Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Last Of England - Chapter One



                                            "....it happened again in 1958, this time they kept quiet"  

                                                                                               1

The sky was blood red.

Stanley had been edgy all that day. Or at least, it had seemed that way to Alice ever since she had suggested a picnic on the beach. Now she, Stanley and their seven-year-old daughter, Claire were sitting shivering under a sky that would have delighted any photograph.

They had wanted some privacy, at least that was the way that Stanley had put it and so they had moved along the beach towards Thorpeness. It was all shingles and stones but they did love this part of the country and the sea was performing for them with all its heart.

Alice had laid a tea that her mother would have approved of, while Stanley and Claire searched under rocks for crabs. She called them a few times but the wind seemed to carry her voice off somewhere out to sea. The gulls, which cried overhead, had probably heard her voice more times that day than her family.

But she was happy, or at least content in a very British way. It had been thirteen years since the war and the country was now getting back on its feet. She had a small but important job helping organise the Aldeburgh Festival and Stanley had been teaching at various colleges in Suffolk and Norfolk. Claire, after a few health scares, was now growing into a beautiful young girl.

So why did Alice feel so empty in her stomach? Her mother had always been a victim of depression but had tended to keep out the way of the family during those particularly bad episodes. To Alice’s mother, depression hadn’t been a very British thing to suffer from in public. Sometimes, when Alice pressed her ear against her mother’s bedroom door, she could hear her mother praying or at least talking to God in her own West London style. Her mother did that when she was talking to someone she considered to be important, she would put on a very upper class voice. Alice remembered that it was something her mother had failed to do when she had first met Stanley.

Yet, despite everything that had happened, she still missed her mother. The mother she could talk to any time of the day. She missed that woman more than she could ever tell Stanley. He had woken Alice in the middle of the night, telling her that her mother had gone. He had then turned over and had gone back to sleep. Having just woken, Alice had wondered, at first, where her mother had gone to exactly. Morocco, perhaps? Istanbul? Those were some of her mother’s favourite haunts and ones, which were considered very daring for a widow in the 1950s. But then her mother had been all that and more; she had always been adventurous. Alice felt that her mother had been a little disappointed that Alice hadn’t been more like her.

When Alice had woken properly the night of the ‘phone call, she had realised what Stanley had meant - that her mother had gone for good. Afterwards she had heard Stanley snoring and she wasn’t going to wake him up again to talk about how she was feeling. He was down to teach a class in Ipswich in the morning and that would have meant an early start.

Alice’s father had died in the war.

He had been a scientist or something similar, yet he’d never really told the family what it was he had done. It was while her father was working at some camp in Berkshire that he had met Stanley and brought him home to meet the family. Alice was sure that her father had approved of Stanley and had probably intended him to ask his daughter out. This he had done, and soon they were married. If not in haste, at least in a very short space of time. Love had nothing to do with it, although she had grown accustomed to him and would always miss him when he was away. But this wasn’t really love, not the Wuthering Heights kind. This was a very British marriage where it was better to say nothing and suffocate than bring shame to the family. Alice had said ‘yes’ very quickly, too quickly, in case no one else would ask her.

She had held her breath for so long now that it seemed impossible to remember what fresh air tasted like.

Alice looked up and could see Stanley and Claire heading back. She waved, and her beautiful little daughter waved back with all her might. Claire was a fighter, she had had to fight to stay in the world and nothing was going to take her. Stanley had seen Alice waving but had dropped his head, something he had been doing more frequently.

By the time her family had made it back to the picnic, the wind was whipping up the white horses and causing them to crash onto the shore. The napkins were being blown about and two of them disappeared over the sandbank at the back.

They drank their tea in silence, a behaviour that Stanley had always insisted upon, while they ate the perfectly cut sandwiches filled with cucumber from their own garden.

It was then that Stanley lifted his head and looked out to sea. At least, that is what she remembers telling the police afterwards. There had been a large, red schooner on the horizon and it had seemed to be struggling with the strong winds.

Any normal person would have mentioned the ship’s distress but not Stanley. He had simply wiped the crumbs from his face, stood up and climbed over the sandbank for a better view. At least that is what Alice had assumed and it was another thing she had told the police.

The last time she saw Stanley, he had his hands sheltering his eyes from the harsh wind, eyes, which she assumed, were following the schooner. Claire helped her mother pack up and it was just as Alice was about to ask Stanley to help her with the basket, one that she always found difficult to open - that she noticed he had gone. So had the schooner. Alice asked Claire to run over to the sandbank and fetch her father but he wasn’t there.

From the sandbank, a person could see all the way to Thorpeness, back to Aldeburgh and even a mile or two inland but Stanley had simply vanished off the face of the Earth.

“You sure it was that sudden?” The policeman with the notebook had asked her later and she was absolutely certain that it had been.
           
The police had searched the beaches and land for several days, the locals had all taken their boats out to help but nothing was found of Stanley. He had simply gone.

What scared Alice was that she felt relieved, at least at first. Maybe he had wanted to disappear. The policeman, Inspector Whitstable, had asked her about their life together and by that, Alice had assumed he was meaning their love life. To her, that meant sex on a Saturday evening and sometimes during the week when they were on holiday. At first she couldn’t get what Whitstable was getting at, but it soon became apparent. Did he have something troubling him? And by that, the policeman had meant another woman.  Or man. She hadn’t even considered that possibility that Stanley was a queer.

If wasn’t sex that was troubling Stanley, then maybe they was money worries. But as she had told the police, her mother had left them comfortable for the rest of their lives. No, he wasn’t suicidal either. If anything, he disapproved of such nonsense. Stanley was conservative through and through and knew one day in his heart that he would have to account to God for his behaviour.

When the Inspector asked about Stanley’s work, Alice had to put admit it was beyond her. She neither knew, nor cared what he did as long as he was a good father to Claire and a good husband to her. Alice, the devoted and loving wife, had even been a suspect and her fingerprints taken, but the suggestion was preposterous. She had a witness in the shape of her beautiful – their beautiful daughter. How quickly Alice seemed to want him dead and buried. He didn’t deserve those thoughts, and Alice quickly brightened up.

She would do all it took to find him. If he had run away, there must have been a reason. Perhaps she was the reason. Perhaps she hadn’t been a good enough wife. Yet hadn’t there always been a meal on the table when he had come home? Hadn’t she always listened to his problems? Hadn’t she always allowed him to lie on top of her when he wanted? What more could a wife do?


 bobby stevenson 2013





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