Until Thes Sea Subsides
Until The Sea Subsides
I’d travelled to Aldeburgh full of purpose and conviction. My new novel would be my most successful yet. I had the foundations laid, the framework constructed and three monts would be sufficient for me to complete my first draft.
Except that three months later I hadn’t progressed beyond the first chapter. Call it writer’s block if you like, but I wasn’t short of ideas – I had too many of them and I couldn’t decide the best direction for my plot or my characters.
I was living in the heart of tranquility and yet I needed something to stop my mind spinning themes I didn’t require.
So I switched my computer to standby and gazed out at the sea. It seemed little more than a grey mist amidst the hail rattling the panes. The spring had been unusually stormy but I wasn’t inhibited by the conditions in the least. I really needed a distraction to allow my strangely lively mind to settle. I donned an anorak and headed into the elements, bound for the Aldeburgh bookshop.
I’d no idea what I was looking for until my eyes captured a tatty, yellowing book laying flat, looking neglected in an alcove.
It was the cover that drew my attention, although badly faded it pictured a fishing village overwhelmed by an onrushing tide.
Vessles lay submerged with only their masts above the water, debris riding on the tide while a woman in black stood alone on the cliff, looking down on the scene, her long hair fanned by the wind. It was a side view, her face was hidden but nonetheless I was intrigued enough to examine the pages. “Until The Sea Subsides,” the cover read. I flipped through it tentatively fearing it might disintegrate, yet despite its age it was surprisingly sturdy and intact.
And there is a strength in the woman on the cover; she could have been grieving, it seems she is, but her posture seemed to exude unusual power. Perhaps this observation enticed me, perhaps not.
But I took the book to the counter and saw the shopkeeper frown, ‘Are you sure you found this here?’
I thought what a stupid question, why else would I have handed it to him? ‘Yes,’ I nodded.
‘How strange,’ he continued, examining it as though it were a novelty. ‘No price, no stamp – where did you find it?’
I pointed to the corner alcove, becoming irritated now. He must have noticed, ‘It’s rather old but frankly wouldn’t have interested me, I can’t understand why we took it. Take it free of charge my friend.’ He slipped it into a bag and prepared for his next customer. I could tell he wasn’t impressed with my taste but taste is down to the individual. I didn’t give a damn about that.
I took it home, brewed some tea and began to read; the story soon drew me in. It was written by someone called Francesca Read, but with some historical context because around the turn of the century the seas encroached here, destroying a village, burying it beneath salt and slime.
Antonia, the heroine had not been local, she was well-bred and from Suffolk’s rural gentry. But she was the black sheep of the family, an untamed spirit, a twenty year old with a zest for life. She’d been horse riding the ridges between the marshes when she’d almost decapitated Sam Tye as he emerged through some rushes carrying his haul of fish.
Sam had been indignant, had shouted and swore at Antonia whereby she leapt from her horse and confronted him.
Antonia was six feet tall and athletic. My own books feature powerful women so I was hooked – but not so hooked that I wasn’t aware of the aroma which had infiltrated the room – a strong smell of seaweed some might deem refreshing but not me – not in my living room. I checked the window, the catch was fully secured, the rain still hammering relentlessly on the pane. So where had it derived? It could only come from the sea of course, the smell probably driven by the wind I reluctantly concluded, returning to my book. Except that the smell was stronger as I picked it up. I put my nose to the page I was reading, seaweed definitely, but that was impossible, surely, unless of course a previous reader had infected it with the stuff. So then, that had to be the reason, though what strange habits some people had.
I continued with the story, Sam Tye was a young six footer himself and in no mood to be lectured to by a woman, particularly an upper crust one, and woman needed to be taught lessons when they acted like that – put in their place, that was the way of things.
Lashing out he’d used his tackle as a weapon, but she’d caught on to it, snapped it in half and threw it back at him. He’d lunged at her but she’d forced his arms down to his sides and then watched as he became redder and redder – then she’d laughed and let go.
You’ll have to grow up young man if you want to fight me, build yourself some muscles, you look a little fragile.’
‘He’d frowned, furious and disbelieving, but she’d smiled in the face of his anger. ‘Oh come on now, don’t take it so badly, I was simply teaching you a lesson – you know you were so funny, I thought you were going to boil.’
The rod had been Sam’s stoutest, he picked it up and examined it, then looked into her dark eyes. ‘God, you must be strong,’ he grudgingly mumbled.
She’d returned his gaze, still with a smile. He was young and handsome with his unruly dark hair and broody eyes; he had a certain appeal. ‘Quite strong, yes. Tell me, are there any more lessons I can teach you?’
Sam nodded vigorously, ‘Aye,’ he said, forcing his eyes off of her, you can teach me to ride your horse – fast, like you do.’ He’d never met anyone like her and in a short time he’d told her so.
Antonia stayed longer than she’d intended, three years longer during which time she’d taught Sam to ride, learned how to fish; she could still fight him to a standstill though he was learning to combat her power. And she’d grown to love him and he loved her.
But then came the storm and I sensed what was going to happen – well, the cover told its own story.
Antonia had been riding when she heard the news – two miles from where the sea had broken through the village’s meagre defences. Many had been washed away, and Sam was missing.
Antonia had ridden with fury, had dived into the waters herself and saved three drowning men, and was searching for her Sam…
I’d been turning the pages so avidly I hadn’t realised I was running out of them. I hadn’t noticed how damp my hands had become – not until I flipped the final leaf in the book and realised there was no ending that pages were missing. I felt cheated of an ending, had this beautiful strong woman saved him or not? and why were my hands damp. In fact the whole book was wet, but how had it happened?
Puzzled, I put it down. Okay so I was a writer, my imagination had spiralled out of control. I needed a walk to clear my head.
It was still raining as I walked Cragg Path before joining Crabbe Street. I bent into the wind, gazed over at an old pub I sometimes used. I decided to call in, needing a pint after what I’d just experienced, There was a brewery dray outside and I was surprised to find a woman unloading it.
She probably hadn’t seen me as I’d come from behind the truck, because as she drew a barrel down she turned and collided with me. She was tall and well built, and the barrel she was holding caught me in the stomach, making me stumble.
‘Oh I am sorry, how clumsy of me – new at this I’m afraid.’ She raised the barrel up so she could carry it over me. I was quite impressed by her strength but even so…’
‘Oh, no problem – listen, can I help with that?’
She smiled, ‘It’s okay, she said, ‘I’m pretty strong.’
‘Yes,’ I said tongue in cheek, as she started down the steps, ‘I can see that.’
She turned, transferring the barrel to her shoulder, ‘Then why did you ask?’
‘Politeness,’ I said, embarrassed.
‘That’s nice.’ She must have seen my colour, ‘Look, come in won’t you and have a drink.’
She came up from the cellar and served me herself, very tall like I say; I’m a little over six foot and she could look me straight in the eye. She looked me up and down while she was pulling the pint, a little too closely I thought. ‘I’ll be finished in a mo, I’ll come over and join you if I may…’ the pub was full of niches and she pointed into one. ‘We can have a quiet chat there.’
I felt like saying, What kind of chat, I don’t even know you, but she had a full, attractive face and long dark hair, and beneath the tight yellow tee shirt and blue jeans what had to be the figure of the century. I wasn’t going to say no. Oddly I thought I’d seen that face somewhere before.
‘Right you are…’
‘It’s okay, this one’s on me.’ She turned away and cashed some change. I noticed how straight and broad her back was. I’d rarely seen such an example of how to be muscular yet retain a cracking figure.
I took the table she’d indicated and it wasn’t long before she came across with a business-like swing of her arms. ‘Whew, glad the day’s over with,’ she said rifling her long hair. ‘I’m whacked.’
I smiled, possibly to off-lay the fact that I found her hugely impressive, and she didn’t look a bit “whacked.”
‘Must be lifting those barrels,’ I said.
There was a flash of white teeth as she laughed. ‘That was nothing, you should see me when I really get going.’ Then suddenly her dark eyes became intense, bore into me, ‘So – what are you doing here?’
I couldn’t believe how forward this woman was, she seemed to have no inhibitions at all. I was reticent at first, novelists tend not to be the most eager of speakers but she seemed so interested I found myself confiding in her. ‘Problem is,’ I said once I’d admitted my profession, ‘the outline of the novel seemed so clear at first, there shouldn’t have been a problem, but my mind’s been unusually lively and I haven’t been able to determine a central theme.’
‘Oh dear,’ she said, her gaze still intense, ‘what you needed was a distraction.’
‘Funny you should say that; how did you guess?’
‘It wasn’t a guess.’
There was something in the way she’d said that which sent my nerve ends twitching. I didn’t know this woman and yet…’
‘Yes, well I went to the bookshop and found this curious book. You might think I’m nuts but the pages seemed alive – when I got it from the shop it was just a musty faded old book – and when I got home and started turning the pages they smelled of seaweed, and then they became wet of their own accord. And the worst thing of all was that the end pages were missing, I could have sworn the book was intact.’ I raised my hands in the air, exasperated, but if she thought I was bonkers she didn’t show it.
‘Oh my - what an experience – what was the book called?
I shook my head, wishing I’d never said anything though I was surprised how easily it had slipped out. ‘It doesn’t matter; I’m not normally like this.’
‘It does matter,’ she said, her voice solemn now and laced with deep authority.
I sighed, ‘Until the sea subsides.’
‘Oh yes,’ she nodded. I got the impression it had been the answer she had expected.
‘I know that book so well.’
I was amazed. ‘You do?’
‘I wrote it.’
I was gob –smacked, this was absurd. ‘You can’t have. You seem in your twenties, it must have been written before you were born.’
‘In a manner of speaking.’ She leaned forward, took my hands between hers and pressed. I watched as the muscles in her arms stood out, she saw me look and smiled, ‘All those barrels, eh? Sometimes, Sam, things happen that are beyond our ability to comprehend…’
I shook my head disbelieving this, and for an instant my mind had flashed back to the woman on the cliff, the powerful aura about her I’d felt then, I was feeling again now. ‘Look I’m sorry, I don’t know your name and I’m not Sam –
She squeezed my hand, ‘Francesca Read might be the name on the book but my real name is Antonia – Antonia Read and oh yes, you’re Sam alright.’ She looked wistfully through the window for a second where the rain seemed finally to have stopped. I should have been alarmed by what was happening but I felt strangely warm and excited.
When she returned her gaze her eyes were moist. ‘Let’s take a walk Sam, let me help you remember. I know you call yourselg Guy, but why do you think you really came here? Why do you think your mind is too lively to finish your novel? It’s because you’ve another ending to help me finish – and why do you think your books feature powerful women, take a look at me, Sam – what do you see?’
The woman on the cliff, I thought. But no way, I must be losing my mind.
‘I’m sorry.’ I sighed, but my heart was banging the big bass drum, ‘I don’t believe any of this.’
‘Oh you will, Sam. You will.’
Sometimes the strangest things happen. I took that walk along the shore south of Aldeburgh, towards the point where the village of Slaughden not so long ago lay, but the coastline had changed. Unfamiliar and yet hauntingly familiar. A tall woman riding hard, almost into my path as I emerged from the rushes. I am angry, she dismounts, we fight, it is brief. She is strong, so strong, but she is beautiful.
I look at her now, she is smiling as she smiled then; her hand is locked in mine. I am aware of her height, her grace and power. Even if I could do so I have no desire to remove my hand from hers. Through some strange hole in the wall of time she has come back for me, found me – and I her.
I look into her dark eyes, eyes that can smile as warmly as her mouth, and that warmth floods through me – we’ve one more page to write….