The Skin BeneathThere is a village built on a hill by the side of a river that meets the Atlantic in a long wide estuary. The village is built around a small square and a larger harbour. The square is cobbled and crosses a hill so the shops on one side tower above those below, the shop that sells chips and fish caught that day built at an angle, the fat in the fryers spitting out on one side and not the other. The streets that leave Market Square down towards the harbour spread out into a broad thoroughfare where the delivery drivers crawl in and out before dawn. At high tide the huge stone gates of the harbour wall are wide open and fishing tugs roll in and out, larger boats bobbing in the slight wake. Children sit around the harbour edge, hanging nets and lines to bait crab. People stop for local ice-cream and local beer, sipping in the cool shade or walking out under the sun. As the tide begins to draw out the gates close and the boats inside are locked inside. The little boats outside the harbour walls rock in the river's ebb for a while longer until they are slowly held up by the rising sand and tipped slightly into the wet bank, marooned until the tide rises again. The sand is be dotted with the footprints of sea birds. People payed a lot of money to be moored in the harbour. Another party, someone's parents weren't home. Laura lived around the corner, close enough to walk when the weather was good but the rain that had been promised all week continued to pound down on the plastic roof of the shelter where Oliver waited. He was watching the puddles grow and the water-line begin to creep uphill across the road. Thunder rumbled somewhere out towards the industrial estate where the sound mixed with the constant heaving sigh of heavy machinery. Oliver looked up the street and shook his head. He stood up and paced for a while as far as the shelter would allow, the rain coming under at an angle and covering his shoes and legs when he reached the far end. Lights swung round the corner of the street and a car splashed past, the driver's face lit up gaunt for a second as he passed Oliver standing in the rain. He had looked out at the damp boy, confused. Why would anyone be out tonight? Oliver stared back, expressionless, his thoughts elsewhere. He had spent the day before in a dull stupor waiting for Laura to call. He was angry at her because she hadn't but now he thought about it he was more angry with himself for a day wasted. He had woken early before his parents and would have gone back to sleep had he not remembered the dream that had woken him and lay fearing seeing her again while he slept. He thought about kissing her and lay waiting for the phone to ring downstairs. The only sound was the creak of floorboards as the house began to warm in the newly risen sun. Further along from the village the earth bank of the river suddenly becomes a string of sandy beaches before the estuary widens to meet the sea. On the north side is a wide flat bay of rich white sand that blends into tall grass and then a shallow slope of thick shrub before the earth begins. Opposite, the beaches are narrower, enclosed by steep rock shelves that ramp upwards into a rolling headland. The old lifeboat station sits snug in one coves, the concrete slip flanked on one side by sand and the other by a beach of stones mixed with sand where a stream less than half a meter across collects from the fields above and flows bubbling through the pebbles. The tide on the north beach is shallow and comes out only a little way from the high-water mark where seaweed dries in the sun and children pick through the debris in search of broken glass, softened by the constant natural rub of the sand. The southern tide is deep and wide and stretches dar from the heavy stone cliffs right out to the centre of the channel so that for a few hours each day the river is only half its self and flows very fast and rushing. Beyond the beaches on either side the river crashes hard against the cliffs and then the sea. The great wide flat ocean stretches beyond the mouth of the river forever with only the small island that sits a few miles from the shore to break the horizon. He had gotten out of bed, showered and dressed only when the ideas had built in his head too much and the distraction of regular life was refreshing. It had seemed, lying there staring at the ceiling, playing out scenes past and future over and over again, that normality couldn't possibly resume. But resume it did and his mother had made tea and he poured a big cup and drank it with a little milk in the garden watching the cat roll about lazily on the grass. It seemed the most attractive thing in the world to be a big ginger tom and sleep all day in the sun. A thick poison was in him. He felt it working away through all his veins. It had begun in his stomach and the day before His mother knew with the instinct that all mother's when something is troubling their sons. 'I don't know why she won't talk to me.' 'Give it time.' If she would just call and he could hear her voice. He considered picking up the phone, even went to the kitchen and stood by where it hung. But he would give it time. Over time, the village grew and every year the summer tourists from all across the country would descend on the small town and the harbour would swarm with families and couples and the elderly who had been coming down for as long as anyone could remember. By day the beaches nearby were busy with ball games and dog walkers, but as the sun began to set and the children took their parents home you could walk along the deserted beach and remember a time when you were the only one to walk there all day. Following the line of the tide as it swept out from the south shore deep in the centre of the channel, the sun setting behind the hills that made up the headland to the left. They sat in her car pulled up in the street outside the house where lights and music came damp across the lawn. The rain beat on the windscreen and flowed in quick streams. Oliver watched the water collecting and dividing. The silence was unbearable now. The silent drive from the shelter through the back streets to this spot. The silence of the day before when he had waited for her call. The silence of the days before that when he had paced up and down shaking his head, the poison growing and spreading like a sickness like fever. This was surely the moment it would break. The rain beat down. Two sets of footprints trailed behind the boy and his father as they walked at low tide out into the centre of the river where ahead they could see the island bordered on either side by the cliffs of the river's wide mouth. 'Six months before the wedding he wanted to call it off. Wedding nerves we all said so it went on. Life will get better when you have children. So they had children and it didn't get better.' 'What did he do?' 'He got out of it. It went on for forty-five years.' 'Did he love her?' 'No.' 'Did she love him?' 'I don't think so.' 'Then why did they marry?' 'People marry for lots of reasons, even more now.' 'Why do people marry now?' 'Money. Travel sometimes. Houses, families.' 'I don't want those things. Except to travel always.' They walked quietly for a while, Oliver stepping hard into the wet sand and looking behind at the heavier footprints, closer to his father's. He wanted her to say something. To turn and speak to him. To open her mouth for just half a second and make some sound. For a minute they sat this way, him watching her watching the rain. Finally she turned and looked him dead in the eye. They had walked out from the cove with the old lifeboat station where they'd spent the day building miniature dams for the stream, piling up sand and small stones to create a small reservoir against the rocks that lined the cove. While Oliver sat deepening the damn, digging out the sand from below the water, his father had gone down to the tidal pools below and with a net fished out small fish and shrimp which he had loosed into the newly formed reservoir. They sat together on the rocks above the pool and watched the fish dart across the surface of the water before hiding in the shadows under the rock's edge. 'I want you to understand that this doesn't mean that I don't love you. You might believe that I have changed the way I feel but that isn't true.' The father stood and watched as his son played at the water's edge, jumping the waves that rippled over the sand. 'I don't know why I did it.' Suddenly the boy stopped playing and stood staring out across the water. The father followed his gaze and the two stood looking out at the wide stretch of horizon, the sun glinting further out past the island. 'I think perhaps you knew already.' The boy stood and knew that this was the greatest place on earth. That he would come back here and feel the same majesty. The same awe of the sea. 'I hate this. I don't want you to be hurt.' The smell of the sea and the world behind you forgotten, the cove and the stream, the beaches and the town beyond fading away as the bright light of the last rays of the sun strike out across the cliffs. 'I'm not asking you to forgive me. I could never do that.' Standing in the shallows with the waves crashing around you and nothing but the island between you and everything. Walking slowly out till the water comes up to your waist and the waves rush against your chest, threatening to topple you with every swell. 'I should go.' No sound but the sea and you standing in this place that could be the end of the world and nothing but the water around you. He blinked away tears. Laura looked out at the rain. He turned quickly, opened the door and walked away. And in the end, she said nothing at all.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale