Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Absence

When Rachel took her Summer break, she decided to visit the East coast rather than the more familiar, warmer ones South and West of London. She couldn't face the continent, this year, in any event.

She was pleased to have escaped the built-up Smoke. Even if her part of London was Hampstead Heath, where she could pretend she were walking deep in the countryside, an abrupt cresting of a hill often brought into view the silhouette of St Paul's Cathedral floating like a square rigger amid opaque chimneystacks. As with people, places were deceptive, too.

She sat in the train, heading for a region she'd never visited. The Essex and Suffolk countryside sped past the window in odd patches of yellow, enabling her to see further than she'd ever seen before in one go. The landscape was disarmingly interminable, with a few poisoned trees to break up the flat minimalism and she wondered if God had ever been able to throw horizons that far again.

She shook her head. One of her characteristics was the way her mind played fast and loose with its thoughts. Day-dreaming for Rachel was almost an out-of-the-body experience rather than one of those rather bitty affairs in which most other people dabbled their mental toes. Which reminded her: even though the weather had not yet caught up with its rightful season, she was rather glad she'd packed her favourite swimming gear. If she hadn't, Sod's Law would have made it too hot to breathe in Brackensea, with nothing of her size in the local shops, no doubt. Not that she was anything more than an average build. Her bosom was large, however, compared to the frame on which it hung.

She laughed - this time with full acceptance of where the thoughts were taking her ... towards a plainness that mirrors in Hampstead, at least, couldn't lie about. Perhaps she'd have a holiday romance, like those stories she read last thing at night on her own in the dark flat. If she stopped laughing, nobody noticed, since nobody had noticed she'd started.

But there were two others who shared the carriage with Rachel. A husband and wife, if their behaviour was anything by which to judge: a non-descript couple who made desultory conversation with each other. They had boarded soon after the train had abandoned known territory as far as Rachel was concerned - beyond Colchester, even Ipswich. Their words were barely understandable beneath the weight of some unruly dialect which must have been uncommon, Rachel guessed, even in these parts, since she'd not heard it before upon any form of electronic media in Hampstead. That fact, if none other, was strange. She'd evidently considered the world to be more cosmopolitan than it actually was. All to the good, really. It gave visiting places that added edge of excitement, even if one were still in the same country. Rome and Florence were over-rated, in any event.

Could it be that the man in the carriage had said something to Rachel? A detail about a tunnel approaching and, once through it, she'd be able to see the sea for the first time. Rachel had seen sea before, she intended to say - but, almost as a matter of course, the tunnel intervened and, with the driver forgetting to switch over to the on-board lights, all she could make out was the red tip of the woman's cigarette. She felt an unaccountably sadness and, yes, fear, because the train's whistle possessed a wild scream as opposed to the more comical hootings of friendlier transport. And the tunnel made it sound worse than it actually was.

The blinding light that eventually halted the pain in her ears revealed a sloping farmer's field where statuesque figures, rather too fat to be scarecrows, haphazardly dotted the crops. They were mummified in red bandages - to keep the straw stuffing inside, no doubt, she thought.

"Scarecrows," said the man, confirming her best fears.

She'd even contemplated train crash survivors. But, indeed, she'd not had sufficient time to see what she thought she'd seen and, soon, the glinting coastline caused a resumption of her natural optimism. She was going to have a damn good time and, if she were lucky, be a heroine in a romance story.

It was only a short stroll from the station to the hotel in Brackensea, the one she'd already booked. A church-tower appeared a little crooked but she put that down to the lie of the land. It was hillier here than the surrounding countryside, even if it wasn't a patch on the contours of Hampstead Heath. Coastal erosion had created peculiar configurations, aligning cliffs with pebbly beaches and, in rarer cases, vice versa. She'd never understood the full implications of conservation and, what was more, Geography had never been her strong point at school.

She knew that the man and woman were walking in her wake - not following Rachel, as such, but certainly proceeding in the same general direction with the grain of the ground. There must have been a short shower recently, since the sloping slates glistened. The buildings that enclosed the Market Square, where the hotel itself was situated, possessed leaning roofs that were half wet, half dry, in a piecemeal patchwork. Rachel's first typical thought was that monsters had been basking up there in the rain and had now gone - perhaps on sensing her own impending arrival. She was not normally romantic, yet here she was peopling roofs with monsters! She shook her head in self-disgust.

Brackensea was hardly quaint, holding the atmosphere of an industrial conurbation further north in England, whilst maintaining a definite charm of the typically less commercial seaside resort. No silly hats here nor saucy postcards. Just gentle oldsters whiling away a second honeymoon. Yet, the buildings were offputting in a Fifties Utility fashion. She imagined she'd soon catch the sound of a needle hitting the groove of an old juke-box record, about to play Elvis Presley's 'His Latest Flame'.

Discarding her own waywardness, she shivered. She felt drizzle returning to fill the salty air. However, drawing nearer to a steep side-road leading down, between ramshackle guest houses, to the beach, she was amazed to witness many lobster-roasted sun-bathers in briefly cut costumes lying amid some black fishing-shacks. These tall coffin-like industrial beach-huts, as it were, had nets strewn over them, making them seem like huge land-locked kites. Day-dreaming, again! Rachel shrugged. She needed to sign into her accommodation. A quick wash and brush-up and, then, she could really explore the joint.

For no reason whatsoever, she was relieved to discover that the married couple from the train were nowhere to be seen. The woman reminded her of herself a little further on in time. The church tower was now closer and it no longer leaned. The diamond-shaped clockface a third of the way down showed that the time was later than that on her own wristwatch. Almost high time for tea. The street lamps were most peculiar, tall thin poles of plaited green metal topped by squashed globes and, except for a few parked cars, no other sign of life in the Square itself.

She glanced back along the route upon which she had entered the town. The path led up into a clump of trees where the hill slope now hid the station. The architecture of the church showed that the place was not on its first legs. Its flush of youth was well behind it, as also evidenced by the seedy parade of shops, each with its independent roof. Some of the lamp standards, she could now see, had mere stumps without lights: following her, perhaps, to the door of the two star hotel on the other side of the Market Square! She was still on a dirt surface, which several other boots had scuffed up not long before, because, no doubt, the increasing drizzle had drenched some divots but not others.

In the foyer of the hotel, the reception desk was tenantless. Rachel rang the bell vigorously. Two women approached from the lounge area, with the undergrunts of a TV soap behind them. To her drizzle-blurred eyes, they were in identical uniforms, a cross between a chambermaid's and that of a Prisoner-Of-War Camp commandant. One was decidedly winsome with a frivolous humour in the way she had to keep brushing her blonde fringe from in front of her large eyes. The other was older, or less able to convince anyone of her youth. Both were markedly more bodies than minds. Their hem-lines were a trifle too short for comfort.

"Yes?" said the spokesman, the older.

"I've not been here before but I have booked a room for the night."

"Never been good enough before, eh?"

"Not at all ... I've just not visited the area, before."

"Few do ... if they do."

"Shall I sign the Register?"

The younger one took a large ledger from under the reception counter and opened it at the first page. Rachel appeared to be the very first visitor which, surely, should not have been the case.

"Don't you usually get guests to sign it?" she queried.

The younger spoke for the first time, her voice as smooth as wild honey: "You are the first to ask..."

If there was a mystery, Rachel was usually the first to desire league with it, to be an ingredient as it were of its frustrating inscrutability. She even supposed that she might be the mystery whilst Brackensea (with its strange hotel and leaning church) was ordinary and straightforward. She entered the ledger with a signature that she had never used before, ending it with a flourish of lines and curls. She beamed with pride, as she rescrewed the top on her fountain pen.

The stairs were brightly lit by hurricane lamps, but the landing was left dark, so she could not see how far the corridor stretched nor the approximate number of rooms. Her own room, to which she was shown by the older woman with a cinema torch, was adequate. The bed seemed lumpy but sleepable; the bathroom brown at the edges but doused with a cocktail of disinfectants; the ceiling stained with maps of archipelago worlds that Rachel almost believed had a feasible place in real geography; and a trap door no doubt leading to that vast slated roof she had previously surveyed from below in the Market Square: a basking-frame for monsters!

From her window, she could see the sun was at last just managing to peel back the dirty clouds, but too late for the weather's sake, since the huge red rim was dipping behind a clifftop - almost too early for night. The square was still deserted of people, but the parked cars had gone.

She tried the twanging bed and examined her feet inch by inch: a routine that travelling always caused her to do. She plumped them eventually into the wash basin which she'd filled with tepid water. She could see from where she was now positioned that the odd standard lamps in the square were gradually seeping a yellowy glow, as the sun finally gave up its ghost to the moon.

It was quiet. Too quiet. The two women were evidently listening to Rachel. Trying to fathom her mystery. So Rachel daringly spoke to herself to make it worth their while listening:-

"I expect those two women run this joint together, in between the TV programmes ... they can't have much to do ... they seem nice creatures enough ... so affectionate, I imagine, with one another when the customers have been put to bed..."

She knew nothing about them. She simply surmised. She smiled, as she heard shuffling from above her in the bedroom ceiling.

"When I get home to London, I will tell people of the two women ... that it's nice to be looked after by such a couple, instead of by one of those plug ugly man-woman creatures which usually snoop around such hotels in the guise of managers. Two women's bodies are so nice as they lodge upon one another, with nothing poking in between them in the manner of a broken bed-spring..."

It was tantamount to reciting a speech that someone else had learned by heart on her behalf. The drizzle had irritated her, but now she was safe and basking in the autonomous day-dreams which she conjured for herself and for her two auditors. Then the trap door in the ceiling below the hotel's giant roof began to gape open inwards ... but which direction was inward, which outward?

Rachel had hiked from Brackensea, which meant all of the morning since breakfast had been spent clambering along woodland tracks which tirelessly followed the contours of the countryside away from the sea. She crossed the last brow and looked down at the village of Driffidge, glistening in the aftermath of one of those sudden summer showers that had dogged her holiday so far. Repositioning the shoulderstrap of her lunchbox, kindly prepared by the two women at the Brackensea hotel, she pumped her legs against the downward slope.

Nobody about. She made a private joke about siestas in this little patch of Old England, even though the watery sun was more an ingredient of an oil painting than a heat source. She looked down at her skirt - ripped at the seams. Her face was smudged, but she was unaware of this. She sat upon the dedicated bench in the graveyard and, just as the church clock reached 12.44 pm, she caught the sound of a train: this must be part of its route towards its destination in Brackensea.

Her jaws met through bread and fish paste. She was quite oblivious of the flavour, since she gazed at the church-tower which, as indicated by the local history books, did lean more than just a little - unlike the one in Brackensea which only sometimes looked as if it did. Brushing down her blouse, she noticed the sweat had soaked the armpits; its waft of unwelcome memories of human beings deriving from animals followed her up the church path. Sometimes, she thought men were worse than animals. An animal's need for sex was at least predictable - urged upon it by its own season of heat. A man's season was something else.

The heavy door croaked on its hinges, breaking a silence that had ensued without Rachel noticing the lack of sounds. Only the stained glass windows were visible like luminous oil paintings; yet they shed no glint nor shimmer upon pew and icon. The church's interior had its own impermeable darkness.

She allowed the large door to close behind her, its short sharp sound of falling latch being in mock of Judgement Day. There was no thunderous echo. Simply an uncanny click. She was confident, however, that she could merely turn on her heels and open it again. But what was stranger - she felt as if God had been locked outside in the open. There was no sign of Him otherwise. Just the sense of His absence. She wondered if she should return to pottering around the gravestones in the churchyard, seeking a sign of a forgotten memorial.

The windows were so bright, why couldn't she make out the altar without the assistance of a light-switch? She caught the sound of something flapping in the area of the rafters. She was aware of the church's architectural features without having seen them in the flesh, since she always took holidays very seriously and carried out painstaking research before determining a week's itinerary. The flapping must be a trapped bird of some kind. Or perhaps a bat. Even now, Rachel was not concerned at the situation, despite the confusion. The noise was growing louder as the motive force swooped through the darkness - casting no shadow as it began to hover downwards.

Suddenly, with a lightning shaft of sun, the church door opened. A vision of a man stood framed, as if pinioned in gold by a pre-Raphaelite painter - each part of him woven in primary colours, stitched with darkest purple. Arms outstretched like wings, he was simultaneously a poacher's gutting and a handsome shepherd honoured with sainthood...

Kneeling on one of the hassocks and prayeing that he'd go away, Rachel failed to realise that true horror was an absence - not a presence.

Forgetting she'd left the hotel's lunch-container in one of the box-pews, she sought a name engraved upon the stonework of a hidden grave. The sun lit the stone tongues. She seemed oblivious of some fish-headed gargoyles that ungrappled from the much taller architectural stonework above - healing out into animality within winding-sheet kites of textured blood. Or if she did see them, she didn't believe her eyes. Scare-crows flocked around the tower like black seagulls.

It seemed like several hours later but, on looking casually at her watch, she saw it had been barely five minutes. The afternoon light was already fading behind its veil of drizzle. She rediscovered the path back, but she was convinced it moved under her tired feet, rather than vice versa. Driffidge was still empty, but an almost imperceptible flick of curtains showed that she was being watched out of the place, as she must have been watched in.

Once over the brow of the hill, she began her trek back to Brackensea, yet reluctantly returning a gaze upon the the village: now doll's houses and toy models. The church-tower was slowly, very very slowly, lowering itself to the ground, although she knew that could not be true. The hands on the clock, she vaguely discerned, were also moving so very slowly, but far too fast if she could actually see them move. She trudged on into the wood, rather worried about the attitude of the two women in the hotel when they got to learn that Rachel had abandoned the lunchbox that they had provided.

But she need not have worried.

(published 'The Third Alternative' 1994)

1 comment:

Paul Dracon said...

And what lingers with me throughout the story? The description of Rachel's "small frame." And, uh...