Authors: Robert Edric
Elizabeth Lynch led the way to the house. Once inside, she cleared a space on the table for the cans.
He was surprised by the cramped, sparse nature of the room, but was careful to give no indication of this. A threadbare carpet covered only half the floor, and a pile of driftwood and broken casing lay piled on either side of the hearth. The latter had been scavenged from the workings. A wireless set played softly on a sideboard. And beside it stood a photograph of a man in uniform.
Still sensing the woman's unease at finding him so suddenly in her home, he picked up the photograph and said, âYour husband? Mary told me he was still in the Army.'
The woman looked immediately at the girl, who looked away.
âHe wanted to know,' Mary said. âHe asked me. I didn't just tell him.'
Mercer was at a loss to understand this sudden alarm. The woman looked hard at the photograph he held, willing him to return it to the sideboard, which he did.
âI didn't mean to appearâ'
âNosy?' she said. âAs though you were any different from any of the others they sent to see us?' She stopped abruptly. Her eyes moved all around him.
âI'm sorry,' he said. He imagined that the man expected shortly to return was not in fact coming home, that something had happened between the two of them during his absence, and that the talk of his return was now a fiction maintained only for the sake of his children or the others.
He could think of nothing to say to her that would not upset her further.
âI'll leave,' he said.
Mary, who had been standing between him and the open door during all this, stepped aside. It seemed suddenly much cooler inside the small room. A scratchy violin played on the wireless; a woman sang in a deep and melancholic foreign language. The last light of the falling sun in the doorway blinded him.
He made a final gesture towards the woman.
âShe told me only that he was still away in the Army and that he was soon to return,' he said.
âIn twenty-four days,' Elizabeth Lynch said, surprising him by this concision, and convincing him even further that it was a fiction.
There was nothing more he could say.
Mary went ahead of him through the open doorway and called for her brother.
Mercer followed her out.
âI'm sorry if I said anything I shouldn't have done,' he said to her.
âIf you were really worried about something like that round here, you'd never open your mouth.'
âI meant about your father.'
âI know what you meant,' she said.
He passed her and walked in the direction of the abandoned Light.
âListen,' she called to him when he was twenty feet away from her.
âListen,' she repeated. She cupped a hand to her ear. He turned to face in the same direction. He could hear nothing.
âYou can hear the tide coming up through the shingle.'
He listened more intently, and finally he heard the rattle of the shingle beach as it was infiltrated by the rising water.
After that, she returned indoors.
He continued walking to the Light, and as he did so a group of the younger children marched past him. The boy leading them saluted him, and he returned the gesture without thinking, waiting until the last of them had passed him before dropping his hand and continuing his own journey along the shore.
He next encountered Jacob Haas two days later. He was inspecting foundations laid earlier in the day when the man emerged from the land beyond the diggings and came directly to him. He carried something, and as he came closer, Mercer saw that this was an instrument dial. Far behind him, towards the abandoned hangars and workshops of the airfield, several dozen giant silver bombers still sat on their wings or stood lopsidedly on their collapsed undercarriages. These were the aircraft which had either crashed there or been taken there towards the end of the war, and which had then been discarded, unrepaired and unwanted as the heavy daylight raids drew to an end. All the serviceable aircraft had been flown from the field in March of that final year.
Jacob held up his prize for Mercer to see. âAltimeter,' he said.
âWhat will you do with it?'
Jacob looked puzzled for a moment and then
shrugged. âIt just seemed to be something worth saving, something worth having.'
Mercer guessed then that the man had come to England with considerably less than the shabby clothes on his back.
They walked together to an iron chest half-hidden in the tall grass. The box was padlocked, and the lock rusted solid to the knotted chain it had once secured.
âIs this your hidden treasure?' Mercer asked him, tapping the top of the chest.
âFlares to signal to the returning aircraft. Any plane without its undercarriage properly lowered, or which looked as though it might crash on landing, was warned off, diverted elsewhere so as not to block the runway for the others. What a decision for someone to have to make.'
Only then did it occur to Mercer that Jacob could have seen none of this at the time, that he had arrived long after the airfield had been decommissioned. Then, and later, as he learned more of the man, he saw how he put down these shallow roots into this past that was not his own.
A drain ran nearby, pipes protruding from a clay bank out of which water flowed. They talked about the building work. Jacob told him about the demolition of the runway. There was a gang of men there now, and the noise of their pneumatic drills and steam hammers carried on the still air.
âDo they mind you taking stuff from the planes?'
âThey don't see me. I know as well as anyone how the military mind works. You know what would happen. They would rather everything lay there and rotted to rust and dirt than that parts of it should ever be retrieved and put to some use again.'
Mercer nodded. He could not conceive to what
possible use the altimeter might now be put.
âI met the girl's mother,' he said.
âThe other night. I introduced myself.'
âAnd they welcomed you with open arms?'
âYou scare them, that's all,' Mercer said. âYou're an unknown quantity.'
âI know exactly what I am to them.'
âThey don't all think the same,' Mercer said, hoping he sounded more convincing than he felt.
at all, that's the problem.'
âPerhaps if you were able to talk to them,' Mercer said. âExplain to them.'
âExplain what?' Jacob turned to look directly at him.
âI meant explain how you came to be here, what you have endured, how youâ'
' He started to say more, but was racked by a bout of coughing, which left him bent double, holding a hand to his chest and gasping for breath.
Mercer held his arm, supporting him as he straightened.
Jacob wiped his mouth with a cloth. His shirt and jacket were buttoned to their collars.
âPerhaps if you loosened â¦' Mercer suggested, but Jacob shook his head.
He sat upright and took several deep breaths. After a few minutes, he was recovered.
âAre you unwell?' Mercer asked him.
âMy chest is weak, that's all.'
Mercer knew it was more than this, but said nothing. He watched the trickling water and wished there was some way he might collect this and give it to Jacob.
âWere you in a camp?' he asked after a further minute of silence between them.
Jacob nodded. âPlease, not now.'
Is that why you create this other past?
âI didn't mean to offend you, or to pry,' Mercer said.
âI know.' Jacob wiped his mouth for a final time. âSo, tell me about the women. Was the old one there?'
âYou could always avoid them. There are plenty of other places for you toâ'
âTo hide myself away. I know. The first time she saw me, before she even knew who I was or why I was there, she chased me with a stick. She saw me at the road's end, told me to stay where I was, and then went indoors. I thought at first that she was fetching me something to eat or drink, but instead she came back out with a stick. She came striding towards me and shouting at me like I was a stray dog. As you can imagine, neither of us is much of a runner. She soon exhausted herself, and I'd barely moved from where I stood.'
âYou should have gone towards her â she'd have run back indoors.'
âI know. But by then she'd attracted the usual crowd of onlookers. You'll have realized by now â everything that happens here usually draws its own small crowd. Nothing goes unnoticed or unwatched. You'd do well to remember that.'
âShe went on waving her stick and shouting her abuse at me.'
âDid no one come to your defence?'
âThe girl's mother told her to stop making a fool of herself, but the woman screamed some abuse at her, too. One or two of the younger ones seemed more intrigued and amused than threatened by the situation, but none of them intervened.'
âHow long ago was this?'
âNine months, less.'
âAnd yet you still return to haunt and unsettle them.'
Jacob grinned. âI still return.'
And you use your appearance like she uses her stick.
âThey seem to know you well enough,' Mercer said.
âThey only know what they want to know. What else did you talk about with them?'
âAbout their lives here, about the coming changes with the new Station.'
âDid the girl's mother tell you about her husband?'
âThe soldier in Colchester Military Prison.'
âHe deserted a few days before he was due to be shipped to North Africa, Egypt. He went missing for almost a month. Came back here. Someone tipped the Military Police off and they turned up and arrested him. Four years. He's being released early under some sort of amnesty for Hostilities-Only men. He qualifies, apparently, because although he went absent, he didn't do it while on active service. It gets him off the hook.'
Mercer struggled to remember what either Mary or Elizabeth Lynch had told him or implied about the man. âDo you think the girl knows all this?'
Jacob shrugged. âYou can understand how much more convenient it would be for him to return as some kind of hero rather than a jail-bird.'
âBut surely everyone else must know.'
âOf course they know, but I imagine they'll keep up some kind of pretence while it makes any sense to do so.'
Mercer tried again to remember precisely what Mary had told him, to understand what she herself truly believed.
âWhy did he go absent?' he said.
âWho knows.' Jacob started coughing again, but this time the bout was neither so severe nor so prolonged.
âShe has a release date,' Mercer said.
âI know. I wonder what she expects. According to a man at the airfield, she never once went to see him in Colchester. The boy, his youngest, was little more than a baby when they took him off. Apparently, him and the girl were close, so perhaps that's why they're keeping up the pretence.'
âShe'll soon know,' Mercer said.
âOf course she will.'
âPerhaps the others believe you'll be the one to tell her. Perhaps that's why they drive you off with sticks.'
âLook at me,' Jacob said. âThey don't need any good reason to do that.' He stared absently across the grass and distant runway for several seconds, and then said, âMy sister was her age. Anna. She reminds me very much of her.' His voice was even and low, and Mercer knew not to interrupt him. Then Jacob drew a ball of phlegm to his lips and spat it at his feet with a grunt. In the distance, the drills and hammers finally fell silent. A cloud of flies drifted back and forth above the drain.
Jacob turned to look at Mercer. âThey'll run rings around you,' he said.
âIt might serve my purpose to let them do it.'
âAnd supposing the girl already knows about her father. What kind of homecoming would that be?'
âI don't think she does,' Mercer said.
âApparently, he had a temper. It wasn't the best of marriages even before all this.'
A klaxon sounded on the airfield, and a group of men, tiny figures at that distance, ran towards one of the buildings. In places, tractors had already started
ploughing up the land beneath the recently removed concrete.
âDo you think the man will stay here?' Mercer said.
âI daresay there will be terms and conditions attached to his release. I doubt if it's what
would want, but I doubt he'll have much say in the matter.'
âAnd his wife and children even less.'
âWho cares?' Jacob said. He rose from the chest and wiped the flakes of rust from his trousers.
âWhy do you imagine he came back here in the first place?' Mercer said. âSurely, this was the most obvious place for them to come looking for him.'
âThe man who told me all this said he came back because he'd heard his wife was messing around with another man here. She wasn't, but that's what he believed. He came back to sort her out. When they arrested him, they took one look at her and the results of this sorting-out and tried to persuade her to press further charges.'
âWhat did he do to her?'
âUse your imagination.'
Mercer rose and they walked together along the road.
âWas Anna your only sister?' Mercer said eventually.
They parted where the road turned inland.
âI'd like to come and visit you,' Mercer said.
âThere's nothing to see. I live in a room above a warehouse on the edge of town.'
âI'd still like to come,' Mercer said.
Mary Lynch returned to see him the following morning. Knowing what he now knew, he felt uneasy in her presence, conscious of what he might inadvertently reveal to her. She, too, seemed wary of him, and it occurred to him that they were both circling the same forbidden subject.