The Tower by Angelita Bradney
The black tower appeared in the garden overnight.
I had stumbled out of bed to to make the tea, my seventy-odd years weighing heavy as I shuffled across the kitchen. Shreds of dark dreams clung to me; they had been getting worse, night by night. Filling the kettle, I glanced at the window, expecting to see the sundial and the magnolia tree, maybe birds pecking at the food I'd put out the night before. But instead there was the tower. Shock jolted me awake. I dropped the kettle and splashed water over my dressing gown.
“Eric!” My voice was high-pitched, wavery, “What's that in the garden?”
I peered outside at the thing, my heart thudding. Wooden, black as charcoal, with a pitched roof, like something belonging to a witch in a fairy tale. It was higher than three people standing on each others' shoulders, with three doors with iron hinges, one on top of the other. There were no windows. Could it have been blown in by a hurricane? But the weather had been fine. I heard a faint roaring in my ears, rising and falling.
I turned away as quickly as my joints would allow. I grabbed some mugs from the cupboard, banging them on the counter like I was going to build a wall. I snatched the tea caddy from the shelf, took two deep, shuddering breaths, inhaled the smoky scent of the leaves. The familiar smell steadied me. I measured two spoons into the pot and prepared the tray, my back resolutely to the window.
I went through with the tea and Eric was snoring, mouth open. His gray hair stuck out in all directions. I got back into bed and clutched my mug like a talisman. The steam rose like a live thing between my blue-veined hands, skin like paper.
When we went in for breakfast I kept silent, waited to see what Eric would do. I busied myself with the marmalade as he stared out of the window. After a long while he turned to the table humming with satisfaction. “Garden looks nice.”
“What?” I dropped the spoon with a clatter.
“Are you all right love? You're white as a sheet!”
“What about that thing?” I said. “Out there.”
“What thing? The foxes haven't been at it again, have they?”
With an effort, I stood up, stared at the tower filling my vision with its blackness. Beside me, Eric was oblivious.
“It's nothing,” I said.
Not long afterward, Eric went out for the newspaper. I stood alone by the back door, knees shaking. Then I took a deep breath and stepped outside. A sudden breeze pulled me forward, unusual in our sheltered spot. I licked my lips, they tasted of salt. I took a step towards the tower, then another. There was an explosion of birdsong, and … was that the cry of gulls? Two more steps and I was up close. I touched the rough planks with my fingertips. I smelled tar and cedar wood, and the flat aroma of fish, freshly caught. Heard the crunch of feet on pebbles – a young girl's tread. I knew this hut.
1961. A seaside town in England. Her feet crunch on the pebbles as she picks her way over the shingle. At her waist, her blouse is tucked tight as the wrapping on a birthday present. The breeze blows her hair off her neck and raises a glow in her cheeks. She passes the pier ballroom where they are putting up posters about the next dance. Up ahead is the Stade, the name of the shingle beach where the fishermen sell their catch. Tall, dark towers stand like a group of giants watching the sea. She imagines the scene earlier that morning, at sunrise: the men hauling laden vessels over the stones, droplets of water spraying like diamonds. Since she started her job in the restaurant, going to buy the fish has been her favorite task.
She spies him from afar; he's serving a customer, but she knows he's seen her. She tries to walk nonchalantly but her heart has started pounding; her limbs jerk, puppet-like, to its beat.
“Hello Margaret,” he says, smiling. “What'll it be today?”
“Six pounds of Dover sole, ten pounds of cod, got any crab?” Slow down, she tells herself.
He leans forward, his strong hands grasping the fish from the ice.
“No crab left, sorry.” A lock of dark hair falls over his eyes.
“All right.” The chef won't be pleased.
There is a pause, while he weighs the fish, wraps it, makes a note of the price. Looks round. “How about tonight?”
She nods, quickly, and takes the parcel. She glances up at him; the dimple at the side of his mouth is showing. That tiny indentation had resulted in many a forgotten order in the restaurant over the past few weeks.
They meet again when dark has fallen, and go to a pub in the old town. This is only the third time. Previously they went to a tea room, full of holidaying families with childrendripping ice cream cones. This feels different. He holds the door open and she plunges into clamor and smoke. Men are crowded noisily around the bar; all she can see is their backs, worn shirts stretched over rounded shoulders. At the tables there are women clutching handbags and sipping drinks; she wonders how they dare come alone, then realizes they're with the men at the bar. She sits and tries to look like she has done this before. It's a relief when he joins her. She's not used to drinking, so he's chosen – a Martini. She sips while he talks. He tells her that as a boy, he waited on the beach for the fishermen to return so he could help unload and sell the catch. “Now I have my own boat,” he says. She admires him for being in charge of his fate. For her it's waiting on tables, for now.
The pub is getting busy. They have more drinks. The voices around the room get louder and louder; the din pulls her this way and that. Lights wink on the brass that is everywhere. He says something, she doesn't quite catch what. He rises, points to her coat. As they stumble to the door he puts a steady arm around her shoulder, and she is glad of it.
The cool air is a relief. He walks her back along the seafront, but he mustn't come all the way home. Her father has made it clear what he would do if she went out with a man. They wander over the shingle, passing the tall, towering sheds standing guard in the darkness. He tells how they were built many years ago to protect the fishermen's equipment - rope woven from hemp, cotton nets, and sails that would rot in the rain. The fishermen weren't allowed to build out, so they built upwards. Now they have modern materials, there's no need to store ropes and nets inside. “So what's in them now?” she asks.
The next time he produces a key. It opens the door of the tower next to where he sells his fish. Inside there is the soft smell of wood and tar. The light is enough to make out an old bicycle and a pile of fishing floats in a tangle of nylon. A ladder runs along one wall through a trapdoor that leads to the next floor. She feels light-headed, her heart is thumping. He takes her by the hand and places her palm on the cold rungs. She climbs; he's behind her, his presence like a volcano under the sea. On the next floor there is an old blanket, and before she has time to wonder they are lying on it. His mouth presses down on hers, his chin is rough, the boards are hard under her back. He tastes of salt. The sound of the waves outside passes through the wood and into her bones. She throws her head back and wonders if she might drown.
Summer passes. The holiday crowds flow along the front. Flower gardens bloom, bands play, the sea dazzles. Evenings are balmy. Whenever she can she ends her shifts early, runs to meet him at the hut. There is nowhere else she'd rather be than next to him in the darkness, listening to music from the pier and the late-night laughter of revelers. He tells her about night fishing, when the water glows with phosphorous and the sky splinters with shooting stars. On those nights, he says, you believe in mermaids, almost catch glimpses of their white bodies passing under the hull of the boat.
The days shorten. She wonders when they can stop being so secretive. But he is starting to seem preoccupied. Sometimes she asks a question and he doesn't answer. She says she loves him and his eyes don't meet hers. Cold creeps into the hut through the knots in the wood and the gaps between the planks, slides its fingers over her bare skin.
He says, “Next week, my wife is coming back.”
Her vision blurs with shock. She can't have heard right.
He continues in a monotone. He has been married for three years. His wife has been away for her health. He stayed behind with the boat, they couldn't afford to lose the income.
“So you see, we have to stop this now,” he says.
She tries to speak but it feels like a crab claw is wedged in her throat. She gathers up her things, it is only when she is outside the hut that the tears come. The wind shoves its fists in her eyes; she can blame that for the redness when she gets home.
She is the rejected catch, thrown back into the water for the gulls to tear at. She hates herself for being taken in, for being easy. She quits her job, pleading illness. She lies in bed all day while the waves grind and gnash, over and over, in her mind.
One morning, in desperation, she goes to the Stade again. He is at his stall next to the tower. There is a woman with him. She has straw-colored hair and a round, attractive face. The husband and wife team work efficiently together, she takes the money, he guts the fish, over and over. Business is good. He doesn't look up the whole time she is watching. Eventually, she walks away.
A few days later a cousin telephones. She runs a dress shop in London's Chelsea district. She tells her about life and fashions in the capital; a new design of skirt – very short. A girl is needed to help in the shop this summer, would she be interested? Hearing the question, she smiles - the first time in several weeks. When she puts down the phone she feels calm at last.
Walking out the next day, she catches the odor of fresh fish and its pungency grips her guts like she has not known before. She stops and holds a wall for support, she has an unbelievable desire to vomit. Soon she can't stand the smell of any food; the faintest whiff from the kitchen makes her retch. Hit by lethargy infused with panic, she takes to her bed again. After two weeks her mother drags her to the doctor. He confirms her worst fear. Her mother bursts into tears. The doctor looks at her, expressionless. “Try falling down the stairs,” he says.
Her mother tells her father. He enters her room like a hurricane at sea. “Who is he?” She doesn't dare keep silent. He extracts her story, bit by bit, raises his fist when she refuses to answer. When he has heard enough, he leaves the house, the door slamming like an oar brought down on flesh. He is back after dark, from her bed she hears her parents speak in low voices. What has he done? She knows better not to go down and ask.
That night she dreams she is in a boat. Beside her someone is gutting fish, she hears the thwack of the knife, dark entrails fall by her feet. She pulls a net out of the black water, and there, entangled in the threads, is a pale, wrinkled thing. As she leans over it opens its eyes. In them she sees the inky sky, and the full moon.
Her London trip is postponed. Her stomach swells like the tide rising. She is not allowed to leave the house for fear of revealing her condition. The baby will be adopted; no other options are discussed.
A woman comes to explain the process. Her job title is Moral Welfare Worker. She says, “Let's hope it's a girl. They're much easier to find homes for.” Her lipstick has bled into the fine wrinkles around her mouth. “Sign here, Margaret. You're doing the best for the child.”
What about him, she wants to ask.
“He ought to know.” she says out loud. No one hears. The woman has left with her forms. She lies on her side, feeling the baby kick and turn while her tears slowly soak the cushion she is lying on.
She thought she would never forget the anguish of the last few months, but the birth is much, much worse. She is pushed into the depths of agony. Pain drives through her core, squeezes all notion of herself away. A girl is born, with eyes the color of the sea.
Her baby is a creature from another world, a nymph from the deep ocean, spoken of in fishermen's tales with hushed voices and wonder. Her fingernails are like tiny seashells, her cry that of distant birds wheeling on the breeze. She, herself, feels strangely absent. She cannot call herself a mother. She has consigned these days to oblivion with the strokes of her pen on the adoption forms.
Soon they will take the baby away. She has not been told when. She thinks it is likely that she will be sent on some errand, to return to a silent house, the cot empty as a crater. Maybe tomorrow. She brushes the baby’s head with her lips. She cannot keep her. But it would be wrong to let them have her. She imagines this tiny mermaid in their hands, each day the shine going out of her eyes, her skin drying up and turning to dust. The baby belongs here, with the sea. At the window the wind whispers conspiratorially. Further away the ocean tosses and turns, throws itself on the shingle where the fishermen launch their boats under the starlit sky.
Shortly before dawn she rises, packs some clothes and money. She weeps noiselessly as she wraps the baby, then quietly, one handed, lets herself out. Once the salt air hits her there is no going back. It feels like a lifetime since she has walked this route. The pebbles give way under her feet, the crunch of each tread reminding her of happier days. On her right the sea inhales, exhales; her own breath is white in the brightening air. The towers loom, waiting silently. The horizon is a thread of gold. Soon the fishermen will return. She hurries, reaches his tower. The side away from the sea is sheltered. She bends, scoops out a hollow in the shingle and places the sleeping baby down, wrapped in her layers of white wool. She will be safe until he finds her. She stops to commit to memory the long lashes, the tiny nose, the thin veins under transparent skin. The sea roars in her ears, her resolve is breaking. She forces herself to stand, turn, stumble away. She will catch the first train to London. The gulls cry with high-pitched voices, like someone in pain. Then she realizes the sounds are coming from her.
“Margaret, Margaret, Margaret! Can you hear me?”
Colors blurred past – turquoise, gray – the depths of the sea. White like foam, or bleached pebbles. Pale sunlight, then the green of our suburban lawn.
Eric was there, peering at me with anxious eyes.
“Come on Margaret, come inside.”
I let him lead me, sit me down. It was only when I had a cup of tea in my hand that I could speak. Whisper. “Her birthday... around now.”
“Who?” he asked.
I shook my head, lips tightly closed. The tower hovered darkly at the edge of my vision. Something was hammering inside me, I couldn't hold it back any more.
I told him.
It took a long time. Everything I had held back over the decades poured out. My parents disowning me. The wall of silence when I tried to find out what had happened. The lost years when alcohol was all that could bury the pain. The failed relationships. Eric listened, head bowed, didn't try to interrupt when I broke down and wept.
“I'm not the person you thought I was,” I said.
He said, “We could try and find her.”
Now every day, when I get up, I look for the tower. It is as familiar as the morning tea I cradle in my hands. A new constant in my life, along with the waiting for news; jumping whenever the phone rings or the letterbox rattles. Eric has been a rock. He helped me contact adoption charities and family organizations. We have filled in forms, sent money. I don't know how long the search will take. It may well be longer than the years I have left in me. But for now the dark dreams have gone.
I look out into the cold morning air. The tower stands, steadfast, while the sun rises and the sky turns translucent as the sea.
© Angelita Bradney, 2015
Angelita Bradney’s short stories have been published online and shortlisted in several competitions, including this year's Fish International Short Story Prize. She lives in London, in a house overlooked by a large walnut tree and lots of squirrels.
The Tower was read by Lauren Clark on 7th October 2015 for Crimes & Misdemeanors