Beside the Sea
Véronique Olmi
Adriana Hunter, Translator

She decides to take her two boys for a vacation to a seaside village. They get on a bus which is cold and drafty and the other passengers are hostile, unfriendly. But at least they have each other: she, and Kevin (five years old) and Stan (nine years old).

When they get to the village, it's raining, but they find their hotel. Only their room is up six floors, it's dark on the stairs, they can barely see the steps. The room is so tiny that the bed seems to fill it all. The sheets are worn, with holes in them ... and the rain won't let up.

So it's a vacation, but there is another problem. She's batty as a fruitcake. And she forgot the pills her doctor gave her. So her mind begins to spin out to "the place I mustn't go." Oh yes, the crabs, too, are nibbling at her. She turns into "a wonky machine."

The kids? Well, they do what kids with potty mothers always do: they maintain. Support her best they are able. Reassure her when she starts babbling that everything is OK. It's hardest for Kevin. After all, he's only five. Stan? He's better at it: he takes care of all three of them. As best as he is able.

§   §   §

There's not much history here. A paragraph given over to Kevin's father ... at least, the man she thinks is Kevin's father. And the song her own dad used to sing to her,

    the brave sailor back from the war, Hushaby, your shoes all worn, your clothes all torn. Brave sailor where have you been, Hushaby.

Olmi has a talent for building the scene outside and the one inside. The hotel is dark, forbidding. Outside it is rainy, muddy, cloudy, cold. The sea? "It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered."

Inside? Those of us who have tinkered with going nuts (or maybe it tinkered with us) know it well. The babbling mind. The one that won't shut up, won't leave you alone, taking you back, close to the panic. "I've told them about it at the health centre."

    You've got to reason with yourself. That's what they say. In fact, all their sentences start like that: You've got to. It sounded to me like: You forgot to, you forgot to, you forgot to.

"I couldn't reason with myself," she says. Right. Those of us who have been there know that Reason or Logic or I'm-Gonna-Beat-This isn't worth dogshit. You have to go outside to survive.

The only thing that keeps her from going under is when they get to the funfair in the evening. She buys chips for the kids, and when they go off for the rides, she concentrates on the Ferris wheel going around going around going around taking her mind with it.

§   §   §

My hands are tied on this one. I'm not going to tell you about the last five pages. Because we start to wonder as we get to the end how it can possibly end. They're run out of money. They have no food. She's getting more and more ding-ey. The kids want to go home. They are wet and cold. They are hungry. The dark and damp hotel is deserted. She snarls at the people downstairs who might have helped.

And all the while her mind is spinning, spinning, spinning ... taking us along with it until we think that if she doesn't stop with this circle of madness we are going to get sucked in, start to go under ourselves. It's all very mad-making.

I'm not going to rat on the author; I am not going to tell you the coup de maître. I'll just tell you that there is probably no better picture of someone on the edge than this one. And when you finally figure out how she (and Olmi) are going to resolve the whole sinking mess, you find yourself thinking, No.

Not that...



--- Françoise Besant, M. A.
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