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An extract from The Water’s Edge by Louise Tondeur (Review 2003)

 

My name is Rice. My parents were big on India and China. I’m lucky I’m not called Lapsang Souchong.

My name is Esther. My great-grandmother was into the Old Testament. Lucky I’m not called Nebuchadnezzar.

My name is Beatrice. I never knew my father. He went swimming when the waves were fierce and drowned when I was just a month old.

My name is Meredith. I am secretly in love with Beatrice all the way through, but you have to wait till near the end for the kiss.

My name is Persephone. I’m a mythological figure. Don’t forget.

Margaret and Grace are also in the book, but they die on pages 238 and 244 and don’t have time to introduce themselves. There are lots of other characters (you’ll meet them as we go along) but Rice and I are the only ones who are on the beach, telling the story.

Rice

My name is Rice. Autumn is coming, although it was warm today. The sea is calm and its white ruffles are edging their way up the sand and back. I’ve just driven down from London where I live. I came straight from the gallery because Meredith, Beatrice and Esther are organising a birthday party for me.

‘We’re organising a party,’ said Beatrice on the phone a few weeks ago.

‘It’s the opening of my exhibition the afternoon before, so I can’t drive down till the evening,’ I said, looking in my diary. (Now I am a famous photographer, I have to write my appointments down. )

‘Which one is this?’

‘Buildings and Beaches.’

‘Get here before eleven,’ said Beatrice. ‘I don’t like to disturb the guests.’
Some important people, whose names I have forgotten, were at the opening of my exhibition this afternoon, amongst the canap├ęs and the strawberries and champagne and orange juice. After smiling at them and shaking hands, I took some pictures of them all, so that I could think about it later. Through the viewfinder I noticed a tall woman in a thin green dress with blonde hair and a look in her eyes like something had happened to her that she had to remember before everything she said. I focused my lens on her, but she noticed and waved a hand to stop me.

‘I don’t like having my picture taken,’ she said. She was standing in front of a photo entitled The Photographer as a Child. It was a blurred picture of me, aged eight, with my mother. The bottom right-hand corner was brown, like someone had held a lit match underneath until it curled. My mother and me outside the Houses of Parliament, 4 May 1979, I had written for the caption. The day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. I remember my mother saying something about it being important that we went and stood outside the Houses of Parliament the day after the first woman Prime Minister was elected.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said to the woman in the green dress, ‘I should have asked.’
Next to the Houses of Parliament picture was one called Esther’s Birthday, May 1989. The strange woman in the green dress turned to look at it and said:

‘Just before the fire.’

‘Yes,’ I said, and then, ‘How did you know about that?’
But she didn’t answer, she was looking at a picture of Beatrice, taken by the thirteen-year-old me, a few weeks after I arrived there. I had called this one Beatrice in the Hotel Kitchen, 1984. I had looked at these pictures thousands of times before, but seeing them like this, through the eyes of the young woman, it was as if someone else had taken them. She took me by the hand and told me she had visited the Water’s Edge Hotel for over sixty years because it had been so convenient for her and that she thought the photos were lovely. I knew then that she must be a nutcase. She looked no more than eighteen.

‘This is just some stuff I took as a child,’ I said. ‘The main exhibition is through there.’
But she didn’t seem interested. She leant even closer and whispered in my ear:

‘I came up for your exhibition but I’ve got to go back tonight. Any chance of a lift?’ I looked from the picture of Beatrice to the woman standing next to me.

‘Go back where?’ I said, but then the manager of the gallery came up to introduce someone from. Channel Four who was making a documentary about young artists. They manoeuvred their way in front of the woman in the green dress and she folded back like she was drowning into the crowd of people waiting by the buffet for summer pudding, and I couldn’t see her any more.

‘Rice, I’d like you to meet…’ said the manager of the gallery.

‘Who was that?’ I said, looking over his shoulder.

‘What? I don’t know. No one important.’
At about five o’clock, I disentangled myself from the important people, grabbed my coat and a handful of cream cheese and chive sandwiches and went to find my car. I sat in the driver’s seat, eating the sandwiches and thinking about the strange woman and the man from Channel Four. Then I started up the engine. It was raining that drizzly kind of rain that you only get in London and I had my windscreen wipers on, and the orange streetlights were blinking into life in the twilight and making my eyes dance, so I almost didn’t see the woman in the green dress without a coat, trying to hitch a lift. She was standing in the middle of the road with her arms outstretched and cars were beeping their horns and whizzing past on either side of her. I stopped and she ran round to the passenger door and got in.

‘I thought you’d gone without me,’ she said, and smiled a smile that made her light up like she was immortal or something.

‘My name is Delphinia,’ she said, which I thought was an unusual name.

‘Where are you going?’ I said, hoping she wasn’t really mad.

‘The same place as you,’ she said, putting on her seat belt and switching on the radio. I needn’t have worried. She was a good passenger. On the way she entertained me with stories about freak weather conditions and then, when we had been going for about an hour and it was properly dark, she told me about the time she’d been chambermaid in a hotel.

‘I used to work at the Water’s Edge Hotel when I lived there,’ I said, hoping for an explanation of what she had said at the gallery, but she didn’t say anything.

‘Didn’t you mention that you’d stayed there?’ I pressed her for an answer but she seemed to have lost interest again and was looking out of the window, watching the wet night shapes darting by.

‘Maybe I misheard you,’ I said.

For the rest of the journey we were silent, but it wasn’t long before a sign by the roadside was welcoming us to Bournemouth.

‘Where do you want to be dropped? ‘

‘Anywhere on the beach is fine.’

‘OK,’ I said. It was an unusual request, seeing as it was still raining and it was nearly nine o’clock.

‘Anywhere?’

‘Yes,’ and she smiled at me. I drove down to the part of the beach I liked the most and she looked at me and smiled like I had read her mind and this was exactly the place she wanted to get out. I parked my car by the pier and walked on to the sand. It was quite dark when we got here. It’s good to breathe in the taste of salt and sand after being in London. I look up at the cliff, which runs in a shallow curve from the beach, yellow and green in the daytime, to where the old hotel used to be, and at the steps that lead from the beach to an empty space. If I half close my eyes I can see the dark outline of the old hotel standing like a proud ghost at the top of the cliff. The woman in the green dress is still sitting a little way along the sand looking out to sea, like she’s waiting for something to happen. I am still standing next to the pier, wondering whether to leave her there in the rain. I’m looking up at the space where the old hotel used to be and remembering. The story starts sixteen years ago in March 1984. I was thirteen.

Persephone

My name is Persephone, only every year I change my name to something different. Without me there would be no winter, no harvest, no bonfires, no falling leaves, no ice ponds, no death and rebirth. There is Rice, looking up at the ghost hotel, her feet on the sand. I’m sitting near the sea, on the hard brown sand, which is wet underneath and packed together tightly. I’m looking out at the green sea, which is calm tonight, and at the surface of the salt water, watching for any changes, because I’m waiting for the gates to Hades to open so that I can return to the centre of the earth and autumn can begin again. Then the leaves can turn to precious metal and crumble, fragile as burnt paper. Apples can turn red and green and fall into the grass that still smells of summer, and the wheat can be gathered with thick fertile heads.

I was glad I was able to hitch a lift with Rice to the beach, because I thought I was running late, although now I’m here nothing is happening, so I’ll have to wait. Rice is standing over there by the pier, wondering whether to leave me, and she’s thinking about 1984, the year she arrived at the old hotel. I think she’s very beautiful (like me). She’s got long dark hair in a plait down her back and she’s wearing a red dress because she’s, been at the opening of an exhibition of her photographs this afternoon. It’s her thirtieth birthday tomorrow, whereas I am as old as the earth.

Each year, I arrive on the beach at Bournemouth, dizzy after my journey from the underworld. Spring always arrives with me and the season begins with a flourish of dusters and the coming of crocuses. I stay in Bournemouth from March till September. In the autumn, I wait for a sign that marks the start – usually there’s a certain tree that turns first, or a dead sheep in a field – and then I return to Hades once more. What happens on the other side of the world where winter and summer are different? They have their own myths so they don’t need me. There are no ceremonies these days. Demeter, my mother, has given up mourning. She just makes sure it’s cold enough to keep the glove-makers happy.