Mrs R. Adams was married. She had no children. She had flat feet, a fondness for éclairs and a hurried excitable laugh that sounded like a wren’s warble. She also had a weight in her and longed for it to be lifted.
It weighed a little less today. The sun was out and the baby seagull that had taken to crying down the chimney each morning into her small Brighton hotel room had not yet begun.
It had been the doctor who had suggested a short period of convalescence by the sea. It would be just the ticket, he had said. The sea air would do her the world of good, her husband had echoed. Neither man understood the first thing about the weight but she did not have a mind to disagree with them.
The Blenheim ‘Family’ Hotel was reasonable, she supposed. It was located on Marlborough Place, just back from the Old Steine. The linen was white; the breakfast ample. Her room was not the worst of the hotel’s sixty-five – she had glimpsed at least three that were much worse in the nine days since she had arrived.
Mrs Adams could just about tolerate the stale smell that peaked as she opened the curtains sharply before breakfast. She opened them in this way in the hope that it would scare the baby seagull from its nest or at the very least quieten him for a moment. It was a boy, she was sure of it. There was also a part of her that felt she should open the curtains like this – to fling them open in a manner that might get a response from the world.
Some of the rooms in the hotel looked out onto the Royal Pavilion. Hers did not. She had discovered that if she looked through the bottom of a glass tumbler at the sky then she could almost imagine she had a sea view. There was not all that much to do when convalescing.
Another thing that you might not know about Mrs Adams was that her first name was Ruby and that Ruby liked to imagine being hugged by a giant grizzly bear to the point at which her own life would end. She did not care for teddy bears or koala bears, or any other bears for that matter. In fact, it wasn’t even that she cared for grizzly bears. Instead it was the thought of having her face pressed into such thick wiry fur and getting her chest slowly squeezed until her last breath was crushed from her that pleased her. It was at this point that the heaviness finally lifted.
Let us talk now of the weight. The weight began in June 1927 at the precise moment he buttoned his overcoat and left the room. Not her husband you understand, but him – MAN. That strange apparition she had happened upon outside Finch’s at the Colville Terrace and Elgin Crescent junction on Portobello that Saturday afternoon.
She knew he was not to be trusted as soon as she saw him. He seemed to be in shadow at all times, even when the sun was high in the sky and there was not a cloud to be seen. He was a conjurer’s trick, a mirage, an illusion. She knew beyond all doubt that it was the worst possible idea to be following this stranger down side streets and cut-throughs on the basis of a single look. She knew that she should never have followed him to the lodging room even as she flicked her tongue up behind his two front teeth and felt his hand tighten further upon her left breast.
Ruby gave herself to him that afternoon. More accurately she lost herself to him. Her upbringing, her responsibilities, her commitment to her husband, her morals, her dignity, her religion, her God as well as any chance of ever being truly happy. She lost it with each spasm of each muscle, with every wave of pleasure that shook her.
Then he was gone.
She returned home that evening to starch Harold’s shirts, smell his pipe smoke, taste his polite overwhelming ordinariness that she had continued to do so for every second of every day since.
It began around her neck at first but soon it made its way inside her skin, through muscle, cartilage and into her windpipe. She would swallow lumps of it in little hiccup-like sobs. Dislodged, over months, it travelled down into the pit of her stomach where it settled. That was the weight.
He had never mentioned his name – not once in that afternoon they spent together. He said to her: “I am a man. And you are the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen. This is all we know. All we need.”
He was a traveller, she could tell. The salt on his shoulder was not familiar to her lips. He did not taste of London or any place she knew.
The Hotel owner’s wife, Mrs German, was standing in front of Ruby. She had personally delivered the souvenir postcard set to Ruby’s room and was still somewhat excited by its colourfulness and how the bear on the back seemed to be grinning so. She had handed it to Ruby and waited longer than she needed to. Ruby did not open it but had simply stood there with it pinched between her fingers. She knew who it was from. Eventually, she said thank you for a second time before Mrs German turned away and headed back down the corridor.
Ruby sat down on the corner of the bed and opened it. Her hands were shaking and she found it difficult to breathe. She read the short inscription. She read those same 20 characters a million times, gasping for air each time she finished reading. “FROM MAN WITH LOVE.”
She looked through the postcard set. There were sixteen photographs in total from Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Where he had once been. She read the 20 characters again. At the giant trees. And read the 20 characters again, tracing the letters with her index finger. At the man on the horse. And read the 20 characters again. At the flowers. And read the 20 characters again. She went back to the giant bear on the back and she knew that he was the one to crush her. And then she read the 20 characters again.
At some point she stopped reading and held the postcards to her nose instead and inhaled, breathed it through her. She imagined then that she could smell him – peat, Bergamot, whiskey, cloves. The weight lifted slightly. It was impossible.
She put the postcard set in her bag and headed out into the evening. She walked down the Old Steine to the seafront and along the front towards the pier. She watched the starlings swoop beneath the pier. Hitching her skirt a little, she walked out across the pebbles towards them. She saw their beaks eating the last flecks of daylight.
The darkness was complete and she walked on. She felt the waters slip a shoe from her foot and the spaces between the pebbles suck at her toes. The weight lifted some more. She felt the first wave.