The Bench by Cromer Beach
R J Gould
1. Clive Drinkwater
‘Come on. Out!’ Rosemary ordered and she was right of course. She usually is.
Having been bed-ridden for six weeks with my broken ankle propped up on three pillows, fresh air was bound to be good for me. Mind you, once outdoors it didn’t seem that way as I hobbled along on the crutches, my left foot weighed down by the uncomfortable blue boot.
There was a right gale blowing off the North Sea that mid-March afternoon, but my suggestion that we head straight back indoors was overruled. We struggled on towards the promenade where fierce waves were hurling sand and pebbles over the sea wall. Rosemary advanced towards the clifftop path that leads to Overstrand, alerting me to potential danger as we went along.
‘Watch out for the pothole, Clive.’
‘Careful, there are loose pebbles here.’
‘Don’t get too close to the edge, Clive, it’s slippery.’
All very kind, but enough was enough. ‘I might be an invalid, Rosemary, but I’m not blind.’
By the time we reached the outskirts of the town, no more than a few hundred yards from our bungalow, a gentle stroll under normal circumstances, I was about to tell my wife that I was done for the day. But then, those charcoal clouds of biblical magnitude that had been racing across the sky, broke up. That coastal sky, it changed in an instant, transforming the sea to the colour an inviting sea should be.
‘There,’ said my wife. ‘Blessed by sunshine on your first day out.’
I didn’t feel blessed – my leg was aching, my foot itching, my arms sore. ‘Enough,’ I told her. ‘I must sit down for a bit.’
We’d reached a wooden bench overlooking the sea. There was a brass plaque on it.
For my father, Thomas Savage, who sat here and watched the world go by.
I collapsed onto it, taken aback by exhaustion.
Rosemary stood behind me, shuffling with a hiker’s restlessness. I was a hiker, too, or at least had been. Would I ever be able to trek across fields and through woodlands again? “Yes, of course, it just needs time,” had been the impatient doctor’s dismissive reply as he steered me towards the door. I’d wondered how much time but was too intimidated to ask.
‘Pardon dear?’ I’d switched off from Rosemary’s chit-chatting.
‘I said why don’t you stay here for a bit while I pop down to the shops.’
I looked across to the church, a short distance away, its impressive tower dominating all else in the town centre. Under normal circumstances I would have happily joined her, but that day normality was some way off.
‘Go on then, I’ll sit here.’
‘I won’t be more than half an hour,’ she said before racing off.
The sky, now an intense blue, had turned the sea into a shimmering silver expanse.
Retiring to the coast, Rosemary’s dream, had been accomplished on the fourteenth of January. I’d broken my ankle on the fifteenth. Clearly not the best of starts, but sitting on that bench looking out was a tonic, offering the promise of happy times ahead.
A changing sky can work both ways, within minutes taking a turn for the worse. Ominous clouds were rushing in again, chasing the comforting puffs of white. I watched the sea and sky collide in the far distance, a spectacularly uplifting scene despite the threat of a downpour.
A sliver of sand was now visible in front of the protective bank of flint pebbles; the tide had turned. A slender woman, perhaps in her thirties, came into view on the beach, a lone visitor on this inhospitable afternoon. Her pink fleece provided a flamboyant splash of colour, like the sole surviving rose in a winter’s garden. Her trainers were the same garish colour, her trousers skin-tight, leggings I think Rosemary calls them. I expected to see dogs bounding after her, there seemed to be a lot of dogs in Cromer, but there were none.
She walked towards the sea, stopping by the water’s edge. A wave washed over her shoes. When she turned to face the cliff, I saw a face full of distress. She remained rooted to the spot, motionless but for her shoulder-length hair flying in the gathering storm.
It started to rain. I took off my glasses and wiped them dry with my handkerchief. When I looked up the woman was bent low, eyes closed, taking such deep breaths that I could see the swell of her chest.
Somehow what happened next didn’t surprise me. Having turned back to face the sea, she walked on. Her shoes under water. Her calves submerged. Up to her thighs.
I scanned the beach in the vain hope that somebody, surely a dog walker, would be near enough to intervene. But no, it was deserted but for this poor lost soul. I looked along the pathway, to the left towards Cromer, to the right towards the dark canopy of trees leading to Overstrand, desperate to see someone who would hear a cry for help. Not a person in sight.
Rosemary, where are you? Near-horizontal rain lashed onto my cheeks as I lifted my phone and pressed her name. The person you have called cannot be reached. Please leave your name and number after the tone.
There could only be one explanation for this woman’s action and I was helpless to deter her. I stood up and called out.
‘Stop! Please don’t!’
There was no chance of being loud enough to be heard. Incapable of getting down to the beach, I was left to watch as she waded deeper and deeper into the ruthless sea.
2. Ellie Bright
Ellie had set off early morning, taking a route up Hall Road to Felbrigg, around the Old Deer Park to Metton, and then back into town. Her first decent run since giving birth and she was exhausted. She made her way down to the beach, another first since autumn, since before Ben was born.
The tide had started to turn as she limped onto the small strip of saturated sand in front of an angry sea. The word “exhausted” didn’t do justice to her state, she’d overdone it big time, recklessly pushing herself to the limit. To make matters worse, her feet had blistered and were as sore as hell. The spontaneous decision to buy a new pair of trainers in the Christmas sales, a something-to-look-forward-to treat for when she could run again, had been a mistake. Comfort had taken second place to fashion. It was soothing now though as her feet sank into the sand. She took a further step and ice-cold water flowed over the designer pink works of art.
The ferocious wind was whipping spray with sand onto her face; she turned to face inland. Why on earth hadn’t she listened to her body and stopped running? Doubled over, she took some deep breaths. As she straightened, she noticed an old man on the clifftop. What an odd thing to be out alone in this weather, sitting hunched up on a bench. He looked sad, worried. With no justification, Ellie felt sorry for him.
It was time to head back to her family, the thought bringing a mix of happiness and anxiety.
She was happy because Sean was home.
Sean, her Mr. Perfect – no irony there because he was a great husband and father. The trouble was, he’d been travelling abroad for work so much over the past six months since Ben’s birth. They’d moved from London to Cromer to enjoy a slower pace of life, but the job, at an agribusiness on the Norwich Science Park, was resulting in quite the opposite.
The previous evening, on his return from a trip to China, Ellie had been struck by unmerited resentment.
‘Right, you can take over,’ she announced, quite literally as he stepped indoors, responding to his broad smile by placing a nappy into his hand.
‘First things first,’ the ever-exuberant Sean declared. When his kiss was disturbed by Ben’s intensifying yells, he’d playfully tapped Ellie on the head with the nappy before heading upstairs.
It was impossible to stay angry with her husband, his calmness and good nature permeated the household. Even irritable Ben picked this up; when Sean was home there were record-breaking intervals between whinges.
He cooked dinner that evening, providing an all too rare opportunity for Ellie to relax, edgily though because at the back of her mind was the thought that surely there was something she ought to be doing. She spent the time catching up with friends on Facebook, randomly liking posts, adding an equally random comment if any news of value was given.
Picture of dog sitting on couch in front of TV. Cher watching telly with me! Random tick.
Photo of woman smiling, standing by that strange glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. Proposed to the gorgeous Sonya – and she’s accepted! Random comment: Delighted to hear the news, Dave. You deserve the best. This would be Dave’s third marriage: long term happiness was in the balance.
Ellie downloaded a couple of books onto her kindle. Over the past six months, grabbing half an hour or so reading time between feeding Ben, nappy changing, and caring for her daughter Clara had been the highlight of her life. The first download was a Nordic serial killer novel, the second an escapist romcom. Two books for two moods; she’d be dipping in and out of them simultaneously.
Sean placed the perfectly cooked leek and pea risotto on the table and poured the perfect choice of wine which he’d bought at the airport.
‘I’d like to be up and out early tomorrow for a run. I must start getting back into shape,’ Ellie announced. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ her tone offering little scope for disagreement.
Sean picked up the positive alone. ‘Great – go for it. I’m off work for a while so you’ll have time for a few runs.’
There wasn’t quite as much time as she would have liked because one thing Sean couldn’t do was breastfeed. She was up twice that night, though it was Sean who brought Ben in, did the burping, changed the nappies, and took him back to his cot.
Raising Ben, largely single-handedly, was making Ellie both anxious and angry. Why do mothers think it’s their fault when babies are a handful, why the guilt? She wasn’t enjoying the monotony, not even when Sean was home to help. The endless tasks while suffering from a lack of sleep. Having to give so much attention to Clara to quell her jealousy. On his return Sean expecting sex on tap, though God knows why he’d want to with a lump of blubber. Six-months on from the birth and an utter failure to get back into shape.
All that anxiety, the guilt and the anger, exploded as she stood on the beach in the rain. She turned back to face the sea and marched forward, laughing aloud at the idiocy of her action. But what the hell – she was already soaked right through so why not get utterly drenched? She waded into the water, savouring the shock of the cold, the recklessness of it all as she set herself the challenge of going in as far as she could bear. To her ankles, her calves, beyond her knees, up to her thighs. And then she stopped, the water against her midriff insufferable.
When Ellie turned back, she noticed that the man at the top of the cliff was now on his feet, supported by crutches and gesticulating towards her. Unable to tell whether he was angry about something or amused by her antics, she did the safe thing, smiled and waved. Perhaps he was neither sad nor as lonely as she’d imagined though because a woman had come rushing up to him and was now standing by his side. Sweet old people. Will Sean and I still be together when we’re their age, she wondered.
Ellie hoped they would. As she headed home, the warm glow of happiness returned as she took stock of a good life. Yes, Ben was a nightmare, but it was a passing phase. After all, Clara had also been difficult in her first year. She had a wonderful husband who was working flat out to provide for his family. Surely his workload would soon ease and they’d be able to enjoy their first summer in Cromer, no longer cooped up indoors to escape the bitter North Sea winds.
That day had provided a glimpse of better times; her first run to kick-start a return to fitness. Now it was time to go home for a long soak in a bath while Sean would no doubt be relaxing downstairs, the children pacified.
3. Clive Drinkwater
We were discovering that winter lingers for far longer in Cromer than its immediate surrounds. The BBC weather app had accurately alerted us to gusty winds, frequent heavy showers and a maximum temperature of eleven degrees. A mere handful of miles inland that same app informed us of a pleasant seventeen degrees with sunny intervals and a light breeze.
Despite the inclement weather, Rosemary and I wrapped up for our daily walk. Over little more than the two weeks since that first venture outside, the discomfort in my ankle had eased to such an extent that I was able to use a single crutch. However, being laid up in bed for a month and a half had taken its toll and I was exhausted by the time we reached our bench.
‘Not long ago I was up at the crack of dawn, working outdoors all day, and not feeling in the least bit fatigued,’ I despaired as I slumped down.
‘When you’re old it takes longer to recover. And you have been inactive for months.’
‘Seventy-one is hardly old.’
‘Well, it’s not young, is it?’
Reluctant to pursue this line of conversation, which based on past experience could well have ended in argument, I remained silent as we huddled together, draped in hats, scarves and our thickest coats.
We watched the few dog walkers scattered across the vast expanse of low-tide sand. Sitting there, the plight of the troubled woman I’d seen on the beach on my first day out came to mind. Thankfully she’d turned and walked away, but who knew what lay ahead.
‘Look, we know her.’ I pointed towards a green-wellingtoned woman with blond hair secured in a ponytail. ‘I do believe she’s talking to herself.’
Rosemary lifted glasses out of her handbag and balanced them on the end of her nose. I’m forever telling her that it would improve her vision if she put them on properly, higher up the bridge, but she has a stubborn tendency.
‘She’s making a call. It’s what they do these days, speak without needing to have the phone near their mouth.’
‘But how can she hear anything?’
‘Blueteeth I think it’s called. You’re right though, we have seen her before. It’s that woman from around the corner.’
“Around the corner” implied a closely knit community, but her street was a world away from ours, each tidy bungalow with its perfectly manicured lawns and precisely pruned shrubs.
It was Rosemary who had put forward the idea of living in a bungalow. Initially it didn’t appeal but she persisted, pointing out that with old age creeping in, stairs were best avoided.
‘It’s not creeping in,’ I’d joked. ‘It’s arrived with vengeance!’
Of course, I didn’t know I’d be breaking my ankle the day after we moved. Thank the Lord we’d decided on a bungalow because getting upstairs to a bedroom and bathroom would have been impossible.
That street around the corner, the one where the woman down on the beach lived, had been part of our regular walk during my wheelchair weeks. Poor Rosemary was having to push me, not an easy task, so we’d taken this route to avoid crossing roads. What a street it was with its grand Victorian villas, each with a unique eccentricity of design that embraced turrets, spires, elaborate brickwork and stained glass windows. Many of the properties were divided into flats, a couple in a state of disrepair but most immaculately maintained.
The woman on the beach lived in the pick of the lot, a double-fronted three-storey house with a magnificent circular viewing tower with lancet windows. Each side of the sweeping gravelled driveway had been landscaped with no expense spared. Mixed in with conifers and deciduous trees were palms, though how they could survive a Cromer winter was anybody’s guess.
On our walks we’d stop, peer and make some la-di-da comment. “Absolutely no taste” for the garden, and “More money than sense” on seeing a black SUV and a red sports car on the driveway, both brand new Porsches with personalised number plates. A couple of times we’d seen the woman leaving the house, once all but dragging a little boy out of the front door, the second time climbing into the sports car and zooming off in a hurry.
‘She’s got everything,’ I said as we watched our near neighbour unleash a pair of fluffy Yorkshire Terriers. They raced towards the sea.
‘You never know what goes on behind closed doors, Clive.’
‘I can safely say that she hasn’t got a worry in the world. You only have to look at her.’
‘Definitely. Money’s no problem for a start.’
‘I’m not denying she’s rich, but money isn’t everything. In fact, she looks anything but overjoyed.’
‘She’s hardly going to carry a permanent smile, is she? Who does if they’re out and about in weather like this? I can tell she’s delighted with her lot in life. She’s like a movie star.’
I received a gentle punch on my upper arm. ‘Who’s infatuated then?’
I beamed in response to her affectionate jibe, but this dissolved when it was followed by, ‘She’d hardly be interested in an old man like you.’
I didn’t react; it would only end with bickering. If the truth be known, Rosemary had rather let herself go lately, so had no right to bring up the subject of my own ageing.
The forecast for showers was proving to be accurate. On the beach, the woman looked up to the sky, the rain beating down onto her face. I heard her call out to the dogs.
Rosemary stood up. ‘Come on, stop ogling, Clive. Let’s head home before it gets worse. Good job I brought the golf umbrella; it’s big enough to cover both of us.’
I took one last look at the woman on the beach before standing up.
‘Be careful, the rain’s making the path slippery,’ Rosemary warned as she opened the umbrella.
Although she can be cutting to the point of vindictiveness, my wife can also be highly considerate at times.
4. Saskia van Nolten
‘Do I give up everything?’ Saskia called out.
There was no one to answer her question; no one even to hear it; no one to see her apart from a scattering of distant dog walkers across the beach. She looked back towards the town that she loathed. Such a trivial place. Today everyone would be in their sad little cottages, sipping that awful English tea with added milk, watching some wannabe celebrity show. Or maybe huddled together staring out to sea like the old couple she could see on the clifftop. At least they had the spirit to be outdoors. In Amsterdam, whatever the weather, everybody would be out. Skating on the canals on the bitterest of winter days. Grabbing early spring sunshine to kickstart their tan. Relaxing with friends on a mild summer evening as the sun set. Ice cold pils, kip saté, bitterballen, porfertjes.
Saskia unleashed Jip and Janneke and watched as they dashed towards the water’s edge. ‘Whatever happens, I’m keeping them,’ she muttered, immediately shocked that she’d thought about the dogs ahead of her son. Rupert had never regarded the dogs as anything other than a nuisance and would be more than happy to offload them. Reassuringly, he’d always thought of Freddie as a nuisance, too, so might not contest custody. If he did, surely she’d succeed having spent the last ten years raising the boy with little input from her husband.
But when it came to negotiate a financial settlement, there would be an almighty assault, one that would be hard for her to win. Rupert would set out to keep everything, lying and cheating to get what he wanted. She’d seen how ruthless he could be when it came to money, boasting about swindling partners, clients and past loyal employees. Saskia was well aware of the methods he used to conceal his personal wealth – siphoning funds between companies, hiding money in offshore accounts. He’d engage the best lawyers and accountants to fight her and she wouldn’t stand a chance.
Her husband was a devious misogynistic shit and if she were completely honest, that had been the case from the start. But all those years ago, when an ambitious young woman, she’d been swept off her feet by his confidence, his wealth, and an I-can-do-what-I-like attitude. Rupert had burst into her office in Amsterdam as if he owned the company, firing questions and offering advice before it was asked for. “This is what you need to do.” “I can make sure you achieve that.”
Saskia had recently graduated with a degree in Marketing. This had been her first job, personal assistant to one of the directors of a Dutch import-export company. Rupert was there to set up some sort of collaboration.
‘Would it be a conflict of interest to invite one of the opposite team out for a drink?’ he’d asked her.
His smile was inviting. He was a good looker back then, before alcohol bloated his belly and ruddied his face.
‘I think it’s perfectly acceptable as long as you let me choose where to go, which will be my favourite cocktail bar on the Herensgracht.’
Rupert nodded in agreement before complimenting her on her perfect English.
He was good at compliments. ‘You have the most stunning body I’ve ever seen,’ he said later that evening as they lay together in the most expensive suite in the most expensive hotel in the city.
Three days later she was on a flight to England. She’d grown tired of Amsterdam. It was time for an adventure and where could be better than London? His plan was for her to be his Executive P.A., commanding a salary double what she was currently earning. There would be an all-expenses paid apartment, too. He made it clear that he would be a regular visitor which resulted in a high-quality flat in a good area. Perhaps he had a wife, but so what?
For a short period she savoured the lifestyle and liked Rupert loads. Only briefly though – what was that English saying about a leopard and spots?
‘You’re an intelligent woman,’ he told her soon after she was settled in a one-bedroom studio in the fashionable part of Portobello Road, this to add to the compliments about her excellent English and stunning body. But compliments were like confetti to Rupert and she quickly recognised his difficulty in putting the words intelligent and woman together in the same sentence. Nevertheless, him saying “I want you to take responsibility for coordinating the Anglo-Dutch project, and beyond that, there’s scope for you to progress to the very top” sounded impressive at the time.
During those early visits to his striking Canary Wharf office suite, packed with pretty young women, the conversations she overheard indicated that the promise of promotion wasn’t confined to her.
In truth, she was aware of his roving eye from the very start, his attraction to certain members of his team going far beyond any belief in giving women a fair chance in the boardroom. Bedroom more like. Despite these misgivings, the opportunity to stay put was too good to miss. Even if Rupert was seeing other women, the frequency of his visits suggested that she was his favourite. He’d arrive with flowers and wine, stay the night, and leave her with a wad of cash that made her feel like an escort. She shopped in Knightsbridge, the trendy boutiques and small delis rather than the giants like Harrods and Harvey Nichols. The wealthy lifestyle was tempered by walks along Portobello Road away from her Notting Hill Gate end, towards Ladbroke Grove, a different world with the destitution far exceeding what she’d ever seen in Holland.
‘If they got off their arses they wouldn’t be in that situation,’ Rupert explained to Saskia.
‘I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.’
‘They’re all druggies or alcoholics or both,’ he continued, failing to see the irony as he opened the third bottle of a ridiculously expensive wine.
The relationship was a little over six months old when the out-of-the-blue proposal was made. By then, her opinion of him was tainted by rumours of philandering and being party to unscrupulous business practices which had severed the Anglo-Dutch deal. In weighing up the offer as he stood there with the box open to display a sizeable diamond ring, money was an influencing factor together with the thought that maybe, just maybe, he would settle down once married.
So she accepted.
The marriage was a quiet affair. They were joined by his mother, sister and a few friends. Her own family came over from Holland to be pampered beyond their humble expectations during a weekend at The Ritz.
In those early days the affluence was unimaginable – luxury holidays, luxury cars, luxury whatever she wanted to buy for herself – and a dream house in Kensington.
While reflecting on how everything had changed, Saskia watched Jip and Janneke chase after a much larger dog, kicking up sand as they ran. Rupert never fully recovered after the financial crash in 2008. The Canary Wharf office was the first to go, the company relocating to much smaller premises near Tower Bridge. Half of the team were made redundant, age and body shape rather than ability being the deciding factor in the process. Their Kensington house had to be sold. They moved to Dulwich, a nice place, but it wasn’t Kensington.
‘Can we ditch Freddie’s nursery?’ Rupert asked a matter of weeks after Saskia had settled him into his new one following the move. ‘It costs a fortune; it’d be cheaper if you stopped work and looked after him yourself.’
So much for the promise of a fast-track career. In effect, Rupert was making Saskia redundant, though in her case, without having to pay the associated costs. She complied, at that stage still prepared to do whatever was necessary during difficult times. ‘What about Daniela?’ she’d asked.
‘Oh, we must keep a nanny. We don’t want you tied to home 24/7.’
Rupert’s apparent concern for his wife’s well-being was bogus. He was having an affair with Daniela, something Saskia discovered when growing suspicion led to an investigation of his texts. Nanny was thereafter dismissed, a mixed blessing despite dealing with the sex issue because Saskia was left with the burden of being Freddie’s sole carer.
Financially, things were going from bad to worse, necessitating an office relocation to Camden and a house move to Willesden. While the pair couldn’t be defined as poor, in fact the Willesden villa was rather grand, their path was decidedly downhill.
In Dulwich, Freddie had been enrolled in a prestigious prep school, one that sent most of its alumni to the illustrious Dulwich College. By comparison, the Willesden school was uninspiring to the point of mediocrity, and Freddie’s behaviour deteriorated.
By the time they moved to Cromer, a dramatic cost-cutting action, even a third rate independent school was out of the question. Freddie was put in a state primary with what Rupert described as the Norfolk Yokels. If they have any common sense, he’d tell his London business associates (a rapidly diminishing number), those yokels’ number one objective should be to flee this town as soon as possible.
The school was reasonable enough, though sadly far too many classmates were being shunted between parents in an every-other-weekend custodial arrangement. Poor Freddie was about to be added to that group or put in an even worse situation if she followed through with her intention to move back to Holland.
There was much to weigh up regarding a separation, which explained why she had been stalling for so long. But on discovering Rupert’s new relationship, having arrived in Cromer a matter of weeks previously, the tipping point had finally been reached. What an idiot! Whilst concealment in the vast expanse of London was feasible, that couldn’t be the case in this tiny place. She’d seen them together when walking home from the railway station following a day out in Norwich. As ever, Rupert was unflustered as he stepped away from tight proximity to the woman. Girl.
‘Saskia, meet Kirsty, my new secretary.’
Yeah, right, she thought as she glanced at a skirt barely covering the girl’s knickers, a face plastered with garish makeup, a cheap fragrance, and a brain devoid of content judging by Kirsty’s introduction. ‘Mrs Barfield, I’ve heard ever sooo much about you.’
That had been the defining moment, resulting in a determination to plan for her departure. But now, months later, standing on the desolate beach in this dull insignificant town, she was all too aware that there had been no progress.
‘Jip! Janneke!’ Saskia called out and the dogs came bounding towards her. It was time to head home; Freddie would soon be back from school.
She watched as the old couple on the clifftop stood. The woman had linked arms and was holding up an umbrella.
The man was limping; he was using a crutch.