A Weekend Away Retold

A short story about telling stories to ourselves and others to show ourselves in the best light we can.

Image Credit: 
© Mike Richardson / Used With Permission

I am a lonely old man and, after botched prostate surgery, my penis is useless. My children and grandchildren visit when they can but they have their own lives to lead. What a way to start a memoir? A story based on imperfect recollections, some fact, some fiction. The story that I want to tell you about me.

For a long time I have been fascinated by the idea that the world, as I experience it, only exists in my mind. It is the sum of the sensory inputs made real by my brain and experienced by my mind. Your world is entirely different. It is more than us having different perspectives on the same event. We have different experiences of the same event. Which is why this is the story that I want to tell you about me. My construction of events.

I can’t decide if my memoirs will be a confessional, or a rationalisation of events and decisions, or a celebration, or a sombre reflection. I have hurt people. I have been hurt. I like to think that I have been wronged more often than I have wronged others, but I suspect that is a fallacy. How best to cover the sweep of time and geography, and explain myself to you: in retrospect with perfect hindsight clarity; in episodes with amusing anecdotes to engage you; as an arc through my life from birth to now, described as a rational progression and not just happenstance?

It’s really the storytelling that interests me. We all tell stories to ourselves and to each other. In the stories we explain, expand, rationalise and justify. Reconstructing events to present ourselves in the way that we want to be seen. I want to be seen as a “good guy” but, if I’m honest, there’s sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise. Let me tell you one story to explain.

It was a weekend away. Many years ago now but re-lived many times over in my mind. Even now I can feel the warm sun, cold sea, taste the barbecued food and crisp beer, not to mention the au pair! A blissful weekend, or was it?

A weekend away with University friends, by the sea, no plans beyond a cricket match to watch, a sleeping bag and a promise of somewhere to sleep. It started well with a train journey. Is there a better way to travel to the seaside for a holiday?

I’m not so old that the steam train took me to the water’s edge on some tourist branch line, stepping out in an all-in-one woollen swimsuit! Imagine more a man in his forties. Tired, weighed down by failed expectations and daily expectations yet to be met, or missed. Plagued by the word should: should be a good husband; should be a good father; should work hard; should be slim, fit and healthy; should have a better work-life balance; ad infinitum, ad nauseam. It would be many years and a few crises before I knew better.

Do you know If- by Rudyard Kipling? The nation’s favourite poem or some other such nonsense. To me it’s not an inspiration. It’s a litany of impossible feats that, if not achieved, mean that “you’ll [not] be a Man, my son.” Tragic. And so against that background and with that baggage; I took a train, to the seaside, for a weekend away.

I find the train distracting and hypnotic with its swaying rhythm and percussion track. Soon the city slipped away behind me and the countryside whisked me along, bathed in Friday sunshine and anticipation. These friends, the best of friends from the best of times: university before it all got too expensive and serious. Three years of fun punctuated with just enough study not to fail and then the climactic cramming sessions for finals, followed by the long slow summer of graduation before adulthood.

We hadn’t seen each other for years, many years but that wouldn’t matter. These were the best of friends. That’s how I explained it to my wife, and indirectly to my children. Just one weekend away, you don’t really know them, it’s a long journey, May be I should go by myself? That was true, not a manipulation, but, as you’ll see—quite convenient.

Before long the daily commuters had left the train and just the holidaymakers were left. Still no one spoke but you could feel the mood lift. The weather forecast was good and the seaside was rushing towards us—well as much as an old diesel train rushes anywhere! I started to make a plan. Fish and chips for supper with something to wash it down: middle-aged half-price wine (white for fish, of course) or student cans of Australian lager or bloke-ish bottles of real ale? I decided on wine, as a pseudo-gift, and beer, plenty of it.

I arrived at the house with my sleeping bag, wine, beer and baggage. It was time to party! It didn’t start well.

The house, a dowdy seaside bungalow, was full of people I didn’t know and they didn’t look like they were having fun. I was handed a cup of tea. I accepted and made small talk, getting to know people whilst wondering where on Earth my friends were and was my weekend going to live up to expectations?

There were going to be more people involved in this weekend than just my University friends and I. It was going to involve their children, aged parents and people I didn’t know. Not to worry. I was sufficiently gregarious to cope, although big parties aren’t really my idea of fun. I prefer to talk to people and not about football or any other such banality. As one of my favourite quotes says: I like to party, and when I say party I mean read books. Alone. But I was away for a weekend, by the sea, to see friends and my learned social skills would mean it would be fine.

Fine. Feelings inside not expressed.

Dinner it turned out was “help yourself to the chilli on the stove” which, by the time I got to it, was mostly split beans, watery sauce and some dried-out rice. I made my excuses and drifted out of the house towards the village and chip shop. Feeling better already.

Seaside villages are amongst my favourite places. It doesn’t matter what the season is, they always have something to recommend them. The evening and the village were perfect for my mood. It was a summer evening with the warmth left over from the day that makes any stroll pleasant. The few passers-by and gaggle of teenagers in the bus shelter reminded me of wistful teenage summer evenings hoping for an elusive holiday romance.

I bought my fish and chips and headed to the beach. A picturesque sandy bay with classic rocky buttresses and strolling couples. I settled on a rock to savour my food and my mood. A little self-indulgent you might say but few things are as good as your own company in the right place with pleasant distractions. The sea kissed the beach and I remembered teenage kisses on a beach.

Chilled by the sea breeze I returned to the bungalow. All was not well. A child was sick. The parents (my friends) and grandparents were worried. There was talk of doctors and hospital visits but where and how in a rural county at the weekend? It was decided that my friends would take their child to the hospital. A good decision: the child was sick and the indecision wasn’t helping any of us! So they left. Being the good friend that I am I played host, made cups of tea, listened to the worried grandparents and lent them money for a taxi to their hotel. All of which I was genuinely happy to do. It felt good. I’m a good guy. I crawled into my sleeping bag in a small tent on a slope in the back garden and fell asleep.

I woke with the sun, rested and looking forward to really getting on with my weekend away with my friends. It was early and the house was quiet. After a while the au pair, Kirsty, came down for breakfast. It turned out the child was really sick. It was staying in hospital and my friends weren’t expected to be back for a while, may be not until after the weekend. I must admit I was pissed off. Time, money and effort spent on a weekend away that wasn’t to be.

I returned to Kirsty. I hadn’t really noticed her the night before but in pyjamas and with tousled hair, she caught my attention. Maybe the weekend could be different, an elusive holiday romance with new kisses on the beach? No. That was wrong. I was married. I didn’t travel to the seaside to have an affair. I’m a good guy who should, who would be faithful.

Saturday turned out to be wonderful. I spent it with Kirsty, at the beach, watching cricket, drinking beer, cooking together and relaxing over simple food. Time well spent with a good companion, more than that a gorgeous companion. The light attached itself to her like a radiant hug that made her glow. She quickened my heart and my wit. To this very day I still feel her essence, and my heart still responds as I write this, even though it was just a day that time has diluted many times over like a homeopath’s remedy.

That night in my tent, alone I hasten to add, Kirsty was in my mind and my dreams. I was faithful, although I guess that depends on your definition of fidelity? Is it just physical or mental and physical fidelity? I can manage the first but not the second. It’s too easy to fall in love with the idea of a girl. Reality is always messier, more complicated and rarely as satisfying.

That’s how I awoke the next morning, Sunday, indulging in a brief mental, unrequited love affair. The daydream rudely shattered by the child. It was back, no longer sick and desperate to go to the beach. It sounded awful. Time to leave. There was nothing left in the weekend for me. It had been nothing that I had expected and so much more than I expected.

The story doesn’t end there. I had to return home to my wife and children, as a good husband, faithful and honest. What to say? What story to tell about my actions and thoughts, about my weekend away? I spent the whole journey back constructing and reconstructing a version of events. Only one story would do. It had to be both true and present me as a good guy, good friend and faithful husband. All the things I wanted to be, that I should be. The first telling of the story wasn’t the same as this construction. That story wasn’t as nuanced as this re-telling.

By now I tell myself that it wasn’t a less honest version, just less specific. Today I’m telling you about my weekend away in more detail so that you can agree that I was a good guy, even in the face of temptation and trying circumstances. For that is how I want you to see me.

James is a pseudonym for a local writer who, after a long hiatus, is exploring poetry again.

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