By the sea
In the front parlour of the house overlooking the ocean, we sit playing cards, not as a communal activity, but each of us grim and solitarily playing out hand after hand of patience. It's wet outside. The rain is blowing in against the windows, blowing the dark shapes of the camellia bushes, their pink single blooms draggled and falling, against the window with that eerie rattle and tap. Even though I have turned on every lamp in the room, the gloom from outside seems willfully to seep in and take over.
This is a family holiday. This house that we have rented every year since I remember is old, and filled with the junk and trivia of several generations of untidy holiday makers. The lamps have fringed shades, the shades might have been a bright rose colour once, but the colour has faded away except around the metal ribbing. The fringes hang limply. None of the lamps stands quite straight any more. The furniture is solid but ugly and old fashioned; people have clearly brought old things in when they were no longer in use. A tall, heavy, dark bookcase houses decades worth of Readers Digest magazines and condensed books. The Church owns this property and its aura of tight, respectable worth still pervades every room.
The windows, of course, no longer fit their frames well, and rattle and shudder and keep everyone on edge with the belligerent wind pushing against them. Suddenly my father rises from his end of the table, and sweeps his cards into a neat stack. " I'm going" he declares "for a walk." With this curt utterance, he moves out of the room in economically long strides, reaching for his jacket as he leaves. We see him, through the window, wide shoulders hunched up to keep the rain from running down the back of his neck, his curly dark blond hair matting down around his head. My mother looks up from her game. "Well, since your father has gone out, I'm going to put some music on." She moves to the battered record player, and selects a record from a shelf in the wooden cabinet that it stands on. She takes the record from its sleeve and sets it on the player. We hear, over the sounds of the ocean, the wind and the camellias, and the light slap of cards upon the table, the staticky hiss, then piano. Satie. The Gymnopedies. Somehow, Saties light pieces bring more shadow into the room than brightness.
Half an hour passes. I play three more hands of patience, getting one out, and losing miserably on the other two. I have a rhythm built of shuffling and dealing out a hand. My sister, bored, is trying to play every type of solitaire described in the worn copy of Hoyles that she found in the bookcase. The first side of the record ends. Outside, the clouds are becoming lower and darker, full of spite and whipping down sharp cold raindrops. My mother gets up from her game and turns the record over. She stands at the window and looks out toward the cold grey sea.
"I dont know where your father is, she says. I'm going to make hot cocoa, who wants some?" I look across the table at my sister. She makes a face like a fish at me. "I do, I want cocoa, and marshmallows" I say. My sister joins in the with a clamour "marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow, marshmallow!" We scramble down from the tall old wooden chairs, stiff backed and stern, and join my mother in the small kitchen. "I beat clock patience, mummy!" My sister says proudly as my mother pours milk into a small pan, to warm on the stove. "That's nice dear, and how many hands did you win?" she asks me. I shrug. My sister has the bag of marshmallows and is dropping them into the grey church mugs. "One for you, two for me" she says in a sing-song voice. Pass the cocoa powder my mother says, and so I do. She spoons the dark brown powder neatly into the mugs, and adds a teaspoon of sugar to each.
The windows in the kitchen are small and frosted over, but you can see that outside the rain and wind have turned into a storm. As my mother pours the hot milk into the mugs, thunder booms. We drink the cocoa standing in the kitchen. "I don't like the sound of that thunder" my mother says. She is pacing, holding her mug of cocoa in both hands. Her lean flesh looks taut on her long bones; she looks just like some marionette being pulled about. "I wish your father wouldn't- I wish he didn't" she breaks off. My sister is poking at her melting marshmallows with a teaspoon and singing some kind of made up song to them. Over head lightning and thunder crackle at the same time. My mother looks up. The storms right over us. She puts her mug down beside the sink. "I wish he wouldn't" She grabs her long raincoat from the hook in the hallway between the kitchen and the parlour. "You two stay put here. There's fruitcake in the tin on the bench." She looks at me- " be careful when you cut it. I dont want you to cut yourself. I'm going out to look for him - for your father." "Let's play twenty-one" I say to my sister, after my mother has gone out into the rain. "Let's play for matchsticks." We are not allowed to gamble, even play gamble with matchsticks, when my parents are around. I have a box under my bed of matches; I took a box from the kitchen every time I could. I think I have one hundred now, or maybe two hundred.
We sit at the table again; I take my father's chair so that my sister and I are sitting at adjacent sides. I shuffle the cards. She likes to try trick shuffling, my sister, when it's her turn to deal. I just shuffle the cards, and deal a hand each. My sister ostentatiously opens Hoyles to the rules of twenty-one. We play a few hands. My sister always takes too many cards, and loses a modest number of matches to me as she goes bust. Occasionally she's lucky and makes twenty-one. It's getting darker. It must be half past four. I watch my sister splitting the deck and folding the cards, concentrating on her hands. I wish we had a television here. Maybe something good would be on. "Want to play pick up fifty-two?" I ask my sister. She starts to flip through the book. "You don't need to rules from the book", I try to sound persuasive. "I'll teach it to you." OK she says. My mother and father dont like it when you say OK instead of yes, they say it is slangy.
I take the cards from my sister and throw them across the floor. "Pick up fifty two!" "You're a meanie, meanie meanie!" she says. "Go on, pick them up then, you wanted to play." I say. She gets down from her chair and crawls around on the tired brown carpet, picking up the cards. She starts humming before long. I go to the record cabinet. I pull out some old jazz records, and put on Ella Fitzgerald. I turn up the volume so the room is less empty. My sister dances around the room with the cards in her hands. She is singing along about love.
I go to the bookshelf and kneel down in front of it. I look for a Reader's Digest I havent read. I only read the jokes at the bottom of the page, and sometimes the stories about people trapped on mountains or on ships at sea during a storm. I have read all of the stories in the condensed books, except the stories about people falling in love. I find a Reader's Digest that I havent already read through, and sit in the lumpy leather armchair in a corner of the room, next to a small table with one of the lamps on it. I sit with my legs under me and start flipping through the magazine. Perspicacious: A) A sub-tropical fern B) The sweat from horses C) Insightful D) Melancholy. I am reading the word-power page. Somebody has circled B in red biro. I skip past the rest of that page. I read a true story about a man trapped between a barge and the side of a canal, waiting to be rescued. (The story is written in first person, so I know from the start that he is rescued.) My sister is still dancing, out of rhythm with the music. Her bright pink t-shirt has ridden up out of the waistband of her skirt. She is swinging her hips around and pretending to be a woman. Through the windows, I can see lightning and the silhouette of the camellia bushes, but I cannot see down to the sea now. I can hear it. My parents have not come back."I'm hungry. I want more marshmallows." My sister whines, still twisting herself about to the music. "There's fruitcake" I say. I go to the kitchen and take the heavy cake out of the tin. I put it on the bench and take yellow china plates down from the cupboard above the bench. The cake is dark and sticky, and still has the paper from lining the baking tin stuck to the bottom. I cut myself a large slice and my sister a slice a little smaller. It has lots of dried fruit in it and almonds on the top. I cut my slice to have three almonds on it. I pick another almond off the top of what is left of the cake and eat it. "Can we have more cocoa?" asks my sister. "OK" I say. "Rinse the mugs we used before. I'll warm up the milk." I pour milk carefully into the small saucepan and light the gas on the stovetop. I don't want to burn the milk. I want my parents to come back soon, but not right now while I am using the stove. "Put the cocoa and sugar in the mugs while I heat the milk" I tell my sister. "Marshmallows and cocoa and sugar. Lots and lots of sugar." She says. She piles marshmallows into the mugs. Our mother isn't here to tell her not to. She spoons four spoons of sugar into her mug. "How much sugar do you want?" She asks, putting a spoonful of sugar into her mouth at the same time. "Three please, and use a clean spoon. I don't want your spit in my sugar." I reply. The milk is warming but I dont want it to boil over.
I take the milk off the heat, turn the gas off, and pour the milk into the mugs. It foams up around the marshmallows. We take the fruitcake and the cocoa back into the parlour and sit at the table. I stir and stir to make sure that the cocoa all dissolves. The marshmallows catch around my spoon. My sister likes the strawberry ones. The jazz music stopped a while ago. I think if my parents don't come home in half an hour I will make my sister and I cheese and chutney sandwiches for dinner. When we have finished our fruitcake and cocoa I turn the radio next to the record player on. The reception is bad because of the weather. The announcer is talking about the storm. "Record rain fall and gale force winds are lashing the coast causing flash-flooding in certain areas," he says. He does not sound very excited. There is a small boat warning and residents are advised to stay in their homes. I think that it is a good thing that none of us are in a boat. My sister is playing with the cards again, trying to build a castle out of three of the decks. "You'll have to sort those out again when you're finished" I say. She twists up her mouth at me and keeps building. I turn the knob on the radio to try to find another station. I find one playing an old episode of the Shadow. I go back to my armchair and the magazine and half-listen half-read.
"When are mummy and daddy coming home?" My sister asks. "I don't know" I say, and go on reading. She comes over and leans on my chair. "But when?" she nags. "I dont know! Go away, I want to read." She keeps it up though, "when, when, when are they coming?" I turn to her. "Maybe they went to the sea and drifted away and we'll never see them again!" I say just to get rid of her. She starts crying and runs into the bathroom. I want to read my magazine but I get up. She has locked the bathroom door. I have to promise that our parents will be back soon, and offer to roast marshmallows over the gas flame for her before she comes out.
I roast her marshmallows while she sits on the kitchen table. I hold them with a fork, and a tea-towel wrapped around the end I am holding. The fork is getting burnt, but I dont think the Church will notice that it is missing if I throw it away. When she has finished all the marshmallows we have, she goes to read comic books in her room. She has a lot of Richie Rich and some Wonder Woman comic books but nothing good.
I go and sit by the window to wait for my parents. It seems that they must be coming back soon. They have been gone for hours. The camellia bush tap, tap, taps on the window. I think about the sea. It is very rough out there. I can hear the sea slamming up against the shore. The wind is shaking the house and making it creak. I am worried about my parents. I slip on my raincoat and boots and run down to the shore to find them.