By Elizabeth Noel
Joseph is a man of the ocean. He watches the waves crash over the harbour at Bovisand whenever there’s a storm. It takes him back to when he was a small boy on a small island. In that life he wanted to be the lighthouse keeper or a fisherman, but he is old now and those dreams are only dreams. He smiles when he thinks of this, a wide yellow smile from fifty years of smoking Marlboro Reds. Joseph thinks being overly serious is a waste of time, an indulgence of the rich. He knows life can be hard, but only if you’re poor, and he isn’t that. He eats lobster and drinks champagne whenever he can, which isn’t very often. He drinks whiskey in the evenings with a drop of water, but never on a Sunday. He likes to pour double cream into a saucepan of Heinz baked beans and then heap the marbled mixture onto soft white bread. Joseph’s heart is as large and warm as his obese belly, which is good for resting your head on. As a young man he was straight up and down all legs and arms, but everyone in England was slim in the 1940s. His parents thought of going back to the Island of Guernsey when the war was over and the occupation had ended. Years later when times were hard his wife talked of going back, but Joseph never went. Some things are better off in the memory of your eye.
“You could drive a taxi, Joe,” she would say.
“Let sleeping dogs lie, will you,” Joseph would reply louder than he intended.
Joseph likes to think he has carried the spirit of Guernsey with him ever since he left on a coal boat in the middle of the night on May 27th, 1940. Carrying Guernsey means holding onto his sister, or at least the memory of her, which is important, but he can’t tell you exactly why. Everything Joseph says is measured, even his jokes. He doesn’t waste words, so when he speaks his voice is clear and people listen. Joseph knows his wife will be ok when he goes. Her Austrian blood, farmer’s hands, and goliath appetite make her strong. She knows how to enjoy life. She learnt long before they met how to make a little stretch further than it should. She shared her memories of great mountains and glass tabletop lakes. He shared a never ending skyline, and sand finer than salt. Exchanging their stories of exile, the two fell in love. The person Joseph thinks of most, now that his time is nearly over, is his son. Peter was always happier on his own playing with a book or a rubix cube in the corner of a room. Now Peter is grown and nothing much has changed. Joseph loves his son like all fathers do. Sometimes the strength of it surprises him, catches him off guard and he needs to sit down. This happened sometimes when Peter was just a boy, but since the hospital visit, it has started happening again. Peter has a child of his own, a daughter, and Joseph knows Peter fumbles awkwardly along with her. Her mother divorced Peter. The brake up stagnated the air Peter breathed for decades after. Joseph wishes he never pushed Peter to marry her. He knew Peter didn’t want to, but she was pregnant and it was agreed, and doesn’t life always come good in the end. Less than a year into their marriage, Peter’s wife called Joseph and asked him to collect Peter’s belongings. Peter was working on an oil rig off the coast of Abu Dhabi at the time.
“Son, you better come back to us when you get home,” Joseph told Peter on the phone.
“Why?” asked Peter, but he already knew.
He knew, but he didn’t understand. At 32 years old, Peter was living in his old room back with his parents. In his later years, Peter made a point to look soon-to-be grooms square in the eye and ask them, “are you sure you want to do this mate? Cause I’ll give you my car keys and I’ll tell them all, it’s off.” He wished someone had asked him, and then maybe he would have walked out of the church before she arrived. Peter will never marry again, and he will never forgive. At 33, Peter met Pavan at an aikido class. He became mesmerized with her long braided hair, and how it worked with her perfect body to unbalance and conquer her opponent. He didn’t know it then, but she became his life partner, the person in this world who knows him best. Pavan is a warrior, who turned Peter’s anger into laughter, but they never married and there were no more children. Peter’s daughter was confusing enough. What do you do with the offshoot of something that almost destroyed you. Take her to the cinema and then for Pizza once a month, but Peter often cancelled. Pipes needed fixing at the bottom of the ocean, and he was the willing welder. There was nothing her mother could say to that.
Joseph knows Peter struggles with the hand he has been dealt. Joseph visits his son everyday he is home from the oil rigs, drinks tea with him or occasionally something stronger, and asks extensively about the well being of Peter’s coy carp. Sometime they sit on the deck and watch the marbled creatures glide past the glass in their state of the art, temperature controlled environment. Peter often brings his gun with him. “I’ll shoot that heron one day, Dad. His days are bloody numbered,” he says. Joseph hopes his presence is enough for Peter to understand that in his Dad’s eyes Peter is good, he is loved and the world isn’t a bad place. When Peter’s daughter turned seven, her mother remarried. She wanted her new husband to adopt Peter’s daughter. Peter reasoned she had taken everything else from him why not this one last piece of the puzzle between them. He asked his Dad what he thought of the idea. Joseph put his tea down and breathed out heavily. Then he grabbed his son by the shoulders with both hands, “If you ever give that girl up, I’ll punch you in the head till your sense returns,” then he let go, took a sip of his tea, and after a while asked Peter about the carp.
Joseph wants to give his son what his father gave him, or was it what his childhood on Guernsey gave him. He isn’t sure anymore. He just knows Peter doesn’t have it. He wants him to know that no matter how bad life seems, although it can probably get worse, it will always eventually get better. “Life is tough my boy, but only for the poor people, and we ain’t them,” he’d say. Peter was paid over 2000 pounds a day on the oil rigs. He earned more than everyone on Joseph’s street combined. As a boy Peter had shared one bathroom with four adults. Now he has four bathrooms to choose between. Peter collects art, which helps to justify his obsession with security and his firm belief that everyone is trying to steal from him even the bloody heron. He once brought a steering wheel lock back from America that was illegal in the UK. If you didn’t enter the code within 30 seconds of opening the car door it would electrocute the intruder, “hopefully blind them,” he said to Joseph. Joseph thought time at sea would do Peter good. The ocean heals he thought, but decompressing from the ocean floor back up to the oil rig only gave Peter time to think on all the ways the world is wrong and unfair and cruel. Joseph wants Peter to know the world can be other things as well.
Joseph has been in intensive care for three days now. His heart got worse as the doc had predicted. At times, he hears the voice of his wife, and feels the touch of her hand. He senses his son in the room, but mostly he hears the rush of waves breaking on the beach where he ran as a child with his sister. They are calling Joseph home, and then Joseph dies. Peter throws a glass across the kitchen when he finds out. Then he sits on his balcony for hours staring at the fishpond, hoping the heron will present him with an opportunity to shoot it. Of all the cruel tricks in the world death is the worst, or at least it is for the living. Peter feels abandoned, left behind with his mother, his daughter and his Pavan. He knows he has to tell her, but how. In the end, he sends her an email. She is teaching in Abu Dhabi. He’ll fly her home for the funeral. His mum will like that. It takes him three days to write to her.
Very bad news I am afraid. My Dad is in hospital. His heart condition suddenly got much worse. He has been in intensive care for a few days now. I hoped to contact you and tell you he was making a recovery, but I cannot. It looks like God is all out of miracles.
Please do not phone my mum until you have talked to me.
Call me day or night or email me a number where I can get hold of you,
Love Dad XXXXX
When Jenny reads the email, she is in a classroom administering a test. She runs out of the room. Jenny hasn’t experienced death before, and she can’t make sense of how someone so solid and present could suddenly be gone. She takes a taxi to the beach and sits on the sand digging her fingers into it. She sends prayers out over the ocean believing the waves will somehow carry them to Joseph and he will hear her. She calls Peter that evening. He never says that Joseph has died. He just talks about flights and funerals and how she shouldn’t worry. “I’ll take care of everything,” he says. Two days later she is flying home. Almost a year goes by and her and Peter don’t speak much. News comes through Pavan or her Grandmother, who insists on a phone call at least once a fortnight. The following Christmas, Jenny comes home and sits in the kitchen with Peter.
“How are the fish?” she ventures.
“Fine,” he says.
They both sip their tea and look around the room. She wants to talk to him about everything, but runs out of words. It was easier when Joseph was there. His heavy breathing perforated the silence and put them all at ease.
“I’ve bought some paintings,” Peter says.
“Oh right,” she says imagining another Lenkiewicz hanging on the wall.
“To remember my Dad. Your Granddad,”
Yes, she thinks, I know who your Dad is. Was. Peter stands up and undoes the buckle from the belt around his jeans. Jenny stares at him with wide eyes and fidgets on her chair. As Peter’s jeans drop to the floor she is bewildered, but then she sees them. From ankle to thigh coy carp tattoos swim up her father’s legs.
Elizabeth Noel is a copywriter, writing teacher and blogger. She currently lives between Singapore and New Zealand, but is originally from the South West of England. She loves exploring human relationships through narrative fiction. She has published academic work in the field of writing education, but this is her first foray into sharing creative writing. This piece was inspired by Iona Winter’s Karanga, which was published on the Island Review in January 2017.
Photograph by Luke Grey, CC 2.0.