The House by the Sea

A short story

Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.

He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.

Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.

And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).

When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.

The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.

All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.

All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.

I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

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Saeduni!

ساعدني!

A short story

 

It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.

I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.

I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.

I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.

It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.

Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.

Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.

One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.

I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.

I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.

I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016

The Guitar

When we arrived, the city, or what was left of it, was deserted. Though many buildings lay in ruins, some remained standing. Since all the original inhabitants had been killed or run away, finding shelter was not difficult. The streets were strewn with rubble. All the windows were broken. The water mains were smashed. Water, though is resourceful: freed from pipes, it takes the line of least resistance. If it needs to, it stands and waits. It wasted no time turning the gutters into rivers. Here and there it formed patient pools. Water needed to be fetched and boiled so, for the likes of Luka, Marie or myself to survive, you needed watertight containers and the means to start fires. If you had a tin can or a magnifying lens you guarded them assiduously.

We followed the guitar. We could hear someone somewhere playing a classical piece, one of those that seems to run on and on in a steady trickle of notes. It led us to a low, single-storey building: perhaps it had been a health centre. There were desks, steel trolleys, drawers full of files written in a foreign language. They provided us with the fuel we needed to boil water and keep warm for a few days. But most of all there was the guitar.

Why did we follow it? Instinct, I suppose. It sounded beautiful. There was very little beauty around in those days so, of course, we found ourselves drawn to it. And then there was the fact that when we found the guitar we would find the guitarist. They might be one of us, in which case they might join us. They might not be: in which case we would have ourselves a hostage.

As we walked through the open doorway the sound of the guitar suddenly got louder. I went in first so I saw the guitar player before the others did. Behind me, Luka pulled out his knife. I shook my head and gestured to him to put it away. The guitarist was a young man in his twenties, about the same age as us. He looked at me and smiled. He kept on playing. We just stood there at first, then we sat on the floor, and listened. He kept on playing right to the end of the piece.

He said his name was Martin. He spoke our language in an accent I’d never heard before. He said of course we did not need his permission to stay but that he would be glad of the company. So we stayed.

“What were you playing?” asked Luka.
“Bach,” said Martin. “It’s called Prelude in D Minor.”
Luka raised his eyebrows and nodded, as if to say he had made a discovery.

The four of us lived in the building for a few days – perhaps a week. We worked together foraging for food, water and fuel. Things were not so bad. We found a flat in a block nearby where the owner, we decided, had hoarded food and cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer. Of the owner there was no sign. He must have fled without his hoard, or else he was dead. In the evening we sat around the fire drinking, while Martin played the guitar. For a few hours at a time we almost forgot the terrible situation we were in and the terrible things that were going on around us.

In those days nothing stayed the same for long. First, the shelling started. We all sat together under the only desk we had not burned and listened to the shells whistling overhead. One fell close. The sound was deafening, the building shook and a blast of dust and small debris blew in through the windows. Then the tanks came. I first heard the drone of their engines when I was out fetching water. I hid in a nearby building, under the stairs. There were soldiers, too. From where I was hiding I could hear them shouting.

It was a long time before everything went quiet again. I guessed that the soldiers and the tanks had moved on. There were no people left there to kill or rape, apart from ourselves (and, by then, we knew all the good hiding places). There was nothing left to steal. Most of the buildings had been destroyed. There was nothing left for them to do.

I waited until it was dark then I made my way back to the health centre. I could see very little but there seemed to be no-one there. I thought perhaps they were hiding, like me. I sat in the dark and waited until morning. Perhaps, somewhere close by, they were doing the same.

When the sun rose, I began to look around. My friends had disappeared. I did find Martin’s guitar though, smashed, as if someone had trodden on the sound-box. Perhaps the soldiers had found them. Perhaps, I hoped against all hope, my friends had broken the guitar themselves, stumbling over it in their hurry to escape. That night, as usual, it was very cold. I burnt what was left of the guitar on the fire to keep warm.

(c) Sackerson 2014

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