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."
That changed after the first storm. The tail of some hurricane slithered past our coast. All night the little cottage creaked and groaned as if afloat. The sound of breakers exploded and a smell of ozone filled the air. The next morning the world felt washed and fresh. "This is going to be a day to remember," he announced. We had to leave the house without any breakfast and each of us carried an extra sack for what was going to be waiting at our feet.
We met the first of the locals a few yards onto the common. After that a steady line of them passed us on their way back. Each of them carried a sly grin and arms full of treasure. Some needed wheelbarrows to carry large wooden barrels or metal containers; others shared a load: long planks or masts balanced between their shoulders. One man carried two perfectly matched white oars and, when he knew he’d caught our attention, pretended to be rowing his way back home. Everyone of them held something either exotic or functional: objects that could be recycled or sold. I knew then that they had been laughing at us all of the time. “What was it your uncle used to say, Sam,” the man with the oars shouted out so we could have it confirmed for us: “ to those townies that came before? Oh I remember: ‘Best if you want to find an idiot down here, you bring one yourself’.” By the time we got to the beach, and saw for the first time the power of the now distant and resting sea, we were alone. The mass of kelp and seaweed tore from its bed and dumped on the shore was beginning to dry and stink. Seagulls and crows had gathered to a feast of fish with the occasional dog or sheep waiting hollow eyed for the next course. Sand fleas sprayed in showers each time one of us dared to probe what appeared to be an undisturbed clump.
We began the march back home in silent, Indian file. Each empty sack weighing more than any of us could bear. The Clown Prince managed to do his usual trick and slip off the narrow bridge that crossed one small stream. And father slapped him. A hard smack across his grinning cheek - the first time one of them had ever raised a hand to either of us and the sound ricocheted over the mud-flats. We had both stared at each other and then at our mother. And for an instant I saw in her eyes that she could have happily done worse to us all. She turned and walked away; too many yards behind her fleeing husband. I knew that this was an ending and that at the very least we would never be on this beach again as a family. I looked back at the devastation, trying to work out again, how the sea could have cut the deep and complex patterns that now appeared so exposed and desperate for the tide to return and hide their secret.
He liked to drive a motorbike on the beach. Spraying along the edge of the water or performing tricks in the dunes for any girl that would watch. The first time I actually got to meet him he was driving a ruler straight line along the most even part of the sand. He came at me so true that I had no idea whose bare legs were stuck out either side of his or whose fingers were gripping and marking his skin inside the open shirt. I’d agreed to meet mother and help her carry some shopping on her way home from town.
"This is Ric," she told me, still sitting on the bike and clutching him as if they were still moving. "He is just a friend," she said as we rushed home. "Though you must not tell your dad. He gets so jealous these days. I might even let Ric teach you to ride." She’d recently started doing a part-time job. Serving in one of the little seaside cafes. We’d heard them rowing about it one night. Then about the way she was dressing up to do it. And going out to spend the money she earned. Suddenly there were sides to everything and you’re thrown from one to the other, powerless to resist or know what is right from wrong: floating in an landlocked sea of their devising and already too far from the shore to find any way back.
Both of us took turns on that bike. The Clown Prince thought Ric was the greatest and that all the explaining and interest was for real. Time after time he nearly gave the game away. Then it did not matter. The rumors had become deafening and our silence impossible to break. We heard him talking to her into the night. I pictured him close to her tired and cultured face, his eyes darting from side to side without any feeling as he listed her shame. If only he had been kinder or more brutal I would never have done what I did. But I was her son then, choking on the same lukewarm mouthfuls.
She had to give up her job and stop going out on her own. They started taking long shopping trips on the weekends. Then we sat together for family meals, gorging on the produce he’d gotten her to buy and cook. And like that morning after the storm I saw there was nothing left for us to find worth having.
At first I just carried small messages of reassurance between them. Then he gave me the letter. I had to promise that nothing would make me look at it on the way to her hand. By the time the sound of his motorbike faded I was stood halfway across the marsh reading every word. I should have crushed it and let it sink into the blackness. Instead I gave it to her. She looked closely at the envelope and then at me, "He is a man without any passion," she said, "your father." then scurried up to their room.
Later that day I had been with the Clown Prince, two of his friends, and a girl - my first girlfriend - in the front room listening to some music. The sound of voices upstairs got a bit louder. Then a scream. Followed by a crashing noise and footsteps running part way down the stairs. Some scuffling: "Give it back," mother yelled: "it is mine." We all froze; and I knew. She was standing, I judged, just above him on the stairs, trapped as he began reading. I tried not to picture him reaching those descriptions of what they had done to each other. Things I still could not believe she or anyone could do - let alone be pleased to recall.
"Out," I said, hurrying everyone through the door. We gathered at the nearby bus shelter.
"What do you think is happening," asked the Clown Prince; not grinning, not joking. The other boys looked as concerned and confused. I tried to act innocent. But the girl, Chrissie, understood precisely. I could see it in her face. It had been my mother who had introduced the two of us. She was some relative of Ric’s and I knew the introduction was contrived for her own reasons and if I let it go any farther it would be another betrayal on my part. But now it did not seem relevant: it was our time. I grabbed her hand and started out toward the dunes; the other boys knew they were not meant to follow.
In the distance I saw someone step down onto the beach. Maybe, I thought , it was Kevin. I kept to the top of the beach, dodging between dunes and the line of sharp concrete and steel war defenses - left behind as a reminder or future precaution. Closer, I could see that it was not a boy. Chrissie, I hoped, and recalled that night and what had started between us. This person was too old. For a moment I imagined that it might be my mother returning. Back, abandoned already, and walking home along the shore. She’d schemed and dreamt us all here in the first place: now, maybe she was powerless to escape. I dropped down and prayed that I had not been seen as Ruby became clear. She was dressed the same as last night and looked, even at this range, as if she had carried on searching without a break.
I tried to blend closer and closer into the concrete with each step she took. There was a frightening anger about her and I knew that I would be one of the last people that she would want to find spying on her. She looked around and then out to sea. I had one of the protruding steel ribs, rusting and cold against my face as she bent and began clawing in the smooth sand. I could just feel that boney finger with its long painted nail slicing its way through and it made my skin feel soft and babyish.
I kept hiding until I was certain that she’d gone, then made my way to the spot to see what lies she had left about us.
There were no words; just a heart. A dumb, school girlish, desktop drawing of one with an arrow going through its center. And falling from it, what I supposed to be, two drops of blood - cut so deeply they were already filling with water: crystal clear and sweet looking, but with as much salt as in the blood they portrayed or any tears spilled over the broken heart above. All of us came from the ocean, we were now told at school, all of us carried its residue, washing through our bodies to remind us of our sea change.
I felt the tide turn, like a gasp at the end of too long a sigh. I stared again at the serpentine track of Ruby’s footsteps: the scuffed, slithering trail of a drunk, I’d decided, and nothing to do with life crawling its way from the depths to anything higher. But then, as I raised my foot to wipe out her work, I could not. I though of her coming all the way to this one spot to leave this mark. A low, white sandbank sure to be reached by the incoming tide and out of sight for any eyes until it was. Her private message to float out of its bottle for the mermaids and whales to add to their songs. A small but pure thing from all this mess that might be taken and not washed back this time.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003