I’m wide awake listening, thinking about Chris. About the message from Lizzy, his girlfriend apparently, though this is news to me. She just wondered if I’d heard from him. She’s sorry to bother me. She found my number on a piece of paper in his room. I rang his mobile; left a mum-like ‘Hi darling, how are you?’ message. His phone was off, but that’s normal. He’s probably just trying to shake off this Lizzy person. That’s what you do, isn’t it? I get up and go to my computer to email him.
My inbox is filled with the usual. Enjoy looking and feeling rich! Three inches guaranteed… Do you know your real age? Earn 1-3k a day! Having a baby? Consider umbilical blood banking… Bigger, firmer breasts! More credit today. View photos of singles in your area Congratulations! You have won $…!! Overcome alcoholism today. I am Beautiful Russian girl who love to make you happy… Impress with fake Rolex today. Get the body you deserve! From people called Jefferson GreatBig1, Carter S. Camp or Geneva Bliss. Junk mail: a study in the exploitation of today’s neuroses. The ten most common mistakes women make with men. Only ten? I don’t even bother to open the various green newsletters I once so earnestly subscribed to. Haven’t done for ages. It never feels like news. Just more gloomy warnings about some predictable corporate greenwash.
Left a message on your phone earlier. How’s things, darling? I’m fine, awake with the storm and the birds. Spoke to your Dad earlier. Think the new baby’s keeping them up all night! Don’t worry – I’m fine about it. Happy for them all, honest!
I delete the last line. Chris knows me better than that. I don’t mention Lizzy.
How’s the course going? I’d love to hear all about it.
I press send and go back to bed. I imagine Rory pacing up and down, trying to soothe his new son. Rory, ever capable, unfazed, everything in hand, everything under control. Jane will be crying, red-faced and blotchy, saying she didn’t know it would be like this, and that she is so tired. Is it all my fault? No. I’m not responsible for Jane’s hormonal demands, her body clock’s time bomb. But for Rory’s ensnarement by them, perhaps. Do you get someone pregnant out of revenge?
The first thing I do on waking is check my email. Nothing from Chris. There’s another message on my mobile.
‘Hi, Mrs Walker, It’s Lizzy again. I wondered if you’d got hold of Chris yet? And …’ she pauses, ‘could you text me your email address… Hope to hear from you soon.’
What the hell was this about? I ring her. Now her phone is off.
‘Hello Lizzy, it’s Claire Walker here; I got your message … why my email address? I’m afraid I’d rather talk if that’s OK. But please do ring, anytime.’
I make some coffee, and check my email throughout the morning, getting up again and again from my drawing board. I can’t settle to work. It’s a local job I’ve picked up, for peanuts, not like London money, but it’s OK. A children’s story about a scarecrow, about his landscape changing around him and how he laughs at all the animals rushing around too busy to notice, where once he envied them their scurrying about, burying nuts here and there. Scarecrow as eco-sage, that sort of thing, there’s a lot of it about, recruiting kids for the new religion, sending them up our dirty chimneys. I don’t think it’s a great book but it will sell locally, and gives me a reason, as if I needed one, to spend hours wandering around the fields. The phone rings and I jump.
‘Chr… Oh Rory, hi. No, I haven’t, some girl … that’s right, you too? The college? Why? No. It’s definitely not necessary … he’d kill us! Anyway, it’s not term time. The police? What for? God’s sake Rory – he’s just gone AWOL for a few days…’
Rory exhales loudly. ‘Sorry, Claire. I’m very tired.’
Oh Rory, you poor man. I reheat some coffee, and go out into the back garden. The buddleia’s honey scent hangs heavy in the sodden morning, the garden shocked into stillness after the storm’s offensive. The evening primrose is covered with dying blooms, slimy, some demolished by snails, no sign of the hummingbird hawk moth so far this summer. No hose pipe ban this year, just this relentless skin-scouring wind and yet more flood warnings. ‘Global warming, Bring it on!’ That’s what they say down the pub. The good news is that the frogs proliferate enthusiastically so it’s not all bad. One woman’s systematic trashing of a perfectly good family – good news for Sussex amphibian life. Every cloud…
I try Chris’s mobile again, but I don’t leave a message this time. I find myself wishing that Lizzy Whoever-she-is would ring back. I feel blown about, restless. The wind has picked up, and the bamboo outside the window bends back and forth, flick then an arc, calligraphy come to life. I eat some bread and cheese, put my work away, and go out for a walk.
I head for the beach. The sea’s still high. A fishing boat bucks over the waves, perhaps catching the bass that come in to feed when the seabed has been ravaged, churning up a bonanza. The weather’s kept most folk at home, but still there are a few cars in the car park. People inside them eating fish and chips, eyes fixed on the sea and sky as if it’s Saturday night at the drive-in. One leans over to the back seat, opens the door and lets a dog jump out, watches it bounding over the shingle, ears flapping like flags. An old Victorian sewage pipe, at a discreet distance from the bath chairs and Punch and Judy, lies rusting and dripping, big enough to crawl into. They say a dog disappeared up it once, floppy ears never to be seen again.
I look up at the mass of cliff face, over the chunk of earth, down to the bedrock and the basalt revealed like root under lost gum, across at the valley carved out by the melt water of the ice age, 10,000 years back. From seven hundred million years of heavy asteroid and comet bombardment to grains of plastic on every single shore of a battered blue planet. And that’s without the stuff you can see, the shitty nappies, fishing wire, broken glass, beer cans and enough plastic to make you weep.
Could all this ever be assimilated, digested, grown over, forgotten – just another geological memory? If only I could see it all as it once was, a long time ago, with no evidence of us, virgin, pristine. I’ve just been reading about augmented reality apps. Soon it will be possible to see the world as you would wish to see it, without the scars of disasters, or the detritus of industry. A virtual clean-up, bringing perpetual sunshine to our rainy days.
I make my way down the path, ignoring the sign that says I shouldn’t, clamber over the huge boulders where they’ve fallen, and get down to the beach. The tide’s still going out, the sea is grey-green, the sky is trying to clear away clouds, it darkens, lightens, darkens, lightens, huge clouds cast shadows on the sea making lagoons, reefs, depths, shallows. I pick my way over the rock pools, encrusted with tiny mussels. I stop to peer into one, a purple fringed microcosm and think of Chris as a child, how he loved rock pools and the times we spent on this coast as a family, the thrill of finding a hermit crab, or a starfish.
I walk on. There’s something white on a couple of yards away. It’s a corpse. For a minute I think I’ve found an albatross. Spearhead blue-grey diver’s beak, pinky-yellow head fading to snow-white plumage on a snake-like neck, I reach down and extend a black tipped wing. It seems intact, no visible sign of damage, nothing mechanical. Sinister then, something on the inside. Poison, plastic, our fault as usual, it must be. I head home to look it up.
The bird book tells me it’s a gannet. Like a hopeless addict I google ‘dead gannet.’ ‘OBSTRUCTION AND STARVATION ASSOCIATED WITH PLASTIC INGESTION IN A NORTHERN GANNET MORUS BASSANUS AND A GREATER SHEARWATER PUFFINUS GRAVIS’
I ring Alan. He’ll know about gannets. He knows about birds, fish, plants and by now, quite a bit about me. New friendships are strange. People that don’t know the old you. But it’s the same for him too. He’s driving so he can’t talk. He says that juveniles can die at sea in bad storms. It could be that. I hear a ping from my computer. An email. Not spam, not from Chris, but from Rory. Forwarded from someone called Elizabeth Johnson.
I gave Lizzy my email address because she asked for it. She’s sent me these links. Ring me.