I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
“We were stupid to ever think of coming here again. We’re old Lillian and this sad excuse for a seaside isn’t going to change that. Nothing is going to change that. Let’s just get back into the car and go home. No matter how we might like to try we can’t bring back the past.”
She didn’t turn to look at him. Sitting side by side, wrapped up against the chill wind that only an English seaside can bring, they looked like all of the other couples sitting looking out to sea.
When they were young she had often wondered why old people ever visited the seaside at all. They didn’t race joyfully into the sea as she did. In fact the most she had ever seen them do was to roll up their trouser legs or tuck their skirts into the top of their tights before hesitantly dipping a toe into the soapy swell, complaining all the time about how cold it was. Of course it was cold. That was the joy of it. The tangible shock that hits you the moment you first run into its outreached arms. For a brief moment it is as if you will never be able to breathe again, as if the cold water has stolen your very life force. But then, as you surrender to it, as you accompany its ebb and flow with blundering strokes, the flush of cold passes. You feel, at least for a short time, at one with the water as it envelops you in its icy hands.
Then, the chill numbness begins to stroke your arms, letting you know that it’s time to get out. Running back up onto the beach to lie in the sun as its warm rays slowly brought you back to life.
That was what a day at the seaside meant back then when they were young. Days full of laughter, shyly flirting with each other in a way that would have been impossible away from the freedom of the sea and sand. And later, when they were married and brought their children, still it was a happy time. The children content simply to play all day with a bucket and a spade and to eat sandwiches tainted by sand. It was then that Lillian had became aware of the disapproving looks of the elderly couples sitting nearby. Too much noise, too few clothes, not enough restraint. She knew what they were thinking but she was young enough to remain captivated by all that a day at the seaside offered. Refusing to look away in shame or embarrassment she met their scowls with a smile before running to join one of the children in whatever they were doing.
They were a family then. She and Seymour joining in with the play and as the children slept in the back of the car on the drive home, she would reached across to hold his hand.
When had that changed? When was it that they stopped holding hands? Sitting beside him now it was as if they were two different people. When had it all gone wrong? Years ago she believed that that was what happened, that when the children left they would become close again. That the quiet and stillness that had crept into their lives, replacing the noise and chaos of the children, would force them back to one another. But it hadn’t. The walks they had talked of. The holidays, the books they would share, none of that had happened. Of course he had found leaving work difficult. She knew that he would. On holiday it had always taken him a few days to shake himself free of his working self. But she had assumed that the inertia would be a temporary thing. That once he adjusted to being at home, to not working, that he would settle into his new skin.
But when that didn’t happen she knew that he resented her for reminding him of all that they had planned. And so it began, they inched farther apart a little more day by day. She withdrew into her home. That was what it had become, her home. To him, it was as if what had once been the hub of their shared life together had become just one of the things he accepted as part of living. He needed and expected food, water, somewhere to sleep. But for Lillian it was an extension of all that she had held dear. The rooms that the children used to inhabit, the furniture, ornaments and photographs all taunting her with what she had once taken for granted. And so she spent her days cleaning every last space. Washing and re-washing the bedding, tending the garden, hypnotically polishing dust that had no time to settle. All in the hope that one-day it would be alright again. But for the first time just before their trip to Clevedon she realised that it would never be alright, that things would never be like they had been again. The separate bedrooms, that with a sense of inevitability had replaced the shared marital bed, she hoped would be temporary measure but had quickly come to accept as being permanent. Lying awake, the brick wall between them became the manifestation of their inability to communicate with each other. Yet she still longed to touch him, for him to hold her and tell her that everything was going to be all right just as he had when they were young. Then he was the one with all of the strength. Tired after a day struggling with the children she often burst into tears never believing that time would pass. And he would take her onto his lap, as if she were the child, put his arms around her and stroke her hair telling her that this time next year they would laugh about it. That the children would grow up so fast that she wouldn’t even be able to remember the sleepless nights.
And though he had taken a while to adjust to having a family, he always made time for her and the children. Here at Ladye Cove they used to pretend that they were marooned on their own island. The steep steps leading down to the rocky haven below succeeded in keeping most but the hardiest holidaymakers away. Before the children had come along, they had excitedly raced each other down the steps, each trying to claim the best piece of the bumpy land below. Later, when they brought the children, they would traipse slowly down, each laden with the essentials necessary to keep them happy there all day.
But now, the steps were too steep for them. She hadn’t wanted to compromise by walking through the gardens. They hadn’t allowed the children play in the arcades or on the crazy golf so why should they pretend to want to do so now.
Instead they walked, slowly along the pier, glancing at the memorial plaques gilding the edge of the walkway. They read the first one or two but it was as if the sentiments were too far removed from their own feelings and they had each shied away after that first glance. Loving husbands, cherished wives, doting children, a few simple lines cementing an entire life into a moment frozen in time. Of course they were experienced enough to recognize that no one’s life was perfect but in that moment, the epitaphs seemed too unreal, almost cloying, crushing the air from them.
At the end of the pier they decided to sit in the café and buy a cup of coffee but even that had been wrong. Cappuccinos and lattes, espressos and flat whites, everything had changed, everything it seemed except them.
Seymour got up from the bench and walked to the edge of the railings, putting a pound into the telescope. As she watched him looking out across the sea, Lillian remembered how he had once shown her that on a clear day you could see all the way to Wales. He had laughed at her excitement that first time, telling he that Wales wasn’t far away, in fact not as far away as their home. She didn’t ever tell him but she had never got used to the thrill of seeing another country through the tiny eye of the metal tube. She remembered how it never gave her enough time, the allocated viewing period always coming to an end before she had seen all that she wished to see and how she always asked him to put some more money into the slot.
But today she didn’t even get up to go and look through it. What was it he had said only moments before, you can’t bring back the past.
“I can see Wales, come and have a look.”
For a second Lillian thought she must have nodded off but then she heard it again “come on Lilly, come and have a look. You can see right across the new bridge.”
Slowly she got up, feeling the stiffness in her joints, the result of having spent so long sitting in the chill wind. Taking hold of it the telescope felt cold and heavy as he bent it towards her, adjusting it to the right height so that she could look through it comfortably.
“There, just over to the right can you see the faint blue lines. That’s the struts of the new bridge glinting in the sun. And beyond is Wales.”
It took a moment for her eyes to become accustomed to the world through the tiny hole. She needed glasses for reading now, although she still only put them on when no one was about to see. She thought for a second that she may not be able to see through the telescope without them but then what had been a blur only a moment before suddenly became clear. The beautiful, blue edged bridge rising up from the black sea and then the verdant hills of Wales beyond. Whenever they used to travel to Wales Seymour always joked about the fact that they had to pay to get in but that it was free for the Welsh to escape. Remembering him repeating the joke every time as if they hadn’t heard it before, she smiled at the memory, almost hearing him speak the words followed by his bellowing laugh.
As the memory flooded in she felt tears sting her face blurring her vision. Why does the past creep up on you like that? Just when you have reconciled yourself to the way things are, something nudges you, out of the blue reminding you of something you had long forgotten about. It wasn’t his joking that had caused her such pain but the memory of his laugh. His laugh was the first thing that she noticed about him. It was loud and unashamedly happy, seemingly erupting at any opportunity catching her, in those early days, completely by surprise. Back then everyone got caught up in the embrace of his laugh but until now she realised that she had forgotten what it sounded like.
How was that possible? How had they so lost sight of themselves that she had forgotten the sound of his laughter?
Suddenly, she felt heaviness around her shoulders, warming the chill from her bones and she realised in confusion, that the weight she felt bearing upon her came from his arm. He was putting his arm around her. Lillian didn’t want to move. The thing she had wanted for so long had happened but now that it had she didn’t know how to react. They had been apart from each other for so long that she felt the slightest clumsy move on her part would be fatal. If she turned to him would he pretend that nothing had happened? Would she in time come to believe it, that it had all been in her imagination? So she stayed rigidly still, looking out to sea, the tears frozen on her face until he removed his arm.
“Thank you. It was silly of me”
Looking down at her, as if her words had pierced his concentration and brought him back from somewhere he had been unaware of travelling to, Seymour noticed the tears etched into the make up on her cheek.
“You’ve been crying. I didn’t mean to make you cry with my stupid words. It’s just that it all felt so different and I had so wanted it to feel the same. I’m sorry. I was thoughtless and unkind.”
He took her into his arms and held her, just as he had when they were young. At times he had held her so tight to him that she thought she would stop breathing. But she hadn’t moved because she loved being part of him, loved being loved by him. And now, as she sank into the warmth of his coat, as she smelt him within the fabric, Lillian felt as if she had returned from a long journey.
Forcing herself from him she said, “It wasn’t your words, it was your laugh” and as she spoke Lillian suddenly found herself laughing. Laughing at the stupidity of it all. At the time they had wasted but most of all laughing with the man she had loved, the man she did love and would always love.
“It’s Wales; you have to pay to get in but it’s free to escape.” As she uttered the words she again found herself laughing, only this time it was not for something that they had lost but something they had found.
Turning away from the sea they walked back along the pier hand in hand like the young couples they passed. As they reached the entrance they hesitated, as if each were frightened of moving away back into what had become familiar territory. Seymour looked across the road towards a café they had eaten at on the few occasions they stayed late and had supper with the children before setting off for home. Then it had been nothing special, a simple café serving bland seaside fare. Since those days it had obviously undergone a face-lift, as had all of the other once familiar places along the sea front. Tugging at her hand so that she would follow, he crossed the road and walked into the café asking for a table for two.
They looked at the menu and as she scoured it for something that she recognized, Lillian felt panic beginning to swell up within her. She didn’t want this day to end and she especially didn’t want it to end as it had begun with him complaining about something.
But Seymour, sensing her apprehension just as he used to, picked up her free hand lying on top of the table. Without waiting to consult with her, when the young girl came to take their order he asked for crab sandwiches, fat chips and two Cappuccinos.
“I think it is about time we tried something new. That black stuff we used to have here was awful wasn’t it” and as he uttered the words he started to laugh.
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