A walk by the sea (69)

Part III

Chapter 69.

January arrived with vicious blizzards uncustomary to Bodeford. It upset the lives of its citizens, who for days did nothing but struggle to come to terms with God’s new form of punishment for their real and imaginary sins. Meetings were bound to be held in the city hall to discuss possible methods of defending the miniature society against divine wrath. Sunday pilgrims to the local parish also increased in number, however shaky the ground was upon which the faith of the community stood: hypocrisy or not, the people of Bodeford deemed it praiseworthy in the eyes of the Almighty to kneel and pray before the tattered wooden Christ and pay attention to sermons previously considered boring. And amidst all this commotion, Mary found herself unusually elated.

A fire crackled in her fireplace, the flickering flames lighting the newly framed photograph of Jo and Eileen, she holding a bundled Andy under a small-sized, lavishly decorated Christmas tree, he encircling her shoulder with a protecting arm. Mary liked to cast a look at the photograph daily; she had travelled home before the family could have celebrated the holidays together, but it had been for the best. The photo did compensate her generously, together with the phone calls that had miraculously become two-sided. Eileen called her mother-in-law almost every other day, and even Jo was prone to contact his mother on a weekly basis now. Whether this change in their relationship had been triggered by his guilt at her almost heart failure, or the fact that Jo had witnessed her emotional downfall, the result was the same: it was a welcome change. The phonecalls, like the warmth of fire on a winter night brought cosiness to Mary’s life. The thread which had been invisible for decades between herself and her son now grew strong and shiny, holding them together despite the grudges they still held against each other. Much had been left untalked of, but much had been revealed by involuntary glances and gestures brought on by circumstances, and the ice between mother and son was definitely thawing.

Mary’s gaze fell from the photograph to the peacefully purring Marshmellow. The animal, Robert said, had been agitated during Mary’s and Sara’s absence, but settled down as soon as her old friend returned. Mary stroked the furry head with affection, to which the cat glanced up at her with slit eyes and a mouth which eventually opened in a cosy yawn.

The weather was definitely turning dark and gloomy. Fortunately, Mary’s visit to the grocer’s was over, in fact, she had no errands left to run that day. She eased herself into her rocking chair, receiving the cat who had eyed the prospects of resting in a warm human lap with slothful eyes, but who eventually forced herself to jump in the lap of the woman. Profuse stroking followed on Mary’s part, triggering louder appreciation on Marshmellow’s.

-It’s wonderful to be home, Marsh -Mary spoke into the fire, hypnotised by the seductive dancing of the flames.

The cat gurgled her muffled response, after which she placed her tiny head on Mary’s left arm.

Peace reigned on the house while outside the crisp wind came and went, back and forth, vexing naked tree branches and pines in their emerald green bloom. From the spot she was sitting in, Mary could gaze freely at the turbulent surface of sea. Grey the waves were, and so was the sky, with not even the tiniest sparkle to be seen. Despite the heat of the fire, which was gaining strength from the plump logs, Mary thought she felt a grip of unjustified chilliness crawl from her toes upwards. She rubbed her slippered feet together and placed them closer to the fireplace.

She may have drowsed off, as upon awaking, she found her lap empty of cat and her fireplace filled to the brim with amber ashes. Judging from the soft darkness descending upon the world, she must have slept quite a while. Yet, in spite of the evening light, the sky was clearer and the sea was taciturn. The storm had relinquished its hold on Bodeford for that day.

Cramped limbs reminded Mary of the fact that she was not getting younger with age. Blood started circulating in her veins only after a few strenuous movements of arm and shoulder and a couple of deep breaths. The slightly stifling air inside her abode made her yearn for a brief walk in the chilly winter evening, and perhaps a quick visit to the shore.

Her high-legged shoes sheltered her thin calves from the cold mud that before the onset of torrential rains had been turf and soil. Skeletons of bush together with ghosts of pebbles ligned the path leading to the shallow beach, and through the barren tree foliage her lifted eyes could discern the calm sea. Tiny waves broke the quietude of the water from time to time, their soft sound getting louder as she approached the sea.

Wet sand stretched before her as far as she could see, its monotony only brightened by coal-dark rocks. They stood firm and solid in the pool of quiet sea, their colour darkened further by the dusky feel of the landscape. A cool breeze carried the cold, salty scent of a winter sea, so that Mary started feeling the chilliness in her nose, and on her face. She pulled her scarf tight around her neck and tried to bury herself in the soft fabric completely. Resisting the temptation to flee the cold and rush back to the welcoming warmth of the house, she stood for a while longer, taking in the view, listening to the sounds of nature.

Her old life had welcomed her without the slightest retribution. The moment she stepped out of the taxi and inhaled the sea air she felt at home. Behind closed eyelids she inspected the place, her garden, the sound of waves, the feel of her home. Scents and sounds, after the alien feel of Los Angeles were threatening to bury her underneath their overwhelming presence, but she soon got accustomed to them. After all, everything was familiar. Everything was what she had been surrounded by for what seemed like eternity.

The silence of solitude grew louder as minutes flew by. A soft drizzle fell on Mary’s skin, the breeze cooling it down, sending tiny shivers through her skin, her flesh, all the way to her core. She had to face it: the recent events in her life had left her several pounds lighter on her already fragile frame. Sara had done her best to “fatten up” her friend, but Mary found that it was as difficult to gain her weight back as it was to find her way back into reality. The evening grew chillier and chillier, until the point where Mary had to pronounce herself defeated.

Her walk back seemed shorter, as her house was right behind the hill; she could see the smoke of heat coming out through her chimney. She instinctively felt warmer, and because of this sensory illusion, she decided to take a tiny detour to a place she had been craving to visit ever since her arrival back to Bodeford.

The house stood dark and forlorn in the drizzle, an unkempt garden further destroyed by the incessant onslaught of harsh weather. Mary walked closer to the gate, then pushed it in, careful not to step on the puddle of mud that had gathered where human steps had carved a valley into the ground. She didn’t know why she was drawn to get closer to the house which was obviously empty and had been so for almost two months now. Since the day she found her painting torn in the garbage bin.

She faced the hollow window-eyes of the house, remembering the few occasions that house had received them both, accomplices to the oldest human sin: love outside social boundaries. It had not been real… or had it? She was not so sure any more. The last time she had seen Joshua, he was just a tattered memory, a caricature of his old self. He could not have been the same young man who had stolen her heart and soul on a glorious summer day.

She missed him, more and more if she wanted to be honest. She did not possess information on his whereabouts, she did not know how he was doing. Amidst the mutually shattering last encounter they had not exchanged promises of keeping in touch, and she doubted he would ever want to be reminded of her. She was probably the biggest failure of his life.

The drizzle turned into solid rain pattering on evergreen leaves and windowpanes. She turned to exit the garden, making the mistake of letting her attention be drawn by a sign on the left of the gate. Her shoes sunk up to her ankle in mud, but what was that compared to the pang of pain that pierced her heart as she read the words on the lopsided sign. “For sale. Urgent, hence bargain”.

She reached her home soaked, her teeth chattering. Throwing her coat off, she dabbed at her hair with a dry towel, mostly because she knew that was what she was supposed to do. She couldn’t care less if she caught a cold.

Hot tea scorched her tongue, and Marshmellow was clamoring for her evening treats while Mary sat in apathy in her chair, a new fire burning by now, the flames unable to warm up the coldness in her soul.

Despite the odds, despite the signs she had been given, despite the logical conclusion of the events that almost destroyed her, she had still been hoping to see him again. Broken, drunk, uncaring, reproachful he had been: she could still not refuse him, because he was what she had made him. The self-centered fixation of uncertain humans that they are to blame for all the pain in the universe was causing her to blame herself inexorably. The moment the part of herself that was trying to survive persuaded her that it was not her fault, the beats of her forlorn heart drummed in her ear the irrevocable, painful truth that only someone who had loved unconditionally can accept. She had pushed him into the abyss, failing to notice that he would have needed someone infinitely stronger than herself. He did not need someone to heal: he needed someone to be healed by.

Because she knew for certain that his despondency was the result of her weakness, her feelings for him grew stronger and lay the cards of fate before her, so logical, so simple. She still loved him, but he was never coming back. If he was alive at all.

Tears soiled Mary’s chagrined face as she rocked herself back and forth on the chair. Scenarios of shame and death flashed possible, even probable alternatives to Joshua’s last days. He might be dead, for all she knew. Oh, why had she not asked for his address from someone. Andrew would probably find out if she asked him. But Andrew had been reserved and silent at the airport, unfamiliar pain in his gentle eyes, pain that seemed so distanced from her that she felt helpless and useless, even for him.

Nevertheless, she needed him badly. She could never ask him to look for Joshua, but she could beg him to keep in touch with her and alleviate the solitude of her faltering years.

“Dear Andrew,
If only I could change what happened between us. I know I left you broken-hearted, but if you saw me in my current state, you would consider yourself a lucky bloke.
I do not ask for forgiveness, though I am sure you will offer it whole-heartedly, as you are the most generous person I have ever known. I merely implore you to keep me virtual company, through ink and paper, at least until I find my strength again. I could use a friend like you till the day I die, but I know that would be too much asking.
If you never reply to this letter, I will understand; furthermore, I will take your silence as your unspoken request to leave you alone, and will honour your wishes.

She had never scribbled a letter faster in her life. The turmoil in her heart only subsided when she closed the envelope and placed it onto the coffee table, to be posted the next day. She never stopped to think if she was doing the right thing; that option had not been granted to her for a very long time. For her, there had only been bad choices, or worse ones. This time, writing to Andrew felt like grabbing a life-belt thrown at her into the centre of a hurricane.