The Beachcomber

I had forgotten about the beachcomber. I had forgotten about his long coat dragging through damp sand; his insolent beard, gorsey and stained as tide-abandoned foam. I had forgotten his permitted perimeter; the way he granulated then seem to wink out of existence, leaving me alone, a child at the land’s edge.

Father died not how he may have wished, with patrician dignity and surrounded by acolytes, but sat upright, propped against a folded bolster pillow – do they make those anymore? – and arguing about walnuts with my aunt Dorothy. Someone, she explained to me over the phone, someone, knowing him diabetic, the idiot, had brought him a bag of the things to nibble whilst he convalesced from a midsummer cold. Dorothy is eighty-eight and two years my father’s junior. She had assumed the role of matron, cook and chief-taster during his mild infirmity. She had been scolding him for such reckless disregard for his health when he raised a finger to reprimand her – I imagine with some erudite and withering epigram, probably in Latin – then tipped to the right, as if the raised finger had suddenly gained appallingly in weight, and stayed there, like a tree that inclines a few degrees but can fall no further. His last words were ‘these nuts are none of your concern’. As I say, not how he would have wished to go.

Dorothy, for all her querulous caretaking – she’s eighty-eight, I tell myself, give the old bird a break – is not one to ignore humour when it’s cantering around the room waiting to be acknowledged, black as a Spanish bull. She laughed when she told me down the phone of Father’s passing, laughed about his final words. And I laughed, too. Silly old goat. He’d always seemed to me as one in secret anticipation, primed for the moment when his wit would coincide with audience and circumstances to provide him with a killer put-down, the kind of thing everyone seems to think Churchill was so good at. But he always bottled it; when confronted with a gauche in-law’s Elton John-themed charcoal sketches or the egregious mispronunciation of Van Gogh, the most he would allow was a wry smile and raised eyebrow, indicating that he had thought of something dazzling but that etiquette denied him the pleasure of speaking. However, ‘these nuts are none of your concern’, it now seemed, was his actual punchline. Like the Great Gonzo raising his trumpet to give a mighty, singing blast, only for the bell to fart and bubble.

Continued here

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24 responses to “The Beachcomber

  1. Zephirine

    I think this is seriously good, ExitB, full of telling detaila, at once considered and raw. At one point I began to suspect who the beachcomber would turn out to be, but I didn’t know how you’d get us to the discovery and I was really gripped till I got to the end.

  2. Welcome, Zeph, and thanks

    As a reader, I enjoy stories when there is an inkling – a few clues – as to the possible outcome; that’s what I was aiming for here. It can be as satisfying, I feel, as the boom-out-of-nowhere twist. Would you have preferred a complete surprise at the end?

  3. Zephirine

    No, I think the inkling was fine! Having done a fair bit of clearing up after deceased relatives, I felt that you conveyed the strange mix of emotions strikingly well.

    (I meant details in my first post, of course, I’m not sure what ‘detaila’ would mean if it existed)

  4. Have read it slowly just over halfway through, Exit. At the first instance, philosophical ideas sharply trailing through the subject of death and your wry humour evident in parts like the The Whisky Society and everyone meaning me and also the section on truisms. Enjoyed the characterisation of Dorothy immensely.

  5. @Zeph,

    ‘Having done a fair bit of clearing up after deceased relatives, I felt that you conveyed the strange mix of emotions strikingly well.’

    Thanks again. This means a lot.

    @Suzan

    thanks; hope you enjoy the second half. I meant to mention to you; I think you cited John Banville’s Book of Evidence a while ago. I wrote this story just after having read it, a couple of weeks back. I’m very taken with his self-deprecating yet vain narrator; also the apparent meandering of thought that disguises a tightly-structured narrative. This story was, in part, an experiment in trying to find out how he does it.

  6. Suzan Abrams

    Yes, you’ve managed it very well and I can see the similarity drawn between your style and the ‘fictitious writing voice’ employed by Freddie Montgomery although his lines were crisper. But your character has its own personality and the dry acerbic tone for both work excellently.

  7. mishari

    Sorry for taking so long to get around to this, but with school ending and moving the fambly to Spain for the summer and other commitments, I haven’t found the time. Indeed, I still haven’t.

    I have, however, printed The Beachcomber out (25 pages after changing and enlarging the font) and intend to read it on the train tomorrow. I wanted to give it the attention it deserves. I’ll post my thoughts in a few days.

    I’m dying to hear what you make of Blood Meridian, by the way…

  8. Looking forward to your thoughts, Mishari. Thanks for taking the time amidst all the travelling.

    Blood Meridian is currently queued behind Under the Galcier and the last 50 pages of the second of two Aphra Behn biogs I’ve been reading in the last weeks. But it’s closing in, like a Faulknerian-Goyaesque man-child with bloody chops and a banjo…

  9. That would be the famous Goya painting of a banjo player????
    After recommending The Bark Tree to you a while back I decided to re-re-re-read and am getting even more out of it 8th or 9th time round. So thanks for that!

  10. @Al

    I bet you there is a Goya picture of a banjo. Probably played by a donkey or a witch. Or a witch-donkey. I’ll be back.

    I looked into getting the Bark Tree but could only find rather pricy second hand editions. I’ll keep keeping an eye out, though.

    Also, I checked out that Dutch site for your N’lands pig adventure (as I’m sure you refer to it in your private journal) but – surely due to my own ineptitude – I couldn’t bring any of the dates or locations together. Any clues?

  11. re: Goya there’s probably a picture of a witch playing a Simmons electronic drum kit in one of the later pictures. Actually I think there’s a guitar/possibly small uke-type Spanish variant in one of his Fiesta paintings before he went deaf and the demons rushed in.

    The Bark Tree is now published as Witch Grass by,,,,, can’t remember but have seen it in Waterstones not so long ago.

    For Dutch dates try our web-site http://www.wras.org.uk click on Productions then Pig then tour dates. I will be there from 21st of July until 26th after which we return to the UK. The Lichtenvoorde dates are the Zwarte Cross festival so will cost a whopping entrance fee I should think. Rock festivals aren’t my cup of tea but other Dutch companies have said it’s a nicely run event plus we’re staying in a hotel rather than in a tent. If you can make it to Wevershof or Schagen t’would be very nice to meet up and put face to the reams of words we’ve exchanged over what seems like years but actually isn’t.

  12. XB,

    Sorry to be late in on this, after appreciating Atom Heart Mother I should have been following all along. But the good Zephirine has now alerted me and I thank her for that and you for this story, so beautifully crafted and deeply felt–well, I know it is a “fiction” so I won’t project into your private feelings, but I know my own.

    And I did indeed feel with this one. While also admiring “objectively” (as ’twere) the evident writing skills. Not long ago I read Julian Barnes’ book about death, Nothing to be Frightened Of. I found much of it tiresome and overly self-conscious, the Writer peering into His Own Fears of Death as though he had invented such fears and no one else had ever experienced them quite so keenly. However, the passages in the book that really comprised its foundation were concerned with the deaths of his parents, and their parents, and to this testimony JB added reflections gathered from his brother. And these parts of the book were so affecting in their particularity and poignancy of detail that I felt some regret for what I imagined to have been a contractual arrangement to spin a whole large book out of the radiant interior core of those family reminiscences.

    Your piece reminded me of that in the sense that you have kept the radiant core pure, free of essayistic and projective extensions that might have reduced or diminished the power of the thing.

    At any rate, I can say only: Bravo!

    All though the reading of the latter “ghost” passages I was put in mind of this:

    Flash Player

    And of course as you’d dropped Astral Weeks as a sort of sachet into the memory structure of the piece early on–I’d been thinking about such memory keys all weeks since posting a re-version of WH Hudson On The Perfume of an Evening Primrose–I couldn’t help but hear that song echoing in my head all through to the end.

    Discovered after some searching there is no useful available video of VM performing it, but after experiencing an initial shudder of revulsion at the desecration, I settled in (along with the minimal 792 previous viewers, probably all members of the club) to find some interesting resonance in this curious rendition of
    Astral Weeks: by Second Life Belfast

    “To be born again/In another world/In another time…” can have so many meanings–dna, memory, art…

    And the ending of your story: marvelous:

    “And I remembered again the last time I’d visited father. He was having his summer cold and I was to keep him company but I’d forgotten the appointment until the last minute. I leapt up from reading some book, realised I’d not left time for supper and grabbed the nearest packaged snack I could find from the kitchen on my way out. I munched as I drove, shoving the detritus into my pocket. I had been wearing the same coat I wore the day after Father died, the day of the ghost story and the heart attack. The Eventful Day, I think I shall call it. I realise that I always wore that coat when I visited him, the long coat with the ripped lining. I barrelled through his front door, offered him a share of what I was eating. We talked and he suggested a trip to the Bengal Star. We walked to the front door, put on our coats, enjoying a conversation I will never remember. But it was gentle, and familiar, and we were kind to one another. Of course, I forgot about the snack I’d brought and left with father; the half-full bag of walnuts.”

    We’d recently seen When Did You Last See Your father, a film of similar theme, splendidly played by Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, but dripping with sentimentality and schmaltz. I couldn’t stay with it, and said to myself, This subject matter is Impossible. With this story you have convinced me I was wrong. Of such reversed convictions is made the purpose to survive one more night…so thanks XB.

  13. Sorry about that, here’s the corrected link, given second life, or was it third (“ain’t nothin’ but a stranger in ths world…”):

    Astral Weeks: by Second Life Belfast

  14. Hi Tom,

    I am entirely abashed. Of all the things one hopes to achieve through writing, to nudge memories of true experience in the reader must be amongst the most greedily sought. So thanks, this means a great deal.

    ‘Of such reversed convictions is made the purpose to survive one more night…’

    Of such generous appreciation is made the purpose to survive literary rejection and, ah, venture into the slipstream once more…

    ………………….

    Flash Player is certainly apt; the inaccessibility of memory (and the meta-fictional, speculative and pulp-horror methods of its retrieval) are obsessions for me: ‘They were not here to help us, merely to drag us back’ is a very wise observation on the dangers of an obsession with the past.

  15. ExitB, I see that you have joined the named … 😉 … Baron Charles Gilchrist, then? 🙂

    I enjoy reading here, but am doing as I would be done by. I have found that comments — even high praise — on works-in-progress can freeze the flow of ideas and words. These posts do seem to be part of a larger piece of work, so I’ll simply say that I will keep coming back to sip and taste, with real pleasure. . . in the hope of not impeding your reaching The End.

    … Pick a real-life subject — eg., polite fighting words — and I’ll write a blizzard of posts for you.

  16. Oh! I forgot to add that I was reminded of you at my hair-chopping establishment last week. A very young woman was telling someone that she was sure ‘I’d have really loved Berlin, you know, if I could have only found my way around? I spent most of my time getting like, you know — _lost_? But it was just so funky and cool, you know … and I could like wear anything I wanted, with no problem?’. The man having his hair trimmed next to her said he knew just what she meant.

  17. “Pick a real-life subject…” Hmm, I was wondering what one of those would be.

    Perhaps, in the present case, and in general, the longer one can prolong the Process reaching the End, the better?

    Or should such thoughts simply be put down to

    Deviation?”

  18. Looked at your egg, Tom. That’s good — really very, _very_ good. Truth in beauty, etc..

    In case I was only as clear as mud earlier, I am not always sure when our Baron is posting bits of his novel and when he’s putting up essays inspired by his life.

    As for me, reaching The End … the trouble is, I keep finding another delectable blog …

  19. Hi both!

    How nice to be away a few days and discover an entirely new conversation.

    @Acacciatura,

    Thanks for dropping by. Much appreciated. I’ve been in the Netherlands the last four weeks and have managed to stay in five different places; this has rather scrambled my prose/crit/poetry circuits but I’m settling in one place for a week now and will get onto a non-fiction post with you, in part, in mind.

    I’m rather baffled by your Berlin-stalgic stylist’s inability to ‘find my way around’. I used the little-known hipster’s bible the, uh, Lonely Planet. Which has a map in the back. But then I walk a lot (I know a born Londoner who can’t get from Holborn to the British Museum by foot. The man went to Oxford).

    @aciacc & Tom

    Nothing I post here is part of a larger work, the stories are complete in themselves. The ‘first chapters’ on my website are all from projects long-abandoned (consider it a tent wherein lies a row of formaldehyde-filled bottles, the lumpen organisms within declared, by the barker, ‘too strange to live’).

    A new idea, especially for a longer work such as a novel, is a fragile thing. It can shrivel if prodded and analysed too soon. Everything I post here is old enough to have grown a shell. But soon I’ll be in Spain, and working on a new epic. Perhaps I’ll become reckless…

  20. === will get onto a non-fiction post with you, in part, in mind. ===

    I’m honoured, ExitB/BC/CKG … and what you say about the posts here does make excellent sense. I am still reluctant to comment on fiction, though, nearly always written from a far more tender and vulnerable part of ourselves than non-fiction, … specialists in pot-boilers excepted, of course. That’s also why I find it hard to comment on ISA/Phil’s memoir-in-progress — since the sources of the best literary memoirs are closer to fiction, I suspect, even when the writer is conforming as closely as possible to what s/he believes to be the truth.

  21. Forgive the shameless plug XB but here’s a FlickR set of the new show – memory doesn’t always serve me well but I seem to remember a request from you to see evidence so…………..

    IMG_5632

    if this isn’t the case then nuke this comment and we’ll never mention it again.

  22. @aciacc,

    Of course the lines of fiction and personal experience are always blurred. One of my recent stories, which I composed as entirely fictional and a style exercise, only revealed itself several weeks later as inspired in part by a close friend’s experiences. When writing, it never crossed my mind and I felt rather guilty once I realised what had happened.

    @Al

    How dare you besmirch Rev&Rig’s spotless independence with a tacky viral campaign. On the other hand, looks like you’ve anticipated CapNed’s call for narcotic-inspired work with both precience and industry. To quote the Floyd, ‘my hands felt just like two balloons…’ Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  23. XB I’m permanently high on injected insulin as it happens but like thanks man.

    Apropos the heavy metal monks and their one piece of music gig you posted on Politely when at art college in the 70’s a scratch band I was in played a gig which comprised of Warm Leatherette played until we cleared the hall of everyone. My first real experience of how to enrage an audience – they were throwing chairs at us by the end. I’ve no idea what the point of it was – I think the “brains behind the idea” wanted to annoy the disco crowd who dominated student union discos at the time.

  24. @al

    You’ve reminded me of a gig I played when I was about 17. It was a young farmer’s birthday party, in a field. The band set up at the far end from the marquee on a trailer reached by hay-bale steps. We played our songs whilst the party-goers huddled 100 yards away. In desperation we reached for our secret weapon: Wild Thing. We played it for half an hour and they didn’t stop dancing. I’ve recently heard a Stooges live album where they use Louie Louie in s similar way.

    Once we finished the stage was invaded by teddy boys intent on using our equipment for Elivis covers. the lead singer was so drunk he could only say the word ‘Elvis’.

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