Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

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Message in a Bottle

By Neil Grimmett

Our mother was a liar. Father stated this as a fact to us after she’d left. Only in her case, he added, it was a disease: one she’d always suffered from before finally succumbing. His eyes were steady as he told us this. Sometimes - when he got enraged, and liked to stand inches from your face making his point - they would dart from side to side at an incredible speed as if vibrating from the shock waves your behavior had created; even though the voice coming out of the same head stayed calm and logical. Now they were still; almost sad. “But remember this,” he said: “She will always be your mother, and that, in her own way, she really does love you.”

Later, we overheard him during one of the many new phone calls that filled his evenings, "She's crucified me," he said. “Total crucifixion by the mother of my children.” He said it in the most dramatic way. And my brother - whom father had nicknamed the ‘Clown Prince’ - spread out his arms and hung his head. He got the pose and expression perfect and I could not stop myself from grinning. Then father's voice had lowered, "I told her," he said, " 'there is more to being a woman than opening your legs wide and not being able to close them’.” And in reply to whatever was said: “Well I never had any complaints in that department before. In fact I would say the opposite. I will tell you.." I grabbed the Clown Prince and headed up the stairs to bed. I found out the next day that the call had been from our Nan. His mother-in-law, a seventy year old widow who had returned after years of banishment. Each coming and going having no regard now for anything but its own possibility of resettling.


The night before mother went they burst into our bedroom - struggling to be the first one to break the news. For some reason, as the light came on, it made me think of the times when they had used to wake us extra early to set off on our holidays to Cornwall. How we’d sit, tired and disorientated in the back of the car on rolled-up sleeping bags, with the distant challenge of who'd be the first to see the sea. A ten-hour drive before always being woken by his victory. Now the sea whispers through every night and this is the new game they play. She was crying and still dressed. Her tears ran cold down my face as he stood, ridiculous in his striped, faded pajamas: "Your mother is leaving us".

It was the night of the letter. It was in his hand, crumpled with two pieces missing from one edge. And I knew every word of it and was guilty of betraying him.


The tide here races in and out. It can rise over forty feet - which the locals proudly state is the second highest in the world. That is their consolation for a moonscape of veined, glistening silt and a small strip of dirty sand with, just below its surface, a river of constantly shifting mud banks and a line of abandoned, slowly sinking cars to mark its passing treachery.

We had a secret path to the beach. A narrow track through the swamp and reed beds that filled with each tide, then drained in streams of clear water that left behind a foul-smelling blackness daring a wrong step. The path came out onto the beach inside a clump of buckthorn, behind some of the largest dunes. It was a rule that you waited before appearing to make certain there were no tourists, or recently, any nudists, to discover the crossing.

I’d told the Clown Prince this morning that I could not face school. We were left to get ourselves breakfast and out of the door in time for the school bus. "I just can't take it today," I said, "not after last night."

He still appeared shocked himself with no joke to hide behind for once. "Tell Kevin I will be on the beach," I said, “and to slip away if he can.” I walked out trying not to look into the windows of the cottages I had to pass - our neighbors. I knew that they must have seen and heard everything. Nothing better than another episode of "The Beachcombers".

The banging and yelling had started outside our front door just after midnight. We’d both sneaked a look out of our bedroom window. The old tart making all the noise dressed up for business: high-heels and split skirt with some imitation, half-skinned predator draped over her shoulders. It was Ruby. She was a legend around the old dock town where we hung out. The prostitute left behind when the silt finally choked the passage for cargo vessels and the fish lost their faith. We used to watch her tottering from pub to pub, and then occasionally, back along the street arm in arm with someone before disappearing into the dark of her esplanade basement. "On the game," Kevin, the leader of our gang told us. He’d lived in the town all his life and knew every chantey and where it was sang. "Out earning a few shillings while her puppy is off driving his wagon." Now the puppy had strayed with our mother. And Ruby appeared to be out looking for other payments.

The bedroom window next to ours opened. "Coward," I wanted to say, before we both held our breath. Ruby began slurring out a long plaintive plea for the return of her true love. Father told her that it was out of his hands.

"But it is your wife," she cried; "you should have known. You should have kept her locked up. A slut like that - you stupid-looking bleeder what do you think she was asking for?"

"What is it you need?" I heard our father ask. "What is it I am supposed to do?" Then to my amazement: "Do you want me to go to bed with you?" And if it was possible for that old face masked in layers of powder and under moonlight to glow red, then hers did as she turned and sashayed back into the night.

"Really cool," the Clown Prince said as we heard the window gently close, "meet your new mother, boys."

I could hear him pretending to laugh himself to sleep, ignoring my threats, and uncaring for the loneliness and humiliation of the man in the next room.


The tide was right out, trembling on the horizon like a tainted mirage. I sat on one of the huge, storm-beached trunks from some far-off forest that probably no longer existed and watched a freshwater stream cut and reshape its own bed in one more rush to escape the land. The beach was deserted. Once that would have been fine, now I kept hoping that Kevin or any of the gang would appear below the distant esplanade wall and start walking toward me. Judging by the tide line, it must have been a mid-height gentle tide. Inching and coaxing its line of gifts so that they remained level and exposed. Not worth picking over. It needs force and violence to dislodge anything new, otherwise it is the same old flotsam and jetsam coming and going: slightly more faded and damaged: but in the end always recognizable.

When we’d first moved here we never knew that. For months the four of us would walk along with our sticks and bags searching among the seaweed; mother and father sometimes even holding hands at that time. "High tide," he liked to announce on the weekend: "600 hours," or whatever, and we would be on the beach as it reached its peak. I used to believe the cheery comments and good luck wishes of our neighbors were genuine. The same as their congratulations if any of them saw us carrying back another curiously-shaped log or piece of tar-smelling net with one more colored glass ball to float in its mesh and turn our living room into a bejeweled web. Father had a different opinion on them: "They are just too lazy to get out and look," he would say with each find. "None of them can be bothered with what is available on their own doorstep."

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003


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