The Business of Shells
I sold seashells by the seashore. The same shore where they could be picked up for free. Except for holiday makers, though, or those with time on their hands – lonely figures wandering the tide’s edge – people were too busy to look for them. Anyway, my top price was tuppence, and I was a kid who’d chalked all the prices on the promenade and the weather was grey and it must’ve been pity that made an old couple buy one. No one else did. A light rain washed my prices away and made all the unsold shells shine and seem stupid. I kicked them off the promenade, back onto the beach.
Dad made a big show of being proud of me for trying. He said failure was part of trying, part of the road to success. I thought he would buy one, but he didn’t, not because it was part of the hard lesson of business, he was just careful with money. He always told me that money was something you had to be ‘careful’ with, as though it was delicate or easily spooked. When I told Auntie Maureen that story, years later, she said he was ‘tight’ and that’s all there was to it.
I don’t remember the first time I met Gary. He just seemed to be there, stuck in the corner of the staff room with a coffee and a smoke. He wasn’t all that forthcoming, which surprised me later. We went on a few of the work nights out and got talking. At some point, he told me about his plan for starting a business. I must’ve seemed more keen than I remember. He made sure it gathered momentum. Next thing, we were standing in front of an open shipping container staring at a whole load of old terracotta pots and amphorae and barnacle-encrusted tiles we’d bought and Gary was talking away excitedly and I was just thinking to myself seashells, seashells, seashells.
Gary was everywhere: bustling, phoning, driving, buying, talking, selling, lunching. Never hectic, just always doing. Even when we started to travel abroad, finding out of the way places, he seemed to know someone. We’d drive into a hidden farmyard and a grinning face I’d never seen would hold out a hand in welcome, saying ‘Garee! Garee!’ Or we’d be sat over a fish stew in a busy port within sight of the ships unloading, the stink of marine diesel, brine and cigarettes everywhere, when a pair of hands would clasp his shoulders with a “Jeesoos Chreest, Gary man!”
He took me to the British Museum one wet afternoon when a meeting had finished early. Walking slowly past all those pieces, staring at the black and red figures behind the glass, motionless in their centuries-old moment, Gary said softly “I love that we’re a part of all this now.” There was a reverence in the way he spoke, a recognition of some timeless worth.
My mother wasn’t always ill, but I only have two faint memories from before her depression began. In one of them, she holds an ice cream cone for me while I brush the sand off my hands so that I can take it. There is such patience in her expression. The other is of her at home, looking out the window at the rain: silent and motionless, staring at the grey wet world outside, its little waters moving down the windowpane just inches from her face.
When she became ill, our world hung between arguments and long, wounded hours of silence. Closed doors would leak muffled rage or entomb another sadness. It was worse when she drank, more extreme. I knew from early on that Dad couldn’t cope. There was a quality to his voice, a shadowing fear he could never hide even when he was shouting at her. Only when Auntie Maureen moved in did things change. Everything became quieter. Mum slept for long stretches during the day. She drank mostly later and Maureen would put her to bed, though I didn’t know about the pills she gave her till years later. Afterwards, Maureen would talk to Dad, holding him if he needed it. I saw her once, sitting with him on the sofa, rocking him in her arms as he sobbed.
Jane is keeping the house. It seems fair; her father put up most of the money for it. As I’ve moved my stuff out, it’s become clear how little I own. For one who’s spent years trafficking in decorative objects with which to adorn a life, I don’t seem to have accrued many myself. Gary did; each newer, bigger house he bought always brimmed with them. He joked that it was all reserve stock. With so many pieces adorning his shelves or standing in mute magnificence in the corner of a room, I could never understand how he felt any particular attachment to each, how the sheer number didn’t drain them of value.
Some of our wealthier clients would invite us to meet their interior designers. We were led through acres of taste by ebullient men in flamboyant clothes who explained their visions while their paymasters looked on with rich, casual pride – though we soon learned these people were as careful with money as my father. Abundance had made it no less fragile.
Gary realised from the start that the back door into that part of post-communist Europe that dipped its toes in the Med. wouldn’t stay ajar for ever. Once others had seen how valuable a cargo the olive jars of antiquity still carried, he knew our margins wouldn’t last. In the upheavals of change and war, he never cheated anyone or stole anything; he just made sure everything was organised and easy when he turned up where his ready cash was as welcome as the terracotta was plentiful.
There was no moment when I realised I’d joined his historical collection. Perhaps my superfluous affability and ease were sentimental relics of his early success. I realised that while he never wanted me to leave the company, he would never want me to help him start another. Like it, I was bound for the museum glass, my moment etched on the memory of a sunlit hotel terrace after another successful day’s business, sipping wine and chatting to him as we stared out at that most beguiling and exploited of seas.
She wasn’t really my auntie. I think she did some work for Dad’s firm. He began bringing her home. There was no announcement, no scenes. She just took part more and more in our family until she came to be holding it together. Her presence was one of the three certainties of my later childhood, alongside Mum’s disintegration and Dad’s inability to deal with it. And while I didn’t see the pills she gave Mum or the money she took from Dad, I came, like them, to think of her as essential.
She was a dozen years younger than my parents, though she seemed older, more capable, with a disposition toward managing chaos, a quiet ability to re-fashion unravelling things. Where my mother saw nothing and my father only ruin, Maureen saw what could be worked upon to work again. That’s why I don’t believe she was using us, not entirely. I don’t think she could help helping us. It was part of her character. She had what we lacked and I’m not sure it occurred to her – or us – not to make up the deficit.
Certainly, her place in our lives could be measured – perhaps valued is a better word – by the fact that my father turned a blind eye to what she stole. In fact, he went as far as to tell me that she had her own money, inventing some inheritance which she had wisely invested. He still maintained this fiction years later, claiming that she, too, had been careful with money, though by then I knew that the money she’d been far from careful with had been his all along. I think he was worried I might feel cheated of part of my inheritance. I didn’t tell him that I understood not only why he’d let her steal from him for years, but why he’d given her even more at the end. And I didn’t tell him that what had come to haunt me was nothing that she’d taken from him, but rather something that I hadn’t taken from her.
One of Gary’s ideas was to combine bits of civilisation’s enduring bric-a-brac in order to increase the sum of their parts. Setting a low value ancient coin into a fragment of relatively worthless tile produced an object of greater price. He was always careful to ensure that each component was genuine (he abhorred the imitation nick-nacks stuffing the shelves in museum gift shops) and presented the newly paired objects as merely re-combined authentics retaining all of their pedigree. They sold very, very well.
Jane has several. I’ve watched her encase them carefully in bubble wrap before boxing them up. Not that she’s preserved all of the past. She’s having the whole house redone, re-decorated, wiped clean, so that while I’ve been packing my stuff to leave, she’s packing hers to stay, though it seems she doesn’t share the irony I see in this. She’s a practical person. That’s why she had the affair with Gary. The balance of our life had gone; he righted it for her, at least, for a couple of years. When he ended it, I saw in her features – albeit only temporarily – the same expression that I had in my father’s before Maureen came to stay: the realisation of some broken integrity, a sense of fragmented components. Whereas he thought that money – bled away in the wanting wound of Maureen – would preserve something of what he’d lost, Jane trusts planning and determination to reassemble her vestiges.
Dad’s inability to cope would manifest itself in a brief depression followed by some physical complaint, normally a stomach upset or migraine. He and Mum had separate rooms. I would enter a house haunted by the occasional bedbound cough or the creaking of the floorboards above in the upstairs hall. Once Maureen moved in, she and I would sit downstairs on such days, our voices subdued, our movements discreet as we picked through the frail atmosphere of muted care.
She was a great magazine reader, Maureen. Deliberately, with the air of someone delayed indefinitely at an airport, she worked her way through them. We evolved that inconspicuous ease which quiet people who have nothing in common with each other develop when they are forced to share an environment. Teas, meals, tasks and pleasantries were prepared or exchanged with a fluid, remarkably uncontested habituation.
Dad assumed a rhythmic, echo-like response to Mum’s slowly worsening condition, his retirements lagging only just behind hers. Once she became more permanently confined to her room, her episodes were played out there, dramas of shouted insult and childish acts of vandalism from which Dad, visibly shaken, would hurry once Maureen had brought her pills. Somehow – I never asked, then or since – Mum still managed to get hold of drink. I came in from school once to find her, blazing but vague, banging one open palm down repeatedly on the kitchen table while holding a near empty bottle of gin in the other, screaming that her years had been wasted, wasted. Dad was upstairs on the phone, pleading with Maureen.
Occasionally, Mum would sit in one of the armchairs in the sitting room, her dulled gaze lost on the sea’s grey vagueness. There was a picnic on the beach once: Maureen the mistress of the hamper while Dad fussed round Mum’s uncooperative blanket and her uneaten plate of food. I remember lying in bed that night listening to Dad and Maureen in the room next door, his muted climax dwindling to steady, equally muted snores, from which Maureen padded downstairs to make tea and read a magazine.
I tried explaining the setup in our house to my first girlfriend, but I could see how compromised it sounded. After that, on the rare occasions when friends came to stay, I kept any descriptions vague, merely hinting that Mum’s illness was at the root of it. A year after staring work, I got my own flat, but visited weekly, sleeping over sometimes. On one of these nights, when Dad had taken another migraine to bed, Maureen and I stayed up, speaking about how Mum was getting worse, how it might end. She said Dad would never talk about it, as if he wasn’t prepared. He seemed wedded to the idea of Mum simply lessening, year after year, without any final resolution.
There was wine still left from dinner and we sat at the table, talking unhurriedly in our hushed habit. It was only towards the end, when I’d begun to think of going up, that I detected the unease in her voice, an awkwardness that was strange enough in itself to make me stay and listen. Haltingly, confessing how guilty it made her feel even telling me with Mum in the same house, Maureen confided that she still, after all this time, didn’t know what Dad really felt for her. Though she’d accepted years before that their situation wasn’t conventional, she felt she’d never received the reassurance she needed from him, the confirmation that, however circumscribed, there was some emotional certainty there which she could rely on. Anger crept into her voice, and a bitterness which, when she’d stopped talking, caused her to shake her head in silence. I’d never seen her like this. I told her, quite truthfully, that I believed Dad needed her – indeed, depended on her utterly – but that Mum’s illness had always been some kind of guilty, unmanageable spectre in his mind. I avoided the word ‘love’, as I had no idea whether being unable to live a day without her would, for him, constitute love. The conversation ended soon afterwards. I remember going to bed uncertain as to whether I’d allayed her doubts.
I woke in the night to Mum’s voice half-crying out the end of a nightmare. When I got to Mum’s room, Maureen was bending over her, stroking her head and making sure the covers were on her. She smiled at me, nodding that it was OK.
In the morning, Maureen told me Dad’s migraine was still bad. I was planning to leave after breakfast and had already checked in on Mum, who was half-awake and peaceful, her troubling dream forgotten. Maureen made me a bacon sandwich. She, too, seemed untouched by the previous night. Our talk wasn’t mentioned. Her manner was as calm, unhurried and hushed as ever. She sat in her dressing gown, reading a magazine on the table in front of her, commenting occasionally. I’d just buttered some toast and was scanning the table for the marmalade when I noticed that she was leaning forward as she read, and that her dressing gown had gapped on one side, showing her breast, the skin palely freckled, the nipple dark. Absorbed in her magazine, she was unaware. I looked again, shocked by how immediately different what I saw made her seem to me, how erotic I found it. I couldn’t stop looking until I glanced up and met her eyes staring at mine. An almost physical shock at being discovered, a violating storm of guilt and shame, emptied my mind, stripping it to a scoured, shadowless space. Then I came back to myself and realised that she hadn’t moved or said anything, just kept staring at me.
On our first business trip, Gary and I flew to Venice. He’d wanted us to see as much of our new world as possible, so we took a train to Ljubljana. After two hours in a bad-tempered queue of tourists in Venice’s packed station, and then nearly missing our train which inexplicably departed from an unannounced platform, we sat through an increasingly peaceful journey while the attentive and welcoming Slovenian train crew attended to our gathering sense of calm. The landscape changed, becoming less tended, somehow older, its boulder-strewn heather and scattered copses of pine spreading between small, patched fields of isolated farmstead.
Ljubljana itself seemed poised, breath held, for the capitalism’s anticipated arrival. Neither the streets nor the echoing ugliness of the hotels which had been converted from old Communist Party buildings were busy. In a deserted courtyard of one of the brash, over-eager new restaurants we sat on our first night, eating gilt-head bream and a lush salad while around us the expectant city waited for more of our kind. Gary was excited, sensing both the impeccability of our timing and, to the southwest, the beckoning lure of Croatia’s thousand wreck-strewn islands.
Next day, in ancient rolling stock, we clattered along to Istria, passing increasingly small stations in front of which a saluting guard would stand, cap on head and bright flag in hand as we passed. At the border, we disembarked and walked over the lines to an equally old train waiting for us the other side of a pleasingly Cold War passport check.
We spent a fortnight driving past ubiquitous roadside stalls selling hog roasts or any number of different flavoured grappas, toasts of which sealed every amiable business meeting we had with our new suppliers. One afternoon, I watched a battered, antique combine harvester without a cab, driven by a man using a tatty beach umbrella to shield him from the sun, picking its way round a village to harvest the half dozen tiny strips of wheat growing like outsize allotments between the antique houses, many of which still sold their own wine from ramshackle doors past which I wandered feeling increasingly like some herald of the forces of change that would sweep all this away for ever.
On our last day, standing on a beach under a wide sky, blue as a Renaissance Madonna’s robes, I stared at the pale exquisite, shells glittering in the shallows’ clarity. Ahead of me, its surface awash with white-gold sun, the sea seemed to hold its green islands up for show, their blanched shores of rock and shingle shimmering in the heat. Overhead, small gulls glided past. I felt I could stay there, lost in nothing but warmth and the sound of clear waters folding and falling at my feet. Gary found me and we ate nearby, buoyed by a sense of limitlessness. We flew back, certain that the future was ours.
What I couldn’t tell Jane when she asked me for a divorce was how much I thought – had never stopped thinking – about Maureen. As the distances of our marriage were growing, its observances becoming husked, brittle things, I realised that it wasn’t just Jane; no lover had been able to dispel the persistent haunting of that moment. Before I’d even hurried, still dazed, from the house that morning, before Maureen had even tightened her gown, casually closing it’s spurned, never-intended, never-repeated, never-referred-to invitation, it had become ineradicably loosed on my imagination. Virus-like, mutating over the years through a procession of warped what-ifs, it thrived on the rich plenty of regret and thwarted lust. By the time Jane sat opposite me at our kitchen table to say that she had had enough, the guilt I felt at that ancient moment’s relentless infection was already so much older than the marriage in whose honeymoon bed I had found myself thinking what I would do if time rolled back on itself and sat me once again before the unwavering stare of that silent, motionless offer.
After Maureen left, I got into the habit of taking Dad out from the retirement home where he’d moved. If the weather was bad, we’d end up in one of the cafés on the front, two reserved men watching the condensation run down the window as our teas cooled. But mostly we managed a walk, Dad using his stick till he felt tired enough for me to push him in the chair. His favourite spot was at the far end, where the promenade, following the rocks of the headland round a narrow curve, butted into the sea like a ship’s blunt prow. We would sit on the bench, behind thickly painted white railings, staring out over the sea. I grew to like the spot, too; it forced a peace into my days. We never spoke much, just sat watching the never-still play of the water and its drifting cast of gull and cloud.
Maureen had used the money Dad gave her to start a life in Canada. Older and having frittered the steady stream she’d got from him over the years, she felt this was her last chance. There were a couple of phone calls at first and then a handful of letters full of her new life out west. They were among the few personal items I took from the home when he died. After that, nothing. Not that he ever spoke about it. When he did talk, during our walks, it was usually about Mum, about the years before her illness. I don’t know whether he did this for my sake, or whether it was just that their lives had been so bound up with this faded seaside town that it leaked back memories with every look. He’d scattered her ashes on this beach, one unexpectedly windless and warm November afternoon, and it was here, too, where I’d collected my shells to sell, and where she had held the ice cream patiently for me all those years before.
So we sat behind the white bars of the railing, above the beach where Mum lay with our past, staring out over the restless dull grey glare of the sea, westwards, towards the pale haze of the low afternoon sun and the great silence beyond.
Craig Dobson had fiction published in Active Muse, Better Than Starbucks, Black Works, The Eunoia Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Frogmore Papers, The Interpreter’s House, Literally Stories, Runcible Spoon and Short Fiction Magazine. He has work forthcoming in Flash and The Delmarva Review. He lives and work in the UK.