Colonel Julian and Other Stories (10 page)

But about two o'clock, after they had eaten and just as she was about to lock up, something happened. He looked out of the window and saw a wild troop of Boy Scouts invading the shore. Soon they began to invade the shack. He had dreamed so long of lying with her in warm sun, alone on the shore, that the sight of scores of small boys besieging her for ice-cream and drinks and sandwiches brought him furious frustration. She, too, looked desperate and he could have hit a ridiculous grey-haired scoutmaster who said:

‘You may remember us. We dropped in last year. We remembered your flag.'

Bathing and yelling, punting footballs, littering the shore with cartons and trousers and shirts and papers, the boys
stayed until six o'clock. So many of them came into the shack that finally he took off his jacket and for four hours, impotent and full of hatred of them, he helped the girl behind the counter. All afternoon there was a dry hunger in her eyes that made him think she could not wait for him.

‘Well, it'll please Ma,' she said when it was all over. And then a cheerful thought: ‘Anyway, we took enough so we close tomorrow and the next day. That's if there's no Boy Scouts.'

‘There'll be no Boy Scouts,' he said. ‘Tomorrow we'll go to the lighthouse.'

‘That's an idea.'

‘Perhaps we could have a trip in the car.'

‘I'd like that. That would be lovely,' she said.

Again and again, in the darkness of the shore, to the sound of small consuming lapping waves, the lighthouse flashed on her face. Her long arms held him down on the soft sand and the deep brown eyes burned insatiably.

Next day, when they climbed the lighthouse, a little breeze was blowing in fitful gusts against the sun. It had the effect of ploughing the sea into furrows of brilliant white and blue. Along the coast small sails skimmed about; white gulls planed down on long air-currents about black plaice-boats and the dazzling candle of lighthouse; and the white sea-light was heady and very beautiful.

It seemed to him that the top of the lighthouse swayed. All his fear of heights rushed up through his body and he felt the irresistible paralysing terror of wanting to go over. It froze the back of his legs coldly and he was hardly conscious of the keeper who was also a guide, saying :

‘The point puts on another six feet of land every year. Can you see where it's creeping out? Ten or fifteen years and they'll have to be thinking of building another lighthouse.'

Brand could not look and the keeper pointed inland over flats of sea-thistled shingle:

‘That's the old lighthouse. That shows you where the point used to be.'

All the time the girl moved carelessly from side to side of the lighthouse top, following the keeper's fingers, leaning nonchalantly over, long arms folded, staring straight down.
To Brand's intense horror she hung over the side, laughing, waving to groups of people below.

‘For God's sake,' he said, and felt terribly and weakly sick at the thought that a beating squall of wind might, in an awful moment, move the wrong way and take her over.

‘Now if you'll follow me down, sir,' the keeper said.

They stood for a moment together, alone on the top. She held him flat against her body, her skirt flapping in the breeze against her legs, and he could have sworn that once again the lighthouse swayed.

She kissed him, holding him rigidly, but he knew the lighthouse rocked. For some idiotic reason he thought of the precarious toast-like hat perched on Ella's head, and the girl said:

‘Don't be so jittery. There's nothing to be scared of——'

‘I hate it. I always have hated it.'

‘It's because you let it,' she said. ‘If you looked down—just made yourself look down—you'd be all right.' She began laughing at him: gay with the quivering exhilaration of breeze and height and sun. ‘Come on—look down. Make yourself. It's better.'

Once again she leaned far over. This time she held his hand, and for the space of a second or two he looked down too, his entire body wrapped in a stiffened chrysalis of vertigo. A sinister narrowing world of shore, of boats, of faces and of kaleidoscope sea-waves seemed to draw him down and then the girl laughed at him again, mocking slightly:

‘Come on. You can't take it. The keeper's waiting.'

Even fifty or sixty feet below he could still feel the horror in his legs and he said:

‘Don't you feel anything? Doesn't it affect you at all?'

‘Only like you,' she said. ‘That nice feeling. Right through my body.'

She was pleased about the car. From the new lighthouse they drove inland through a flat sea-beaten world of drab shingle and faded sea-poppy and steely sea-thistle, towards the old. He thought its black tarred stump looked hideous even among the cracked concrete of ruined sea-defences and shabby summer bungalows whose doorsteps were being slowly buried by autumn sand.

‘Like an old lady going to a funeral or something,' the girl said.

Like every horrifying experience the cold moments at the lighthouse top afterwards exhilarated him. For each of the three following nights as he lay on the shore with the girl he felt a certain vague bravery about it all.

‘I'm your lighthouse,' he would say to her. Already it was Friday, and for two nights he had not troubled to go back to sleep at the hut. ‘I make you feel the same way——'

‘Not after tonight,' she said.

A moment of freezing sickness, identical with all he had felt on the lighthouse, turned his stomach over.

‘What are you talking about?'

‘Ma comes tomorrow. Did you forget? She's down every weekend, Saturday to Monday.'

‘Oh! God,' he said, ‘is that all? I thought——'

‘You better keep out of the way,' she said. ‘Just for a night or two.'

‘I could come in for a cup of tea or something,' he said, ‘couldn't I? She'd never know.'

‘Not Ma?' she said. ‘The old gimlet. Not Ma? You never get over Ma.'

‘God,' he said, ‘the whole weekend——'

‘There's all next week,' she said. ‘Plenty of time.' He felt her reasoning sweetness express itself in one of those slow casual expanding smiles. Her tongue touched her lip and a wonderful beauty of dark eyes held him profoundly as the lighthouse flashed. He was agonized once again by the thought of giving her up, and she said: ‘A rest from each other will do us good. Then we'll have all next week. What are you worrying for?'

‘I want you—all the time. Terribly——'

‘I'm here,' she said. He saw all the languid beauty of her long curving body as she pressed herself down into dark dry sand. ‘Nobody's stopping you.'

The next day, Saturday, he did not see her at all. He could not bring himself to walk along the sea-road; he did not want the papers. Teasing him, she had said: ‘You can always go up the lighthouse. You can wave from there. If I see you I'll know it's you.'

And that afternoon, in a moment of puerile anguish, he went up. A great dry loneliness, horrible as the lifeless sea-broken concrete road and the barren shingle had held him all day. From the top of the lighthouse the tranquil bay, circled by a gigantic bracelet of sun-dried sand, was like pure glass, windless and beautiful. He stared across lines of plaice-boats and a few trippers to the shack. The red flag had not enough air to raise it from the pole; but he could see, underneath it, the spray of a water-hose, sprinkling the bright square of grass.

Presently he saw figures there. It seemed like a man and perhaps, he tried to persuade himself, the girl; but it was much too far away. He even waved his hand; but nothing happened and soon, driven by sudden misery and vertigo, he hurried down.

For the rest of that day and during Sunday his only remedy was to swim and walk westward, away from the shack, in the queer derelict half-urban, half-marsh country between the two lighthouses. He began to think of Ella. When he was with the girl all his thought of Ella was moulded in terms of an amused and tolerant pity. Poor dear old Ella: he really felt sorry for her. All the discordance about her vanished. Did she wonder about him? Had she gone round in panic circles of distress? Had it spoiled the routine of committees, the hideous respectable pose of the toast-like hat? What would she say, he thought, if she could see me now? Poor dear old Ella. The ease of that long generous body on the sand would have shocked her, would have made her realize that there were not only women who gave more pleasure than they asked, but gave it without asking questions, as beautifully as flowers.

But that day, as he tried to wear out Sunday, he did not have many amused and rather fanciful thoughts of women like flowers. Ella appeared to stand up in the flat endless day with the gauntness of the old lighthouse above the ugly marsh. She was a terrible relic, Ella; and somehow Sunday was her day. She had a great fondness for fussing about the kitchen on Sunday mornings, roasting beef, baking a particular kind of tart called Maids of Honour. What maids, he would tease her, and what honour? Her hands were floury and he
ate the tarts from the stove, while they were still hot. Today, inexplicably, between loneliness and discordance, he felt keenly the absence of these trivialities. It was not permanent; he knew that. It was just Sunday. It was less that he missed Ella than that Sunday was a day of infinite desolation when deprived of the comfort of floured hands, beef, hot tarts and long-known company. Monday would show it all to have been another example of puerile heartache; but today he could not bear it at all.

And finally, because he could not bear it, he walked along, about half-past seven, to the shack. Lights were burning and a few people were having supper. He walked past and got himself several drinks, a mile farther on, at a place called The Fisherman's Arms, before walking back again.

When he walked back lights were still burning in the shack but the place seemed empty. After a few moments he went in. The girl's mother was leaning on the counter, coughing cigarette ash down the heavy black front of her body, but the there was no sign of the girl.

‘Yessir?' she said.

‘Too late for anything?'

‘Never too late for anything. What'll it be? Coffee, tea, orange?'

‘I'll take coffee.'

‘You'll take coffee,' she said.

While he drank it he said:

‘Remember me? I'm the fellow you mistook for the taxi-driver last Monday.'

‘God alive, so it is.' Coughing and laughing, she sprayed a small cloud of cigarette ash. ‘I don't know whatever you thought of me, sir.'

‘Your daughter made up for it,' he said. ‘Got me a nice meal that day.'

‘Nice cook,' she said.

He looked round the café. ‘Not here tonight?'

‘Gone to the flicks with Fred.'

‘Fred?' he said. He could feel a horrible tightness, cold and not unlike the vertigo he so hated and dreaded, taking hold of his body, cramping it with jealousy and fear. ‘Boy friend?'

‘Boy friend my foot,' she said. ‘Husband.'

Monday brought, as he knew it would, the notion that to be lonely for Ella was something quite puerile. Between the thought of Ella and the thought of the girl he felt a haunting and growing sense of being cheated. Ella, he felt, had got him into this. He felt dislocated, slightly crazy, trapped. That infernally silly hen-like face, the committees and the maddening toast-like hat had manoeuvred him into a trap.

It was late afternoon before he could bring himself to go along to the café. The girl had closed the café and he found her lying behind it, as he always did, on the sand. The breeze of the last few days had piled up still higher the smooth clean breasts of sand below the verandah, submerging yet another of the steps. In one of the hollows between these breasts she lay in her red beach-dress, staring at the sky.

‘Oh God, I thought you were never coming. I wanted you terribly—I hated the waiting——'

He let himself be drawn down, almost sucked down, by her long arms and the tightened frame of her body, stiffly anguished as it had been when he had first kissed her.

‘Did you want me?' she said.

‘All the time,' he said. ‘How was the weekend?'

‘Oh! terrible. She talked and talked. Nothing but talk. I was bored to death. What did you do?'

‘Went to the lighthouse.'

‘There,' she said. ‘You see. How was it?'

‘I'm getting better. It's like you said. I just need practice.'

She laughed, pressing her tongue against her lips, her brown eyes brilliant and languid and burning in the shell-like whites.

‘One more trip and you'll be all right,' she said.

‘Might be.'

‘Probably when you're all right you won't make me feel how you do,' she said. ‘Had you thought of that?'

‘No.'

‘Make me feel like it now,' she said.

He did not speak of Fred until they lay in the sand in darkness. A twisted and crazy sort of dislocation made him keep back, until then, all he felt by way of the trap, the
cheating and the jealousy. Out at sea small navigation lights floated about like stars and one of them, as before, was Ella, dying and fading away; and he hated her because of his pain.

‘How was your husband?' he said.

‘You don't have to speak like that,' she said. ‘No need to speak like that.' Her face, in the flash from the lighthouse, was undisturbed, casual and languid as ever.

‘You didn't tell me,' he said.

‘It didn't make any difference. It didn't and it doesn't now.'

‘Me during the week and a change for Sundays,' he said. Rage beat at his pride with callous and lacerating strokes of pain. He felt himself drop away, crazy and blinded and embittered by acid dregs of cheating and jealousy. All the time he was aware of her moving her body with quiet suppleness deeper into the sand and that movement, too, made him ache with helpless bitterness.

‘You didn't tell me either,' she said. ‘But it wouldn't make any difference if you did. No difference at all.'

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