We would all like to go back and change the errors of the past but the prospect of actually doing so only occurred to me when I reached the cave and gazed once more into its murky depths. I hadn't been conscious that each step had been taking me towards the headland although, subliminally perhaps, that's what we spend our entire lives doing, searching for a way back.
The mouth of the cave was overhung with coarse grass and shrouded in shadow, something momentarily glimpsed like love, or good fortune. I went down on my knees and, once my eyes adjusted to the gloom, what I could see was a crypt of rough stones meshed in dead things and dust, a barrow of clues and antecedents.
The sharp edges of flint cut my hands as I moved them through the opening and began depositing them in a pile outside. I should have gone and found suitable tools but once you start a job of this sort it's hard to stop. Time takes on a different dimension, becomes more precious, not in the sense that time is money, but time is running out.
The dust rising into the air had the bitter tang of the past, but the steady rhythm of the work gave me the feeling that I was achieving something, if only the self worth that comes from physical exertion. I had no sense of fatigue and worked as children play without concern for anything but the moment; such, at least, is the common misconception. We delude ourselves that childhood is a synonym for innocence, providing a sort of hardtack for the long, melancholy journey into old age and death, a magnificent lie churchmen and astrologers undoubtedly appreciate.
Childhood for me was defined by one specific incident that, like a faulty gene passed down the generations, has returned like an unrelieved itch to vex me ever since. Who can forget the public outcry? The tabloid hysteria? Even my brother's name was a headline: Tommy Tree, an alliteration that conjures up soft toys and children's television.
The events of that day pass often through my mind and I am always left with a mild sense of regret. It's not so much what I did, but what I should have done that rankles. It happened thirty years ago but the memory remains more potent than the meaningless rituals of what I was doing yesterday; a lifetime of yesterdays.
We walked along the bridle path above the sea, where we'd been told not to go. Tommy held my hand and Tania was in front of us, the red lights pulsing in the heels of her new sandals. I clenched in my pocket the Â£1 coin I'd pinched from the cancer box in the boarding house. It was enough for three ice creams. The kiosk was painted in blue and white stripes and the man inside looked like a giant Punch as he peered down at us from the high counter.
Tommy was shaping his ice cream into a swirling point as we made our way down the iron steps to the beach. The sand had tight, hard ridges, as if the last waves had petrified as they turned to the horizon. The cave was carved into the chalk cliffs at the headland.
I was only seven but of one thing I am certain: at seven we do know what we are doing. If you're playing outside and fall over, you glance around to see if anyone's watching. If no one is, why cry? Children are actors, mother our favourite audience. We start to manipulate her at three. At seven she's not even a worthy target.
My sister was eight, so close in age to myself we were tuned to our own telepathy; we were inseparable, playing as often with my cars and trucks as we did with Tania's dolls, putting on and taking off their clothing in games of mummies and daddies sadly never played on the adult stage.
It was after Tommy was born that dad left for Canada and mum started living with a shoe salesman named Colin Fish. She told us to call him "daddy" although, by unspoken consent, Tania and I never did. Tommy was too young to know better. He adored this new daddy. They even looked alike, like fish, in fact, with pale blue eyes and fair hair, Fish's arranged like nearly-transparent scales across his glossy scalp, restrained by a spray that hung about the bathroom in much the same way as the dust hovers in the cave.
Tania and I are dark like our mother who, in that quiet English way, was really rather pretty. I have a photograph of her with buttercups in her hair and an eager-to-please look about her upturned lips. The smile is unaffected, as real as the wilting sprinkle of yellow blooms, yet I detect in her eyes a certain pessimism as if, even then, when the snap was taken, she knew that the bold promises of the sixties were not to be. Not for her.
I like to believe my life had been normal until the time of the new arrivals, Fish with his fine hair and Tommy with lungs capable of blowing ships on reefs. My small indulgences, such as they are, can be traced back to those three years when I never got a full night's sleep or a still moment alone with my mother. Tommy started screaming the day he arrived home from hospital and only stopped when he had a passing inclination to do so. He was born a shade of pink that turned crimson when he bawled, those ichthyic eyes popping, his undulating fingers like sea anemones that gathered in rattles, mum's breasts, my cars, Fish's shoe salesman arms as they met in mutual embrace.
One day, Fish brought home a metal chair which he assembled while Tommy amused him by rolling from his back to his front unaided. The chair was a soaring piece of post-modern sculpture, an Eiffel Tower I regarded with the bleak curiosity a condemned man might show the noose, a symbiosis of fear and inevitability. Fish received a well-aimed boot across the windpipe as he lifted Tommy into the seat and my little brother proceeded to occupy this elevated position in the way a dictator I imagine directs affairs at the dawn of crisis.
Tommy so treasured his high chair it retarded his walking and not until the age of two did he take his first mutant steps, this miracle celebrated at one of those restaurants that supplies coloured pencils and place mats with country scenes from countries that no longer exist. Tommy's tongue flapped like the sole of an old shoe as he sat there shrieking, his busy fingers collecting the rural panoramas which he polluted with large black crosses before ripping them to shreds. In those black crosses there was a sign but I was too young to see it.
Little Tommy was getting bigger, but all attempts to coax him from the high chair met with fierce resistance. Mum and Mr Fish read books on how to bring up babies and one of the things they had learned was that toddlers should be allowed to choose the food they want and feed themselves. This required Tommy's tray with its fringe of red clowns and blue policemen to be arranged in a buffet of yoghurt, cookies, pasta and pudding, which he would stir into a sticky stroganoff before spreading the mixture about the chair, mum, Fish and himself. Whole villages of hungry Africans could have flourished on the food our mother scraped from the dining room floor.
The delay in Tommy's development worried mum and Fish and, what with his reluctance to expand his vocabulary beyond such words as give, me, want and now, they felt obliged to spend long days visiting child psychologists while Tania and I were left with Mrs Catchpole, a widowed neighbour with a whiskered chin and a weak heart that failed one afternoon while she was gazing from her bedroom at Tania skipping in the garden outside. I remember the smell of stale talcum powder and dead flowers, the sound of Tania repeating her seven times table and Mrs Catchpole spread like a starfish on the path below me. I watched from the window, my sister's plump legs springing up and down and wondered if she were ever going to stop. She did so when she'd reached seven times twelve and started obliviously with once eight is eight.
The funeral took place a week later when Tommy showed us how grown up he was by walking stiffly through the cemetery. He paused from time to time, as if to study the dates on the gravestones, proceeding to the next with a reflective, faintly amused expression. During the service, Tommy's eyes flicked between me and the freshly-dug hole, and he maintained a respectful silence until the priest said the last amen.
Fish found this encouraging and, applying the techniques learned from the child psychologist, he set about Tommy's education with renewed vigour. He would change out of his shoe salesman suit as soon as he came home from work and dress in tee-shirts and shorts of a size and style that tempt the very men who shouldn't wear them. These were his play clothes. You have to get down to a child's level (the floor), become a child, urge other children to take an active role. That meant my sister and me.
"Give Tania the yellow brick and give Paul the green one."
Tommy's simian fingers would curl about the coloured cubes. He would set his ovoid body in motion, wobbling like jelly as he crossed the room to give Tania the green brick and me the yellow one.
"Well done, Tommy."
I hear that voice whispering in the cave. I don't know how long I'd been working but I'd cleared the pile of flint and raised a stone prayer to the future. The damp sand had been easy to shift and the hole I'd dug was already big enough.
Tommy had been introduced to the game on the beach earlier in the day and took as his natural right a supine position in the hole. We heaped sand on top of him and stamped it down. More. More. Tommy had huge tonsils that clanged in his throat and in the quiet moments between each cry I could hear the sound of the sea slipping into the bay.
Tania ducked out of the cave, the lights from her sandals putting a red glow on the chalk walls. I stopped working and joined her. The coloured ribbons along the horizon had turned from orange to mauve. The sea, silvery-tipped and impatient, was charging over the hard sand like razors. I returned to the cave. Tommy's eyes were very bright in the darkness.
"Take me out now, Paul."
I was shocked and looked over my shoulder. I was afraid someone else was there, someone was watching, reading my thoughts.
"Paul, I can't get out."
I stared down at Tommy. Then behind me again. My brother had the voice of Colin Fish.
"Now, Paul. Now. Take me out of the hole."
A finger of sea uncurled itself into the cave. Tania followed, as if carried on the tide.
"It's coming in fast," she said.
We went back to the beach.
"We're going to drown if we're not careful," I told her.
Then I heard Tommy. "I'll help you, Paul. I'll help you," he cried.
The sea was washing over our feet. The iron steps were at the rim of the bay, merging with the twilight.
"He's talking," said Tania.
I grabbed her hand. "Come on," I said.
I heard the voice once more. I'll help you, Paul. Then it was gone, submerged in the tide. I started running, each step growing more difficult as the undertow sucked at my legs. It was like trying to draw away from an electronic force, the pull holding you back. I was swept off my feet and only by swimming across the current was I able to reach the steps. Gulls were swooping down from the cliffs and aquaplaning over the sea. Tania had vanished. I shouted her name but all that came back was the screeching of the birds and the waves slapping the metal as they climbed the steps.
I stood on tiptoes gazing across the bay. On the opposite headland, across from the cave, what looked like a buoy was rising on the swell before being dragged out by the undertow, these two forces locked in much the same battle going on inside me. I had a feeling that I needed my sister, that I would always need someone, and plunged back into the waves without considering the significance of what I was doing.
When I reached her she clung on to me and started crying. I shook her hard. I got behind her, sort of pushed her along, and it occurred to me on the long journey back that it would have been a lot easier saving Tommy.
Mum and Fish found us sitting at the top of the iron steps shivering. Fish stripped off to his underpants and swam out to the headland. He was gone a long time and the look in his eyes when he returned was the same look that had come to Tommy when he knew we were going to leave him. I like to think that it was more than mere coincidence that I would see that same look one last time in the midst of a churning grey sea. But that was much later.
The police came next day. The fact that my brother had been found buried up to his neck was something we had neglected to include in our retelling of the tale. The detective had thin lips like scissor blades and an eye that twitched. He asked lots of questions. I just cried all the time and didn't tell him anything.
Tania had been taken to a different room and what she told her detective must have sealed our fate. Within a month, she left to join dad in Canada and only when she returned thirty years later did I see her again.
She was staying at a budget hotel in Earls Court with her husband, a man with a horseshoe of silver hair and a lumberjack shirt he wore with a plaid tie. He was old enough to be Tania's father and had, I would learn, just retired from a career in canning fish.
My sister appeared in a pale pink dress of the type small girls wear to birthday parties, a frilly confection that could have accommodated a pack of Cub Scouts at summer camp. Tania had turned to fat. Layers of the stuff were heaped one on top of the next, a graduated pyramid culminating in the globular capstone: her head, its ornament of blonde curls replacing the dark hair she had inherited from our mother. I pictured her as a guest on a daytime talk show and everything that had always been unclear was instantly lucid.
We'd arranged to meet at the hotel bar and studied each other over a pot of Darjeeling tea and a plate of scones Tania consumed in the whimsical way of people who bite their nails. Well, fancy us all sitting here. London's so cute. The taxi drivers are such gents! We talked briefly about dad but she had nothing to say and what she said seemed all the more insignificant with her American accent.
Without ever knowing my father, I had always missed him and admired his exploits, albeit passed on second-hand to me. He had tried many things in the new world but the new world was a bland world loathe to indulge original thinkers, of which father was unquestionably one. He had been the first man to set out by camel from the west coast to the east, but the sponsor pulled out of the project just as it had begun and dad was obliged to give up after being arrested by a traffic cop on the outskirts of Vancouver, an incident that must have left its scars. His attempt to start a model agency with twin dwarfs and an Indian he'd met at an AA meeting was scorned by the press, and after his musical based on the Wako Massacre was rejected by Broadway, he fell into a terrible decline from which he never recovered.
During the worst moments of depression he acquired a high-velocity rifle from a mail order supplier in Oklahoma and picked off a party of twelve schoolboys as they came down the ski slopes at Banff. A task force of two hundred scarlet jacketed officers tracked him across ninety miles of wilderness to a log cabin hidden in the mountains and, in the eight hour battle that ensued, he wounded seven before, inevitably, the Mounties got their man.
Dad had been buried in an unmarked grave. I had no keepsake or photograph, and the only reminder that he had ever existed at all was my sister sitting in the dull light filtering through the ill-fitting windows at her budget hotel. The scones had disappeared and Tania was fastidiously picking at the crumbs. We never mentioned Tommy, or mum, or Colin Fish, and parted with the promise that she would visit me the following Sunday while Mr Tanner, the retired canner, played golf with a cousin in Milton Keynes.
It had been my mixed fortune at the age of seven to be left behind. Mr Fish had stopped wearing his play clothes after work and would sit silently each night reading shoe magazines and pulling at his moustache, a surrogate for his absconding hair. Mum had got into the habit of taking pills of every colour and size and was rushed periodically to hospital to have her stomach pumped.
This went on until I was twelve. I always visited her with Mr Fish but one day I skipped school and went on my own. Mum's looks had gone, drifted away as if to insinuate that all is temporary, all is passing. Her skin was grey, her arm bruised like a plum where it was connected to a drip suspended above our heads. She took my hand, something she never did, and her eyes came suddenly to life.
"You know something, I've never liked you, Paul. Not even when you were a baby."
"It was me who buried Tommy," I replied.
"Does Fish know?" I asked and she just smiled.
She let go of my hand to reach under the pillow. She produced six amber capsules wrapped in a twist of clingfilm, then glanced up at the drip.
"Unscrew the bottle, Paul, and put these in," she said.
She died that night. There had been something I had wanted to ask mother: I wanted to know if Tommy was Fish's son, not dad's. But I had been so anxious to do the right thing it went clean out of my mind.
The two of us attended the funeral, Fish and I. We stood side by side in the same cemetery where Tommy had read the dates on the gravestones when we buried Mrs Catchpole. The sky was the same pale blue as Fish's eyes. The priest left us and we stood there listening to the wind gnawing at the silence. I was trying to think about my mother, the way you do, but Tommy was clearer in my mind. It was as if mother had died the day she'd brought Tommy home from the hospital and the woman we kept rushing off to the stomach pump had been an impostor. Fish put his hand on my shoulder and quickly removed it again. I turned and we walked back to the waiting car.
Fish all these years had been dedicating himself to the shoe trade and had been made the regional manager. I was sent to boarding school and we only saw each other during the holidays. He had bought a twenty-foot ketch he harboured at Ramsgate and we spent summers sailing to Poole, the Isle of Sheppey and, on days when the forecasts were favourable, we'd steer a course for the Normandy coast where, over steaming plates of bouillabaisse, I'd dazzle Fish with my restaurant French.
It was on one such day that had started clear and turned stormy that we found ourselves in the middle of the Channel in a Force 8. The chomping waves and heavy sky met at the horizon in a murky shade of grey. As the wind hit the sails it made the sound of a cracking whip. The sea rose over the prow, the cold salt water slapping my cheeks. The moment was perfect.
There were two life-jackets in the cabin. I put on one and brought the other up for Fish. He was clinging on to the wheel and, as he reached for the jacket, fingers of wind seized it from him and tossed it into the sea. A death mask gripped his features and I was only sorry not to have more time to study that look, to know the face of mortality. There was a flash of lightning that wrenched the waves apart. The sky turned white and, as we climbed the swell, the ketch listed to one side and span over.
The storm started to abate almost immediately and I was picked up by an RAF helicopter an hour later. Fish was never found and it was a coffin weighted with sand we laid to rest in the cemetery.
I had been digging my way backwards through time. I ducked out of the cave's low entrance and stretched my shoulders. The tower of flints was as tall as me. The tide was a long way out, buckling the horizon. I tramped back across the beach and climbed the iron steps. It was only a short distance along the bridle path to the house I'd bought on the cliff tops. Colin Fish had been an astute investor. I washed my cut hands with surgical spirit and took a shower.
I arrived early at the station and allowed the sun to fool me into leaving my jacket in the car. The platform was like a funnel that gathered the wind in a cold embrace. What I needed was a holiday. I thought I might rent a house in Provence, brush up on my French.
Half-forgotten verbs were forming in my mind when Tania stepped from the train in a blue and white summer frock. My sister must have been used to getting herself into tight spaces - they'd flown economy to London - and coped with my car's passenger seat with stately savoir-faire. At home, I made a pot of tea. The view from the living room was cute, she said, and I will probably think of that word every time I stand at the window gazing out at the gulls.
There was no cake in the house and Tania only brightened up when I suggested a stroll along the cliff to buy ice cream. The kiosk was painted in blue and white, like her dress, and the man serving us had white hair that hung like cobwebs about his shoulders. We made our way down the iron steps and crossed the bay to the headland.
I was worried for a moment that the entrance to the cave was too narrow but Tania burrowed her way in without prompting and the hole received her bulk as if it had been made for her. She looked child-like in the red light glowing on the chalk walls and smiled as I heaped wet sand on top of her.
The wind was coming off the sea and filling the cave with whispers. I'll help you, Paul. I'll help you. The flints opened the cuts on my hands as I dismantled the tower and transferred the stones back inside. The dead things and dust that belonged in the crypt had dispersed. Time will put them back again.
Â© 2007 Clifford Thurlow