I met him by the sea, at a place where the road ended with a turning circle and a neatly mown patch of grass and a sign that said NO BALL GAMES. It was to be the last of our meetings. I had everything I needed, everything I thought I was going to get, and had only come back to say goodbye.
I rang the doorbell of the holiday cottage but there had been no response. Only then, as I looked back across the grass and down towards the water, did I see him, standing on the coastal path with binoculars raised to his eyes. Beyond him the tide was low; an old ship’s boiler – the remains of a wreck – rested on the damp sands between seaweed covered rocks. Oystercatchers, gulls and cormorants. Out on the horizon a container ship. Otherwise just the expanse of water, waiting to be filled with thoughts and memories.
He heard me approach.
“Time to go home?” he said and I nodded. We had been talking for two days but it could have been weeks. My head was full and I had a long drive in front of me. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes once more. “I come here because it reminds me of home,” he said, answering a question I hadn’t asked. “Wherever I travel, whichever country or culture or city I feel lost in, the sea takes me back. I don’t believe in regret, nor nostalgia. Not really. But sometimes you have to allow yourself a moment. That is what the sea is for.” He changed tack. “Do you have everything you need?”
I did. I told him it had been a privilege to meet him and that I was honoured he had made so much time for me. Somehow his fluent but accented English made me stilted and formal in my own native tongue. And then I asked him the question I had been steeling myself to ask since before I had even arrived in this village by the sea.
“Why did you stop?”
He turned to look at me and then away. There was a pause. A long pause. The wind rattled the mast of a sailing boat parked in a driveway. Gulls and cormorants. Oystercatchers and the waves.
“From the beginning I was writing against something. You understand? My words were pushing back… against my parents, against school, and then against the system in which it all operated. From the very beginning… I always knew that this was where the words were coming from, and that this was the danger. My friends, those that left… especially after Biermann… you could tell that once they were gone, once they were on the other side, that they were lost. The words came but you could see they were casting around. They had escaped, and they had lost something along the way.”
“And you didn’t want that for yourself? That’s why you stayed?”
“For my life, perhaps it would have been better… And for Clara, I don’t know. I went back and forth. We spoke many times. And then… down it came. After the Berlin Wall, after reunification, it didn’t matter anymore. And I hadn’t moved and yet I found myself in the same place as them. I had lost what it was I was pushing against. So I came to England.”
“And you stopped.”
He began to walk back towards the house. Towards the little cottage facing the sea. I walked with him.
“For a while,” he said then, his voice so soft it was almost carried out to sea. “For a long while I didn’t write a thing. For even longer I wrote but put it in a drawer. I was only writing for myself. I underestimated the loss I would feel after the collapse of everything. I didn’t realise how much of my writing was tied to the way we lived. To that place. And once it was gone…”
“Look around,” he said. “There’s always something… there’s always something for your words to push against. Perhaps I haven’t been looking hard enough.”
I left him there on the path between the road and the rocks, still looking out to sea. The tide was coming in and my ferry was due to leave. As I drove the lanes, aiming for the dual carriageway that would take me south towards the ferry port to reverse the journey he had made all those years ago, I could see him back at the house, at the desk in the little box room, fingers hammering at the keys.
By Paul Scraton