Sport 26: Autumn 2001
Laurence Fearnley — The Green Ormer
(for Amy and Colin)
When he fits his hearing aid, the first sound to reach him will be that of the street-sweeping truck. A beam of orange light is already circling the walls of his first-floor flat. He watches it, knowing that once it has gone, the noise will remain only a few seconds, fading into the distance as the machine turns the corner into La Chasse. The sound will return, briefly, when the truck doubles back and crosses Regent Street at Green Road, but by then Francis will be standing before the toilet, flushing its Harpic blue water over his own slight stream of urine.
He glances at the kitchen clock before settling down in front of the computer. He has an hour and a half before he is due to meet Gordon and Dr Letu at the Lillie Langtry Tearooms. Seven hours before Wilhelmina will arrive with the roast chicken she has promised. The thought of the chicken, its crisp seasoned skin and soft white flesh, makes him hungry. Instead of eating, however, he lights a cigarette and opens the New Mail file.
A long letter, sent by him the previous evening, has been returned with the words Type 2 Permanent Fatal Error. It's cruel or simply a coincidence. The original message was destined for the Bishop in Southampton. The subject: Conjoined twins.
There are seven new messages; six share the subject ‘Siamese Twins’. He knows that these six messages will merely repeat the letters of the previous day: ‘What will you do to prevent the slaughter of an innocent child?’ He stares at the screen and thinks, Finally, it has come to this: priests have been claimed by an impulsive mob. Personal beliefs, private doubts are signs of weakness; complex issues no longer yield consideration but mistrust…Then, remembering what Dr Letu has told him, he tries to calm down. He breathes deeply; imagines a deserted beach; clear turquoise sea and fine, grey sand…He takes another deep breath, counts to three and breathes out.page 145
The seventh message, from Norman, is the only letter which truly interests him. He reads it carefully, wipes his hand across his face and reads it again. Norman has been released from the hospital and is back in his own flat on the outskirts of Winchester. Although he doesn't say so, it is clear that he has been sent home to die. Instead, he writes that he feels tired but comfortable. He says that he is at peace with the world; that he feels his faith more strongly than ever. He knows no fear, only sadness that he will never visit Jersey, or, more accurately, see his green ormer again. He finishes the note, God bless.
Francis attempts to smile but his heart aches. He understands the message too well. I know you're short of cash, it chuckles, and I'll understand if you can't visit. Don't fret. I understand. Norman is twelve years younger than Francis but in Francis's eyes he will remain, forever, ‘a young man’.
It's been almost six months since Francis last visited England. He yearns to be with Norman in more than thought, but it's true, he has no money. He belongs to a former age, he thinks, one without highseason airfares and getaway weekend breaks. He raises his eyes towards the wallpapered ceiling of the room but stops short of praying for a miracle. Instead, he thanks God that the walls of the room are not covered with the same geometric pattern as the ceiling, then turns his attention back to the letter.
After a short while, he closes his eyes and murmurs a prayer. He prays from his heart but instead of relief he feels only the weight of loss. He raises his head, wiping his eyes beneath his glasses. The word ‘rheumy’ comes to mind but it is quickly replaced by a new, unwelcome thought. Perhaps it is God's will.
He reads the letter once more but makes no attempt to answer it. He'll wait until he's seen the ormer. Norman would like that. He closes the letter, and out of habit, presses ‘Delete’. He knows that, given the chance, Wilhelmina will open the message if she sees Norman's name. She likes to keep tabs on his correspondence, whether it be letters that come through the post, messages left on the answering machine or, more recently, email. The delete button is the only way he can ensure privacy.
Generally, Wilhelmina reads his email messages under the pretence page 146 of cleaning the computer. Despite his protestation, she insists on wiping the screen with her favourite product, ‘Fairy Spray and Wipe’. She likes it because it is new, improved, extra strength, extra fresh, extra gentle on hands—and blue. She has a preference for blue. The bluer the product, she claims, the cleaner the result.
It's clean! Extra strength! Your fingers! You have fingers…’
Despite having lived for twenty-four years on Jersey, Wilhelmina continues to construct her sentences one or two words at a time; the building blocks of English eventually attaining some fragile semblance of completion. ‘Dirty fingers. Smoking. Nicotine. So dirty! Touching. Always dirty. Stains. All places. And ash! In the cracks. I have to clean this. My Fairy!’
Francis doesn't know why she calls the cleaner ‘My Fairy’. He fancies, however, that it is out of respect for the product and that she would go further and call it ‘Father Fairy’ if she could. Despite her long exposure to island life, Wilhelmina, he thinks, observes the world through frosted glass, oblivious to the view. She has no inkling that the name ‘Father Fairy’ has been doing the rounds for years. She has no idea that the name was one of only a few personal belongings brought with Francis to the island more than fifteen years ago. If she knew all there was to know about Norman, she would be appalled and Francis has no doubt that he would be left without a cleaner.
Francis recalls the time Wilhelmina asked him to write to the manufacturers of ‘Fairy Spray and Wipe’. First, she showed him what she had written—a series of adjectives—and then she had stood over him as he tried to gather the words together into a letter, an expression of praise.
‘Blue!’ she said, stabbing at the word on the paper.
‘You want me to mention “blue”.’
‘Of course. He's blue! Mr Fairy.’
It had been the first time that Francis had heard the term ‘Mr Fairy’ and he had drawn attention to it. ‘Mr Fairy?’
‘Yes! Yes! Now read him to me.’
The letter had taken over an hour to compose and even then it had met with only slight approval. Wilhelmina's mood lifted, however, when, weeks later, a computer-generated letter arrived in her mail. page 147 ‘Mr Fairy! He writes!’ She handed the letter to Francis and stood nodding as he read aloud the message. The letter was headed ‘Dear Valued Customer’ and went on to express gratitude for Mrs. Palmera's kind words. Enclosed with the letter was a book of discount coupons. The coupons delighted Wilhelmina and she set off immediately to the Co-op. An hour later she returned red-faced and empty-handed.
‘Angry!’ she spluttered. ‘So angry! Like a snake!’ Francis tried to calm her but she refused the cup of tea he offered. Instead, she fanned herself with the flapping newsprint pages of the coupon book as she paced around the kitchen, repeating, ‘Like a snake! So angry!’
It wasn't until late in the evening that Francis was able to discover the cause of Wilhelmina's fury. He was locking his front door when he caught sight of a coupon lying on the floor beneath the coat stand. Raising his reading glasses to his eyes, he looked at the coupon. A smile crept guiltily across his face as he pictured what had taken place at the Co-op. He imagined Wilhelmina standing at the counter with her basket of Fairy cleaning products. He saw her hand over her coupon book and he imagined the anxious look which must have passed across young Jeremy's face as he tried to explain that the coupons were not valid in the Channel Islands or Ireland. He smiled. Poor Jeremy, he thought. He would have to make it up to him next time they met.
It had taken weeks for Wilhelmina to calm down. Weeks before she could use ‘Fairy Spray and Wipe’ without sighing; months before she could bring herself to utter the name ‘Mr Fairy’ with any of her former passion. It was the computer which finally succeeded where Francis had failed. Her attributes Wilhelmina's total recovery to the computer.
At first, however, Wilhelmina had resented the computer. I had arrived in the flat unannounced and, worse than that, it had been placed on the desk where the porcelain tea set should be. She displayed her displeasure, bumping the corner of the desk each time she passed. She draped the monitor with an embroidered lace cloth whenever Francis happened to get up from his work.
‘What you want with this thing? Computers! My children! Always nagging. I want. I want. And my sister. She too. No time! No any time for the family now.’page 148
In those first weeks, Francis could feel her eyes glaring at him from where she stood at the other end of the kitchen. He had been forced to buy her an extension cord and double plug to prevent her from unplugging the computer whenever she felt the urge to iron. Although he had no proof, Francis suspected that she preferred ironing to cleaning because she had never managed to shake off her complete revulsion concerning bathrooms used only by single men. More to the point, however, she liked to iron so that she could keep watch over him.
‘You writing again! Who this time?’
‘Your brother! Him again!’
Francis would nod in agreement.
‘You are slow! Ha? Slow!’
She would laugh out loud as she watched his old fingers stab at the keyboard.
‘You make many mistakes. Eh? Eh?’
And he would laugh with her and reply that, Yes, he made many mistakes. God had not blessed him with nimble fingers. She would soften then, and offer to make some tea for them both—some tea and perhaps a little of that special diabetic chocolate which was spoiling in the fridge.
It was over a cup of tea that Wilhelmina finally managed to raise the subject of email. ‘My sister…’
‘Yes, of course. Why not in Madeira?’
The conversation, barely started, halted as Wilhelmina took another piece of chocolate and dunked it in her tea.
‘My sister. Look! See this!’
She held a scrap of paper; a page ripped from a notebook.
‘My sister. You know it!’
Francis took the paper from her and, replacing his glasses, read, ‘Procha@funoline.made.com.’
They wrote the first email together but later Wilhelmina would brush off Francis's feeble attempt to supervise. Francis had nevertheless been in the room when she sent copies of her first solo letter to the page 149 twenty or so people entered on his mailing list. He had been adjusting his hearing aid and had not heard when she grumbled, ‘Reply all? Reply all! Who this?’ On returning to the desk, he noticed the mistake immediately and felt both anxious and amused as he imagined the various members of the community opening their new mail.
Written in Portuguese, the message had evoked over fourteen responses. Most replies warned Francis of a computer virus which not only rendered messages unintelligible but threatened to destroy the computer's hard drive. The Bishop, in his short and rather acid reply, merely reminded him that the email was intended for official business only. Wilhelmina, he wrote, could, on occasion, have limited access to the service provided she did not abuse the privilege. One reply, however, written in Portuguese, and subsequently shown to Wilhelmina, caused such offence that she refused to translate the message, hissing through tight lips that it was an insult to God.
Although it is not quite seven, Francis is aware of movement, restlessness, as he makes his way to the Lillie Langtry Tearooms. In Liberation Square, he passes several groups of young people who appear to have spent the night outdoors. He catches sight of a man standing next to a rubbish tin and, unable to see clearly, allows his gaze to linger, realising too late the man is trying to urinate into an opened milk carton placed on the ground in front of him.
When he finally reaches the Lillie Langtry Tearooms the sign hanging in the window still reads ‘Closed’ although the door is unlocked when he tries it. Lily's daughter, Carole, is standing by the window looking out over the street. She has seen Francis but makes no attempt to open the door for him. She doesn't turn her head or return his greeting as he enters, nor does she offer to help as he struggles to lift a chair from the stack by the counter . It's several minutes more before she approaches his table, a carton of Jersey milk in her hot-watered, red hand. She leans over Francis, takes the small, half-empty milk jug from the table and tops it up with fresh milk, Francis notices that the fresh milk doesn't quite cover the rim of yellowed cream which has formed inside the jug since the previous day.
She speaks without looking at him and Francis doesn't catch her page 150 words. She sighs and, leaning forward, repeats the question, this time directing her voice not so much towards Francis but to his hearing aid.
‘I'm waiting for…’
Carole doesn't let him finish. She mutters something about having to switch on the coffee machine, then adds, ‘You'll have to wait.’
Francis begins to apologise but Carole has already turned her attention towards a couple who are signalling to her from outside. They point to the sign which still reads ‘Closed’ and mouth a question. Carole pretends not to understand and walks away, towards the kitchen. A moment later the radio turns on, the seven o'clock news. Francis catches the words ‘French’ and ‘blockades’ but then the channel is changed, replaced by laughter and a noise that sounds like a kazoo.
Francis feels foolish for having forgotten about the blockades. He has read about them in the paper but somehow they had slipped his mind. He'd always had such a good memory but these days it seems so selective, as if his old brain has no more space for new information. If he could just delete the things he no longer requires, he might be able to make more room for the bits and pieces he needs. For example, he could replace the words of those beautiful but obsolete hymns with the schedule for the Number 32 bus, thus cutting the time he spends waiting at the bus stop by several minutes. He smiles at the thought, unaware that Gordon has entered the cafe and is standing behind him.
Francis starts at the sound of the voice and attempts to turn around in his chair.
‘Lily, love! A cup of filter please…’ There is a pause as Gordon catches sight of Carole's body in the kitchen doorway. His voice drops, ‘A cup of coffee please, Carole… When you've got time.’
He pats Francis affectionately on the shoulder and, lifting a chair from the column still stacked by the kitchen door, says, ‘Letu can't make it…Stuck in St Malo and can't get out.’page 151
‘He was over in Rennes and now he can't get back…’
Francis shakes his head. It proves his point: if he'd just taken out the morning's saccharine ‘Thought for the Day’ he would have had an extra few milliliters in which to remember that Dr Letu had gone away for the weekend.
He had been looking forward to seeing Dr Letu and he feels disappointed that he will not be joining them for breakfast. He had wanted to tell him about a new Rimbaud biography which he'd heard reviewed on the radio the previous day. He felt sure that Dr Letu would want to buy the book, thus providing him with the chance to borrow it at a later date. It is opportunistic, he knows, but a lot simpler than going through the ordeal of trying to order the book from the city library. He shudders as he envisages the result of such a request and for the second time that morning has to calm himself by imagining a deserted beach.
But there had been another, more difficult, matter which he had wanted to bring up with Dr Letu. On the walk to the café he had decided that he would do something he had never done before: he would tell Dr Letu of Norman's illness and ask him for a loan of one hundred pounds. He knows that he can trust Dr Letu with the information—and he knows, too, that Dr Letu would be glad to lend him the money.
For an instant it crosses his mind that he might ask Gordon for a loan but the thought quickly evaporates. Though Gordon would, of course, be willing to lend him one hundred pounds—indeed, he would probably open his wallet there and then and count out one hundred and fifty pounds—he cannot bring himself to ask. He isn't sure what is holding him back but he thinks that it has something to do with the fact that Gordon doesn't share his love of books.
He recalls one breakfast, many years ago, when Gordon had come into the Lillie Langtry Tearooms and found him reading.
‘What have you got there, Francis?’
Francis had looked up from the book but before being able to respond to the question, Gordon had read aloud, ‘Natural History of Selborne…’page 152
‘Yes, it's fascinating. It's Gilbert White's letters and observations of…’
Without listening to Francis, Gordon had continued, ‘You'll wear your eyes out on that small print…’
‘No, no… The print is really quite clear…’
Gordon had looked at the page Francis held up and shook his head before replying, ‘Never been that interested in reading… I've got and encyclopaedia which tells me more than I'll ever need to know!’
Francis had laughed, as he knew he should, but he had felt uncomfortable. He picked at his food when it came. He was in the wrong, he knew, guilty of judging a man because of the books he read—or rather, did not read.
Today, however, Francis feels lonely and old. Throughout breakfast he has not been able to clear his mind of Norman's email and his desire to see him. And now, as he makes his way along the shore, he feels all his energy drain away. He stops when he comes to the old slipway. The green ormer is visible only at low tide. He will have to wait.
They had found the ormer together. It had been a spring morning and they had been walking along the beach for over an hour when Norman had suddenly stopped. Gesturing around him, he had said, ‘There's far too much litter on the beach.’
Francis wasn't sure which was more startling: the words themselves or the tone in which they were spoken. He attempted to respond, ‘It doesn't seem too bad…Perhaps it just the low spring tide exposing…’
‘Nonsense! You can practically hear the crabs gasping for breath.’
All morning Francis had had an uneasy feeling that Norman was keeping something from him and now he was certain of it. He couldn't think of an easy way to change the subject so simply asked, ‘what is it, Norman? What's happened?’
He hadn't been able to see Norman's face but he noticed that his shoulders straightened, then slumped, then stiffened again. Instead of stepping forward, however, and speaking to him, he stood back and waited; willing himself not to foresee what Norman was about to tell him. Nevertheless, as Norman turned to face him, he felt his heart page 153 split in two, and in that second of grief he had damned God for all the years of uncertainty and misery which had cursed his brother's life.
He heard Norman say something, he heard the word ‘Aids’ and then he was aware only of his won sobs and a voice inside his head which cried out for justice. After a short while, he felt the warmth of Norman's arms around him, the movement of his brother's jaw where it touched his own cheek, but all he could hear was watery echo as his hearing aid struggled to capture, then lost, Norman's voice.
It was only later that he had felt ashamed. Tormented not by his condemnation of God but by his own selfish feelings of despair and loss of hope. It was a sense of hopelessness far greater than that he had experienced years before when the Bishop had finally demanded that her refrain from speaking out on the topic of homosexuality. Unwilling to betray his brother and take the steps necessary to satisfy the Bishop's ultimatum, Francis had found himself on board a ship to Jersey; a place where he could be isolated and, effectively, silenced.
Francis knew that their green ormer had survived the previous summer even though it was estimated that half of the island's ormer population had died. No one knew why they were dying, only that their numbers had begun to diminish in Brittany and that the problem was now spreading throughout Jersey. A recent marine survey at Minquiers reef had uncovered only one live specimen. Locals—those who had enjoyed years of ormering—now referred to the problem as a plague.
Francis estimates that it will be at least an hour before he can follow the tracks of the disused slipway to their end. A further twenty minutes before the green ormer's rock will be accessible. He breathes deeply and looks around as if aware for the first time that day that he is alone.
The deserted beach. The turquoise sea. The fine grey sand.