The Education of SebastianJane Harvey-Berrick
BOOKS BY JANE A. C. HARVEY-BERRICK
The Education of Caroline (published February 2013)
The New Samurai
Dazzled (published Autumn 2013)
Jane A. C. Harvey-Berrick has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved; no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
First published in Great Britain in 2012
Harvey Berrick Publishing TR20 9RD
Representation and Management, More & More Creations (Agency), Brisbane
Copyright © Jane A. C. Harvey-Berrick 2012
Cover design by Nicky Stott
Cover photograph by Shutterstock, with permission
To Kirsten, for reading and re-reading and reading again; for her constant encouragement and support, her humour and thoughtfulness.
To John Papajik, for his patience, humour, and all things military.
To Phylly, for proofreading, ad nauseum.
To Dorota Wróbel, for information about San Diego.
To Camilla, for the Italian translations.
To my DH, for his love and sorely tested patience.
And last, but never least, to Lisa: for everything.
I’ve often wondered why brides-to-be speak with such excitement of their wedding day: the best day of their lives. Doesn’t that imply that it’s all downhill from there on?
My own wedding day was the culmination of the briefest of romances, if you could call it that. My husband was not a romantic man. He was not many things. Perhaps if he had been many, perhaps if he had been more, things might have turned out differently between us. Then again, perhaps it would have been exactly the same.
Despite what happened later, I can’t bring myself to regret the events of that summer.
* * * *
I think it was the uniform. My husband dazzled me in his US Navy whites and with his flashy sports car that was so low to the ground, it seemed to skim along the road like a pebble on a lake.
David was a medical officer in the US Navy, newly promoted to Lieutenant Commander and assigned as a flight surgeon. He was 11 years older than me. He seemed urbane and sophisticated and to a girl from nowhere who had seen nothing, he was every wish fulfilled.
My mother smelled a good catch and my dear, sweet father was talked over and down by the two women in his life who vied for his attention.
Competition with my mother was relatively new. She had always been rather ashamed of her plain, gawky daughter, who seemed to have no breeding and no wish for it; but at the age of 17, I blossomed, quite literally, growing breasts almost overnight, and attracting the attention of young men who had formerly cast their glassy-eyed looks at my elegant and glossy mother. Suddenly I was the interesting one, the sexy one, and she loathed it. Of course, she couldn’t and wouldn’t admit to that, so we fought. My father hated it and would descend to the basement to listen to Puccini or Rossini, and wonder why his ‘two best girls’ were at each other’s throats.
So when David came along to sweep me off my feet, my mother couldn’t help a quick shove to speed the process and send me on my way.
She’d never thought of college as an option for me: consequently there was no college fund. She’d always told my father I wouldn’t last a single semester: ‘too weak’, apparently. Besides, marriage was supposed to save me from all that tedious studying.
“He’s too good for you, of course, Caroline,” she said, “but we’ll do the best we can”. Well, I shall do my best to make you attractive, although ‘pretty’ is too much to hope for you. “Oh, you look so much like your father.”
My father was short and dark and very Italian. I inherited his bright hazel eyes, thick, uncooperative hair that rippled in waves down my back, his olive skin and quick, passionate temper. I also inherited certain hirsute qualities that meant I was waxing my legs from the age of 10 and my armpits from the age of 12. But for all that, I blessed the deity who made me, that I had inherited little from my mother except her slender build, and height.
I used to wonder why she and my father had ever married because she undoubtedly despised his immigrant Italian ancestry and flaunted her own WASPishness at every opportunity. Her hair was blonde and coiffed, her eyes blue and sharp, her complexion strawberries and cream.
It didn’t surprise anyone, least of all me, when I jumped the moment I was pushed, and found myself a bride at the age of 19. The year was 1990.
What David saw in me is less easy to understand. A young wife with European aspirations perhaps, fluent in Italian and with an appreciation of wine that was unexpected and, later, unwelcome. I was different enough from the other naval wives to mark him out for distinction and myself for alienation and loneliness.
The other wives tried very hard to include me in their artificial social whirl: coffee mornings, lunch dates, baby-sitting, play dates for children I didn’t have, and ‘drinks with the girls’.
They weren’t unkind, merely satisfied with their lives; happy at home and fulfilled with their roles in a way I could never be. I was too young, too myopic and too self-contained to see the pitfalls of my willful isolation. I went to their book club once, but when I found they preferred bestsellers and romances to the chilling wildness of Hemingway, or the maverick prose of Nabokov, I had nothing to say and we merely stared at each other with fragrant disdain.
There was one thing about me that pleased my husband: I was athletic. He taught me to sail a dinghy and later a yacht; I could shoot almost as well as the Corps’ best marksman; I was fearless of heights and I could dive off the top diving board at the Base swimming pool.
Those were the only things he liked about me and even that was limited to the first twenty months of our marriage. He hated the way I dressed, the way I spoke, what I spoke about and the things that interested me to speak about. In the end, the irony was that he wanted me to be more like the other wives, while relishing my alienness. It was confusing and wearying and I didn’t know how to be myself. I think that during those early years I forgot how. So I wore the clothes he liked and kept my mouth shut... a slow descent into silence.
By the time we realized that children weren’t going to happen for us, well, for him, I had undergone a number of invasive and unpleasant examinations and, blaming each other, we had both lost interest in procreation; fortuitous happenstance, I suppose. Sex was desultory and uninspiring. I was uninspired. I was dull.
After two years of marriage, David was transferred to the Naval Medical Center, San Diego and he very much wished me to be friends with the wife of his new CO. Estelle was
everything that I was not: poised, charming and perfect. She was also cold, controlling, and a snob. I loathed her. The feeling was mutual. But for appearance sake, we cultivated a chilly friendship. It was easy for her to fake; less so for me. I pitied her child, perhaps feeling some kinship with his loneliness. Sebastian was eight years old; I was 21.
He was cursed with sensitivity, and with his bitch of a mom and his monster of a dad, he was damned twice.
Between us there arose a sweet and gentle friendship. Sebastian got into the habit of dropping by after school to tell me about his day. I’d pour him an alcohol-free limoncello made from Sorrento lemons, when I could find them, syrup and soda. We talked about books that he’d read and I would suggest stories he might enjoy – the stories I had read as a child that were far removed from the anodyne books his mother thought suitable. Together we worked our way through the casual brutality of the Brothers Grimm and easy psychopathy of Hans Christian Andersen, whose little mermaid felt the pain of knives slicing into her feet when she walked and whose angelic voice was bargained away for love.
At about this time my dear father came to stay. My mother, of course, was too busy – involved with her clubs, her Bridge, and her good deeds for everyone but her family. It was a relief to us all, although David was determined to remind us of, and lament her absence at every meal. Such a fine woman.
Sebastian and my father adored each other and happily spent hours together making model airplanes and blowing them up with the powder extracted from fireworks. David disapproved, of course, so they hid much of what they did from him. It was their special time, innocent and childish, if typically destructive play.
One day Sebastian entered my kitchen when we failed to hear his knock. ‘Madame Butterfly’ was playing at full volume and my father and I were wailing along to the wonderful lyrics of ‘Un Bel Di’.
“What are you singing?”
“Sto cantando in onore di Dio, giovanotto,” said my father.
Sebastian frowned and my father looked puzzled. “I don’t understand what Papa Ven is saying.”
“You’re speaking in Italian, papa,” I said, smiling. I turned to Sebastian. “He says he’s singing to God.”
“Ah, cara! Italiano! The language of Dante! The language of cooking! The language of love!”
Thereafter, every day of my father’s visit, Sebastian learned a few more words of Italian; not all of them were entirely suitable for a child of his young years, but my father had a wicked streak in him. As it turned out, one that I inherited.
I was reasonably happy in San Diego. I became involved with the Base’s magazine and helped out on open house days at the Base or the hospital. I had even put in an application to go to evening classes in journalism, one of the few individual forays I had ever made. It was at this time that David informed me he’d been assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and that we were leaving. It was another sideways move for an officer who had failed to live up to his early promise. David chose to see it as a promotion, but then he would.
Within 48 hours David had disappeared to the far side of the continent, and I had a week to watch the contents of our little home being packed into containers.
Sebastian came to see me every day; every day he cried.
And then, on a Tuesday in September, I was gone.
The sun was warm on my skin, and the book had become heavy in my hands. I’d missed the Californian sun; it felt good to be back, even under these less than ideal circumstances.
I tossed the book aside, pushed my sunglasses up to my hair, and rested my head on my arms, soothed by the warmth of late morning.
I wasn’t entirely sure I’d wanted to make this return journey with David. I had friends in North Carolina independent of naval life; I had a job I enjoyed as an administrative assistant on a small but respectable local paper, and had finally gotten my English Lit degree after six years of night school.
But at the same time I was feeling restless, and ready for a change. Turning 30 had shifted my world view somewhat and, a little surprised to find myself still married, I felt ready to try something new… or something old, as it turned out, because we were back in San Diego. It was a prized location and considered a step up from Camp Lejeune. In any event, David was happier, which made my life easier. We’d found a way to co-exist that was not unpleasant. He wasn’t always an unkind man, or so I told myself, and I wasn’t a faithless wife; we were just fundamentally unsuited to each other. We’d grown apart.
At least I was enjoying the beach. Point Loma was seven miles from the hospital and patronized by nearly all the Base personnel, a finger of land that separated the ocean from San Diego Bay. The less popular part was at the north end of Adair Street; here, I thought, I was less likely to be disturbed.
Perhaps fate was watching, but I suppose the meeting would have happened sooner or later, if not that day.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson.”
I didn’t recognize the light, tenor voice. I twisted around and cupped my hand over my eyes, squinting against the sudden brightness of the sun.
Two men of about 20 were standing awkwardly a few feet away, and a third was leaning over me, dripping onto my beach towel.
His radiant smile faltered.
My mind unraveled. Little Sebastian Hunter – all grown up.
“Oh, my gosh, Sebastian! I… I didn’t recognize you. Wow!”
I rolled over and sat up, resisting the urge to yank up my bikini more firmly.
“I heard you’d come back. I was hoping I’d see you,” he said, smiling again.
The sweet, sad-eyed boy of eight had become a truly handsome young man. His light brown hair was long for the son of a naval officer, curling nearly to his chin, and bleached to a dark gold by the Californian sun. He was slim, muscled like an athlete, with broad shoulders and narrow hips.
A bright blue surfboard was tucked under one arm and he wore deep red swim shorts that were heavy with seawater, pulled down to show a sliver of paler skin at his waist, highlighting the tan on the rest of his body. The thought passed through my mind, he must have his pick of girls at school.
“Look at you, Sebastian. So grown up. It’s good to see you. How are you? How are your parents?”
His smile faltered.
“Oh, they’re fine.”
I didn’t know what to say; it was so strange to see him again after all these years. With a stretch of the imagination, I could just see the child I had known in the young man before me.
“Well… that’s great. I’m sure I’ll see you around the Base. Er… do you guys need a ride back?”
I looked uncertainly towards his friends, unsure how I’d manage to load three full sized surfboards on top of my old Ford.
“No, we’re good thanks. Ches has got a van.” He nodded towards one of the boys. “And we’re going to catch some more waves. When I saw you, I just wanted to… come say hi.”
“Okay, well, good seeing you, Sebastian.”
He smiled again, hovering tentatively. “I’ll see you again, Mrs. Wilson?”
His voice held a question.
“Yes, I expect so. Ciao, Sebastian.”
He beamed. “Ciao, Mrs. Wilson.”
I watched him walk away, drops of seawater dewing on his muscled back. Good Heavens! Little Sebastian Hunter – and not so little. How old was he? Seventeen? Eighteen? Certainly not twenty. I frowned, trying to do the math. He’d really grown into a fine young man. Amazing, considering his wretched parents.
Oh, God, I’d probably have to see the rancid Estelle and the monstrous father, Donald. The gloomy thought killed my good mood, and I scowled at the writhing, hissing ocean.
Sebastian and his friends strolled towards another group of surfers hovering on the shoreline. I could see they were laughing at him about something; I guessed it was to do with me. I
shook my head: teenage boys, they don’t change.
I watched as they paddled out, a small flock of brightly plumed beach rats, disappearing abruptly behind the rising surf. I could just pick out a bright blue board weaving along the leading edge of a breaking wave. I gasped as the rushing water suddenly swallowed the boy, then relaxed when I saw his head break the surface, and he swam back to his board, paddling again towards the line-up.
For perhaps half an hour I continued to watch as they took turns racing across the hills of green water before being engulfed by the roiling froth, then paddling back to chase the next wave, over and over. It was pointless and beautiful and utterly mesmerizing.
Reluctantly I checked my watch; time to head back to the Base. I was expecting a delivery of some more of our belongings. I couldn’t be late; it wasn’t worth the ensuing argument if all was not ship-shape before David returned from the hospital.
I slipped a yellow sundress over my bikini and headed back to the car. It was super-heated of course, the air inside parched. I rolled down all the windows and drove back, singing along to Figaro’s aria on my temperamental CD player.
When I pulled up, the delivery guy was pounding on my door, frustrated by the lack of response.
“Sorry! Sorry! I’m here now.”
He glowered at me. I smiled pleasantly and offered him a cold beer.
“Well, ma’am, I wouldn’t say no to a cold soda if you’ve got one.”
He stood and poured it down his throat in one swallow, wiping sweat from his glowing face. Then he happily deposited two large crates in the garage and drove away.
I stared sourly at the boxes, wondering if my withering gaze would force them to unpack themselves. But no.
Three hours later, dirty and sweaty, and with aching muscles, I admitted defeat with one-and-a half crates still left to unpack. Tomorrow would have to do, although I knew it would mean a fight. But I just didn’t have the energy.