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Authors: Esther Freud

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The Sea House

BOOK: The Sea House
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The Sea House

By the Same Author

Hideous Kinky

Peerless Flats

Gaglow

The Wild

The Sea House

ESTHER FREUD

HAMISH HAMILTON

an imprint of

PENGUIN BOOKS

HAMISH HAMILTON LTD

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
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First published 2003
1

Copyright © Esther Freud, 2003

Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to quote from the following song:
‘Cry Me a River’, words and music by Arthur Hamilton © 1953, 1955
Chappell & Co Inc., USA, Warner/Chappell Music Ltd, London
W6 8BS
.
Reproduced by permission of International Music Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.

The moral right of the author has been asserted

All rights reserved.
Without limiting the rights under copyright
reserved above, no part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior
written permission of both the copyright owner and
the above publisher of this book

EISBN
978–0–141–90155–8

For my father Lucian

 

1

Gertrude’s house was pink. That stone-ground Suffolk pink that managed to be manly, and from the front it looked closed in and dark. Max waited for a moment before knocking on the door, wondering who had built on the ugly flat-roofed porch, and then a shadow appeared behind the mottled glass. ‘Come in, COME IN.’ Gertrude spoke too loudly, unable to accept Max couldn’t hear, and he stood quite still in the open doorway and watched the exaggerated movements of her mouth.

Max Meyer was in Steerborough to see if he might do a painting of Marsh End. It was a mercy invitation, a probable last wish from his sister Kaethe, but all the same he was grateful to have been asked, grateful to Gertrude for remembering him and asking him to come.
Dear Max
, she’d written.
I know how much you must be suffering your loss, how much we, all of us, miss Kaethe, but would you consider coming up to do a picture of my house? I shall be here all summer. If you feel you can, please let me know and I’ll explain about the trains
. The letter was dated May the 29th, and, to his surprise, within a week he had packed up his paints and brushes, a roll of canvas and some clothes, and set out for Liverpool Street Station to catch the first of three connecting trains.
Gertrude Jilks was a child psychoanalyst, a woman with no children of her own, but standing beside her on the doorstep was a small boy with white blond hair. Gertrude didn’t introduce him, and he stood there looking at his feet, shuffling them back and forth inside his shoes. ‘COME IN,’ Gertrude said again, and Max remembered with a pang that she disliked him.
‘Yes, thankyou, of course.’ He lowered his head and together they stepped through into the main part of the house, a drawing-room with French windows open to the lawn, dark furniture falling into shadow after the shock of so much sun. Max walked across the wooden floor and out into the garden. The lawn was rich and wide, spreading out in lanes to one tall tree, a spruce pine with sand around its roots, and as Max walked out to it, his bag still in his hand, he imagined that behind the raised ridge of garden hedge the ground was shingle to the sea. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I will paint the house, the back of the house certainly.’ There was a bench cradled up against one wall and the windows of the upper floor were open to the sky.
‘That is the house.’ Gertrude had followed him. ‘Alf,’ she said, turning, ‘you may go.’ Alf was seven. He was the only child of her cleaning lady and Gertrude was paying for him to learn the piano. He didn’t want piano lessons, but it didn’t seem right just to give him money, so each Saturday at half past two he went to Miss Cheese for his lesson and then came back to give her his report. No, he wasn’t making any progress, she explained to Max, but there was nothing else to do but carry on.
‘I see.’ Max nodded, although he wasn’t at all sure that he did, and Gertrude picked up his bag and showed him to his room.

All his life Max had dreamt of houses. It didn’t need a psychoanalyst, not even a children’s one, to explain to him why that was so. But even before the move from Germany that was likely to have shaken him, he’d been dreaming of his home. He’d made a map of his house, Heiderose, when he was ten years old – the garden, the park, the big and little woods, the fields, the river and the road. This map had been one of the few things he’d taken with him when he left. The map, and an unwieldy wooden table he’d carved from one of the estate trees himself. Why he’d taken the table he still didn’t know, when he’d fully expected to return, but he’d sealed his lifetime’s correspondence up into its one deep drawer and had it shipped ahead to England. Max had the table, the letters in their drawer, but not the map, and it occurred to him he might even with his eyes closed, now in 1953, sit down and draw it from memory.

Houses, walls, villages and roads. Since the start of Kaethe’s illness his dreams were overrun. He’d be travelling, always at the wheel of some majestic car, when he’d take a turning and find a hidden piece of land. Sometimes it was a cluster of houses, high up, their pathways dropping to the sea. Or he would come round a bend, out into the open, and find white railings, a square in a village that had not been there before. But what he never found was the actual house he dreamt of in the day. It was always just around the corner, out of his view, and sometimes his search was like a tunnel, leading only to one oval patch of sky. Now he dreamt of Gertrude’s house, its rich, dense lawn, and the pine tree so straight and feathery, a lookout over the sea. He’d start with that, he thought, it was thin enough to stand right in the foreground of the painting and not obscure the view.

2

Someone was photographing Lily’s cottage from the road. The road was so narrow at that corner of the Green that the man had backed on to the grass and was squatting down in an attempt to fit it into the frame. Lily had rented the cottage through an agency and the woman had given her a hand-drawn map with the key. The map was simple – one long, narrow road running along a river to the sea which then turned a corner on to a triangular green.

‘Is this Fern Cottage?’ she asked, just to be sure, and the photographer looked at his plan of the village, turning it upside down to catch the name. Lily assumed he was taking photographs for the agency so that in future people could see what the cottage looked like from outside.
‘Yes,’ he called to her, ‘that’s right,’ and then, with the key half in the lock, she heard the whirr of the shutter and turned towards him, startled, as he took three quick pictures of her standing outside the house.
‘I know mine could do with a lick of paint…’ An old lady in a dressing-gown was calling to him from across the lane. ‘But I don’t want to be left out.’
The photographer smiled. ‘Don’t worry yourself, Ethel, I’m getting to you next.’
Ethel stood and watched him. She had a round face with dimples in her cheeks and chin, and her hair was white and curling, like a halo round her head. She rested her hands on the slats of the front gate, her face watchful as the camera swept over her house, the walls peeling, the window-frames flecked with splintering wood.
‘Will I get a smile?’ the photographer asked her, and she tilted her head and beamed into the lens.
Lily’s cottage was decorated in every shade of brown. Brown carpet, pale brown walls, a sofa and two chairs in clove and amber stripes. Even the curtains had clusters of hazel and beige flowers. There was a garden, shared between her cottage and the next, where one large tree stretched roundly out over the lawn. Someone’s washing flapped on the line. A towel and two pairs of children’s leggings, one yellow and one pink. Upstairs there was a large bedroom, with a window that overlooked the Green, and there on the horizon, strangely high like a child’s drawing, sat a deep blue stripe of sea. Lily leant there on the window ledge and let her eyes rest on the thin line that separated the sky from the sea. All the tension of the drive seeped from her body and she closed her eyes against the work she had to do. There were twin beds, their ends stretching towards her, their bedspreads thrown over a mound of blankets, and just for a moment Lily lay down, feeling the rough wool as she edged in under the quilt, the feathers of the pillow tickling her ear.
She was woken by a sharp cry, and the shudder of something slammed into a wall. She started up, not knowing where she was.
‘Don’t!’ It was a man’s voice, low and threatening. ‘Leave it!’ And then the wardrobe in the alcove rattled, and she heard the thud of steps stumbling downstairs. Lily rushed to the window expecting to see a fight burst through the front door, but there was no one there except for two lone girls swinging from the parallel bars of the slide.

Lily set out her work on the small, square sitting-room table, covered with its laminated cloth. She let her hands lie against the sticky texture, the cool plastic of its chequered top, wondering what Nick would do if he was in this room. Would he be able to settle down so comfortably, think about architecture when surrounded by so much brown? And then she remembered that she’d promised to call him, to say that she’d arrived in Steerborough safely. First she hauled her computer out of the car, arranged her papers and her books around it, and, scooping her hand into a dusty carrier bag, she prised out a handful of Lehmann’s letters and set them on the table in a little time-worn pile. Letters from the architect Klaus Lehmann, written over twenty years, and collected by his wife. Where are
her
letters? Lily thought, and she went outside to find a phone.

In the phone box, which was still red and presumably protected, there was a message under a stone.
Call 999. Wait by the wall
… The writing was hurried and sloping, but after the first line the slopes got steeper and the writing turned into a waterfall of waves. She fingered this scrap of paper and waited for Nick to pick up his phone. ‘You know what to do,’ his message cut in, but instead of speaking she pressed her finger against the connection and with a little satisfying click she cut him off.
Lily stood for a long time in the phone box, her nose pressed against the pane. She knew it was a mistake not to have left a message and now she didn’t have any more change. She pushed the heavy door and stepped out on to the Green. The sea was rolling just behind the skyline, calling her, magnetic in its roar. It’s my first day, she told herself. I need to get my bearings – And she stumbled off along a pitted lane. Below the border of its brambles lay a flat slow river, crossed by a wooden bridge, and then the path struck upwards through white dunes. Lily walked between sharp grasses, her feet sinking into sand. The closer she got the more it drew her until, as she raced and struggled up the last bank, her heart was knocking at her chest. And there it was. Vast and blue and breathless, stretching to the edges of the world. Wind whipped into her ears, blowing clear air into her eyes and nose. Sand sprayed in gritty showers, scudding along in gusts, and Lily pulled her jacket round her and ran down to the shore. It was calmer here, and she crouched to get out of the wind, fingering the wet sand for stones and tiny transparent shells that slipped on to her fingertips like pads. Lily walked along the beach until she came to the black mouth of an estuary. At what moment does fresh water become salt? she wondered, watching as a sturdy motor boat chugged in, and she followed a path that ran above the river, on and on, until she’d left the village behind.

When she arrived back, it was too late to start work. The house was cold and shadowy and the brown lampshades gave off a dismal glow. She went outside to the small garden to look for the bunker for Fern Cottage coal. It was spitting with the first warnings of rain, and she glanced at the lighted windows of the adjoining house and wondered if they knew their washing was still out. When Lily lifted up the tin slat of the bunker, coal flooded out, surrounding her shoes. She knelt down and shovelled it up into the scuttle, feeling for the black lumps around her in the dark. The cottage was extraordinarily well stocked for such a tiny place. In the cupboard under the stairs – the items listed on a label – there was newspaper for kindling, a small pile of wood, and even a box of matches for the city tenants who might come unprepared. Lily held a sheet of paper over the mouth of the fire and waited for it to catch. It was warmer already, she thought, swaying on her heels, tired from the shock of so much air, and then with a roar the paper caught fire, leaping away from her and dancing into the room. She beat at it with a poker, squashing it back into the grate, but even after it was smothered, tiny blackened twirls of charcoal floated in the air.

Lily curled up on the sofa, eyeing the pile of letters she had so optimistically arranged. Eventually guilt overwhelmed her and she went and lifted the top one off the pile and, bringing it back to her nest by the fire, she prised it out of its envelope. The envelope was thin and dusty but inside it was lined with purple tissue, fine as silk. This splash of colour woke her a little and she sat up and began to read.
Meine Liebe
… The letters were in German. She’d known they would be, but it still gave her a shock.
My dear, my darling?
She glanced to the end of the letter.
Yours, for ever, L.
She’d been given these letters by a relative of Klaus Lehmann who lived in North London, in a flat in Belsize Park. She’d had the inspired idea of looking in the telephone directory and had found this man on only the second call. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to make copies?’ Lily asked, when he offered her the letters, packed in layers into an ancient plastic bag. But the man had simply opened the carrier bag and peered inside. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you look at them. They’re probably of no interest to anyone. And if they are…’
‘Yes?’ Lily urged him on.
‘You could hand them on to the Architectural Association. That’s it.’ He began to close the door.
‘Thankyou.’ She wanted to keep him talking. ‘And did you know him? I mean…’ She was calculating on her fingers, was he old enough, it was impossible to tell, to be Klaus Lehmann’s son?
‘I assume you can read German?’ he asked instead.
‘I can. Yes.’
‘Good.’ And with a nod, he shut the door.

Folded into this first letter, dated 1931, was a map of a rectangular room.
I’m here in Frankfurt waiting for the plans to be approved, and as always there are delays
. Lehmann’s writing was fine and fluid, black ink thinning to a scratch as he sped over the loops of Ks and Ls.
Are you aware, my sweetheart, how much of our married life I may have to be away? Although of course as my reputation soars I will be able to demand they accommodate my wife. But there is one benefit. I’ve seen some quite delightful shoes, and cheaper than you’d ever be likely to find at home. Shall I buy them? I hope you’ll say yes as I’ve already reserved two pairs in your size. Write immediately and tell me that I should.

Lily found that she was smiling. Lehmann, with his sharp lines and model buildings, with nothing on his mind but shoes.
There is nothing interesting about this room
, he went on.
Except that there is an empty table-top on which your photograph can sit. So, what can you see from your place here? A wooden bed, not so comfortable, an unusually hideous chair, and one wide window with tiny panes of glass
. Lily crept from the sofa to the floor and lay with one side scorched by the fire.
If only you were really here, my angel, but then you would be bored, and I should feel worse than I already do. Your writing is becoming more and more beautiful, did you know?
Lily sat up with a start. She’d forgotten to call Nick. She felt in her various pockets, hoping to find change, and found instead the scrap of paper from the phone box.
Call 999, wait by the wall
. Lily stared at it hard to see if there was any other sense in it, but once again there was only the disintegration of a line of waves. She pulled the curtain and cupped her hand against the glass. It was black outside, without a single street light, only the glow from the red pillar of the phone box shining out like the north star. I’ll wait until the morning, she decided, and she went upstairs to make the bed.
BOOK: The Sea House
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