I met him during a chaotic period of my life when everything was a blank. I had left my children, my husband, and come to London with the vague intention of recovering some part of me I thought I had lost. It was late summer. I did the usual round of things – churches, museums, public monuments.
One afternoon I spent hours looking at the Caryatids at St Pancras Church, marvelling at their grace and trying to locate the scars said to lie across their bellies. Apparently, chunks had to be cut right out of their middles, to make them fit properly, but I couldn’t see the marks. Eventually, I stopped looking and spent what remained of the day in an old haunt near Copenhagen Fields. When I lived in London before, a friend had a flat around the corner. I tried to summon the evenings we had spent together, but even the memory of contentment seemed beyond me, as if those things hadn’t happened to me at all and instead I had read about them in a book.
As dusk came a man sat at my table. I watched him while he did a crossword, periodically putting down his pen to take gulps of beer. The next day he was there again.
‘You like crosswords,’ I said. He nodded. I asked him to give me a clue, which he did, but I couldn’t work
The next day was the same, and the next: he gave me clues and I didn’t get them. In between times, we talked about incidental things – the flowers in the hanging baskets, rivers and the history of that part of London. He knew more than I did, telling me of the visit of Christian IV of Denmark in 1606; how his retinue had set up a temporary home on the site of the fields. Revels had gone on long into the night and herring, in barrels of Madeira wine brought up the river from ports on the east coast, were consumed in vast quantities. I didn’t know what to say to that.
The next day, draining his pint, he said: ‘I want to show you where I’m from.’
At Liverpool Street, we caught a train to Ipswich. I looked out of the window at the dipping sun, at estuaries and abandoned industrial buildings. I told him that I wished I had travelled more, but that I hadn’t and was left only with vague sense impressions of how other places should be. At Ipswich, we caught another train, a smaller one. To keep myself from falling asleep I memorised the names of the stations we passed through: Westerfield, Woodbridge, Melton, Wickham Market, Saxmundham.
At Darsham, we left the train and began to walk. The fields were scratchy with stubble and golden in the last of the sun. Migrating birds gathered overhead. Finally, he began to speak of our destination, telling me of a city that had been destroyed, of churches, monasteries, almshouses; of hospitals, a great harbour; of spicers, mercers and cutlers; of countless homes that had been broken up and carried away by the sea.
‘All that remains,’ he said, ‘lies in ruins beneath the waves, enveloped in silt and darkness.’ It seemed to me that he spoke with the fervour of the last surviving witness, on whom a great responsibility rested, but the whole thing seemed impossible.
‘This is fiction,’ I said, at last.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s all true.’
As it grew dark, the heath beneath us gave way to tarmac and I was just able to make out the shape of a church, then of houses, a handful of parked cars.
‘This is it,’ he said, ‘or what’s left.’
As we walked, he gestured to buildings I couldn’t see, saying who had lived there, what they had done and how he had known them. At the end of the street, we came to an incline.
We climbed, the soft sand making me weary. I wondered why I had come, how I had got there, to
‘Watch yourself,’ he said, ‘there’s a cliff.’ At the top, he put his hand on my arm. His voice was quivering with pride. ‘This is what I wanted you to see.’
Beyond, I could see moonlight on the water, the southwards curve of the coast and, nearer in, slick terraces of shingle. The stars were out, Nimrod lost in Orion, Osiris in the Dog Star.
‘Do you see it?’ he said.
‘What am I looking for?’
‘There’s a glow in the sea – look – as if it were lit from below.’
I told him I could see no such thing.
We sat down on the ground and he put his head against my shoulder.
‘Keep looking,’ he said.
I did keep looking, but I didn’t see anything. In truth I was conscious only of the great continent of emptiness opening in front of me and a powerful feeling of truancy as if, having slipped out of the regular run of things, I was now capable of unspeakable acts. Still looking, I began a fitful sleep, punctuated by odd moments of wakefulness when it seemed as if the sea was already on top of us.
At dawn, the sun on the water, he was nowhere to be seen. I waited, watching the tide rise up the beach, and then walked slowly down to the village and called a taxi. At Darsham, I caught the train to Ipswich. As I counted back through the stations, I found I was angry with him, furious even. He had given me something to carry, but not told me what it was, who it was for, or for how long I would have to carry it.
‘Unspeakable Acts’ was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of W. G. Sebald. It was first broadcast on The Verb, on the 14th October, 2011.