By Mike Gould
By Mike Gould
I didn’t want to kill him, but in the end it had to be done. And, really, it was his fault. The largeness of him, the way he inhabited my life, filled it to its very edges.
Along the coast road from Cooden Beach to Norman’s Bay, there is a small half-tarmac parking area opposite some fishermen’s shacks and concrete huts. On one side the railway line to Eastbourne threads its way between the gentle golf course and the beach, the carriages slanting past, passengers not quite visible through the glass – momentary ghosts heading for the terminal.
It was where he’d park, dragging me out in all weathers, setting the mad dog loose on the shingle. Off he would go, striding along, me trailing behind, a wisp of a thing, he said, knocked sideways by the sea breeze. He’d never wait, but would bound off throwing the ball for the dog, splattering his trousers with the spittle of mud and sand.
Back home I’d find them tossed in the corner of the bedroom. He couldn’t even hit the laundry basket. Then I’d hear the door slam close and a shouted ‘goodbye, Jean!’ as he raced off on his latest bike, his tennis-whites a momentary streak against the gravel drive as he set off for a mixed doubles at the club. He’d wanted me to join initially, encouraged me to come along to club afternoons when we first moved down, but he soon saw my second serve wasn’t up to it: ‘Don’t just launch it into space, Jean. You need to hit it with a bit of bite!’
Mind you, he was quite happy for me to make the sandwiches for club matches. But even when he wasn’t in the house, when he was knocking two shades of you-know-what out of a fellow septuagenarian, he somehow lingered in the home. Like he’d left a second self behind, just to keep an eye on me. It took me a while to realise the new bungalow was as he wanted it. My books piled into a plastic storage box and shoved under the double-bed; his telescope, fishing-rod, latest high fidelity system or desktop computer – whatever was the obsession of the moment – seemingly placed in my path, at the edge of my vision wherever I moved or looked. I suppose it was good he had hobbies.
When the grandchildren came to stay they were swept up, overwhelmed even, by his energy, his need to do stuff. Me, I was the granny who made nice brownies and allowed them to have fizzy drinks. An attendant maid. A walk-on role in ‘Downton’ but with no depth, no character development. When we picked them up from the station, he’d always make the same joke:
‘Look, kids! This is my beach, my station. They named it after me, Norman!’
Red-faced, puffing a little, he’d gather them both up in his muscular arms, perch the younger one on his shoulders, stride off towards the car.
‘Really, granddad?’ they’d ask, the first few times, when they were too young to know better.
Well, there was a grain of truth in it, I suppose. We’d been living in London. It was a big house, Victorian with a large converted loft. I liked its large rooms and high ceilings, and he allowed me to fill a wall or two with my books in oak cases stretching from floor to picture rail. Our three children grew up there and then scattered to the corners of the globe, mostly. I often wondered if the ripples from Norman’s sheer force had sent them there: Simon to Philadelphia and a job with a bank; Lucy to Australia with her scuba-diving husband, and Jenny to Scotland with her partner Lauren. Not quite the other side of the world, but away from her father’s jokes, his inability to see her. When Jenny had two children by artificial insemination he started calling Lauren, ‘Laurence’, to me, or ‘the butch one.’ But to give him his due, he loved the grandchildren. Or more accurately, loved another audience, or perhaps a new one. Once, I’d laughed along, too, found the humour, the loudness, the immense life of the man endearing. But by god it was tiring.
When we moved he chose ‘Norman’s Bay’ because ‘it’s got my name on it.’ I heard that joke more than once as he explained to neighbours why we were giving up the ramshackle pile in the heart of things for a small bungalow in a quiet cul-de-sac near Pevensey. It seemed strange to me: for him of all people to give up something at the centre of people, of events, for such a limited arena. It didn’t seem to fit with him and his ways. It took me a while to figure it out. They say the wife is the last to know, not that there was another woman involved, at least not directly. In this case, the woman not quite involved was Debora (no ‘h’), a forty-ish single woman who had bought a smaller house at the end of our road in London. She’d been a BBC producer or something for the World Service in Paris but had been ‘moved on’ during a cost cutting exercise. When she arrived, she took me under her wing, and when she started a French book-club, I was the first ‘invitee.’ By then, the children had all left home, and I was beginning to spread my wings. I liked her. She was witty, bright – and best of all, a good listener. Norman didn’t take to her. She had his measure and when he tried out some of his more colourful jokes, she gave as good as she got. I’d never been the clubbable sort, but Debora brought out my best, shone light on the things I’d shelved, or which had been snuffed out by the embrace of family.
I think Norman felt he was losing me. I was a boat drifting inexorably away from the shore, beginning to rediscover old lands. So, we moved. I’d never been on the mortgage deeds so the house was his and being London he sold it within a week. I was only allowed to bring two boxes of books, though there was room for both his mountain and racing bikes. Why didn’t I protest more? I still ask myself that now, but the truth is certain patterns become so fixed, so ingrained it would have taken a stronger person than me to break them.
That was ten years ago. The bay really did become Norman’s. There was no French conversation class in our cul-de-sac, an irony not lost on me given we were so close to the site of invasion in 1066. It was a cul-de-sac in other ways too; I didn’t have Norman’s easy confidence in meeting people; no, it took me five months to ask next door if they wanted me to put their bin out while they were away on a cruise.
Now, once again, I step onto the shingle on the other side of the tarmac parking area.
Ahead of me, I can see Norman striding over the sand, leaving no trace in the glimmer of low tide. His dark jacketed figure is like a cut-out against the beige drear, until he turns and paces back towards me, his cheeks flushed with the effort, irritated by my slow progress. Finally, he slumps with his back to me and perches on the rusty stanchion of one of the groynes. The dog has disappeared. No one is about.
I approach from behind him, and he turns. I can see he can hardly catch his breath, and I remember how he never listened, never paid attention to my advice as he piled more and more onto his plate at the all-you-can-eat carvery. Now, he looks through me, as if speculating on a golf shot, or rehearsing a vicious sliced serve. Perhaps he is going to ask me what I have done with the bikes? His lips look cracked, as if they have been in the sun too long, and there are beads of sweat on his brow.
‘This can’t go on, Norman,’ I say, hesitating.
His eyes narrow and for once I have his full attention.
‘This was never my place, my beach. You said it – it’s got your name written all over it...’
He turns away again. For the first time, perhaps, completely silent. I think he knows what’s coming.
‘I have instructed an estate agent to sell the bungalow. I’m going up to Scotland, to move in with Jenny and Laurence (he’s even got me at it). They’ve got three bedrooms and the twins can share whenever they are back from university. I’m not one for beaches and sport, you know that, so it’ll be good for me in the middle of a big city. There’s a second-hand bookshop at the end of the road, remember? And I can enrol on a course at the university. I might finish my French degree....’
But he can’t hear me after all.
Slowly, he gets up and walks towards the water’s edge. I follow, at a distance.
‘Why don’t you listen to me, you old fool?’ I shout. ‘Listen, for once, to me!’
These are the words I should have said years back.
His back is implacable.
Now the tears are streaming down my face. My coat isn’t thick enough and I’m trembling with the cold, my trainers clogged with gloopy sand. I’m caught in the eddies of small streams tumbling off the beach as the tide retreats....
In the end it was the tennis that did for him.
He’d already played once that morning back in July, but they were a player short for the match in the afternoon, so he volunteered to step in. It was at least 30 degrees, but he wouldn’t be told. He said he was keen to try out a new backhand.
‘You can make some sandwiches and come along later!’ he called as he climbed onto his bike and headed off past the squat rows of bungalows for the club.
When I pulled up in the car an hour later, a woman came rushing across the car-park. I could hear a siren in the distance.
‘We’ve been trying to get you on your mobile!’ she cried, taking the foil tray from me and ushering me towards the courts. ‘It’s Norman. Something’s happened.’
‘We don’t get a signal,’ I said, weakly, wishing I still had the foil tray so that I would know what to do with my hands.
I pushed through the circle of players and knelt by him. His large frame lay across the service line, and he stared upwards, he eyes still open, his breath coming in short, sharp bursts. There was a graze on his knee, and one of his shoes had come off.
‘He should never have gone for that drop-shot,’ said his playing partner, Malcolm. ‘Mind you, he made it, the old so and so...’
Norman’s eyes focused on me for a moment.
‘Jean,’ he said, his hand suddenly clutching mine. ‘Make sure you take that telescope back to the shop – it’s still under guarantee....’
I felt myself shoved aside, not quite gently, as the doctor arrived on the scene. I stood up and backed away, unable to watch. I saw the tray of sandwiches was in the full sun, on the table by the clubhouse door, the edges of the ham between the triangular slices beginning to curl in the afternoon heat. I should have stuck to cheese and cucumber. It all seemed a bit of a waste.
Now, two months later on, Norman is almost out of view. His figure moves towards the waves. A black cormorant stands at the top of a tall pole in the water, staring out at the Sovereign Light, slowly flashing its warning on the horizon in the dusk. I remember a French film we watched at Debora’s once – ‘Le Rayon Vert.’ The title refers to the so-called green stripe that appears on certain occasions between the sea and the sky at twilight. The main character Delphine discovers that if you are with someone and see the green line your partner’s true thoughts are revealed, as if by magic. The film ends with her and a boy on a bench, staring out at the sea at St Jean de Luz.....
Well, wherever he is Norman knows the truth in this moment, in this twilight gleaming. He knows that I have killed him off. But it is a gentle killing, almost a mercy. I have left him in the bay, his bay, a phantom fading into the slanting pebbles. His silence says more than the thousands of words he smothered me with every day.
I have sold or given away all his stuff. He was wrong about the telescope as they only take things back if they’re faulty. The bungalow has been bought by a young couple with a baby: they’ll enjoy the proximity to the beach, if nothing else. Just as I leave it, the place is becoming trendy, what with all this home-working, and the need to escape the rat-race.
But it’s not for me. They can keep the bikes, if they want them, and there’s probably a charity shop somewhere that will take his tennis-whites. It sounds cruel, perhaps, but I don’t want to see....to hear him any longer.
What of me? If he was an oil painting, defined in thick, dark sweeps of paint, I was always a watercolour, hidden in the corner of a gallery. I take some of the blame for this, for not allowing the light to fall upon me, to allow my shades and subtleties to be observed. This act of killing is my own hesitant step into the sun. I shall text Debora tomorrow.
The beach is empty. The opal line between the scudding clouds and the smudgy stripe of the sea’s edge has faded: perhaps it was never there. Somewhere a dog yaps, and then is quiet.
Back at the station, I get on the train and in a few minutes I’m passing the spot where I walked. I try to conjure the ghosts of William’s troops landing in long boats at Pevensey and along the curved bay, but nothing appears. My phone rings and startles me and the other passengers. I have a signal for the first time ever, here, now.
‘I’m on my way,’ I tell Jenny.
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