David looked at the enlarged black and white image of his wife, the last taken exposure of her during their tragic Easter holiday the year before. He held it close, squinting for some detail he might have missed from one of the hundreds of times he had previously studied it. It was a shot of Louise walking on Chesil Beach, away from him. She was looking to her left. Her profile looked like Greta Garbo’s. He had voiced the comparison to Louise a few years ago. She had laughed, pulled an exaggerated silent-movie-face of surprise and said in a deep, slow voice, ‘I vont to be alone’. She told him if she was Garbo, he had to be her Cecil Beaton.
In the photograph Louise was faced with millions of pebbles, their part of the Jurassic coast, the way ahead of her looked like darkened bubble wrap, a Sisyphean task coming to a bending point in the far distance. She had been wandering close to the water that may have drowned her. Her body hadn’t been found, just her shoes placed together neatly by the tide line, like tiny soldiers protecting the banks against flooding.
As David stared at the flimsy, shining moment in time, a second caught that felt like a fake memory of happiness, he thought he would begin to shout again, zinging expletives at nothing but the wine-stained cupboards, breaking more of their expensive furniture and finally throwing himself out of the lounge window, five floors down, crashing and splitting onto the parked cars. No more pain or questions.
His wife and unborn child, a girl, had been washed out of existence the day after the photograph had been taken.
The local coroner had ruled an accidental death, but David knew he was wrong and told him so after the enquiry, held back by a police officer, screaming at him, that he was lazy and incompetent and he would sue him. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t over. Louise, as a doctor, would have known what the human body could cope with and would never have attempted a morning swim when the fog was so thick, the water so cold and with storm waves being driven southwesterly up the English Channel from the Atlantic. She would never have risked her life or that of the baby.
They had laughed, over dinner on the first night, about the inevitability of dying out there, how insane it would be to try to swim.
‘One toe in and you’re gone,’ Louise had said.
Thomas Hardy called the area ‘Dead Man’s Bay’, the history of shipwrecks was in every information leaflet.
Had she committed suicide? Was her life so secretly unbearable? Was he a terrible husband?
He had returned to the grey cottage they had rented. He had too many questions and ignored the grief of being alone, facing his recent past as an investigation, employing his abilities as a journalist.
The previous owner, the invisible artist, had sold it to a holiday home company shortly after Louise had died. David was relieved he hadn’t been faced with ghoulish questioning.
He had arranged their holiday, a pregnancy celebration, by letter and felt as if he had let Louise down when they arrived, such a small flat, but she had kissed him and said it was perfect, it felt safe and contained to her.
The owner seemed unnecessarily eccentric – she didn’t offer a telephone number – and informed David the keys would be available from the landlady of the gastropub opposite the cottage.
‘We should visit the swannery at Abbotsbury, it’s not that far. It says here, it’s the only managed colony for nesting mute swans, set up by Benedictine monks in the eleventh century. It looks beautiful,’ Louise said, holding David’s hand across the small dining table on their second morning in the flat at the top of the grey cottage, it had begun to feel even smaller to David, almost shrinking by the hour: a WC, described in one letter as a bathroom, with no bath or shower, just a toilet and wash-hand basin, a bedroom with walls so close to the bed you were forced to, literally, slide under the covers, and a kitchen-dining-lounge room with a portable television and some books on a single shelf. The ‘washing area’ – as described by the owner in her final booking confirmation letter – was on the other side of an artist studio on the ground floor. Dusty white sheet-covered canvases lined the sides like vestigial reminders of success and failure. David wanted to look at some of the paintings but always felt as if he was being watched.
Both of them felt inhibited about taking showers, Louise pretended it was ridiculous and shook her head, laughing, as she left with her wash bag and towel, returning with pretend-trauma from the experience. David tried to laugh with her but felt uneasy and considered washing himself in the kitchen sink and pretending he had used the shower. It felt like trespass walking into the studio, someone’s creative workspace, unwelcoming. The bathroom was filled with permanent steam from the cold air and a large radiator blasting out maximum heat. David could smell a lit cigarette, turpentine and hear something heavy being dragged as he stepped into the bath one morning. He thought of the shower scene from Psycho, the curtain was near-transparent white and he washed his body quickly, keeping his eyes on the blurred outlines of the fixtures outside the bath, then dried his hair standing with one paranoid foot pushed up against the bathroom door. He waited longer than needed to leave, wasting the time restyling his hair and running a dry razor over his chin and cheeks again, leaving a feeling of raw burn on his skin.
Louise wrote the first message on the oval mirror next to the bath for David to find: ‘I love you. You are my life and the life inside me. I hope the baby is just like you xx’. David left a reply the next morning, the only Pablo Neruda quote he knew: ‘Deny me bread, air, light, spring, but never your laughter for I would die.’ She stroked his arm and kissed his cheek for that. The last time he had felt her lips.
The holiday home company had refurbished the cottage, and the building came as an all-in-one package now. His bedroom was the artist studio. He still felt like an interloper, but the acoustics were excellent and the Ella Fitzgerald CD he had brought down – Louise’s favourite – sounded like a concert. The large room still held the faint smell of cigarette smoke in one of the chairs. Louise had joked the only way to know whether or not the invisible artist was in residence was the amount of old butts in the ashtray.
The bathroom had been tiled white with a silver middle-surround to add some definition but the bath-shower was the same, so was the oval mirror. David licked his left index finger and wrote ‘Why?’ onto the glass.
He wandered around the top flat, freshly painted a light green, a child’s bed located where they had squeezed into a double, better fitting chairs in the corners and a foldaway table. The kitchen had become a shower unit. The single shelf had been replaced by a bookcase and the television had gone. The books on the shelves were different but for one incongruous title which had remained: The Michelin Guide to Normandy. David had forgotten to bring the novel he was reading when they had the holiday and found himself flicking through the guide as Louise sat reading The Man Who Was Thursday. After her death, David had read the Chesterton three times, making notes about the themes of law, order, chaos and faith as if they might give him the answers he needed to move on and understand why his wife had gone. It was a stupid book. A pointless story, archaic and desperate for intellectual approbation. He burned his copy. What had Chesterton been able to elucidate for Louise that he couldn’t? Joseph Conrad did that sort of thing much better, he thought, watching the cover page blacken and fold into the flames.
He read her text messages and old emails too – most of them were work-related and used clinical language. She was researching failing pituitary glands. Nothing he knew about or was interested in. But he read anything he could find that reminded him of her voice, anything which might illuminate some reason for her disappearance – she hadn’t been found and might still be alive – and curb the white noise which gave him headaches so painful that no analgesic would ever provide a cure.
The landlady of the gastropub seemed to have taken an instant dislike to David. As he collected the keys he couldn’t help but glance at her hair. It was jet black and backcombed, and David imagined a coiffure explosion on her head each morning, followed by the application of at least one entire can of hairspray. Her eyes were heavily made-up and she jutted her chin in boredom after giving him the pub’s food serving hours.
‘She really doesn’t like you at all. Were you a bit haughty towards her? You can be a bit too “middle-class” sometimes. That hair is…it must take a long time to construct it every day,’ Louise had said during their second meal. They laughed, then sat in silence, eating for a while. Louise occasionally glanced out of the nearby window at the beach. The landlady joke had grown old quickly and David remembered feeling momentarily sad that he couldn’t immediately summon more witty and interesting conversation. He had wondered if he would become like his father, sitting with tension emanating from him like smoke, eating slowly, scowling at his plate, silent except for the odd grunt of recognition as he probably thought of all the other places he wanted to be.
David had begun to remember negative parts of their relationship a few months after Louise had disappeared. He felt drenched in guilt whenever a memory of an argument popped up. After a few glasses of vodka he would attempt to recreate the disagreements and work through the cumulative effects of those scenes. Could they hold the answers? Had Louise been so unhappy with him, silently frantic because she was carrying a part of him, that she had killed herself and the baby rather than spend the rest of her life dealing with him in some way or other? He remembered her describing him as ‘poisonous’ in one particularly horrible and prolonged row.
David had booked the cottage for two nights from the holiday home people. He didn’t want to stay in the building for any more time than he needed to. He got drunk on the first night and spent two hours writing questions on the oval mirror, finally giving in to exhaustion, pulling faces of anger, frustration and hellish agony at himself through the steamy words before falling onto the bed.
He ate in the gastropub, sitting where they had, ignoring any appearance from the landlady and trying to imagine Louise sitting opposite him again: What did she say next after that joke? Was she laughing? How did she seem to behave when I suggested that? Did I miss an obvious sign?
David held his photographs of the beach up against their current views. He couldn’t find any clues in the face of reality.
He walked back to the swannery at Abbotsbury. It was raining heavily and there weren’t many mute swans to see. His memory of their day was sunshine and smiles, even if it had, possibly, been a lie, it had felt good and true. Now everything looked grey, empty and completely sad.
He returned to the cottage, had a shower and nearly fell over when he glanced at the oval mirror as he reached for his towel – five letters had formed diagonally in the steam: n o w a v.
The letters were in block capitals and didn’t have any recognisable style. He had written so many words in the last couple of days and the letters might have been rendered by happenstance.
David put the Ella Fitzgerald CD on and turned the volume up. Her beatific voice filled the rooms. He sat on the bathroom floor and watched the steam disappear, the n o w a and v were still clear. That must mean the letters are fresh, David thought. He pulled the blind up and looked out of the window at the quiet beach.
He put his coat on and jogged to the place Louise had, apparently, left her shoes. David took his trainers off, carefully laid them side by side and tied the laces together.
He hadn’t noticed anyone else around but took a furtive glance to make certain he was alone. He began to walk into the water, but backed up to remove his socks, which he tucked into the trainers. He was waist-deep in before he wondered if this was a good idea. How far should he go before anything began to make sense? Would Louise appear like the Lady of the Lake? Or would a message in a bottle slip into his waving fingers? A bit further wouldn’t do any harm, he thought, he was already sodden.
David turned around to look at the beach, where had his trainers gone? He slipped backwards and his head went under a high wave. He closed his mouth and eyes and quickly shot upright, into the open, gasping. He was a lot further out than he had imagined. He couldn’t feel anything under his feet except heavy water and his limbs were so tired. He managed to take his coat off and watched it drift away. He could hear Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘The Very Thought of You’. He was sure he had turned the stereo off.
Daniel David Gothard has a CertHE from Ruskin College, Oxford, and a Master’s degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University. He has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals in the UK and the USA.
Gothard was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Writer of the Year Bursary in 2009. He is the author of five published novels and was nominated for the People’s Book Prize in 2014. He was the arts and culture correspondent for After Nyne Magazine.