Jeremy Page Sea Change: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780143119845

Sea Change: A Novel

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9780143119845: Sea Change: A Novel

"A moving portrait of a father who, unable to save what he most loved, tried to save what could have been." -The Atlanta Journal- Constitution

From the acclaimed author of Salt comes this exquisitely written and deeply haunting novel of love and family. When a terrible tragedy changes his family forever, Guy-alone and searching for answers-embarks in his old barge on the stormy waters of the North Sea, writing in his diary about the man he might have been and the family he should have had. His voyage unfolds in unexpected ways, and when he meets two women at sea on a similar quest, Guy realizes that it just might be possible to begin his life again.

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About the Author:

Jeremy Page has worked as a screenwriter and script editor for the BBC and Film Four and currently teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Within each horseradish leaf, where it unwinds from the stem, there’s a small bead of rainwater. He sees one there, shining brilliantly in the morning sun, as if it’s been placed, a jewel, pure and dazzling. It’s perfect. This will be lovely he thinks, leading his daughter towards the plant, her hand so small and cool in his own, both of them crouching over the leaves till their shadows merge. Briefly, the sunshine becomes extinguished from the drop of water, he repositions himself, and it sparks back to life. He imagines a direct unbending shaft of light, taut and without substance, stretching between the sun and its own captured sparkle, a miniature sun in itself, caught in some bend of the refraction.

She is captivated. Surprises like this, especially beautiful ones, always bring a brightness in her, too. She’s four years old, and already there is a sense of such conspiracy between them, father and daughter, such gorgeous intimacy. They share the fascination of pausing to look at things they discover, in detail, her waiting for him to explain what they see. It’s a familiar routine. And he knows even then, that he will want to hold on to this moment for the rest of his life, like the leaf holds its soft capture of that beautiful jewel, to be with her, in that wide sunny field in East Anglia, crouching by the horseradish plants.

From his position in the grass he has a low-angled view of his wife, Judy, sitting on a fallen branch about twenty feet away. She’s wearing dark glasses, and is bent over a small open book on her lap. He knows what she’s reading – a collection of poems, it’s for inspiration, for some lyrics she’s working on, and she likes to make notes in the margins. She has the pencil poised, and every so often he thinks he can hear her humming the tune. So typical of her, really, surrounded by such a perfect morning, to enter into her own private world, so readily. He smiles at her, at the thought of her, smiles at the way her knees are drawn together and the way both ankles bend awkwardly beneath them, giving her a childish look. She’s pretty, he thinks.

His daughter leans as soft as a reed against him as she looks down at the water droplet. She’s wearing one of her favourite dresses, and it smells of washing powder and warm cotton and just a hint, even in the field, of her bedroom’s mix of books and toys. It’s lilac, or had once been brighter than that but has faded, and is cut in an old-fashioned style which makes her more doll-like than usual, with a wide band round the waist which she tends to stroke in a comforting gesture. Around the hem at the bottom of the dress is an unusual trim of farm animals in a printed design, running after each other. They’d made up stories about these animals before, how the goose seems to chase the dog, and how the pig is seen chewing a flower. He looks at this design, stretched across her knees as she crouches in the grass, and he knows she’s itching to reach out and touch the bead of rainwater. She’ll probably knock it off the leaf, so he whispers Freya, watch this, as he holds the plant gently, from underneath, bending it gradually so the droplet begins to stretch and tremble. The leaf has prominent raised veins running across its surface in a root pattern, and the water adheres stickily to one of them, then begins to slide along the vein’s length, rolling, leaving absolutely no mark of wetness behind it, constantly gathering into its own flattened egg shape. The little sun in there dances and sparkles with new brilliance, and he can see how the shine from it has added an extra point of light on to the surface of the leaf.

‘Is it a raindrop?’ she asks.

‘No – not really.’

‘Daddy, is it a piece of the sun?’

He smiles. ‘That’s lovely,’ he whispers. ‘A sun-drop.’ He coaxes the water further along the leaf. ‘Look, it’s like mercury,’ he says, marvelling at it.

‘What’s mercury?’ she asks, carefully. Her voice is slow and deliberate and made a little husky by a child’s effort of whispering.

‘It’s a metal, but it’s liquid – I mean it’s wet like water.’

‘Oh,’ she says. He smiles at that, at the apparent nonsense adults sometimes say.

He encourages the droplet towards the tip of the leaf. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘look into the drop – can you see your reflection?’

Freya peers closer. He smells the malty scent of her breath which is always there when he is this close, whatever the time of day or night. She sucks in her lower lip for concentration, and he watches the corners of her mouth bending up in a little smile. A few tiny hairs there, above her upper lip. Keep it still Daddy, she says, and he tries to do so, but even the touch of his hands below the leaf, even his heartbeat in a far off part of his chest is enough to make the droplet tremble.

‘See the sun in there?’ he whispers. ‘The whole world’s in there if you look close enough.’

‘Can I touch it?’ she says. He nods, then waits while she reaches out, deliberately choosing a finger, then deciding on a different one, before she touches the water. Both of them see how it sticks instantly to her skin, making a small curving bridge between itself and her, before it separates into a pinhead of water on the tip of her finger, just below the nail. She holds her hand up to inspect the new, smaller droplet.

‘Is that like mercury?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ he replies, thinking, No, it’s not like mercury at all – which is so grey and flat and without reflection, a dead and poisonous thing.

She pretends to lick it off her finger and begins to giggle. He laughs too, a child’s happiness so infectious. But her laughter deepens, becomes something else, not just amusement, but a reaction now, the kind of laugh she has when she watches a cartoon on TV.

‘What is it? What’s so funny, Freya?’ he asks, still smiling.

‘It’s silly,’ she says. ‘That pony’s being silly.’

He looks at her eyes, how she’s angled her eyebrows into an expression which is half amusement, and half worry – an expression of not quite grasping something, a complex expression she must have copied from somewhere. They try so many things out. And even there, even her being so young, there is a little worry-line above the nose on her forehead, like the tiniest of scratches.

‘What pony?’ he asks, amused.

‘...it’s doing a silly dance,’ she says, the laughter breaking through her words once more and the worry-line vanishing.

Guy half-turns, still crouching. He sees not a pony but a horse, a stallion, half-way across the field, and for a moment he smiles too, because the stallion does indeed seem to be dancing. It’s standing in a patch of bare earth where the rest of the pasture has worn away, and is rocking curiously back and forth in a restless motion, as if it’s caught in something. He has the feeling the animal may be in some sort of trouble. Maybe it actually is caught – snagged on a loose wire or section of fencing.

‘What do I do with it?’ Freya asks, lifting her finger to inspect the drop of water.

‘Whatever you like,’ he says.

‘I can’t take it home, can I?’

He smiles. ‘Freya, you’re lovely. I’m afraid not.’

She pretends to put it in the open pocket on the front of her dress, patting the pocket for safekeeping effect, then suddenly lifts it again and peers into it – the droplet almost touching her eyelashes. ‘Daddy, I can’t see the pony in the raindrop.’

‘No?’ he says, imagining the horse suspended upside down in the lens of water and, when he looks beyond at the field, he’s shocked to see the stallion is closer, much closer, as if it indeed has been magnified.

He sees then what he hopes Freya doesn’t see. The stallion has a startled bloodshot eye, and is rocking to and fro in an agitated motion, with an edge of wildness that makes it look untrustworthy. His first unconscious movement is to put an arm round his daughter. He feels the thin bones of her shoulder and realizes he is already starting to stand. She seems a lot smaller then, lower to the ground, closer to the field than him.

‘What’s the matter?’ Freya asks, her face angled up at him. He’s never been able to mask his surprise.

‘Nothing. Nothing’s the matter,’ he says. He glances at the stallion. He can’t gauge it. It’s a mottled grey with long unkempt black hair down the nape of the neck, and has a tail that’s short and flicking as it stands, side-on to them, at the other edge of the marshy area. It watches him wide-eyed, with a look of madness. He sees a quiver develop in the muscle on its flank, rising quickly across its back.

‘Judy,’ he says, in an urgent whisper, ‘Judy!’

She deliberately finishes the line she’s reading, then looks up at him, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sun. He looks at the two blank reflections of her sunglasses, and then sees a sudden and minute tightening of her mouth. The shock of it, seeing what he has only just seen himself. Involuntarily she too begins to stand and he puts out his arm to stop her, stop, movement is a thing to be cautious of. He looks at his fingers and he feels a tension he can almost grasp, in a widely emanating circle around them, centred on his hand as it holds the air still, holds on to nothing.

‘I don’t like that pony,’ Freya says, standing like a little statue by his side. She sounds disappointed – her love of horses is usually so overwhelming. Stop the car, she’ll say, every time they pass a horse field, clucking her cheek even as the car slows down, but here, she’s silent.

Where is he, he thinks, taking in as many details as he can. The field’s an open one, and rises all round them in the shape of a shallow dish. They’re just about in the middle of it. In the middle, at the bottom, it amounts to the same, with a marshy stream running from left to right, dividing the field roughly in two. The stallion’s on the other side of the stream, perhaps fifty feet away, still strangely rocking and lifting a front hoof hesitantly off the ground, looking lonely and deranged. What else – a tree, yes, the ancient oak under which Judy’s sitting, that was the thing they all headed for when they entered the field. It’s close. He keeps an eye on the horse and gathers Freya to him, holds her hand which has suddenly gone compliant and cold in his own.

‘Let’s go to the tree,’ he says, quietly, amazed at how calm his voice sounds. ‘That oak tree.’

‘All right,’ she says. He’s glad to hear her voice, that she’s still talking, glad to hear her voice is as steady as his own.

They walk slowly to the tree, to Judy, who has now risen to her feet as if she’s balancing something on her head, the book of poetry has fallen from her lap on to the soil. They approach her, across the marshy ground, which he notices for the first time is deeply rutted with the hoof marks of horses not in the field any more.

Beyond the stream the stallion does an abrupt theatrical stamp with one of its front hooves. Guy sees the ripple of the shock dart up the cartilage of the leg, so thin at the knee, but solid just above that, and rising into a slab of muscle which curves up to the shoulder like the side of a car. The stamp doesn’t scare him, but it makes him angry, angry that this animal has hijacked the moment, that it might scare Freya more than it needs to, maybe even put her off horses. And with some relief he notices the stallion has continued to face them side-on, and appears reluctant to make any kind of movement whatsoever, apart from the repeated jerks of its head as if it’s wrestling with invisible ropes.

‘What’s it doing?’ Judy says, quietly.

Guy shakes his head slowly. ‘I think it’s just showing off,’ he says, hopefully.

Judy has done a strange thing. She’s stepped the other side of the log, as if it’s a great barrier, and is holding out her hands for Freya to come towards her. Each hand stretches woodenly, pathetically, like she’s sleepwalking.

He can tell Freya has become scared. She’s gripping on to him and that might not be helpful, he thinks. He’ll have to make all the decisions, he knows that, but she’ll have to go along with them instinctively, without question.

He tells her not to worry. ‘He’s upset by something, that’s all.’ But as he’s saying that he knows the only thing that is possibly upsetting the stallion is the sight of them. The three of them, in this field.

Judy takes hold of his arm, above the elbow, her fingers are sharp and tensed on his muscle. That’s good, he thinks. It feels like an advantage of sorts, although he knows it’s no such thing. She’s strong – small, but with a mother’s strength. With her other hand she has grabbed Freya, on her shoulder. It’s like they’re lashing themselves together.

‘Where did it come from?’ Judy whispers.

Guy doesn’t know. It had been an empty field, like all the fields they’d walked through this morning. He’d been at the horseradish leaves, crouching, close to the ground. She’d been sitting on the fallen branch, reading. Sunglasses, he thinks, remembering how she had looked to him, so absorbed, both of them, and he notices she isn’t wearing them any more. They are lying a few feet away, unfolded on the grass.

‘It’ll move off,’ Judy says. ‘It’s probably just startled to see us here.’ Guy says yes, more to Freya than Judy and, trying not to alarm them, looks about for anything that he might pick up to ward it off. But there are no sticks, no weighty logs, only this knobbled dead branch lopped from the oak – huge and twisted and a perfect reading spot for his wife and her book of poems, but not something you could lift. The oak itself is above them, with a wide span of heavy dark arms, but the closest of the branches is at least twice his height. He notices Judy also looking up at the tree, and even Freya, this small person between them, looking up for heavenly answer, reaching the same conclusion a few seconds behind her parents.

‘We can’t climb it,’ he says, quickly looking for ways up the trunk, and seeing the countless bumps and calluses of the tree’s life but no clear hold.

‘You sure?’ Judy says, feeling the necessity to voice all options. Nothing he can easily scale, let alone with Freya and Judy too. You can cling to an oak but you can’t climb them, he thinks, and it would only make them more vulnerable to attempt it. He doesn’t want to make a wrong decision.

‘What shall we do if it doesn’t go?’ Judy asks, giving him a natural permission to act, to take the lead.

‘Let’s keep still,’ he whispers, ‘really still.’

Freya’s frozen to the spot anyway, but he sees her nod obediently below him, and he hears her swallowing. He has a strange impression of himself, standing with the others in the centre of the field. He must look ridiculous, all angles and vulnerable and out of his depth.

‘We’re here,’ he says, pathetically.

‘Didn’t you see it coming?’ Judy says, unable to mask an accusation.

‘No. No, I didn’t. Did you?’

The stallion makes a deep snorting sound and half-turns so its eye is again completely side-on to them. He sees the bend in its body just behind the front legs, where the skin has rippled into long lines that run the height of its flank. The grey hair has mottled patches of dirty brownish-black hair. Its head is a squared-off anvil which starts...

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