Colonel Julian and Other Stories (9 page)

‘Ugh,' he said.

‘Got a beach-hut?'

‘Yes.'

‘What do you do for cooking? I hear there's no gas up there.'

‘Never bother.'

‘You're the sort of people who put us out of business,' she said.

He did not know what to say; he stirred his tea without drinking and remembered the woman running for the taxi.

‘That your mother?'

‘Don't blame me,' she said. ‘She was born first. Off to London for the week while I look after the sea.'

With that curious expression she turned the paper round again, so that she could read it right way up. He found himself screwing his own head round, trying to read it as she had done, upside down, and as he did so he was aware of her body pressed against the counter. She gave him a quick glance and then went on reading; then after some moments she spoke without looking up.

‘Not drinking your tea,' she said.

He sipped it gently, looking down at her over the edge of the cup.

She turned the paper over, lifting her body slightly in the act of doing so, raising her eyes, brown and casual, in the slightest flicker.

‘I'll bet you think I'm rude. Reading your paper.'

‘No,' he said. ‘You can have it. I don't want it. Keep it and I'll call in later.'

‘Come in and I'll get you a meal,' she said. ‘Why don't you? You must eat sometimes.'

‘I could.'

‘Well, say it as if you wanted to,' she said.

He smiled.

‘Nothing elaborate, just eggs or something. But say it as if you wanted to.'

She stared up at him with great brown eyes that were casual and bored but brilliant, too, with bright sea-light; he looked back at her and felt the blood beating up in his throat. He thought, too, that she knew it was beating there because she held him a little longer with that same slow bored stare.

‘All right?'

‘All right,' he said.

She smiled. She had a way of smiling by opening her mouth and putting her tongue slowly outward and pressing it against her teeth and then upward, casually and softly, against her lip.

‘About six?' she said.

‘About six.'

She pressed her tongue upward against her lips, and then, as if deliberately letting him go, lowered her eyes and folded her long creamy arms, blue with tender veins, on the paper.

‘Now drink your tea,' she said.

Walking back along the sea-road, he thought of Ella. Things had not been going well with Ella. More and more she seemed to him like a peremptory bright-nosed hen decked up. She had begun to be a great one on committees. At supper, after the office, she bored him with histories of committees rather as she must, he thought, have bored the committees. Sometimes, in hasty moments, he did silly things like putting his socks on inside out, and that in turn would urge her to endless nagging resolutions, all of which he felt she had put down on the agenda of their married differences. Whenever she came home from committees she wore the same dark brown straw hat. It was too small for her; it sat on her head, mocking her, like a ridiculous piece of flat stale toast. He longed to jump on it. One day he almost did jump on it and she screamed: ‘The trouble with you is that you can't tolerate anything but yourself! You're so selfish, so vain!' and in a fit of rage he had driven the car down to the sea.

Back at the point, by the lighthouse, he read the papers and watched the tide. It washed over a series of shallow corrugated valleys, blue-grey with jelly-fish and sown with pretty rose and white and turquoise shells. The sandy peninsula projected so far out to sea that ships skirted it by only a hundred and fifty yards. Sometimes liners came so close that he could see even the sparkle of drinks in passengers' glasses in the dining-saloons or the lounge. And sometimes passengers waved their hands.

He wondered about these passengers. Who were they all? Among them were surely men who hated their wives because they wore hats like slices of toast and wives who hated their husbands for the monstrosity of trivial things.

He began to think of the girl in the café. Her voice, throaty and casual, seemed to come along the seashore with the lazy softness of the tide. He thought of her hands. There was something intensely disturbing in their creamy transparence and the blue tendril veins. And then the extraordinary dark brown eyes, with the whites that were really not white, but blue, like some of the smoother pearl-like shells. And then the bored casual way of pressing her tongue against her teeth and the bored casual way of trying to read the paper upside down.

He swam twice during the afternoon. The sea, heavily salt and warm, made him hungry and drowsy. The sun curved round and shone flat on his face. He slept without realizing it and woke suddenly with the idea that one of the ships was ramming the point. It was a liner painted white for the tropics and it seemed for a second or two to tangle itself with the white cone of the lighthouse and come bearing down on him where he lay.

It was past six when he woke and nearly seven o'clock by the time he had dressed and walked along the sea-road to where the scarlet flag was waving above the square of watered grass in the evening sun.

The shack was closed. He started to rap on the thin glass door. The door was loose and rattled loudly, echoing across the empty beach in the warm still air.

After a moment or two he gave it up and went round to the back. The girl was lying on the sand, in a white and red-spotted cotton beach-dress, without shoes or stockings, her long blue-veined creamy legs and arms stretched out in the sun. She did not get up.

‘You're a nice one,' she said.

‘I went to sleep. I didn't realize——'

‘I got fed up and closed. Nobody to talk to all afternoon, so I came out to look after the sea.'

Again he noticed that curious expression.

‘I'm sorry,' he said.

She rolled over and lay sideways, looking up at him.

‘Well: what do you fancy?'

‘Anything; if it's not too late—whatever you've got.'

‘It isn't what I've got, it's what you fancy.'

‘Whatever you've got I'll fancy,' he said.

‘Well, if that's the way you look at it——' She moved once again on the sand, turning her body. ‘Can't see you. You're upside down.' He remembered how she had read the newspaper upside down and something in the turn of her body immediately electrified him, making the blood beat up in his throat.

‘Oh! You're the same man. I wondered. Your voice sounded different.'

‘Disappointed?'

‘Oh! no. No. I just got the impression of you in my mind somehow, and I like to get the right impression——' She suddenly knelt up, brushing away sand from her dress. ‘Well, let's go in. The sea can look after itself for a bit.'

It struck him again as curious how she spoke, now and then, of looking after the sea. She stood up, brushing sand from first one leg and then another and then from her arms.

‘Am I all sand at the back?'

‘On your shoulders.'

‘Brush me down, will you? It gets into everything—food and everything. Beds and everywhere.'

He brushed with both hands at the half-circle of her naked shoulder. The skin was smooth and oily and he felt the blood beat up into his throat again as he touched it with the sweeping tips of his fingers under the thick brown hair.

‘I'll fry you a Dover sole,' she said. ‘A good fat one. How's that?'

‘It's just what I fancy,' he said.

She had the sole ready in about half an hour. She pulled the blinds down on that side of the café overlooking the sea-road, and she laid him a table overlooking the sea. From there, as he waited, he could see the lighthouse. The lamps had not begun to burn and the tall white cylinder looked more than ever like an unlit candle on the narrow scar of sand.

‘Been up the lighthouse yet?'

She was in the kitchen and he called back: ‘No. I told you. Makes me feel——'

‘You'll have to try it some day.'

‘Not me,' he said.

The sole, dipped in golden breadcrumbs, was nicely fried.

‘All right?' she said.

‘Lovely. What about you?'

‘You're a customer. Can't eat with the customers.'

‘I hoped you could.'

‘Well, there's no law against it. I'll have a cup of tea.'

She had changed her dress and now she was wearing a thin frock of silky sea-bright green. It gave a smouldering candle-like warmth to her bare arms as she crooked them on the table and watched him eat.

‘You wanted that. You were hungry,' she said.

‘Didn't bother about lunch.'

She looked at the sea. It was after eight o'clock and now suddenly, in a wonderful flash, the lamps in the lighthouse began turning, swinging startling bars of light on darkening water and shore.

‘There she goes,' the girl said. ‘I always love that. It sends a thrill right through me. Right down. A real thrill. I watch it every night.'

She was watching the light eagerly, her mouth parted, her tongue touching her lip as she smiled.

As it grew slowly darker ships with star-like navigation lights appeared across a copper-crested sea that was deep indigo under a paler sky. After watching them for some time she turned her face and looked at him.

‘Married?' she said.

‘No,' he said.

‘You ought to get yourself a nice wife that can cook.'

‘Are you married?' he said.

‘No,' she said. ‘Not me.'

Who was Ella? The sudden accusing unreality of Ella forced itself on his conscience for a moment and then assumed the remoteness of one of the lights creeping slowly away to sea. His wife seemed in every way like one of those dim lights going out, going away for ever. Committees and the hat like toast, agenda of married faults and the face like a peremptory pecking hen's; there was no lie about them. They did not exist any more.

‘What about Fred?' he said. He remembered the parting words of her mother.

‘Oh! Fred. Fred's nobody. He's cook up there. We got another café at King's Cross. He's cook up there.' The lids of her eyes, olive and dark and gleaming, closed down smoothly as she looked at his empty cup and plate. ‘More tea?'

‘No, thank you.'

‘Like to go outside for a breath of air?'

‘If you like.'

They were already outside when she spoke once again of looking after the sea. The shack had a small railed verandah overlooking the beach. Sand had piled against it in deep
smooth breasts, submerging the lower steps. She leaned against one of the posts of it. The shore was dark except for the repeated flash of the lighthouse, revolving like a wheel, and as she stared at the sea and spoke again of looking after it he said:

‘Think it'll run away or something?'

‘No.'

‘What then?'

‘Oh! nothing.'

He watched the lighthouse flashing on her face, heightening sharply every few seconds or so the candle-like warmth given by the green dress; and then he said:

‘Odd. What's the idea of looking after the sea? That's one thing that'll look after itself——'

She turned on him in the moment that the lighthouse flashed. It gave the impression of her entire body leaping into flame. All her bored casual face flared up, bright and bitter and angry.

‘What else have I got to do? God, I got nothing else to do but look after it, have I? Nobody to talk to from Monday to Friday. Nothing to do, nobody to talk to. What else have I got to do but look after it? God, I feel it's all I got left——'

The act of kissing her for the first time had in it the shock of something bare and bruising and antagonistic. He had not expected it to be like that. He had wanted it to be drawn out of her sleepy languid casualness: to be one with the soft brown eyes, the way she read the paper upside down. Now she held him with both arms and the stiffened frame of her body, driving her mouth at his with the dry hunger of long boredom; and all the time the lighthouse flashed with its dazzling revolutions on her face.

After a time she was quieter and they lay down on the sand. He could hear the sea: gentle, the tide out, endless small waves licking backwards in the warm September darkness. ‘If you hadn't turned up I'd have gone off my head. I thought you wouldn't turn up—I'd have gone off my head——'

He liked her more as she quietened. She seemed to grow drowsy and languid again, the frame of her body in its
relaxation melting into the deep softness he wanted: the entire antithesis of Ella, the pecking henlike face, the toast-like hat; the antidote to all his own dry boredom and rage. He found her limbs in long deep curves. Her skin seemed so delicate with its fine transparence and the many blue tendrils of veins, that the full discovered strength of her body surprised him. ‘I wanted you like that,' she said, ‘by the sea. I wanted you terribly.' The lighthouse flashed on her face, giving the brown eyes a look of transfixed dark burning. ‘Be careful how you touch me. You make me feel how the lighthouse does.'

Walking home at last, after midnight, he understood her feeling about the lighthouse. It had been the flame in the drabness of her boredom: burning and flashing suddenly to excite her once a day. He was pleased to think he was like that. He was pleased to stand where he was and watch, like a fading down-channel light, the dying discordant figure of Ella and Ella's hat, the former world of committees and catechisms and the pecking hen. He felt slightly intoxicated and elated as if he stood on the top of the lighthouse, watching the minute and inconsequential light of something that had bored and angered him and would do so no longer.

He had arranged to go back for lunch next day. ‘Not too early,' she said, ‘because I can close up from two to five. You can swim and have a lie in the sun,' and in the morning, for the first time, he did not trouble to fetch the papers. It was enough to wait for afternoon.

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