A winding path, smooth and well trod at first, led down the hill from the Torquatii villa to a sheltered cove that sang to the voice of the sea. The way down passed through some refined groves of august olive trees that lined the upper terraces, and then descended steeply through a notch in the hillside, changing in character to a track that was narrow and overgrown, where the light airs of the crest were blocked out, and seemed to trap the heat in like a bright, airless net.
With sure footed steps, Valeria made her way down the path, the sunlight mottling her skin and her surroundings, clutching a flask of diluted wine and a small bag of honeyed figs, which dangled from her hand as she swung it this way and that to avoid rocks and snagging branches. From an elevation halfway down, Valeria could see a section of sea through a V in the rocks and the tangle of macchia, Dorus’ boat was in full view, heading for the cove, and it brought a smile to her face to see him working the oars.
Passing through two rocks of grand and weighty proportions, which almost formed an arch over the path, she emerged directly onto a white sandy cove, tucked into the projecting arms of the cliffs. As a girl she had come down here often to explore the caves and crevices, and to play in the shallows.
Memories of those days drifted before her mind’s eye, and the ghosts of who Valeria had once been ran and frolicked before her, trapped and unreachable in a place just between sight and thought. When the phantoms faded, she chose a nook in the rocks, where the wide head of a juniper offered some shade, and settled down to watch her husband come in.
Dorus saw her waiting and doubled his pace. As soon as his keel touched the sand, he shipped oars and jumped over the side. Splashing up, laughing, as the water darkened the skirt of her dress, Valeria was soon up to her knees in the water, grinning as she helped Dorus drag the boat onto the beach.
Delighted at her exuberance he called out; ‘I hoped you’d be here!’
‘You left so mysteriously,’ she shouted back, because everybody shouts when they are in the sea.
‘You’re in particularly good spirits today, my love,’ he observed a little evasively, hauling on the the bow rope. Her hands closed over the fibrous strand beside his, ‘am I?’ She asked, ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
‘Oh, I see, you are not down here to see me, but to escape, Horatia’s nagging?’
Valeria let go of the rope and enfolded Dorus in a welcoming embrace until a robust wave staggered them, ‘Does that answer your question?’ She asked half chuckling and wiping spray from her brow.
He grinned down at her, ‘Horatia must be in rare form today!’
Horatia was Valeria’s matronly but widowed sister, who had all but made Valeria their Lupercalian mother, but was a never ceasing reminder of her own shortcomings and misfortunes. A scowl creased her face at the mention of Horatia’s name and she pushed him away with a cry of exasperation.
Dorus lost his balance and crashed backwards into the shallow water, his arms spinning like wheels as he fell. Briefly submerging, he gasped as his head broke the surface a moment later, only to be struck, open mouthed, by an incoming wave. He spluttered and sat there bobbing in the swell for a moment, then suddenly leapt to his feet and lunged forwards, sending sprays of water cascading in shimmering showers through the air.
Valeria cried out as he grabbed for her but nimbly evaded his grasp, causing him to fall again, and she ran up to the tideline laughing. Dorus arose once more, dripping like a waterfall, and pursued his wife onto the warm sand; closing on her with a handful of long strides, dragging her down by the waist and tumbling them both to the ground in a grainy explosion which coated their wet skin.
Dorus subjected her to a few playful digs where he knew she was ticklish, making her squeal and double up, then as she tumbled into a fit of laughter he rocked back on his heels, grinning. Valeria lolled on her back, an unkept mess of stray hair, sand and sodden garments, laughing freely and loudly; she was beautiful, thought, Dorus and he loved to hear her laugh.
Taking his hand and rising up into a sitting position she cupped his grit speckled face and gave him an affectionate peck on the lips. Her eyes shone with mirth.
‘Go get the boat in and come over to the rocks.’ She took a short breath and palmed his chest a few times, her breath coming short and a little sticky, laughter infusing a sing-song lilt to her voice, ‘I brought you something to drink.’