#10 The Unbearable Light (1/3)
We made it to #10! Thank you to those who have followed all my stories since September. Hopefully, this is just the start…
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The Unbearable Light, Part I
The walk from my father’s house into town takes eighteen minutes. I have walked it enough times now to know this.
It passes down a narrow lane, where cobbled walls prop up bicycles, and rainwater hurries in a narrow stream all the way to the high street. Today Barney’s feet brush over dry stones. His hair is buoyant and he squints at the sun. It’s been a cool but bright summer. The kind you wear a coat in only to take it off when the wind dies down. Though I have never been a walker, I find myself walking every day. It’s the only respite I get from that stifling house where nothing happens but the sharp, dissatisfying inhalations of my father’s lungs.
A sigh, sadly, is all I have to offer these days.
In the town today children cavort across the arcades, the electric buzzing and bleeping of the manifold videogames echoing out into the vast air. A man in a pointy white hat leans out of an ice cream van waving away the gulls clustered beneath him. The gulls jab at a cone dropped by a slippery-fingered child.
A teen girl working at the royal hall balances at the top of a long ladder, changing the letters after the previous evening’s showing of THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. She has made it halfway through this hard task until seemingly resting. I walk past as she removes the N, turns and sits down on her ladder with her head in her hands, and the sign reads THE UNBEARABLE LIGHT. How convenient for her, I think, if that is the title of tonight’s film.
Past the hall, I cross the high street, circle down the steps and onto the walkway that stretches along the beach. It’s late in the day. There is no single source of light in the sky, only a pinkish glow in the air.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like my father. I still distinctly remember the look on Sarah’s face when she heard that my father’s lung had collapsed, and the pain I felt when I heard those words. It may be the only time in my life I felt the stab of real pain, a knife wrestling with the tough meat around my ribcage. But now that pain is somehow less real. It’s like I watch that pain in the movies: I see it, I believe it, I empathise with it, but I don’t feel it. Not really. Not the way I did.
Barney and I reach the beachfront. There are only a few people around. Couples who’ve passed hours here, who probably think it’s early afternoon. A few elderly so-and-sos walking their dogs. Families whose kids can’t bear to leave until the last possible moment.
I take Barney off his leash to run across the sands. It’s the only exercise the poor boy gets. I’ve never been a dog person, but Barney and I have a kind of mutual respect. After all, he’s the best company I have. He has that look in his eyes, the same look I probably have, of a long-suffering weariness, the kind held by prisoners of war and burned-out fishermen.
I take my seat. The same seat I take every afternoon. The same seat I will take every afternoon until he takes his last breath. I throw the tennis ball lamely out to the sands and Barney collects it. I repeat this mindlessly, over and over, the ball thudding on the wet sand, rolling until it reaches the salty tide. I think of my father. I think of the smell of his acrid bedsheets. I think of home.
‘You don’t get bored of that?’ A woman speaks through the breeze behind me.
I turn to see a short, dumpy lady with a long navy coat stretching down her. She must see my confusion immediately because she follows with, ‘I’ve seen you here a few times, just as you are now.’
She steps forward as if I’ve invited her into a dialogue, though I stare at her with the blankness of a man faced with conversation after weeks of solitude. ‘I think to myself,’ she continues, ‘why does he come and sit in the same seat, throwing the same ball in the same place, at the same time, all for the same dog to run, grab the ball and bring it back to him, so he can take the ball and repeat this process all over again from the first moment…?’
I don’t say anything. I am genuinely and categorically speechless. ‘Of course, two theories come to mine. You can never fail to theorise once you’ve spotted a trend, a habit, if you will… Just two theories have come to me, two possibilities. One,’ she steps forward again, and looks as though she might lean into me to get a really close look, 'you’re so dedicated to your dog, you love him or her so much, that you bring them here everyday because it is their favourite place, doing their favourite activity... I’m not convinced of this, however. It just doesn’t look that way to me.
‘For one, though engaging in the exercise, your dog is not quite so enthusiastic as it might be.’ I nearly make a point to disagree, but as I look over to him, he is indeed carrying the ball back to me with no great energy. In fact, he’s barely running. He skips slowly, trots like an overworked show horse. He does not have that frantic energy that dogs have during such games. He drops the ball at my feet and looks at me not with the anticipation I thought I saw, but with an obliging obeisance. It’s as though he’s doing it for me.
‘The only thing, then, is that you’re so transported, so engrossed in thought, so far from this moment, that it really doesn’t matter where you are at all. You could be skydiving from ten thousand feet...,’ she points up to the sky as though I could expect to see a skydiver if I looked up, ‘and the same thoughts would be running through your head. You could be sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower still mulling over whatever it is that you can’t shake right here on this beach. I’m convinced that this second theory is accurate.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Ah, he speaks. I wondered how long it would take. Thank God, you don’t think I’m some lunatic, do you?’ The woman smiles and I cannot help but think she is not some lunatic, just bubbly. To me, she is the woman your mother invites over for afternoon tea, only she stays well beyond her welcome as everyone wonders whether they are going to have to invite her to join them for dinner, to find she leaves just at the moment they sit down to eat.
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I reply feebly.
‘Well, that’s just fine,’ she said. ‘May I?’ she points to the seat. I can hardly reject her.
The woman sits down and looks out to the sands. Barney runs up to her curiously, and she runs her fingers through his coat. His eyes mellow with pleasure. Now I get a closer look at her, she appears chilled by the wind. Cheeks pinked, hair strewn, she has her hands plunged into her coat pockets. ‘I usually come and sit here with a hot chocolate from Tony,’ she nods towards the ice cream man, ‘but since you’ve started coming here I have to go and sit up the way.’ She points further along to the next bench, a speck in the distance as far as I can tell.
‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t know this had been your regular spot.’
‘Not at all, not at all. It’s hardly as if I reserve it.’ She looks to sea and sniffles, wipes her nose on a tissue from her pocket, and I begin to think that though audacious, she is vulnerable. I don’t say anything further. ‘Well, I hope whatever it is that’s troubling you can be resolved soon.’
‘How do you know anything is troubling me?’
‘You didn’t deny it when I made the suggestion. Only asked what made me ask. Says to me you’re curious about how I - a stranger who never saw your face - could read you so accurately.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’ Despite everything about her that's insignificant, she is impressively good at reading people. I can’t help but tell her more. ‘It’s only been a difficult few weeks, my father is dying.’
She nods like a sage old woman who’s experienced everything the world has to offer. Rather than reply with words of wisdom about dying relatives, or pithy advice that I might remember and take into the final stretch of my father’s life, she changes subject altogether…
To find out what the sage old woman goes on to say, make sure and read the next Story Press as it hits your inboxes. It’s a tale of fleeting romance, miscommunication, and a whole lot of dancing.