Small Town & Rural

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In the springtime the old people come back. They arrive as soon as the grass starts to grow and the daffodils sprout by the roadsides. As the sun becomes warm once more they suddenly appear, shuffling stiffly around the edges of the town as though they had never left, as though they were cold-blooded things that had spent the winter hidden away in nooks and crannies and clammy, secret caves. The light seems to dazzle them to begin with. They keep their heads bent down and their eyes “xed “rmly on the ground, watching their “rst weak and tentative steps, a little afraid perhaps that their legs will fail them, or that they will not quite remember how to use them. But on they go, inching unseeing past the tea-houses and the shops and the grey walls of the castle until at last they become more con—dent in their weak strides and arch their wrinkled faces towards the sun, feeding on its beams like iguanas, and make their blinking way towards the sea, always the sea.

Look at them—these ancient water-gazers, these withered lilies that bloom on the fronts of seaside towns. They must have returned as I slept. Because when I woke this morning a premonitory scent had already crept its way into my room: a faint mix of lavender and stale urine, the gentle musk of mouldy furniture, a pot-pourri of dying cells. It’s their smell. There’s a delicate, carrion reek to it that makes the seagulls bold this time of year and they were screeching greedily above the rooftops. I tried to smother the noise with my blankets but it was useless and before I knew it I was wide awake and the air around me was horridly alive with their shrieking travesty of a morning chorus. How I hate these birds, hate them, with their malevolent, yellow eyes and the splatter of blood on the bottom of their beaks! Sometimes I think they’ve caterwauled their way through my whole life, have hovered about it like the aquatic vultures that they are, watching each step I’ve ever taken, waiting for them to weaken and falter so they can swoop. Imagine ending your days on their oily, “shy tongues! I can imagine nothing worse. When the moment arrives I will be sure to give myself to the crematorium’s “re and afterwards be scattered from my urn; at the most I will become ashes in their mouths.

The spring should bring back swallows and lambs and the viridian glimmer of leaf-buds, but when I opened my curtains I could see none of these. I could only see them: straggled out in ones and twos along the promenade, swaying slightly in a breeze that was hardly strong enough to lurch through my open window. It was too feeble even to ruffle the straits into which they stared. Its waters remained sluggish and flat and greasily still, a rancid sea-soup with damp strands of bladderwrack lolling around its edges like clusters of dead eggs. While across the straits, on the mainland shore, the mountains bulged out like the bloated bellies of drowned giants—who would never wake up.

After a few minutes of looking it was as if my eyeballs had fallen into some gloopy, stagnant pool. I was seeing everything in slow, syrupy motion, and I began to wonder if perhaps my vision was becoming empathetic somehow, if it were not possible that I might be seeing the world as the old people saw it. My taid said that his eyes got slower as he got older, that they caught down with the movement of his body and like a good dancer’s adjusted themselves to the stiff, arthritic rhythm of his limbs. He told me it was one of nature’s ways of compensating the creatures to whom it gave such a cramped and “nite span of life, because it stretched time out near the end, or at least provided an optical illusion of duration. He was a kind man, my taid—to humans anyway—and I miss the way he glossed the truth for me with a glass half full even when I knew it was half empty too, even when I had seen how his slowed senses elongated his nightmares and made time the rack he was tortured on.

Once, when I was a child, me and my friends found a bicycle embedded in the mud below the tideline. It was almost new, in perfect working order, and by chance had come to rest entirely upright in the sludge, as though its rider had just that second got their wheels stuck and gone headlong over the handlebars into the salty mire. It was quite a “nd for us, and in our excitement we began riding it there and then in the mud, taking turns to pedal it forward a foot or two until the wheels stuck fast again and it squelched to a halt. On and on we went, making our inchmeal way towards where the shore became stony and solid. But in the end it was just too far. We were so wet and “lthy and exhausted that the last ten yards were beyond us. We couldn’t even muster the strength to pick the bicycle up and carry it, and instead hid it beneath some seaweed and arranged to collect it later. The next morning it had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. But it is not that which I remember so much as the walk home that day, how my body trembled with tiredness, how sapped and wobbly my legs were, as though the mud still enveloped them and held back my every step. And I now realized that it was this same feeling of leaden fatigue that had settled into my eyes, spreading out through my vision and down through my limbs, making it almost impossible for me to pull back from the window and retract my gaze. As I stared, the “gures of the old people seemed to harden in front of me like the bars of a cage. And then I saw movement. Only a glimpse at “rst, a furtive whirl of cherry-blossom pink that tumbled suddenly from behind the ice-cream booth by the entrance to the pier and reeled along across the edge of the town green. There were several cars parked on the grass and it bobbed between them, flickering in and out of view, stopping and starting, crouching and jumping, until “nally it made a frantic dash on to the open spaces of the green and resolved itself into the hyperactive blur of a young girl’s legs. She was running from some invisible pursuer, or pursuers, whom I quickly identified as two dull-witted little boys who were still poking about behind the ice-cream booth. She was miles ahead of their seeking now and no longer bothered to hide. Exhilarated by her own momentum, she zigzagged towards the promenade, with her hair bouncing on her head and her teeshirt and skirt flapping about around her skinny body. In a blink she’d arrived at the sea front and started weaving her helter-skelter way through the stooped shadows of the watchers. Her buoyancy seemed to stir them. They twisted their necks to face her. They smiled. Some held out crooked “ngers in her wake, as though they were belatedly reaching for the children who had run away from them into middle age.

But there was no catching her. She jumped down off the sea wall on to the narrow strip of sand that the tide had rolled out for her, and flung herself, elatedly, into a cartwheel. For a fraction of a second the tiny white triangle of her knickers seemed to hover like a tern’s wing above the water, and it was just a fraction, but it was enough to bring her back. In dread I saw her face become similar, and then the same. Everything else followed: her hair, her legs, her arms, until it could only be her—running again to the water’s edge as the gulls began to gather in ravening circles in the sky and the breeze came alive and licked the surface of the sea. Running again into the swell that now slouched its way shorewards and grabbed hold of her ankles. And I tried to move but I couldn’t. And I tried to call out but I couldn’t. And there they were, watching while it happened, exactly as they had before. I tried so hard to do something but it was like I was buried alive, or under an ocean with a thousand weeds tightening around my limbs, and it was then I realized that I was not seeing the world as the old people did but as she had, from beneath the water, looking up at the bleared “gures of those who watched but couldn’t see and didn’t come.

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