Today is Thursday. I know it is, because two days have passed. It’s been a lifetime. Beginnings and endings. Chapters contained within a novel. I’ve read chapters that can stand alone; I’d like to think I had written some too. Two days. Maybe it would be better to call it a short story.
Brief, poignant, but as weighty and memorable as a novel. The manuscripts in boxes in my study are a comfort. They are my friends. Compartmentalised, secret friends that other friends have never met. That’s a source of sadness, but I’m used to it. I had an excuse after all. I had Henry. But it won’t be long now till I am remembered. Till the reviewer’s words, ‘We will hear more of Susan Hanshaw, of this I have no doubt’, become prophetic. Till I stumble into the hall of fame, if but in a small, local way.
A short story, where only the essential is of import, nothing else. The lens is focused here and then there with care invisible to the reader, if successful. I haven’t been into the summerhouse since Tuesday. This has been my freedom. A hollow thing really, a pyrrhic victory. It’s not the way it should have been. It should have been something to share with John. Now I am walking along the beach. I intend to lunch in my favourite restaurant. To order sea bass. The opposite of freedom is restriction. Freedom has no container. Restriction is as mean as freedom is generous. As small as freedom is large. A fish tank to the ocean. I’m sure too much freedom could become a restriction. Words do that; things do that, interestingly. Take love and hate, for example. But that is not my concern today. My freedom is to be short and bitter-sweet. I wish it to confound the boundaries of space and time like a stand-alone chapter, or a short story.
I think these thoughts while I walk. I have done this all my life. Thoughts rise, scatter, skim, tumble and settle again like the birds. Yesterday’s calm white pan of milk has boiled over; today white froth spews over the beach. A lone crow, black and tattered, scans the horizon like a widowed fishwife. Stone turners rise and scatter, trilling in alarm and skimming over the laid-bare sand, flashes of their patterned backs too quick to correlate. Herring gulls, blackbacks and shingle-feathered juveniles circle and call, dipping between waves, rollercoastering sky-fish, as if the sky could be sea and the sea could be sky. Is that all right? Or is there a better way? I know there is. There always is. The infinite possibility. The inevitable falling short. It hardly matters, but still I struggle to find the words, the right words, not just any word. But then that can be an excuse too. An excuse for inaction; for making complex a simple truth. An obfuscation; yet more displacement activity; a way out. A paragraph of justification, where a simple five-word sentence would have done the trick. ‘I do not love you.’
I like the British climate. As predictable as it is unpredictable. Four seasons in a day. Makes apology for the fickleness of its folk. I have enjoyed living by the sea for similar reasons. The littoral truth. My little joke. The random nature of its revelations, here a flip-flop, there a full carton of milk as bloated as a drowned kitten. To the right a dead dogfish, its feline markings belying its name. A velvet hair tie, sodden. I like to imagine how these things came to be here; not the fish, I’m not interested in suffering today, nor the quotidian tide of rubbish, coughed up by the sea, like phlegm from a dirty lung. But the flip-flop? From France perhaps.
It is a large flip-flop for a man’s right foot; thin at the heel, well worn. A favourite, perhaps. I never liked them. Could never quite get used to the thing between my toes, chafing my surprised skin till the weight of my bearing became excruciating. But the man in France, perhaps, liked his. Or maybe he had no choice, the cheapest footwear, better than nothing after all. Maybe this flip-flop floated away from the foot of a refugee, an asylum seeker who made to swim the channel, thoughts of toe-nibbling sea monsters and shoeless shame forcing his toes to grip his plastic shoes until cramp set in and one was lost. Or him, the bald pancake seller on a hot summer beach who ran after a thief who snatched his money-box while he was taking a break, asking the pretty German girl if she would like to meet later when she pointed and cried out, ‘Look!’ His flip-flops were a hindrance, they flapped against his heels like flippers, he kicked them off and accelerated on the burning sand but the boy was gone, and the mangy dog who thought it was a game took a flip-flop as the man retraced his steps to collect them and wouldn’t drop it, ran into the sea and soon lost interest. The German girl and the bald, red-faced, good-natured pancake seller jumped up and down and called to the dog to fetch, but it was no good. And there’s only so much time that you can spend on a thing of such little consequence as a flip-flop for goodness’ sake, especially when your money is gone. He shrugs, the German girl is still laughing at the dog, he slings his arm casually about her for this incident is now a bond, a link, the stepping stone he needed to get to the German girl. And there is only so much time you can spend thinking about lost money, and anyway it hadn’t been a very good afternoon because it was just too hot to eat pancakes, so he will close for the day, and he flings the other flip-flop into the sea to show the German girl just how little he cares about any of it now. And the bald, good-natured, barefooted and -she’s just realised, fit, lean, tanned and perfect pancake seller and the German girl with her legs sprinkled with brown-sugar sand walk on without thinking for a second that, six months later an English lady on a winter’s day would stumble upon the right flip-flop, her husband lying two-days dead in a summerhouse a stone’s throw away. The infinite possibility. The terror of the blank page. It’s not that there is nothing to say, but that there is far too much.
Henry was a Yorkshire man, and I was a Yorkshire lass. Or at least that is what we were, beneath the metropolitan veneer. This wasn’t a conscious thing, for me at least. And it was the same for everyone, one way or another. Just a happy memory of hill, dale and my father rising above me like a tree trunk. But when I mentioned to him this fact of my birth and upbringing, it was at the tennis club party – I was there against my better judgement, not my kind of thing at all – when he changed voices and spoke to me in that voice, he put it on, you understand, to amuse me, but when he spoke to me in that voice to amuse me something inside me chimed.
‘He reminded you of things you can’t really remember. It’s very potent,’ said a friend one day I can’t recall quite when. But it was what the French, I believe, call an ‘éclair’, but not at all as comforting as our British version.
Henry pursued me doggedly after our introduction at the tennis club party, and I admit I was flattered. One is, naturally. That someone is interested. That someone has read one’s work, without prompting. I was lonely. I had just finished a long and protracted novel; it was a failure, I knew this to be the case, and was awaiting confirmation of this fact by my publisher. Of course, there are to be failures. Whether the soup tastes bad, or the attempt to dye a favourite blouse results in something hideous. These things happen all the time, but when it is a work that has taken years, it is rather more difficult to regroup, to soldier on. It is egotism that fears failure, vanity to think oneself too great; to give such regard to one’s own disappointment that one is rendered useless. But like a parent whose child grew into a good-for-nothing, I felt resentful. I allowed myself to be bundled off to the tennis club ‘for fun’.
How can you escape someone who saved your life? Whose life you saved? Soon after our meeting we were swimming together, here, on this beach. I was a strong swimmer then. Fearless. But Henry was in trouble. He panicked, frightened by the tug of an undertow. He began to thrash about and call to me, then complained of pains in his chest shouting that he couldn’t breathe. He was far too young for a heart attack, but I understood. He was justifying his reaction of which he was ashamed, and ashamed of me witnessing. He was now full of fear; I saw it in his eye and I felt stabbed by disappointment. Moments of extremis are tests of character. It’s the fashion nowadays to simulate difficulty of one sort or another and make television programmes about the resulting display of inadequacy. At that moment, Henry failed in my eye. I confess that it disgusted me, the flapping, splashing, panic. The loss of control. But that aside, the human being within five or six strong strokes of me was in genuine need, so I helped. I often wonder how different my life would have been had I let him drown. For he would have if I had just turned away. He was tiring; the undertow was onto him, he had swallowed water already. I swam to him and he grabbed at me, pulling me under until I arranged him on his back – I had to be brutal – his head on my breast, my legs kicking against the tide. I was frightened then. I was angry with him and I knew too well the truth in the advice to exercise caution when helping the drowning man.
I can’t even begin to explain why I married him. I don’t even know if I could. Of course I was fond of him. And yes, this incident was all but forgotten. It isn’t until later that I understood its significance. The Chinese say that if you save a man’s life you are responsible for him for evermore and all I can say is that that seemed to be the case. I was under a spell. Chained to Henry by some occult force. I knew it, and he knew it too.
Henry would cry when I tried to walk away. He would plead, then he would rage, then in his contrition, he would beg forgiveness I would weaken. I began to believe that he was right. That I was ‘difficult’, that I would be alone forever, that no one would love me as much as he did. And we would talk, negotiate over food and wine until our arguments blurred into one and the years passed. It became the norm. Friends seemed to be in similar situations. ‘That’s life’, they would say, ‘It’s all about compromise’, ‘He loves you’, ‘It is not easy’, ‘You will not find that sort of love again’, ‘He is a good man’. You will be alone, you will die alone, but if you accept these things you will be happy, and when the children come all will be well.
But the children did not come. Month after month we waited for the children to come. Naughty children, who refused to come when called. Lovemaking, (which it had never been for me) became a mechanical obscenity. Henry was a slight man; tall and thin, a rake of a man. I am sturdy and broad and dreamt of strong men around whom my arms would not stretch so easily. He felt this, and watched me accusingly, for years, as if awaiting a blow. Never happier than when I was ill and weak. I came to need him. ‘Henry?’ I’d call out, ‘Henry could you just…’ We both had power, and we both abused it. Two cowards. He afraid of life and I afraid of another failed novel.
The tide is going out. Rocks are emerging. I feel tired now. I make my way up the shingle and towards the restaurant where I am to eat. A notice on the door tells me that due to unforeseen circumstances it will be closed until further notice. I wonder about these unforeseen circumstances. My affair with John began in a bookshop. I was looking for a book for my niece, one I’d enjoyed at her age. I remember it was ‘Frost in May’ by Antonia White. I only have a vague memory of the book now, of the Thames rising to flood at Chelsea, of a woman’s young life. We saw each other and then again in the café next door. He offered me a seat at his table. Two days ago it ended. He had a stroke and was found the next day by his son. Luckily it was I who picked up the phone when he called. Silly really, after all these years to still be playing games. But John was, with me, complicit in the protection of Henry. If Henry dangled over an abyss and I held his hands to stop him from falling then John was holding onto me. No one held John. He should have let go and let Henry and I topple together. We three had become inextricably linked without one of the trinity knowing it. For Henry never knew, but maybe he did, maybe his knowledge or suspicion was his secret weapon, like a nuclear deterrent, our fake peace maintained by mutual fear of detonation. Of course I wanted to leave. But I couldn’t. Henry made it perfectly clear to me that I was and always would be his lynchpin. I had, after all these years, become as necessary as a vital organ. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. No one is indispensable. And John stopped waiting for the day. Stopped living for the life we would have together. We accepted Henry as our charge. He did us a favour in some way, perhaps, allowing us to remain in that seductive state of insatiate desire, unfinished discussions and all the things that make an affair.
Henry could not live without me. It became practical, above anything else. The unpleasant matter of looking after an elderly man. I have protected his dignity. One must; it’s a duty that I perform out of pity. There is no love in pity. He cannot live without me and I cannot live without John and John is dead. Henry liked to sit in the summer house if it was mild. To sit with a blanket over his knees and look out over the damp garden. He loved the garden. He was sleeping; I knew he would be. I felt very calm as I placed a cushion over his face and held it there, feeling him wake and struggle, calling to mind the flapping struggle in the sea all those years ago. I’m still strong – it didn’t take very long at all. I was surprised how easy it was. I know there is no point in running or hiding. Mr Grafton will have found him by now. He comes on a Thursday to tidy up things, you know. With a house like ours there are always jobs to be done.
I am disappointed not to have had the sea bass in the restaurant. I wanted to spend money recklessly, without having to think of tomorrow. The wine in the King’s Head was not good, but it washed down the tablets. It’s getting dark now and it is time to go. I am tiring. I stumble past the flip-flop with its worn thin heel and wonder where the sea will take me and about the pancake man and the girl and hope, as the cold water rises over my waist that they lived happily ever after.
Photo: Jacob Culp