#7 Catherine's Castle
Welcome to Story Press #7. If you missed the ending of Fresh Air, Long Run, click here.
If you haven’t read any of Fresh Air, Long Run - start from the beginning here.
This week, we meet the royal Catherine and Julian, masters of their castles, and their parents - Annie and Hugh - the latter of which is in a dark place.
#7 Catherine’s Castle
The castle, vast and lofty, had been constructed with the inimitable care comparable to the nimble fingerwork of Michelangelo himself. It had various corkscrew staircases leading to isolated turrets. There was a drawbridge, though hardly deducible by its void of detail. There was even a moat that was fed by a brook in a high monotony called a mountain that sat next to the castle. All that was missing was a flag to sing in the wind and they would have been true royalty there.
‘Catherine’s castle! Catherine’s castle!’ The little girl with an adorable half-inch hole between her teeth had completed her architectural opus at the age of 6 and was in need of expressing her pride.
‘Do you like mine, Catherine?’ appealed the honeyed hum of her younger brother.
The girl turned to face Julian. She scowled at the hunk of sand and humphed at him, before declaiming: ‘It’s ugly; it’s not as good as mine.’ She turned her back on her fair-haired brother who adopted a quiver to his frown.
The children’s parents, Annie and Hugh, were enervating under the sun on England’s hottest day since 1990. Annie hid half in the awning. She was restless that day but daren’t venture to say so. Hugh was an investor in the city and Saturdays were valuable to him. She knew from experience, if she offered the slightest whiff of discontent Hugh would delve into upset.
‘Daddy!’ began Catherine, eager to boast of her latest creation, the third of the day. ‘Look Daddy! It’s a castle and I am the Princess. You can be the King and Mummy the Queen. Julian can be the peasant!’
‘Hey! That’s not fair, I want to be a Prince!’ Julian cried with his arms elbow-deep in the sand.
‘What do you say?’ Catherine begged her father, ignoring her brother.
Hugh, afar from the humdrum of his daughter’s petty pleadings, was buried in abyssal thought. Vacant to the world in front of him, the only noise he was conscious of was the dreadful soughing of the English Channel. God, he thought, even the lapping waves are sombre.
‘Catherine, dear, leave your father be, he’s tired. I’ll play with you if you like.’ Annie saw Hugh, pale as anything, as he had been for weeks, and thought it best to let him return to them on his own accord.
‘Oh… no, Mummy. You’re not as fun.’ She refilled her red bucket with slushy sand from her cupped hand.
Annie was too beat to feel this snub. Her thoughts had already moved back to Hugh. She loved him fully and wore that love in her green eyes. She felt passive and ineffectual to him and thought only to return him to life by letting him be.
Just in the moment a tear would ordinarily develop, a blaring jingle split her mind asunder. Julian began to cavort wildly in a circle around the barren wreck he passed for a castle, and a crackling, rumbling voice gave essence to his elation. ‘Ice cream!’ the voice barked. The man’s breath could be heard all too clearly. A cigarette with legs, thought Annie. ‘Town’s sensation!’ the man continued before catching his breath once more. ‘99p! Get ‘em before they’re gone!’ A sharp clatter rang out as he blitzed the speaker-piece down in a vex.
‘Mummy! Ice cream! Did you hear the man? Only 99p! Oh, go on Mummy, just this once!’ Julian was walking on air, or, more accurately, running. He ran so intently in circles that the uneven surface sent him tumbling into the sand. Annie flung up in fear but Julian rolled over giggling up to the blue sky, his eye following a seagull that swooped overhead.
‘Very well, come on Catherine, my dear.’ Annie got up, dug a thin, violet leather purse out of her bag, and then looked worryingly at her husband. ‘Hugh, do you want an ice cream?’ Annie and the children were all watching his face for a reaction. He had hardly given a word all day.
‘The whipped one... with a chocolate stick in it,’ he said as though in a trance, eyes far out to sea, his lips dry and nostrils wide.
‘Very well.’ Annie smiled, combing her fingers through her sea-knotted blonde hair. She dug her fingers under her red round sunglasses and gave her eyes a tiresome rub before setting off with the children.
Ah… peace, thought Hugh as he glanced over his shoulder at his family. It wasn't that he didn't like them. Of course, he loved them. Rather, the misery of brooding on his own actions had led to some truly evil thoughts. And it’s easier to face that alone. See, not three weeks ago, Hugh had made the fatal error of cheating on his wife. 8 years of devoted marriage without a morsel of thought for another woman, and in the space of thirty minutes he’d obliterated everything.
It's really no wonder he was so pale, he had hardly slept since it had happened. Some days he even convinced himself that it had never happened. It was a nightmare. But then he was haunted by the utter reality of this woman’s words on that night in the city; the smooth arrangement of her facial features; the cinch of her skirt; the way she said her name, the way those lips whisked her balmy name. Those things were all too real. He shuddered in his deck chair which very nearly sent him to the sand.
‘Penelope.’ A laceration bolted down his neck and into his shoulder. He felt his veins light up like lightning. ‘Pe-ne-la-pee.’ Ahh, it’s the way it lingers in the air wherever he goes.
He looked at his watch. Even 22 days 11 hours and 27 minutes later, and his head was swimming with these sensibilities.
Then it came to him. There’s only one thing for it. He should kill himself. There’s a rope in the house. It’s a bit fat though, and he wouldn’t know how to tie it up in the attic.
Out at sea, a small liner capered between waves. How he’d rather be at sea, vacant and relinquished from burden. He fixed a gaze on the clouds in tatters.
It happened at a party for one of his partners. He was drunk; he was happy; he was young. Well, he wasn’t that young. The cliché, perhaps, hurt more than the act itself: a married man gives way to the flippantly captivating secretary. Was he cool or tragic?
‘I feel sick,’ he whispered.
‘You look it!’ Annie appeared and gave him his ice cream. She slipped on a small hump of sand and replaced the strap of her swimsuit that sat loosely on her shoulders.
Hugh sunk his nose deep into the whip of his ice cream and fastened his eyes as if anticipating a cry. He knew he wouldn’t cry; he just wanted to feel real.
Catherine, with a mouth full, said: ‘Daddy, did you know that two-thirds of all the earth is water, like that?’ She directed a wet finger to the sea and looked in earnest at her father.
Hugh looked perplexed. ‘Two-thirds… is that so? Where did you learn that?’ He was rather pleased with himself for having gathered that energy together. Two-thirds of the ocean, he thought. I wish I could disappear within it.
‘It was on a poster on the wall in the detention room at school.’
‘Why were you in the detention room?’ Hugh asked absent-mindedly.
Catherine blushed as her folly was exposed. ‘Mrs Dalton, it was, gave me a detention for calling Timothy Pearce an idiot. It wasn't my fault though, he started it, and he said I was pretty!’
Hugh had reverted, in this time, to looking to the ocean. ‘That's OK, darling. Do you feel bad about what you did?’
Catherine had begun assembling a new wing to her castle and a garden that resembled the Tuileries. Sort of.
‘Yes, Daddy. Of course, I do. We all say things we don't mean; we all do things we don't mean to do. But it's happened now, even I know I can't change what happened.’ She was patting her palm softly on the sand when Hugh glanced at her.
I will go up to the attic, there's an extension lead there, and it will swing sweetly around a wooden beam. There's a window that looks out to here, the beach. I could die with my eyes on my daughter… on my son. My lifeless body...
No. When they walk in and see me there, stiff. I can't do it.
Hugh’s eyes darkened, his lids flickered, and his hair swooned under the blue sky. He looks like a corpse, Annie thought. What is wrong with him?
Annie stood after they'd all eaten their ice creams. ‘Come on, kids. Let's go play in the water.’ Annie, led by the grasp of her children’s hands, rushed off toward the sea. Hugh watched the way their footsteps sunk in the sand and disappeared; the way Catherine’s hair, so like her mother’s, darted all over in the wind; the way Julian, always smiling, always happy to be there, followed Catherine lovingly and at her command.
Julian tripped as the power of the first wave took him by surprise and thrusted him face-first into the water. It almost made Hugh smile.
When the tide was high and Catherine and Julian were asleep on their towels, a wave rushed up and flooded Catherine’s castle. Annie had already packed up most of their things. Hugh hadn't moved and watched the castle slip and drift into nothingness, the way his marriage would drift into nothingness; the way Penelope would inevitably drift into nothingness; and the way he wouldn't, against all his desire, drift into nothingness too.
Thank you as always for reading this story. Please do join me next time for another short, standalone tale and then we might revisit the serialised format for a publication after that!