tagRomanceDriftwood

Driftwood

byRog©

I

I can remember the last day of my old life as vividly as if it was yesterday. It began with my hand slamming down to silence the jarring, banshee wail from the alarm clock as it tore me from a deep, dreamless sleep. I lay staring at the ceiling, half awake and in a state of disbelief and feeling as though I had been cheated, I had just closed my eyes the previous night only to have found myself here an instant later. I wanted nothing more than to roll over and drift off back to sleep, cocooned in the warmth of the duvet.

It was four thirty in the morning and still pitch black outside, save for the nearby street lamp that bathed the whole room in a sickly orange hue. I could see my breath in the chilly bedroom as I reluctantly got up, shivering as I pulled on my robe. As I walked towards the door, the husk of the woman I married stirred and groped lethargically at the bedside table for her cigarettes.

By the time I had showered and dressed she was already downstairs, sitting at the kitchen table in her worn, grimy robe, smoking what was probably by now her third cigarette. A cup of black, instant coffee sat in front of her, next to the overflowing ashtray and last night's empty wine bottles. Her hair looked dishevelled and lank, her eyes sunken and ringed with darkness, their gaze fixed at some impossible distance as she alternated between long pulls on the cigarette and sips of coffee.

For all I knew I could have died in the night and returned as a ghost, an unseen revenant haunting my own house. I seemed invisible to her as I made breakfast and gathered up the paraphernalia I needed for my working day. Out of habit I placed a kiss on her cheek as I set a plate of breakfast in front of her and she recoiled a little, momentarily shocked out of whatever deep contemplation she was lost in, before returning to her trance like state. I left the house without a word spoken between us.

My frozen breath hung heavy on the air and there was not a single light on in any other house on the street. I shivered as I scraped the thick layer of frost from my car windscreen, my thin suit jacket doing almost nothing to shield me from the bitter chill of the early November morning. I climbed into the car and turned the ignition key with numbed fingers. I glanced at my phone to check my email, my in-box was already filled with a cacophony of corporate bullshit. I tossed the phone contemptuously onto the passenger seat and set off on my way to the office, a two hour commute into London.

I took the exact same route to work every morning as if on autopilot, driving along that seemingly endless motorway like a box on a conveyor belt, seldom able to remember anything of the journey itself once I arrived. This particular morning was different though, I could see the blue lights of the police cars from almost a mile away as I approached the motorway. There had been some kind of incident during the night and the road was closed. I swore under my breath and pulled over and fumbled wearily around in the glove compartment for my sat-nav to plan an alternative route.

I sent a quick email to the office to warn them that I would be late and I set off on my way again, submissively following the new route laid out for me. After driving for a short while I realised that this change of direction would take me almost right through the town where I was born and spent the early part of my life, so I planned a further diversion so I could drive past the house I grew up in, I was going to be late anyway so what difference would a few more minutes make.

I soon found myself driving through familiar streets, past the houses of my childhood friends and the school I attended. I slowed down as I drove by the old corner shop where I had my first Saturday job, but it had long since been converted into a house. I spotted the bus stop on the corner of my old street, the place where I experienced my first awkward, fumbling kiss and I turned the car in.

I pulled up opposite the house and killed the engine, leaving just the radio quietly playing on some oldies channel that I didn't even remember tuning to. I hadn't been back here since the day of my Father's funeral, some ten years ago now, but it still looked much as I remembered it, a typical red brick 1920's semi-detached house with a small, tidy garden at the front. I had so many happy memories here and seeing the place again was bringing them flooding back, it was like suddenly travelling backwards in time.

I could almost see our old Morris Traveller parked in the drive, my sister and I restless with excitement on the back seat and my mother in the front, waiting patiently for my father to finish his final patrol of the house, making sure everything was switched off and locked up so we could get on our way to the coast for our summer holiday. Just for a moment I was ten years old again, The sun streamed through the windows carrying the promise of a perfect summer's day and I could smell the faint odour of petrol that always lingered in the ancient car. My mother in her red headscarf, cassette player on her lap, turning around to ask us what music we wanted to hear before my Father got in the car and insisted on playing Neil Diamond for the whole four hour trip.

Those car journeys felt never ending to a child but I was always content. My Father would let me select a couple of his ancient, yellowing pulp Sci-fi novels to keep me company, and my ever present sketch pad would always be close to hand. When I wasn't immersed in the stories themselves, they would inspire me to spend countless hours drawing imagined futures. I was still young enough to have remained untainted by cynicism and disappointment so my sketches were optimistic renderings of an idealised vision what life would be like in the future. None of them bore the slightest resemblance to how my life is now and I felt a pang of sadness as I realised I had let that little boy down.

As I snapped back to the present I became aware that I had tears in my eyes. I took a minute to compose myself before starting the car and pulling away, stealing one final look at the house. I knew I could never relive or hope to recapture the sheer unconditional happiness of my childhood, but I also knew I could no longer carry on with my life as it was.

As I reached the top of the road, that was when the epiphany came, the single moment of clarity when I realised how futile my day to day life had become. I had been making myself ill just to barely maintain what I had, and what I had was a miserable life, all held together with chewing gum and string, a life given over solely to perpetuating its own sorry existence. I realised that I was now at a fork in the road, both literal and metaphorical, and I knew there was only one route I could possibly take.

II

It was late morning and I was already at the coast by the time I was missed. I had spent an hour or so walking around the small town, reacquainting myself with the place where I had spent so many happy summer days as a child. I found it largely unchanged and I welcomed the ghosts that seemed to be waiting for me everywhere I looked. The cold eventually got the better of me and I ended up in a small cafe at the end of the sea front near the harbour, nursing a coffee while I watched the ocean and contemplated my next move.

I had switched my phone to silent but I could feel it buzzing and jumping around in my pocket as the calls began to come in thick and fast. I didn't answer a single one. I took out the phone and flicked through my work emails and noted the almost total lack of concern as my manager and colleagues expressed their annoyance at my no-show and lack of communication. I also received a text message from my wife, just a single question mark. I replied to her that she shouldn't worry, I perfectly fine and I would talk to her later.

I steeled myself and took a few moments to compose an email to my manager, explaining that I was never coming back and telling him in no uncertain terms exactly where he could stick his job. I felt a little pang of anxiety as my thumb hovered over the send button because I knew this would be the point of no return, but I also knew that if I backed down now I would never forgive myself. I hit send and felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders.

I finished my Coffee and stepped out into the deceptively sunny November morning. I was chilled to the bone as I walked along the harbour wall, buffeted by a brisk winter breeze. The cold hardly bothered me at all though, I hadn't felt this alive in a long time. I reached the end of the wall and stood looking out across the steely grey ocean for a moment before I reached into my pocket and took out my phone. It was buzzing and vibrating in my hand with an incoming call as I threw it as far as I could out into the ocean.

The next three months saw my divorce and the sale of our house move to swift conclusions. It also seemed to come as a great relief for her to be done with both, the war of attrition that life had waged against us was suddenly over and now two years on she has another life and is happy. Most of my friends and colleagues wrote me off as having had some kind of mental breakdown, labelling me as a basket case that couldn't handle the pace of modern life, but that is about as far from the truth as it is possible to be.

The sale of the house left us both with a healthy bank balance which in turn gave me breathing space to plan my next move. I got rid of most of my belongings and headed back to that same east coast town where I had headed to on that fateful morning and took a small flat above a pub, where I also picked up shifts working behind the bar a few nights a week. With a clear head I rediscovered my long dormant artistic side and I now spend my days painting local scenes and carving things from driftwood I find on the beach. There is a local gallery that sells my work for a commission, earning me a modest income and enabling me to be self sufficient.

I am quite happy now, if a little lonely, I have made a few friends here but I am still single, something I have never been good at. In the past I would always grab onto the first piece of wreckage that floated my way and cling on for dear life, believing that being with anyone is better than being alone. I can see now that this was probably the reason for more than one failed relationship, so this time I resolved to learn to enjoy my own company and wait until the right person came along.

III

I come to a halt on my ancient bicycle, the squeal from the brakes jarringly announces my arrival to all within earshot. I chain it to the railings on the seafront, just behind the old caravan that has been converted into my friend Max's burger van. I doubt anyone would take the trouble to steal my bike (the padlock and chain is probably worth more than the bicycle itself) but it is my only means of transport and to lose it would be a huge inconvenience. As I unstrap my backpack from the rear of the bike a familiar face appears in the rear window of the caravan.

"You're not leaving that pile of junk there are you? The rust might spread to my van."

I look up to see Big Max, the owner of the van, leaning against the inside of the window frame, his thick, heavily tattooed arms look like rolled up comic books.

"It's more likely to be the other way around isn't it?" I reply, looking the back of his van up and down.

Max chuckles as he pulls the window closed and I walk around to the serving hatch at the front of the van and order a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee. I pay him and we trade banter for a short while before I head off on my way.

"It's going to rain you know." Said Max, just as I am leaving.

I pause for a moment and look up at the cloudless sky, it is pristine blue save for a single white scar left by an impossibly high aircraft as it passed overhead. I look back at him and give a disbelieving shake of my head before I make my way along the seafront to the ramp that leads down to the beach.

It is the height of the holiday season and the town is full to the brim with tourists. As I walk along the promenade the air is laced with the smell of sun lotion and ice cream and punctuated by the excited screams of children on the crowded beach. I walk past the row of brightly coloured beach huts as I head down the ramp onto the stony beach and then make for the tide line just above the surf, picking my way between the windbreaks and sunbathers, dodging the kite strings and beach balls.

As I reach the water's edge I slip off my battered old trainers and tie the laces around one of the straps on my backpack and head north along the shore line. I had planned on bringing my easel and oil paints with me today but I just don't feel inspired to paint, so instead I packed my carving tools.

I scan the line of detritus at the high tide line as I slowly walk, looking amongst the tangled seaweed for those pieces of wood that I can use. It's hard to explain, but when I find a suitable piece it is almost like the subject is already inside the wood, waiting for me to release it, but if I don't see something in there almost right away then I can do nothing with it.

Something catches my eye and I bend down to pick up a short length of pale wood, worn smooth by the ocean and bleached white by the sun. It looks like the bone of some long dead creature but seeing nothing inside there, I discard it. A few steps later I pick up another piece and as I roll it over in my hands I can picture a hare leaping, it's long ears folded back against its head as it's powerful back legs propelling its sleek body upwards. I keep this one and place it in my backpack.

As I walk further away from the town the crowds of people on the beach begin to thin and the sounds fade into the distance behind me until soon all I can hear is the gentle crash of the waves against the shore and the occasional cry of a sea bird. This section of the beach attracts a different group of people, those who seek a little more solitude and peace. They pitch their windbreaks and beach shelters a respectful distance apart, well away from each other and the busy part of the beach near the town.

I pause to pick up another piece of driftwood and brush the sand from it, this one is really interesting. It is around eight inches long and looks almost like two different types of wood twisted and fused together before trailing off into a short tangle of roots or branches. A rich mahogany colour blends into a reddish sandy brown and in it I can see two lovers entwined so closely that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. This will be a real challenge to coax out of the wood, but one that I gladly accept.

I continue onwards and find two further pieces, a short knotty stump in which I can see the head of a horse, it's nostrils flared and mane flowing as it gallops at speed. The second piece looks like it came from an old boat, it's slight curve and the faded remnants of green and yellow paint help me to visualise a fish, gleaming as it catches the sunlight before darting away into the murky depths of the ocean. I also find a small bead of blue glass, worn smooth by the ocean that I will inset as the creature's eye.

I have more than enough to be working with now and the pickings here are thin as the tide line becomes almost imperceptible as the beach begins to turn from stony to sandy. I walk on a little further and then head back up the wide strip of sand to the base of the dunes that back onto the beach. I pick out a spot and drop my backpack on the ground. By now I have walked over a mile and a half along the shore and I can't see another soul in any direction. I open my pack and take out my little pop-up tent and quickly set it up. I line the inside with a couple of beach blankets and take out the driftwood and my tool roll and immediately begin to work.

I have been completely absorbed and blissfully lost in my work for a couple of hours when a shadow falls across me, I look up to see the silhouette of a woman standing right in front of me, against the sun. I had been so engrossed in what I was doing that I was completely oblivious to her approach.

"Well, it's always a surprise to see some of the strange things that get washed up on this beach." she says.

I recognise the voice immediately and as my eyes adjust I am pleased to see Victoria standing there, she owns the gallery that I sell my work through and over the past couple of years we have struck up a close friendship. She moved here soon after I did, selling her business in London and leaving the rat race behind for a quieter life. I remember the first time I met her, it was not long after I moved here myself, I had been exploring the town and I walked down the narrow side street and saw her through the window of the little shop that she was busy converting into a gallery.

I went in and introduced myself and as I shook her hand I could feel the indentation in her finger left behind by a wedding ring, a wound I still carried myself at the time.

I have never asked her about her past, nor she about mine, I assume she was hurt pretty badly because even though there has always been an obvious attraction between us, an invisible, impenetrable barrier seems to stop us ever being more than friends. I suspect both of us would rather it was no longer there.

"You are not an easy man to get hold of, you know that!" She says. "Have you ever considered joining the twenty first century and buying a mobile phone?"

Victoria kicks off her shoes and drops her own small backpack at the side of the tent and sits down next to me in the entrance, I slide across to accommodate her, brushing the wood shavings from my lap as I do so. She is wearing a pair of shorts and a simple white cotton blouse, the top few buttons are open and I can see her black bikini top underneath the thin fabric.

"I actually had a mobile phone once." I reply. "But I kind of misplaced it down by the harbour somewhere."

She looks at me with an expression of slight bemusement on her face, it looks for a moment as though she is going to probe me further on the subject but then changes her mind.

"Anyway, I have some news for you." She says. "I sold two of your sculptures and one of your paintings this week, so I need you to drop by the gallery so I can pay you."

This is really welcome news, it means I can afford to eat and buy art supplies for a few more weeks now and not have to take so many shifts in the pub.

"I think this calls for a little celebration, don't you?" She says, reaching around to her own bag at the side of the tent and producing a bottle of red wine.

She unscrews the cap and takes a swig "I forgot to bring any glasses so we will just have to make do without." She says. "And anyway." She adds, with a glint in her eye,"It won't kill you to swap a little saliva with me!"

I take the bottle from her and slug back some of the wine, even though I am usually pretty dense when it comes to spotting the signs, I am pretty sure I have just been flirted with. I need a minute to process this before I respond, but without giving me the chance to, Victoria reaches down and picks up the carving of the entwined lovers.

"This is really beautiful." she says, turning the piece around in her hands, allowing the light to catch it from different angles.

"It's not quite finished, but I think it will be when it's done." I reply, glad of the change of subject.

I always let the wood dictate to me exactly what I will carve from it, but right from the beginning this piece felt different. It was as though the subject had been waiting patiently at the back of my mind for a while now, lurking in my subconscious while this piece of driftwood made it's trackless journey, shaped by the vast ocean that carried it until the tides finally delivered it to me.

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