‘Where are we?’ I ask, searching around for any sign of something appealing. There is nothing, only derelict land, this hideous, dusty, shambles of a road and a few houses. No, not houses, shacks would be more apt. There can’t be any people living in them.
‘This is paradise, baby.’ Jesse says, deadly serious. I almost laugh, but worry is preventing it. I’ve seen paradise, in pictures mainly, and this couldn’t be any further removed. I’m about to demand that he turn around, but then a colossal set of wooden, planked gates come into view and my attention is captured by the high, whitewashed wall stemming from each side and stretching out into the distance. And then I see it.
There is a sign on the wall next to the gate and it says Paradise. He cannot be serious. Paradise? Not only is it not paradise, but could he have picked a cheesier name for a place to stay? Paradise? Those walls don’t look like they’ve been touched by any white-wash paint in two decades, and I’m starting to feel nauseous from being tossed around in this lovely car. He’s brought me to this dump? He has me to himself for three days and he’s brought me here? I would rather sleep in the car. My tranquil mind isn’t feeling so tranquil, not now that I’m surrounded by this most un-tranquil vista. Yes, it’s quiet, but the whole deadness of our surroundings is just making it feel eerie, rather than peaceful.
‘Jesse…’ I’m not sure what to say. He doesn’t seem in the least bit perturbed by all of this, which leaves me thinking that he’s been here before. If he has, then why would he return? I’m not given any explanation, he just flips a switch and smiles fondly as the wooden gates start to creak open. He has been here before. I choose to keep my mouth shut, despite my better judgment. I’m not staying here. No way.
I’m having a good mental sulk in my seat when we breach the gates and we’re immediately closed in by darkness, a canopy of the greenest green I’ve ever seen, draping over us and the driveway ahead. Clusters of white flowers are spotted here and there among the foliage and the most potent fragrance is seeping into the car, even with all of the windows closed.
‘That smell.’ I sniff deeply and exhale on a sigh.
‘This is nothing. At nightfall it’s pungent.’ Jesse breathes in deeply himself, humming in pleasure as he exhales. I’m totally intrigued. He’s mentally reminiscing.
Whilst the smell is heavenly, I’m still concerned by our location, but then the sunlight flickers towards the end of the concealed driveway and the shards of flashing lights stabbing at us through the windscreen makes me squint, even through my shades. It’s like a light has been abruptly switched on and all of a sudden, I’ve been transported to…
My breath catches in my throat, and I unclip my belt to sit forward, blinking to ensure that I’m not imagining this. The grimy, concrete and wasteland jungle is no more, and in its place is an idyllic haven, bursting with greenery, neatly trimmed lawns and pergolas dripping in pompoms of red flowers. We’re suddenly not moving anymore, and I waste no time ejecting myself from the car, shutting the door and absorbing my new, improved surroundings. I start walking across the rumbled, cobbled driveway towards the terracotta villa up ahead, not bothering to wait for Jesse, or even to check that he’s following. I take the steps up to the veranda that circles the entire property and turn to get the full view of the grounds.
When I think that I’ve taken it all in, I turn my attention back to Jesse, finding him sitting on the bonnet of the DBS, legs stretch and crossed at the ankles. His arms are folded over his chest, too. And he’s smiling. ‘What’s my beautiful girl thinking?’ he shouts over to me.
My hand reaches out and pulls a stray leaf from the shrubbery hanging from some trellis on the veranda. I smell it and sigh. ‘I’m thinking that I’ve just officially arrived on Central Jesse Cloud Nine.’
‘Where?’ The confusion and amusement in his tone is clear.
I grin, drop the leaf, and start running towards him, only vaguely registering his increased amusement as he stands and readies himself for my attack. I launch myself at him, my body taking up the usual baby monkey style hold, and I tackle his mouth, full of enthusiasm. He doesn’t stop me. He holds me under my bum and smiles around my brute force.
‘It’s my most favourite place in the world.’ I say, easing up on his lips and looking down at him, noticing immediately that his wayfarers are still fixed to his face. I pull them off so I can see all of him.
‘Are you happy?’ he asks, despite it being transparently obvious that I’m delirious with delight.
‘Delirious.’ I thread my fingers through his hair and give it my usual little tug.
‘Then my work here is done.’ His mouth goes to my neck and bites lightly before he disconnects me from his body. ‘Let me get the cases.’
‘I’ll help.’ I say automatically, following him to the rear of the car. I‘m soon halted when he turns and flashes me a cautionary look. ‘Okay, I won’t help.’ I hold my hands up and fetch my bag from the car instead, then follow Jesse back towards the single storey villa.
He drops the cases briefly while he tries at least three different keys in the lock before finally arriving at the correct one. The door opens, and I’m ushered in to complete darkness, with only slices on light penetrating the gaps between the closed shutters. I can’t see much, but I can smell, and that perfume is rife inside, too, the potency incredible and lingering everywhere.
‘Wait here.’ Jesse instructs, dumping the cases by the door and disappearing outside again. I stand, gazing around the walls for a light switch, but I can’t see a thing, even with the faint light pouring in from the doorway. And then it’s like a spotlight has hit a blackened stage when a sudden gush of sunlight shoots across the room and collides with the wall opposite. Then there’s another, this one coming from another window, the arrow of light sailing through the first beam, creating a bright cross of light in the dimness of the room. And another, then another. I watch as the space transforms into a busy crossroads of light lines until there is no more darkness, just sunlight streaming in from every window and door. My sensitive eyes want to close, but it’s impossible when there is so much to focus on. The walls are smooth and white, the floor is laid in giant honey coloured flagstones, with cream rugs scattered randomly and a giant U shaped couch facing the doors that lead to a pool surrounded by bright green grass. And beyond that, a beach.
‘Oh wow,’ I breathe, walking tentatively forward, my excitement building the closer I get and with the more that comes into view. Before I know it, I’ve crossed the terrace, padded my way over the lawn, and I’m standing, fiddling with a cast iron gate that’s getting between me and the beach.
‘Here,’ Jesse’s hand is suddenly on mine, and a key is inserted into the lock, opening the gate and allowing me to pass through.
Ten wooden sleepers formed as steps and covered in sand and grass take me down to the beach. It’s deserted, and as I look each way for any sign of life, I realise we’re in a bay. There are no other properties in sight - no beach bars, no hotels, not anything. It really is just us, this beautiful villa, and the midnight blue warmth of the Mediterranean.
‘Still on Central Jesse Cloud Nine?’ he whispers in my ear, slipping his forearm around the tops of my shoulders and pulling me back to rest against his chest.
‘I am. Where are you?’
‘Me?’ he asks, kissing my cheek softly and sliding his palm onto my tummy. ‘Baby, I’m in paradise.’
I close my eyes on a contented smile and sink into his body, my hand finding his on my stomach, our fingers intertwining and feeling each other. Central Jesse Cloud Nine really is Paradise.
* * *
We spend the rest of the afternoon unpacking, taking delivery of groceries and Jesse gives me a guided tour, showing me the six en-suite bedrooms, all with doors leading to a different part of the veranda. The kitchen, which is white and modern, has wooden stained worktops and little touches like the suspended wooden grid with cast iron pans hanging over the cooking area to maintain the rustic feel of the villa. As an interior designer, I’m in awe. I couldn’t have done a better job myself. The bedrooms are all plain walled, but with sumptuous fabrics dressing the beds and billowing voile hanging at the windows. Sporadically placed canvases take the edge off the sparseness of the plain walls and all of the randomly placed rugs break up the vastness of the flagstone flooring that runs through the entire villa. This place features in Jesse’s history, I’m sure, but I don’t press it. He told me only that the renovations have been underway on and off for many years, so I gather he owns this place. But I didn’t have it confirmed.
Now we’re sat at the gigantic wooden table between the kitchen and the lounge space with a jug of ice water, and the questions are not prepared to stay in my brain for much longer. This place holds significance somewhere in Jesse’s life and my curious mind is struggling to hold back.
He watches me with a small smile as I lift my glass to my lips before he proceeds to quench his own thirst, still keeping his eyes on mine. I’m desperate to ask, and he knows it, but he’s making me suffer. Instead of volunteering the information that he knows I’m craving, he’s going to make me ask, and I promised myself that I would never push him for information on his history again. It doesn’t matter to me anymore, but its lack of importance clearly fails to prevent the inquisitiveness in me. I can’t help it.
I’m thankful when he speaks before me, preventing me from firing off a round of questions. ‘Would you like something to eat?’
I can’t prevent the surprised look from jumping onto my face. ‘Are you going to cook for me?’ There’s no Cathy here, and he knows I hate cooking.
‘I could’ve had staff, but I wanted you to myself.’ He grins that roguish grin. ‘I think you should look after your husband and fulfil your obligation as my wife.’
I cough a little at his arrogance. My obligation? ‘When you married me, you knew I hated cooking.’
‘And when you married me, you knew I couldn’t cook.’ he counters cockily.
‘But you have Cathy.’
‘In England I have Cathy to feed me, which is a good job as my wife doesn’t.’ He’s serious now. ‘In Spain I have my wife. And she’s going to make me something to eat. You did a good job with the chicken.’
He’s right, I did, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, although I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy watching him eat it. I was looking after him for a change, and with that thought I’m oddly keen to prepare a meal for him. ‘Okay,’ I stand up. ‘I’ll fulfil my obligation.’
‘Oh good. It’s about time you did what you’re told.’ he says candidly, no smile, no humour. ‘Get to it, then.’
‘Don’t push it, Ward.’ I warn, leaving him at the table and making my way to the fridge. It doesn’t take me long to decide what to cook. I grab some peppers, chorizo sausage, rice and mushrooms, along with some lamb cutlets, and transport them to the worktop before locating a chopping board and a knife.
I set to work, halving the peppers and deseeding them, and then chopping the mushrooms and sausage finely and frying it all off. I boil the rice, chop some fresh bread and pan fry the lamb. And the whole time he sits and watches me busy myself, with no offer of help and no attempt to make conversation. He just quietly observes me fulfilling my obligation to feed him.
I’m halfway through stuffing the peppers, when he appears in front of me, leaning across the counter from the other side. ‘You’re doing a great job, lady.’
I pick my knife up and wield it at him. ‘Don’t patronise me.’ I’m shocked when his relaxed face flashes black and the knife is snatched from my hand.