The House by the Sea
Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.
He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.
Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.
And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).
When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.
The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.
All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.
All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.
I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.
It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.
I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.
I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.
I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.
It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.
Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.
Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.
One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.
I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.
I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.
I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.
When we arrived, the city, or what was left of it, was deserted. Though many buildings lay in ruins, some remained standing. Since all the original inhabitants had been killed or run away, finding shelter was not difficult. The streets were strewn with rubble. All the windows were broken. The water mains were smashed. Water, though is resourceful: freed from pipes, it takes the line of least resistance. If it needs to, it stands and waits. It wasted no time turning the gutters into rivers. Here and there it formed patient pools. Water needed to be fetched and boiled so, for the likes of Luka, Marie or myself to survive, you needed watertight containers and the means to start fires. Back then, if you had a tin can or a magnifying lens you guarded them assiduously.
We followed the guitar. We could hear someone somewhere playing a classical piece, one of those that seems to run on and on in a steady trickle of notes. It led us into a low, single-storey building: perhaps it had been a health centre. There were desks, steel trolleys, drawers full of files written in a foreign language. If nothing else, these could provide us with the fuel we needed to boil water and keep warm for a few days. But most of all there was the sound of guitar. It was getting louder, closer. seemed to be coming from a further room.
Why did we follow it? Instinct, I suppose. It sounded beautiful. There were very few beautiful things around in those days so, of course, we found ourselves drawn to it. And then there was the fact that when we found the guitar we would find the guitarist. They might be one of us, in which case they might join us. They might not be: in which case we would have ourselves a hostage.
As we walked through the open doorway the sound of the guitar suddenly got louder still. I went in first so I saw the guitar player before the others did. Behind me, Luka pulled out his knife. I shook my head and gestured to him to put it away. The guitarist was a young man in his twenties, about the same age as us. He looked at me and smiled. He kept on playing. We just stood there and listened. He kept on playing right to the end of the piece.
He told us his name was Martin. He spoke our language in an accent I’d never heard before. He said of course we did not need his permission to stay but that he would be glad of the company. So we stayed.
“What were you playing?” asked Luka.
“Bach,” said Martin. “Prelude in D Minor.”
Luka raised his eyebrows and nodded, as if to say he had made a discovery.
The four of us lived in the building for a few days – perhaps a week. We worked together foraging for food, water and fuel. Things were not so bad. We found a flat in a block nearby where the owner, we decided, had hoarded food and cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer. Of the owner there was no sign. He must have fled without his hoard, or else he was dead. In the evening we sat around the fire drinking, while Martin played the guitar. For a few hours at a time we almost forgot the terrible situation we were in and the terrible things that were going on around us.
In those days nothing stayed the same for long. First, the shelling started. We all sat together under the only desk we had not burned and listened to the shells whistling overhead. One fell close. The sound was deafening, the building shook and a blast of dust and small debris blew in through the windows. Then the tanks came. I first heard the drone of their engines when I was out fetching water. I hid in a nearby building, under the stairs. There were soldiers, too. From where I was hiding I could hear them shouting.
It was a long time before everything went quiet again. I guessed that the soldiers and the tanks had moved on. There were no people left there to kill or rape, apart from ourselves (and, by then, we knew all the good hiding places). There was nothing left to steal. Most of the buildings had been destroyed. There was nothing left for them to do.
I waited until it was dark then I made my way back to the health centre. I could see very little but there seemed to be no-one there. I thought perhaps they were hiding, like me. I sat in the dark and waited until morning. Perhaps, somewhere close by, they were doing the same.
When the sun rose, I began to look around. My friends had disappeared. I did find Martin’s guitar though, smashed, as if someone had trodden on the sound-box. Perhaps the soldiers had found them. Perhaps, I hoped against all hope, my friends had broken the guitar themselves, stumbling over it in their hurry to escape. That night, as usual, it was very cold. I burnt what was left of the guitar on the fire to keep warm.
Something had woken him up. Terry wasn’t sure what it was. It might have been Eve turning over, pushing her knees into his side. They were lodged there now, warm and soft, but perhaps they’d been there for a while. It might have been a noise but if it was it had stopped by the time he was awake enough to hear anything. Perhaps it was Ben but that was unlikely. Whenever Ben made a noise it meant he’d woken up and if he’d woken up he’d be screaming. As it was, the house was silent except for Eve’s regular breathing and the cooing of a pigeon somewhere outside. It was no longer dark. Weak light, almost like daylight, was falling through the thin curtains.
Terry turned his head to look at the clock. It was 4.30am. His limbs felt heavy but his mind felt alert: too alert, as if he’d never go back to sleep. A moment ago he’d been dreaming he was driving a car. Someone had been giving him directions. Turn left, turn right, move into the middle lane, take the third exit. The person giving the directions talked like an increasingly hysterical sat nav and the directions were getting more and more complicated. Now, awake, he couldn’t remember where they’d been going. Perhaps he’d never known.
The alarm was set to go off at 8. Until recently, they’d usually been awake when it did, sat up in bed, bleary-eyed, feeding or changing Ben. Things had begun to settle down, though, and more often than not Ben slept through. Now, when the alarm went off, whoever woke first pounced on it to switch it off as quickly as possible so as to avoid disturbing him.
It occurred to Terry that since both Ben and Eve were asleep, he was alone and free to do what he liked. A sense of elation gradually filled his mind the way water sometimes slides across a beach, finding its own level, without ever rising into a wave as such. He had no idea exactly what he was going to do but he decided there and then to get up and do it.
He had to move slowly and carefully. The last thing he wanted to do was to disturb the others. He slid, quiet and naked, out from under the duvet. Fortunately, the light falling through the curtains was now bright enough for him to see what he was doing.
Hunting through drawers for clean clothes would be noisy. He dressed quickly in the clothes he’d worn the day before which he’d left crumpled on the floor next to the bed. He stole across the landing, hardly daring to breathe as he passed Ben’s room, and made his way downstairs.
By now, the sunlight was streaming in through the kitchen window. He filled the kettle and turned it on. As the kettle began to sing he worried that the sound might be loud enough to wake the others but no, not a sound came from upstairs.
He brewed himself a cup of tea and stood for a moment holding it, feeling its warmth, looking round and wondering what to do next. He could sit at the kitchen table. Or he could go through to the lounge and sit in an armchair. Outside he could still hear the pigeon cooing. Other birds were singing, too. It looked warm and bright out there. He opened the back door, turning the key as quietly as he could, and stepped out into the back garden.
It wasn’t much: between two wooden fences an oblong lawn stretched away from him. It was hardly big enough to kick a ball about on. To his left, under the wall of the house, stood a white plastic table and a couple of stacking garden chairs. Scattered around on the lawn were the colourful ephemera that went with small children: a baby-walker, a small plastic bucket and spade, a half-inflated paddling pool.
At the end of the garden a gate opened onto a path that ran along the back of the terrace. Beyond the path, and separated from it by a privet hedge, lay the park. There were trees in the park. Terry could see the light of the early-morning sun shining through and between them. He sipped his tea and then looked up at the sky, noticing -for what felt like the first time- how it just went on up and up and up. There were wisps of web-like cloud you could see through, very high. Over to his right, to his surprise, he realised he could still see the moon, a grey ghost. He put his mug down on the plastic table and made for the park.
Not far along the path there was a gap in the hedge. It wasn’t the official way in and out but you could see that many people used it by the fact that the grass had been worn away around it. Desire-lines branched out from it, fading as they penetrated the open space. The most well worn line, though, led to and spread out around a particular tree. It’s low, curiously-shaped branches made it ideal for climbing. That it had been climbed often could be seen from the patina on the bark. It was very tall and not only were the lower branches convenient to climb onto but also there were plenty of well-spaced branches making it easy to climb -if you dare- all the way to the top.
It was to this tree that Terry made his way. At the foot of it he stopped. He sought out the easiest approach to the lower branches, took hold, and pulled himself up. Above him, the higher branches faded into a mass of foliage. The higher and more inaccessible they looked, the more he longed to take hold of them. The highest appeared from below to belong to a different, better world.
He moved up quickly, his mind absorbed in the route he had to take and the moves he had to make. Towards the top the branches became thinner and he could feel the whole tree swaying slightly beneath him with his weight. All of a sudden, like that of a diver breaking the surface, his head broke through the canopy of leaves at the very top. All around him, in the immediate vicinity, the packed mass of leaves gave the illusion of a solid surface. Beyond this and below him he could see the roof of the terrace and, beyond that, the roofs of other terraces in the other streets that made up that small town. To his right there were hills. To the left there were more roofs, then fields and, further away and less distinct, more hills. Straight ahead, in the distance, he could see the sea.
It was a dream. I was walking along the beach, somewhere on the North East coast, I think, although there’s no specific reason for thinking that. I was walking towards a white tower. It was not unlike a lighthouse: it was circular and the smooth, stone sides tapered. Only, the lantern was missing. The tower was topped instead by a brown, low-pitched conical roof. Perhaps it had once been a lighthouse, I considered. Maybe it had been put to another use and, so, the lantern had been removed.
The closer I got, the more curious I became. I just had to know what was inside it. I made my way gingerly over the slippery seaweed that covered the rocks and the stone foundations around its base and knocked on the large, brown door. It was so substantial that my knock sounded like a mere tap, hardly audible above the breaking of the waves on the beach behind me. Needless to say, there was no response.
I turned the handle and pushed against the door. It was unlocked and fell back easily. I found myself in a low, circular chamber. Just enough light came through a small window for me to make it out. (I had noticed several such windows dotted about on the outside of the structure). The walls had once been whitewashed, but were now tinted green, covered as they were with an irregular film of algae.
I crossed the stone floor to the window. As I did so, I heard the door swing shut behind me. The window was, as I said, small -about a foot each way- and seemed to be made of “bottle glass”. Whatever it was, though it admitted light, it was impossible to see any clear image though it.
Not far from the window, to my left, was the foot of an enclosed spiral staircase, just as you might expect to find in such a tower. I made my way up it, every now and again passing one of the small bottle-glass windows. The staircase emerged in another room. This was very much like the first, though this room was provided with basic furniture. There was a chair, a table and a low divan. The upholstery smelt of mildew and they were all caked in a greasy dust. They had obviously not seen use for a very long time.
There was very little to do except walk around the room and look out of the window. Again, although it admitted light, I could see nothing clearly. There were blue swirls which could have been either the sea or the sky and flecks of yellow that I took to originate from the sand. My curiosity about the tower satisfied, I decided it was time to go.
I made my way back down the staircase to the lower floor. Only, when I emerged at the foot of the stairs I found I was not in fact in the downstairs room but in the room I had just left! I had a good look around me: it was, to all intents and purposes, the same room although now I could see, on the far side of the room, the head of the staircase I had descended only a few moments before. I felt disorientated, slightly nauseous. I decided I must have made some sort of foolish error, although I felt sure that since leaving the upstairs room I had always been walking down the stairs, not up. I could feel myself coming out in a cold sweat.
What was I to do? I had a pencil in my pocket. It occurred to me to leave it on the table and make my way downstairs for a second time. This I did and, when I emerged into the room again, there was my pencil, on the table, just as I had left it.
Sometimes -ever hopeful- I attempt to descend the staircase but the result is always the same. Apart these brief exertions I have been in this room ever since. I sleep, fitfully, on the divan and when I do I dream: I dream I am living my former life. My sister and I sit before the fire, talking animatedly as we often did. Sometimes we sit down to a meal (oddly, all that I need seems to be provided for me in my dreams). Sometimes I improvise on my guitar. I read, I write. I attend to the garden… And then I wake up – to the cold, to the dim light of the tower and to the sweet, mildew smell of the old divan.
(c) Sackerson 2019
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