by Dan Grace
I dump the bags in the chair by the door and watch as Jared kicks off his shoes, slumps onto the far bed and stretches starfish-like across its white sheets.
‘Just like I said. Bit different from camping, eh?’
He rolls onto his side and peers out of the window at the sky, the sun pushing scant light through the thick cloud layer. November by the sea, what did I expect? I move past him, check the windows are sealed tight. The scent of ozone, that salt-tang, lingers in here. I used to like the smell, but here beyond the wall, it just makes me anxious.
He pushes himself up on his elbows. Watches me.
‘When are we going to see Mum?’
I swallow, try to meet his steady gaze.
‘In the morning.’
His mouth twitches. A smile or a grimace, I’m not sure which.
‘Sure. In the morning.’
The idea for the trip wasn’t mine. It was his counsellor’s. Jared raised it not long after the sessions started, but I’d quickly snuffed out any expectations. It wouldn’t be good for him. He’d been through so much already. It was expensive. He’s only eleven. Too young. We’d wait a bit, until he was older, see how he felt about it then.
They’d met me after one session, a gang of two, and strong-armed me into it. His hand resting on my son’s shoulder, watery grey eyes searching mine.
‘We’ve discussed this and Jared thinks he’ll benefit from the experience.’
He handed me the pamphlet, all pastel shades with Hotel Sea View plastered across the top of each folded page. A safe and secure experience. It looked awful.
‘It looks awful.’
‘Sal, come on…Jared can you excuse us a moment?’
I hated him calling me Sal. Jared glanced at me and stepped back into the counselling room, pulling the door behind him.
‘What? It does look awful and I don’t see how it will help.’
The thin veneer of mutual respect rubbed away once Jared was out of earshot.
‘Listen Sal, you want our help here or not? You want things to get easier or you want them to get harder?’
‘What do you mean harder? Are you threatening me?’ I moved in close so he could smell my breath. ‘Are you threatening me?’
He stepped back.
‘Now Sal, no one’s threatening you, we’re just trying to figure out what’s right. As professionals. There are grants to pay for it, if that’s what you’re worried about.’
‘I don’t need your money. And anyway, it’s not right. Why would anyone want to go there and see that?’
‘It’s government money, not mine Sal. And it’s not weird or against nature or any of those other things you’ll have read about it. Lots of people do this now. I’ve been there. Talk to Jared about it, that’s all I’m saying. It would mean a lot to him. And we think it would help.’
I calmed down a little, felt the anger sluicing out of me, regret already rising to fill the empty tanks.
‘Ok, I’m sorry. I’ll consider it.’
‘Let’s call Jared back in.’
I read my emails while I wait for Jared to finish in the shower and get dressed. Ninety-nine percent aren’t relevant to me and the remainder can probably wait. I have emails piled up from two years ago, little red flags waving at me. They’ve gone unanswered. Nobody has died.
I look up and there he is, hair slicked back, favourite jeans and trainers. The old Lemonheads t-shirt that used to be his mum’s. I grin.
‘Who you trying to impress?’
I realise how stupid that is as soon as it leaves my mouth. His face twists into that smile-grimace again. I clap my hands together and shut the lid of the laptop.
‘OK, let’s go get breakfast.’
Breakfast, we soon learn, is divided into full English or continental. One or the other, no mixing. I start to question this policy, but a glance from Jared stops me. He is regularly mortified by my public behaviour, and while usually I’d ignore his squirming, today is different.
I look around the breakfast room. That seaside tang seeps in through the cracks in the old wooden frames of the large bay windows. They let out onto the front, a paved promenade with a rusting iron balustrade separating us from the beginning of the beach. The sand itself is the colour of wet cement and stretches for some way before the dull gleam of the North Sea can be made out. Huge gulls are buffeted about by the winds. Some come to land on the balustrade and leer at us through the window.
Only two other tables are occupied.
An elderly woman sits at one in the window itself, sipping idly from a mug and staring at the massing dark clouds. She’s small, beige and neat. She has a lightness of bearing that makes her seem out of kilter with this place.
At the other is a young couple, early twenties maybe, him stuffing away the full English, her picking at a rubbery croissant. I wonder if they’re here for the same reason as us. No other reason to be in a place like this.
The woman in the window catches me staring and smiles. I look away so I don’t have to acknowledge her. The food arrives.
It looks awful.
Outside the weather is what is often referred to as ‘bracing’, which, as best as I can see, is just another way of saying horrible. The wall is visible as soon as you get beyond the promenade, out onto the beach proper, and look back past the hotel. It cuts a line across the fields inland from the sea, arcing across the narrow entrance to the peninsula.
The guards at the gate had been dressed similarly to the hotel workers, but there was no hiding what they were there to do. Keep people out.
Jared walks straight ahead, no looking back, intent on reaching the sea. He’s clutching his holdall in one hand, the other tucked deep in his jacket pocket. I failed to convince him to put a hat on.
Not for the first time I wonder if I’m a good dad.
I’ve learnt techniques in therapy, ways of dealing with these kind of ‘maladaptive thoughts’, but it seems pertinent to the task ahead for once, so I let it sit there for a bit. Think it through.
What would she have done?
I can remember the night he was born. Of course I can. What I mean is that I can still feel the night he was born, even now, eleven years later. Can still feel her focus between contractions, my helplessness when the pain overwhelmed her, our relief when it subsided again. The midwife shooing the doctor away. The absolute power and beauty of my partner, my love. That moment when he slipped out into our world, slick and heavy with life.
And I held him against my chest and he slept and I never wanted to let him go.
Count your breath. In and out, in and out.
It tastes of salt.
When your mind wanders, acknowledge that, and bring it back to the breath.
It tastes of salt.
You won’t panic.
You’ll be OK.
It tastes of salt.
The golf buggy pulls alongside when we’re about a hundred metres out from the hotel. Jared stops and stares at the woman driving it, then looks back to me, uncertain what to make of her. It’s the woman from the window seat at breakfast, she’s wearing of those quilted landowner coats, a scarf pulled tight over her silver hair. The luminance I noticed earlier is gone. She smiles but she looks tired.
‘Need a lift? It’s quite some way to the sea, weathers only going to get worse and you’re off tomorrow. Don’t want you to miss your chance.’
I slide into the seat beside her, Jared climbs into the back.
‘We’re off today, actually.’
She frowns as the engine whirs into action.
I grip the dashboard as we bump across the sand. The smell of her perfume and sweat mingles with the sea air.
‘I don’t see the need to hang around.’
There’s silence for a few seconds. Just long enough for it to feel uncomfortable.
‘Well, I suppose you don’t.’ She smiles again. ‘But where are my manners, my name is Liz. I’m the proprietor here at Sea View.’
Jared leans forward from the back seat.
‘You own this place? Like, all of it?’
‘Yes, my family own the whole peninsula.’
His eyes widen a fraction.
‘And you’ve seen it?’ he says.
I can’t contain myself.
‘And you built the wall?’ I ask.
‘Yes, yes we did.’
We sit in silence, the fat insect whine of the buggy and the rising roar of the sea our accompaniment as we shuttle towards its edge.
Jared reaches into the holdall and pulls out the book she bought him for his tenth birthday. It’s a medical dictionary. Since her illness he’d become obsessed with becoming a doctor and she figured, we figured, it’d do some good for him to understand the science of it all.
It’s bound to her memory in so many ways, exactly the kind of artefact the guide said we’d need to sacrifice. I’ve brought along a scarf she used to wear and a couple of her old letters.
Liz has retreated back out of sight, towards the hotel. Said she’d be there to pick us up as we walked back if we needed it. I said sure, why not. Might as well get our money’s worth.
We chuck the stuff in the sea, watch it get pulled under and out, read the incantation from the pamphlet we picked up in the foyer.
When Jared first showed me the grainy clips I’d dismissed them. They reminded me of the pictures of ghosts and UFOs that laced the books and TV programs of my credulous youth. A fictionalised hope of something more, of some meaning outside our normal frames of reference. Then articles had appeared online, in the papers. Reporters were dispatched. And, finally, definitive footage emerged.
It should have been world changing.
It should have caused us to reassess our lives, our beliefs.
It should at least have made us stop and wonder.
Then they built the wall. The news cycle churned on and it had been absorbed into our world, into our economy.
An hour later and we’re at the wall, pulling our bags off the buggy, passing guards solemn in their paid-for dignity.
Liz appeared as we’d walked back from the hissing surf, drove us back to the hotel to get our things. She looked even worse this time, exhausted, on the verge of tears. My sympathy was limited.
The gravel of the path crunches under our feet. I squint into a rare beam of sunlight trying to figure out which car is mine.
I don’t think I could describe it even if I wanted to.
It wasn’t her but it was her. Foam and sand and cold black sea.
We throw our bags in the boot and I slam it shut.
We look at each other, that hesitation, and I take him in my arms.
All I can see is a blur. All I can taste is salt water.
Dan Grace lives in Sheffield, UK. His writing has appeared in Capricious, The Future Fire and Shoreline of Infinity. His début novella, ‘Winter’, is published by Unsung Stories: