Hagstones – Stories from Unnamed Places No.05

Ever since they discovered the town, J. had liked to walk on the beach. He would cross the sands from the pier to sit on the rocks and watch the fishermen, or to press on, following the sweep of the bay round to the north, where the sands gave way to pebbles and stones and the forest came down to meet them, and where it was possible to search for amber and the hagstones his wife collected. He came for peace and quiet, for ideas and inspiration, but it rarely came. There was no poetry, he knew, in the white cliffs and the flapping sails of the boats in the harbour. That was for the cards in the bookshop by the pier, once printed on cheap, flimsy cardboard. Nowadays they were more substantial, but the trite verses remained the same. No, there was no value in that scene, except for the freedom he had once felt, down on the rocks.

It was on the beach that it began. Not in the city, where he might have thought the danger would be, but there, at his sanctuary, tucked away by the promontory where the trees of the forest circled around in a dense, shadowy embrace. Had the man been waiting for him? It was hard to remember, hard to piece it all together. That first time.

The sea was calm, that much remained clear all those years later. The man had known him, known his name. He addressed him at the top of the pebble beach beyond the sands, where it was possible to sit on the old concrete slabs of long-abandoned flood defences. The first thing J. noticed was the suit. Cheap polyester, but still more expensive than anything in the ordinary shops. It gave him away, and made J. defensive from the beginning. In contrast, the man remained calm throughout, even when J. had met the softly delivered request, the whole point of the conversation, with an angry shout. The man had stayed still when J. stalked away, at ease with his hands in his pockets. When J. reached the path up from the beach onto the promenade, he looked back and the man was still standing there, watching him go, confident that there was no need to chase.

At home J. told his wife what had happened, and her response surprised him. It could be useful, she had said, carefully. You could help him. Not much, of course. Nothing important. But just enough… Just enough to make things… easier.

It was as if she had known the man would back, a few days later, waiting on the beach. He was sitting on one of the concrete slabs, turning a small stone over in his hand. And so it began, and so she proved to be right. A larger apartment became available. The waiting list for a car evaporated. A collection of stories he had written,  long blocked by the publishers on account of a mysterious paper shortage, was finally released. Most surprising of all was he was granted a visa to travel, to give readings at festivals and to attend a conference in the north.

It was that last trip that he remembered most. Before he went, J. had met the man down on the beach one last time. The visa had been approved, the man said, his voice as gentle as it had always been. J. asked about his wife. This time he had also asked for his wife. He sensed that both the man and J. himself knew what this meant. The man nodded. Farewell, then.

Once they were there, out of the country, his wife surprised him again. On the last evening, over coffee and chocolate cake, he brought up the prospect of staying put. Of not going back. His wife sighed and ordered another glass of wine, before painting a picture of their life in exile. A poky apartment. No status. A token job. What would we have there? Who will read your work? Who will you even be? It was a point, he conceded. At the end of the glass of wine they were in agreement. They would catch the plane home.

After dinner they went for a walk. Down to the waterfront, the way out to open waters blocked by a hundred islands.They did not talk any more about the decision. Later, he could not remember what it was they talked about. They found a bar and he had a beer. She smoked cigarettes and watched him drink. When the bartender heard them talking in their own language, he asked them if they had heard the news. It was only when they got back to the hotel, that the details became clear.

Revolution. They had decided to return to a country that, by the time the plane touched down, no longer existed in the way it had just a few days before. In the beginning it was okay. He’d been a dissident poet. He had always been on the right side. There was a spike in sales and the offer of a university post. In term-time they lived in the city, and in the holidays they returned to their old apartment in the town by the sea. There, things were changing as well. New hotels and guesthouses filled the gaps along the seafront. New shops and restaurants along the pedestrianised street running down to the pier. The concrete slabs were removed and the dunes were fenced off. When J. went down to the beach, there were more people there, lounging on the sands or stepping carefully across the pebbles, searching with poles for amber or the small stones with neat little holes.

And then, one day, when they were up on the coast there was a knock on the door. An old friend. They walked together, down on the beach. The sea was not calm that day. There had been a storm the night before, and it remained unsettled, crashing against the rocks at the promontory and the legs of the pier, leading out from the beach. Against the wind, they talked and his friend told him what he knew. About the man and the meetings. About the car and the apartment, and the trips overseas. He knew and soon others would too. He wanted to give his old friend fair warning of what was about to come, even though he wasn’t really sure if J. deserved it.

They never returned to the city. The town by the sea continued to change, but their small apartment remained the same. To top up their pensions, J. worked selling lottery tickets at the zoo two towns over. His wife worked summer shifts in the bakery. She continued to search the shoreline for hagstones with which to decorate the mantelpiece, but it seemed as if nowadays there were less to be found. J. rarely went with her, preferring to walk on the beach alone. Sometimes he stood where the concrete slabs had once rested, so solid and sure, as if they would always be there. He would look out across the water and try to picture the sea as it had been in those other times. The calm and the storm. Both brought their dangers, and  for J., as he stood there, he knew that there was no longer any sanctuary to be found on that beach. Not on the sands and not among the stones. Not anymore.

Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig

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