Charlie lived in a big house by the sea. It was lovely. On certain days, when granite clouds pulled down their trousers and a coy mist hugged the hills in search of comfort, Charlie wondered if he might be lonesome. He was careful not to slump or fold or blubber at night. He had lived alone in this house for many years but he was still young, gloriously so. Secretly, he suspected life could yet be occupied and wonderful. The bay was still rather special. It was uneven, ragged. Slate roofs slipped down from the tops of hills. There was character, a beautiful disharmony to the place. Charlie took his boat out most days. Some people used bright colours on their walls and roofs, it provided a good deal of solace. It took care of any worries Charlie might have, for a short while.
The pier collapsed in sunshine. It was a rare and violent occurrence. Not captured by anyone. Amongst the submerged, were the school parents book club who were sat in the pier refectory discussing Mann’s Magic Mountain. Despite the tea cakes and coffee and the odd accomplished whisper, the book had, on the whole, defeated them. They ventured into their discussion in glum mood. What happened was described as a freak seismic event. An unexplainable disappointment. The parents book club sat in a circle and simply dropped.
Charlie was still in bed, only marginally awake, his eyes were bulbous and crusty like grubby, reduced to clear button mushrooms. He was suffering from his usual early morning paralysis, expecting nothing of his day. A soft, seductive pat on his doormat caused him to blink. In Charlie’s house, the postman rarely, if ever, knocked.
Dear Mr Wallace,
I am replying to your recent advert in The Lady magazine with regard the possibility of booking a stay at your holiday cottage hotel. I would like to stay for the week commencing July 3rd. You say in your advert you provide housekeeping and three meals a day, the complete hotel experience, included in the price. This sounds great. Please let me know asap if this is suitable. I include a cheque for £20 as a deposit to show that I am serious, as requested.
Charlie dressed his bottom half, put on a coat, walked along the cliffs, down to the beach, passed the memorials, and steadily jogged up winding steel steps to the bay newsagents. They had just one copy of the Lady. The front cover showed a woman (a Lady!) posing sideways in furs and hat. In the Holidays and Properties section, below an advert for ‘quaint holiday cottage hotel’, was Charlie Nash’s address. The Lady had made a mistake. He knew of only one cottage on his road.
Cal Wallace and Charlie Nash were orphaned in less time than it takes to boil an egg. Being close in age they were placed in care together, an engineered brotherhood. Somebody from the state searched the bay for suitable carers. There were no volunteers. Not for older ones. Not for boys. The person from the state decided on Tom and Madeleine, a childless thirty something couple with a big house on a cliff. It took hours of persuasion. The person from the state posted photos of floating bodies and rubble, crying herds, mass funerals, graphs depicting spiked suicide rates for orphans. Tom and Madeleine were churchgoers. Churchgoers have a responsibility to act holy whether they like it or not, was the gist of the argument put forward by the person from the state.
Tom and Madeleine had a tidy house.
Tom and Madeleine had calm lives.
Tom and Madeline had no need to shout.
From the very start, Cal was difficult. Whilst Charlie remained numb, stiff and mummified, Cal was wild. Charlie knew Tom and Madeleine would struggle to stay the course. He could tell they were not equipped. They were lacking, emotionally, unable to deflect Cal’s beastitude with softness, with love. When Charlie turned sixteen he was released from care, given ownership of his family house and a weekly survivors income. Tom and Madeleine were left with Cal for a further eight months. Eight months was too much for Tom and Madeleine. Cal went to borstal before returning to his family cottage where he was left alone.
Cal’s cottage was small and unsuited to guests. Even though Cal and Charlie had not spoken since their Tom and Madeleine days, Charlie doubted Cal could seriously reinvent himself as a hotelier. Poor Miss Sarah Lipton, thought Charlie. She would have to tread over beer cans and glass pipes just to get in the front door. Where did Cal Wallace even get the idea for such a venture? He was far from an entrepreneur. From what Charlie had been told, Cal was still reeling, refusing to stop and take a rest.
Charlie knew he should call Cal and tell him about The Lady’s mistake. But Cal was difficult to take to. He made living with Tom and Madeleine hard. It was not a healing process. It was not how it was meant to be. The person from the state said it would take only a short while for Cal to get it out of his system. Then he would return to normal, like Charlie had. After all, Charlie wasn’t throwing garden furniture in the lake or stealing from purses. They all said Charlie had adjusted. Like new. Restored. No trouble at all.
So Charlie decided to turn his house into a hotel and not disappoint Miss Sarah Lipton. It was time he showed some endeavour. Cal was not deserving. Cal only dealt in mess. Charlie replied to Miss Sarah Lipton and confirmed her stay with warmest gratitude. He knew all about hotels.Tom and Madeleine arranged stays in hotels at weekends, to maintain order and avoid the chaos of non school days. At least once a month, Cal and Charlie lived in a twin room with a trouser press and a tiny kettle.
Tom and Madeleine didn’t appreciate:
milk left out of the fridge
clothes not tidied as requested
music not turned down as requested
parents complaining about bloody noses
Tom and Madeleine took bulging cases to hotels filled with their laundry and ironing. It hadn’t occurred to Charlie at the time, but they must have been exceedingly wealthy. They had jobs in offices although both of them talked about being in court most of the time. With reference to Cal, they said he would be better suited elsewhere. They told him repeatedly. A house for problem children, a home for the disaffected. A different kind of place that was not like a normal home.
Charlie knew about hotels alright. A reception. A desk and a bell. A lobby. A place for suitcases, umbrellas and small children to hide between legs. A table or wall space for brochures, leaflets, local attractions, museums, gardens, taxi cards. A book for guests to relay their experience. Services. Clean clothes, towels and bedsheets. A restaurant. Freshly squeezed orange juice, a choice between a continental breakfast or a fry up. Toast came in a rack and butter in a dish. A TV room was essential. A place for children to watch cartoons and quiz shows. On Saturday nights, Tom and Madeleine would linger in the restaurant, slowly drinking wine and then slowly drinking coffee, wiping their clean mouths with white serviettes. Charlie and Cal were left alone in a TV room. Saturday night entertainment, quiz shows and variety. Cal stood on the sofa, answering questions, laughing like a heart attack, flinging himself on and off the removed, giant cushions. Cal would act out sketches, march and sing. It was obvious. Cal wanted to be inside the box. Everything was better inside the box, the little pixels were happy. Worry free.
Charlie was not accustomed to hard work. Ha Ha. If only there was a prize for best understatement! Charlie was not accustomed to mornings. But he turned his house into a hotel with determined craftsmanship. Previously, his days were languid, sitting on his boat, shuffling about, measuring the sky. But now sweat and muscle formed over his body and this seemed right too. Waking early, getting straight to it, not waiting for his thoughts to clear. He learned to design, engineer, decorate. His house would be no ordinary hotel.
Miss Sarah Lipton arrived the first week in July. Charlie stood behind his reception desk in a black tie and white shirt. Although too scruffy to appear funereal, it didn’t exactly scream hospitality. When Miss Sarah Lipton extended her hand and greeted him as Mr Wallace, it occurred to Charlie, he had not thought of everything. Since the original letter, three more guests were booked to arrive the following week. He was of course, Mr C Wallace to them too. It highlighted the deceit but Charlie could get past it. Blocking difficult or negative thoughts was not a problem. Charlie showed Miss Lipton to her room, carrying her case, pointing to the vase of flowers and sea view before allowing her ‘to get acquainted with the surroundings’. He recommending a cliff top stroll. Even though Charlie was enacting a role he felt at ease in doing so. He went from hermit to hotelier in no time at all.
On her second night, Miss Lipton asked if Charlie would like to join her for dinner. They had exchanged a nice stream of casual conversation, she appeared interested in the bay and its history of smugglers, shepherding and - tragedy. She asked where Charlie was when it happened (in school), if he remembered it (no, not really, it was a long time ago), how it shaped the community (hard to say, never given it too much thought). She was impressed by Charlie and seemed delighted to be his first customer. She talked as if her stay was going to be something to show off later in life. A seminal experience. He told her about his boat and asked if she would like a trip out. He filled a hamper and they sailed all afternoon, drifting, sleeping, staring at colour, outlines, slowness. Charlie talked enthusiastically about his business, how he would like to grow it one day, expand into different territories. It was obvious Miss Lipton believed he could be a success and was attracted to his ambition. On the morning she was due to checkout, Miss Lipton enquired as to how Charlie would cope with multiple guests, on his own. Charlie admitted it would be difficult because as yet he had insufficient funds to employ staff. Miss Lipton nodded. She had been giving the dilemma some thought too. She had no coat or suitcase by her feet, Charlie offered to run upstairs and fetch them for her. Miss Lipton, with what might be called an air of nonchalance, told him there was no need. She was going to stay.
Together, Charlie and Miss Lipton established a highly successful hotel. A famous artist was commissioned to create a new memorial marking the ten year anniversary since the pier’s dramatic collapse. It won prizes and brought a rise in tourism to the bay. Fifteen shadowy bronze figures standing in the water, twenty feet tall, arms raised on rounded plinths, dancing all day and night to the rhythm of the sea. Miss Lipton was delighted by the cultural significance now associated with the bay. Charlie did not say anything about it.
When Miss Lipton defied convention, lowered herself on one knee and asked for Charlie’s hand in marriage, the falsehood surrounding Charlie’s name became suddenly focalised. He felt a surge of embarrassment as he confessed to hijacking the name Wallace as it sounded more solid and trustworthy than Nash. Miss Lipton laughed, bemused. What could possibly be considered untrustworthy about the name Nash? It was indeed, ridiculous, admitted Charlie. Miss Lipton became Mrs Nash on the same day they signed a contract to buy the Cressida Inn, in Israel. It was Charlie’s idea to build in Tel Aviv. He wanted somewhere unrelated to the bay. He made sure to carry out the training and arrangements himself. He moved into a nearby barn and got his teeth stuck into the project vampirically, for a year. It became a haven for wealthy visitors. A night in a double room there cost more than a two week stay in the bay. Next came Cherub Place in Perugia before two larger establishments in England were added to their portfolio. Charlie and Sarah made their home in Spain. A five bedroom villa with a pool and a maid, close to the airport for trips away to assess prospective sites. Charlie had made his escape, it was unequivocal. Far away. He found a new way of living.
When scouting properties in Italy, Sarah became pregnant. Baby Anna did not hold them back. Lucia, the second child barely caused a ripple, both children were frictionless, creating no drag force to the now rapidly growing business. Charlie stayed at home, in the villa, more and more, rearranging meetings, delegating tasks. He hired people to assess sites, conduct visits. He employed six different accountants to manage his funds. They gave him good news on a near daily basis. Mrs Nash complained at his presence. In the Autumn they retreated to England, Mrs Nash’s favoured place. A country house with maids and butlers, a peculiar version of English aristocracy. Dressed like Cruella DeVille on a bad day, she stared at a detailed model of a luxury hotel and country club. It was to be the jewel in their crown. A last endeavour, bolder and more ambitious than any other. Mrs Nash spent hours tinkering, requesting the modellers add floodlit tennis courts, woodland walks, extra undulation to the grounds. She was yet to find the right site but had three people searching the globe on her behalf.
Charlie wondered if his children and his love for them was causing him to slump. He still feared sterility and hid from himself at every opportunity. Time had stopped, once more.
He was beset with unwanted thought after unwanted thought after unwanted thought. Assessing their portfolio, one accountant noted that whilst Charlie’s house in the bay was still profitable, it was so inconsequential in size and earnings, might he think about selling? Mrs Nash thought it sensible, displaying no sentimality, but Charlie wanted to offer the business to someone in particular and do so in person. He hoped it might stop old thoughts scuttling from unsealed holes, slowing him down. If he could ease the guilt, he might go back to feeling normal. Mrs Nash did not find the time to say goodbye, she had discovered the perfect site for her country club. A place in Wales. She was waiting for an ecologist to assess the habitat and give the all clear. She posted a small sum of money to his home address to ensure the correct outcome.
Charlie drove a red sports car along roads he knew to be playgrounds and football pitches, revved past buildings and beaches, a prison cell sky: his earliest memories. Charlie’s house was newly painted. When he was little he cut his knees on the stone driveway most days. Now the driveway was smooth and black, like rubber. Charlie found it hard to associate this house with the house he knew as a child and a young man. It didn’t seem familiar. It had lost its sadness. He walked to Cal’s cottage. He was recognised, asked about his life abroad, his exotic escape. He happily clarified and denied a variety of rumours. He told them he had come to see Cal. There were solemn pats on the back. He walked with others, there was a crowd, more and more people by his side. They all followed signs to the wake.
Cal chose to stop reeling after all. At close to midnight, on the day Charlie chose to give him his house, Cal swam out to one of the bronze giants in the sea. He clung to it for as long as he could shifting from side to side in a slow dance. The wake was highly populated even though most people in the bay would have experienced a difficult time with Cal. Most would avoid him in the street, fear seeing him in the shops and pubs, struggle to enforce banning orders, loathe tidying up his mess. Charlie discovered Cal had been in prison before travelling nomadically for years, living on beaches across Europe. It seemed as though Cal had trod a linear, destructive path since the day he and Charlie were introduced to Tom and Madeline. Yet Cal had placed an advert in The Lady. He tried to start something, to live again. Cal had the same knowledge of hotels as Charlie. Perhaps he considered it his one area of expertise. And of course nobody would have replied to his advert. How did this make him feel? He viewed it as typical of his luck, no doubt. And it more than likely made him angry.
The wake was hosted by Cal’s Aunt, in the cottage. She recognised Charlie and spoke to him as if he had been a real brother to Cal. To avoid the huddles and questions about his wealth and out of keeping tan Charlie found the basement stairs. He sat with a cup of tea and a slice of fruitcake in the murky half glow of a window. In the far corner were a row of washing machines. Charlie turned on the light. He was stood in a nicely designed laundry room. Next to the washing machines and tumble driers were two drop down ironing boards and a complicated looking trouser press, neatly organised opposite a double sink. The appliances looked outdated but not old, they were untouched. It was proof. At one time, Cal found some hope.
Upstairs, Charlie enquired with family and the locals. Nobody knew about Cal’s idea to turn the cottage into a hotel. The Aunt disputed it was possible. Perhaps he was just trying to copy you, she said. He never had a good idea of his own. Charlie thought he might see Tom and Madeleine but was glad they never appeared. Then he wondered where this Aunt was when Cal needed an adult. When he desired a family.
One month later, Charlie was still in the bay, doing nothing in particular. He read. He slept. He stared at expanses and colour. He took his boat out everyday to do the same. He missed his children but knew Mrs Nash would never allow them to live in the bay. They were going to reside in her luxury hotel and country club. Wales was not too far away. Perhaps his children might choose to stay with him. It was possible. He would like to divulge certain truths about his life to them. They should learn why he is the way he is.
As the sun dipped behind the sea, like a biscuit in tea, Charlie rowed out to the giants. He wanted to finish his book amongst the school parents books club. His oars clanged against reddish brown knees and waists, causing them to dance with extra vigour. He had a torch and a blanket. He wondered which of the statues could be his parents but their homogeneity and unrealistic shape made it impossible. (Did Cal really believe he had found his mother?) The last line of his book, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, reads, ‘Out of this universal feast of death, out of this extremity of fever, kindling the rain-washed evening sky to a fiery glow, may it be that Love one day shall mount?’ The Magic Mountain is a difficult read but Charlie took pleasure in the drama and beauty of the last line, probably the last words his parents read before they were gulped by the sea. Cal had a fiery glow. He gave himself to the pain. He was unafraid to release his ingratitude with life. He ravaged himself trying to free the incalculable cruelty of loss.
Charlie climbed out of his boat and swam to the nearest giant. Like Cal, he held on for as long as he could. Like Cal, he believed this was the only way to say goodbye.
Simon Lowe is a British writer. His stories have appeared in AMP, Storgy, Firewords, Ponder Review, Visible Ink, Chaleur Magazine, and elsewhere. His new novel, The World is at War, Again, will be published in 2021 (Elsewhen Press). You can find him on Twitter @simondavidlowe, on Instagram @lowelovesbooks, and at www.simonlowebooks.com.