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Authors: Robert Edric

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BOOK: Peacetime
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‘Presumably,' she repeated.

‘I meant it,' he said. ‘Come to the tower when I'm there. I'll find something more appropriate.'

‘I'll choose something.' She brushed the last of the powder from her dress.

They arrived at the site of the new drain. He showed her where it would be dug and what purpose it would serve, and again she feigned interest.

They stood together above one of the sunken, mudfilled channels which emptied into the sea. It was difficult to tell whether the channel was a natural one, or one that had been excavated and left undredged. It ran true enough, but its lip was overgrown and cushioned with turf. Filled with silt, it carried little water, and had grown useless with neglect. He
searched his chart for an indication of its origin.

‘They lost a small boy in this,' she said. She dropped stones into the water beneath them.

‘Oh?'

‘Just went missing one day, and then a week later they found him down there. Must have just fallen in and been sucked under by the mud.'

‘There are some deep holes,' he said.

‘I know. Mrs Armstrong was once watching the – watching Jacob coming across the levels, getting herself all excited because he was walking close to a place like this without realizing it.'

‘He seems to know his way round well enough. But then again, if he's forever prowling around looking for things to steal, he ought to.'

‘Mrs Armstrong would say you were exactly right.'

‘I look forward to meeting her. She probably thinks much the same of me.'

‘No, she calls you a desk-soldier who's only good for telling others what to do and who never gets his own hands dirty.'

The remark caught him unawares.

The girl, too, became suddenly conscious of what she had said.

‘Right, well …' he said.

‘That's what
she
said.' She held out her hand, as though to hold his again, but then took it back.

‘Don't worry,' he told her. ‘I could probably have guessed as much.'

‘She's the kind of woman, a minute after you've met her you know everything there is to know about her. She's been good to my mother while he was away.'

‘Your father?'

She nodded, and then changed the subject back to the drowned boy. ‘They brought him back to the
houses for a day and a night and then someone came to take him away. They had to cut him open to see how he'd died.'

‘I daresay that seemed unnecessary and unfair.'

‘It did. His mother never got over it. She was only young. She used to go and stand where he was found.'

‘Here,' he said.

‘Here. It was in the war. She was living by herself. Her husband never came back to her. She went away herself after that. The house has been empty ever since.'

Several of the houses stood with their doors and windows boarded up.

He saw what tragedy and blighted lives this one breathless rush contained. He saw how history lived and was simplified there, and how it was contained there. He saw how the bone of fact and the flesh of conjecture came together and were kept alive there.

‘Do you have a date for your father's return?' he asked her, hoping to make the remark sound casual following her earlier reluctance to speak on the subject.

‘
She
does. She crosses days off on a calendar. It isn't even this year's calendar, but she says the dates are still the same.'

‘It'll be a big occasion for you. For all of you.'

But again she was reluctant to be drawn. She resumed throwing her stones into the drain.

She held the tape for him while he measured the ground into which the pipe would be sunk. She collected reeds for him to be pushed into the mud as markers. He could already imagine the complaints of the workers at being told to come so far from the road to undertake the work.

When he was finished, they walked together back to
the tower. On the level ground, she slid her arm through his, and though surprised by the gesture, he was careful not to rebuff her. She pointed out the various landmarks to him – the Old Light, the new, automatic beacon, the distant road bridge and church spire – and though he knew of these already, he was happy to let her tell him of them and what small part they all played in her own life.

Approaching the road, they encountered a group of the younger children. A small boy called to her, and she took her arm from his.

‘That's my brother,' she said. ‘Peter. Just me and him.'

Mercer looked to the houses beyond and saw the women gathered there.

‘She'll want me for something or other,' Mary said, meaning her mother, and she drew away from him.

He wanted to say something to let her know how much he had appreciated her company and her help, but because he could not think of exactly what to say – the words she would not misconstrue – and because she was already moving away from him, and because anything he said would be overheard by the other children, he remained silent and watched her go.

4

He saw her frequently during the following days, but never to speak to, only at a distance, and always in the company of either the other women or the children. It occurred to Mercer that she had been warned to stay away from the workings and the men there. Perhaps she had told her mother what she knew of him, and this had been misunderstood by the woman and she had been told not to speak to him. He regretted this. Now that he had gained her confidence, he had hoped to introduce himself to the others living there, and thus perhaps alleviate his own lack of society in that isolated place.

On the fifth day after their encounter, waiting until the site was again abandoned, he washed himself, put on the cleanest of his shirts, and went from the tower to the houses.

He saw from a distance that a group of women had already congregated, most of them sitting along a low wall which separated the land behind their homes from the encroaching sand and shingle of the shore.
They gathered together like this most days, driven indoors only when it became either too dark or too cold.

He was quickly spotted and they all turned to watch him as he approached.

A younger woman at the edge of the group was the closest to him and she stood her ground until he was only a few feet from her before turning her back on him and walking ahead of him.

He was relieved finally to see Mary Lynch among the women. Other children played nearby. She stood with her mother at the centre of the others. Most of the women smoked, and stood with their arms folded loosely across their chests or stomachs.

They returned his greeting and turned to face him in a half-circle as he finally arrived among them. Some looked at the package he carried and not his face.

‘We thought you might have been going on to the Light,' one of them said. She indicated the abandoned lighthouse, its reduced stump now painted grey, further along the shingle.

‘I came to see Mary,' he said. ‘To bring her this.' He held up the package. He had used delivering her ‘reward' as the pretext for approaching them.

‘What for?' her mother said suspiciously.

‘I'm James Mercer,' he said.

‘We know who you are,' the older woman now standing beside him said. ‘And
what
you are. And why you're here.'

Mrs Armstrong
, he thought. The words were meant to challenge him, each remark a jab in his chest, but he affected to be unconcerned by them.

‘Good,' he said.

The woman who had spoken to him first smiled at him.

His lack of response angered the older woman. ‘You'll want to deny it all, no doubt,' she said. ‘You'll be another of these officials telling us that everything happening here is being done for our own good.'

‘Not really,' he said, causing her to fall silent. He regretted that she had so easily created this most predictable of barriers. ‘I brought you this,' he said directly to Mary, holding out the package to her.

‘What is it?' her mother said.

Mary came forward and took it from him.

‘It's a reward for rescuing my tape.'

‘
Rescuing?
' one of them said. ‘Rescuing what?
Men
are rescued.'

‘He dropped his tape,' Mary said. She took the package and bowed her arms to accommodate its weight.

‘Open it, child,' one of them said.

But Mary was reluctant to do this, and Mercer saw in her reluctance that he had been wrong to give her the package in front of these others.

‘She never said anything to me about a
rescue
,' her mother said, causing several of the others to exchange glances and smiles.

‘Whatever, it would have cost me a lot to replace it,' he said, hoping to regain the balance of the exchange. ‘Five pounds.' It would have cost him nothing; he possessed many others.

The package contained a dozen tins of food, including those things he knew were still difficult to acquire, on or off ration, and a tin of tobacco. He meant the gift both to impress – perhaps to raise the status of the girl – and to ingratiate himself. It was not to be regarded merely as an obligation fulfilled.

‘Open it, child,' the older woman repeated.

He saw Mary flinch at this command, and at the word.

‘She never said anything,' her mother repeated, and she nodded her own uncertain thanks to him.

‘Give it here,' the insistent woman said.

‘Leave her,' Mary's mother said.

Mercer guessed that his presence prevented them from saying a great deal more. He guessed, too, that any unexpected windfall at the houses, whatever its origin, would be claimed and shared by them all.

‘She ought not to be taking gifts from complete strangers,' Mrs Armstrong said.

‘I dropped the tape down a gap and she was able to retrieve it for me,' Mercer explained.

‘“Retrieve” is it now? First it was “rescue” and now it's “retrieve”.'

Several of the younger women shook their heads at this unnecessary remark.

‘What?' she said. ‘What?' feigning aggrieved surprise.

‘Let him say what he has to say,' Mary's mother said. Her name was Elizabeth.

Seizing this smallest of concessions, Mercer took out his cigarettes and offered them to everyone, starting with Mrs Armstrong. ‘Take two,' he told her, and she did. The others waited for the same offer before doing the same. The packet was quickly emptied and he opened another.

‘I didn't mean anything by the remark,' Mrs Armstrong said. ‘But a child ought to tell its mother what happens. Especially a child who's practically a woman.'

He guessed her to be fifty or fifty-five years old, though he knew by the look of all the women beyond their youth that she might be ten years younger. The salt air and wind of the place was bred into their faces. They all had dark eyes, and in the older ones these
were tightened, as though in constant expectation of that wind.

‘She's not a woman,' Elizabeth Lynch said, and she drew her daughter towards her and stood with an arm across her, a hand holding her shoulder. There was only an inch or so difference in their heights.

‘It's nothing special,' Mercer said. ‘A few bits and pieces.' He hoped Mary might lay the package on the wall and reveal its contents. She put it down, but that was all, and whether they looked at it or not, it remained the focus of all their attention.

‘I ought to get back,' Mrs Armstrong said eventually, still nursing her censure.

Several of the women nodded their concurrence, disappointing her further. Mercer saw what a constraint she imposed on them all. Hoping perhaps to be urged to reconsider, the woman remained where she stood and searched her pockets for a key. She further prolonged her departure by issuing a succession of remarks and reminders to most of the women there. Mercer saw how they all tolerated her in this. He saw, too, how greatly extended was the credit of the woman.

He stood with the others for an hour longer. They answered his every question about the place at great length, in minute and frequently contradictory detail. He tried to draw out Mary, but she remained reluctant to speak to him in the company of these others. And when she did have something to say, the women either corrected her or confirmed for him what she said. He saw how uncomfortable this made her and so he turned his attention to those more willing to receive it.

After that hour, a breeze blew up and this signalled the end of their socializing. The same breeze came
most evenings, and with it the sky over the sea quickly darkened.

He waited with Mary and Elizabeth Lynch until the last of the others had returned to their homes.

‘Are the men out?' he asked the woman.

‘Somewhere,' she said. She looked around her.

It had become apparent to him upon his arrival that two societies existed here, that the men and women formed naturally separate groups, even when they congregated together. Until the war there had been a manned Light and a small fleet of inshore boats at the place, but now the Light had been replaced by the automatic beacon, and the few small boats that remained, though used occasionally, were largely in a state of disrepair, and no longer provided even the precarious living upon which the men had once depended. The channel through the shingle upon which these vessels were launched was filling with silt and the boats were pulled out of the water and left where they lay on the beach. He looked now and counted four of them there. Beside them lay a sand-filled tangle of broken and discarded crab- and lobster-pots.

Elizabeth Lynch indicated to him that it was time for them to return indoors.

Mary picked up the package from the wall, but as she did so she caught a metal rod which protruded from the brick and the box tore, spilling the tins to the ground. One of these fractured along its seam and a pale green liquid began to bubble out.

‘I'll give you a hand to carry them,' Mercer said. He sensed the woman's reluctance to accept, and rather than be rejected by her, he started gathering the cans into his folded arm. Mary copied him, until between them they held them all.

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