By Tom Herbert
In the main bungalow on the Bennett’s island on the wide river, Jackie and Stuart Bennett were midway through dinner with Valery - Jackie’s sister - and her husband, Ernesto Garcia. They were eating sea bass that Stuart had caught that morning and drinking white wine. Jackie and Ernesto, sitting next to each-other, could see out through the large windows behind Valery and Stuart onto the porch and the clearing beyond, bordered by pine and oak trees, down towards the small sandy beach enclosed with rocks that Jackie carefully placed and rearranged at the start of every summer, out onto the blue river, still at that time of evening, with the Garcia’s island in view just a few hundred yards away.
Stuart and Valery’s view out through the windows behind Jackie and Ernesto was of the woodiest part of the Bennett’s island - too woody according to Jackie, who that afternoon had reminded Stuart to call Trevor, the local woodsman, to ask him to thin out the trees after they’d left at the end of the summer. Through the trees Stuart and Valery could see the sun setting on the horizon, with streaks of blue and pink in the sky and on the water.
‘Mm, this fish really is just lovely, Stuart,’ Valery said, her mouth half-full.
‘Mmm,’ Ernesto agreed. ‘And this wine -’ he reached for the bottle in the middle of the table - ‘such a … citrusy flavour.’ He squinted at the sticker on the bottle and started reading it aloud.
‘No, Ernie,’ Valery interrupted, and he smiled guiltily and put the bottle down.
‘Thank Christ,’ Stuart muttered, and Ernesto laughed, as if Stuart were joking.
Ernesto was sixty-eight years old. He wore glasses and had a pointed face with features that angled downwards. Born in Cuba, he’d lived in New York for most of his adult life, and had one previous marriage before his with Valery, with whom he had settled in Plandome. Both were retired, having worked for the same auctioneers; they were now dependent on Valery’s half of her father’s fortune, inherited after his death. Ernesto considered himself a wine expert, and had spent the last three years writing a book on Canadian wine, but it’d been rejected by all the publishers he’d sent it to. From his teenage years onwards, he had wanted to be respected by successful people, but never quite felt that he was. Sometimes he imagined dying and no one caring that much.
He was Valery’s third husband. She was sixty-five, her thick blonde hair was cut just below her ears, and her face was bright and broad. She had three children from her two previous marriages, only one of whom still communicated with her. Having enjoyed the distraction of work, she wasn’t sure what she wanted from the rest of her life, post-retirement, and for now directed her days in relation to social and cultural events, planning ahead so that one always followed another, occupying her mind with scheduling and responsibilities to prevent the intrusion of disturbing thoughts - like, ‘Has yours been a life well spent?’ Most days she drank alcohol steadily from lunchtime.
‘Help yourselves to some more,’ Jackie said, gesturing to the small circular table under one of the windows, on which was a bowl of potatoes and a bowl of green beans. ‘There’s no more fish, I’m afraid; Stuart doesn’t catch as much as he used to.’
She sipped her wine, gazing over Valery’s shoulder at the view through the window, feeling Stuart’s stare. Ernesto looked from her to Stuart expectantly, grinning as if the tone of her comment were lighter than it was and Stuart were about to give a witty response.
Jackie was two years older than Valery. She had short black hair and a sharp, bony face. She and Stuart had been married for forty-one years, had two daughters - both successful businesswomen - and now spent most of their time in San Francisco, although they had other houses in Tuscany and Lisbon. Jackie had never had a job, relying on her father’s fortune even before his death, but she worked constantly to keep everything she owned in order, whether that meant organising renovations on their houses or raking the beach on the island in the early hours of the morning.
‘Well, Ernie can’t catch a damn thing,’ Valery said. ‘He’s almost given up fishing altogether - haven’t you, darling?’
Ernesto smiled, pained.
‘I know I’ve suggested this before,’ she continued, turning to Stuart, ‘but you should take him out, Stu. He’d be happy to learn - wouldn’t you, darling?’
Ernesto looked at Stuart, his head lowered slightly like a hopeful dog.
‘Well, you know, Val ...’ Stuart began, ‘as I’ve said, I really prefer fishing alone, you know. Nothing personal, Ern. Just the way it is.’
‘No, no!’ Ernesto said, his head snapping back up, grinning wildly. ‘Of course! We all need some alone time, don’t we? You were just saying that today, Val, weren’t you? “Need some alone time.” No, I completely understand, Stuart. And I think I’d only get in the way, ha-ha!’
‘Mm, ha,’ Stuart agreed, and he forked his last potato into his mouth, chewing it slowly so that he wouldn’t be expected to say more on the matter. Then, gingerly, he stood up, wincing at the usual pain in his right hip while balancing himself with his right hand on the table.
‘Where are you going?’ Jackie asked.
‘What? To get more food.’
‘Haven’t you had enough?’
He glared at her. ‘You just asked us to help ourselves to some more,’ he said.
‘That was directed at our guests, dear,’ she said and looked down at his paunch. ‘I thought you were trying to lose a few pounds.’ She turned to Valery and explained, ‘Stuart’s been putting on weight.’
Stuart clattered his plate down on the table and started striding towards the door, but after two strides he cried, ‘Ah!’ in pain and limped the rest of the way out of the room.
Jackie calmly finished the sliver of wine left in her glass. Then she reached for the bottle and poured more into Valery and Ernesto’s glasses, before drizzling the remainder into hers. She glanced at her watch and said, ‘It’s that time of night, of course. He has to storm out at some point and it’s usually around this hour.’
Ernesto nodded nervously and grinned and then stopped grinning and then glanced at Valery to check what reaction to the situation was appropriate, but she seemed detached; her eyes were half-closed and her body was resting back in her chair.
‘I do tell him it’s bad for his heart,’ Jackie continued, ‘but he keeps doing it all the same.’ She sighed.
Occasionally, at moments when Stuart looked particularly fragile - heaving himself up out of bed or limping down towards the beach -, Jackie would remember that he was going to die, sooner or later; and, though she had never expressed it to him or anyone else, this sometimes triggered a feeling of fear and dread in her so intense that she would tremble.
Stuart was seventy-three. The top of his head was almost bald - there were a few curled strands of silver hair left - but his jaw was still strong, despite the inevitable drooping neck that comes with age. He had grown up in a relatively poor household in Leeds in England and had worked relentlessly to become a director of a major oil company, before retiring ten years previously. At work, his colleagues and associates had considered him tough, stubborn and ruthless, but his manner had changed after his retirement, and he had become more and more sentimental, particularly in his relationships with his daughters and grandchildren, all of whom he adored.
Despite this softening, he still judged people as either “winners” or “losers”. Sometimes he felt agitated, and would look for an outlet for his nervous energy; but, finding none, memories of the high-pressure situations and stress that were common in his job would enter his mind, and the feeling of agitation would turn into nostalgia and regret that he was now retired and old.
In the last three years, his desires had narrowed to two things: one was to be pain-free, which was rare now, and the other was simply to enjoy life, especially the parts he’d never dreamed were possible when he was younger - spending summers alone on an island with the woman he loved, for example. He took more time to appreciate such things, and would occasionally sit on a deckchair at the shore of the island, gazing at the surroundings, shaking his head in disbelief.
There were moments in which he feared death, or the thought of being in darkness or nothingness which he associated with death, and he would feel an urge to run away from the thought somehow, to travel somewhere alone and hide, as if by losing the things to which he was attached he would free himself from the process of dying. He felt frustratingly unskilled at dealing with such thoughts and feelings, and blamed a lifetime of acting as if he were immortal, as if all that were needed to escape death were strength and will.
Jackie twirled the stem of her glass between her fingers. Valery was lying back against her chair with a slight, vacant smile. Ernesto was tense.
‘Well!’ he said suddenly, raising his glass and grinning. ‘To expanding waistlines!’
Jackie and Valery ignored him.
‘Ha, ha,’ he said, and lowered the glass slowly.
Stuart had left the bungalow. Treading down the steps of the porch to the raised wooden path, he swore as the pain flared-up in his right hip. It was dark now and the ground-level lights either side of the path had lit up automatically. The air was still mild and smelled of pine. Insects were making their sounds all around and waves were softly lapping at the shore of the island.
Stuart stepped off the wooden path onto the wood chip path, and then walked into the woods towards the east edge of the island, limping a little, his hands in his pockets.
After a couple of minutes the dock came into view. Stuart’s sailboat and speedboat were tethered to one side and the Garcia’s speedboat was on the other. Stuart took his phone out of his pocket and turned on its torch and stepped carefully onto the dock. Then he walked to his sailboat and tossed his phone onto the cushioned seat in the stern with the torch shining upwards, put his hands on the side of the boat, breathed in deeply and pushed himself up into it. Once in the stern, he flopped down on the seat, releasing his breath with a groan. Then he picked up his phone and turned off the torch and returned it to his pocket.
The boat was bobbing up and down softly with the waves as Stuart looked out across the lake towards the mainland, feeling his heart beating harder than he liked, trying to control his breathing - in deeply for four counts, out slowly for seven.
In the dining-room, Jackie looked at the empty wine bottle and said, ‘We need a top up,’ and then stood, pushing her chair backwards with her legs so that it scraped against the floor, and took the bottle and walked out of the room.
Ernesto turned to Valery, whose eyes were closed.
‘V?’ he whispered. ‘V?’
He paused, waiting for her to acknowledge him, but her face remained still.
‘I’m going to get some air,’ he said quietly.
‘OK, Ernie,’ she murmured.
He got up and went around the table and then through the doorway into the living-room. Jackie was in the kitchen ahead, staring into the fridge. He opened his mouth to call to her, thinking he ought to explain where he was going, but then, assuming she wouldn’t care, he decided not to bother. He opened the front-door of the bungalow and then the mesh door that kept insects out, stepped outside and closed the doors behind him.
Jackie returned to the dining-room, holding a bottle of white wine. Valery was still lying back with her eyes closed.
Sitting, Jackie said, ‘The boys have scarpered.’
She opened the bottle and poured wine into Valery’s glass and then her own. She sipped some down and watched Valery for a few moments.
‘Come on then,’ she said. ‘What’s on your mind?’
‘I was thinking of writing to Joey,’ Valery said, opening her eyes. Joey was one of her daughters from her first marriage who no longer communicated with her.
‘Would that be wise?’
‘I don’t know, Jack,’ she sighed. ‘The idea just came into my head.’
They were still and silent for several seconds.
‘I need to call Hadley,’ Jackie said.
‘How is she?’
‘Oh, she’s fine, you know. She’s very happy. The company’s doing very well, so I assume she’s happy. She gives us a bulletin now and again but it’s always - they never say much. Anyway, yes … I miss her.’
‘Do you miss yours?’
Valery shifted on her chair.
‘Sometimes, I suppose,’ she said. ‘But what can you do?’
‘Doesn’t make any difference to them, does it?’
They sat silently again.
Leaning on the wooden porch railing, Ernesto looked down towards the beach, trying to see if Stuart were there; but he couldn’t see him, and so assumed that he’d gone to bed. He wished that he were in bed too, and decided to wait for Valery in their boat. He swayed into the dark woods towards the east edge of the island, feeling drunker than he’d felt indoors, and almost losing his footing when some wood chips on the path slipped out from under his shoe.
After a couple of minutes the dock came into view, lit by moonlight. Waves were quietly sloshing up the rocks of the shore. Ernesto stepped onto the dock and then noticed the silhouette of Stuart sitting in the stern of his sailboat, his back to the island, rising and falling with the waves. He thought Stuart probably wanted to be alone, that he might be sulking, or maybe stewing a little in anger. But then, seeing the hunched back of the old man and imagining his pain, he wondered if Stuart wasn’t feeling something more serious, something deeper. Sitting there in his sailboat, Ernesto wondered if he wasn’t feeling something like loneliness, perhaps - the kind of existential loneliness that Ernesto himself often felt.
With this thought Ernesto suddenly realised that, four years after their first meeting, he might finally have a chance to connect with Stuart, to share a human experience, a fundamental human feeling - to demonstrate his own depth of humanity and join Stuart as a fellow traveller on the final steps of the path of life. Emboldened, he started walking up the dock towards the sailboat. Stuart, hearing the footsteps, turned to see who was approaching, and when he made out that it was Ernesto he sighed with exasperation and said, ‘Oh, fuck off, Ernie.’
Ducking his head, Ernesto whispered, ‘Yes, sorry, Stuart,’ and swivelled around and walked quickly back down the dock to his and Valery’s speedboat. Then he clambered over the side, almost catching his foot on a rope, and flopped down in the stern. Recovering his poise, he glanced over at Stuart, who was staring back at him. They continued staring at each other for several seconds, and then Ernesto noticed that they were bobbing up and down alternately - as Stuart rose slowly with a wave, he fell, and vice versa.
Seeing the hostility in Stuart’s glare, or the pretense of hostility, Ernesto started to feel embarrassed for both of them, as if the motion of the waves, or nature itself, were mocking the sincerity with which they experienced their emotions, their thoughts, their little lives.