Friday, 6 September 2013

Tides or How stories do or don't get told by Elizabeth Baines

There’s a scene that keeps coming back to me: the two of us standing at a wall by the sea one evening in Wales, me and him. It was dusk, the tide was out and just beginning to come in. It feels to me as if this moment is the focus of a story, our story, the point from which the tale could go backwards to all that happened before, and forwards, beyond that night. I see us from outside, silhouetted against the sea and the sky, me in my leather jacket, he in his waterproof – we’d been walking in the mountains – two figures in a tableau, the hero and the heroine of the narrative to be told.
     But the light was fading, and as I stare into the memory the thing we were watching then is taking my attention now: the slip of sea coming in between the black and slick-shiny mud flats. The sky is fading, but this little river is paradoxically brightening, as if pulling all the light down into itself. It glistens like mercury, and even as we watch it’s coming nearer and growing, because there on the straits the sea comes in quietly but fast from different directions at once.
     And I can’t yet see how to tell the story, or where to go from that moment, just the two of us together there at that wall by the sea.

I could pick the time he betrayed me, which would make the story a Gothic drama. It was autumn. The smell of rot was in the air and berries outside the window dripped like darkening blood. I wanted to lock him out for his betrayal, though his footstep on the path was like the footstep of the vampire to whom no door could be barred…
     But I’m distracted from our story. Other stories are crowding me, the ones I was thinking of then by the sea, stories misty with legend and others concrete and linear with the building stones of history. My eye – then, and now in my memory – is drawn to the island across the water, black against the sky, plump with trees and the tales of the people who regarded them as sacred and there on that shore fought the Romans with hair and robes flying and torches flailing and blood-curdling cries. And nearer, drawn on the tide of that growing river, are the stories of the other invaders and travellers, the Celtic monks pulling onto the once-wooded shore where we stand, the Norman king who cut the trees down and built the castle looming behind us, setting the contours of Constantinople in the blue-green light of this north-western land.
     Our figures, mine and his, are becoming indistinct to me in the dark.
     And I’m thinking now, as I was thinking then, of the time in my childhood when I lived nearby, an English-speaking invader myself: my own story, which ended long before I met him, featuring custard made from powder and canings at school, and which can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir, depending on my mood.
     It leads me on – stream-of-consciousness – to remember now that earlier that day we’d been shopping. He whizzed around with the trolley and I went straggling behind, sidetracked by the fact that the supermarket assistants spoke mostly in North-West English accents, not Welsh. Later on we made an inquiry in a shop that hadn’t yet opened for business and was still being stocked with huge ugly soft toys by three Asian-looking guys. They were from our own town in England, I commented, but, surprised, they said no, they were locals, and when I asked them where they got their accents they said they had no idea.
     And I stood in the pedestrianized High Street while he went to the bank machine, and watched a giant-seeming seagull drop onto a toy-town-seeming chimney, while a young mother, like my own mother here once, struggled by with a pushchair and kids, and I couldn’t decide if it was a bad end to a story – a culture and a language swamped, in spite of the educational and heritage initiatives, by the Englishness sweeping down the new roads and the TV channels – or actually a good one, riddance of the differences that created old enmities.
     Or maybe – more like – there’s just no end to the story.
     He came from the bank machine towards me, took my arm, waved back at the guys through the glass; we waved together, him and me: that’s how we are now, a companionable couple, we went off for a companionable walk in the hills, it’s not the heart-stopping thing it once was.
     I could tell that story, the time I ended it between us. I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale: the sleeping princess (me) kicking the prince away from the glass coffin, ie my house which I had to myself again at last. I could end it there and people would be glad of a satisfying ending and none would be any the wiser, leaving out the way the house then filled with shadows, the fact that I stopped eating, that I longed for the sound of his step on the path again, and when it came, like a stroke on skin, rushed to the door and the light flooded in… And then I wouldn’t be able to mention those years we spent together with the children – years like a TV sitcom – or indeed the two of us standing by the castle and the straits all that time later, side by side, not quite touching, watching the day dying, this image which just now seems central to it all.

The dark came down, the island was lost to us; the only thing to be seen was that river, still brightening and growing, and we turned into the pub under the castle wall just behind.
     We’d bought a paper and tried to read it, but it was Saturday night and the pub was noisy and full. In spite of the bitter weather young women were wearing the briefest most glittery fashions and they shrieked with a confident abandon which within easy living memory would never have been allowed in this town. Young men bellowed. A lad nearby pulled his shirt from his trousers and kept showing off his belly and every now and then staggered like a toddler up to a fortyish guy sitting nearby and performed a low drunken bow.
     Twenty today, that older chap explained, and then engaged him, my companionable man, in conversation.  I turned to the paper and read that the terrible summer had been caused by storms in the Arctic, which in turn had been caused by the warming of the seas elsewhere in the world. And then I looked back up and here in the pub it seemed the wrong story: the flowing drink, the skimpy clothes and bare flesh were the real and concrete components of a better-known, more comforting one, the certain progression of the familiar seasons.
     My eye was caught by a teenage girl in the doorway, in a little-girl dress with puff sleeves and high princess waist, and I was swamped by nostalgia, which of course is what such fashions are designed to do to you, and I thought of myself in the time before I made all my choices, when all the narratives were open, when I couldn’t have imagined I’d be sitting here one day with a man I almost lost, once because I nearly gave him up and once because he nearly died.
     I could tell that last too, as a complete and rounded story, a grim, realist tale: the symbolic slam of the ambulance door, the ice-rink of the hospital corridor, his skull pushing up through his skin, the emergency operation. Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending?

I looked beyond him, and framed in the pub window was that channel of sea, now hugely swollen, still lit with a light that seemed to come from nowhere.
     The other guy was still talking to him, in an accent part Welsh and part something else. He came from Liverpool, he was saying, and when he had kids here he vowed he’d bring them up properly Welsh. His son was the friend of that lad whose birthday it was; they were in the Welsh Guards, and the reason they were making hay this weekend was that the following week they were off to Afghanistan.
     Outside the window the river broke an invisible barrier and poured across the mud flats.
     The chap saw where I was looking. He said, did we know that the council sold the land on the harbour for a single penny to developers, to be rid of the responsibility of protecting the town when the sea level rises?

It was time to go. We picked up the paper.
     Outside the sea had drowned the mud flats altogether and was lapping blackly, high against the wall.
     The light was all gone.
     We joined hands in the dark, in the oncoming rush of all the possible stories.

About the Author: Elizabeth's stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and her collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, is published by Salt. Salt have also published her two short novels, Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine. She is also a prizewinning playwright for radio and stage. 

Image: (c) Elizabeth Baines