Since he’d returned from the First World War, mostly intact aside from a missing right arm, Reggie Umstead had suspected he was inhabiting a space between life and death. That he was occupying a life with traces of death seeping into it.
He lost his arm diving out of the trench’s relative safety to pull a fellow soldier to the ground, shielding him from an enemy bomb. He woke up in a London hospital with his right arm severed from his body, the bones, skin, and muscle so shredded by shrapnel that healing was hopeless. Part of him had turned to ash, buried into the dirt from which it had come.
The man he saved, Robert Leighton, asked Reggie to be his business partner (to make up for the lost arm, Reggie had assumed), manufacturing aircrafts and catering to a niche clientele that valued both luxury and adventure. Robert had dreamed up the idea with his childhood best friend, Cameron Lind, who never made it out of the trenches.
Then there was Reggie’s wife, Lydia. Her previous husband, Benjamin Reese, had died not in war but due to a bad heart that had prevented him from joining the effort. The two had not yet made it out of their honeymoon period when Lydia’s grief joined with the nation’s mourning of lost sons, husbands, and fathers.
Occupying these roles left empty by dead men, Reggie had grown used to their looming shadows: Benjamin there in Reggie’s parlor when his son and namesake, Ben, grew taller than Reggie and announced plans to become a lawyer, avoiding the war while pursuing a degree. And Cameron was there since Reggie and Robert’s first handshake. In the dreamy tone of Robert’s voice when he talked about how much their business had grown. How much farther he hoped they would take it.
But now he was at his son, Emmet’s, memorial service, standing at Lydia’s side and receiving condolences that he could not differentiate from the first “I’m sorry for your loss,” spoken by a cousin with a two-fisted handshake and intentional eye contact. There was an undeniable pity with each offering. The memorial was in their family home. In the same room where Reggie had sat 19 years before on Valentine’s Day, nervously awaiting the announcement that his wife had safely delivered twins. Reggie had been convinced they’d have two of the same gender—identical little girls or boys—but Lydia delivered a boy and a girl. Emmet and Evelyn. Reggie had smoked two cigars.
Evelyn was beside him now, receiving the most pity from their family and friends. She too had lost a part of herself—buried beneath the waves somewhere between England and France—amongst plane parts, the likes of which were being welded in garages that Reggie owned. He studied Evelyn, expecting to see Emmet beside her in the way Robert carried Cameron in his dreams and Ben carried his father in himself. He caught the similarities of their hazel eyes, in the upturned shape of their noses.
When Reggie had received the devastating news that Emmet had died in the Second World War—struck down over the English Channel alone in a Hawker Typhoon—he began to look for signs of his son from the afterlife. Those first few days, he stood in Emmet’s empty bedroom, searching for him in the neat rows of books, the precise folds of the bedsheets. He was met with the reality of Emmet’s absence.
He wondered if Evelyn could see her brother. If she had avoided looking glasses since they received the telegram: WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU…
He worried Emmet was truly gone when their family and friends began to trickle out of the house, leaving Lydia, Reggie, and their children cloaked in black.
“Glad you made it,” Robert said.
It’d been months since Reggie had been to the garage.
Robert clasped Reggie’s shoulder, then turned to introduce him to the military official who was visiting for an update on the construction of a fighter-bomber. “You remember my partner, Reggie.”
Reggie shook the man’s hand. Before the war, Reggie’s specialty was soothing temperamental clients and advising on the best colors and fabrics for the interiors of their one-of-a-kind aircrafts. His touch was the luxury of their aircrafts. Working with the military, he was a fish out of water. The designs and orders came from them, and Reggie’s ideas were superfluous. He had some say in the final product but just as the middleman in communications. Robert had studied the latest aerodynamics in America. He was the one who knew enough to contribute to the innovation required in wartime. The calculations of speed, safety, efficiency.
He stood, neck bent toward the carcass of a Hawker, this one a sea model meant for use by the Royal Navy. Its steel cylinder shape, the bolts between metals as wide as his fist, reminded him of the whale remains in the Natural History Museum, reconstructed like a puzzle after decay and looming over museum patrons. He remembered taking Emmet there when he was about twelve, walking under those bones, constantly veering in the way of less enthralled visitors—eyes up. The plane Reggie was looking at now was a sibling to the one in which Emmet had plunged into the ocean. Now, amongst the whales, staring up at the massive creatures surrounded by a murky blue, gliding through salty water. Reggie wondered if the sun’s beams, glistening atop the water, could reach Emmet on the ocean floor.
Reggie’s retirement was almost a decade early from what he had always planned. He helped Robert find a replacement, trained the kid, then pulled back. Despite the investment he still had in the business, he told Robert he did not want to be involved with any decision making. He hoped the guilt would subside, and that Emmet would not blame him for profiting off the war that took his life. That he would come back to visit him in the places they used to walk together. Reggie would try to see him in his favorite chair in the study, a room Emmet had used more frequently than he had himself, face hidden by the cover of a book. The spine bent without hesitation. Breaking them in, Emmet would say.
With no work to do, Reggie found himself staying awake until the darkest hour of night, then waking mid-day. He could tell Lydia worried about this new habit. She looked at him more intensely than she used to, wrinkles forming in the space between her eyebrows. He was worried about her too. Her wardrobe hadn’t changed, but her lips sagged into a frown and there were bags under her eyes. She went to her club and society meetings, cared for their younger sons, and crawled into bed before the sun had set.
Today, he was sitting in the dining room with Lydia as she ate dinner. Throughout their 26-year marriage, he’d bought Lydia flowers on a weekly basis. Now, he’d taken to cutting the heads off the dead stems and pressing them into a notebook to preserve them. It seemed like a terrible waste to let them die and throw them out when they had once been so beautiful.
His head jerked up from a dried bushel of blue hydrangeas. “Stop what?”
“The flowers.” She looked impatient, like when their younger boys took too long to do up their laces.
“You don’t want them?”
“No. I don’t need them. You always get me flowers. New ones.”
“Okay, love, that’s enough.” With one hand, she drew the notebook away from him, and with the other, she clasped his, then smiled. “Why don’t you read the paper. They’re reporting on the victory celebrations now.”
Every day it seemed like Reggie had to be reminded that the war was, in fact, over. Walking down the streets of London, it was unmistakable. The air had shifted. People smiled, stopped for ice cream, lingered in the streets. He found himself caught up in the rubble, sitting for hours in the yard where a cathedral used to be. Crews cleared the debris and paid him no mind. Reggie tried not to stay out long.
He reached for the newspaper. Lydia was right. He needed to get out of his head. Remember that life moved forward. Instead of reading about the celebrations, he found his eye drawn to the black and white pictures of crumbled beach towns on France’s northern shore. The water still washing up parts of planes and ships. Helmets and boots. The English Channel a vat of all that was lost—a liquid memorial. Each day, throwing forth new evidence of what that victory had cost. He knew his son was there, inhabiting a space destroyed.
Reggie and Lydia agreed that he would wait until after the holidays and Evelyn’s birthday to start his project of remodeling a house at Juno Beach. During that time, he took the ferry out of Portsmouth to Caen once in late January, arriving at the port city to survey the two homes he was debating on purchasing. The owners of each were desperate to pass the damage on to someone else. He employed the French he hadn’t used since his days in public school to learn their stories: an old widow who was moving to the city to be closer to her two boys who had returned from war, and a young mother who had inherited the home when her husband died on the front. Reggie almost bought both homes to free the women but knew he was already pushing things with Lydia by buying the one, so he chose the older widow. Her home had less history—less hauntings. He imagined that if Emmet’s spirit was near these shores, it would be drawn to an uncrowded space.
He returned to Juno Beach in early March. Unlike London, the work to remove the war’s damage had yet to begin. Or, more likely, had never taken off. The town had been occupied by Germany, and the people resembled the buildings and landscapes. They were broken. Inside and out. Foundations caved in. Roads and cobbled paths were demolished. Identifying details—pottery, glass, painted doors—lay shattered or buried within piles of debris.
The east side of Reggie’s beachfront property had burned away. According to the widow, the vibrations of D-Day bombings had shaken the house, a lantern had fallen, catching fire in the dining room while she was taking cover under her kitchen table. Seeing the smoke clawing beneath the crack of the door, she made her escape before the fire spread. The frame caved in on itself. Most of the west side, a washroom and two bedrooms, was partly intact. The stone porch was loose in places, but the front door still held in its frame.
The widow told him this as they stood in the remains of the dining room, un-swept ash beneath their feet. She led him through each room and told him the memories they held: the births in the bedroom, the way Denise hadn’t taken her first breath for twenty seconds after her birth, and that proved her stubbornness; in the room where the fire started, she told Reggie of the time she surprised her husband a month before their anniversary because she had gotten the date wrong. She took him outside and described the peace that used to wash over her with each crash of waves.
Reggie decided he would stay in a hotel for the first two months, focusing on making livable what remained. He would reinforce the foundation, rebuild the structure of the east side, then repaint and repair the west. Once that was complete, he hoped to move in, living out of the two rooms that had survived the war, whilst rebuilding the half that was lost. Without a kitchen, he would take his meals at the surrounding cafés.
When Reggie and Lydia had first married, they’d decided to build a brand-new home in London’s Holland neighborhood. They chose a smooth, white stone for the exterior; and inside, dark rosewood floors shipped in from Brazil, intricate floral designs along the stair’s wooden spindles, and details wherever they could add them in all shades of purple, Lydia’s signature color. Reggie thought of those first moments of dreaming together as he worked with local carpenters and builders in Normandy. This home would be much less elaborate. A quiet retreat from the reality of their lives in London.
Though he had no experience in construction, he insisted that he be part of the work. The builders’ eyes lingered at what was missing on his right side when he told them this, but when he told them how much he was willing to pay for their services, they kept their concerns to themselves. Eventually, they showed him how to use their tools and laughed good-naturedly at the way he pronounced the French words for them. Reggie occupied his days with the rebuilding, looking for Emmet as he cleared debris from the floor and tossed them into a rusted wheel barrel. As he drew plans for a curved roof and front-facing sunroom and cut holes in the wall for the windows.
At night, his body aching from the sanding, nailing, and painting work of the day, his throat still scratchy from the dust of refurbishing, he spent silent moments alone in the house. He walked through each room, tracking its recovery. He installed a new stove and electricity, painted all but the wooden beams on the walls and ceilings white. Each day it looked both more and less like what it used to be. He wondered at the nostalgia he felt for a place he had never known.
After passing through the home, Reggie walked the few meters to the shore to watch the waves in the violet hour of dusk. He had to look out for barbed wire as he walked, his eyes adjusting to the waning light. When he’d first arrived, the scars of the landmines, craters in the sand, silhouettes of tanks down the beach, disturbed him. Now, he accepted them as part of the landscape. Such images had likely been the last that Emmet saw, and though he could not yet find Emmet’s spirit among the remains, the things left behind connected him to his son.
At the shore, he stood with his feet in the Atlantic and quieted all the parts of himself. His thoughts, the nerves tingling his skin, the blood pulsing in his ears. He focused his attention, his being, toward the water, scanning the line between ocean and sky, looking. The last rays of the sun gleaming atop the water. The sun sinking down, as if it would sleep beneath the waves until the morning when it would rise again. Reggie listened to the waves crash, their rhythm like the sound of his own breathing.
One evening, something white, a speck in the distance, caught Reggie’s eye. He thought of the German Luftwaffes’ rescue buoys, used for shelter when pilots were forced to make emergency landings over the water. He’d read a feature on the buoys, how the British had their own Air-Sea Rescue Floats. They were floating cabins equipped with supplies and a radio antenna. They’d saved thousands of lives by giving pilots a place to wait for military ships to find them. And for a moment, as he read, he believed Emmet was somewhere safe. Taking shelter. Waiting to be rescued.
By mid-July, he walked through the beach house and knew he’d put off moving in for too long. It was ready. The west side was complete. He had a bedroom with fresh paint and a new mattress. He resisted the reality of it. The progress. Every day moving forward and every evening seeing nothing in the waves.
He crossed the road and edged down the slope of sand toward the shore, heedless of the rough beach grass and barbed wire. He hoped his memory of the route would fail him, that he’d get caught with a stab of pain from the sharp seashells under his feet, that something would justify him in changing directions, but nothing did. So, he stood where he always had, watching the waves crest, then fall. Confronted with the end of the day.
He walked forward, into the Channel. He resisted the instinct to hold his breath inside himself. He allowed the water to crash over him, willing it to fill his nostrils and swell his lungs. He kept his eyes open.
He came up sputtering, coughing saltwater, eyes burning. He pulled himself against the waves, back to the shore. He sat down, letting the water and sand wash over his soaked trousers. He closed his eyes. He saw purple. Then the freshly painted white walls of the beach house behind him. He rose to his feet, picking his way back to the road then to the hotel. He wrote a letter to Lydia, telling her the house was ready. August would be the perfect time to bring the kids.
His family arrived at a mostly finished beach house. They joined him at the shoreline, sampled the local fare, and helped him pick out the rest of the furniture he needed to purchase. They went to a carnival at the pier and took day trips to Versailles and Monet’s famous garden. On the morning of their departure back to London, Evelyn joined him on a last walk to the beach. A final observance of what had become his ritual, still believing he might find Emmet, but only witnessing the change of light and the ocean’s rhythmic beating.
As they walked to the shore, he advised Evelyn where to watch for the barbed wire.
“Have you seen that rusted tank down the road?” Evelyn asked him. “Just sitting on the beach. It’s horrible.”
They were at the shore now. Foamy ocean rushed over them, then fell back, leaving their skin cold with its retreat. He didn’t have to ask Evelyn to be quiet. She stood at his side, staring at what lay beyond her sight. They watched the sun rise, casting lilac light around a thin glowing orange line.
When the sky brightened to blue, Evelyn spoke, “He has to be somewhere around here, doesn’t he?”
“I like to think so.”
“Me too.” She wrapped her arms around him, leaning her head on his shoulder.
Reggie looked out to the line where there wasn’t ocean or sky, just a navy streak between glinting waves and the light of a new day.