Margot’s arm was looped gently around gentle giant Gerald’s. He was asking her if she remembered these beaches and cliffs, and she was answering ooo yes as if remembering candy floss, but then wondering exactly what it was she remembered. She’d definitely come here with her mother and sister when she was sixteen, but was it on these beaches they’d played, or others?
Lighter in colour than oatmeal, thinner than straw, Margot’s wind-swept hair brandished honey-gold against the blue of sea and sky: the seaside place she thought she’d come to when still almost a child, its beaches below. But she was confused, and what she remembered, the song Harbour Lights, wasn’t something she could see but hear in her mind’s ear. The tune blew as softly through it as wind, her hair now the colour of candy floss or those yellow plastic rings that whirred round in the gale.
The harbour place she’d blown kisses to her naval officer was more likely to be Southampton where the QE2 had docked. The song had told of their separation. But maybe she’d also heard it here, far away to the east in this, yet another harbour town, before she was married, before.....? Before the after, after the next before? How many harbour towns had there been? How many departures? How many arrivals?
She was confused again and Gerald, as well as Jean, whose arm took hers on the other side, said not to worry, they were walking to The Grand where she could forget everything except her ninety second birthday, which was today. When she couldn’t hear, Gerald said it again, more loudly. But if she was supposed to forget departures and arrivals how could she get there, she remonstrated?
Between us, said her friends who were as young as her own daughter. Tell us if you can, they cajoled, about your mother and your sister, and she said yes she thought she could remember sitting on the beach with them down below, as people do, licking ice-cream. But then things had changed so much, it wasn’t just her failing memory. Then there’d been the rotunda, boats pulled up on the shingle. Now it was empty. Perhaps she’d had a donkey ride too. She remembered one somewhere, the donkey’s pretty diamond between its eyes, the bells on a harness round its neck, the bright green blanket underneath its saddle and the colourful braids in its dark mane.
Was that here? Or was it a memory not of a seaside holiday when she was a child but of a picture taken when she holidayed with her own baby daughter? She wracked her brain, sun and wind bright but raw with the ache of memories full with mood rather than detail.
If she was between Gerald and Jean, brother and sister, all three were between a Belgravia styled Victorian crescent and the cliff edge. Gerald and Jean only knew snippets from their friend’s life. Gerald had met Margot years ago when she worked as secretary to the manager Gerald assisted, organising sewing, art or circus events at Olympia. Tell me about the flea circus asked Jean, who never believed her brother when he said such a thing had taken place, and Margot obliged. Ooo yes she said, ‘that was before people washed so much. Everyone’s so clean now they can’t find fleas anymore’.
As they walked upon the cliff Margot’s honeyed mop still blew at right angles to the blue as she launched into another subject, ‘You do know don’t you that I have a friend called Brian Ferry?’ But she couldn’t remember if she’d had lunch with him last week or the week before. So Gerald changing the subject said, ‘this was how the wind was last Saturday. And the Saturday before’. And Jean explained that last Saturday was Charivari. Huge pape mache dragons and green goddesses had paraded behind throbbing samba bands with ribbons fluttering about like your hair she’d said to Margot.
‘In an air show the Saturday before a red arrow wound its red vapour trail round the straight one of another, hanging there in the sky, before descending to wind again and make more red vapour spirals round the other’s line. Five roared out of the clouds in front of us, the outside ones curving away from the centre in huge arches outwards, the inside one keeping straight, right over our heads’.
Were the silvery white vapour trails like her hair too Margot might have asked if she hadn’t forgotten what it was she wanted to say, but just had a distant recollection of how John had loved it. Her hair. She’d met him on the cruise she’d taken on the QE2 after her husband died. Her daughter had thought it might help her get over his death and she didn’t like to say she already had. That she felt free for the first time in her life. That must have been what John saw in her hair she chuckled, her freedom, remembering how they’d stood together on deck popping the cork of the foaming champagne, as libertines do, into the foaming waves.
Gerald and Jean were fascinated by these snippets of Margot’s history, the size of other peoples’ lives like rainbows and pageants, expanding over a greater landscape of time, belittling theirs. And now they were seated in The Grand’s conservatory beside huge windows looking out to sea. It had been called the Monkey Room, Gerald explained, because men in suits and bow ties had strutted their stuff while from the other side of the glass the riff-raff had looked on. Margot not hearing what he said said she would never forget this day and Gerald wondered what she could hear of the piano, playing continually, in the background.
Soon they were tucking into their set three-course meal. Meules, fisherman’s pie, crème caramel. After Gerald approached the pianist, a young Korean woman, and asked if she could play Harbour Lights? There was a bit of a commotion. She’d have to ask someone she said and Gerald recognised a local man who hummed the tune to the pianist. To Gerald and Jean’s amazement she reproduced it, just like that, no hesitation. As she played they were all transfixed and after there was a stunned and replete silence.
‘Did you enjoy that?’ they asked Margot expecting to see her in rapture, ‘it was played for you’. But her deaf ear, the left one it turned out, had been facing the music. She’d not heard a thing.
A disappointed Gerald and Jean started talking about a newspaper clipping Jean had recently come across that revealed the death of their father. He’d been an electrician in Canada, a long time ago. Though a loaded subject they treated it lightly, conversationally, befitting the spirit of the occasion. Seven years Jean’s junior, Gerald could never remember meeting his father, for one early evening he’d been fixing a power cut on top of a pylon in a Mennonite community when he’d got a shock, high up there above the earth. Half petrifying him on his perch it could have been fatal, but it was the long fall to the ground that killed him, two days later. Gerald had been three months old. Though no-one had seen what happened, the vivid fact of it would remain as an image, sharp as a knife, forever. Not confusing. Not forgettable. Not blurred.
The fact that affected Gerald and Jean’s life was long and everlasting. Sharp in contrast to Margot’s fuzzy. But not short and sharp as in a short, sharp, shock but as in a long, sharp, shock. Yet it was Margot’s eyes that filled with tears even though she’d not heard the tune played for her. Still this was a special time she was sharing with her friends, she said again, looking out across a green with flowerbeds full with silver lamb’s tongues, red geraniums, yellow carnations and windswept clouds rushing over the sea. She would never forget it she said.
Gerald and Jean looked at each other with laughing eyes, out across the flowerbeds and the green to a single windswept tree standing on a cliff whose edge plummeted down. They, who were burdened with a memory that cut into eternity, wouldn’t spoil things by saying to Margot, maybe you can’t remember if these were the beaches you played on, so much has changed, but if you’ve forgotten last week how will you remember today?
Nor could her forgetfulness help them forget. But the fuzzy, half-memory of a tune about harbour lights could remind them all of a place from which love came like a ship. Then went.