Thursday 29 May 2014

Zum Strand

He studied his knuckles. They sat in rows curling around the steering wheel. Bent white hairs sprouted out of them amidst the blotches that plagued his hands and up his arms to his shoulders, and then over and down his hairy chest. He tried to move his hands, to bring some life into them but they stayed still like an ancient mountain range. His trousers had dried sticking to his skin. He could smell his damp socks and the mud that had crept into his shoes was slowly crusting over. His overcoat was frozen about him and the coarse collar scratched at his neck. He attempted to twitch his thumbs and when they remained motionless as well he decided that he would keep his hands where they were for fear he no longer had the power to move them at all. They must be frozen. 

            He had been cold since he had left England. Driving down to Dover and then across France and Belgium and the Netherlands he had been cold. His hands especially so as he had forgotten his gloves. His wife would never had forgotten and nor would his daughter have. But neither of them were there when he packed. One dead. One deceived. He had therefore packed slowly and contentedly and what went into his case was really only a matter of process, the checking-off of necessities that a lifetime had imprinted on his mind. It was the slow sorting of essentials. He took no luxuries; there was nothing he wanted to have close to him. He took only what he needed to get him through the trip, and everything he put in his case he resented as another thing he was to be burdened with. He had left his watch behind too.

            Once in the car he felt a surprising sensation of excitement that in seventy years of driving he had never experienced. Not even at the beginning with those first painful lessons as a young man that had commenced when his family had returned to England, practising with his father who sat rigid and sweating, screaming directions and expletives next to him. It had never got any better.  Driving the family to Norfolk for summer holidays had been the worst journeys of the year. On those trips he had been the one sweating and shouting expletives while his wife fumbled with the map and gave no directions at all. In a gnawing more tedious fashion, driving around the little town they lived in had been as dreadful; drives to the supermarket, to the post office, to the chemists. Driving along these streets now, he was only five minutes in the car when he lost his delayed enthusiasm for the car.

Apart from suffering a little boredom interspersed with a little fear, the journey to Dover had been no problem at all. Nevertheless when getting out of his car and setting foot on the ferry he hurried away from the vehicle and up the narrow white steps onto the first floor. He soon had to return to the car though as he had forgotten his wallet. On the ferry he bought a coffee which he drank quickly and then sat alone in a corner of a quiet canteen area. Once he got up and went on deck but the wind was bitter and he could not find the joy in the wind and the spray that the group of school children running about him did.

He had stayed in a hotel in Ghent that night, where years before he and his wife had been invited to, to celebrate a friend’s 50th. It had been a crisp autumn weekend then but this time he work up the next day to a soggy January morning. He left after a quick dry breakfast and drove under thickening clouds all day, not stopping until he reached his hotel in Wilhelmshaven late that evening. His German came out broken and awkward, like a schoolboy’s, as it had been when he left. The girl behind reception answered him in sharp and clear English with a heavy American twang. Taken aback and a little ashamed he continued in a mumbling English, which he sensed she listened to with disdain. He went to bed early that evening, rising early the next day to have a hurried breakfast. He felt uncomfortable of exposing his trip to curious eyes of the hotel stuff, polite strangers though they were, and was quick to leave into the weather raging outside soon after he had eaten, without shaving.

With him in the car he had taken only his coat and his wallet. He had the faint idea that he would buy Krebbe in Brot. But the shack was shut up, like everything else, and he thought that he probably wouldn’t have bought anything even if it had been otherwise. At least, he wouldn’t have enjoyed it if he had and that would have been worse than not eating. The shack suffered against the wind and the rain as the car did, and the other five or six cars did too, those that sat stationed about the bare car park that had become a muddy plain of quivering grey puddles. He couldn’t see anyone though he had passed a few wrapped up in coats and wearing big boots as he had driven down the track towards the sea. Children and little people looking the same, wrapped up and thinking of nothing but walking through the onslaught; looking neither sideways or back, no attention paid to each other, babies cradles in arms, and all heads bowed against the wind.

He wondered if there were others waiting in those cars now, fearing to emerge to the world that raged about them, clinging to their steering wheels like him, their seatbelts strapped on. Or perhaps those cars sat empty, their former occupants lost in the wind and rain, struggling somewhere on the beach unable to find their way back. There were boulders strewn about the car park, once used, he presumed, to designate parking spots. Parking bays the girl at the hotel had called them. Water rose about these rocks like they were fallen pre-historic beasts devoid of the will to rise. The trees that ringed this end of the car park swayed and creaked in the wind, little branches snapping off and splattering into the puddles like brittle little limbs. Over on the other side he could see the bushes that were littered along the coast this side of the Uffer. Down to the left there were the thicker trees leading into the wood that lined the path all the way along to where the stone steps led down to the beach. Directly in front of him, somewhere behind the crab shack, he knew there was the fence cutting off the private part of the beach to his right with the public part to his left.

            He cleared his throat of the mucus that had been forming there and the sound brought him back to himself and the car. He felt a great sense of both solitude and completeness. There were no other people, no lots of things, or Crebbe in Brott, to take from the full existence that he occupied alone in that car. It was quiet, and it was a joyless thinness, for as there was nothing to irritate or tug at him, there was also nothing to comfort or distract him. It was all metallic, and soulless, and hollow. His light breath was all that stirred in the car and even that seemed to be failing under the weight of the muted space. The smell of car neither grew nor dimmed, but hung suspended in the air around him. Without the interference of people or food or time, and with the click of his throat when it was cleared, he was aware of his complete existence, in the end, in a world that was entirely his own. In this little capsule he had peace, suffocating and fearful; it was as if, when one takes a leap off a rock or a jetty into the water, when in the moment that one is suspended in the air between water and sky, a metallic shell had closed in upon that person, holding them securely and with a careless strength to consider, for once, and for eternity. Something was coming, and much had been, but behind the ordered chaos and the hubbub, this is how it always was. His breath, his hands, his heart – all else had only been supplements to this quiet existence that he had occupied unaware since he first came into the world. About him were the last possessions that one held scattered about the table at the end of a long train journey. That which was left after the trolley lady had been round, and after she had return to pick up the debris, and then left the carriage until the end of the track. 

            He unclenched his hands from the steering wall, undid his seat belt and thrust them into the pockets of his jacket.


            He and Anya had often lain on this beach when it was fine weather, playing games and swimming in the sea. They would walk Dana down the shoreline and run through the wood as she chased and snapped at their heels. They would climb up the trees and look down at her laughing as she barked and pawed the trunks. Here on this beach Anya had taught him which shells were the rarest and he showed her the best way to build a channel down to the sea. Once her father had taken them out fishing on his boat. It had rained hard and after an hour the children were soaked through and shivering while Anya’s father shouted out instructions to them in Plattdeutsch. In the summer they had been down at the beach most days; he grabbed at her ankle under water, she had screamed at him when he flicked sand in her eye, and he had cried when the metal end of a spade fell down on his toes. Here he had felt her lips against his when she had kissed him, and he had felt the flesh under her dress amongst the trees.

            Dana always accompanied them to the beach. Anya would bring her to his house first, her barks from down the lane heralding their approach. By the time they got to his house he was outside in his cap and coat waiting for them. When Dana was a puppy she was just a tangled mass of fluff, constantly thick with sand and seaweed from the beach. She would look up with them with reproachful eyes as they tried to wash the remnants of the beach. Despite their best efforts she always smelt a little like a fishing boat, a scent that was constant in Anya’s house.

‘I wish I was like Dana,’ he had said to Anya. ‘So much energy. So few worries.’

            ‘She has her fair share of worries.’

He didn’t believe it.

He could remember them lying on that beach in the sun, him with his shirt off and her lying in the crook of his arm enveloped in her hair. He thought perhaps that it had not been one moment but many times, fragments of memories making up what seemed to him now, almost seventy years later, one of the happiest moments of his life. The clouds had blurred in and out of the thin blue sky above him, and as he slipped deep into daydream his imaginations had coupled with the voices of strangers about him to create weird fantasies. His skin had grown first warm where their flesh touched and then cooled as their bodies grew accustomed together. When they finally separated there was a light pull of their skin where the sweat had dried.

The back of his head had sunk into the sand and he could feel one thin pebble lying against his temple. One arm had been above his head but he brought it down to lie next to him when it began to ache, his fingers gently nosing the sand. Her fingers gently played with the dark hair that sprouted across his chest. Carefully they had tiptoed across his skin, occasionally a hair catching in her worn-down nails and tugging. She hummed tunelessly, and it fell in and out of the sound of her breathing. When his eyes were open, he could see in the corner of his vision the eyes flicking up and down, at the sky and down to the peaceful Dana whose wet nose he could feel at his feet. At one point she ran her whole palm across his chest as if sliding across a stage. As he had had a hairy chest and knuckles so she had little animal hands, wrinkled like a monkey’s.

He was self-conscious of the hair that had emerged all over his body when he had only just entered puberty. He remembered feeling the first spouts before seeing their black heads spring up, peppering the white skin under his arms and at his crotch. He had surveyed himself with horror in the mirror and stolen his mother’s nail clippers to snip away at the most audacious of them.  His legs were suddenly not the legs of a child, and he remembered his grandmother coming to stay and remarking on just that, tickling his calves. ‘I won’t be giving you baths anymore,’ she had said. He didn’t look down at his legs but saw them nevertheless; coarse and ungainly like a cockerel. And the hair kept coming with renewed vigour as the weeks passed, and he would look around shamefully at the smooth arms and legs of the other boys in his class.

Anya would mercilessly tease him for it. It was worse coming from her and he would thunder inside and flush. His father had hair all over his body too, with a great neatly-trimmed beard and full dark locks.
‘That is how you will turn out,’ she would say to him with a smile.

            But in this perfect memory – that which was all the more perfect for the myriad other memories that sparked off from it - she was quiet, and they were still save for her fingers that ballet-danced across his chest. Dana was still too, which was rare. As rare as it was for Anya to be so quiet and it was like for a moment, both of them had given up wit and games and were content to simply be with him, lying there on the beach.

            Most Saturdays at the beach he had returned home and been surprised at the time. He would always miss ‘Cocktail Hour’ – a sparse 45 minutes of one drink with a soggy square of cucumber floating in it – which he was compelled to be at despite not permitted to take part. Cocktail Hour had been a custom in his grandfather’s house when his father was a boy, his many siblings and neighbours making up a vibrant party. It was a custom his father had taken with him into the army and practiced from Wiltshire to London to Germany. Now though, as his mother didn’t drink, Cocktail Hour consisted of one weak gin and tonic and his father’s fraught attempts to recreate a throng of gentlemen and ladies, laughter and casual politics. His father would usually commence with some dry tale from work which had made him recall so-and-so from some place. ‘You remember, dear?’ His mother would feign recollection as she could rarely actually remember and his father would know it, cutting her off in her protestations and continue his story. The punch line came fast and flat and his mother always laughed too late and too high and he would glare at wife and son with a thundering brow.

Dutifully and with perseverance his mother had always done her best to make up for the company they lacked in Wilhelmshaven. His father would grunt and make rebuttals to the points she offered, scoffing at her as if they were in the Commons until finally he would suddenly rise from his chair, curse the ‘tumbleweed house’ he was living in, damn his moronic son and return to his study, his drink left half full.

Only when his father’s sister was staying with them would cocktail hour have any spark to it. His father’s sister could bring the whole glittering London society to their house in her long dresses, bubbling charm and amusing anecdotes that would make his father chortle. His mother would be happy too, relieved of a duty that she could never perform adequately and in bliss at seeing her husband so content. On such visits his aunt had graced them each equally with her time and attention. She would feign to assist his mother in the kitchen and about the house, looking at the cutlery and plates and pillows and pictures with an indulgent curiosity. She would banter gaily in a playful German with the shopkeepers and other customers, those that made his mother so anxious. And she would inquire after his mother’s family as if they were also old friends of hers and not people she had met no more times than she could count on one elegantly gloved hand. With him she would come into his room and sit on the foot of his bed, her chin rested on hand as she gazed into his flushed face and asked what he did in his free time. She would ask how he found the town, and the people there, and took a bubbling interest in Anya. She would smoke long cigarettes, and offer him one, and tell him what devils she and her brothers had been when they were his age.

In the evening, her attention fell upon his father. He would recall glorious stories of his own years past in London and narrate them with a colour he could never conjure at other times; evenings out with other officers after a week on Salisbury plain, stag nights and sneaking into the Savoy where one of his brothers worked. He would look from his father to his aunt as they laughed together, and his father refilled their drinks, and smoked her cigarettes and he wished for one night to be in their company in their London of twenty years ago. His father would fall back into the joviality of his youth, a mischievousness and love of life that was utterly absent otherwise, his belly rolling not in toil but in mirth. His cheeks grew ruddy again and his big black eyes shone in generous laughter which welcomed them all in. This mood would sink away though the morning of his sister’s departure, and cynicism and torpor, ever ready, took up their place once more.

            Cocktail Hour without his aunt mercilessly exhibited how dreadful they were when she was there. After one late afternoon at the beach too many, he entered the house to a gruff cry from his father. ‘Ah!’ He emerged from the drawing room with an empty glass and his cucumber knife in his hand. ‘So you have finally decided to come and join us? Are you aware of how long we have been waiting?’

He joined them in the sitting room  and his father proclaimed that he would ‘buy the boy a watch!’ so there need be no further excuses of losing track of the time at ‘that infernal beach!’

            The next week he was called into his father’s study one evening and there sitting on the desk was a crimson velvet box. With his eyes fixed on his son he indicated for him to open the box. He opened the box to find inside a shining silver wristwatch upon which his initials and the date were engraved. His father had picked up is cup of tea and gazed into a picture above the door. He didn’t think they spoke much at that meeting. He didn’t think his father had then said to him, ‘That is a nice watch’. But on numerous other occasions, he could remember him coming into a room his father was in, and if the watch was visible it would inevitably draw a misty gaze from his father and which reverently said, ‘That is a nice watch.’ But at this time when he gave his son the watch, he had no misty gaze but stared hard into the picture on the wall. He looked into his father’s face in silence until it finally jerked back down to him with an expression of mixed reproach and embarrassment. 

Another time his father had called him into his office and presented him with first razor and shaving kit. This would have been a few years before the evening of the watch, but both instances appeared so similar in their sequence he wasn’t sure if once again his memories had fallen upon each other and merged. All that really distinguished the different times were the contents of the boxes laid on the desk in between them, and that on the second occasion his father had taken him upstairs and instructed him in the art of shaving. On both evenings he had been wholly unimpressed by the gifts bestowed upon him. Both, however, he was to use for the rest of his life.

            There was a third occasion he recalled being summoned to the study which stood clearly apart from the previous two due to the relatively great amount his father had spoken. His father had asked him the question commonly asked by parents of their young – and the question he would in turn ask his children – as to what he planned to do when he left school. After some mumbling and hesitation he had answered his father that he wanted to go abroad.

            ‘Abroad? Where to? England?’

            ‘England first, perhaps. But then other places after. Europe of course, but also Africa, and America.’

            He expected rebuttals and patronisation from his father on these words, and sneering at the mention of America, but instead his father had turned to his tea which he sipped for a few moments and then, looking above his son’s face to the picture above the wall he had replied,

            ‘In choosing to live abroad, a man sacrifices being near to his family and loved ones. That is what you have to give up when you live abroad. Some can do it, others cannot.’

            He could definitely do it, he thought to himself. He had always dreamed of travelling the world and would map out his marvellous future to Anya as they threw rocks into the sea.

            However when it became clear that it was impossible for his family to stay in Germany he felt no excitement at all but just a heavy weight in leaving a world that he would never return to, and could never be recreated again. This feeling was intensified by the spirits of his parents. The possibility that they would have to leave Germany and return home and been growing for months. His parents both appeared frightened by the prospect of returning to England again, and this unexpected fear sent his father into more frequent outbursts and his mother down to a severer depth of anxiety than that which she commonly lived in. However as their affairs began to settle on both sides of the channel, his parents returned to their former states and then to his surprise, accelerated past these to a light giddy existence that he had never witnessed before. They made plans about who they would go and visit first and who they would have to stay.

            ‘And you will see London, my boy!’ his father had said to him.

            ‘I have already seen London.’

            ‘But not properly! Not in the way that a countryman sees it!’

            Once packed up and on the ship the two of them had flittered about their cabin as if they were on their honeymoon again. His father had suggested that they all go up on deck so they could see when England approached. They were in such an excitable flurry as they made their way down the corridor that his father tripped and fell with a thud into a cabin door. His mother squealed and started away around the corner. His father, chuckling guilty, made a tip-toed run behind her and their son was left to face the indignant face that presently appeared at the door.

            Up on deck the drizzle and cold billowing air checked them a little.

His father said, ‘A fair wind behind us. The engine can run smoothly. No rocking. No disturbance. It will be an easy passage.’

A couple of weeks or so after arriving in England he had received a letter from Anya. Writing little of herself or her family or the acceleration of her country towards war, she had instead written principally of Dana.

‘I worry about her as much as I do the rest. She is really quite deaf now. I say ‘Dana’ to her and she won’t respond. ‘Walkies’ ‘Ball’ and she won’t turn. Only when I get up and touch her on the behind does she turn with a surprised, and I fear, scared expression. The other day on the walk with Mattheus she stopped suddenly and leant against his legs, unable to go on. She is so restless too. Even when under the stairs I can see her anxious face looking out of the darkness at me. She knows what is to come for it has already come to her. I don’t know what I will do when she is gone.’


            Calmly telling his daughter over toast and tea that he was to return to Germany she brought up the thousand-and-one reasons why it was simply a ridiculous idea. He sipped the Earl Grey calmly as she outlined each of her points, stopping only to bite another chunk out of her toast, lathering another with Lurpak and Marmite and then resumed again with renewed vigour. He was practised in letting her shrill voice fall over him and listened instead to the sound of her sons upturning furniture in the next room. He looked at her but not at her face. Another of her hands dived into the jaffa cake box and he watched the bare flabby shoulder where her malformed tattoo wiggled morosely like a fat child being pulled up. He tried to see her as beautiful as she had been at nineteen years old, when she barely spoke to them at all, and sitting around that same table he and his wife had interrogated her on the tattoo. Why had she consciously assaulted her body like that?

            ‘What about in twenty years’ time when you still have to look at that thing each day in the mirror?’

Her answer was confusing to him and he saw that it was utterly incomprehensible to his wife.

‘Then each day I will never forget how I felt that night.’

She had left him that day with the stipulation that he would ring her before he made any rash decisions to book flights.

‘Actually I plan to drive.’

She let out an exasperated cry and ushered her boys out of the front door. ‘Just ring me, Dad, OK? Or speak to John.’

He hadn’t spoken to John but instead thought about going down to the local pub. He hadn't been in years. He and his wife had used to go there for half a pint on New Year’s Eve or on the Jubilee, but never otherwise. Only once had he gone there after marriage without his wife, and that was to meet his friend Mike, who lived in the same town, unmarried, no children, and was as regular at the pub as he was absent. That night was soon after the doctor had recommended that his wife should no longer drive. It was a diagnosis that his wife was willing to hear, and tied the two of them closer in the daily nuisance of chores and little excursions.

He had left his wife telling her that Mike was in a bad state and he needed to see him. He found Mike as he expected, red-nosed and spry as always. Mike had a tan that hadn’t left him since his hedonistic days living in Hong Kong where he had worked in the wine trade and went by the name of Michael, or Loki, to his closer friends. The return to England after ‘the Handover’ was only satiable to Mike, he said, as he would be able to see more of ‘that nice Tony.’ He was friends with everyone in the pub and received hails from people in the street.

‘Tell me what marriage is worth?’ Mike has asked him. ‘A lifetime or a tribute to a few moments of utter bliss? An eternal promise or a mark of respect to the joy felt at the wedding ceremony? The joy felt in the early days’

‘Don’t ask me that.’

‘C’mon?’ Mike moved to reach his hands but he withdrew them from the table.

‘Don’t ask me that.’

Then his friends started dying and soon England was shrouded in death. Life which had seemed to move so slowly for so long was suddenly speeding up towards the end. He came to look upon his wife not as someone he loved but as someone he needed. The two of them would sit at the breakfast table and the news of another friend dead would reach them. She would let out a small sad ‘O’ and he would lose his appetite. He would feel his ribcage tighten about his lungs and the feeling that a necktie had grown up inside his throat. He would look to her and be irritated that she was able to go on at her cereal and warm Ribena with gusto, after dropping her sad made-up eyes for only a moment.

They were grey moments, physically uncomfortable moments which took longer to subside with each new blow. The weight of the news would fall to join the mass of veil upon veil of the memories of ghosts. A grey fog that rose up in a slow bluster each time another dropped, then settled, thick at the bed, at the bottom of his stomach, as the latest lay down amongst the powdered lake. When he lay down at night they stirred again, flooding his memory with times lost, friendships sundered, love now unrequited. The shadows would rage and swoop about his head till he finally fell asleep. The dreams were over in the morning. The morning was just cold, and still, and very much absent of all that had been special. Quiet moments with his wife occasionally were a warm breeze in all this turmoil. In the evenings they would sit together on the sofa watching the television and he would take her hand and forget the ashen mass in his bowels. And then when she died there was nothing to stop the reek of death suffocating him. Not even the smell of Ribena.

 That first Christmas he hadn’t wanted to go to either of his children but to stay at home. He had ended up meeting Mike in the pub on Christmas Eve. It was when walking there that evening that he had decided he would return to Germany. 

‘And you will never come back,’ Mike said.


Had they believed it would last forever? He didn’t think they had ever really thought of ‘forever.’ Making his own family had been his forever. He had only started thinking of time when he knew that there wasn’t much of it left. And now, at the end of all things, he had returned to a place that had never paid heed to time, but simply lay sprawled across the landscape as it always had displaying few of the wounds that marked the assault of time. His eyes flowed over trees and bushes and rocks that young hands had with an unconscious bliss brushed up against and held on to for almost two decades. It was he who had turned his back on happiness. The beach welcomed him indifferently, saying only, OK, have me again, but know that I have not missed love as you have while you have been away.

What had he expected? Just to be there? To be closer? To reassure himself that he had once been young, that he had once not worried, and in knowing that, he could live the rest of his life peacefully in the knowledge that it would be so again for others? Had they believed it would last forever? He supposed not.

The rain continued to splatter against the car. The wind whipped the windows clean as fast as it attacked them. The rage of the weather had grown to take the role of silence, like a muffler over life.  It blew around the car in its own vortex, as concentrated as the eye of a storm. The car sat deeper in the mud, resigned to its fate. It had reached the end of the road, and its engine was not to start up again.

Bertie Digby Alexander

Berlin 2014

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