One evening I find Liz alone up on the deck, leaning on the railings. The silky Chinese style dress she wears would have flattered a nicer figure. As it is it just accentuates her scrawniness. She seems not to have seen me, but I can’t be sure and I’m too polite, no, too easily embarrassed to take the chance. Being seen to avoid her would seem too overtly offensive a move and I still feel too vulnerable. As I get near she sighs and I’m forced to ask if she’s ok. I can see now she’s not. She’s been crying. I’m not moved. I think she cries for attention. (But why shouldn’t she want some attention, married to a shit like Harry?) She’s let the tears accumulate on her cheeks. She sniffles and gives me her ‘brave’ smile. ‘Oh don’t worry about me,’ she says, taking in a deep breath through her teeth ‘I’ll manage’. I move to go, but she continues. ‘You have to, don’t you?’ I don’t know what she means. ‘What else can you do?’ and she sucks hard on her cigarette. We both look out to sea, but I can’t help glancing at her. And I can’t avoid my eyes glancing down at those empty breasts. She catches me looking and smiles at me knowingly.
Still, I can see she must have been a good-looking woman once. Not now. Now she makes my skin creep. She goes on in a resigned sort of way about her life - I’m really not paying attention – something about a house in Billingshurst and her daughter, Rebecca, who looks down on her, and her labradors, Franny and Betsy - the only things she talks about unaccompanied by world-weary sighs and stifled sobs. I look at the sea. It’s getting really dark. A thick fog that looks like it’s been drawn in blackly in charcoal obscures everything more than about ten yards out. White birds appear chaotically out of the gloom and disappear again. ‘At least they loved me’, she says, chin up, and she goes on about the ‘sweet’ things they used to get up to. I drift off again as she whines on a bit more about Harry and how he never really cared at all, never wanted children, never loved them like she did. ‘Poor little mites’ she says, suddenly, horrifyingly, slumping, head onto the rail, really crying, deep ugly sobs coming from that bony moley chest. This is bad. I can’t help but make comforting noises, but she shrugs. What’s happened to her? What have I missed? I can’t ask now or it’ll be obvious I wasn’t paying attention. We look out to sea and she treads out her fag end with her glittery turquoise shoes and lights another. I want to say something helpful.
‘I’ll never forgive him’ she resumes presently, coldly, resolutely, and I can tell this is a big deal for her because I can see now that before, she has forgiven everything. I want to know what happened but I don’t know what to ask.
‘What did you say their names were – your children?’ I venture, cautiously.
‘Rebecca’s children, our grand-children’ she says, looking out over the side. I can see her genuinely trying not to cry, not for effect. ‘I haven’t said anything to anyone about this’ she continues, looking seriously at me. ‘You mustn’t tell anyone.’
I nod, equally seriously.
‘Katie and Matthew’ she says at length, and begins to weep quietly, looking away from me, toward the stern. ‘Three and eight’ and she pauses, breathing hard. ‘I don’t know why I’m still smoking these things. No point...’ and she flicks the fag into the swell.
‘It’d be so easy to just jump in wouldn’t it’ she says.
‘I don’t know...’ I say doubtfully, ‘I don’t think it’s...’
‘I know,’ she nods ‘I asked Jason, my – our guide. Harry won’t go to him, doesn’t want me to go, but I said I was sick. Jason says people get what he calls ‘lost’ all the time; disappear into the sea or whatever. Apparently you just merge with the surroundings, your spirit becomes as one with the waves, eventually. Sounds fine I said, but unfortunately it goes on almost forever and you spend that time drifting, feeling the same miserable way you did when you took the plunge, forever. Imagine that. And there’s nothing you can do about it, so Jason tells me. You can’t work out what has happened to you, do anything about it, you just drift, feeling that way, forever. He says Alzheimer’s is a bit like it. My mum had Alzheimer’s. Every day at the rest home, several times a day she remembered, like it was the first time she was ever told, that she couldn’t go home. Imagine discovering that several times a day for the rest of your life...’ She took out another fag and lit it. ‘What the heck’ she said ‘we’re already dead. Want one?’
‘But I’m not spending eternity with him, and that’s flat. He thinks I will but I’ll show him, him and his cronies. Ray was just a carpet salesman, did you know that? To hear him you’d think he was the bloody Godfather. Bloody carpet salesman. Thinks he’s Dean bloody Martin. I don’t know much about Sol. Brenda was mother of three, but she didn’t really care about them – doesn’t talk about them at all. Harry won’t let me talk about...’ and I see her well up and look away again. ‘Bastard’ she says, quietly, under her smoky breath. ‘He makes out it was the other bloke’s fault, but it wasn’t. He over-took us and Harry would never stand for that. Made him absolutely livid. So Harry tries to overtake on the inside and cut in. Everyone was doing over seventy. We just clipped the front of the van and that was it.’ She pauses and gathers herself up. ‘The kiddies were in the back’ she adds finally.
We stand together in silence a good long while.
‘Thing is, I don’t know what happened to them’ she continues, almost inaudibly, once the tears have let up a little. ‘They were all strapped in properly. Oh my god. I can’t stand not knowing. They’re not here. Maybe they were alright – do you think? Maybe they’re in hospital, with their mum.’
The tragedy in her is face too terrible to look at so I look away. There are no children on the boat. I hadn’t thought about it before.
‘Poor little buggers’ she says. ‘That bastard...’ and she shakes her head, steps on her fag-end and heads down to the bar without looking back.
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