Fiction | The Bar by the Sea by Venetia Welby

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    Venetia Welby


    The Bar by the Sea

     

    [Jeremy]

    Tongues. He’d always hated their lolling and poking, their insolence. Jeremy had glimpsed a quick shot of hers, pink-curled behind ageing teeth as away she went, perhaps for the last time. It was a special taunt, that this should be the last part of her to leave him.

    She’d be back. He felt sure of it, as he threw the espresso maker on the hob again. Only the indolent hit the bottle: who had the time to fall apart?

    Each evening with Patsy had felt like borrowed time this year. And that was the nice way of putting it. It’s not like you can give it back. All time is stolen from other people – other loves and children and colleagues and even those parts of yourself that stalk brave new worlds, want something. . . other.

    Jeremy had not told her the time was borrowed. As someone who made a living with his quicksilver tongue he knew all too well the power of words, the futility. Patsy believed whatever he told her to.

    Ping scuttled in crab-like, smacking and rattling a pen. Would Patsy really have left the cats?

    Humans think they are superior to animals, that they alone are blessed with the power of speech. But what – Jeremy bundled the reluctant cat up in his arms – if our disingenuous tongues were the very things that obstructed communication? What if, century by century, our filthy frontal speech-crammed lobes have made us illiterate in the deeper exchanges? Words are a shield from truth.

    Ping relented, nipped his cheek in affection. Life, he told her, is a chaos of misunderstanding.

    He’d try to reclaim this lost wintry evening. The boys were with his mother. He could go – wherever he wanted. But that was not in the calendar. It didn’t feel quite right. Paperwork, then.

    Where would she have gone anyway, with her neat little suitcase? Should he call her? Patsy had shut herself up in her own world of thoughts, and Jeremy’s words were its architect. Could you design someone’s internal life? He liked to think so. Not tonight though. Tonight, Jeremy had used new words. He asked her how it had all vanished, what he could do to bring it back. She looked at him hard and inscrutably, seemed to be trying to reply – but if the words existed, they were out of reach.

    He rapped a magazine from the kitchen table, then picked it up off the floor, a garish coaster. One of Patsy’s tawdry rags: Real Women. Christ on a bike.

    ***

    Men marry women they think will never change, she’d said to him once in that bar by the sea. Go on, he replied, expecting an explanation, waiting for a way in. None came, of course, and now he thought he should have tried harder to pierce those words at the time. You had to look around and behind and under each letter with a woman like that. Each word was a signpost to something less sayable.

    The bar by the sea. It had changed hands so often they’d stopped trying to remember each new name. He, Patsy and the boys, teenagers now, escaped suburban Fulham to spend every holiday near that bar – in whichever villa happened to be available that year, in the lofty corner of the bay looking down and out to quickly deep and deepest blue Sardinian waters.

    In August this year there had been hornets everywhere, litter on the ever-scrappier beach. Wasn’t  it time for a change? He talked himself out of that one almost as soon as he’d thought it. Life would become very complicated very quickly. Everything depended on the smooth functioning of his Google calendar, the marking of the thirds of the day, the positioning of virtual pins in virtual maps of the whereabouts of the all-too-real people in his life.

    The last had been a strange holiday, if marshalling and herding your family members may be called a holiday. They seemed to think it could. Max and Matt – good, short, strong boys’ names, his choice – woke late, had lunch with their parents and then disappeared. Jeremy imagined they spent their evenings marauding through Alghero town, shaking their freshly lit libidos about beautiful and chaste Sardinian girls. Well, he didn’t mind that. What he had not enjoyed was something else: the descent upon their privacy of various unanticipated guests.

    Every lunch they would come to the same place, the old bar. Every time they did so a person from Patsy’s life – never his – would somehow pop up. At first it was amusing (within limits). He could pretend to write it off as a funny coincidence, at least. But as Patsy’s past persisted, and her features – eyes, a smile – started to open up, Jeremy began to have darker thoughts.

    He’d been waiting to get Patsy alone, to dispatch the boys, thick with pasta, into the wilds of the beach and the bars. He wanted to speak to her as they used to, not in the roles of parents, house-managers, a unit of organised responsibility. Max and Matt were good boys but they changed the dynamic. Jeremy wanted to catch Patsy up in the comfortable freefall of youth again, an artificial construct he could control. He’d thought it might make her gaze at him the way she once had. God knows it was difficult enough for him to secure the borrowed time.

    First came Rob. A childhood friend from Bristol who Patsy had never happened to mention.

    Rob seemed singularly unexciting to Jeremy, the man’s conversation limited solely to travelling and the creation of nostalgia. Jeremy was wary of people who used the fact that they’d been somewhere you hadn’t as a substitute for a personality. Was it not sufficient that they were here, in this Mediterranean haven, right now? On an island! Rob sniffed. Said it was a tourist trap. The sea down there, he said, grimacing at it, used to be full of fish. You could feel them finning the water when you swam, feel them brushing past your body. Do you remember, Pats? All the rock pools, the tiny crabs and clams and mussels? That beach is so polluted now – sun cream mainly – nothing can live. Sea’s a dead zone.

    Why are you here then, Rob? Jeremy had wanted to ask, sliding a bottle of Factor 20 beneath a cushion. Essential protection for his palely freckled skin, not that Rob would know anything about that, with his swarthy, foreign-looking tan. He could see Patsy hanging on to the man’s every flaccid word, each one a place name on a map of lost life. Jeremy did not know she’d been to this bar before. He’d always thought, in fact, that he, Jeremy, had been the one to introduce her to Sardinia in the first place.

    I always had a thing for you, Pats, Rob plonked artlessly into this exclusive conversation at some point. Jeremy’s wife laughed and the sound was a hoarse bark, like she was out of practice. It made him jump and spill some Negroni on his white holiday trousers. Rob’s tongue curled out of the side of his mouth and tricked upwards, stopping himself from laughing. It was revolting.

    [Patsy]

    The thing is, Jez was an amazing husband. So attentive. Never once did he fail to make me breakfast in the morning, or kiss me before he set off to work. He’s a top lawyer, you know, makes millions just sitting on his arse, and he was always pushing the boat out, spoiling me, a glass of champagne in bed, plane tickets to Italy – to this little place we used to go on the coast near Alghero – or a new dress hanging in my wardrobe unannounced, ready to be discovered some random day. He would wait. He was a romantic, still, and he was handsome and elegant, tall and well- dressed in all his designer suits. A lot older than me, sure, but I still fancied him and I can’t deny it, I liked the lifestyle.

    Yeah he worked long hours, it’s true, but he always, always, without fail, called me at 1pm and 6pm. He was mostly home for dinner at half 8, though of course sometimes he had client dinners or drinking sessions that continued late into the night. These things occasionally spanned a weekend or longer, if he had to travel to Europe for instance, but still, he always rang at 1 and 6 and if he was away at breakfast time he’d call then too: 8, 1, 6 like clockwork. It was very reassuring. Felt like he was never that far away, in spirit at least. I followed him online as well, though he wasn’t one of life’s great posters. When he did, it comforted me to see him on the usual channels cracking jokes and well, just being present. Existing, visibly.

    I don’t have many friends, no. I used to, but bringing up the children, keeping up my card design and sales from home, they slowly fell out of my life. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say Jez carved some of them out. There were several he didn’t like at all so they were easy first cuts, though they’d come to our wedding, had been dear at one point or another. Others followed. And then Maxie and Mattie, our children, started to take their place. They keep you busy, kids. Children, art, animals – a spaniel, two cats who wandered in, our beloved, late budgie, Bill.

    Everything was fine. Ordered. We all thrived on routine and life goes quickly like that. You know where you are with it. Our . . . what? You people are all the same aren’t you. Seedy. No, I do not think it’s any of your readers’ business. Suffice to say, we were very happy in that department. We were ok. From what I understand from your cheap pages, certainly above the national average.

    I’m sorry, please sit down. No, of course I don’t want you to go. I promised him I’d talk to you. You can understand, can’t you, why it might be like, a little bit of a sensitive matter for me? None of this is easy. What, a photograph . . . Now? Just let me get a tissue.

    [Rob]

    I saw you there, in that old bar by the sea and I knew you in an instant. I’d dreamt about you every night, you know. The night visions kept you in my mind, constantly. Or you were in my mind and that’s why I kept having those bloody dreams. The good ones upset me when I woke up and they weren’t true: I didn’t even know you, Pats, anymore. The bad ones were worse; the feelings they unearthed – usually of loss, fear, fear of loss, the dread of it, infidelity – persisted, its toxic fog obscuring the present.

    I’ve been divorced twice, you know. We haven’t talked about that. Moved around Europe each time, starting again – Spain, Italy, Greece. You might ask why I never looked you up before, Pats, what with all the dreams and the longing. I dunno. I suppose the thing was . . . we were never actually together before, just kids who used to run around together. Even when we went travelling together – and I thought something might happen – it didn’t. I always assumed you weren’t interested in anything romantic. So when I got the message, well.

    I wouldn’t have come otherwise. Sardinia’s not my usual scene, you know? Too full of tourists, nothing authentic left. Do you remember when we stopped off here as students, Pats? I remembered the bar, of course. It was in the news, too, at some point, how they tried to clean up the beach below it, how there were so many meetings and objections and meetings about the objections, nothing actually happened – and then it was too late. That’s what happens when people talk. I just wanted to sit in silence with you, Pats; absorb you. But you can’t, can you, when you haven’t seen someone for years?

    Everywhere I’ve lived has been by the sea, chasing the last unruined coastlines of Europe, always outrun by Thomas Cook. I heard someone say something once that stayed with me: people like the sea, this guy made out, because it reminds the atoms they’re made of what it’s like to disperse across continents – to be free. It’s hard to feel free anywhere these days. My atoms belong with you, Pats. You make me feel free. Like life is worth another shot after all.

    Sea dreams and hurricanes,
    Rob xx

    [Jeremy]

    He’d swear Patsy was a feral cat on heat, sending up flares far and wide. After Rob came Dan, after Dan came Pete and after Pete came Ludo. Ludo, he scoffed at the time. Who the fuck had an ex called Ludo. Ludo was the sad old bastard still in the band. He wore leather in 40-degree heat and kept dipping his head beneath the table to take coke. And yet Patsy, reanimated still further in his presence, like a blow-up doll, withered in the garage for years. He noticed how her eyes were, in fact, still deep and clear; he noticed that other men turned to look when they walked into the bar. More than one old Sard looked up from the beach to find the woman with the delighted laugh.

    Jeremy had to make his phone calls. You don’t leave the office entirely; you can’t. Every time he came back he regretted having left. Someone from Patsy’s past would have magically materialised in his seat, a little, white wicker sofa with blue cushions looking straight out to sea.

    It was a popular destination of course, not far enough from the cheap flight routes to guarantee seclusion. But still. They’d never run into anyone here before. And always in this same bar. And always friends – lovers, surely of Patsy’s. They’d drink the afternoon away.

    What’s going on, Jeremy demanded, seeing that suspicious new light dancing in her eyes again. Nothing, she answered, and that – that! – seemed to be as far as they each could go. Had they ever been able to talk to each other? Shan’t we try somewhere else for lunch, he ventured at one point. But no one was keen. This bar has the best pasta! It’s the only one that looks over the sea, Dad. But we always come here. And anyway, this place was of great importance to Jeremy. If it had transformed into some demonic haunt of karmic justice, it was probably a temporary arrangement; he would not be forced out. It was at the centre of all he was as a man that he took his family to Sardinia, that they had a favourite bar, within a favourite town. That he, Jeremy, was known and respected here. Ah Signor Tellman, ’ow nice to see you again – and your beautiful wife. You didn’t find that twice in life.

    Real Women – True Stories for Women Who Just Can’t Anymore
    [. . .]

    One lunchtime, Jez didn’t call. Patsy couldn’t believe it; it had literally never happened before! She realised her husband’s phone calls were how she carved up her day, a precisely determined timetable: 8, 1, 6. Now it was 1pm, 1.03, 1.05. Patsy waited, nervously watching the kitchen clock. Should she call him? What would happen if they did not speak to say it’s lunchtime, how was your morning, miss you darling? Oh they miss each other at regular intervals but never do anything about it, like spending a day off together. We should move to Italy, Patsy said to Jez once. Build a house. Great idea, he replied, and they never spoke of it again.

    [Funny business]

    Jez was away, in Italy actually, on business. So perhaps he was busy. But he’d never, not in nearly thirty years of marriage, not made his excuses, stepped away from a meeting no matter how vital – and they quite often were, he said: vital.

    But here it was, the call. A FaceTime call – which was unusual. They’d established a tradition of speaking on the phone and Jez hadn’t seen any reason to adapt the 8-1-6 routine to constantly changing technology.

    His face did not appear but Italy did – all its blues of sky and sea. Jez must be outside. But hang on . . . Doesn’t Patsy recognise those blue cushions, that white wicker . . . ?

    [Betrayal]

    Jez was in that bar. Their bar. Patsy could see the familiar railings, the rippling sea beyond. She could hear Jez’s voice. Darling, he said, and Patsy said, hi darling, even as she heard another woman’s voice reply, Would you like ice cream, kidlings, and two or three young voices yelled out, Yes, please, Daddy, please! Jeremy, my love, she said, will you ask the waiter what flavours they have today.

    And off ‘Jeremy’ went. An Italian speaker! In all their years of going to Sardinia, he’d never once spoken the language. Patsy did the talking, where it was needed.

    Patsy was sure there was a reasonable explanation. That bar always had plenty of young families in it at lunchtime.

    Then it came. Love you, Daddy.

    Cupboard love, Joe! It was Jez, unmistakeably. Aw I love you too. Love you, Mina.

    A female laugh.

    Suddenly, the dirty dog noticed his phone. His face appeared on the screen. Patsy! Jez had his hand held up, concealing his own mouth as he spoke. Patsy wanted to see past it, lipread the truth behind whatever silky words were on his tongue. He was trained to persuade, of course, by his job.

    But when Patsy questioned him, it all came out. It was as if the secret had been poisoning him. Jez couldn’t wait to shake it off.

    [The Rat Reveals All]

    Jez had called poor Patsy every day not as some gesture of love and, god forbid, fidelity. No, those calls were designed to find out precisely where this wife was each lunchtime, each cocktail hour . . . to check that Wife One was still, as she almost certainly was, at home. To check that her path would not cross with that of  Wife Two,  that Jez could wine and dine  his other woman at lunch, later in bars; that Jez could attend one child’s school play and not be bothered by the rugby injury of another.

    You have to be organised to manage two families.
    [. . .]

    If you’ve been affected by this issue, or want to expose someone you suspect of similar dealings, get in touch with our sensitive team today. We pay generously per story and your man’ll get what’s coming to him!

    [Patsy]

    I never did question or confront Jez, though I think you should probably say that I did, for the sake of the story, you know. What happened in reality was this: He rang me – the usual way only later, at 1.30. He apologised for being late, apologised for the FaceTime call – and I just said I didn’t even see it. Jez sounded completely unflustered and it made me second guess myself. I was too shocked. I wanted to think about what I’d heard. What it meant. What I should do. Not just act, blow things up for no reason, regret. But at the same time I did know, with the bodily certainty that you just do. It hits you in the stomach, truth. It’s undeniable – but somehow I managed to.

    Unfortunately, you don’t stop loving someone just because they’re also with someone else. Instead, the daily rhythm continued: breakfast, kiss, phone calls at 1 and 6. What changed was me. The knowledge hanging in the ether, stinking up the house – it takes its toll. I kept waiting for him to talk to me about it, now that I knew. But I suppose Jez didn’t know that, and he’d clearly decided (how long ago?) that his two lives could coexist seamlessly. But were his other family aware of me and the children? Had I and the boys come first? Were we all in the dark?

    I didn’t want to leave him. I didn’t know who I was without him. I’d been shaped by him, the family, the years. It was, I don’t know . . . easier to pretend it wasn’t happening.

    Then we went to Sardinia. I didn’t think I could go to that bar by the sea, knowing what I’d seen there. I felt sure it would be too much for me to sit on that white wicker sofa, in the place where my husband’s two worlds collide. I’d break. The waiters, they must know. The sofa was – what’s that word? – illicit, no, complicit.

    It didn’t quite turn out like that. The week was an awakening. My old boyfriends kept showing up, completely out of the blue! One a day, like the apple that keeps the doctor away. And it was like that; I felt better and better, more and more my old self. This was life! It was brilliant. I thought: This old bar is trying to tell me something.

    And then, later in London, I got Rob’s letter. A letter! It was like being a teenager again. I wrote back the same day.

    [Max]

    Yes, Mum, I promise you. I know you thought that Sardinian bar was some kind of touched place, bringing your old life back to you. But it wasn’t magic, I’m afraid. I was the one who messaged your exes, told them where you’d be. That you maybe needed some rescuing. I mean, it wasn’t hard to find who you used to hang out with – they were all lined up on your Facebook.

    I always knew Dad had another family. We saw them in town once, don’t you remember? And again, at Sally’s, outside in the car park. I know you saw them. You just didn’t let yourself see them. I couldn’t bear it, watching you waste away, your personality – your life – disappearing. I had to do something to break your denial.

    Everyone was happy to help. You’ve a lot of admirers, you know, particularly that Rob guy. And you’re ready now. You’re ready to put a stop to this.

    So look, this journalist is coming over at 3. You can tell her your story. It’ll make it real. It’ll make everyone see Dad for the rat he is. You’ll tell them everything won’t you, Mum. Won’t you? Mum?

     

    _


    Venetia Welby
    ’s debut novel Mother of Darkness was published by Quartet Books in 2017, and her second, Dreamtime, will be out next year. She lives in east London with her husband, son and Bengal cat.

    www.venetiawelby.com

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