There Was The House and There Was The Sea (2)
The same old dreams, but it was the tractor that woke him, its ridged tracks eating into the shale to force a crabbing boat from the water. 46 Mins since he closed his eyes. The rain had eased and the sun was trying to find an opening. He remembered Pat then – 13 messages since Thetford, he quickly texted back, A storm, no reception sorry – here now looks fine, I’ll phone later, don’t worry. Xx
His legs had gone to sleep and he helped them out of the car, waited for the blood to circulate and then got his coat and bags and hobbled up to the front door.
“Hello? HELLO?” He listened to the silence, his legs stronger now but jittery as he examined the damage to the outer door with his foot. It didn’t seem all that bad, and would not take much fixing. The stained glass window was smashed. “Why for Christ’s sake? Bastards!" He could see the shards scattered on the welcome mat and they were large enough – it might be fine, he could try anyway.
Steven had spotted the pane at the car boot and called him over - they’d haggled the price a little, which was already reasonable, just the right size as well and the picture showing a windmill on the crest of a hill with the rising or setting sun behind. It was the summer before he’d left for college – they worked quietly together, taking tea breaks and not rushing the job and then had stood back in hushed reverence at the flooded light that rode in waves through the once gloomy hallway. They had done this. He was surprised by Steven’s skill, his ease with the chisel and by his own deference to his son’s ideas of what best to do. A sudden panic had come over him then, a need to not lose the moment, to sear it into the mind and keep it - let the other memories fall away, keep this one. If he said something now, if he could find the right thing to say. He hugged his son who was a man - tried to hide his tears - then the girls came back with fish and chips: they loved the window, but wished the light wasn’t green and orange. They’d eaten out on the patio, he and Pat smiling at each other for no reason in particular, their children bickering over who had the better teeth.
There wasn’t much else damaged and as far as he could see, nothing was gone – but Pat would know better. One of the beds had been slept in, there was some mess in the kitchen, ashtrays were full, someone had tried to light the fire but failed. A few of the photos had been moved. Ashley’s first postcard from Australia showing Koalas and the Opera House had been read and left on a sideboard, he put it back with the others. The wind was rising, out of the bay window beyond the disintegrating garden he watched the waves hammering down hard on the sand and the gulls fighting the air – the old sashes rattling with each new smash of water. The last of the boats was being pulled away to safety, the tractors lights visible now – a lone fisherman conducting his catch on to shore. There were more lights further out, a few turbines visible against the storm coming at their back.
He lit the fire and waited for the back boiler to come to life before making a start on the door, routing out a place for a new hinge and hanging it. The lock aperture was reinforced and repaired, he cut some hardwood to size and then slipped in the replacement lock and adjusted the height so that it slipped into place. Over the open pane he tacked some ply he’d cut to size. It was a decent enough job and it was secure now. He phoned Pat when the mobile buzzed up another message, they talked briefly, the line was poor and he kept apologising, she’d spoken to Ashley earlier and she sent her love, a shame the kids were at basketball practice – Bryan had got a new job and they might have to move closer to Perth. The Amazon package had come. She’d paid the window cleaner. Jackie had phoned her once they’d got to Ambleside – Derek was worried, said he should have stayed and come with you. Derek’s an old woman he’d said and they both laughed. He listened on and said the right things at the right times – put the kettle on the stove and opened a Pot Noodle, collected the broken glass from the hall and carefully placed the pieces on a cushion table. The phone died then and he wasn’t sure if she caught his warning or his goodbye, but it didn’t matter.
He moved the stained glass around, turned over the pieces, the picture clear in his mind, but he couldn’t make it work. The wind would whistle and cause the fire to flare and light his fractured outline in the scattered shards. Twice he thought he heard the sound of movement above, a shutter come loose maybe or a jackdaw trapped again. He’d wait and listen, and then with the silence that followed, try again to make the pieces fit, but it was no good, better to start again in the morning with a clear head.
A banging started then he couldn’t ignore. He put the broken glass to one side and called a “Hello” and then without waiting climbed, giving each step its due and glancing over the familiar photos that followed the rise. Ashley backpacking in Africa. Ashley at Ayre’s Rock. Ashley with her husband. Ashley with one child, then two. His daughter only this memory now, the grandchildren an awkward phone call at birthdays and Christmas. He liked Bryan, Bryan was a good man. They shook hands at the wedding and he looked Jim straight in the eye. He liked that, he looked after Ashley now, not that she needed it, but it was his responsibility to be there, to keep them all safe. They were so far away, it was easier with the distance, he thought if anything happened he could bear it, because of the distance, because they were strangers now, sometimes he couldn’t remember his daughter’s face or her laugh, her beautiful laugh. He stopped climbing, he wanted to speak to her – it would be the wrong time, too early, too late but he didn’t care – Pat always knew when was right, then he remembered the lifeless phone, and the charger out in the car, the car in the storm.
He climbed the final flight of stairs, ignored the last of the photos he knew by heart. The rattling continued in bursts, and he moved across the landing following the sound, straightened a rug and moved a chair back into its place. There was no hurry. He needn’t go any further, he could turn now, go back down, get that charger and phone Pat, phone his wife, talk to Ashley. There might be something on the TV, what day was it? – Derek was probably asleep by now shaking the walls of the caravan with his snoring, disturbing the sheep, Jackie might be reading.
He put his ear to the door – just a shutter in the draught that’s all, they’d never replaced the windows, just touched up, repaired. It was no shrine, deliberately so, neither of them could have lived with that. It was just a room now, the bed moved, a desk and one picture in a frame, things put away, the curtains changed – Pat had seen to it – she was so strong. He didn’t believe in ghosts. He put his ear to the door again. He was sure it was just the storm outside. The latch felt cold on his fingers, he only had to lift it, just the slightest of pressure and the door would open.
In the background of the photo is St John’s, just out of shot The Cam, Stephen is sat astride an old sit up and beg he’d bought that first week. Nov 1988. He has a green backpack on and he’s smiling, thumbs up to the camera, the handlebars loose, twisted around. There’s the hint of a beard. Pat is to his left as he takes the picture. A couple are holding hands in the background and there are pigeons. It was warm for late November and they were going to use the house for the weekend, a few of his new pals, not a long drive from Cambridge. Pat was fine about it, teased him about girls, we were both fine, he was a man now, we both knew it - don’t break anything we'd shouted and laughed leaning out, as they train moved us away and he’d held up his right hand and promised.
The call came late and they drove into the night. He couldn’t remember any of it now, only the silent lights of the police cars and ambulance skimming over the fields as they pulled into the lane. No-one would look them in the eye, but people were crying, strangers on their sofa, bottles and cans scattered around – a police constable moved them through to the kitchen. As he talked they watched a girl sobbing and shaking in the back of an ambulance, animated and talking between gasps of oxygen they fed her, an orange sheet wrapped around her, flapping in the breeze. She’d been the last one searching, out in the water on her own, the others had had to drag her in, she was screaming his name over and over. She still wrote to them sometimes. Emma. She was a doctor and had a family now, children of her own. A girl called Emma had loved their son.
The policeman had stopped talking, he was sorry, they were doing what they could. They stumbled down to the beach, held each other upright. The sea was calm and nothing was certain. Boats were out there still moving around, their lamps trying to break the surface of the sea, covering the space, searching. No-one called out. They let the water find their feet, their ankles. Behind them the house stood tall lighting the sky, the cliff face a dark pedestal beneath it, every light blazing like a beacon, hiding the dawn.