Clams

Dear Kenneth,

Perhaps you don’t remember me, and if not I will understand. It was a long time ago. More than half a century. Who could imagine time passing so quickly?

I lived in a beach house near Lund. We used to go out clamming together. Does that ring a bell now?

You rolled up your pants and I said you had ‘city feet,’ because you made such a fuss about walking over barnacles.

I saw your name in a column in The Vancouver Sun. It said you were retiring after a long and esteemed career at the bar. Not having had much of an esteemed career myself, at first I thought you had been a bartender. Then I saw you’d been on the Board of Weyerhaeuser Paper, which is a far cry from slinging drinks!

I read your name and I saw you clear as life, bounding through the heather. That was how I always pictured you, when you weren’t with me. Bounding up that mountain near where you came from in England, a book of poetry in your pocket. Then the memories flooded back, just like it was yesterday. The butter clams we dug up, and how a bucket of them went rotten on my porch and gave off an awful smell. How big the stars were that summer. Who could forget that? Us lying on the beach on my tartan blanket, a million stars overhead, so many of which turned out to have names. Beetlejuice was a name I remember – how about that! I still can’t believe any scientist in his right mind would name a star Beetlejuice.

I suppose I ought to fill you in on my present circumstances. When Frank retired we moved to Victoria. He died three years ago. He said he had a funny feeling in his left arm above the elbow. I said: “Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar?” I didn’t want to be callous, but those were the last words I spoke to him. He sat in the shade of the house to do the crossword and had a heart attack.

Kenneth Farraday, I do not expect you to get this letter, let alone answer it. But if you do, I’ll let you know this. That summer was the happiest time of my life. I am at the Ogilvie Care Home for Seniors, if you ever find yourself ‘crossing the seas’ to Victoria.

Sincerely,

Priscilla King

Dear Kenneth,
Perhaps you don’t remember me, and if not I will understand.
It was a long time ago. More than half a century.
Who could imagine time passing so quickly?
I lived in a beach house near Lund. We used to go out
clamming together. Does that ring a bell now?
You rolled up your pants and I said you had ‘city feet,’ because
you made such a fuss about walking over barnacles.
I saw your name in a column in The Vancouver Sun. It
said you were retiring after a long and esteemed career at
the bar. Not having had much of an esteemed career myself,
at first I thought you had been a bartender. Then I saw
you’d been on the Board of Weyerhaeuser Paper, which is a
far cry from slinging drinks!
I read your name and I saw you clear as life, bounding
through the heather. That was how I always pictured you,
when you weren’t with me. Bounding up that mountain
near where you came from in England, a book of poetry in
your pocket. Then the memories flooded back, just like it
was yesterday. The butter clams we dug up, and how a
bucket of them went rotten on my porch and gave off an awful
smell. How big the stars were that summer. Who could
forget that? Us lying on the beach on my tartan blanket, a
million stars overhead, so many of which turned out to
have names. Beetlejuice was a name I remember – how
about that! I still can’t believe any scientist in his right
mind would name a star Beetlejuice.
I suppose I ought to fill you in on my present circumstances.
When Frank retired we moved to Victoria. He died
three years ago. He said he had a funny feeling in his left
arm above the elbow. I said: “Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar?”
I didn’t want to be callous, but those were the last
words I spoke to him. He sat in the shade of the house to do
the crossword and had a heart attack.
Kenneth Farraday, I do not expect you to get this letter,
let alone answer it. But if you do, I’ll let you know this. That
summer was the happiest time of my life. I am at the Ogilvie
Care Home for Seniors, if you ever find yourself ‘crossing
the seas’ to Victoria.
Sincerely,
Priscilla King

Kenneth looked up from the letter. Outside his study window the lawn sloped to a border of rhododendrons with gnarled, rain-slick branches. His pride and joy. That was what Deirdre, his wife, called the rhododendrons: ‘Kenneth’s pride and joy,’ suggesting a simpleness in him, he supposed, as well as misplaced priorities. In June they flamed orange and scarlet, but now they were covered in sticky buds. Beyond the hedges and cedars of the British Properties he could see the suspension rigging of the Lions Gate Bridge, and beyond that, the city’s bony cliff faces.

He could hear Deirdre and his eldest daughter Jennifer having coffee in the kitchen. Jennifer had come to pick up their grandson after a morning with his grandmother, and the two women were murmuring about his likes and dislikes, his fussiness, his learning disability. Kenneth found his grandson difficult to be around, and blamed Jennifer for having cut his hair in bangs that emphasized his oddness.

“He’s peculiar enough,” Kenneth had muttered to Deirdre before Jennifer arrived, as the boy slurped milk out of his saucer. “Must he also have a peculiar haircut?”

Deirdre had shot him a look from under dark eyebrows, a look of frustration verging on fury. Verging on hatred. In menopause she had gotten used to speaking her mind with a blunt force that had shocked him, and the habit had not left her, a decade and a half later.

“He’s your grandson.” She moved her mouth hard. “Show some compassion.”

“It is with great compassion that I have pointed out his unfortunate haircut.” Kenneth had picked up his tray of tea and taken it to the study with the mail, leaving Deirdre with her chalkboard of tasks, machine messages from the Georgia Strait Alliance, and her simmering pot of oso buco.

I saw you, clear as life, bounding up that mountain.

He must have told her about Urra Moor, and the image had somehow lodged in her brain, a sliver he carried too, almost painful to draw out now: running up Urra Moor in the morning, birds scattering out of the gorse, a mule deer watching his scramble. How the blood had raced through his hands and arms and shoulders. He had found a stick and waved it, infatuated with the surge of blood through his body.

Funny that she – Priscilla King – had held onto this memory of a place she had never seen, while Deirdre did not even know the name Urra Moor, though he may have told her about it when he was courting her. He remembered Deirdre descending the stairs of the Vancouver Club in a lemon chiffon dress and gloves. Her father had been an important member. When Kenneth drove her home that night, he had parked at Spanish Banks and pulled up the hem of her dress, stiff as a ballerina’s costume, and touched her knee, then the birthmark high on her left thigh. Perhaps, after that bout of rumpled thrusting, they had lit cigarettes and he had told her about Urra Moor. But he doubted it.

Priscilla King’s handwriting was neatly formed, the s’s like small sails, the g’s and y’s curled neatly beneath each line.

I saw you clear as life.

How odd of her to write to him. The gambit of a lonely widow. Pathetic. And what book of poetry was she referring to? He had taken a couple of classes in English and Philosophy while getting his degree in forestry, before he hunkered down and focused on law. He couldn’t recall carrying a poetry book in his pocket. What a poseur he must have been!

But now he could not stay still. He put on his rubber boots, slid open the glass door and crossed the lawn to the border of rhododendron, where he snapped away twigs, then fetched a box of bonemeal from the shed, scattering handfuls among the moss.

Kenneth had met Priscilla King the summer he worked in Lund, which was the farthest town you could drive north to from Vancouver, along the coastal road: past Howe Sound, Gibson’s, Jarvis Inlet. By day Kenneth had worked in the bush with three other forestry students, Hungarian refugees who had escaped to British Columbia. Together, they measured stream heights, analysed sediment, bushwhacked trails. He remembered lying in his bunk in the afternoon listening to them play cards. The creosote smell of the cabin, the slap of cards as he traced a knot hole with his forefinger, thinking of Priscilla. It must have been a Sunday because he still remembered the anticipation in his stomach waiting for Frank to be gone, back onto his boat. Then Kenneth would wander down the beach, around three coves, to her cabin with its tarpaper roof. Always look for the warning: if she had hung a red towel on the porch rail, a rock weighing it down, then Frank was there.

She was Frank’s wife, a fisherman’s wife, another man’s woman, and this, for Kenneth, was like an aphrodisiac: to taste, to eat of her flesh, to dive into her, to beat himself against her bones, knowing she was another man’s wife, made him flush with desire as he lay on that bunk, surrounded by the smell of socks. When she moaned, he thought: I made her moan more than Frank. When she thrashed, he thought: Can Frank do that? He was stealing her, having his way illicitly. He even remembered whispering Frank’s wife as he kissed her, noticing how she flinched. That, too, was erotic, to hurt her ever so gently. He had been young: affecting any woman had felt exhilarating and dangerous.

Only a year before, he had left North Yorkshire. Mother and Father. Tea at the rectory. He had roamed across Canada feeling like a black sheep, the bad youngest son, though in fact he was the only son, with two doting sisters, Dodie and Kitty. He had a notion about himself, which had to do with pouring himself into the Canadian vastness, submerging himself beneath massive, breathing conifers. After one lice-infested season in a logging camp near Squamish, he had amended his plans, writing to his father for money, enrolling in the University of BC’s new forestry department. That was why he was in Lund with three Hungarians who drank dark beer and called to each other in their bunks at night, leaving Kenneth to speculate on the salty crack in Priscilla’s ass.

Even now (under the rhododendron’s waxy leaves) he remembered the fish scales on her tanned shoulders, tiny, reflective and sharp. The sand in her hair. She had been a kind of beach relic, aged, scaly, sandy. She had shown him places to lick – inner ear, belly button – and every time, because he was young and cocky, it had felt like conquest. Only once, after they had collected clams, he had lain on top of her on the tartan blanket, surprised to feel tears at the corners of his eyes. Gratitude? Relief? Pent up chemical exuberance?

He did not answer Priscilla King’s letter.

Instead he waited for a month, and then he lied to Deirdre, telling her he would be lunching with the Weyerhaeuser advisory committee, then going to the club. She would not be home until late; she had her Georgia Strait Alliance board meeting. Then Kenneth took the ferry to Victoria.

He found a seat by the window, placing his coat and scarf on the seat beside him. They passed the tip of a Gulf island, a red-painted government wharf. Sights like this must have been part of Priscilla’s life, for years and years, as she and Frank returned from fishing on his seiner. And now a voice began to intone, a rocking cadence beneath the engine’s hum:

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the Holy City of Byzantium.

And then, almost like his father’s voice, it was so fever sharp:

A man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing
For every tatter in his mortal dress—

Where had these voices been? Gone, that was all.

Clamming: you place your socks inside your shoes and put them on a rock above the high-tide mark. She looks at your feet, which have never seen a day’s sun, and she says, “Time to toughen those tootsies, Kenneth.”

And you say: “Alliteration, Priscilla.”

She smiles radiantly, exposing an incisor inexpertly filled with silver.

“You don’t know what alliteration is, do you Priscilla?”

She walks down the beach, not caring.

You call: “Priscilla prances precisely over provocative pebbles,” and she turns and you know you will lie on top of her tonight, her in all her perplexity and supplicant moaning, her womanly needs.

Come on, Kenneth. I’m going to teach you to catch clams.

I thought they just lay in their shells, and you scooped them up.

After the clamming, he’d gone for a night swim then come up the beach, wrapped in a towel. She was on the blanket, crying. He threw himself down beside her.

“Prissy. You’re a mess.”

“Maybe I’ll kill myself,” she said, conversationally. “I have pills. The doctor gave them to me.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Maybe I am.” She lit a cigarette, blew smoke toward the scrim of stars. “You leave. You go to your university. I stay.”

He kissed the salty tears from her temple, feeling both sorry for her and distanced, in another land, walking among other people, discussing Plato and Locke, discussing Milton. After that summer, for years, if he saw a seiner crossing the Strait, the words Frank’s wife would sound in his head, a taste of sex in the setting sun – and that was it.

He stood outside the Ogilvie Care Home for Seniors, a concrete building of pallid mauve, like cold skin. The glass doors slid open as a nurse wheeled a man into the sunlight. The man clutched a cane, the end propped on the chair’s footrest. He wore leather slippers like Kenneth’s slippers at home. The doors closed, muffled by a thousand brushes hidden in the door sockets. From down by the seawall a child’s voice rose: I want a bagel, I want a bagel, I want a bagel! A seaplane scudded across the bay. Kenneth stepped on the automatic door rug, and the doors hissed open, withdrawing into their hairy keeps.

The lobby tiles had been buffed to a mirror-like brilliance, reflecting the penumbra of Kenneth’s white hair. By the window a cleaning woman patiently ministered to a collection of tropical plants, caressing a dampened paper towel over each broad leaf. Solitary figures in wheelchairs had been stranded here and there, deployed, Kenneth thought, like chess pieces. He shivered as he made his way to the check-in desk. The nurse looked up, visible pores on her nose. A crucifix dangled between her large breasts. Lebanese, she might be, or Spanish.

“Is there a Priscilla King here?”

“Who’s visiting?”

“A friend.”

The nurse glanced at his tweed coat, now over his arm, his sweater vest and tie, then typed on a key pad and checked the computer screen. “She’s had a fall. She’s upstairs now. Room 319. Come.” A single word, as though to a child. Kenneth followed her buttocks down the corridor to the elevator. They went up to the third floor, which had walls the colour of a pool, long-legged insects reflected in wobbly patterns through glass. He heard the sigh of recirculating air.

The nurse paused before a door, knocked on it briskly, and then pushed it open.

“Prissy, you’ve got a friend to see you.” She held the door. Kenneth entered.

Two women were parked in parallel beds. The woman in the far bed had frizzy hair around her ears, but the top of her head was bald like one of the three stooges. Moe? Curly? Kenneth had never known which stooge was which.

The woman in the second, closer, bed was Priscilla.

She shifted her head with a single heavy motion and fixed Kenneth with her gaze. She was over eighty – her hair had turned white, her face had weathered, lines deepening, cheeks sinking, sultry lips cracking – but she was still Priscilla, and he felt an urge to say, You haven’t changed, because she hadn’t, not really. The years on Frank’s boat had merely crystallized her, like a piece of candied ginger.

Kenneth advanced to the bedside. “Hello, Priscilla,” he said softly. “I’m Kenneth Farraday.”

“Who?” She squinted at him.

“It’s me. Kenneth. You wrote me a letter.”

She took out her hearing aid, gave him a complicit smile, flicked the plastic sound piece, and then replaced it in her ear. “I dropped the damned thing in the maple syrup this morning,” she said. “Now, come again: who did you say you were? Because I want you to know one thing, I pay my taxes.” She turned to her companion in the next bed to share this piece of drollery, but the other woman had fallen asleep. Priscilla went through the elaborate head motion, and again fixed her gaze on Kenneth. She had caught hold of the edge of the bed sheet.

“You wrote to me,” he said.

“Now why would I do that?”

He found himself blushing. “I knew you a long time ago. I’m Kenneth, Priscilla.”

A pause. A beat. He watched the message pass in through the syrup-covered hearing aid, along the crotchety synapses, and into the pupils of Priscilla’s eyes.

In the lobby a woman in a wheelchair raised a clawed hand to waylay him in his passage across the sea of tiles, but Kenneth kept moving, through the sliding doors, past the hideous fuchsia hanging in their baskets, along the seawall. Women laughed behind him. Two native women lay on the grass eating fried chicken from a paper bucket. Let them. What did he care?

He found a bench, sat, and looked at his watch. The back of his hand was drained of colour. He had two hours until his ferry left the harbour. If he went now, he could wash his hands in the bathroom of the Empress Hotel, then eat curry at the Bengal Lounge, before driving back to the ferry. But he stayed where he was.

After Kenneth had said his name, Priscilla had searched his face, just as though she were digging in the sand, scrabbling with her fingers, clawing to see one vestige, one aspect of the Kenneth she had known, before settling again on his pupils.

“You see. It’s me.”

She made a sound like youch, or ouch. “You can’t be.”

He answered before he could help himself, “Why can’t I be?”

“You’re nothing like him.”

“I’m older. We’re older.”

She looked from his face to his hands, then shook her head, angrily. “You remind me of an egg.” Oh, the look on her face as she said those words, a kind of practical malevolence, as though she knew exactly what she was doing. At that moment the nurse bustled in to give Priscilla a pill. She told Kenneth he could sit and he sat. When the nurse was gone, he spoke again.

“I got your letter. I thought I’d pay you a visit.”

“You did, did you?”

“You invited me.”

“I gave the letter to the nurse. I didn’t think she had mailed it.”

“Well, she did.”

Sunshine attached itself to the slats of the blinds, lighting each edge to brilliance. When he glanced back, Priscilla was looking at him with fascinated disgust. And why? What warranted this reaction? He smelled of aftershave, no doubt, and he was elderly (though not as old as she was), and he had on a sweater vest and a finely cut jacket, and a scarf, a hat with a small feather in the ribbon. He had assigned functions to certain pockets of his tweed coat. She said: “Do you miss him?”

“Who?”

“Kenneth.”

Now he was angry.

She said, “I miss him.”

Who do you miss, Priscilla?”

She paused, and then gave him a crafty smirk. “Frank,” she said.

He sat for another minute, and then he told her he must go. As he opened the door, he heard her say to the woman in the next bed, “That’s a real cock-of-the block. A puffed up bird, that one.”

Kenneth looked out at the bay. Buildings rippled and broke in the water.

How long before Priscilla forgot that he had visited – before the boy, Kenneth, returned to her? The reader of poetry. The leaper of gorse bushes. A sleep, a wakening, and then he’d be back. In fact, Kenneth-the-boy might have slipped from the room a second before Kenneth arrived, and danced back the second he left – slipping through the side door as old cock-of-the-block took his hat and departed. Fury prickled Kenneth’s back. The old bird. The old, dried-up bird with her brittle bones, hoary toes, cracked skin. Why should she have such access to his boyhood self when Kenneth himself had nothing?

He got up and walked to the parking lot. No curry this time. He would drive to the ferry, and he would never cross the Strait again. Priscilla had had her revenge. The great karmic wheel of time (something Deirdre believed in) had spun round and now she, Priscilla, had come out on top. One part of her mind was addled as all get out, there was no question of that, but another part, using senility as a cover, had slithered across the floor, crafty as a snake, and lashed out.

Do you miss him?

His car went over the ramp with a thump, into the belly of the boat. Getting out of his car he found himself face to face with a teenage boy holding a dog on a leash. “Get that thing away from me,” Kenneth said. Upstairs he found a seat by the window. Children on the deck were playing at being blown back, coats like sails. Behind him a Punjabi family ate spiced rice and fried meat from plastic containers. Bracelets jingled as the mother took out food.

Outside one of the children had a red coat, the same shade as the towel that Priscilla used to set on the porch railing, a rock weighing it down. Priscilla who now lay in bed like a dried-up bird. He pictured red pubic hair beneath the hospital gown, a softened belly, bones so frail you could break them just by lying on top of her. And the look on her face – the spite and satisfaction as she had insulted him. He stood and walked down the aisle, past the ferry take-out restaurant. Something was moving in him. Something old. Something strange.

From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.

Oh Prissy, he almost moaned. You got me good. You got me by the short and curlies this time. But here he stopped short, making a woman behind him spill her coffee. She scowled as she passed him, but he shook his head, because it had come to him. The solution, that was all. The very solution to his problem.

He would return, that was the nub of it. Lying to Deirdre, lying and sneaking, driving to the ferry, crossing the Holy Sea on his mission. And such a mission it was. And who could say, who could slice it fine enough to say, if it was a mission of contrition or revenge? He would come back every month – that was all – just as Priscilla’s coddled brain made its final round of adjustments, closing out the strange old man, replacing him with the boy.

“It’s me,” he will say.

Hat. Overcoat. Gloves. Cravat. Umbrella.

“It’s me,” he will positively purr.

She will turn her head with that rolling gesture. “Who?” Mouth puckered in fear.

“Kenneth.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

Priscilla will edge back, grasping the blanket, ringing, if strength allows, for the nurse. (“Isn’t it sweet,” the nurse will say, “how he comes back each month to visit?”) Then he will meet Priscilla’s eyes, forcing her to see him, prying open her mind to expose those hard-to-get-at spots that hold the other Kenneth, sucking them out like buttery clam meat.

One Response to Clams

  1. Gail Peck Miller says:

    A wonderful story. Really liked the irony, the very real way it depicts how we all remember things from our past as if they would never change.

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