A Seaside Town in Winter

by Cornelius Pyke

Preface

Stuck in a seaside town in winter, our narrator finds himself invited to a funeral ...


I'd wasted an evening, a journey. When he didn't show, I had to put up for the night in a boarding house that only opened its doors because it had a couple of long-term residents. It was comfortable enough and warm, and I lay awake listening to the water in the radiators gurgling and the pipes ticking and to the high wind that moaned from the sea, and the salt dash of the breaking waves. And feeling angry that I'd been let down by him.

'We had a bit of rough weather last night,' the landlady said, as she put a cup of tea on the table in front of me. 'Didn't keep you awake, did it? What do you want for your breakfast?'

'Just toast. I don't want anything fried.' The thought of grease and stale cooking oil made me feel sick. I was the only one in the breakfast room and I sat and munched my way through toast and margarine whilst watching the occasional car or delivery-van drive past outside. When I was done, I went back up to my room, packed my overnight things in my case and settled up with her. I left the case in the hallway and said I'd be back for it later. I went out for a walk to get some fresh air, to clear a headache I'd got from sleeping in the stuffy little room.

The world had no colour to it. At the far end of the bay, the dark shape of the headland swept round and buried its snout in the oncoming wind and spray. From the little backstreet the boarding house was situated on, I made my way downhill to the sea-front, to an esplanade, seeing the sea churning away at the end of the road, like a restive crowd at a football match. Reaching the promenade I turned left towards the headland. As I made my way towards it, I saw her. She was the first person I'd seen that morning, if you didn't count the landlady.

She was wearing a black overcoat and gripping the rail in her mittened hands. A sudden gust of wind blew the hat from her head and the hat went tumbling and spinning across the pavement.

'Here,' I said, as I caught it and handed it back to her. 'The wind is pretty strong this morning.'

Her face was pale as she looked down at the hat. She took it from me and tucked it under her arm. 'I think I'd better just hang onto it,' she said.

'Are you here on holiday?' I asked.

She stared at me, the rain wetting her face.

'It was just a joke.'

'Oh.' She pushed the hair out of her eyes. Across the road, the out-of-season hotels were all in darkness except for a single electric bulb burning at an upstairs window. 'No, I'm not here on holiday. I'm here for a funeral.'

'Oh, I'm sorry.'

'No need to be.' She had a slight lisp. 'What about you?'

'Me?'

'Are you ...' she looked about her distractedly, as if wondering where she was, 'are you on holiday, or what?'

'No. I'm on business.'

The girl laughed. 'What business can you have in a place like this?'

'True. Well, I'm in sales, you see. I was supposed to meet a contact here, but they haven't shown up.'

She took a packet of cigarettes from her coat pocket and tried to light one, striking matches that the wind rushed in to snuff out.

'Can I try?'

She gave me the matches and I managed to light her cigarette.

'Where are you going?' she asked.

'Nowhere in particular. I'm just killing time until my train leaves.'

She nodded and looked out to the stormy sea. 'I was wondering ...'

'Yes?'

'The funeral service doesn't start for another hour or so. If you're at a loose end you could walk with me for a bit.'

'I don't know. I was planning to get the first train back. I find seaside towns in winter very depressing.'

'Me too.'

I suddenly felt sorry for her and had a change of heart. 'Are you down here on your own?'

'Yes.'

'I suppose I could get a later train. Where d'you want to go?'

'I just want to walk.' And we set off along the seafront under the empty flower baskets that swung from the lamp-posts in the wind. She looked up at the baskets. 'Do you think they'd look nice when they're filled for summer?'

It took me a moment to realise what she meant. 'Yes. When they're planted with bulbs.' I paused for a moment. 'I can just see this place in summer. The beach full of fat women eating ice cream, hen-pecked little husbands with handkerchiefs knotted on their heads.'

She laughed. 'You don't like the seaside then?'

A carrier bag came sailing along the esplanade, filled with the wind, and caught against her legs. She kicked herself free of it.

'I don't mind it in the right season. But not in winter. Look at it. It's got no life.'

'It's got plenty of life,' she said, and she sounded suddenly angry. 'The people are just hibernating. Like bears in caves.'

'Are they?' I said.

At the far end of the seafront was a bandstand with a shrubbery planted around it and several empty benches. 'Shall we sit down?' She sat, without waiting for an answer. 'Do you want a piece of chocolate?' She took out a bar from her pocket, broke off a piece and handed it to me. The wind played with her hair, moved it about her face. She folded up her hat and shoved it in her pocket, together with the chocolate. I noticed she didn't eat any chocolate herself. 'What do you sell?'

'Electrical equipment to the catering trade.'

'Do you make a good living, if you don't mind me asking?'

'Well enough. But I'm not going to get rich. What do you do?'

'I used to be a teacher.'

'Used to be? What do you do now?'

A car drove down the road behind us, coming along the wide front, with the closed up hotels on the far side, and the misplaced palm trees in the central reservation. It had its headlights on, shining gold in the slanting grey rain - the morning was that miserable. I wondered what we looked like to the occupants of that car. Two figures in dark clothing, huddled on a bench, not knowing each other, but sitting intimately close to escape the cold. 'Thank God,' I said, nodding towards the car as it passed. 'A sign of life.'

'What do you mean?' She turned to me sharply, as if I'd offended her.

'Nothing. Only that there are other people about. It's not just us.'

'It isn't just us,' she murmured. 'It's only you.'

I didn't know what she meant, but it didn't seem right to ask.

'Shall we go on?' she asked, after a while. 'It's getting cold sitting here.'

'If you like.' My legs were stiff when I got up. She slipped her arm through mine, but I didn't mind. She was in need of company, that was all.

'This way.' She pulled me through the shrubbery and back towards the road.

'Where are we going?'

A strong burst of wind at our backs pushed us out onto the pavement. 'Anywhere. You wanted to go to the headland, didn't you? I don't think there's much to see there. Just a few rows of holiday lets. What do you call them? Chalets. And some bungalows where old people live. Old people who've come here to retire.'

'I didn't say I wanted to go to the headland.'

'Didn't you? Well, never mind. Let's head back into town.'

'Shall we go somewhere we can warm up a bit?' I said. 'There might be somewhere open? Have you got time before you've got to be at the church?'

She looked at her watch. 'Yes, I think so.'

Down one of the sidestreets, I saw a board set out on the pavement and a collection of aluminium tables and chairs, with beads of rain water gathered on their surface and no-one sitting at them. 'There's somewhere. Let's go.' It was my turn to lead her, up the hill a little way and into the café and its warm strip-lighting.

'I'll have coffee and a toasted sandwich. What do you want?'

'Nothing, thanks.' The girl shook her head.

'Nothing? Aren't you hungry? Have a drink at least?'

'No, I'm fine. I haven't long had breakfast.'

Maybe she didn't have any money. Was that it? The waiter appeared besides the table.

'Have something,' I said, pushing the menu towards her. 'I'll get it. It's on me.'

'Alright. Just tea,' she told the waiter, and lit another cigarette.

I felt better in the warmth and with the coffee inside me. 'What made you give up teaching?'

The girl shrugged. 'Just circumstances. I had an accident.'

I waited for her to say more, but she didn't. A football match was showing on the television behind the counter. The only other customer, a middle-aged man with a can of Coke was staring up at it with his head tilted back. 'So what do you do now? For a living I mean.'

'I don't do anything.' She stirred her tea. 'Who's playing?'

'I don't know.' I squinted at the screen. 'I can't see.'

She took her gloves off and her hands were as white as the cigarette paper. I watched her smoke. She was very graceful in the way she moved. You never think much about grace, it seems an old-fashioned quality - not until you meet someone who's got it.

'You've gone quiet all of a sudden. What are you thinking about?'

'Oh, nothing,' I said.

She smiled. 'You must have been thinking about something.'

'Not particularly. I was just thinking.' I finished the last of the coffee. 'You haven't touched your tea.'

'I think it's gone cold.'

'Let me get you another.' I signalled to the waiter, but she stopped me.

'Don't. It's time I was going.'

I paid the bill and we left. Outside on the pavement, she rebuttoned her coat and shivered in the wind.

'Well,' I said, 'I'd better make my way to the station now. I think there's a train back to London at quarter past. I should just make it.'

'Will you come with me?'

'What?' Through the brightly lit window I could see the waiter clearing away our cups.

'Will you come with me to the funeral?'

I looked about me, anywhere but at her. At her small, pleading face. The daylight was already beginning to fade. 'But I've got to get back. And it's not as if it's someone I know. I don't even know you.'

She gripped my arm. 'I don't want to go on my own. It's horrible.'

'Funerals always are. But you'll know people there, won't you? It won't be too bad. And when it's over you can go home, put your feet up and forget about it'.

'No, I won't. I won't.' She let go of my arm, but her head dropped. 'Just come with me. Please.'

Then she was silent, staring at the pavement.

'How far away is the church?'

'About five minutes' walk. Honestly, it's not far.'

The sound reached us of seagulls screaming down on the shore. The dull roar of the sea.

'They tear open rubbish bags and spill the rubbish everywhere,' she said.

'What do?'

'The seagulls. They attack the rubbish bags, looking for food. They make a terrible mess.'

Never mind about the gulls, I thought. I was making calculations in my head. Five minutes to get to the church. Say half an hour for the service, three quarters at the most. I could catch the later train. 'Alright. I'll come with you. But I'll have to leave right afterwards. I won't be able to come to the reception or anything like that.'

'That's fine. I'm not going to the reception. And thank you.' She took my arm again and we started up the hill away from the sea.

She was right. The church was only five minutes' walk away. We reached it along a lane that ran along the top of the hill, overlooking rooftops and the curve of the bay. Viewed from up here the headland had altered shape. Its geometry had changed and the sea looked less of a threat, contained between the town and the horizon. A mossy stone wall and a couple of steps led up to the churchyard.

'Here we are.' She led me along the path and into the porch. I followed her in and took a seat next to her on a pew about midway down the aisle. In all, there were about twenty people already gathered. A few turned their heads to see who had come in.

I wanted to ask her who was being buried, but she sat attentively, her hands in her lap, and it seemed rude to want to know. We waited for the service to begin and I passed the time studying the stained-glass windows, trying to work out which saint was which.

The Vicar was a spare-framed man in his fifties, with a scholarly face and wavy hair. He said a few words about Rosamund and about how much she was loved and how much everyone would miss her and how tragic it was that she had died so young. The girl lent forward and twisted her hat in her hands, as if she was wringing water from it.

Who was Rosamund, I wondered. A friend or colleague of hers? If it had been a sister or close relative the girl would be more upset than she was.

Out in the churchyard a fine rain had begun to fall and you could scarcely make out the headland in the dusk. A few lights had come on in the town below. The town was already starting to look better by night than it did by day. It struck me that no-one had yet spoken to us, or shown any sign of knowing who we were.

'Do you know any of these people?' I asked, leaning into her ear.

'Of course. That's my Aunt Rose, that's Aunt Paula, that's my cousin Simon.' She pointed them out. The wind rose in the treetops around the church with a dark rushing sound.

'Why don't you at least say hello?'

There was just enough light left for me to see the frown on her face. 'I can't do that.'

'Why not? Don't you give people your condolences? Isn't that supposed to happen?'

'You give them your condolences if you like. I'm staying here.'

'I don't even know who's died.'

She didn't reply. I was left guessing that there must have been a family feud - one side of the family didn't speak to the other. That would explain why she wanted me to come with her. For support, not to have to face them on her own.

'It's wrong to ask too many questions,' she suddenly said. 'It's wrong to analyse things too much.'

'I wasn't analysing.'

'You can analyse your life away and it won't do you any good. You still won't understand anything. Or perhaps you'll think you understand, when really you don't. And that's even worse. And even if you did understand, life will still go ahead and do what it wants to you anyway. Do you see? You can't stop it. So don't waste your time trying.' She turned and went stumbling away in the twilight, over the rough ground between gravestones. She was obviously more upset than I'd realised. For a moment I thought she was crying. I left it for a short while, then went after her. The burial was over and the mourners were starting to break up and drift away.

'Were you a close friend of Rosamund's?' A kindly looking woman was gazing into my face from under a black veil.

'Rosamund? No, not close.'

'Perhaps you knew her from school?'

'School?' Peering beyond the woman into the dark corners of the churchyard, I couldn't see the girl anywhere.

'Greenwood,' the woman said, 'the school where she taught.'

'Oh, yes,' I said, distractedly. 'Yes, that was it. The school.'

'Only I don't think I know you.'

'You don't. We haven't met. I mean ... '

'Are you here on your own?'

'No, I came with ... '

The woman waited for me to finish. But I realised I didn't know the girl's name. 'With who?' the woman prompted. 'Who did you come with?'

'Look, excuse me, I have to go.'

'Poor Rosamund,' said a voice nearby.

Yes. Poor Rosamund.

The wind sounded in the treetops, in the dark yews that surrounded the church, but I knew enough about the wind to know that it didn't care about human concerns. I'd lost my sense of direction. I had to find my way to the gate and get away from here. Darkness had spread across the town and the rain was falling heavier than before. Nothing is worse than the rain falling on the sea. No ships. No boats. Just rain and the swelling waves. No sight of land. No glimpse of a friendly electric lightbulb in an upstairs window. No-one to welcome you home to the stale smell of an old house.

'Oh, there you are.' The girl was standing alone by the gate in her black coat with her hat and gloves on. She smiled by the light of a streetlamp, through which you could see the rain falling. 'I thought I'd lost you for a minute. Come on.' She held out her hand and led me away from the church. The steeple looked beautiful in the dusk, the trees noble.

'I have to get my train.' My voice was shaking.

'Don't be frightened,' she said. 'You can't leave me now.'

'But I must. I must get my train. I'm late. I should have been back hours ago.' I wanted to go down to the town. I wanted to see the lights of the railway station and smell the musty upholstery of railway carriages. I wanted to be comforted.

She squeezed my arm tight. 'Why won't you stay?'

'I can't. You know I can't.'

She let go of me and took a step back. 'Alright. You don't have to if you don't want to.' Her voice had a strange echo to it, as if we were standing in an alleyway. 'Thank you for coming with me,' she said. 'Don't think I don't appreciate it, because I do.'

'It's alright. Really.'

The two of us walked in silence down the hill. There was no-one about. The café we had sat in earlier had closed for the day. 'Are you coming to the station?' I said. 'Do you need to get a train?' It was a silly question.

'No,' she said. 'I don't need a train. Do you understand?'

'I think so.' The wind was biting cold. 'God,' I said, 'it really is winter, isn't it?'

'Yes.' She stopped at the corner of the sidestreet and the promenade. You could hear the sea thundering against the breakwater out there in the darkness, but you couldn't see it. A car passed by and the light from the headlamps fell squarely on her face, and shone through her, as if she were made of glass. Then the car was gone. Perhaps the light had dazzled my eyes, but it seemed I could no longer make her out as well as I had. Like she was fading. I wiped the rain from my eyes, but it didn't do any good.

I wanted to ask her a question, but I couldn't articulate it.

'What are you waiting for?' she said. 'You know the way to the station, don't you?'

'I just remembered. I need to pick up my case.'

'Well, goodbye then.' She kissed me on the cheek and her lips were cold - colder than the wind or the late December evening would warrant. 'And thank you again.'

'It was nothing.' I turned and walked away. At the bottom of the street, I stopped and looked back.

'Rosamund?' I called.

But I was calling to nothing. She had gone.

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