Published 'A Theater of Blood' 1993
It had not turned out to be the ideal venue for a honeymoon. Having taken my new bride to an east coast, I did hope to entice her into the life-style of the locals and away from that prissy part of London where she thought the world started ... and ended.
Night seems to come earlier by the sea. That’s because the days are shortened by the gull cries, the salt savours of ripe fish and bracing beach walks. It’s strange, the fuller life is, the shorter it becomes. We’re lodging at a fisherman’s hut in sight of the lighthouse. The surge of its sporadic beams through the dark hours acts as the natural seabreak to the crests of our lovemaking. Pent up urgency is far sweeter than its eventual release ... or so all the theory in the manuals told us.
I was brought up not far from here. Nevertheless, the locals have grown beyond my comprehension since I left for the big city as a young man. They now seemed older, more weathered, with gnarled expressions that took rather than gave. Those I half recognised failed to acknowledge me. Even the young women looked as if they were wed to sea dogs. The fish-wives were closer to death, their mouths opening and shutting, upon seeing me again, but failing to say anything.
Many lags pointed to my bride, nudging each other, spitting foul oaths into each other’s ears ... and I did not give them the benefit of naming her by introduction. Even on the first day of this ancient honeymoon, I had surrendered hope of anything good rubbing off on us. If I had been born here, I must have died years ago. I laughed to myself at that thought.
In any event, it little mattered, for we loved each other, Nancy and I.
The hut where we stayed was little more than an upturned hulk, pitted by centuries within centuries of salt spray. The windows had been forced through the seasoned wood with jagged gutting knives, by the look of them. And, by the relentless warning beacon, we watched the gravestone tongues in the churchyard—whereto the cliff edge had reached, already consigning the once-ancient church itself to the fate of the tides. A graveyard with nothing to landmark it except the remnant stubs of tombs, this was one unromantic view from our bedroom window. Though death must have its own romance, I have heard it said.
“I wish it were not so quiet,” Nancy said, nuzzling my chest, as she resettled into the ruckbed from gazing out of the ill-cut window.
I was entranced by her shapely form—sculptured as it was against the twirling beacon—aching for her to tiptoe back to our bed to staunch a new wave of passion in my loins. Now that she had returned, I was falling into half-dreams, so tenuous they may even have been dreams within dreams—imagining her to be but a tenant of one of those graves. Corpses do not stink of fish. But sweat does.
I woke fitfully to say: “The sea is sounding...”
“Yes, but that is just an ingredient of the silence,” was her almost voiceless reply.
If her parents could see her now, they would not recognise the little office girl, their Nancy who was still wet behind the ears with first communion. The words she spoke were too poetic for the city. At least, some good had come, I thought, as my passion was spent against her rump.
The revery became full-blooded dream, though it was merely recounting the previous day’s activities. Searching the town’s library for old books about the churchyard. dusty (sometimes, sticky) volumes that had return dates decades ago stamped down the margins. The retired librarian retained a catalogue, but most of the spines were unreadable and the listing itself stained by foxing. Apparently, though, the most telling books were kept together furthest from the sea in the attic, and we soon discovered in one corroded tome that the set of gravestones viewable from the hulk were those of rat catchers.
Nancy wondered whether rats were common at seasides, but I soon put her right. There was one rat catcher, the book said, by the name of James Wilkins, who had actually been buried with the rat that killed him. A two-way thing, ratting, I assumed. Though in my days as a child in this area, I had known only one rat-catcher who told of killing thousands in one sitting. I didn’t believe him, of course. Until he showed me the bodies he hung as trophies in the tall fishing-tackle hut near the Naze beach.
“There are rats in the sea,” I remember him telling me, with a knowing touch to the nose.
The honeymoon period was due to end shortly. We had long spent our passions, so we both fell fast asleep. Then, I was unaccountably drawn to the hulk’s window to see why the beacon had stopped flashing. Being spring, I know the sunrise would soon streak its screaming oranges and reds along the sharp divider of sea and sky. However, I was quite unprepared for the glow that the sea itself gave off, a lambency seeming to filter, not from above, but from below. It was constituted of a myriad flickering tails, long luminous tangles and tentacles undulating in the manner of living flesh-coloured seaweed.
She snored, oblivious to my calls. I went over to shake her, but she was trapped by her own dream. I had no option but to return to the ragged window – I could have sworn that one of the gravemarkers was moving, dislodging, even growing...
There was knocking at our door ... our sealords had arrived to turf us out. The honeymoon’s over. It was suddenly strange now to recount my thoughts from an entirely different perspective.
“Mr Karew, Mr Karew,” came the shouts of the landlady, “the sea’s swelling, we have to lodge back at the Bell...”
I recalled the Bell Inn. The regulars had scorned us when we asked for London ale. They had pinned us to the damp circular corkboard with their piercing scowls. Fish in aspic upon the bar sold for less than the price of pork scratchings. Strange spurting noises from the pumps. Beer swill that still gurgled in the glass – I had forced it down my gullet to silence it. I did not want to lodge there of all places. But maybe I don’t know my own mind, and the sea is rising higher...
“Don’t worry, Mrs...” I could not recall the name that had appeared on the booking documents. “Nancy and I will sit out the storm.”
“It is not a storm, Mr Karew, but you know best...” The voice faded, as she spoke.
My confidence in knowing best, as she put it, was not strong at the best of times. I could not keep my thoughts from leapfrogging...out of kilter with their own meaning.
I returned to the window. The sea was indeed rising—the tide was rolling innards—surging rattail intestines, seething eels amid the spume and wild insulting fingerstalls. It all moved as one. Covering the graveyard in one giant swell of disintegrating kelp and fucus.
I relaxed. This could be nothing but a dream. If it were real, then I was surely mad. Or, at best, dead.
I swivelled to her whom I have wed so recently. Nancy Karew had the largest rat head I have ever seen, pillowed against the headboard we had earlier ground our love upon. And I ducked to kiss its red lipsticked snout for forgiveness. I felt its wagging fishtail tongue probing mine, making the curdled beer in my stomach heave in tidal swells of sick.
We awoke in unsion. The Bell Inn, after all, was not such a bad place. Set back from the town’s cottages, it had probably withstood the big swell ... the hulk would have evidently floated off towards the newly islanded graveyard ... the lighthouse no doubt foreshortened, with its night-light still flickering feebly in the watery sunshine.
More in half-recognition, I saw James Wilkins lying between Nancy and myself in the bed, his body, I assumed, having floated in on the surgetide. “Ridden on ratbacks” were the words that haunted my convoluted thoughts. I must have been a ghost, for Nancy ignored me as she turned to smile on him.
The call of the Bell lady came unseasonably early.
“Mr Wilkins...Mr Wilkins... excuse me, but breakfast been on the table a good half hour. You wanted it a bit earlier, remember, to go on the last lighthouse trip...”
They kissed lightly and slowly dressed.
A gravestone had toppled in the night, they notice, on their last stroll in that direction, with the jagged etching: ROBERT KAREW, Ratman of this Parish, Sorely Rued, 1743-1764.
They soon forgot it as they rode the gentle swells towards the white gull-haunted lighthouse. They had left the best moment for the last day of the honeymoon. Something to cherish when back in the City.
I the ghost must wake and leave the lovers free.
If ghosts do dream and death’s a romance, then I’m a kingfisher’s daughter
THE MISCREANT ON THE MOONSTREAM, Rachel Mildeyes.