Monday, 28 March 2016
The Last of England - the beginning
Chapter 1 The beginning - Aldeburgh Beach, April 1958.
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 would put on a very upper class voice when she was talking to someone she considered to be important. 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 to be 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 later that 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, perhaps, in case no one else asked 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 or 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 believed 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 negotiate - 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 understand 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 there 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 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. She didn’t tell the police that his office at the back of the house was always locked.
Alice, the devoted and loving wife, had even been a suspect in his disappearance 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?
Aldeburgh photo: www.telegraph.co.uk
Chapter 2 The newsreel - Summer 1958.
She had surprised herself how quickly she had gotten her life back into some sort of normality. Between looking after her daughter and helping with the Aldeburgh festival, her days were always full of things to do.
When she passed folks in the street, or in the grocers, they would either drop their eyes or pat her arm at her bravery in the face of her phantom widowhood.
Stanley was neither dead nor alive, but Alice was growing more and more accustomed to this state of affairs and a little part of her hoped he wouldn’t return.
One beautiful and warm summer’s day, she drove her and Claire to Felixstowe to look in the big-shops (as Claire liked to call them), followed by a fish tea, and then the cinema. Alice was hoping there was a Disney on which usually satisfied the both of them.
Claire was almost sleeping by the time they entered the Regal, and as an extra treat, Alice had bought them both a box of chocolates and paid for the more expensive seats in the Circle. Alice looked around, and pleased that there was no one close by, slipped off her shoes and wiggled her toes. Stanley would have disapproved of such behaviour but then Stanley wasn’t here.
Claire was sleeping on Alice’s shoulder when the adverts came on, then she stretched her toes and laid against her daughter as the newsreel started. She smiled to herself as wonder how long it had been since she’d never felt so happy. Perhaps Stanley had disappeared through wishful thinking. She had another chocolate and smiled again.
The newsreel was discussing the latest fashions, what the Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were up to, and then it happened. It was only a fleeting glance but she was one hundred percent sure of what she had seen.
It had been a story on the changing face of the English seaside and the trouble that was being caused by riots on the beach at Brighton. It all worried Alice - because England, Britain even, was changing and not necessarily for the better.
Then she saw him, he was standing at the back of the crowd on Brighton beach, he looked straight at the newsreel camera and then turned away. She would swear on her daughter’s life it was him.
She didn’t wait for the Disney, instead she helped put her fast asleep daughter in the back of the car and drove back to Aldeburgh.
What should she do? The police would think she was one of those potty women one reads about in the Sunday newspapers. She would have to check her facts and that would mean going back to Felixstowe.
Between the festival and looking after her daughter, she didn’t manage to get to the cinema until three days later and as luck would have it, the newsreel had changed. She had concocted some story about a long lost relative when she approached the cinema manager. A nice man, by the name of Eric, had told her that the films had been sent back on the Monday to an address in London.
Perhaps she had just imagined it. Perhaps she was conjuring him up through the guilt of her caring little if he was ever found again. But what if it was him? How could she go on with her life wondering if any minute he could be standing at her door? She noticed that she’d thought of it as ‘her door’ and not ‘theirs’, and wondered if she was possibly the worst wife in the country.
The manager, Eric had scrawled the address in London for the newsreel and one Friday when Alice had a little time off she had taken the train to London. The film company receptionist, Irene from Upminster, had been as nice as nine-pence and had told Alice, that although they usually charged for a private viewing, seeing as it was her long lost brother, and the fact that all the big guns were out at a meeting, Alice could view the film for nothing.
A bored projectionist smoked about three cigarettes at the back of the room, and Alice had to shake him to waken him up when she got to the bit she wanted to see.
He played it over several times and when she asked the bored man to freeze the picture, he managed to do it but it vibrated a little. So she had to narrow her eyes to be sure of what she was seeing.
“Is that him?” Asked the projectionist.
Alice nearly jumped out of her skin, wondering if the man knew what was going through her head.
“Your brother, is that him?”
“I think so,” she said, but not in the way that finding a long lost brother would make someone react. Puzzled, the projectionist just lit another cigarette and thought about the girl he was meeting that night.
By the time she got back to Aldeburgh, Alice was sure it was him and wondered what she should do next.
Stanley was alive and well and standing on a beach in Brighton. Or at least he had been when they made the film
There was something else at the back of her mind about the day of Stanley’s disappearance and that thought had been refreshed by seeing the sea at Brighton in the newsreel.
Stanley had received a postcard on the day he had vanished and she was sure he’d stuffed it in a book.
Alice went into Stanley’s office, using the door that had been broken open by the police. ‘They had found nothing of any significance’ but she was sure a clue was in the room.
She opened all of his favourite books and then out of one fell the postcard. It was addressed to Stanley and the message said ‘Time’. On the other side was a painting, one they both knew and loved - it was of a couple and child leaving on a ship to start a life in a new land. The painting was by Ford Maddox Brown and was called ‘The Last of England’.
bobby stevenson 2016