Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?
Prufrock looked suspiciously at the overly ripe orb in the basket on the kitchen cabinet in his apartment in East London. He had removed the starched collar, which all day had mounted firmly to his chin, and likewise his ascot, the one asserted by a small stainless stud. Peach juice could no longer ruin his collar or tie. However, his abdominal rumblings had disturbed him each afternoon so badly that he was having trouble sleeping soundly during his nap. He had taken to eating only boiled fruit with the peels and rinds removed. What he needed, he decided, was a serving of stewed prunes.
Sitting at a small table in the afternoon light that shone through a window above the sink, he read once again the letter that had arrived in the morning post.
“Dear Alfie,” the letter began. (He hated for anyone to call him that.)
Prufrock sighed deeply and let the letter fall from his hand. He had to get away for a few days and think things through. In a few minutes he had packed a bag, locked up his flat, and turned his motorcar southeast toward Dover.
Having secured a familiar cottage near the beach for the weekend, he dressed in white flannel trousers and stood looking at himself in a full-length mirror. He tried rolling the legs of the trousers, as he had seen the young bucks do, but his shanks stuck down from them into his sandals like toothpicks. He unbuttoned his cotton shirt rakishly and admired the gray hairs curling off his chest. After trying unsuccessfully to cover his bald crown with the long hairs that grew from each side of his scalp, he turned around and viewed the back of his head using a hand mirror. Carefully he parted the short hair behind, again as he had seen the young men down from Oxford do. Then he stood and looked sadly at the finished product and said, “Sometimes almost ridiculous, sometimes almost the fool.”
Strolling along the beach, he enjoyed the breeze from France, imagining the scents of vineyards and fresh cheese. Perhaps he should visit Paris, even find his lost youth there. “Maybe next year,” he muttered. “There will be time.”
Then he spotted the mermaids. There were four of them, in a white sailboat, all wearing wet bathing suits, their hair streaming out behind them in the sunlight and the sea breeze. Together with their boat and the blue sky and the white, billowing clouds, they made the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen. They were singing a song that he could barely hear over the wash of the waves. He jumped up and down and waved his arms wildly above his head. Seeing him, the girls returned his wave. He could see the white of their teeth as they smiled while they kept singing.
Prufrock trotted along the beach with the wind, trying to keep up with their craft, grasping for coherent words from their song. He distinctly heard the words “magic” and “wonders” and “beautiful man.” “Beautiful man!” Could they have meant those words for him? His heart thumped hard in his chest and a cramp gnawed his side, but he kept running, his head thrown back and his mouth stretched in a broad grin.
“Wait!” he cried. “Come back!”
The girls kept waving at him and sometimes pointed emphatically down the shore into the direction in which he was running. Did they intend for him to meet them at a dock or in a harbor down the beach? Fantasies began to swim across his brain. All four girls at once, on a white sailboat under a blue sky. All of them singing to him: “Oh, you beautiful man!”
He did not know how far he had run. He was vaguely aware of a tall cliff looming behind him and of pebbles bruising his feet, of dead tangles of seaweed that clutched at his ankles. But on he ran, the vision of the sailboat and the four girls dragging him forward.
At last he could run no further. He collapsed amid a pile of barnacle-covered boulders and watched hopelessly as the boat tacked into the wind and began to pull away. The girls were all standing now, looking at him and waving and raising their voices. If he could only once clearly hear what they were saying!
Then he spied the broken shell at his feet, a cream-colored horn resting atop a mat of sea grass. He snatched up the shell and raised it like an ear trumpet, its broad end pointed seaward.
Then he did hear what the girls were shouting, their all-too-human voices clearly flowing in on the wind from the sea.
“The tide is coming in!” they called. “You’ve trapped yourself against that bluff. Get away from there, you damned old fool, or you’re going to drown.”
Prufrock turned and looked at the sheer wall of chalk behind him. Then he looked back up the beach in the direction from which he had run. His footprints had already washed away in the rising surf.
(photo by Ashley Harris)