The evening before they sailed, Guy insisted they take a tram from their hotel to a beach not far away. Helen was filled with excitement. They had gone earlier in the day to see the steamer, the Malolo, on which they would live for the next few weeks.
While the tram stopped and started, Guy recited over and over to Helen the phases of the journey.
“First you sail to Wellington, then it’s six days to Raratonga.” This name he pronounced with the flourish the consonants seemed to demand. “Then it’s two more to Tahiti.” He sang the word ‘Tahiti’. “And then twelve, I said twelve,” holding up his two hands, followed by two fingers, “more days to San Francisco. There you will disembark from the boat, find your land legs again,” (here Helen looked down at her legs in wonder), “and then you will go by train to Chicago. That’s four days more. On the very last day, you will take a bus to your American grandparents’ house.”
Staring out of the window, Pauline listened quietly, thrilled by the exotic names but also filled with dread. She wondered how she would manage all those long days without Guy there beside her. She appreciated his buoyant cheer; but she was also confused.
She thought yet again, “Why is he letting us go like this?”
She twisted the strap of her handbag round and round. For the last several weeks, she avoided thinking about the conference and the change she felt upon his return. She brushed off the tension between them, attributing it to work, to financial worries, to concerns for the political unrest in Europe and Asia. But now in Sydney, so close to her departure, she was constantly reminded of her misgivings and aware that they had originated with his trip here. She turned to him, wanting to ask if there was something she should know, but he smiled at her and kissed the top of Helen’s head with such tenderness that she couldn’t bear to think of an ugly accusation intruding on their last hours together. She bit her lip and turned once again to the scene out the window.
They disembarked at the beach, wandering on a trail that led through the dunes. Helen danced in excitement, making up a little song out of the words Malolo and Tahiti. Guy joined in, his bass joining with her baby tones.
“He’s happy we’re leaving,” Pauline decided.
As they climbed down the rocks and stepped onto the sand, Guy swung Helen up. He held her up with one strong arm and untied her shoes with his free hand. Putting her down, he kicked off his own shoes and placed him off to the side, stripping off his suit jacket and laying it across a low rock. He bent over and rolled up his pant legs one by one. Pauline stood watching.
“This is no time for formality, Paulie. We’re at the beach,” indicating with a wide sweep of his arm the stretch of golden shore. He led her over to a boulder, insisting she sit. Then he knelt before her and took off her shoes.
Helen was near the water looking for shells. She came running back to show her parents. Guy took out his handkerchief, found a stick on the beach and fashioned a useful little bag for his daughter’s treasures. She ran off again, jubilant.
Guy took hold of Pauline’s hand and they walked along. She felt a pang. This was how they had been in London all those years ago. Together, side-by-side. How long had it been since they had walked together like this? She couldn’t remember.
When they reached the water, a wave rushed up and swallowed their feet. It was cold, but Pauline was glad. It pushed away every other sensation.
There were a few others on the beach: a man with a dog, some young lovers completely entranced with each other, an older couple, grey-haired and wizened by the sun.
Guy bent to pick up a piece of driftwood. It was a rich golden brown, a colour Pauline imagined could be found only in the sand of the Saraha. She must have said so, although she didn’t recollect speaking, because Guy, with the cheerfulness he’d been exhibiting all day, elaborated on her image.
“That’s because it spent many a long year traveling through the desert as the staff of a nomadic chieftain. And this, of course, was after it spent several months touring the ocean in the belly of a whale, and after it touched down on a few uninhabited islands, sometimes for decades, other times only until the next tide.”
Pauline fell under his spell and laughed in spite of the knot in her belly.
“And what had it been originally?” she asked entering into the game.
“Why, it was a mast from Captain Cook’s ship, of course. And if my sources are correct,” he added with a touch of academic posturing, “Cook’s mast was remade from an old ship of Magellan’s. So this lost piece of driftwood witnessed the bumping into of two new continents.”
He handed it to her with a flourish and a bow, like a knight handing a scepter to a queen. She took it from him slowly and gazed at the soft whorls in the wood. The fun drained from the moment as tears filled her eyes. She clutched it to her breast and raised her eyes to look into his, choking.
“Paulie.” He reached out his arms and pulled her to him. All the coldness between them melted away. He stood with her the way she had always known him, a beautiful loving soul, her man, the one she’d chosen.
“It’ll be okay,” she heard him saying. “I promise you.”
He kissed her temple and held her for a long moment until Helen raced up with her bag of shells and pebbles. Guy lifted his daughter up onto his shoulders, and they walked along in silence.
Inwardly, a succession of thoughts and emotions swirled. Pauline felt first that she shouldn’t go, that she belonged here beside him. He was letting her leave. But why? That kiss, the embrace, she was sure were genuine. He loved her. She did not doubt it. But why, then, she wondered, was he encouraging her to leave? And why had she proposed such a thing in the first place?
Guy was dangling Helen’s feet in the incoming waves, jumping when they rose too high and threatened to wet her clothes. With a stab, Pauline felt certain that something had indeed happened to come between them. But she knew too that she wouldn’t ask. Not tonight when she was about to leave and be so very far away. And maybe not in three months when he joined them in America. They might just be able to pick up from here, from the kiss on the beach, and be healed slowly without ever having to face what really happened.
“Wouldn’t that be best?” she wondered.
(To be continued….)
From The Tower of Forgetting