We set off north for the E19 interstate to Antwerp and almost immediately the Mercedes had a flat. Gerard steered the car into a fortuitous service station and began to change the tyre. As he did so he told us, proudly, that before this Mercedes he had owned another Mercedes which was even older, so old that when that car had also had a flat tyre the car jack had refused to raise the vehicle “even one centimetre” but instead just bit straight up through the rusted bodywork.
“Like cheese” said Gerard.
The interruption of the flat tyre only added to our excitement as the Mercedes sailed like a speedboat down the straight roads that led to Holland, through flatlands that looked like they had been sketched in by a hurried designer. We passed Antwerp and the roads became smaller.
In the afternoon we turned west and drove through a long flat peninsula that protrudes for miles into the North Sea, through towns called Stationsburt and Middelburg, down roads flanked by Lego-like houses that all looked as if they had been built just the week before. Here the sea seemed present even if out of sight, just as it was at home whenever we drove from London back to Southend, skirting the Thames estuary on the London Arterial.
But this was nothing like the blighted Essex landscape. More than anything it was clean – everything was eerily clean to my eyes. Belgium itself had a newly swept spruceness to it but Holland existed in higher order of cleanliness, grey and tidy and bereft of feature in every direction. We sped on through this haunted bloodless landscape, until the sun began to wane and we arrived at our destination which was the coast resort of Westkapelle.
Gerard parked the Mercedes just inside the levee that protects all of this coast and the flatland behind it. We all tumbled out of the car and walked on the table-flat beaches beyond the beach huts, and paddled in the shallow sea, and used up the time until it began to grow dark, when Elsie broke out the packed dinner, which we ate on the bonnet of the car while Elsie and Gerard drank wine and smoked cigarettes.
Gerard went to buy more cigarettes. Elsie stretched out in the car. With Matthew I explored the limitless beach huts on the seaward side of the levee. At intervals there were wooden steps up the bank, but mostly we slid down on the sand, and then back up, and then down again.
After a while I noticed I was alone. I called to Matthew but the sand seemed to deaden all sound. I looked behind the beach huts that stretched for miles in each direction, but I was still alone. By this time it was quite dark, with only the glow of street lights coming from the distant resort, and the faint stroking of the waves against the sand.
Only, I was not alone. As I stood in the wider gap between two beach huts, below one of the ladder-like wooden staircases, I saw that there was a tall figure standing on the levee, looking down at me. He was silhouetted against the yellow glow.
“Hello,” I said.
And then added my standard conversational contribution while abroad: “I’m English”.
The figure did not move.
I turned and walked in front of the beach houses. I walked until I came to the next opening with steps up to the levee and stood on the bottom step. Above me the figure stepped out from behind the huts, and again stood watching me. He placed one foot on the steps down.
I turned to look at the sea. It was a distance away, hard to judge in the near darkness. I walked towards the sea, and then ran, the sand catching at my feet.
At the tideline there were waves, although they heaved so slowly it was as if the water was merely breathing. The beach was expansive, flat, like a lawn. It was slightly luminous out here, in the cooler air, the sea drawing all the light towards it.
I turned and saw – as I must have expected – that the figure on the levee was following me down to the water’s edge.
Then I began to walk along the waterline, as if I had nothing better to do. I could see the outline of the beach huts and the sodium glow behind them, an impossible distance away.
The figure from the levee drew closer. By some effect of the weak light the person following me seemed to be becoming larger with every step. The figure grew bigger and closer and ever more shapeless, until it seemed like the substance of something that had been following me for all the years I had been alive. I looked out at the sea, and then turned with my back to the water.
And the figure was not there.
I looked all around me. I stopped walking. And I saw I was alone, at the edge of the ocean.
Later, at the top of the steps on the levee, I looked down and saw the Mercedes directly below. Everyone was in the car, and Gerard was smoking with his feet propped up on the open door.