By Jayne Joso.
The fisherman has lived and fished too many years. Death teases him now with failing sight, arthritic pain and hints of senility, but never seems to do the decent thing. He no longer has a boat, he no longer catches fish, but he simply cannot leave the sea. He bows his head and examines his torn boots. The tide is coming in, and his woollen socks are swelling up, “Damn it!” His feet, squelching. He hasn’t noticed Esther. She’s skimming slates on the water. The cold evening air pinches and reddens her cheeks, her fair hair dances in salt wind. She stands amid the beach of blue-purple slates, firmly, a safe distance from the edge. The fisherman stands defiant, bewildered, on the brink. The water, a dark mirrored surface, its edges unfurling. Unfurling, and coming to rest, dispersing. That’s where the sea dies, at the edges, where the waves touch the land – the sea, it tries to hold on, but fails, always, fails. He looks into the distance. Out there, out there, that’s where it lives.
“Hell, I’ve got to skim them further than that,” she calls out, wanting the old man to look up. He doesn’t. The slate sinks. “I said, I want to skim them further.” She hurls another, it fails. “Did you see that! They keep bloody-well sinking,” she looks over at him. He pulls a reel of tape from his pocket and tries to find where it starts. His fingers and thumbs are gnarled from years of twining and untwining fishing yarn and nets. He wants to seal up the holes in his boots.
“Being flat, they ought to travel further than pebbles, but often they don’t. Why do you think that is?” There’s no reply, but she is undeterred, “Why do you think someone dumped all this slate here?”
“Do you think it’s waste from the old mines?”
The tape won’t give. The fisherman’s boots are fast filling up. The tide is coming in.
“Outrageous really, dumping this lot here. Big old slag heap on a beach,” she pauses, but there is still no response and so she adds, “Actually, I think it’s all rather special, rather beautiful, don’t you? I call it…” she thinks quickly, “The Purple Beach…”
“Shut up! Damn you. Shut it! I’m trying to find the end of the tape!”
“How dare you!”
“Got it!” He tears off strips of tape between his teeth, all the while fixed on saving his sinking boots.
“That won’t work you know, the salt-water will take off all the sticky.” He pays no attention. Crossly, she drops the slate at her side, and insists, “That, isn’t going to work!”
“God damn you woman! I said, shut it!” He looks up. Ferocious features meet startled… child. He asks, “How old are you?”
“I thought you were a woman, bloody sounded like one.”
“I will be one day.”
He returns to his boots, and she to the jagged slates, though still reluctant to give up befriending the fisherman. “I’m going away, I’m going travelling – well, when I’m bigger. I expect you’ve done a lot of that.” He puffs out his nicotine-tight chest, growling in satisfaction, “Um, some, the Cape, Russia…”
“I’m going to Japan. I like how they do painting, so I’m going to try it myself. Silk they use. They paint, on silk. I’ve read a book about it.”
“Have you now.”
“They use different brushes to us, and special paints, it’s beautiful how they do it. They paint: cherry blossom… and other flowers, trees and mountains, the sea!”
“They paint… almost anything.”
“Arses, yes I believe they also paint arses, ladies’…”
“No not really, well they may do, just wanted to check you were listening.”
“I mean, they may well paint arses, who knows, I suppose I’ll find out when I go. Have you been there? Japan?”
“No.” The tape sticks to itself and to his fingers.
“You see I don’t much like it round here. And I don’t much like being small. It seems to me you have to wait till you’re a grown-up for almost everything. My parents – mostly they ignore me, but when they don’t, they screech things like, ‘Eccentricity, Esther, will not be tolerated in a child!’ so I expect I’ve to wait until I’m bigger for that too. Actually I hate them. So as soon as I know how, I’ll get out!”
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers.”
“Oh don’t worry, I don’t.”
“Don’t say anything, and don’t tell. It’s my special secret you see. I don’t know how or when I’ll do it, but then that’s always how it is in books and in stories isn’t it? You don’t know how they’re going to do it, but then they just do! And I’ll have waited my whole life for it. It’s going to be the best adventure.
“I’ve read these grown-up stories, Fireworks they’re called, that’s a great title don’t you think? They have the best fireworks in Japan, and in the north where it’s dead deep and snowy, so snowy you can’t imagine, they have the most magnificent fireworks ever! Well they have to do something, all that coldness and all that snow, so they blow out the skies with all the colours you can imagine.”
“Yes, what’s wrong with that?”
“You’ve too many words. Too much cheek. Your mother know?”
“’Course not. She doesn’t know I nick ’em either.”
“Anyway, the woman who wrote them is called Angela, Angela Carter, and the stories are all about Japan, and that’s, that’s where I’m going.”
She launches a final slate and watches as it lightly splices the surface of the water again and again, ripples catching the light and multiplying into the distance, “See that! Look!” But he isn’t looking. “Four… five… six!” He still isn’t looking. Exasperated, exaggerating, “Did you see that? Nine! Nine times before it sank!” But his concentration is back with the tape.
Esther stands dejected, the fisherman, all but beat. A wave laps over the front of his boots, but he remains rooted to the spot, determined to make use of the stubborn tape, and growing cold.
“My feet are effing sodden.”
“Move them then.”
“…effing sodden I tell you.”
“You’re a cheeky little bitch!” He makes as if to chase her. She looks back at him without moving and with an air of inner confidence, “You can’t catch me, your bilges are leaking!” Then, as an afterthought, and gently, she asks, “Why don’t you move away from the edge?”
Esther had long since given up on books children were supposed to read and had begun pinching adult volumes from the local bookshop, choice limited to slim ones that could easily be tucked under a cardigan. She knew that Angela Carter had spent some time living in the cold north of Japan, and without a care, decided that this would be her way out, a destination of her own – something in the manner of a blind disciple, a naïve apprentice. Her imagination danced hypnotically with Carter’s words, the stories quickly taking shape and painting in their own vibrant colours. Fragments of the book would flash through her mind as she played or wandered alone by the beach, “little girls… in pink and white… kimonos tied with fluffy sashes like swatches of candy floss… coloured paper lanterns” and “fireworks… dissolving… on the night.” The book’s erotic notes, played in gentle keys to her youthful perception – their resonance might be realised, but later, for now they were treasured without need of understanding. Loved, and stored up. She nurtured the stories alongside her personal studies of ‘various important matters’ which were gathered up, ruminated over, and stored under the title: ‘The Secret, Necessary Stuff of Escape’, and these became her childhood defence against, “Idiot parents, devil brother,” and when life was particularly testy, “The whole bloody world!”
Her thirst for knowledge, unquenchable. Japanese art books, history and poetry were soon being pilfered from the local library. She could, have borrowed the books, but it was so much more exciting to draw up fresh rules – tactical avoidance, outwitting grown-ups, the adrenaline, the fear! Never get caught! – and she didn’t – not once. Childhood you see, too damn long, and what to do with it? Want to travel! Want to learn! Want to learn, new things! Want to see, new things! Want to touch, to taste! To get away! Get away! Get away, from here!
“You see, being a child, it simply doesn’t suit everyone, and I’m telling you, I just can’t do it!” Waiting and waiting, that adult years come swiftly and release a stifled spirit from childhood shackles. The years of ‘child’ stretched out so long, she felt they might never, ever end.
Esther, and her twin brother, Jacob, were born to elderly parents whose lifelong wish had been for a son, and granted one, they had given over all their love, affection and ambition, to him. This elevated position naturally entitled him to being categorised as ‘fiend’. And Esther, realising her parents’ complete indifference to her, to her ‘exploratory plans, aesthetic needs, creative desires, and untold dreams’, and sure in the knowledge that these particular Victorians had not been consigned to history, constantly prayed they soon would be. She could not have prayed enough, for they resisted and lived on.
“Awful parents. Just awful! You see, to be left without parents is one thing, it has its place, and you gain the love and sympathy of others, but stuck with parents, awful parents, well, it’s a kind of living hell. Ignored! Think about it. You can’t be ignored if there’s no one with a mind to ignore you, and that’s why I wish they were gone. Jacob too. Devil-boy. But I won’t let them win. All I have to do is survive – until I’m big enough to go, and I can manage that, I’m not easily undermined – and after, well they simply can’t stop me doing what I want – ‘eccentric!’ balderdash! Anyway the idiots can’t even keep me quiet.”
The Purple Beach dreams became real plans, and the seeds of mighty expectations, and in time, as has to happen, the too long years of youth, expired. The child-hood lifted, and Esther was soon to embark on a journey of her own; but somehow, Carter’s words would always gently resonate their foreboding, “The stranger, the foreigner, thinks he is in control; but he has been precipitated into somebody else’s dream.”
“It’s going to be the best adventure!”
Before leaving for Japan, Esther thought to contact her parents one last time; she hadn’t seen or heard from Jacob in almost six years now, there was almost no subject that warranted their corresponding – and as for Esther heading to Japan, he would have no more interest in hearing the news than she, in telling – but the parents, no matter how dreadful, no matter how impoverished the relationship with their daughter, the rules as regards parents were somehow different. They had at least, kept in touch, always, kept, in contact, late invitations, at Christmas and Easter, but invitations nonetheless; the occasional birthday card, though why ‘occasional’ was a mystery, didn’t she share that birthday with another someone, someone they never, forgot? And postcards, they liked to send postcards, once maybe twice a year, from holiday destinations, nowhere too far, content with their own, dependable, blustery British Isles, as far flung as you like, but never abroad, never anywhere… how did they say it? As though they had mud in their mouths, and always in unison, and in place of man and wife they behaved like twins, identical, monsters, mud in their mouths, “Foreign,” they said. No, they never ventured anywhere, foreign. They took their holidays anywhere in the British Isles, anywhere at all, except London. They loved cities, York, Edinburgh, Exeter, but no my dear, not London. They enjoyed cathedrals, churches, gardens, but no, not those, my dear, in London. Esther, studied silk painting by day, and Japanese by night, where my dear, in London. It was lonely, at times so lonely she wasn’t entirely sure of her existence, she couldn’t always quite measure if she was still ‘there’, pinching helped, pinching the skin on the back of the hands or the cheeks of her face, but how could they do that, parents, ignore so well and at such great distance? Past masters, had to be. A lifetime, her full twenty-two years, in which to master the perception of ‘two’ children as only one, one child with an accompanying, added ‘extra’ in the form of a second child, for free you might say, but unwanted, discarded. “It is quite the same in supermarkets,” the seven year old had once told the sea, “when merchandisers foolishly attach another item to the one you truly want, imagining it makes the first more attractive – don’t they realise, not everyone wants another. Some people just want what they want and no more! Not everyone sees an addition as a bonus, perhaps not as anything of any value, at all, and some would rather give it back.”
She thought on, despite everything, yes despite it all, ‘they’re still your parents’, and it had been some years, she was an adult now, and she was going to live abroad—she really ought to visit—but what to say? How to say? Japan was about as foreign as it gets, they wouldn’t understand. Should she visit, call them, or write to explain? A visit, it should be a proper visit, but later. Later perhaps, and whilst there, a walk, on Purple Beach, a last walk.
Perhaps I’ll see the fisherman, standing, at the edge. She told her parents: I’ve been granted a scholarship, I’m to continue my studies, the silk painting, yes, and I’m going to do it in Japan, I’m to specialise in the hand-painting of kimono silk. There’s a town deep in the mountains and their textile history can be traced as far as the 8th century, that’s amazing isn’t it, that’s where I’m going – Tokamachi, it’s in the north, far up in the north. I’ll be learning from generations of master painters, imagine! All that history, all that skill! Tegaki-shokunin, that’s what they’re called – the silk painters. She began to cry, silent, heavy of heart, withered by their reaction, their indifference, the uncomprehending, partially furrowed brows, “What dear, you’re going to do what dear?” In unison, incorrigible, mud in their mouths, “Don’t know if you’ve heard, local trawler, hauled a body from the sea, old fisherman they said.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 26th, 2012.