Seaside Towns

Extract

Lyme Regis, 1959

The glass of the window pressed so cold against Anatoliy’s forehead that his skull ached. His eyes were hot and dry, his arms and legs ached. Every bone was a separate thing, distinct and aching. Every vertebra was a bead on a string, aching, the little islands of his bones pushing at his skin, pushing at his neck. He was so tired that he wanted to fall onto a soft mattress and dissolve.

He couldn’t do that here. He couldn’t stay here.

Behind him, Philip was a landmass lying asleep on the bed. Socked feet. Shoulders. Hip. His body was dark and soft and the only light that lit him was the moonlight from the window, shining on him because Anatoliy had pushed the curtain aside so he could see to pack his things. At Tolya’s feet his case stood filled and closed, and he was so tired, but he couldn’t stay here. He couldn’t stand to think of Philip stirring, opening his eyes, saying his name. If he said his name he would be undone.

He stood there in the hotel room, his head against the glass, watching the glitter on the water. He watched the foaming waves sinking onto the shore. The room smelt of Philip. Everything was Philip. He lay on the bed, deep in sleep, his breathing innocent as a child’s. His ribs rose and fell, arcs of bone like the spars of a ship, moving softly over heart and lungs, so deep in peace.

Anatoliy loved those ribs, the heart and lungs, the long limbs of him, the soft skin. But his own heart was falling apart. He wanted to turn back to the bed, to kneel on the carpet as if he were saying his prayers, to kiss Philip’s fingertips and forehead and parted lips. He wanted to make a prayer of his kisses and send it off to a god he had never believed in, and find himself saved.

There was no way to be saved. There was no god. He was standing in a hotel in the very place where the British lost their God, where Mary Anning trawled the shore and plucked out the fossilised evidence of deep time. This was where men stood and looked out over the endless sea and realised there was no more to life than that; the waves, the shore, the stones, and harsh, truncated lives. The only afterlife was in the fossils, curled and hidden inside flaking stone, washed out millennia later by the relentless sea to try men’s faith.

He picked up his suitcase. The handle felt like a curved bone in the grip of his fingers. He put his key softly on the night stand and left the room like a thief, slipping silently through the dim passages until he opened the front door and tasted salt air. The street lay before him, black and silver in the moonlight.

He stepped onto the pavement and walked away.