The dusk had reached a late, frosted luminosity, as yet too bright to submit to the superiority of the car’s headlights. A red line topped the western hills where the sun had been, a thin amber voile that misted from it faded upwards into deep blue. Above the driver’s head the vault of sky he could not see was probably dark by now. There were probably stars. Was there a moon tonight? He could not remember.
Ten more miles.
Davy knew his way too well; far, far too well. He knew the last bend that parted the black mass of woodland like a curtain. Beyond, furniture of high buildings and a carpet of town lights, their crazed lines marching across one another to the blinking, blackening sea; and the sea quiescent beyond them, its patience infinite, waiting. Far-off, a lighthouse thrust a spoke of brightness across the sky – a slowly rotating lance, its beam questing but finding nothing – nothing but clouds, white and ghostly, mildly put out at its disturbance of their privacy.
Oncoming cars, vans, lorries, flared past, a ceaseless procession; some blinding, some not. There would be a turning soon. A meeting of roads.
And a decision.
An hour ago he had driven from the airport knowing that he must arrive at this place, and now it was before him he could not suppress the eagerness in his heart. Beneath a bridge the motorway; a glowing train of busy traffic beckoning, a magic carpet ride to hearts that welcomed him, love it was his place to accept. Turn here, and in only a few hours his car wheels would crush the gravel of that familiar drive. Love, food and rest: he need only make that turn.
As if other arms controlled the wheel – as if neither car nor mind were truly his – he did not turn. The bridge guided him instead above the motorway, towards the town.
He knew his way here, too. The wide main street, the sea road, San Bernardo Towers, the Cherrington Hotel standing gaunt upon its own headland, a little avenue with its attendant lines of beech trees, and in a line of cream-washed villas a cream-washed villa with a curving drive. A door flung wide, arms flung wide.
“Davy! Davy you darling! What a surprise! How wonderful to see you! My lord you look different, you do! Have you grown?”
Belle, big and laughing, her ursine hug so warm and sincere: how often had she greeted him with these same glad tears? Had he eaten, had he been away? “There was one of those news feed things about you. Were you really in Hollywood? You’re quite the star, aren’t you? You’ll stay for supper. You will.”
“Thank you. I was on my way home. I just had to say hello, to remind you I was still alive. I’m not really a star, you know. Far from it.” He added deferentially.
“But you’ll stay for supper?”
Through the front door with its Deco geometry, into the hall and familiar glow. Parquet honey floor, walls half panelled in oak, half painted in Buckingham cream; stairs to a higher floor. Davy raised his eyes. “Do you still let the room?”
“You know, I think you were my last tenant! It’s just a store-room now. We inherited some money when Robert died. I’m quite comfortable these days. Do you want to see it?”
HIs fingers played upon the smooth polish of the banister rail. “No. I’ll rest content with the memory. Look, I mustn’t keep you….”
“Don’t be silly! I have a pasta already prepared, and it’s Friday night, you know? Una and Ros will be here any minute, I should think.”
Ah, he thought. “You still have your Friday nights, then?”
He had expected, or hoped it would be so. That was why he was here, was it not? Or why he dreaded to be here?
The living room was still the same – chintz and comfort. They ate pasta on their laps, talked with their mouths full. Belle was effusive. “You’ve changed so much, you know! Filled out – and I don’t mean that unkindly. I almost didn’t recognise you, Davy.”
“I was a student when I was here. Students are always thin.”
The lean years. The hours of practice in that little upstairs room. The drama school with its impassioned principal, the desperate gathering of hopeless aspirants hanging on her every epigrammatic jewel. How would he ever have risen from such beginnings were it not for Belinda’s father: his contacts, his coaching? It was often said of Davy’s profession that success was thirty percent talent, seventy percent luck. Luck had come in the form of a party one Islington night, and the beguiling black eyes of Belinda. Luck was a promise – she would be playing in her father’s production at the Haymarket and Davy would get the juvenile lead. Then another promise. They would marry in the spring. Was the second conditional upon the first?
Sated, Davy was only vaguely aware of the doorbell’s call. Perhaps he was thinking of Belinda and how soon he would be with her. Just two hours away she would be waiting, expecting him. He would be late, and he knew the cruelty of this wilful neglect. He needed to be cruel.
“You remember Davy, don’t you?” Belle was urging Una forward, her hand in the small of the petite German frau’s back. Davy smiled. Yes, they had met once or twice. Una; shy, quiet, burbled acknowledgement. “And Ros? You remember Davy?”
He smiled as a reflex. He smiled to cover his pain, seeing his hurting mirrored in Rosalind’s eyes – a flicker, no more. But her response was steady. “It’s been a long time.” She said.
“How are you?”
“Oh, quite well.”
Belle’s smiling eyes flitted from Rosalind to Davy; as eyes might when following verbal combat. Belle would have gossip to share later.
“Let’s have drinks.” She suggested.
It was an evening of tales, of questions gently rebuffed, impertinences humorously countered, reminiscence and reflection. Trivial Pursuit around Belle’s rosewood table and red wine to sip away the hours. Davy, whose presence the older women found exotic, needed to do little to fulfil expectations other than be there, yet there was a wire about him, a tautness they might not expect. Rosalind was quiet, almost withdrawn. She spoke rarely. Davy’s eyes kept finding her. She avoided their gaze, although she could not mistake their meaning.
Time slipped by. Twice Davy’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, twice he ignored it. The women’s conversation washed around him, buoyed him up on its eddies and swirls, yet failed to disguise Rosalind’s icy silence.
The clock in the hall struck ten. “I should go.” Rosalind said. “I have to start early tomorrow. I work Saturdays now, you know.”
Davy affected a sigh. “Me too. I promised I would be in Dorchester long before this.”
Belle was genuinely alarmed. “Davy, you can’t! You’ve been drinking, my dear.”
“Only a little. I’ll take a turn on the Esplanade first, to freshen up. Then I’ll come back for the car. I won’t disturb you.”
“You dear boy! I’ve found you, and all at once I’m losing you again!”
“I found you, remember? And I will again. Thank you for tonight, Belle.”
The villa released Rosalind, and Davy beside her, from its grasp. A chill October breeze came off the sea.
“I thought I might take a stroll along the Undercliff.” Davy said.
“You know I go home that way.” Rosalind said.
“Let’s walk together then.”
“Yes.” She wore a long coat with a high collar that framed her face and tucked in below her chin.
“You still live in Bardshire Crescent?”
He complimented himself on his memory. She struck out ahead of him, leaving him to watch the easy grace of her gait and listen to the rhythmic click of her heels on the paving. “You needn’t follow.” She murmured over her shoulder, as though she did not want him to hear.
“May I not, then?”
Her shrug was unconvincing. “As you please.”
Where the avenue ended their road merged with a short, steep hill that led to the beach. At the foot of the hill, no more than fifty yards away, stood the entrance to the pier, still alive, even in deepening winter, with the promise of light. Stretching out like an accusing finger over the black water it dangled an invitation Davy was tempted to accept. “Would you care for a walk on the pier?”
“It’s closed. It’s winter, or haven’t you noticed?”
“Then why all the illumination?”
“I have no idea. Maybe they just want to remind you there are some roads that have only one ending.”
Rosalind’s stride was rapid. Davy, struggling to keep up with her, had to remind himself of the distance, the mile that followed the margin of the sea – the black, black sea that slipped and muttered in the shadows, patiently waiting. Around him, streetlights that had no street (for no vehicles might use this road), interminable rows of beach huts, the rise of cliff, and the glitter of hotels above it. Distant streetwise youths boomed on accelerators, anxious sirens spoke of pursuit. Above him the sky – the moonless sky.
“At some point,” She stopped so suddenly he almost fell into her. Her tone was venomous. “You’re going to tell me our meeting like this was accidental. You’re going to tell me you’d forgotten about Friday nights, aren’t you?”
Taken aback, Davy found himself leaning against the balustrade, and avoiding her challenge by staring out into the dark. Far off, a navigation light blinked. Further off, the beam of the lighthouse continued its unending swing. “I’m not going to tell you that.” He said.
“Then why, David? What are you doing here? If you knew, or if you thought…”
“Maybe I didn’t think!” He interrupted her. “Maybe I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe…”
“So you just roll up! You just roll back the years as if nothing – nothing ever happened between you and this town; between…”
“Yes, us.” Rosalind glared at him. “My god, in the middle of a freezing night and leaning against that rail you still manage to look like a lounge lizard. Didn’t I read somewhere about someone’s impending marriage? Yours, if I’m not mistaken. Why are you here?”
“Honestly?” He said honestly. “I don’t know.”
“Honestly!” She said. “Honesty to an actor is a word on a page. I never did know when you were acting, or when you were serious.”
“Sometimes, I don’t know myself.” He said humbly. “Perils of the trade, I suppose.” He asked suddenly: “Are you with someone?”
Rosalind’s lips twisted into an edge of a smile. “Am I in a relationship, do you mean? No, I’m not. Was our last thrash together the last time I went to bed with someone? Again, no. I’ve tried every conceivable way to forget that we ever happened, David.”
“Any success?” She did not answer.
Davy again turned his attention to the wavelets, tried to attune his thoughts to their gentle motion, but his heart was in turmoil. “I had to see you. Don’t force me to explain, I won’t have a reason.”
She sighed, relented because she could not sustain anger with Davy – never could. She came to lean against the balustrade beside him. “I’m cold.” She confessed. Tentative, he reached his arm about her shoulders. Instinctive, she leaned into him and her breath was close. “We didn’t work together, Davy. We were bad for each other.”
“Being bad once seemed so good, though.”
He grasped her shoulders, anxious she should face him. She did not resist. With a gentle hand, he brushed her hair away from her forehead, and kissed her there, softly. Her skin was cold to his lips. “I’ve never forgotten.” He said.
The tear she blinked away might have been induced by that sharp onshore breeze. “Don’t.” She told him, but her voice was irresolute and her lips were tilted towards his, offering. He met them in a kiss flooded with memories, of times past, of happiness and wanting. It was fulsome and sweet, it might have been deep. But then he was clinging, suddenly desperate and she, alarmed, squirmed from his hold, thrusting him back. “I said don’t.”
He turned away instantly, abashed. “I’m sorry. I have no right….”
“Who is she, David? I mean, apart from the director’s daughter? Who is she? You’re engaged to her. That’s what I heard. And this is how I heard it!” she snatched her mobile phone from her coat pocket, waving it in his face. “On Face Book from bloody I-told-you-so Jennifer. Very brief and concise, very, very sententious, and liberally illustrated with your publicity pics – you and whoever-she-is holding hands, you and whoever-she-is embracing…”
“Jennifer’s a bitch.”
Rosalind shook her head, sadly. “No, Jennifer was right. She warned me not to become involved.”
“But are you – involved? I mean in any way…”
“Oh for Christ’s sake! You know I am! Isn’t that why you’re here? Truthfully now, isn’t it?”
“Belinda.” Davy told her. “Her name is Belinda.”
“Belinda Halprin. A great name, I suppose; with a daddy who can raise you up from that terrible little school and make you a leader of your profession. The fulfilment of dreams!” Rosalind took his hands in hers, closing around his long, delicate fingers. “But oh, David, I know you so well! You don’t love her, do you? You didn’t think you needed to. Seduction – such an easy thing for you. You don’t have to try, hardly at all.”
“You’re wrong; you’re so wrong.” In his passion his hand clenched with hers, emphasising each word. “I wanted to go to Belinda, yet I had to – I had to – come to you. I had to try and see you again. I’ve never once stopped thinking about you, wondering how you were, if I should write to you or leave you alone. Ros, darling, I don’t know what I can do. I’m trapped. I love her for everything I want to be, but I want you, because you are who I really am.”
“Well, that was easy.” She said.
“How do you mean?”
“You love her, you want me. No contest. Love conquers all, darling, doesn’t it? Forgive the cliché.”
Davy sighed. “Honestly, I think it may be the other way around.”
“There’s that word again.” Rosalind leant upon the rail at his side, sharing his view of the black horizon. “Do you want me to be honest? I have no script, you see – I’m not reading from a page. I love you, David. I have never got over us. I never will. But until tonight that memory was a comfortable warm bed of embers; and I can only forgive you for fanning it into flame once more because I see the little boy in you, and I think I can understand just how lost you are. We could never be together, my love. You may want your life back, but you’ve lost the one we shared irreparably, and I can’t help you. It’s your problem – I hope you do love her, or if not, that you will learn to…”
“I could give it all up!”
“No, you couldn’t. Or you shouldn’t; at least not for me. It’s not my trap, David.”
She reached up, and her cool hand stroked his cheek. “A pity. A great, immense pity. But I’m going to say goodbye now. You walk that way, I’ll walk this. And if you do ever return to my town, avoid Fridays, will you?”
Davy stayed for a while, watching the patient sea and the steady arc of the lighthouse beam. When at last the sound of Rosalind’s heels had faded and the night was reduced to silence he turned towards the east once more, and as he retraced his steps he began to cry, freely. With no-one to see him in the dark and tears streaming down his face he thought of her, and he wished for her, and he cried the more because he knew she was right. Only as he neared the lights at the entrance to the pier did he attempt to wipe his face to respectability, regaining the confidence of stride his way of life had taught.
He arrived at the foot of that short rise that would lead him away from the seashore. Here he stopped, as if transfixed; seeking to retrieve a terrible thought that had flashed through his mind then disappeared. The hill to his left, the pier to his right. A choice presented itself, one that was his alone to take. A second decision.
With a deep intake of breath, Davy clambered over the barrier which guarded the way to the pier.
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.