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The Sea

By Judith Owens,2014-11-04 20:31
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Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2007/12/17

    Table of Contents Title Page Dedication Praise I II About the Author ALSO BY JOHN BANVILLE Copyright Page

To Colm, Douglas, Ellen, Alice

Acclaim for John Banville’s

    The Sea

    “A piece of violent poetry—an autumnal, elegiac novel. . . . Treacherously smart andhaunting, its story of a ravaged self in search of a reason to go on is cloaked in wave afterwave of magnificent but hardly consoling prose.” —The Boston Globe

    “An utterly contemporary novel that nonetheless could only have come from a mind steeped inthe history of the novel and deeply reflective about what makes fiction still worthwhile. . .. John Banville deserves his Booker Prize.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

    “[Banville] is prodigiously gifted. He cannot write an unpolished phrase, so we read himslowly, relishing the stream of pleasures he affords. Everything in Banville’s books isalive. . . . He is a writer’s writer [who] can conjure with the poetry of people andplaces.” —The Independent (London)

    “Mesmerizing. . . . Banville masterfully melds the past with the present, allowing Max tofind strength in what remains behind.” —The Seattle Times

    “Banville has a reputation as a brilliant stylist—people like to use the word ‘Nabokovian’in reference to his precisely worded books. His fourteenth novel, , has so manyThe Sea

    beautifully constructed sentences that every few pages something cries out to be underlined.” The Christian Science Monitor

    “Banville’s latest novel is simultaneously about growing up and growing old, [about] ritesof passage: coming-of-age and coming of old age; awakening and dying. . . . Banville has atalent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty.” —The Sunday Times(London)

    “A brilliant, sensuous, discombobulating novel.” —The Spectator

    “A richly intriguing book. . . . This novel is impeccably written, in a prose that is like anintricate and glorious spider’s web, imbued with vivid detail [and] laced with black humor.”The Nation

    “Banville writes novels of complex patterning, with grace, precision and timing, and there arewonderfully digressive meditations.” — The Guardian (London)

    “Banville is a master at capturing the most fleeting memory or excruciating twinge of self-awareness with riveting accuracy.” —People

    “This is a novel in which all Banville’s remarkable gifts come together to produce a realwork of art, disquieting, disturbing, beautiful, intelligent, and in the end, surprisingly,offering consolation.” —The Scotsman (Edinburgh)

    “Banville has written an utterly absorbing novel about the strange workings of grief, and thegratuitous dramas of memory.” — London Review of Books

I

    They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky thewaters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small wavescreeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping thevery bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far endof the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted arelaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved,it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue andmalignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves weredepositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the highhorizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

    Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.

    The name of the house is the Cedars, as of old. A bristling clump of those trees, monkey-brownwith a tarry reek, their trunks nightmarishly tangled, still grows at the left side, facingacross an untidy lawn to the big curved window of what used to be the living room but whichMiss Vavasour prefers to call, in landladyese, the lounge. The front door is at the oppositeside, opening on to a square of oil-stained gravel behind the iron gate that is still paintedgreen, though rust has reduced its struts to a tremulous filigree. I am amazed at how littlehas changed in the more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here. Amazed, anddisappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for reasons that are obscure to me, sincewhy should I desire change, I who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past? Iwonder why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a pebble-dashed windowlesswhite endwall to the road; perhaps in former times, before the railway, the road ran in adifferent orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the front door, anything ispossible. Miss V. is vague on dates but thinks a cottage was first put up here early in thelast century, I mean the century before last, I am losing track of the millennia, and then wasadded on to haphazardly over the years. That would account for the jumbled look of the place,with small rooms giving on to bigger ones, and windows facing blank walls, and low ceilingsthroughout. The pitchpine floors sound a nautical note, as does my spindle-backed swivelchair. I imagine an old seafarer dozing by the fire, landlubbered at last, and the winter galerattling the window frames. Oh, to be him. To have been him.

    When I was here all those years ago, in the time of the gods, the Cedars was a summer house,for rent by the fortnight or the month. During all of June each year a rich doctor and hislarge, raucous family infested it—we did not like the doctor’s loud-voiced children, theylaughed at us and threw stones from behind the unbreachable barrier of the gate—and afterthem a mysterious middle-aged couple came, who spoke to no one, and grimly walked theirsausage dog in silence at the same time every morning down Station Road to the strand. Augustwas the most interesting month at the Cedars, for us. The tenants then were different eachyear, people from England or the Continent, the odd pair of honeymooners whom we would try tospy on, and once even a fit-up troupe of itinerant theatre people who were putting on anafternoon show in the village’s galvanised-tin cinema. And then, that year, came the familyGrace.

    The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the gravel inside the gate. Itwas a low-slung, scarred and battered black model with beige leather seats and a big spokedpolished wood steering wheel. Books with bleached and dog-eared covers were thrown carelesslyon the shelf under the sportily raked back window, and there was a touring map of France,much used. The front door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside,downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on floorboards and a girllaughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drinkin his hand came out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and chest andbig round head, with close-cut, crinkled, glittering-black hair with flecks of premature greyin it and a pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt unbuttoned andkhaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish

    sheen. Even his feet, I noticed, were brown on the insteps; the majority of fathers in myexperience were fish-belly white below the collar-line. He set his tumbler—ice-blue gin andice cubes and a lemon slice—at a perilous angle on the roof of the car and opened thepassenger door and leaned inside to rummage for something under the dashboard. In the unseenupstairs of the house the girl laughed again and gave a wild, warbling cry of mock-panic, andagain there was the sound of scampering feet. They were playing chase, she and the voicelessother. The man straightened and took his glass of gin from the roof and slammed the car door.Whatever it was he had been searching for he had not found. As he turned back to the house hiseye caught mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually did, at oncearch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, a conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost, as ifthis moment that we, two strangers, adult and boy, had shared, although outwardly withoutsignificance, without content, even, nevertheless had meaning. His eyes were an extraordinarypale transparent shade of blue. He went back inside then, already talking before he wasthrough the door. “Damned thing,” he said, “seems to be . . .” and was gone. I lingered amoment, scanning the upstairs windows. No face appeared there.

    That, then, was my first encounter with the Graces: the girl’s voice coming down from onhigh, the running footsteps, and the man here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink,jaunty, intimate and faintly satanic.

    Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling through the front teeth thatI have begun to do recently. Deedle deedle deedle, it goes, like a dentist’s drill. My

    father used to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the corridorColonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the afternoon talk programmes, the ones inwhich irate members of the public call up to complain about villainous politicians and theprice of drink and other perennial irritants. “Company,” he says shortly, and clears histhroat, looking a little abashed, his protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though Ihave issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard to picture him therein his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape andhands clasped behind that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man itself,from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to the tip of his conical skull. Hehas his hair cut every Saturday morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quartergiven, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed leathery ears stick out,they look as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smokyyellow tinge. I can hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what they say.I may go mad here. Deedle deedle.

    Later that day, the day the Graces came, or the following one, or the one following that, Isaw the black car again, recognised it at once as it went bounding over the little humpbackedbridge that spanned the railway line. It is still there, that bridge, just beyond the station.Yes, things endure, while the living lapse. The car was heading out of the village in thedirection of the town, I shall call it Ballymore, a dozen miles away. The town is Ballymore,this village is Ballyless, ridiculously, perhaps, but I do not care. The man with the beard whohad winked at me was at the wheel, saying something and laughing, his head thrown back.Beside him a woman sat with an elbow out of the rolled-down window, her head back too, palehair shaking in the gusts from the window, but she was not laughing only smiling, that smileshe reserved for him, sceptical, tolerant, languidly amused. She wore a white blouse andsunglasses with white plastic rims and was smoking a cigarette. Where am I, lurking in whatplace of vantage? I do not see myself. They were gone in a moment, the car’s sashaying back-end scooting around a bend in the road with a spurt of exhaust smoke. Tall grasses in theditch, blond like the woman’s hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreamingstillness.

    I walked down Station Road in the sunlit emptiness of afternoon. The beach at the foot of thehill was a fawn shimmer under indigo. At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the worldreduced to a few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky. I approached the Cedarscircumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura

    of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but athing known returning in a different form, become a revenant? So many unanswerables, this theleast of them. As I approached I heard a regular rusty screeching sound. A boy of my age wasdraped on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar, propelling himselfwith one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter circle over the gravel. He had the samestraw-pale hair as the woman in the car and the man’s unmistakable azure eyes. As I walkedslowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered, rather, he stuck the toe of hisplimsoll into the gravel to stop the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression ofhostile enquiry. It was the way we all looked at each other, we children, on first encounter.Behind him I could see all the way down the narrow garden at the back of the house to thediagonal row of trees skirting the railway line—they are gone now, those trees, cut down tomake way for a row of pastel-coloured bungalows like dolls’ houses—and beyond, even, inland,to where the fields rose and there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorsebushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with scrolled white clouds. Suddenly,startlingly, the boy pulled a grotesque face at me, crossing his eyes and letting his tongueloll on his lower lip. I walked on, conscious of his mocking eye following me.

    Plimsoll. Now, there is a word one does not hear any more, or rarely, very rarely. Originallysailors’ footwear, from someone’s name, if I recall, and something to do with ships. TheColonel is off to the lavatory again. Prostate trouble, I bet. Going past my door he softenshis tread, creaking on tiptoe, out of respect for the bereaved. A stickler for the observances,our gallant Colonel.

    I am walking down Station Road.

    So much of life was stillness then, when we were young, or so it seems now; a bidingstillness; a vigilance. We were waiting in our as yet unfashioned world, scanning the futureas the boy and I had scanned each other, like soldiers in the field, watching for what was tocome. At the bottom of the hill I stopped and stood and looked three ways, along Strand Road,and back up Station Road, and the other way, toward the tin cinema and the public tenniscourts. No one. The road beyond the tennis courts was called the Cliff Walk, although whatevercliffs there may once have been the sea had long ago eroded. It was said there was a churchsubmerged in the sandy sea bed down there, intact, with bell tower and bell, that once hadstood on a headland that was gone too, brought toppling into the roiling waves one immemorialnight of tempest and awful flood. Those were the stories the locals told, such as Duignan thedairyman and deaf Colfer who earned his living selling salvaged golf balls, to make ustransients think their tame little seaside village had been of old a place of terrors. Thesign over the Strand Café, advertising cigarettes, Navy Cut, with a picture of a beardedsailor inside a lifebuoy, or a ring of rope—was it?—creaked in the sea breeze on its salt-rusted hinges, an echo of the gate at the Cedars on which for all I knew the boy was swinging

     yet. They creak, this present gate, that past sign, to this day, to this night, in mydreams. I set off along Strand Road. Houses, shops, two hotels—the Golf, the Beach—a granitechurch, Myler’s grocery-cum-post-office-cum-pub, and then the field—the Field—of woodenchalets one of which was our holiday home, my father’s, my mother’s, and mine.

    If the people in the car were his parents had they left the boy on his own in the house? Andwhere was the girl, the girl who had laughed?

    The past beats inside me like a second heart.

    The consultant’s name was Mr. Todd. This can only be considered a joke in bad taste on thepart of polyglot fate. It could have been worse. There is a name De’Ath, with that fancymedial capital and apotropaic apostrophe which fool no one. This Todd addressed Anna as Mrs.Morden but called me Max. I was not at all sure I liked the distinction thus made, or thegruff familiarity of his tone. His office, no, his rooms, one says rooms, as one calls himMister not Doctor, seemed at first sight an eyrie, although they were only on the third floor.The building was a new one, all glass and steel—there was even a glass-and-steel tubularlift shaft, aptly suggestive of the barrel of a syringe, through which the lift rose and fellhummingly like a giant plunger being alternately pulled and pressed—and two walls of his

    main consulting room were sheets of plate glass from floor to ceiling. When Anna and I wereshown in, my eyes were dazzled by a blaze of early-autumn sunlight falling down through thosevast panes. The receptionist, a blonde blur in a nurse’s coat and sensible shoes thatsqueaked—on such an occasion who would really notice the receptionist?—laid Anna’s file onMr. Todd’s desk and squeakingly withdrew. Mr. Todd bade us sit. I could not tolerate thethought of settling myself on a chair and went instead and stood at the glass wall, lookingout. Directly below me there was an oak, or perhaps it was a beech, I am never sure of thosebig deciduous trees, certainly not an elm since they are all dead, but a noble thing, anyway,the summer’s green of its broad canopy hardly silvered yet with autumn’s hoar. Car roofsglared. A young woman in a dark suit was walking away swiftly across the car park, even atthat distance I fancied I could hear her high heels tinnily clicking on the tarmac. Anna waspalely reflected in the glass before me, sitting very straight on the metal chair in three-quarters profile, being the model patient, with one knee crossed on the other and her joinedhands resting on her thigh. Mr. Todd sat sideways at his desk riffling through the documents inher file; the pale-pink cardboard of the folder made me think of those shivery first morningsback at school after the summer holidays, the feel of brand-new schoolbooks and the somehowbodeful smell of ink and pared pencils. How the mind wanders, even on the most concentrated ofoccasions.

    I turned from the glass, the outside become intolerable now.

    Mr. Todd was a burly man, not tall or heavy but very broad: one had an impression ofsquareness. He cultivated a reassuringly old-fashioned manner. He wore a tweed suit with awaistcoat and watch chain, and chestnut-brown brogues that Colonel Blunden would haveapproved. His hair was oiled in the style of an earlier time, brushed back sternly from hisforehead, and he had a moustache, short and bristly, that gave him a dogged look. I realisedwith a mild shock that despite these calculatedly venerable effects he could not be much morethan fifty. Since when did doctors start being younger than I am? On he wrote, playing fortime; I did not blame him, I would have done the same, in his place. At last he put down hispen but still was disinclined to speak, giving the earnest impression of not knowing where tobegin or how. There was something studied about this hesitancy, something theatrical. Again, Iunderstand. A doctor must be as good an actor as physician. Anna shifted on her chairimpatiently.

    “Well, Doctor,” she said, a little too loudly, putting on the bright, tough tone of one ofthose film stars of the Forties, “is it the death sentence, or do I get life?”

    The room was still. Her sally of wit, surely rehearsed, had fallen flat. I had an urge to rushforward and snatch her up in my arms, fireman-fashion, and carry her bodily out of there. Idid not stir. Mr. Todd looked at her in mild, hare-eyed panic, his eyebrows hovering halfwayup his forehead.

    “Oh, we won’t let you go quite yet, Mrs. Morden,” he said, showing big grey teeth in anawful smile. “No, indeed we will not.”

    Another beat of silence followed that. Anna’s hands were in her lap, she looked at them,frowning, as if she had not noticed them before. My right knee took fright and set totwitching.

    Mr. Todd launched into a forceful disquisition, polished from repeated use, on promisingtreatments, new drugs, the mighty arsenal of chemical weapons he had at his command; he mighthave been speaking of magic potions, the alchemist’s physic. Anna continued frowning at herhands; she was not listening. At last he stopped and sat gazing at her with the samedesperate, leporine look as before, audibly breathing, his lips drawn back in a sort of leerand those teeth on show again.

    “Thank you,” she said politely in a voice that seemed now to come from very far off. Shenodded to herself. “Yes,” more remotely still, “thank you.”

    At that, as if released, Mr. Todd gave his knees a quick smack with two flat palms and jumpedto his feet and fairly bustled us to the door. When Anna had gone through he turned to me and

    gave me a gritty, man-to-man smile, and the handshake, dry, brisk, unflinching, which I amsure he reserves for the spouses at moments such as this.

    The carpeted corridor absorbed our footsteps.

    The lift, pressed, plunged.

    We walked out into the day as if we were stepping on to a new planet, one where no one livedbut us.

    Arrived home, we sat outside the house in the car for a long time, loath of venturing in uponthe known, saying nothing, strangers to ourselves and each other as we suddenly were. Annalooked out across the bay where the furled yachts bristled in the glistening sunlight. Herbelly was swollen, a round hard lump pressing against the waistband of her skirt. She had saidpeople would think she was pregnant—“At my age!”—and we had laughed, not looking at eachother. The gulls that nested in our chimneys had all gone back to sea by now, or migrated, orwhatever it is they do. Throughout that drear summer they had wheeled above the rooftops allday long, jeering at our attempts to pretend that all was well, nothing amiss, the worldcontinuous. But there it was, squatting in her lap, the bulge that was big baby De’Ath,burgeoning inside her, biding its time.

    At last we went inside, having nowhere else to go. Bright light of midday streamed in at thekitchen window and everything had a glassy, hard-edged radiance as if I were scanning the roomthrough a camera lens. There was an impression of general, tight-lipped awkwardness, of allthese homely things—jars on the shelves, saucepans on the stove, that bread-board with itsjagged knife—averting their gaze from our all at once unfamiliar, afflicted presence in theirmidst. This, I realised miserably, this is how it would be from now on, wherever she goes the

    How well you look! they would exclaim.soundless clapping of the leper’s bell preceding her.

    Why, we’ve never seen you better! And she with her brilliant smile, putting on a brave face,poor Mrs. Bones.

    She stood in the middle of the floor in her coat and scarf, hands on her hips, casting abouther with a vexed expression. She was still handsome then, high of cheekbone, her skintranslucent, paper-fine. I always admired in particular her Attic profile, the nose a line ofcarven ivory falling sheer from the brow.

    “Do you know what it is?” she said with bitter vehemence. “It’s inappropriate, that’swhat it is.”

    I looked aside quickly for fear my eyes would give me away; one’s eyes are always those ofsomeone else, the mad and desperate dwarf crouched within. I knew what she meant. This was notsupposed to have befallen her. It was not supposed to have befallen us, we were not that kindof people. Misfortune, illness, untimely death, these things happen to good folk, the humbleones, the salt of the earth, not to Anna, not to me. In the midst of the imperial progressthat was our life together a grinning losel had stepped out of the cheering crowd andsketching a parody of a bow had handed my tragic queen the warrant of impeachment.

    She put on a kettle of water to boil and fished in a pocket of her coat and brought out herspectacles and put them on, looping the string behind her neck. She began to weep, absent-mindedly, it might be, making no sound. I moved clumsily to embrace her but she drew backsharply.

    “For heaven’s sake don’t fuss!” she snapped. “I’m only dying, after all.”

    The kettle came to the boil and switched itself off and the seething water inside it settleddown grumpily. I marvelled, not for the first time, at the cruel complacency of ordinarythings. But no, not cruel, not complacent, only indifferent, as how could they be otherwise?Henceforth I would have to address things as they are, not as I might imagine them, for thiswas a new version of reality. I took up the teapot and the tea, making them rattle—my handswere shaking—but she said no, she had changed her mind, it was brandy she wanted, brandy, anda cigarette, she who did not smoke, and rarely drank. She gave me the dull glare of a defiantchild, standing there by the table in her coat. Her tears had stopped. She took off her

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