A Town By The Sea - Chapter One
You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
When I awoke the tongue of the tide was lapping at my feet and the sea had claimed my belongings. The sand on which I lay was so stiff there was no trace of my footprints across it. An observer viewing me from above might have imagined I had been washed upon the shore from a shipwreck. Another would perhaps have construed that I had been cast away by choice. If I had encountered my inert body I would have made the former assumption although the latter is much closer to the truth.
I stood with some difficulty; only then, having risen, did I feel the dampness of my clothes. The cold of the sand had not made itself felt while I lay against it. There was no breeze to chill or to dry me. The sun had risen. I could smell salt and a decay which emanated from the tangles of seaweed washed up by the tide. Having lost much of what I owned, I examined what I knew (which was all that remained to me). The month was September. It was a little before seven a.m. I could remember much of the journey that had delivered me here. I knew where it had begun and I could make out some of the features that lay ahead of me. Clearest of all I could see the bleak grey sea and the horizon and the grey sky above it. I counselled myself to dismiss all thoughts of the journey ahead and to concentrate on that moment, that kernel of time. This, I had been assured, would lead me surely to happiness.
'Do not trouble yourself with the hours ahead of you. Regret nothing of the hours that have passed. Only misery lies in contemplating the future.'
When a woman told me this I remember thinking little of it. I rarely pay much heed to what people tell me; I know enough to get by. But when I was next troubled, her words came back to me and I ceased contemplating the day ahead of me. Immediately I felt better. On the following day my misery returned. This time, however, rather than submitting to it, I confronted it. At the heart of the grey cloud was a black, black moment Ð and that moment was a meeting I had planned, two weeks hence. This was the source of the misery. Before I met the woman I would have accepted the unhappiness but, having unearthed its source, her words granted me a new strength.
So, at a little before seven a.m. in the month of September, on a day that was devoid of any breeze, with my clothes a little wet, my stomach empty, but my heart light, I set out along the beach towards the town which lay some distance to the east of me. It looked a tidy place. There was a greyness about its buildings, but not the drab grey of the sea or the morning sky, it was a vibrant, deep grey which spoke of a proud ancestry of black. Despite the risen sun, lights were lit in the streets. Because their light was superfluous they lent a gay frivolity to the town. As I approached, I could see that the windows were woodframed and the frames were, without exception, painted in a startling white. Great care had been taken. There was no paint at all on the panes. The housepainter here must, I imagined, be a fully apprenticed man. Not that all the panes were clean. Some were quite smeared with salt spray blown from the sea. The drapes in most of the front rooms were drawn. Those that were not, were clear invitations to passersby to stand for a while and speculate on the occupation and well-being of those who dwelled there.
I came with some alarm upon a particular room in which a man was asleep at his desk. Beside his elbow was a decanter harbouring a pale gold liquid. A glass stood on the table within reach of his outstretched hand. His forehead was resting upon the pillow of his forearm, his head crowned in grey hair. The hair was thin and his pink scalp clearly visible at the crown. He breathed gently in his sleep; with each inflation his shoulders rose a little before falling again. When I tired of watching him, I surveyed the room. The certificate on the distant wall, the glass-fronted case of books and the chart suggested to me that this was the surgery of the doctor of the town. Perhaps he had been called in the night and, on returning home, had been unable to sleep so had taken refuge here. Doctors are drunkards by and large; it seems also to be the case that most are insomniacs. Drink is what they prescribe themselves in order to sleep. Few, it has always seemed to me, take their own health seriously. Perhaps they feel shame in presenting themselves at the surgeries of their fellow-practitioners because they know that, in the main, few consultations are genuinely required. One visits a doctor generally for reassurance, not for medication. Doctors are lonely creatures.
The man stirred. As he raised his head I saw his face for the first time. It was pained by tiredness. He looked directly towards me but I sensed that he did not see me. Perhaps he was caught in some dream. After a short moment he laid down his head and resumed his slumbers.
Those grey houses with their fine window frames of white fronted a narrow road. On the far side of the road was the promenade. A steep fall beyond it (there was no wall) lay the beach with its wooden breakwaters and gaudy, metal-wheeled bathing machines. When I crossed the road I looked neither left nor right. Despite the advancing hour, the streets were empty. If there was to be life in the town at this hour I felt sure I would find it on the beach. But there was none.
There was, however, in the centre of the promenade, a small metal shelter painted white and emblazoned with the proud, entwined initials of the townÕs council. The shelter was an elongated letter H. There was a bench at the open front and a matching bench at the back. I sat briefly on the bench facing the town but immediately knew that I was in the wrong place so I stood and made my way to the bench facing the sea. Before I met the woman I am sure that I would have remained on the town bench, too embarrassed to risk being caught out for having made the wrong decision initially. Why this should be I do not know. Perhaps I sense I am undeserving of the space I take up in the world. I know that there are those who consider this to be so. But imagining myself to be under constant observation and feeling undeserving of my place in the world are the twin blights of my life.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am not so foolish as to believe that, had I stood and moved from the town tothe beach-bench, I would have heard someone call, 'Look at that fellow! He chose the wrong bench. Do you see him blush?' But I would have sensed the opprobrium. I'm sure you would argue that this, in itself, is foolish; that the observer and the observed are, in truth, one and the same. But if I truly believed that I lived my life under the constant observation (and disapproval) of myself, then I would feel too wretched to exist. There is one further aspect to this: if I had not first chosen the town-bench then I have the suspicion that I would not have known that the beach-bench was the correct choice. To make progress one must first set out; the direction one initially chooses is unimportant.
I settled myself upon the bench and waited for the day to begin. After almost an hour in which nobody stirred, I chanced a look behind me. This was not an unselfconscious movement. If I had merely turned, as a theatregoer would to one in the row behind, and I had been observed, then the observer could have believed that, again, I was examining the possibility of returning to the town-bench. Instead, I pivoted my head from one side to another, as though I was experiencing some stiffness in the neck. I then turned my head first a little way to the right, then a little way to the left. Having released some of the stiffness, I considered I had then earned the right to turn my head as far as my neck would allow to the left, allowing me an unimpeded view through the glass partition at the side of the shelter towards the heart of the town.
Beyond the grey houses was a terrace of shops, each of which had a colourful canvas awning extended over the pavement in front of it. A veil of mist hung about them. In the third shop of the row I saw a woman busying herself bringing out a number of weathered wicker baskets of wooden-handled spades, tin buckets, green shrimp nets, and other beach paraphernalia. She seemed content in her work, disappearing into the dark door of the shop, each time to emerge with another basket. Having satisfied myself with my inventory of the woman's goods, I turned my attention to her. She was young and wore loose-fitting clothes. Her hair was fair and fine and long and I saw contentment in her face. Her eyes sang with joy, her body was free in its movement. I considered whether or not I should approach her but there was little in her stock that suggested itself as a suitable topic for conversation. Perhaps the spades would suffice: do they, perhaps, give her any trouble by rusting in the salt breeze? No, this would have seemed far too ludicrous an opening: I did not want to appear a madman and be driven out of the town. Instead, I determined to approach her and wait for a thought to occur to me. Such a strategy has rewarded me in the past, although sometimes I have waited for too long and been judged mentally deficient. People, I have found, are quick to make such judgments. If one does not conform to their expectations (which are largely dictated by their own behaviour), one is marked out as being mentally wanting. But I craved human contact. I could sense my time was drawing near. I had come to this town for a reason and if I was to succeed then it was necessary for me to begin to ask the questions that would lead me to my destination.
I felt the momentary sadness come over me. It is a familiar feeling and one which attends each arrival and prefigures each new departure.
I stood and stretched. This was only a partly contrived gesture. I needed to stretch as one often does, and therefore I did. The woman saw me. She seemed a little taken aback to find the shelter inhabited at this early hour. I did not yet know the town sufficiently well to understand the etiquette. In other places, in other cities and towns, there are roads it is unwise to walk down, there are places at the bar counter where one should not stand, squares and alleys it is foolhardy to visit after dark. There are, in short, conventions the traveller must quickly learn before he earns acceptance.
In one dark city (where all of the buildings were made of wood) there was a clock which chimed once a day. The chime was preceded by the opening of two doors at the top of the tall tower. Through the doors there emerged two mechanical buglers which sailed out on metal tracks. When each reached an equivalent point in the tracks, a device triggered their right arms to raise the bugles to their mouths. As each did so, the clock would chime. I mention this only because it was the single moment of the day in which all of the city dwellers in the vicinity came out of their shops and businesses and stood still and silent to watch the chime. The visitors were therefore immediately identifiable by the fact that they continued to move about and talk to each other. The city dwellers watched them with disdain; in its way the behaviour was quite shocking. Because I stood in silence among them I sensed that they accepted me, and when I moved on I carried this acceptance with me.
I timed my approach to the woman badly. I had hoped to arrive at her shop just as she emerged from the door. I could therefore have greeted her as though each of us had, by some happy coincidence, arrived at the same part of the world at the same time. I have often wondered why we do not greet each other with more assiduity. After all, the odds of two souls meeting at any point in the world (unless by prior arrangement) are so long that we should greet every stranger with delight. The streets should resound with cries of welcome, with backslapping; hands being firmly shaken. By the time I arrived at the shop, however, the woman had returned inside and I feared that she had concluded her morning tasks and retired to her place behind the counter. I could not find the courage to enter, implicating me, as it would have done, to some extent in a commercial transaction I did not have the means to conclude. No. If we were to talk then it was necessary for her to come out of the shop one more time. And immediately she did, and because she was who she was Ð and was not burdened as I was Ð and, seemingly without any contemplation of the consequences, she greeted me.
'Good morning!' I imagined these words to be. I knew I had done right to come to this town.
What else could I reply but, ÔAnd good morning to you!Õ This was just as I had hoped it would be. The impetus now lay with her to continue. All that was now required of me was to follow her lead.
I waited. And I waited a little longer. The woman continued to look straight at me, but it was as if she no longer saw me. As if, indeed, I was a trick of the light. Her brow furrowed. It struck me that perhaps she had not understood my response so I repeated the greeting, but she turned away from me and made a step back towards the sanctuary of the shop. Muttering a word beneath her breath, she hurried inside, pulling the door shut behind her.
The door was glass-paned. In it I could see something of my reflection, though in the exchange I had been robbed of my substance. Had my black coat, my pallid complexion, my dark hair, tangled and salty from my night on the beach, intimidated her? I examined my appearance and concluded that in a town such as this, perhaps she did take me for a vagabond whose intention was to rob her as she opened up her shop. But if this was the case, then why did she greet me initially with such warmness? I approached the door. There was nothing for it but to confront her. I was no longer in any doubt as to the way the conversation should proceed. My uncertainty was vanquished. I tried the knob and it turned but when I pushed at the door it did not budge. Perhaps the frame had swollen. I pushed harder but the door was locked.
I peered inside at the brown-shadowed shapes on the shelves. There was no artificial light, just a little miserly illumination borrowed from the early sun. I could make out very little among the shadows. If the woman was there then she was standing very still. I touched my palm to the door and absorbed the chill of the glass. When I drew it away, my palm clung briefly to the pane as if the glass that had reflected me wanted to pull me inside and imprison me. At the same moment I caught a whiff of dampness, perhaps even of rot, from the building itself. There was a small movement inside. It seemed that the woman had not gone through to the back of the shop. Instead she was waiting inside, watching me. In turn, I watched her. My eyes accustomed themselves to the dimness of the interior of the shop. Shapes sharpened. On the counter I saw boxes of glass marbles, greedy for the light. On the shelves behind I saw tall glass jars of liquorice and twisted sugar candies, bull's-eyes and tangles of sugared seaweed. Between the counter and the shelves stood the woman.
When she saw that I had seen her she made a pretence of tidying up the papers on the shop counter. This took very little time and I could see that she regretted having wasted the opportunity to busy herself. She drew in a breath and then expelled it, placing her knuckles on the counter. All of this activity was to delay her from returning to the door and unlocking it. I was grateful that she was taking so much trouble over me. I was a stranger, what did she know of me? Well, clearly, I reflected, she knew enough to engage in this unnecessary activity so that my feelings would not be hurt by her choosing not to unlock the door. Already we had reached a moment of intimacy, perhaps even tenderness. But her knuckled hands suggested to me that she was embarrassed at being watched. I recognised the condition. When we are alone and unobserved our arms and our hands are no encumbrance. But in company, as the practised liar knows, our limbs (yes, our legs also) often serve to contradict our words. A good lie demands control of the voice, the face and the entire body. From the evidence that the woman had bunched her knuckles, I understood that she was feeling some aggression. But the fingers, clenched tight into fists, were directed back towards her. She was angry with herself; angry because she knew now she should not have locked the door.
As conversations go, I was beginning to enjoy my time with the shop woman. Already we had enough in common to suggest that we could be friends (although I have found in the past that similarities often repel).
After she had taken in and expelled a further breath, which ruffled her fine hair, she fanned her face with her slender hand. She was signalling to me that soon she would go behind her curtain for water. At that point I would lose her entirely and I think she knew this, which was why she did not immediately remove herself from my sight. Something held her, some promise our brief acquaintance had made. What to do? Her inactivity had returned the impetus to me. This was why she waited. What I chose to do next would dictate whether or not she went away through the curtain. What could I do? I could call or I could knock; I could take three steps back in the hope that curiosity would draw her towards the door; I could duck down and vanish, and hope that this would achieve the same effect. Or I could sing Ð and surely a song was the last thing she expected to hear from me on such a September morning. I could think of no better reason. But just as I came to this decision she raised her eyes from the papers on the counter and looked towards me: a clear challenge; my final chance.
I licked my lips and tasted salt and then I began. At first my voice was gentle, like water, but when I had judged my pitch Ð loud enough for her to hear, not so loud as to wake the neighbourhood Ð I gave it full rein. The song concerned a dog which had been abandoned by its master beneath a bridge. The master was too poor to feed it and had chosen the bridge because it would provide the dog with shelter. However, each time the master walked away the loyal dog would follow him. To prevent this, the man tied the dog with rope to a metal hoop secured in the damp brickwork of the bridge. The dog followed him to the extent of the rope but could then only watch and bark sadly as the man deserted him. That night it rained hard. The river rose. In the morning the towpath beneath the bridge was submerged beneath the water. There was no sign of the dog. The master was distraught. Already unbalanced by hunger, this pushed him beyond sanity. He returned home, and once there he stood on a stool and secured a further length of the rope to a rafter in the ceiling. He took a final look around his poor room before kicking away the stool. The rope bit into his throat and began to choke him, but he had not, as all good suicides know to, tied the knot in such a way as to break his neck. Instead, he thrashed about, dancing in the air. The rope broke and he fell to the floor. The last verse finds him rolling about in mirth on the floor of his room while the dog is heard to be barking outside.
Although the woman was still staring towards me, the focus of her gaze had shifted and she was now looking into herself. The shop door and my shape beyond it had become a canvas on to which she was painting her interpretation of the story. She curtailed her thoughts with a sharp nod and strode over to the door. I heard the key turn and prepared myself for the discussion ahead: why did the man laugh? Was he a fully fledged lunatic? I had held this conversation (with myself and others) many times. The door opened and the woman came out into the sun which had now broken through the mist and was shining brightly. Her eyes shrank momentarily, as if in response to a sharp pain. Out of politeness I took a step back; I did not want to crowd her. But she proceeded straight past me without a word or a look of acknowledgment. And then, rather than returning to her baskets, she set off along the street leaving me in sole charge of the shop. She walked in long, graceful strides. I had misjudged her height. She was half a foot taller than I.
Another test? I had hoped this would be the end of it. But I was exhausted now. She had defeated me and I was at her mercy.
I stepped into the shop with trepidation, imagining how I would feel if I had entered it as a customer might. A little afraid, I believe, particularly had I been a child. The dimness menaced the goods boxed upon the shelves and the bottled sweets behind the counter. It dampened the appetite for life, bidding one towards sleep. This was not the convivial setting one requires to part with money. Although the shop woman was gone, her presence remained a ghost in the room. The papers, neatened by her hand, remained neatened. There was a small indentation in one pile where her knuckles had lain. I could smell the soap she had used to wash herself that morning, and could differentiate a lighter, sweeter fragrance that had been employed on her clothes.
It was then that I heard a movement in the room above. Why I had assumed that the woman lived alone I do not know, but she did not have the demeanour of a married woman. There was no suggestion of a fellow weighing down her shoulders, she carried herself too straight. And neither had she called out to explain that she was leaving the shop. Perhaps there was a lesser burden in the household: an aged parent, or lover, or perhaps even a child.
Although the movement above me had now ceased, my curiosity was such that it impelled me to move behind the counter. I was glad of a reason to leave the grim shop. If the woman returned and found me in the room upstairs I would explain that I had heard a call for help. I pushed through the beaded curtain (which was heavier than I had anticipated), but paused with the curtain about me as if caught by a photographer in a hailstorm. Each bead, I discovered, was a joy in itself. I grasped a handful and let them fall through my fingers; they were cool and of a great weight. I pressed on, and on the other side I found a small hallway. Off to the left was an unlit storeroom. Immediately ahead of me was a set of open wooden steps such as one might find in the cellar of a bar. They rose steeply to the floor above. The damp and decay I had first smelled outside the shop was stronger here and seemed to emanate from the storeroom. I hurried past it, feeling a shiver pass up my spine.
Once on the steps I found that I must climb them as I would have climbed a ladder, they were too steep to use as a staircase. I grasped the rails on each side, cautious of splinters, and made my way up. My head arriving at the upper landing, I paused and looked around me. I was confronted by a short corridor with a door to the left and a door to the right. At the far end was anchored the base of a further set of narrow wooden steps which returned towards me, making a triangle of the space on the right side of the landing. Looking above me, I saw a trapdoor at the top of the steps. I then completed my climb with agility, brushed the dust from my hands and stood silently, listening. There was no sound from the room to the right of me, nor from the room to the left. Both the doors were closed and each was latched in the old style. I knocked on the door to my left. There was no reply. I did the same to the door on my right. Again, no reply. Boldly, I unlatched the door (for some obscure reason removing my hat as I did so). I called a greeting and walked into the room. It was empty, save for a bed, a chair, a washstand and a basin. At first sight, therefore, there was nothing at all remarkable about the room. However, when I went over to the small window and tried to peer out, I saw that the walls of the room were noticeably curved. Further, that the window was set some three or four feet into what proved to be a most substantial wall, making for a considerable width of ledge. This suggested to me that the dimensions of the building were more akin to a castle keep than a commercial premises. I took myself to the other room. Again with my hat in my left hand, I knocked, waited and entered. The room was sparse. At the centre of the bare floorboards there stood a square wood table with four chairs drawn tight in to each side of it. A chandelier hung above it which provided the sole decoration, although its grandeur mocked the simplicity of the room it reigned over. There were no paintings on the bare, distempered curving walls. The window ahead of me was set back in similar fashion to that of the bedroom.
I was puzzled. From the outside (although I had made only a cursory glance) I had assumed that the shop, like the row of dwellings which ran up to it, was square and flat-fronted and that, above it, there was a tidy roof. But had I, indeed, made this assumption after approaching the shop from the houses to the west of it, and had the formality of the terrace tricked me into a false assumption? If the walls were curved this surely argued that the building was not square but circular and that the two walls at each end of the hallway were therefore, perhaps, also curved. I returned to the landing but found the walls to be dead straight. There remained the possibility that there was a hidden, semicircular room behind each of the end walls of the hallway, access to which was by another route. The circular building (I had ceased now to think of it merely as a shop) would therefore have been perhaps forty feet in diameter, with thick walls and, presumably, solid foundations set deep below the level of the shop floor and the storeroom. But was I now at the top of the building, or simply part-way up? All thoughts of the woman and my responsibilities towards tending the counter had now deserted me. I was full of curiosity about the building, sensing, as I did, that fate had brought me here for a purpose.
In my mind I took myself back to my approach to the terrace and retraced my steps. After seeing the doctor asleep at his desk I had turned my attention to the sea. When I had taken my seat in the shelter on the promenade I had been so exercised by moving to the beach-seat that I had paid scant attention to the shops and the town ahead of me. When, finally, I had approached the woman setting out her baskets, my only concern had been what I would say to her. Would I have noticed anything above? Perhaps not, particularly had the mist been thick. But why was I wasting my time examining what I had anticipated? I had been presented with two options: to climb further or to go back outside and survey the building from there. I hope that you know me sufficiently well by now to know which course I took. In under a minute I was at the top of the next set of steps and standing at the centre of a circular room. This chamber had no walls to partition it, no furniture, simply bare brick walls with two windows set into them. Access to it had been through a trapdoor which suddenly dropped shut behind me to an enormous echo that bounded gleefully around the walls.
My assumption had been correct. The diameter of the building was, indeed, approximately forty feet. What differentiated this floor from the last was the height of the ceiling. Whereas the previous one had been perhaps nine or ten feet high, this time the boards were seven or eight feet above my head. And any notion that this was the end of my climb was immediately dispelled, for this time a wooden ladder led to a square trap in the ceiling above. By now I had concluded that it would be prudent to make an assessment of the task ahead of me, determined, as I was, to reach the top of the tower (and when I reached the top I would assess whether tower was an appropriate description). I therefore returned to the trapdoor with a view to climbing down the two sets of steps, leaving the building through the shop and taking up a vantage point on the promenade. From there, the mist having lifted, the height of the tower would be immediately apparent. The trapdoor, however, was impossible to raise. Despite the rope attached to it, the size of it (four feet square) and the depth of it (five or six inches) made it too heavy for one man to lift. I attempted this a number of times, believing that if I took it by surprise perhaps I would catch gravity napping and could snatch it open before it awoke. I succeeded only in wrenching a muscle just below my right shoulderblade.
At this moment, as I circled the room like a mule at a well, I found that my excitement at the task ahead had palled, the joyous child of my hope cowering now before the monster of despair. I had neither food nor water. Not having eaten for more than a day, my hunger now cried out. I paused at the window recess. I reasoned that if I could open the window then perhaps I could alert a passerby on the promenade. Two or three men could raise the trapdoor from below and I would be free. I felt stronger as I pushed my head and shoulders into the narrow aperture that led to the window. Pulling myself along it with my fingers and shrugging with my shoulders, my nose was soon at the thick green glass of the pane. Regrettably, there had never been any intention for this window to be opened. There was no frame, the glass being set directly into the surrounding brickwork. My body was so constricted by the space that all I could do was test the strength of the pane with my forehead. It was as cold and strong as steel. Nor could I see below me to the promenade and thus I could not enjoy the small reassurance of people going about their daily lives. All that lay within my sight was the grey sea, huge and malevolent, waiting to menace anyone foolhardy enough to set sail on it.
I slid backwards and out again into the room, grateful for the mercy of the space around me again. I strode over to the ladder, tested its strength, and climbed. Soon I had reached the floor above.
One can live many lives in an hour. With each life the birth of new hope. But I died many deaths that day as I climbed that tower. And as I climbed, the sun slowly moved above me. By the middle of the day I was entering chambers deep in shadow; as the afternoon wore on, each new floor was light again, which lifted my spirits. But by six p.m. the sun had dropped away and I knew that I was destined to spend the night cold and dark and afraid.
I continued to climb even when dusk came. So practised was I that I could have proceeded with my eyes shut, for each floor was identical, although the higher I climbed, the colder it became. Only once did I pause, when I glimpsed a black shape pass a window. Another followed, then another. I made my way to the pane and watched as several birds circled the tower. They were large, their feathers a glossy, regal black, their black-beaded eyes harbouring a cold intelligence. I had no doubt that they knew I was there, watching them. I rested, trying to gain some reassurance from the proximity of the cold circling creatures. But there was no kinship between us. Which made us enemies, not friends.
When, long into the night, I could go no further, I lay down and slept.
This is the first chapter of Chris Paling's A Town by the Sea reproduced with kind permission of the publisher Jonathan Cape .