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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (8 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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‘They're like you,' Mercer said, watching the boats. ‘They do it because it was what their fathers did. There's no living in it for any of them.'

‘A dying breed,' Mathias said.

‘A dead breed,' Jacob added. ‘It's just that they don't know it yet.' He stood at the field oven with steam from the pan rising directly into his face.

Neither Mercer nor Mathias spoke.

The small boat eventually reached the shore and was grounded there. The three men on board jumped into the shallow water and waded ashore. One of them carried a basket that might have held fish. The other two secured the boat to a line in the dunes and then the three of them passed out of sight behind the houses.

‘They say you spy on them,' Mathias said to Mercer.

‘Their idea of themselves is a long way from the reality of the situation,' Mercer said.

‘I know. But it still matters to them. They still speak and behave as though they were in control of their lives.'

‘They cling to what they know,' Jacob said, approaching them with plates and the pan. ‘Everything else terrifies them. They cling to what they know because, in their minds, everything else has the power to harm them. They still believe that they can hold onto everything, that they can protect it, keep it safe and prevent all change.'

‘And you resent them that belief?' Mercer said.

‘Resent? I
envy
them it. I envy them it, but I know how deluded they all are by it. I know how easily, when the time comes, you will take everything away from them and destroy it.'

‘Me? Not me.'

‘You, men like you, it is the same thing. As far as
they are concerned, you are the instrument of that change.'

‘Then they're wrong,' Mercer said. ‘
You're
wrong.' He poured himself a second drink. He had rarely participated in conversations like this, where such grand and intangible concepts were passed so easily back and forth, and which gained some new and human shape in the hands of the men who dealt with them.

‘He has offended you,' Mathias said. ‘I shall apologize on his behalf. The stupid Jew with his own history smashed to the ground and destroyed. The stupid Jew who still does not see that it is the actions of individuals that count and not these great plans, these uncaring hands swept blindly across charts and maps.'

‘You're wrong,' Jacob said to him. ‘But I, too, apologize.'

Mercer was uncertain whether this apology was meant for him or for Mathias.

They ate, and afterwards, as darkness fell, Mathias said they should leave. He told Mercer that the long walk home would weaken Jacob considerably.

Mercer invited them both to stay, but they refused the offer and left soon afterwards.

‘If I find out anything more that might be of use to you, I'll let you know,' Mathias told Mercer.

Jacob was the first to walk into the darkness, and Mathias went to catch up with him. The two men were quickly out of sight. It was a cloudless, moonlit night, and Mercer imagined the route they would follow back to the town. At Jacob's pace, it would take them well over an hour.

He stood for a moment to let the night air clear his head.

9

He did not see Mary again until the start of the following week. She approached him where he waited beside the water.

He saw her first in the dunes, with the other children, and then shortly afterwards, when she came to him alone. It was a thing he remembered long afterwards, these arrivals and departures of hers, the small dramas she made of her otherwise uneventful comings and goings.

She was carrying something, and it was only as she reached him that he saw that what she held was a dead tern.

‘We found it up there,' she said, indicating the grass-topped ridge. The voices of the other children could occasionally still be heard. He said nothing about having seen her with them earlier.

She held the tern out for him to inspect. It was a young adult, smaller than most of the birds that constantly hovered and dived, though its first full and vividly white plumage was already formed. Its head
swung limply between her fingers. He pulled out one of its wings and felt the delicate bones and tendons tense at its full span. It appeared to have lost none of its feathers.

‘What killed it, I wonder?' he said. He touched the tip of the bird's beak.

‘One of the boys,' she said.

‘One of the boys? Why?'

‘Why not?' she said. ‘There's thousands of them. It's what boys do. Are you saying they shouldn't?'

‘It just seems pointless, that's all. They're such beautiful things.'

‘If you say so,' she said.

‘How did they do it?'

‘They –' she made a wringing motion with her hands. ‘It doesn't take anything.'

‘Here.' He handed it back to her.

She took it, folded its wings flat to its weightless body and pushed it head-first into her pocket.

‘Will you bury it?' he asked her.

‘Is that what
you'd
do?'

‘I've never killed one,' he said.

‘You're a soldier,' she said. ‘It's not birds that you kill.'

‘
Was
a soldier,' he said. ‘I was an engineer in the Army, and now I'm an engineer—'

‘Here,' she said.

He turned away from her. He had come to that far end of the dune ridge in the hope of locating the remains of the unfinished railway, but had found nothing of it.

He was about to ask her if she knew of the line when she said, ‘She said to ask you to come tomorrow night.' She waited for him to turn back to her.

‘Tomorrow?'

‘To eat with us.' Her disapproval of the invitation remained clear to him. In the confines of the house she would be a child again, her mother's daughter, her brother's watcher.

‘You could always tell her I said I was busy,' he said.

She considered this. ‘She'll make a big thing of it, that's all. She always does. It's embarrassing. She'll spend all day worrying about it, make a mess of it when it happens, and then spend all night worrying about what the others might say. Apart from which, you'd be bored.'

‘She might just want a practice run for when your father gets home,' he said, wondering how cruel he intended the remark to sound.

She saw what he had done. ‘You wouldn't want to be a practice for that,' she said.

He still had no idea of the man other than what he had heard from others.

‘It was a stupid thing to say,' he said. ‘I apologize.'

‘It was. But not for the reason you think.'

‘All this will still be happening' – he swung his arm to encompass the distant workings – ‘for a long time after he's back.'

‘So? He probably won't even stay.'

‘It might be a condition of his parole.'

‘His what?'

‘They sometimes insist on knowing where recently released people are living, and then on them staying put.'

She considered this for a moment, leaving him uncertain how she regarded the possibility. ‘He never listened to anybody before,' she said. ‘Tell him to do one thing, and he'll do the opposite. Way he is. That's what
she
says, what they all say. No one's looking forward to him being back here.'

Except you
, he wanted to say, but didn't.

‘Except me,' she said absently. ‘I'm his favourite, see.' She spoke now in a childish, mocking voice. She picked up a handful of pebbles and threw them one at a time towards the water.

‘Have things changed?' he said. He knew how all-encompassing and revealing her answer might be.

But all she said was, ‘Not really.' She turned back to him. ‘What do you want me to say?' she said.

‘Say?'

‘To her.'

‘Tell her I shall be honoured and delighted to accept your gracious invitation.'

‘
Her
gracious invitation. I'll tell her you said yes.' She slid her hand into the pocket which held the dead bird, turned and walked back into the dunes. ‘Six o'clock,' she shouted to him.

‘Should I bring anything?'

But if she heard him, she gave no sign.

At the crest of the rise, she fell to her knees briefly and then struggled back to her feet. He watched as she took out the dead bird, held it close to her face for a moment, and then threw it into the tall grass beside her.

10

The following morning, taking a break from the site, he crossed the road to the sea and waded in the shallows. The water felt bitterly cold after the warmth of the sand. He shielded his eyes to watch the vessels crossing the horizon, their distant outlines molten in the light and the heat, only their slowly unravelling ribbons of black marking their passage. He was distracted from this by a nearby noise and turned to see a man coming towards him along the water's edge. He recognized him only as a man who lived alone there, and as he came closer, Mercer saw that he carried a bundle of driftwood under each arm. He had dropped some of this, and this was what had alerted Mercer to his otherwise silent approach.

Mercer stepped out of the water and retrieved his boots. The man came to him and dropped everything he held to the ground.

‘Firewood,' he said. ‘Half of it still saturated and all of it full of salt.'

‘Will it burn?' Mercer asked him.

‘Eventually.' The man held out his hand. ‘Daniels.'

‘James Mercer,' Mercer said.

‘Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you for work,' Daniels said.

‘You live in one of the houses,' Mercer said.

‘Not for much longer.'

The remark put Mercer on his guard. ‘Are you leaving?'

Daniels smiled. ‘You tell me,' he said, and then, seeing the unease he had caused Mercer, added, ‘Don't worry. I doubt there's a single person here who hadn't worked everything out long in advance of your arrival. Not that they'll ever say anything to you directly. It's that kind of place – say nothing and it might not happen.'

‘You weren't born here, then?'

‘Copenhagen. My father was a sailor. Thirty years ago his ship docked at King's Lynn and sank there. He was stranded. He met my mother, who lived in the town, and took her home with him. I was born; she didn't settle. She brought me back here with her. He was killed two years later in Cape Town. I came and went between Denmark and here. Not here, specifically, but this part of the coast.'

‘Were you in the Army?'

‘Merchant Marine.'

‘The Atlantic?'

‘And the Arctic. My marrow is frozen. Hence all this gathering of firewood at the height of summer. To listen to some of them, you might imagine that winter was never going to come back.'

Mercer saw how he set himself apart from the others by these remarks. He remembered seeing the man with the men at the boats; he had seldom come out to be in the company of the women. It was then that Mercer remembered that this was the man he had seen with
Elizabeth Lynch during his first few days there, the man he had mistaken for her husband.

‘You know Elizabeth Lynch,' he said.

‘Elizabeth? Of course I know her.'

‘I met her daughter,' Mercer said.

‘I daresay.'

‘It can't be easy for her.'

‘Being without her husband, you mean? Don't fool yourself.'

‘Did you know him?'

Daniels turned to look out over the horizon. ‘Everyone knows Lynch,' he said, as though to say more would be betraying a confidence.

‘I shouldn't have asked,' Mercer said. ‘So how did you end up here?' It was a clumsy change of direction and he thought for a moment that their conversation was at an end.

‘My wife's parents lived here. They both died and she took over their house. We had nowhere else, especially once the war started. Like my own father, I was away more than I was at home with her. We lived in Peterborough before coming here. She hated every minute of it. Here, I mean; not there. We, too, had a son. When the war started and they came to put in the guns, everyone was evacuated for three months. She went to stay with friends in London and our son died there. He was seven.'

‘I'm sorry. In a raid?'

‘Cerebral meningitis. A week after they arrived. I was away at sea when it happened and unable to return for almost two months. When I finally got back to her she was a changed woman. Everyone else had come back here by then, and she had come with them. She stayed here for a further year. Everyone spoke about her grief and about the balance of her mind
being affected. I came home as often as was possible, but it was too little. After the death of our son, nothing was ever the same. She blamed herself for having taken him to London, and she blamed me for having forced her into making that decision because of my absence. I loved her. I loved her before and I loved her afterwards. Unfortunately, I fooled myself into believing that this love would be enough, that it would matter to her, and that it would continue to bind us together. I daresay if the war had ended sooner and I'd been able to come back permanently to her … There was a coroner's inquest on our son. It wasn't until he was dead that they finally decided on what had killed him. It was ten days before I learned. Radio silence.'

‘Is he buried in the town?' Mercer asked him.

‘London. His name was Lars. I doubt she had much say in the matter. I last saw her ten months ago. We visited his grave together.'

‘Did she move back there?'

‘I think she would have gone anywhere to get away from here. I tried to persuade her to return to Peterborough, but she spoke so disparagingly of the place, and of our past there together. And just as I didn't learn of my son's death until long after the event, so, too, I had no idea that she was actually leaving me until long after she had gone.'

‘Could you not have gone with her?'

‘She told me not to. For several months I had no idea where she was staying. She sent a note telling me she was fine and that I was not to look for her. And so I stayed where I was, with no way of contacting her.
This
was where she would contact
me
.' He dug his heel into the sand. ‘I even kept alive the hope that she might one day return here. You must have realized by now that those people born here are tethered to the place.'

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