The Esplanade: A Novel By Roberta Dewa

Twenty years ago, when they found out that they were both in a relationship with the same man, Megan and Lynn first discovered one another's existence. Since then, each has chosen to forget the other. But in the process of forgetting they have somehow become silent. Not only their past lives, but also their voices, are disappearing.

For Megan, the world around her is disappearing too: places, buildings, walls, her rented room above a seedy pub. Even Philip, who she has stayed with all these years, has finally gone missing. Megan has retreated as far as she can go. She will disappear along with her home, unless she is able to find her voice in time.

The Esplanade is about loss of voice and identity, about the relationship between the past and the future, and about the dislocation of the self that occurs when we distance ourselves from our experience.

Chapter 1


Wherever I look, things seem to be disappearing. Red phone boxes, railway stations, lighthouses. Corner newsagents with buckets and spades hanging out for sale. Wooden beach huts painted in pastel colours with little kitchens inside them. Old things, things I've got used to, that aren't there any more. They're all vanishing, one by one, not exactly without warning but quietly, completely, without a fight. Gardens are being paved over, old pubs demolished, and the ruins tidied away until there's nothing left to recognize, least of all a name. As Alex says at least once a week, pubs don't have names any more, or rather they have the names of the people who own them, always two names, like a firm of lawyers. The old names vanish, their painted signboards taken away in the skip. And the pavement's swept clean of them.

So far the King's Head is hanging on. It still has its own name, still has plush seats and an old red carpet on the floor and a signboard outside with The King's Head in scrolling letters and a painting of the king underneath it, the king in profile, like a playing card, his hand held up with the finger pointing and a gold crown on his head. The sign creaks on windy nights, I can hear it when I'm lying in bed. From eleven o'clock in the morning till chucking out time the pub is full to overflowing with people who've been cleared out of the new pubs along with the rubbish, who want to smoke and drink and sit where they like, who put two fingers up to Diners Only and mottoes on fake beams and paninis. At the King's Head there are no meals, even at lunchtimes, or extractors for the smoke; but there's a jukebox, a real jukebox where you pay a pound for your own five memories and even though you may have to sit all night waiting for them they'll come round in the end, Imagine and Summer the First Time and Misty and The Long and Winding Road and the last one from Dusty, the only woman, doing Goin' Back. That's the order, and though the machine may mix them up I know, I sort them out. When Olive, who's Suspicious Minds and 24 Hours from Tulsa, asked me what I thought happiness was, I said it was your turn on the jukebox. Your own three numbers lighting up on the machine, the words you know and sing along to without anyone hearing you. A feeling like a pin stuck in you from years ago. That's happiness.

And Philip, of course.

It's a Tuesday, so I'm down in the bar early. I find my green plush seat in the corner and smooth away the prints left by other bodies and put my tapestry bag down to show I'm here. I have a big glass of Chardonnay so I won't need to go to the bar very often, because although I'm a resident and they ought to serve me first, they never do. Usually Irish Jerry, who's Turn It On Again and Stairway to Heaven, shouts across at fat Avril for me, waving his free stiff arm with its long brown finger extended like a rifle-barrel. And he'll talk to me while I'm waiting, he knows about Philip and Quetzal and Tuesdays.

'Been to see her today, Megan?'

When Jerry says this he's just being kind. He doesn't really want the details but I say them anyway, and he nods and drinks his Guinness. Today it would have been her birthday so I tell him how excited she would have been, I tell him about the presents. I tell him about the square lavender soap in cellophane, the necklace with red stones and the hanky with yellow flowers. I wanted her initial embroidered in the middle, but you can't get Q so the hanky has O on it, and we just have to imagine the rest. And I took her my perfume bottles. The best one has a sculpture of birds on the top in cloudy glass, beautiful and solemn, just like her gravestone with the lady leaning over it. I tell Jerry you wouldn't look twice at the stone if the lady wasn't there with her hands hanging down across In Memory. I'm never sure if she's an angel or not, although she doesn't have wings. She has a veil over her head, like a wedding veil held in place with a ring of flowers. Poppies, they look like, even though they're white. And she has white eyes behind the folds of the veil, soft and gentle eyes that make me think of something old and folded and kept in a drawer, something I'll never wear again.

And I want to talk about the church and the people coming out of it, but I don't get that far because Genesis are on and Jerry's drumming on the bar and there are slops of Guinness everywhere and by the time he comes back to me it's gone.

'So is he coming to take you away tonight, Megan?'

Maybe, I say. Maybe.

But by now it's eight o'clock. Time to sit down.

I have a routine while I'm waiting. It's about the past, mine and Philip's, the past that makes me remember why he's still with me, the past that spreads into the future like wine round the stem of my wine-glass. I begin by moving the glasses and beermats on the table out of the way and wiping the spillages up with a tissue, sweeping the copper until there's just a soft white smear, dotted with tiny circles of exploded bubbles, air that rises into the smoke on the ceiling. Then I take my photographs out of my bag and spread them carefully over the surface of the table. Some of them are ones I took myself, fresh and glossy and white on the reverse; some of them are cut out of old newspapers or college magazines, all of Philip with different dates and names of plays scribbled on them. One play more than any other, the one about the future, The Shape of Things to Come.

I read the words on the back of the photo, and then I turn it over, hide the words beneath his face. His beautiful face with its dark and lightness, its blue and white and black, the eyes looking at me, seeing inside my bones and knowing where the holes are, until I can't stand it any more; and I put the photo back till it's a blur again. Then I pick another, and another. When I've been through them all I just wait, freezing myself into stillness and imagining I can dissolve like they used to do in science fiction and rediscover myself in one of the photos with him, curling my hand under his for the pose, waiting for it to be over; and I stay that way for half an hour, while the pub door opens and closes each time with a squeak of pain straight out of a Jacques Tati movie, and the customers come and go.

It's half past nine when he finally comes. As soon as he's through the door and on his way Irish Jerry spins round as if he was on a piano-stool and juts his dirty thumb at me; and then I see him, dressed in his black leather jacket and T-shirt and jeans, walking through the bar and heading straight for me, not greeting or looking at anyone else; and I know it's a bad day, because his eyes are washed-out and looking over my head, looking at something in the distance that I can't see. I grab my photos and sweep them back inside my bag and knock my glass off the table and without a word Philip turns on his heel and calls to Ralph to get me another Chardonnay.

He brings the drinks and slams my glass down without a beermat. The wine runs down the stem, pools round the bottom of the glass.

'Shit day,' he says. 'Just total shit.'

I'm very quiet when he says this. I keep still and wait while he drinks his bourbon, I wait for him to remember what day it is, to say her name. Quetzal, I say, Quetzal, down to the floor, trying to pass it on to him, trying until it fades into the music. Diana Ross is on, with Ain't No Mountain High Enough, then A Hard Day's Night, and then Misty three times in succession with nothing in between. I know that's Alex, but I leave it to Jerry to shout at him, I'm keeping quiet, just miming to Diana and the others.

Then I make a mistake. I move my hand to get a beermat and Philip sees one of the photos I didn't get back inside my bag in time and he grabs it and tears it into pieces and throws them on the floor.

'I'm here, aren't I? So you don't need this shit.'

I look at the floor. The bits of photograph are floating in the wine and curling up at the edges. It's one of the college ones, from the old days when we first met. The paper is thin, soaking the wine up like seaweed, turning back into pulp. Underneath the table I'm holding my bag against my stomach like a cushion, like the hot water bottle I used to hold there for my stomach ache.

Philip's head is down over his drink, his white fringe screening his forehead so I can't see his face. The table is empty, blank, wiped clean. Tonight, it's better that way, I understand. When Ralph has called last orders a couple of times Philip pushes his glass away and gets my hand and pulls me to my feet, takes me through the door at the back of the bar marked Private and up the stairs. The carpet treads are sticky, they suck your steps out of you if you go up too slowly, they glue you to the wood underneath like an Elastoplast that's been on too long. The carpet peters out on the landing and there's the sound of someone coughing, or retching, behind the first of the numbered doors on the right. At the fourth door we stop and I take my Yale from my pocket and turn it in the lock, push the door and stand back to let Philip go in first.

Inside, the room is green: the bed, the bedside table, the fridge, the washbasin, all bathed in the green light that gives the room its atmosphere, coming from the lamp with the green shade and black fringe I found on the market and put on the bedside table. Since I got it I hardly use the top bulb anymore. The light drapes the room like an old dress that smells of joss-sticks, it makes the furniture soft, like those watches Salvador Dali painted, it melts the hard edges from everything. Philip moves into the spotlight cast by the lamp until it's only a jump from where he's standing to the quilt, taking off his jacket and chucking his keys at me the way he always does, waiting for me to catch them before he moves again. Then he's falling with me, into the green billows of the quilt like it was a parachute dropped round us, and with the jump over all we have to do is lie there safe and cushioned and feel the soft ground underneath us. Afterwards, when the colour comes back to his eyes, he'll remember.

And then I dream. They're vivid dreams, the kind I always have. Only I don't dream of Quetzal, I dream of being in the bar, and the jukebox stalling again. The records are stuttering around their circle like they always do, standing up on their edges like black plates in a rack, waiting for their turn to play; and then, when it's time for my last selection the disc comes out of its slot but doesn't flip over and drop down onto the turntable. It just hangs there, on the end of the plastic arm, with the arm sticking out as if it was paralyzed. And I can see the dark blue of the Decca label. It's Dusty stuck up there not singing, with that plastic arm clutching her like a vice.

And when I try to sing the song without her I can't hear myself. I'm looking round for Philip, to join in and help me out, but I can't see him anywhere. There's only Alex, smoking and coughing up phlegm as usual, unbuttoning his shirt and scratching the scar on his throat to remind me I'm on my own.

© Roberta Dewa 2007