t likes it”.
I was somewhat at a loss for words, being unaccustomed to middle-aged German ladies (or, for that matter, those of other nationalities) relating their sexual difficulties to me. But I sympathised with her and tactfully suggested that perhaps she should talk to her husband about it, rather than to me.
As if this vague and unsatisfactory response had some suddenly resolved her dilemma, she flung her arms about my neck, told me that she loved me and gave me a kiss, and I could not help but feel that her embrace was something other than maternal.
Nonetheless, she never again referred to her husband’s nocturnal reserve, though I did notice that the usually sober Conrad now appeared more solemn than ever. I thought that he was a very sexless man, and I was not completely surprised that he was apparently offended at the notion of sexual contact with his wife. He was a man who would have regarded the sexual act with distaste and the very idea of Conrad engaging in intercourse with a woman seemed both preposterous and improbable.
One day, Felicitas announced with great excitement that as it was a full moon, Frank had invited her to go on her first night sail. The idea of cruising the gentle waters of the Caribbean under a moonlit sky was too enchanting to resist. Conrad stammered his approval and, shortly before sunset, the yacht slipped noiselessly out of the lagoon and headed for the open sea.
We expected them to return around 10.00 p.m. and so I whisked the good Doctor off to a decent restaurant for a meal and a bottle of wine. Conrad seemed agitated and, well before the appointed hour, he was anxious to be at the dockside to receive the returning sailors. We waited. And waited. By midnight there was still no sign of the yacht.
I was unconcerned for I knew Frank to be an extremely competent sailor. And it was a lovely evening and there was a gentle breeze so I supposed that Felicitas was having such an exhilarating time on this, her first sail by moonlight, that the passage of time had escaped her. I persuaded Conrad to come home and pointed out that when they returned, Frank would doubtless drive his wife up to my house. In fact he did so. Shortly before dawn.
Felicitas and Conrad’s holiday passed quickly. I spent some time out of the island before their departure and when I returned, they had already gone home to Germany. I heard from others that Felicitas had spent the greater part of her time sailing with her gentlemanly instructor whilst Conrad remained up at the house, reading, drinking the occasional glass of wine and, possibly, pondering the absurdities of life.
I was quite surprised when, two months later, Felicitas re-appeared on her own. She had not warned me of her arrival and had rented a small apartment. When I met her, she informed me simply that Conrad was busy but that she had had such a wonderful experience on her prior visit that she had now taken an extended leave of absence and returned for another visit – of indefinite length. It did not take me very long to discover that this elegant lady had fallen for her sailing instructor.
I saw very little of Felicitas during this visit of hers but when I did encounter her, she was invariably in Frank’s company and she seemed happy enough. But there was something in her manner which suggested that she was uncomfortable with her contentment; as if she was, on the one hand, guilty at abandoning her husband and work, and at absconding to the Caribbean to indulge her infatuation for the squat yacht master – yet, at the same time, unable to conceal the pleasure that she derived from his company.
It was as if she felt she was making a fool of herself but was both unwilling and unable to alter the fact. I saw her as a lonely menopausal woman, bound to an insipid husband whose work and sense of respectability were more important than his wife. In the Caribbean, she had now discovered a more tangible bond, with a man who not only aroused her – but who also wanted to dance with her.
I thought her courageous to have followed her heart and discarded the humdrum orthodoxy of her role as the doctor’s wife in a small, spotless village near Essen. I could well imagine the grave Conrad matter-of-factly informing his patients that his wife had run off to the Caribbean (a hot, dirty place where bananas grow and men walk in bare feet) and eloped with a short, fat sailor. But I somehow felt that Conrad’s distress would be more at the foolishness of his wife’s conduct than at his own, personal loss.
I tried hard to elicit some information from Frank but, with an almost anachronistic gallantry, he divulged nothing more than that Felicitas was taking a holiday and was entitled to do as she pleased. I could not agree with him more.
Felicitas remained for six weeks and then, one day, she left as suddenly as she had arrived. I never saw her again.
Frank, meanwhile, moved out of his shabby apartment and, together with a stout, mature Australian woman, made his home on board a 38-foot sailing vessel which he began to refer to as “my new yacht”. I was surprised and asked him how he had been able to acquire the vessel, but he simply smiled and said that he had been “fortunate to benefit from an arrangement”. No matter how much I pressed him, he steadfastly refused to name Felicitas as his benefactress.
But I could not help noticing that, whenever I passed him thereafter, he gave me that same enigmatic smile as he sauntered by, arm in arm with some large companion.