It’s dusk, there’s no traffic and the small Welsh fishing village seems deserted. On the horizon, a feeble sunset filters through storm clouds like the rusty dregs from some discarded teacup. In the decades since I’ve been here, it seems nothing and everything has changed.
A solitary beachcomber wanders along the shore, underscoring my own sense of desolation. Looking for a place to park, I pass a row of Victorian buildings. From large bay windows, elderly people are sitting alone, gazing out to sea like inhabitants of some grotesque Amsterdam whorehouse window. Their old eyes stare past me, reflecting the pale colours of the sunset. I see no joy here.
By the time I park, a mist is rolling inland over a badly repaired seawall. It’s almost dark as I step from the car’s warmth, the cold winter air chilling my mood further.
Locking the car for the last time, I throw the keys towards the sea and, with leaden feet, walk along the esplanade towards the hotel. The place where we had shared our first night.
The mist increases, its tendrils of ice penetrating my coat and making me shiver. Thickening into a fog, it dampens even the sound of the mocking gulls. Only an undulating moan from the waves washing the shore remains as a background lament. The world, appropriately, has turned dark, gray and somber.
The gloom is punctuated only by bursts of yellow from sodium street lights or the sudden flare of a passing car’s headlights creeping by in the murk.
In my mind, the past seemed as if it was repeating itself. If it were not for the modern sodium lighting it could be 1939 again. But back then the fog had held warmth, the glow of expectation and forthcoming delight. This night, this fog, held neither. My mind returned, as it always did, back to that first time with Jenny. It was so long ago …
‘That can’t be the place!’ I’d said, peering at a low wall and the broken gate. Visibility had dropped then, as now, to mere feet.
‘I hope not, my darling, because that looks simply awful,’ before adding hopefully, ‘it might be a little further along the road …’
So we’d stumbled along, nervously holding hands, looking for our hotel.
‘Oh! That’s it! That must be the place!’
‘Thank goodness! I said, being half-convinced the run-down wreck we’d just seen might have been our real hotel.
‘Yes, look …’
Barely visible, a faded sign told us we’d arrived at our proper destination. I took Jenny in my arms and kissed her. She responded with long repressed passion, pulling me so tight to her, I could hardly breathe.
‘Let’s get warm… inside.’ I managed to croak
‘Yes,’ she murmured, ‘I want you inside …’
More a guest house than a hotel, it nevertheless felt warm and welcoming as we dropped our strikingly different bags at the reception desk. The prim middle-aged woman behind the desk, the landlady we assumed, smiled professionally.
‘Just the one night, is it, then?’ She asked, in a soft Welsh accent.
‘Sadly, yes, just the one.’ I said, glancing at Jenny.
‘If you could both just sign the guest-register, here, then… Mr. & Mrs. Jones.’ Her tone held just the right amount of disbelief with a touch of irritation, perhaps thrown in for our lack of originality in our choice of names.
‘Room 23, top of the stairs on your right,’ she said casually, holding out a small key attached to a very large wooden key-fob. ‘Many guests lose their keys, you see.’
‘Ah, yes, I see …’
‘And in war time, we can’t afford that. If you lose it, there’s a fifty shilling replacement fee, you see,’ she said, sternly.
I shrugged. ‘The war will be all over by Christmas, so they say.’
‘Not if you listen to that Mr. Churchill, it won’t.’
‘No, true, but let’s hope he’s wrong.’
‘Well, do enjoy your stay; breakfast is at 8am sharp in the dining room, over there,’ she announced, waving her arm towards the dinning room. We’d been dismissed.
Our room was comfortable and reasonably spacious, but neither of us noticed as we fell upon the bed, aware only that we were together at last. Clothes fell quickly away, desire overriding any romantic seduction technique planned. We made love, taking each other far too quickly, but knowing we had all night. By midnight, the fog had been blown away, replaced by a storm with a ferocity that matched our passion. In the darkness, lightening flashed and the wind added its keening wail to our consummation.
The landlady, of course, was right. We didn’t see each other again for five years, not until the war ended, in 1945. Then, when we could, we would meet, perhaps once a month, at the same hotel. My marriage by this time had ended, yet Jenny would not leave her husband. She was trapped and bound by duty and loyalty to one, while preferring another. I bought a small house, not far from the hotel, and this became our home – when she could find herself free.
But the strain eventually told, and it became too much, and she finally told me it was over. Her mind was made up, no arguments could dissuade her. That terrible night I held her close, holding her tight – tighter than I should, tighter than I dreamed possible – unable to let her go. Then I left that house, the house that should have been our home, and never returned to it, or to the area.
Until now. The house, dilapidated and compulsory purchased by the Council for a new bypass, is not too far away. But the bulldozers are even closer. Tomorrow they move. Tomorrow it will be gone.
The fog is as cold as on that first night and the memory is as fresh. The hotel is newly painted but is recognizably the same. The effeminate young man at the reception desk doesn’t even bother to smile professionally. I’m an old man, like so many other old men, and hardly worth the effort. Age has made me invisible. No wooden key-fob this time, just a card-swipe. No breakfast either.
In the bedroom – our bedroom – I move the chair close to the bay window. My reflection stares balefully back at me from the black, water-streaked glass. How many secrets do all the other sad and lonely watchers guard, as they too gaze out to sea?
Night’s end, the dawn is building and the growing daylight is overwhelming my reflection. I’m fading away. The bulldozers will find her. They will find her body and then they will find mine.
It’s time to go, and at night’s end to be reunited.