[Hever Castle, Kent]
Lost in a maze. Dead ends in all directions. No way out. “I wish time would stand still,” you said.
We were at Hever Castle. Laughing, caught in the rain, running down the green hedge trimmed paths to nowhere. Your hand holding mine. We wanted the day to last forever and courtship followed. There were weekend drives and slow, dreamy walks. Then the holiday in Greece, skinny dipping off the rocks and drinking ice-cold retsina served in earthenware jugs.
You accepted a contract in South Africa. It was good for your career. “Great, I’ll join you for a holiday,” I said. “It’s a dangerous place,” you said quietly. I laughed. We called it the holiday of a lifetime. Big game, up close. Pure parchment beaches and endless winery lunches. But you always left the engine running when we stopped en route. “Carjackers,” you said “you can’t be too careful.”
You got down on one knee on the top of Table Mountain, diamond picked and ready. Diamonds are forever and time stretched out in front of us like an endless road paved in fool’s gold. I brought you home to New Zealand. My parents approved. It was a poignant airport farewell, “See you in three weeks,” you promised.
You had the next Sunday off and wanted some fun. You let the American drive. Too fast. It was the wrong side of the road, for him. Gravel splinters chopped through the air. The car went spinning across the lanes of traffic again and again and again. One last slow cruel dance.
The ringing phone invaded my dreams. It was too early. A premonition. Dread lay in my stomach like cold stone. Then, my Mother’s voice… “Colin has been killed!” Time stood still, for a moment. Then moved on.
Someone opened a curtain to view your remains. The well meaning words were meant to comfort “It will be alright.” Someone’s hysterical laughter (was it mine?). How can anything ever be right again? The heavy black hearse moved slowly through the streets towards an overflowing village church. There were too many spring flowers. The day, too bright and shiny for the heavy blackness in my heart. “You are young,” they said … “time heals all wounds.” But time is not my ally. Time takes me away from you!
Lost in a maze. Dead ends in all directions. No way out. I wish time would stand still. You said.
My Mother always said
Just 18, I was naïve for my age, even by 1980’s standards. I was flatting alone, fresh faced and newly arrived in the big smoke. I became friendly with my next door neighbour, Reg. A harmless old bloke. Ok, the sherry bottle in the brown paper bag was a giveaway, so I knew he had a bit of a drinking problem, but hey, there but by the grace of God go I, my Mother always said.
To begin with, Reg would stop me as I was coming or going to chatter about the weather. Then he began to wait for me to come home after work each evening. “I’ve made too much again”, he would say “help me out and come for dinner, would you?” I felt sorry for him. He led a lonely sort of life and maybe he missed his grandchildren. He would set the table with care - napkins, wine glasses, even a table cloth. Speak as you find, my Mother always said.
Reg worked at the ferry terminal, clipping the tickets of the commuter hoards flooding through the gates each morning. He used to hand mine back, un-clipped. Handy that when you earn $80 a week and your rent is $55. I couldn’t even afford the phone on. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, my Mother always said.
“Does that petticoat go all the way up?” he asked me one night as I sat in his flat drinking coffee. I told myself I had misunderstood him and made my excuses and escaped next door. Still, it shook me up a bit and the morning commute began to feel uncomfortable. I wished he would clip my ticket now. But surely he didn’t mean any harm. Just an old chap with a few problems. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, my Mother always said.
One morning, I was one of the last to disembark and as I walked toward the gate I saw him watching me with a strange half smile on his lips. “Is it cold enough for you this morning, Reg?” I said as I gave him the ticket, hoping to keep my voice light. “This will keep me warm,” he said grabbing my hand and pulling it down towards the crotch of his greasy brown tweed trousers. I could smell his unwashed body and the stale sherry clinging to his breath. Sickened, I yanked my hand back and scurried away. I was shuddering with the shock of the exchange and I felt violated. I also felt a little stupid. How did that happen? And why had I said nothing to him? Respect your elders, my Mother always said.
I only saw Reg a few times after that. He put his head down and scuttled away when he spotted me. He moved out of his flat not long afterwards and I never saw him again. Still, I couldn’t move past the memory of that morning and the questions it left behind. Had I done something to encourage him? Was it my fault? Serves you right, my Mother always said.
Slap, slap, slap - the sloppy wet sound danced up through the apartment window from the rocks below and woke me up. My brother’s excited voice came next “Come on Sis, let’s go down and see what’s happening!” Where my big brother went, I followed. It was coastal Spain, in the winter of 1972. We had just arrived and were eager to explore.
I followed my brother down the cool marbled stairs to the street below. We crossed the road and took off our shoes to walk over the grainy wet sand to the rocks at the far end of the beach. Our feet protested at the morning cold but our hearts drummed with excitement as we clambered towards the sky, sometimes pausing to jump from rock to rock. The Mediterranean Sea was a breathtaking sight to a seven year old girl from the English countryside.
As we crossed over the deep crevasses in the rocks I became conscious of my little, skinny legs compared to my brother’s longer, stronger ones. It was much harder for me to make the jumps but I knew he would never let me fall. We were inseparable and I would follow him anywhere.
As we went higher we seemed to grow closer to the source of that wet slapping sound and the fresh scent of salty sea spray mingled with the early morning breeze. We reached the highest rock and I focused on the beauty of the crimson sunrise as we looked out from our vantage point.
Then, my gaze fell onto the two fishermen on the rocks slightly below us. One was sitting a short distance away from the other, his morning cigarette pressed between his lips. He was watching the other, who was diligently and violently bashing a squid on a rock, which was already completely blackened by the ink of the hundred dead squid which had gone before it. Slap, slap, slap.
“Is that the squid’s blood?” I asked. “No, Sis, its just ink” my brother said, his eyes rooted to the spot below. I turned again to look at the sight below me. “But doesn’t it hurt the squid?” “No, it’s already dead” he replied, his eyes turned from mine. I sensed his uneasiness and knew that he didn’t speak the truth. “Why do they do that, it’s so cruel” “It’s how they make their living here” He said. “This is how they have always done it.” I looked down, confused. Did that make it right?
I watched as my brother left me to clamber down the other side of the rock, eager now to join the fishermen and be part of this ancient ritual of men. They needed no other shared language. I turned away. Alone, I climbed back the way we had come.
He returned home later that afternoon, proudly holding up his cache, his blue-grey eyes shining like that wintry sea. The slimy, dead carcass was leached of its blue black ink, its arms holding on to nothing.
My Mother gently covered the rings of its flesh in seasoned flour and fried it in the pan. I ate it with a squeeze of lemon juice. It was the best thing I had ever tasted.
© Carolyn Ranson