The Drowning Peopleby Richard Mason
It is a cold afternoon in winter. An old man sits in a room high above the sea, watching the sun set. It is twenty-four hours since the death of his wife at Seton Castle, the home they had shared for more than forty years. And as it grows dark, he tries to make sense of a life only recently understood; and to explain how he, by no means a violent man, has come to kill in cold blood...
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My wife of more than forty-five years shot herself yesterday afternoon.
At least that is what the police assume, and I am playing the part of grieving widower with enthusiasm and success. Life with Sarah has schooled me in self-deception, which I find -- as she did -- to be an excellent training in the deceiving of others. Of course I know that she did nothing of the kind. My wife was far too sane, far too rooted in the present to think of harming herself. In my opinion she never gave a thought to what she had done. She was incapable of guilt.
It was I who killed her.
And my reasons were not those you might expect. We were not unhappily married, you see; far from it. Sarah was -- until yesterday -- an excellent and loving wife, for she was conscientious, in some respects, to her core. It's funny that, isn't it? How completely contrasting standards can coexist in a person without seeming to trouble them. My wife was, at least outwardly, never anything but dutiful, correct, serene. "She gave of herself tirelessly in the true service of this island and its people"; that's what the chaplain will say of her when the time comes; and he will be right. Sarah had many virtues, chief amongst which was an unflinching sense of duty made graceful by serene execution. That is what she will be remembered for. And her serenity was not only for herself. She had a way of making the lives of those around her serene also -- serene, ordered, and secure. It was security on her terms, of course; but I would have welcomed it on anybody's terms when I married her, and that has held true over forty-five years.
If you knew me, you wouldn't think me at all the murdering type. Indeed I don't consider myself a violent man, and I don't suppose that my having killed Sarah will change that. I have learned my faults over seventy years on this earth, and violence -- physical, at least -- is not amongst them. I killed my wife because justice demanded it; and by killing her I have at last seen a sort of justice done. Or have I? Doubts trouble me; old wounds reopen. My obsession with sin and punishment, laid to rest so imperfectly so long ago, is returning. I find myself wondering what right I had to judge Sarah, and how much more harshly I will be judged for having judged her too; judged her and punished her in a way I have never been judged or punished myself.
It might not have come to this; I might never have known. But Sarah's inexorable sense of wifely duty exposed her. If only she'd been slightly less considerate, slightly less conscientious, she might not be dead now. She was organizing a surprise party for my seventieth birthday, you see; not that the arrangements for it could have remained secret for long on this island. Nor did they. I've known that something was afoot for a month or more. And I was touched. But I'm particular about parties. I don't like the tenants invited; and I don't like some of Sarah's more fawningly agreeable friends. So it was understandable that I should want to consult a guest list so that by hinting at least I could have made my wishes known.
I chose last Monday afternoon to search her desk because my wife was out, supervising the extension to the ticket office. And quite by chance I found the drawer she has kept it in all these years.
Even now, with her dead and nearly buried, the arrogance of it chills me.
I am in the little sitting room (in days gone by a dressing room) which connects my bedroom to Sarah's. It is the warmest room in this icy house because it is the smallest. With both doors closed and a fire blazing and the radiators on under its pointed Gothic windows, it is almost cozy. There is no desk in here, only a sofa and two chairs and a small table covered with books. Old books; my favorite books; their inscriptions faded, their givers dead. They have sat on that table for more than forty years, I should think: a Bible, calf-bound, from my mother; my grandfather's Fowler's; Donne's love poetry, an old edition of Ella's borrowed long ago. There is a music stand in the corner too, hardly used now; a graduation gift from my parents. From where I sit I can see my initials engraved on its base: "For J.H.F. June 1994." June 1994; almost fifty years ago. That stand was mine before I ever knew her.
It seems suddenly important to me that I should have explained myself to myself by the time everyone arrives. I need clarity. The coroner's inquest is set for tomorrow; then there'll be the funeral and the interment and the house will be full of people. From this evening on I shan't have a moment's peace for weeks; no time to myself in which to think. If ever I am to put the events of my life in some sort of order I must begin the sifting now; I must try, I know, to understand what I have done; to understand how I, at the age of seventy, have come to kill my wife and to feel so little remorse over it.
It is curious, my lack of compunction; not complete, perhaps, but almost. Now that Sarah is gone, now that I know the truth, I feel very little. Hardly any outright regret, just a curious, empty, almost eerie calm: a numbness that shows me, perhaps, quite how much I have learned from her. Quietly, detached, I sit here alone; and it strikes me that in some ways I should be glad, though I am not; that the absence of gladness is a striking one, for years ago this knowledge would have freed me. It would have given me what some call a new lease on life; I might have gone back. So it is odd that I should feel nothing now, or at most next to nothing. The events of those weeks and months long ago, in which the seeds of it all were sown, have a playlike quality. I know the plot and can empathize with the characters; but the young man of twenty-two who plays such a central part is a stranger to me. He bears little relation (beyond a slight, decreasing, physical similarity) to the image that confronts me as I pass the looking glass by the fireplace; as I stare at the books, at the music stand, at the waves and the gun gray sky.
My life seems to have slowed. The present takes up so much time. I see myself as I was at twenty-two. Young, very young, a certain physical gangliness characterizing my movements (I was tall, with long legs) and a small nose, delicate like my mother's. My mouth is thin-lipped; my eyes a pale brown; and all are set in a regular oval face with small ears and a slightly pointed chin. Hardly handsome, I suppose; and at that age undignified by the lines of age. My face is more careworn now, the years have creased and folded it. But that is as it should be.
I suppose that my family life and upbringing must go some way to explaining why my adult life has turned out as it has, why I have turned out as I have. Ella's shoulders are too fragile to bear the complete weight of the responsibility, as are mine. Perhaps it is time to exhume old ghosts, to see my parents as they were in their forties and fifties: my mother with her dark hair graying and her piercing blue eyes, so shrewd and voluble; my father with his powerful shoulders and huge veined hands. He was a man of deliberate gesture and unshakable self-belief, a quality I don't think he ever succeeded in passing on to me. What he did give me, and it is this for which I thank my family most, is stubbornness: for it has sustained me when all else has failed, when arrogance and self-belief have deserted me.
What did my parents want for me? What were they like? It is so difficult to know, so difficult to give complete answers to any questions like these. We were not rich, I know that much, but we knew rich people (which my mother felt, and once or twice almost said, was enough). And I suppose that my parents, like any parents, hoped that their son would go far in the world. In their world, I should say, for they lived, like so many of their class and generation, in comfortable, unquestioning calm, unruffled by external change. My parents did not look outwards. They never ventured beyond the range of their own ambition, being serenely confident -- in a way which frequently infuriated me -- of their place in the order of things. Their gods were tradition, propriety, the maintenance of the social hierarchy. They looked both up and down; were deferential to those above and polite to those beneath. They read The Times, voted Conservative, and held unchanging and predictable views on the events of the day. The revolutions of the 1960s had done nothing to unsettle their values or to disturb their quiet hopes; and because they were kind they insisted on planning my future on their own terms and with all the tenacity of challenged sincerity.
My own private plan of becoming a concert violinist, flatly and sullenly expressed in my second year at Oxford, could have met with no favor in their eyes; nor did it. And my late adolescence was punctuated occasionally, but always dramatically, by the slow buildup of family tension, its explosive release, and its subsequent subsidence over long days of icy politeness.
It is ironic that I should end my life in a house like this one, with a titled wife whose family history is as weighty as any to which her parents-in-law could ever have aspired. It is ironic that, having made so much of following my own lights, I have succeeded ultimately in achieving only what my parents wished for me all along. My musical career died gradually as my marriage progressed, for Sarah could not hope to fuel it as Ella had done, nor did she try to; and my reserves of emotion have dwindled unavoidably over time. My talent lay in translating private passion into public performance, and as the private passion stopped flowing, dried, and finally turned to a dust so fine that the slightest wind scattered it to nothingness, there was no longer anything to be translated. Technically I remained preeminent, for I have always been diligent; but I stopped playing when I could hope for nothing more than mechanical brilliance.
But I am wandering, losing the flow of my narrative. It is only to be expected from a man of my age, I suppose.
My education was unremarkable. I was clever enough to join the majority of my public school fellows at Oxford, a great relief to my parents; and until the age of nineteen I made a creditable enough return on their investment in me. But over the three years of my separation from my family at university I was encouraged by those I knew and the books I read to cultivate a certain detachment from home life and its aspirations for me, a detachment which made me critical during term time and superior in the holidays. It was then that I turned with real determination to my secret love, the violin; and it was then, comparatively late but in time enough, that I had the leisure and the teaching to discover that I might be really good; good enough to matter. Good enough, certainly, to use my music as the basis for my first serious confrontation with my parents, one that raged the whole of the summer following my graduation and which centered around my stubborn insistence that I was going to be a musician.
But I digress in my attempt to make my twenty-two-year-old self more real to me now, an attempt in which I have been only partly successful. I remember once more what he looks like, that is true; I see his half smile and rosy cheeks and the hair tumbling over his forehead into his eyes. But I know him no longer; I have no empathy with his tastes and only a little with his enthusiasms, surprisingly few of which have remained. I struggle to remember the people with whom he filled his life, the friendships he made: curiously intense, for he was a young man of extremes, inclined to manic sociability and profound gloom by turns. Of course a few stand distinct from the tableau. People like Camilla Boardman, the girl my mother always hoped I would marry: pretty; bubbly; well connected; more substantial than she liked to seem. But I was insular at twenty-two. Indiscriminately friendly, I shared myself intimately with great discrimination; I still do. Perhaps I had little to share; certainly my life up to that point contained nothing very remarkable. I had made the progression from preparatory school to public school to Oxford with as few jolts as possible; I had not forced myself to think much or to examine the world. Life was as it was, and I accepted it on its own terms, much in the way I would later accept my marriage to Sarah: with a sort of dogged determination which I would not admit to myself.
Unblinking, unseeing, unknowing, I drifted through life until I met Ella. It was she who baptized me; it was she who threw me into the sea of life. And she did it quite unthinkingly, little caring or even knowing how much good or how much harm she might do. It was in her nature, that wild abandonment, that driving need for experience and explanation. It was she who made me swim, she who pushed me from the safety of the shallows; it was she with whom I floundered, out of my depth. It is to her, and to my memories of her, that I must turn now in seeking to explain what I have done.
In memory she is a small, slight girl, my age, with tousled blond hair and green eyes that sparkle back at me complicitly, even now. She is in a park, Hyde Park; it is an early morning in mid-June: birds sing; keepers in green overalls are setting up deck chairs; the air is sweet with the scent of newly mown grass. I can hear myself panting.
I had been running, up early and out of the house to escape the frosty conversation that had become habitual since my acceptance to the Guildhall. My father had strict views on the desirability of merchant banking; my mother, usually a useful ally (for my own happiness figured more in her plans for me than it did in my father's) had sided with him, saying that no grandchildren of hers would grow up in Hounslow because their father was an impoverished musician. I had begun, in vain, by telling them that musicians weren't necessarily impoverished; later I had openly called them snobs and sworn privately that nothing could be said to deter me from my course. The atmosphere at home had not yet recovered from the latest scene (unusually venomous on the parts of all concerned) staged two days previously. I had no wish for another meal of silent recrimination.
So I went running in the park. I can hear myself panting, can feel the pulse of the blood beating in my head, can see what I wore: a white T-shirt; school rugby shorts; the socks of my college boat club. I can see what Ella wore too, because I noticed her long before she saw me. She was sitting on a bench, in a black dress that pulled tight against her slender hips. Her eyes were dazed from wakefulness; a cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup steamed on the bench next to her; a pearl necklace (which I have since, on another's neck, come to know well) was in her closed hand, which was shaking a little. She was a dramatic figure in the half light of the early morning: sitting on that bench; hardly moving. I ran past her twice before she noticed me, each time shortening the route by which I doubled back unseen and passed her again. The third time I passed her she looked up at me and her eyes focused. She smiled.
I stopped, panting, a little distance from the bench, regretting my last circuit of the carriage track. When I turned to look at her, she was still smiling.
"Tough run," she called out.
"You could say that."
We nodded politely to each other.
"Tough night?" I asked, looking at her clothes. She saw my eyes hesitate on her hand and the shaking stopped.
"More of a long night," she said. Her accent was American, but lilting and musical with anglicized vowels. She was soft-spoken. We smiled at each other as I wondered what to say, but it was she who finally broke the silence. "I'm sure I know those socks," she said.
"They're college socks, aren't they?" She paused. "Although knowing my luck they're going to turn out to be school socks or some other kind of sock -- there are so many kinds in England -- and I'll feel a right arse." Her pronunciation of the word "arse" was self-consciously rounded; here was a person who had trained herself not to say "ass."
Glad to have been offered a neutral topic of conversation, I told her that they were college socks, as a matter of fact. "The socks of my college boat club," I said with adolescent pride.
Remembering it now, I find it curious to think that the course of my whole life might be said to have hung on something as inconsequential as my choice of footwear that morning. Ella would not have noticed different socks; and without her remarking on them as she did do I would probably never have known her. In that case I would not be the person I am today; I would not have killed my wife yesterday afternoon; I would not be in this smoky room, trying to keep warm, listening to the waves of the Atlantic crash on the rocks beneath my windows. It is curious, the way in which seemingly innocuous details like the selection of a pair of socks can set in motion a chain of events which, as one leads to another, build up such momentum that they become a guiding force in your life. I find it strange; strange and slightly unsettling. But the evidence is there, I suppose; and who am I to refute it?
I watch myself saunter over to the bench where she is sitting, a question on my lips. Ella remains absolutely motionless, the fine bones of her neck and shoulders showing clearly through her pale skin. She is sitting a little hunched, which contributes to the effect of her fragility. She would look innocent but for the cut of her dress and the stylish parting of her short hair, which a hand pushes back from her eyes occasionally and ineffectually. Getting close I see that pronounced cheekbones make her face almost gaunt, as do pale blue rings which undercircle her eyes. But the eyes themselves are bright: sharp and green, they move swiftly up and down me as I approach and seem to indicate a place beside her on the bench. I sit down.
"These are the socks of my college boat club," I say again.
"I know," she says. "Oriel, Oxford, aren't they?"
I nod, impressed by her accuracy. "How do you know?" I ask smiling.
There is a pause while the smile on her lips fades and she looks serious once more. Her fingers become conscious of the string of pearls in her left hand, which she puts into a small square bag at her feet with an unconscious gesture of protection.
"That's a complex question. More complex than it sounds," she says. But realizing my awkwardness, she continues: "Let's just keep the answer brief and say that I know someone who has them." She takes a last sip from the Styrofoam cup and discovers that it is almost empty. She seems surprised and faintly irritated.
"Who?" I am eager for her to define herself to some extent by her acquaintance with someone I can judge.
"You wouldn't have known him, unless you're older than you look."
Since she doesn't seem disposed to say anything further, I question her more closely, telling her that one never knows.
"His name's Charles Stanhope," she says, uttering a name I indeed do not recognize. I say this and she looks up at me and smiles.
"I'm sorry to have interrupted your run," she says. "But I've been sitting out here on this bench for so long I think I'd've stayed here forever if someone hadn't disturbed me and broken the spell."
"What spell?" I am bold enough to ask.
"The spell of wakeful hours." She looks up at me, eyes twinkling. "The rut of question-answer-same-question your brain gets into when developments take a turn you didn't really expect."
I see her fumble absently in her bag for a cigarette, watch her light it, and follow silver-gray smoke circles upwards to a pale blue sky. The park is noticeably warmer now; people are trickling in, and as they pass they cannot help but look at us, an odd pair under the trees. I can smell the faint odor of sweet perfume and soap and stale cigarette smoke that surrounds her; can hear the click of her lighter flint as she makes a flame; can see, as she holds her cigarette, that one of her nails is bitten to the quick.
"Have you been out here all night?" I ask.
She nods, with a little tightening of pale lips. "Oh yes," she says. "This bench and I are old friends. It's heard more of my secrets than it cares to remember, I suspect."
"And has it offered good advice?"
"Well that's just where benches have the advantage over people. They don't offer advice; they don't sympathize. They just sit, listening, reminding you by their very immovability that nothing in your life can be that earth-shattering. I think benches are a good guard against melodrama." She looks up at me. "I suppose you think me very melodramatic." She says this more as a half-murmured musing to herself than as a question to me. "Sitting here in these clothes," she goes on. "Smoking. Drinking coffee. Forming crazy relationships with benches." She looks up at me again, shyly this time, and we both laugh.
"Not at all," I say, itching to ask her more but being constrained by...what? By twenty-two years of being told that it is rude to pry; by a certain social reserve which is characteristic of me to this day; by a fear that she is troubled by love for another, whom I instinctively hate and whose existence I want to put off confirming until the last possible moment.
"You are very polite," she says eventually, in a tone which sows doubt in my mind about the sincerity of the compliment.
I nod, and as I do so her words sound in my ears like an accusation. I feel that something is required of me, but what it is I do not know, and as I am not experienced in talking to pretty women I say nothing.
"I wonder if that is your personality or your education," she goes on. "This admirable respect you seem to have for my privacy. In your place I should be curious to know what prompts a fully grown woman to sit up all night in a lonely park and grow garrulous with the larks."
This sounds like an invitation, which I cautiously accept -- "Would you tell me if I did ask?" I say quietly.
"Five minutes ago I might have done," she says, closing the clasp of her bag with a click. "But your presence has cheered me too much for confidences. And of course this old bench is still just where it was last night, a fine example to us all." She pauses. "Constancy in a changing world." She smiles and pats the worn wood of its seat. "I feel better now," she says, "and less inclined to...bore you with my troubles. All of which, I should add, are purely of my own making."
"They wouldn't bore me at all," I say, now wanting to know more than ever what is troubling this beautiful, fragile woman with the softly foreign accent and the bitten fingernails.
"Well I'm glad to know you're human," she says and we both laugh again.
"Could I ask your name, at least?" I say, braver now that I sense she is about to go.
"You could. A name is the least private thing about a person." She gets up and leans over to stub her cigarette on the ground. She puts the butt into an empty carton in her bag. I hear the click click of the clasp closing and unclosing. I see that she isn't wearing any shoes and watch her pick up a pair of black satin pumps which have been collecting dew under the bench. There is a pause.
"Well then, what's your name?"
"I'm Ella Harcourt," she says, standing, and offers me her hand.
I shake it.
"And you are?"
"I'm James Farrell," I say.
"Well, James -- " There is a slight awkwardness between us, born of intimacy almost attempted and just missed. "It was a pleasure," she says at last.
Now whose education is dictating what they say? I think to myself, irrationally annoyed at her leaving. She sees my irritation and laughs.
"Good-bye," I say, getting up too.
"Enjoy the rest of your run," she says and turns to go, barefooted, her shoes in one hand, the empty Styrofoam cup in the other. I see the redness on her heels where the pumps have been chafing her. She walks delicately, but purposefully and quickly. She does not look back. I sense that she knows I am watching her. It is a long time before she is gone completely from my view, for the carriage track is straight and almost empty. I stand looking after her shrinking form, hearing the thud of my pulse once more, aware of tiny sounds usually lost: the scratch of squirrels' claws on bark, the rustle of a breeze in the oak leaves, an indignant magpie.
Copyright c 1999 by Richard Mason. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Richard Mason began writing The Drowning People at the age of 18. He is currently twenty and a student at Oxford University, where he studies with Martin Amis's former tutor.
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Hypnotic, passionate, disturbing, and dark, "The Drowning People" is a must-read. This book is a Master Class in the art of atmosphere, foreshadowing, and character development. The story itself is nothing extraordinary-- but the way it's written will grab you and never let you go. Read it, read it, read it.
This book is fabulous!
Some parts stretch the boundaries of realism, but a fascinating tale nevertheless.
You will not be disappointed in this rich moving story. It has been a while since I listened to the audiobook and still am reminded of how much I enjoyed it!
Between Ella and Sarah....I don't know what to think...true is that this is not an usual plot, and usual story... a discover
The story is simply entrancing! I could not put this book down!! Persuasive and forceful literature.
Highly recommend this novel. A very fast read that will keep you rivited.
One of the finest works of literature I have ever read. It is quite amazing that this literary 'genius', Richard Mason, was only 18 when he began to write The Drowning People. The story was compelling, the characters complex and I savored every last page.
THIS WAS ONE OF THE MOST FASINATING BOOKS I'VE READ IN A LONG TIME!! WONDER OF WONDERS--NO PROFANITY. THANK YOU MR. MASON!
It is hard to imagine that a nineteen year old wrote this wonderful book. It grabs you from the first sentence and continues to the end. I really enjoyed it and hope that this young author gets the recognition that he deserves!
I loved the book. It kept you very interested the whole way through.
i enjoyed the drowing people very much. i usually read books on horror and ghostly tales but this book trapped me into buying it and i am very glad i did. i enjoy reading first books out from different authors and this one trapped me into reading it. a-1 performance.
I must say that I am amazed when I read negative reviews of this book! I thought it was so wonderful, so well-written and so compelling. I found the psychological insights to be truly insightful, and am astonished that an 18-year-old could write such thoughts. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I did not find the ending predictable at all. I didn't figure it all out until shortly before it was revealed and I'm no dummy (LOL). Anyway, I just wanted to say that I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting, mysterious and fun read. I can't wait for Mason's next book.
I first heard about this book from a friend who, knowing my love for classics such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre, suggested that I would enjoy this novel as well. Unfortunately, I found this book to be highly dull and slow moving, (It kept loosing my attention) with a contrived plot and predictable ending. I feel as though the author should get to know more women before he writes his next novel because he does not seem to understand his women characters or what motivates them. I would still recommend this book to readers, but only as a beach book and not a great work of fiction.