There Was The House and There Was The Sea (1)
A phone ringing out into the darkness is death. It took him a time to dislodge the sound of his own heart from his head and then found he was not asleep. He lay still - a minute to wake, a minute to rise, the internet doctor had said so, but he couldn’t remember what it was supposed to prevent. Heart attack? Stroke? - something he was well overdue for. No good, he didn’t think he could outlast the echo of the phone’s digital wail from the bare hallway beyond the door, or bear the thought of it starting up again – his arm was numb and there were palpitations, his breathing felt forced, but he moved now. He could feel the first signs of her stirring next to him – felt for his watch, but in reaching lost his glasses and decided against the bedside lamp – it was 3 or 4. There was a rising dread in his bones and a memory was trying to form, to play out again. He rose then and lent on the wall to steady himself, then palm over palm, used it as a guide to the door. He waited for her breathing to deepen, and then slipped out and closed it softly.
“For Christ’s sake Derek it’s the middle of the night, what is it?”
The telephone cord was wrapped tightly around his wrist preventing blood flow. He unravelled it, felt his breathing ease, listened to Derek’s voice, but drifted, knowing what must have happened, what he would have to do. The air freshener was glowing in the darkness at the end of the hall, it was supposed to be lavender - Jackie was in the background chipping in when Derek missed out any details. Another break in at the house, kids they thought, fisherman spotted the door kicked in and lights on and called them. They haven’t phoned the police, should they phone the police?
“It’s fine Derek, I’ll come myself. I’m sorry you’ve been woken the both of you - no that’s fine you go, don’t worry about it, they’ll be long gone. Tell Jackie, Patty will phone her later, no it’s fine, don’t worry, I’ll be fine Jackie, yes I’ll take my time, just enjoy the Lakes…no, we’re fine.”
He could see nothing beyond the blackouts, whether dawn was coming yet or not. They were early risers on this cul-de-sac, Pat had encouraged him to have words with Number 6 who had started mowing the lawn at 7.30 since Mayday, but he hadn’t got around to it. Joggers hammering by and dog walkers smiling and picking up the morning crap - everyone so bloody chirpy. She’d given him a phone for his birthday and it had a light on it, but he never knew where it was or how the light worked. It made no difference, dressing in the dark was risk free, one of the benefits of owning clothes that were uniformly interchangeable. He noticed the silence then, the bed creaked and the covers moved, there was a snort and then she turned to his absence.
“Jim? What’s wrong, why are you awake? What time is it?” She turned on the lamp and he came around and sat by her, passed the glass of water into her hand and made sure her fingers had closed around it before letting go, waited for her eyes to adjust to the light and see him before telling her what had happened. It was the right time, she was groggy and it would take a while for her to start to worry. She sipped her water and listened, he finished buttoning up his shirt.
“I’ll make some breakfast. You’ll need some food, it’s not five minutes away is it Jim and they’ll be nothing there. Where’s your phone? You’ve probably let the battery run down, you’ll have to charge it in the car, it’s got the Satnav on it.”
“I know the way Pat.” He watched her get up, find her slippers, put on her dressing gown. Her breathing was heavy but she talked still even while the en-suite toilet flushed, he heard the drone of her toothbrush, her cough was still troubling her.
If he closed his eyes he could see a girl pulling the sheet from a bed and kissing him, covering herself and giggling and pushing him away, then pulling him closer and kissing him again - out into the icy corridor on cartoon tiptoes and back to her own room and the other girls, the group of them walking the Pennine Way and he and his pals on a boozy weekend – then before he knew it the breakfast bell was ringing out and he’d got through a half pack of cigarettes and all he could think about was marrying her.
“I’ve got some tongue from Morrison’s, I’ll put some mustard with it. Don’t just sit there Jim!”
He waited for the first light to come and then waited a little longer. He had his provisions and a flask of coffee on the seat next to him and the radio was company. The street was still empty, just a few lights starting up here and there. If Jackie opened the curtains now she’d wonder what was wrong, him just waiting in the car, he should probably get going.
She’d wanted to phone the police. He’d said no. She wanted to hear what Derek and Jackie had told him again and he’d told her. He wasn’t to go in unless he was sure there was no-one inside, she’d made him promise. He said he’d call out, he promised. Did he have his insulin shot? Yes he did. Had he taken his Xarelto? Yes he had. She wanted to phone the police, why wouldn’t he let her phone the police, but he told her everything would be fine and that he had to go and that she shouldn’t worry - but she did worry she said, she worried all the time. They should have sold the place, they should have got rid long ago. What was the use of it Jim, why keep it? He didn’t know, he couldn’t say why. Just a place to store memories, all those memories to bring back pain. He held her and kissed her, waited for her sobbing to ease, kissed her hand and held it a while. She had to let him go, he would be back soon enough. She nodded, looked away. Yes, she said.
Once into the Fenlands the traffic scattered and the sky opened out. He stopped at a garage for diesel he didn’t need and then drank some coffee and watched a couple bickering and slamming doors. The attendant Doug, could have been 14 or forty, it was so hard to age people now. He seemed animated by his Drone magazine, less so by human contact. The fuel tanker was coming – that was all he said. He sat in the forecourt some more, found a radio station that played music he knew, watched the people using up their time - Pat had already texted twice, but what was the hurry? His hands were trembling and he clenched them, finished his coffee and started up the engine - the attendant would not catch his eye - he beeped and waved, enjoying the look of confusion on Doug’s face.
When the children were young and they were getting closer, the game had been the first one to see the smoke of the steam train gets the biggest ice cream. They would become so excited it always lead to arguments and tears and then one or the other of them telling them off, but it was a tradition and it was always the start they made to the holidays. Sometimes it was first to see the church spire or the windmill or the sea. It was a longer journey then, driving from the Welsh border where they lived. The things they squeezed into the car, bikes and scooters and somehow the dog as well…
A 4X4 careered into his lane, missed his bumper by a couple of feet and he braked, stopped himself using the horn, the oncoming vehicles were flashing and throwing it the Vs. “Wanker. Total wanker.” He rubbed his chest and kept his hand there, a few pains, nothing more. “Wanker.” He remembered to move his legs about and wiggle his toes. The phone was buzzing again, he’d pushed it under the coolbag and it seemed a faraway sound - he turned the stereo up. Not far now, not far to go. Jackie and Derek would be driving the opposite way, caravan in tow, Jackie driving since Derek had had his fall. Derek loved the Lakes, his Dad had been stationed there during the war and there was a small house where he and his Mother and brothers could live. His first memory, he always said, was wandering in the garden and looking up, trying to find the sky among vast green hills. They went three times a year - It was their place, Derek and Jackie, it was where they liked to be.
Starlings rose from the field and arced westward as he passed the Slow You Down sign at the edge of the village. The church had a fate and a bingo night coming up, the dead not seeming to mind the sharing of their advertising space. Outside the pub a gang of walkers were readying cagoules and looking up at the sky. He turned on the windscreen wipers and climbed the hill, past the cemetery gates and the Windmill that never turned. He did not see the train, but heard its whistle at the station a mile away. A noise made him check the rear view mirror then, movement on the back seat, for a second…he looked back, saw the blanket, the new electric pump in its box, shifting as the car climbed. At the Beach sign he turned and followed the lane that led down to the house - the farmer had filled the holes with aggregate as he’d promised he would, the tan splotches looked alien in the sand, like liver spots running down an arm.
There was the house and there was the sea.
Out across the Wash a storm was building, the slate clouds banking so steeply it seemed they might topple. The first suffocated flashes were breaking out and the muffled rumble of their aftermath shook the air. He’d expected the gate to be open and nearly hit it as he turned into the drive. He got out -but did not look at the house yet, there was plenty of time for that. The gate felt heavier than he remembered, and he was glad now Pat had made him wear an extra jumper. The wind was rising. Once in the drive he had got back out to close the gate behind and then hurried back into the car for shelter. He could see the front door open, hanging obscenely by its top hinge, staggering to and fro like a drunk about to make an exit. The stained glass pane was broken.
He used the horn twice – long warning calls. The curtains had been pulled back, but there was no movement. He put two fingers to his neck and waited, counted. The rain was coming down heavy now – his coat was in the boot. He opened up the hamper and ate some crisps and then poured some coffee. There were plenty of sandwiches, but he ate the pasty he’d bought from Doug at the garage. He could see the darkness of the house against the darkness of the sky but not the sea anymore. He liked the noise of the rain beating down better than the radio. The coffee was making the windows steam and the heater was on. There was no-one in the house. He could easily sleep if he wanted to, he could feel a rising tiredness, the lack of sleep was catching him up and anyway, what was the hurry?
He just had to close his eyes.