Julia’s Breakfast Redux by Rolf Venner


Julia pressed send towards dawn and rose from her desk, her work done. She felt the tough pull of kip and would have turned in, had not walk before sleep been her rule. She slipped on her gaudy orange fleece and left the house, taking the path across the fields.

It was a solitary walk, and one on which she could relish the intensity of her own company even when exhausted. Glimpses of skylarks over the barley filled her with the promise of joy and provided her with all the fellowship she needed. As she hit her stride, the path swallowed her weariness and her head began to clear. Clarity enough for a moment of self-admonishment: two years Peter had been gone, and she was still licking her wounds.

The wind was up when Julia reached the dunes. The sea was grey, thick and seething. There were no seals, but a huge wave caught her attention, a wave that gathered and formed a substantial wall as it moved towards the shore. It seemed to hang for a moment before breaking. From inside its arch emerged the towering figure of woman over whose back the wave broke, crashing down around her with a long hissing of spray and foam.

The woman stepped naked from the sea. Julia watched her proceed across the beach towards the abandoned bus shelter. Very tall and straight, with silver hair blowing forward over her face, she walked with the air of someone who knew her ground.

Ahoy there!’ The woman had reached the bus shelter and was waving something in the air. Julia strode along the tideline towards her.

Have a drop of this,’ said the woman, handing Julia a bottle. ‘Makes a good breakfast, it does. Separates the liver from the kidneys….’

Thank you.’ Julia looked at the bottle; it had no label. She sniffed it before taking a swig. ‘Brrr… Gin! I don’t think I’ve ever had gin for breakfast.’

I don’t think I’ve ever not!’

Goodness!’ Julia laughed, rubbing the sand grains from her lips on to the back of her hand as she returned the bottle. Her companion was seated on the bench but was so tall she could have been standing. Her wrinkled blue skin made it clear she was extremely old. Julia thought her very beautiful, with the natural beauty of a boulder or driftwood.

I should introduce myself,’ said the woman. ‘I’m Jill…. And who might you be?’

I’m Julia….’

I’ve not seen you here before, Julia.’

I walk here most mornings…. I’ve not seen you either. Do you live near?’ Julia asked, puzzled.

Above the old stable-block, behind the post office….’

Oh…. It’s odd I’ve never seen you. But then I never see anyone….’

Well, I swim here every morning.’

I thought this beach was too dangerous for swimming unless you happen to be a seal. There’s such a huge swell. …And today’s an especially strong sea. I’m amazed it didn’t topple you.’

A wave won’t fell you if you inhabit it properly.’ Jill pushed her wet silver mane over her head. ‘I should know. I’ve sea-bathed here ever since I was a young girl. Never missed a dawn….’

Goodness.’ Julia smiled. There was something both aristocratic and vaudeville about the woman’s speech.

Where do you live, Julia?’

My husband and I bought a little place down here twenty years ago, just beyond St Jerome’s Head.’

The house near the farm?’

Yes.’

I know it…. Second home?’

No…. It used to be. I live there….’

Glad to hear it. No one should own more than one dwelling. You can only be alive in one place.’

The air was cold despite the strong morning sun. The old woman passed the bottle again.

Thanks.’ Julia took another swig.

Does your husband not walk with you?’

No, Peter and I are separated.’

Jill shook her head. ‘I thought so.’

What makes you say that?’

Your eyes look… flayed.’ The old woman shuffled to the end of the bench. ‘Come, there’s plenty of room. You can lie down if you like.’ Julia stretched out on the wooden struts. ‘Place your head here.’

How familiar unknown skin is, Julia wanted to say as she rested her head on the woman’s thigh. You’re beautiful, she wanted to say. You’re worn and wrinkled, yet your beauty is intact. How come it is given only to certain people to love through time? She sighed and closed her eyes.

If you’re wondering how old I am, I’m ninety-five.’

Goodness,’ Julia murmured, drifting into sleep.

It’s funny,’ said her companion, ‘how, in the end, we dream all our ages at once.’

 

The sun was high when Julia came to, stiff and disoriented. The wind had dropped and the tide was ebbing. There was no sign of her comforter. For a moment she wondered whether she had dreamt her. No, she told herself as she rose from the bench and walked slowly home. If she had a good imagination it was not because she invented things, it was because she was observant. She saw only what was there. By the same token, she had lived long enough to be surprised by nothing. Not that she was ever taken in. There were too many signs for paths that led nowhere. What seemed important mostly turned out not to be.

When she got home, she made a plate of scrambled eggs and went to bed, falling into a deep slumber.

 

She awoke in the late afternoon to the sound of a key turning in the front door. She pulled on her dressing-gown and went downstairs. A familiar man in a blue suit was standing there. Her heart split open like a sack of grain.

Good grief, Peter…. What are you doing here?’

Julia! I thought you were away. You said I could have the house for the weekend.’

Did I? …I completely forgot…. Are you on your own?’

Yes. Pamela’s in London. She had to work.’

Pamela: the lovely young girl her husband had tumbled for. ‘I see.’

It’s OK. I’ll go and book in at a B&B.’

Julia looked at the man in her kitchen. She had never stopped loving him. He was the father of her children and the other half of her soul. He merely happened to be having a very long affair. ‘You needn’t.’

Really, Julia, it’s perfectly fine.’

Peter, you can stay, provided you sleep on the sofa….’

Understood….’

Good.’ It made her mad that he was feeling sorry for her and thinking she had really let herself go. At the same time she knew her dishevelled look appealed to him, which also made her mad.

Are you all right, Julia? You look like you’ve been on a three-day romp….’

If only…. As a matter of fact I’ve been staying up nights to finish a translation…. Oh, and this morning I drank breakfast gin with a mermaid.’

A mermaid?’ Peter gave her an idiotic smile.

It was all he said. What could she expect from someone who had been a literalist in everything except his marriage vows?

 

The next morning Julia rose early and cycled to the village, leaving Peter asleep. In the Post Office Stores, Mrs Curwen was unloading a tray of bread and pastries.

Julia paid for her croissants and asked Mrs Curwen if she knew the old lady who lived in the stable block.

‘No. No one lives there. That cottage is a holiday let.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Has been for years….’

‘You’ve not seen a tall woman with blue eyes, silver hair, a weathered face, and very long, thin arms…?’

‘And a fish’s tail? …I’ve not seen a mermaid since the millennium, Julia. And she turned out to be a lost porpoise….’

‘Her name’s Jill.’

‘Jill, Jill…? Rings a bell…. There was a Jill who lived in the stable-block many, many moons ago…. I mean, fifty years gone…. She drowned in the bay.’

 

Julia returned home to the smell of burnt toast. Peter was up, exercising his breakfast skills.

‘Good morning, Julia,’ he said, cheerfully smearing sooty butter and marmalade on to broken bits of charred bread. ‘You’re up early.’

‘…I see you still like your toast well done.’

‘I’ve not changed. You have….’

She let this go. ‘Sleep well?’

Like a bloody great boulder, thanks.’

Good…. There’s more milk if you need it. And I’ve bought a couple of croissants.’

I won’t, thanks.’

What, no croissant?’

No.’

Pamela…?’

Peter nodded.

Julia smiled and shook her head. ‘Then I’ll have both of them,’ she said, and prepared a pot of fresh coffee.

 

After a long breakfast in which they talked with great civility, mainly about their children, Julia announced she was going for a walk. By herself, she insisted. Peter nodded. Almost a grimace: her wanting time alone had been the chief bone of contention in twenty years of marriage.

 

As she walked across the fields to the sea, she thought how strange it was to have Peter under her roof, and stranger still how natural it felt. It was just as well he would be gone by Sunday night, back to the clasp of young flesh. Never mind that now. She had the world before her. The sky was luminescent. Terns were feeding in the bay. She took off her shoes and padded along the sand, the waves playing over her feet, weighing with each step the implications of what Mrs Curwen had told her. She scoured the water for seals and swimmers in vain. Then she made for the bus shelter, reassuring herself that, whilst she might be overwrought, she was still a rationalist. Sure, she translated fiction for a living. Yet she knew what was real; she had not dreamt the breakfast. She could recall the salt and the fiery gin, the fine blue skin, the semolina gooseflesh of Jill’s thigh. Nothing is ineffable, she told herself as she approached the shelter. If you can’t express something, it’s because you aren’t thinking hard enough.

Rain began to dimple the sand. Julia took cover. It would only be a brief shower. She sat where she had lain the previous morning, and found herself stroking the slats of the seat as though looking for clues. It was then that she noticed a bottle poking out of the litter bin. She reached in and pulled it out.

 

When she got home, she plonked the bottle down on the kitchen table.

A few minutes later, she heard a car outside.

‘Hi, Julia.’

‘Peter.’

He told her he had bought fish in town and gone for a dip on his way back. ‘What’s this, Julia? Are we having an afternoon drink?’

‘I’d like you to take a close look at the bottle.’

Peter sat down at the table in his wet trunks. He was still covered in sand. ‘Right…. Well, judging from its shape, I’d say it’s an old Gordon’s Gin bottle from the 1960s. You might even get a few pence for it in a car-boot sale…. Why do you ask?’

Julia sighed. ‘I was just wondering….’

Peter held the bottle aloft. ‘Has this got something to do with your mermaid?’ It was odd, Peter’s clumsy curiosity. He was doubtless conjuring Dionysian revels with a voluptuous siren. ‘Was this the vessel that housed your liquid breakfast?’

She nodded, her gaze following his hand as he put the bottle down and rested his arm on the table. She wondered whether he regretted Pamela. It was of little account. What mattered more were his answers to other questions she would like to put to him. If I were lying naked on a giant boulder, what would you see? That would flummox the old fool. As would, even more so: Could you ever affirm a principle of natural beauty according to which an ageing body and a stretch of wave-gnawed headland are equally magnificent? These were questions for another day.

‘Can I join you on your walk tomorrow morning, Julia?’

Shaking her head, she stared at her husband’s sand-embroidered arm. ‘No. But you could help me weed the flower-bed….’

Peter scrunched up his face. ‘All right. You’re on!’

 

Early the next morning Julia filled the old bottle with gin and left the house. When she reached the sea, she saw grey seal heads bobbing in the bay. It was time to inhabit the waves. Removing her clothes, she braced herself and swam out to the seals. The cold water fast became extremely cold and very deep; she found herself lurching about in a thick, icy swell and felt an alarming tug from far below. She turned round and looked back to the land. A bright orange figure was waving to her from the old shelter. With a supreme effort, Julia turned her back on a wave and struck out for the shore, pulling the water past her with strong, determined strokes.

She emerged from the sea and walked up the beach to the shelter. She sat on the bench and collected her breath. She took a swig of gin and looked down at her blue legs. In no time she would sense the familiar warmth of her breakfast companion’s head.

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014