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The Sea


They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All
morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and
swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping
over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain
and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the
freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago
than any of us could remember must have thought it was being
granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The
seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle
of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and
malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those
birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam
along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not
swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.

The name of the house is the Cedars, as of old. A bristling clump
of those trees, monkey-brown with a tarry reek, their trunks
nightmarishly tangled, still grows at the left side, facing across
an untidy lawn to the big curved window of what used to be the
living room but which Miss Vavasour prefers to call, in
landladyese, the lounge. The front door is at the opposite side,
opening on to a square of oil-stained gravel behind the iron gate
that is still painted green, though rust has reduced its struts to
a tremulous filigree. I am amazed at how little has changed in the
more than fifty years that have gone by since I was last here.
Amazed, and disappointed, I would go so far as to say appalled, for
reasons that are obscure to me, since why should I desire change, I
who have come back to live amidst the rubble of the past? I wonder
why the house was built like that, sideways-on, turning a
pebble-dashed windowless white end-wall to the road; perhaps in
former times, before the railway, the road ran in a different
orientation altogether, passing directly in front of the front
door, anything is possible. Miss V. is vague on dates but thinks a
cottage was first put up here early in the last century, I mean the
century before last, I am losing track of the millennia, and then
was added on to haphazardly over the years. That would account for
the jumbled look of the place, with small rooms giving on to bigger
ones, and windows facing blank walls, and low ceilings throughout.
The pitchpine floors sound a nautical note, as does my
spindle-backed swivel chair. I imagine an old seafarer dozing by
the fire, landlubbered at last, and the winter gale rattling the
window frames. Oh, to be him. To have been him.

When I was here all those years ago, in the time of the gods, the
Cedars was a summer house, for rent by the fortnight or the month.
During all of June each year a rich doctor and his large, raucous
family infested it --- we did not like the doctor's loud-voiced
children, they laughed at us and threw stones from behind the
unbreachable barrier of the gate --- and after them a mysterious
middle-aged couple came, who spoke to no one, and grimly walked
their sausage dog in silence at the same time every morning down
Station Road to the strand. August was the most interesting month
at the Cedars, for us. The tenants then were different each year,
people from England or the Continent, the odd pair of honeymooners
whom we would try to spy on, and once even a fit-up troupe of
itinerant theatre people who were putting on an afternoon show in
the village's galvanised-tin cinema. And then, that year, came the
family Grace.

The first thing I saw of them was their motor car, parked on the
gravel inside the gate. It was a low-slung, scarred and battered
black model with beige leather seats and a big spoked polished wood
steering wheel. Books with bleached and dog-eared covers were
thrown carelessly on the shelf under the sportily raked back
window, and there was a touring map of France, much used. The front
door of the house stood wide open, and I could hear voices inside,
downstairs, and from upstairs the sound of bare feet running on
floorboards and a girl laughing. I had paused by the gate, frankly
eavesdropping, and now suddenly a man with a drink in his hand came
out of the house. He was short and top-heavy, all shoulders and
chest and big round head, with close-cut, crinkled,
glittering-black hair with flecks of premature grey in it and a
pointed black beard likewise flecked. He wore a loose green shirt
unbuttoned and khaki shorts and was barefoot. His skin was so
deeply tanned by the sun it had a purplish sheen. Even his feet, I
noticed, were brown on the insteps; the majority of fathers in my
experience were fish-belly white below the collar-line. He set his
tumbler --- ice-blue gin and ice cubes and a lemon slice --- at a
perilous angle on the roof of the car and opened the passenger door
and leaned inside to rummage for something under the dashboard. In
the unseen upstairs of the house the girl laughed again and gave a
wild, warbling cry of mock-panic, and again there was the sound of
scampering feet. They were playing chase, she and the voiceless
other. The man straightened and took his glass of gin from the roof
and slammed the car door. Whatever it was he had been searching for
he had not found. As he turned back to the house his eye caught
mine and he winked. He did not do it in the way that adults usually
did, at once arch and ingratiating. No, this was a comradely, a
conspiratorial wink, masonic, almost, as if this moment that we,
two strangers, adult and boy, had shared, although outwardly
without significance, without content, even, nevertheless had
meaning. His eyes were an extraordinary pale transparent shade of
blue. He went back inside then, already talking before he was
through the door. "Damned thing," he said, "seems to be . . ." and
was gone. I lingered a moment, scanning the upstairs windows. No
face appeared there.

That, then, was my first encounter with the Graces: the girl's
voice coming down from on high, the running footsteps, and the man
here below with the blue eyes giving me that wink, jaunty, intimate
and faintly satanic.

Just now I caught myself at it again, that thin, wintry whistling
through the front teeth that I have begun to do recently. Deedle
deedle deedle
, it goes, like a dentist's drill. My father used
to whistle like that, am I turning into him? In the room across the
corridor Colonel Blunden is playing the wireless. He favours the
afternoon talk programmes, the ones in which irate members of the
public call up to complain about villainous politicians and the
price of drink and other perennial irritants. "Company," he says
shortly, and clears his throat, looking a little abashed, his
protuberant, parboiled eyes avoiding mine, even though I have
issued no challenge. Does he lie on the bed while he listens? Hard
to picture him there in his thick grey woollen socks, twiddling his
toes, his tie off and shirt collar agape and hands clasped behind
that stringy old neck of his. Out of his room he is vertical man
itself, from the soles of his much-mended glossy brown brogues to
the tip of his conical skull. He has his hair cut every Saturday
morning by the village barber, short-back-and-sides, no quarter
given, only a hawkish stiff grey crest left on top. His long-lobed
leathery ears stick out, they look as if they had been dried and
smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge. I can
hear the buzz of voices on his wireless but cannot make out what
they say. I may go mad here. Deedle deedle.

Later that day, the day the Graces came, or the following one, or
the one following that, I saw the black car again, recognised it at
once as it went bounding over the little humpbacked bridge that
spanned the railway line. It is still there, that bridge, just
beyond the station. Yes, things endure, while the living lapse. The
car was heading out of the village in the direction of the town, I
shall call it Ballymore, a dozen miles away. The town is Ballymore,
this village is Ballyless, ridiculously, perhaps, but I do not
care. The man with the beard who had winked at me was at the wheel,
saying something and laughing, his head thrown back. Beside him a
woman sat with an elbow out of the rolled-down window, her head
back too, pale hair shaking in the gusts from the window, but she
was not laughing only smiling, that smile she reserved for him,
sceptical, tolerant, languidly amused. She wore a white blouse and
sunglasses with white plastic rims and was smoking a cigarette.
Where am I, lurking in what place of vantage? I do not see myself.
They were gone in a moment, the car's sashaying back-end scooting
around a bend in the road with a spurt of exhaust smoke. Tall
grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman's hair, shivered briefly
and returned to their former dreaming stillness.

I walked down Station Road in the sunlit emptiness of afternoon.
The beach at the foot of the hill was a fawn shimmer under indigo.
At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the world reduced to a
few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky. I approached
the Cedars circumspectly. How is it that in childhood everything
new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since
according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing
but a thing known returning in a different form, become a revenant?
So many unanswerables, this the least of them. As I approached I
heard a regular rusty screeching sound. A boy of my age was draped
on the green gate, his arms hanging limply down from the top bar,
propelling himself with one foot slowly back and forth in a quarter
circle over the gravel. He had the same straw-pale hair as the
woman in the car and the man's unmistakable azure eyes. As I walked
slowly past, and indeed I may even have paused, or faltered,
rather, he stuck the toe of his plimsoll into the gravel to stop
the swinging gate and looked at me with an expression of hostile
enquiry. It was the way we all looked at each other, we children,
on first encounter. Behind him I could see all the way down the
narrow garden at the back of the house to the diagonal row of trees
skirting the railway line --- they are gone now, those trees, cut
down to make way for a row of pastel-coloured bungalows like dolls'
houses --- and beyond, even, inland, to where the fields rose and
there were cows, and tiny bright bursts of yellow that were gorse
bushes, and a solitary distant spire, and then the sky, with
scrolled white clouds. Suddenly, startlingly, the boy pulled a
grotesque face at me, crossing his eyes and letting his tongue loll
on his lower lip. I walked on, conscious of his mocking eye
following me.

Excerpted from THE SEA © Copyright 2011 by John Banville.
Reprinted with permission by Knopf, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.

The Sea
by by John Banville

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307263118
  • ISBN-13: 9780307263117