Low Season
North Beach, Perth. © Tim South
...through the cheap plaster and wallpaper, I began to hear someone talking softly.

For most of the year 1932 I continued to travel around Europe aimlessly, on occasion staying in small, cheap hotels, at other times with friends and relatives, and I would leave when the memories of my late wife became hard to escape or bear, as if I was running from pain. So often, of a morning, as my sleep would lighten and I began to think, I would remember, and my grief would rush in and wake me completely. Once again, I would find myself in the silence of an unfamiliar hotel room...

I moved quickly along the French coast in the winter, only staying a night or two at each hotel for some weeks. There seemed to be a sameness about the cheaper hotels, as if the same buildings had moved with me, and the names also blended into an unmemorable, foreign skein of words. I later attempted unsuccessfully to recall the name of one particular hotel - it was some miles along the coast from the nearest town, and somewhat removed from the main road. The wide beach in front of the hotel was dirty, desolate, and often swept by cold winds. There were no boardwalks or jetties, and no shipping to be seen on the horizon. They said it was visited by few people, even in the holiday season.

In the early morning I had taken a long, barefoot walk along the beach... The sky was dull and cold, yet I had drawn comfort from the emptiness and simplicity. I scoured the sand for shells and shards of marine life, pocketing the interesting ones, to later place them in a bottle as little keepsakes of a few simple, happy hours. A memory of long ago came to mind, before our marriage, when we had spent a whole day together. We talked in a café, then went, of all places, to a toy shop, where we made up stories about each toy. Then, in the evening, she taught me to dance. I had remembered that day as such a wonderful day, one that I would never forget. But it was only the first - there had been many years of wonderful days...

As I walked, sometimes the skies became dark, and sometimes a light rain fell. At one point I paused to catch my breath and looked out to sea for a while... then I took a stick, wrote her name in the sand, and watched as the water swept the letters away.

Far away, through the sea mist, I saw a dark figure on the beach. I felt as if my privacy was intruded upon... the beach was very broad, and I casually prepared to pass the stranger at some distance. And yet, after we eventually drew closer, I found a woman coming towards me. She was not intent on doing so, she was perhaps not even aware of my presence. She was in the early stages of a beautiful adulthood, with a grace that, while not handsome in an aesthetic sense, still carried a compelling attractiveness. She also had left her footwear behind, and was dressed in a light trenchcoat and wore a headscarf.

"Bonjour, Mademoiselle," I said.

"Madame," she replied, with a faint smile, and continued on. I turned, and murmured,

"Pardone."

I had walked for some hours, when it occurred to me that I had to turn around, or I would be exhausted by the time I returned. I saw no more of the woman I had passed. Indeed, it seemed that the water had washed away her footprints, for I could only see my own.

My long walk had sapped my energy, and I decided to retire early. In the night I awoke for no reason, and lay there for some minutes. From somewhere in the hotel, through the cheap plaster and wallpaper, I began to hear someone talking softly. Although I couldn't make out any words, the tone was gentle and intimate. Occasionally the speaker paused, but there was no reply.

In the morning, I decided to walk on the beach again, but in the other direction. I didn't see anybody. It occurred to me that apart from the hotelier, the only other person I had seen since my arrival was the woman on the beach.

That evening I ate a light dinner, then asked the hotelier for a weak café au lait. I retired to the large sitting room of the hotel, and began to inspect a small bookshelf to choose something to read. There was nothing in English except a tattered volume of Shakespeare's plays, which I began to read half-heartedly. But I usually found that I had to concentrate intently to derive any intellectual nourishment from Shakespeare, and I was in no mood to do so. Instead, I began to observe another man sitting on a large couch, close to the fireplace. Sitting cross-legged on the floor not too far from his feet was a little girl of perhaps five or six years old, playing with a doll. She seemed to be quite content, and talked softly to herself. He just sat, staring at the fire.

I had often found that fellow travellers spoke easily to one another, as they have their adventures in common. I introduced myself, and asked him about his travels. I was perfectly prepared for signs that my intrusion was not welcome, and to retire with good grace, but he seemed to be almost grateful for my approach. He was a Frenchman, but had travelled and lived in many places. As the evening passed we talked of where we had been, and where we were going. I told him of my recent bereavement.

"Oh, no... I'm so sorry to hear it," he said. "That is hard, I know - I have lost someone too. The little girl, her mother died giving her life..."

His gaze became lost in the fire for a while. Then he said quietly,

"You may have heard people say that time heals all wounds. Not all, my friend, not all. I have found that the only thing that I gained were ways to live with it. Even now, I think of her every day, and I talk to her, as if she is there beside me, and try to imagine what she might say to me. Every day. And what do I know of how to raise a little girl? I can only love her and try to do my best, but I wish every day that her mother was still with us, and I try to imagine what she might say to the little one."

He became silent, and I knew enough of grief to know that sometimes one must say nothing.

We sat there in silence for some time. Outside the wind was sometimes gusting, and sometimes still, then quietly rattling a pane of glass somewhere, moving through the cracks in the hotel to tell me how cold it was, even beside the fire. It carried the bitter smell of sea wrack and sand, that seemed to tell of forgotten places far from a distracted mankind. I tried to imagine what it must be like to have lost a person one loved at so young an age... to have had only a precious few wonderful days, then to run from pain, but for all these years.

My reveries ended as someone entered the room. It was the woman I had passed on the beach - she moved slowly toward the couch, and without a sound, sat down, a hand's breadth from the man. He made no sign that he was aware of her. I waited for either of them to speak, but they just sat watching the child. The only sounds were the crackling of the fire, the little girl cooing to her doll, the shifting surf outside, and the sudden cries of distant gulls, startled maybe, at meeting ghosts in the wind.

As I sat there I began to feel that there was something happening that I could not understand, and never would, and that if I were to intrude that something would be lost... I waited for an opportunity to leave without harming the silence, but eventually I had to go as discreetly as I could.

As I paid my account the next morning, some instinct made me resist the urge to look over the hotel register, to avoid learning I knew not what, to see who may or may not be staying there. In any case, I had to continue my journey, so my thoughts needed to be turned in that direction.

October, 2011

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