I took a room on the third floor of a building run by Mrs. Bale. The idea was to find a place with a view of the sea. I settled for harbour water and another month of solitude and silence, looking at the tide coming and going. Mrs. Bale was a quiet woman. Her husband Joseph was not a quiet man.
What are you doing here, he asked? Nothing much ever happens in Gullstown. Two years before a homeless man was found dead under the pier and shortly after a car skewered across the road and stopped just short, the front wheels over the edge. It was a man from town, drunk. He broke his shoulder and his wife suffered whiplash. Joseph, who claimed to be first on the scene described how the wife, traumatised, had a face of glass staring straight out at the water as at the eternal road ahead.
Then there was the rumour of a woman on Church Hill who tried to stab her husband with a bread knife, though generally speaking the homicide unit flashed through Gullstown in the night on the way to somewhere else.
The room had a bay window and a skylight. I sat in the bay window and gazed at the clouds through the skylight. Then I looked at the water in the harbour. The tide took five to six hours to ebb and flow.
Unlike her husband, Mrs. Bale asked no questions and spun no tall tales. She practised yoga and watched television and suffered under the strain of her husband’s drinking. Their daughter was in Australia, their son in the UK. Her eyelids were sometimes swollen and once I came upon her crying as she worked and in a dream her tears fell against my face.
The bar next door was called The Nautilus. I stood outside having a smoke observing the people coming and going and milling around the shops. If you went inside you found a wall mirror giving the appearance of a vaster space than is available.
Joseph’s medicine was Murphy’s Irish Stout. And what’s yours, he said to me? He was an embittered teacher and a failed novelist. He had written a cosmic trilogy that no-one read. I struck up some kind of acquaintance with him, enough intimacy to know he was about to run away with an eighteen year old, though I didn’t believe him. It seemed like a joke. When I asked him was she good-looking his response was; Didn’t I tell you she was eighteen.
We went up to the church when a famous writer came to read from his latest novel. It concerned infidelity in a lovely Greek or Provencal village but what the great writer said in his introduction made more of an impression on me, especially his comments of disgust at what happens when your novel is translated into Japanese.
I liked it there in Gullstown with my view of the sea, rather of the harbour water. It was the next step on my journey towards greater solitude and silence. At least that’s what I wrote in my notebook. I believed I would find a cabin in the woods. Siberia was not off the list.
The rows between Mrs. Bale and Joseph could be spectacular. When he came home from work via the pub he was as tense as bejaysus, to use his own words. His complaints were loud and uninhibited. Mrs. Bale did her best to ignore him at first, sitting in the front room doing her yoga exercises. It’s maddening, he said to me, when she does that.
Check the dinner, she said. He opened the oven and the pork steak fell out on the floor. He lost his temper. He kicked the pork steak against the wall. She called him a pig and he slammed his fist in the kitchen door making another dent in the timber frame. I’m a pig, am I? I’m a pig am I?
It was better when he didn’t come home until well after dinner time. She rested on the couch watching television. When I stood in the door, she might or might not make a brief comment about what she was watching, the news or a nature documentary, sometimes a music channel, a jazz or classical concert. She might offer a tidbit of local news such as when there was a body in the bay. I heard it on the radio, she said. Now we’ll have the sea rescue crowd and the helicopter for a few days. When I found her on Skype to her daughter in Perth or her son in Birmingham, it seemed to me that most of the talk came out of the screen.
The later Joseph came home the better. The drunker he was the better. He became very dark but also less aggressive. He tiptoed around banging into things like a sedated elephant. Once he stumbled in the door to my room in the early hours. His mood was so black that his face in the doorway looked black. It was something about women, how he hated them. I need a drink, he said, I need a lot of drink but I’m completely broke. I haven’t a red cent. I haven’t a bob. I’m getting the hell out of here, and soon. He ripped his shirt off as he headed for a spare room. I could hear the stitches tearing.
The sea looked very still out there with the body in it. There was a single boat in the bay. In the bow was a yellow lantern cutting a wedge into the water. Mrs. Bale’s old black dog, Bob, was lying in the yard. If he could talk, I’d go down to pass an hour with him. I’d say that despite all the guff about nothing much ever happening in Gullstown, I had a feeling that things were simmering under the surface, a murder about to happen maybe, or an abduction.
I gazed at the sea with my mouth open. The creaky timber-framed chair upon which I sat; well, one night in a savage burst of temper I kicked it so hard that I smashed one of the back supports. There was instant silence in the house. The televisions in every room were turned down. Mrs. Bale probably told Joseph to go up and see what was happening? Then a phone began to ring and it kept ringing for some time.
Once after a session in The Nautillus with Joseph Mrs. Bale cooked steak with a chili sauce on the side for us. Joseph opened a bottle of Jameson and began to talk about his problems without consideration for his wife’s presence. She sat in the living room, visible through the door, with a shawl around her shoulders watching some low key jazz event, the sound turned very low.
All my life given to the savages, Joseph said. Days like to-day when I feel so industrious, lost to the savages. All my life.
I got the sense that his wife was listening from the other room.
It’s like being on a tightrope, Joseph said, or a rollercoaster. I’d love to make a break for it. He glanced in at his wife and lowered his voice to a whisper. I’m going to make a break for it soon. Watch this space.
He leaned over and grabbed the bottle of Jameson by the neck. I’ll tell you something funny, he said. I was sitting right here the other day when I saw my face reflected in the window, and at first I thought it was someone looking in at me. I saw this small, pale head on a scrawny, little neck. When I realised it was myself I was looking at I began to laugh; Loser, I thought, ugly loser without a future. But that is soon going to change.
Mrs. Bale came in with the shawl around her neck. I’ll put on the kettle. You two are having a great chin wag.
Joseph leapt up and threw his arms around her. I make myself out to be very bad, he said. I’m not, you know, not all that bad. I’m going to write a novel that will be translated into Japanese and buy her a diamond brooch for her birthday or a pearl necklace, how about that, a pearl necklace.
I slipped away then, up to the room. The bodies in the bay are not always found. The helicopters hover low over the surface for a day or two, whip up a flurry of foam. Slow moving boats for days on end. There was a ship in port, lit up like the Waldorf Astoria. The captain and crew would soon hit the town.
In the end Joseph gave her soaps for her birthday. He said he fell over a bush coming up the garden path and hit his elbow and nearly broke the soaps. He said he was going on the dry and become a recluse. Once that night was over he was going to go up to his room everyday after work and write. He couldn’t make up his mind. He was almost forty seven. He felt vulnerable. He had nothing to show for his life and now what was left, only old age and death.
Soon after that he was gone. Gone with a young woman. Rumour had it they were in Cyprus.
The house was like a morgue for awhile, which suited me fine. I kept an eye on Mrs. Bale, more introverted than ever.
As for myself, I had to get out of there, had to find a house of my own or move on altogether. The fantasy of a cabin in the woods, Siberia not off the list. The place gave me weird dreams such as the story of a man called Zero who lived in a room, way outside the town. He sat inside looking out at a field. It was all he could see, everything else that was happening in the world may as well not exist. He was in danger of staying there forever, always a Zero, a Nobody, the curtains drawn on the window, he couldn’t remember doing it, drawing them that is, shutting out the day and the empty field. There were times when he just could not stand the sight of the field with no-one in it. Seven billion people and not one of them visible in that field.
I stood in the dark on the pier and looked for a long while at a nearly full tide. Then the clouds broke apart and it was a nearly full moon.
Some lights were on in the house, the television screen flickering. She was sitting at the table, a bottle of Jameson before her. She looked at me in silence. I poured two glasses of whiskey, drank, then poured one more and told her of lonely days arriving in strange cities. I described a cheap hotel room with no little exaggeration, like a failed novelist.
All the time, she looked at me in silence, I continued drinking and talking, how I was very happy in some of the places, but never happy enough to settle. Then she began to talk and what she had to say about when she was a little girl and her bedroom overlooked nothing but a fallow field was creepy. It made her so lonely to look into that field. Joseph suggested that there was something wrong with her, every time she looked into a wide open space, it freaked her out. She once told him that the ocean was filled with the tears of the world. In an invisible draught her hair for a moment languished about her eyes.
I don’t know whether I dreamed it or not, asleep beside her, did she really say that about a field when she was a little girl?
When I woke before the dawn, I felt I had made a big mistake. I felt that I had stepped over a line into a zone where I should not and could not be. I watched the rapid eye movement going on under her closed lids and knew that if I waited around she’d tell me the dream like the last one about how a woman tried to steal a necklace that he had given her for her birthday, many years ago, and then how the same woman, a girl really, offered to buy him a castle. When her eyes open all of this will be mere fancy, I thought. She will look around, no-one beside her. It will be a grey and miserable February morning in Gullstown and you know what they say about that place and many others like it.