(after a watercolour by Mary Fedden OBE RA)
It is early morning, a Tuesday in June. It is May’s birthday. She likes to get up early on her birthday and join her husband on the beach. He has been up since five, fiddling about, making tea, reading a little, avoiding his desk. May thinks, when she watches him dress with a half an eye open feigning sleep, he looks so distinguished with his silver, nearly white hair and that beard (her suggestion). And today I am forty-five and he is . . . old enough to be my father. But he is my companion, my love, my watcher who stalks me still with his gaze of admiration, which I never tire of when we are alone, but I am sometimes embarrassed by when we are in company. He knows this, but he can’t help himself. He says he loves to watch me cross a room, stand still against a window, reach for a vase on a shelf, sit at my work table, intent.
May sees him far down the beach as she walks with purpose through the dunes that separate their cottage from the beach. Her short boots glisten with the heavy dew. She has pulled on her work dress over her striped nightshirt, a dress she wove in a grey Jura their first long winter. There he is in his stupid cap his grandson gave him when he acquired the boat. He’s carrying a fishing net to collect creatures from the rock pools further down the beach. She remembers when this ‘interest’ began. He had read to her one night a long extract from *Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. It was a kind of threnody to a state that once existed, a veritable Garden of Eden, destroyed in two generations by a mid-Victorian passion for sea-shore collecting. ‘These rock-basins’ Gosse had written, ’fringed by corallines, filled with still water almost as pellucid as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms of life, - they exist no longer, they are all profaned, and emptied and vulgarized. The fairy paradise has been violated, the exquisite product of the centuries of natural selection has been crushed under the rough paw of well-meaning curiosity.'
She loved to hear him read, knowing that he loved to read to her. The joy on his face sometimes; it was worth enduring all the strange things he found to read (she fell asleep so often as he read) just for those occasions when she felt pinned to her seat, grappled to her bed like Gulliver, wishing it would never stop, such words, his dear voice. How long had it been now?
He didn’t walk to meet her. He let her walk to him. He stood there waiting. When she drew close he stretched out his arms and arranged her body in front of him, walked back a little and smiled his admiring smile. There were almost tears in his eyes, as there so often were when he had no words. She knew on his desk there would be a poem, and like the poet Ted Hughes (who neither of them could deal with), a birthday letter waiting to be given to her at breakfast, with gifts she knew he had worried over.
She stood quite still and let the fresh September wind gather her now quite long hair and turning away from him, let it stream behind her. He had turned too, realising in saying nothing he had said too much. He remembered another birthday on a different shore, a day when she had surrounded him, captured him, loved him with a passion that had now tempered, was the stuff of his writing that now had found its way into a 100 Love Poems to Read before you Die. He had long since refused to speak these out loud, refused to be visible anymore, would not be interviewed; it was now the novel, the long, long journey of a novel, the months, years even (In Praise of Rust took three agonising years).
And now, standing in this sun-glinting bay, ignoring the lighthouse, May thought of Mrs Ramsey and that summer party on Skye, those earnest young men, those artistic young women, and her commanding husband who would not look at the lighthouse, who would not countenance a visit.
Her husband, strange to think this because she never felt herself his wife, never commanded anything. He made decisions, and then laid things gently aside. It was enough for him to have been decisive. What she did with that was up to her. He wanted her to be free, always free from any command. When they married, to him it was like the silent grace they ‘said’ at each meal. She knew it had meant so much to him: the silence of that moment. He had read to her the morning of their marriage a text from William Penn – she had remembered one phrase ‘Between a man and his wife nothing ought to rule but love . . .’ And he yet had never commanded her. He seemed to admire her being her own self. She was not his. They were the dearest friends, weren’t they? He expected nothing from her (he had said this so often), no commitment, no promise; just gentleness, a peaceful nature, an understanding that he loved her with a passion she would never understand because she knew he did not understand it himself.