A short story about…
I hope you enjoy it.
I cannot sleep. Circadian rhythms have deserted me, and when I lie, I lie in a conscious silence, punctuated only by muffled sobs. My ears are chocked with water; tortured gurgles seeping deep into the furthest recesses of my mind, forcing out the last pockets of air. Bubbles burst. The hollow gasping, clutching at life, succumbs to gagging, a realisation of release. Then silence once more. The waves are still, like a broken pocket watch, its inert hands handing limply, and I am, momentarily, stranded in time, no longer active but a passive spectator. Although I am motionless, I am aware of the figures. Two become four become eight. Then they are innumerable, a mob, drifting before me, clearly with a sense of purpose, but no obvious destination. Their cadaverous faces stare blindly towards me, empty sockets sucking my thoughts from deep within my mind. Behind them enormous doors fashioned from heavy timbers and corroded metal swing slowly open. There is a glint of light, silver then golden, a glimpse of something beyond. Maybe this is a promise; perhaps a walkway to paradise. Maybe a release. I motion to move forward, through the heavy water towards the door, but as I do it pushes against me with a greater force than I had imagined. Again I try to move, and once more the water holds me back, resisting each strain of my tissue, each will of my sinew. I look imploringly at the empty faces, in that instant both desperate for their help and distraught by their inaction, but though I plead their denial is unilateral. Now they turn, in slow deliberate movement away from me. The water, which resisted me with such determination and might, seems to carry each motion they make, and now their backs are turned to me, and beyond them the light begins to disappear. I am desperate now to reach the door, but with struggle I am forced to retreat. Again and again me weary legs attempt to push forward, me arms battling against the invisible tide. Again I am forced to retreat and now, despite my will, I can feel my muscles begin their journey to resignation; I am forced to accept my defeat. The mob is receding now. Eight becomes four becomes two, and then just silt disturbed and swirling with random ambiguity beneath the waves. I am not dead and I cannot leave. And, as I lie catatonic, the muffled sobs come once more.
The sea was calm, the outlook good, and clear with a moderate south-westerly. The perfect conditions for sailing, even more so for bridge-building. I had collected Matt early, earlier than his mother had perhaps anticipated, let alone wanted, but I felt that this would signal good intentions to her on my part, intentions that I had all too often been unable to communicate recently. She had been courteous, almost verging on polite, when she opened the door, but still harboured enough bitterness to make me wait on the step whilst she retired to collect my son. When she returned, after, what I felt had been, a rather excessive period, Matt seemed fully prepared for the day. He seemed expectant, excited and obviously geared up for the day. Ellie looked into his eyes, and momentarily I was stung by the warmth of their bond.
“You have a great day, Mattie,” She said, warmly. “Enjoy yourself on the boat, but do take care. See you tonight, sweetheart. And remember, listen to your father.”
Her tone dropped and became acid as she looked into my face.
“Watch what you’re doing out there; and look after my son.”
I wanted to come back at her, but knew that too much had already passed between us, and besides the moment had been lost as Ellie was already hugging Matt and kissing him lightly on the cheek.
As we climbed into the Land Rover I watched her warm wave to Mat, but felt her cold eyes settle for the briefest of seconds on me.
“So, Matt,” I began, attempting to break the pregnant silence which was beginning to spread its roots between us, “What you been up to then?”
“Nothing much,” came his reply, his eyes still fixed steadily in front of him. “You know, just the same old same old.”
“How’s school?” I asked, but as I pinned the question I could already feel the straw slipping between my fingers. The scene was replayed a thousand times behind my eyes. How could it be that every meeting between us became like the first; two strangers struggling to find some common ground on which to stand, grasping for a life-line of conversation which would pull us from the brink of isolation?
“O.K.,” Matthew replied. “Gotta trial for the district next week.”
“Excellent! What do you think your chances are?”
“Pretty good, I reckon. I know one or two of the other lads from matches, so….”
We had reached the open road, and as the stillness of the countryside flashed past by us the air of separation began to seep through the cars vents. I glanced once more at Matthew. His gaze had moved from me to the road and then on to the fields which flew past him like detritus on the breeze as he leaned into the window. I broached the next subject carefully, still treading on egg shells.
“So, how’s your Mum?”
His attention caught, he turned from the magnetism of the scenery passing before him. His voice broke its reluctant tone, and began to grow animated, even, I felt, a little enthusiastic. A bitterness rose from within my stomach, burning through my gullet like vomit; the taste of envy, jealousy and hatred.
“She’s fine,” he replied. “Seeing a lot of her new boyfriend. He’s quite cool actually.”
My mind struggled to comprehend the tone in his voice, but the rational part of my brain kicked in, speaking calmly within my head – This was just a comment, a simple statement, and not a judgement. A teenager coming to terms with the wrecked foundations of his life. But my heart screamed at the injustice of his words. I was being usurped in his affections by a man I didn’t know, by a rival who was set to steal my crown. Matt’s words came, but the injustice now coursing through my veins like a flow of magma made only jumbled sense of their meaning: A faster car, a fatter wallet, a bigger house – and this cut even deeper; my son had been to his house. Yes here was an all round ‘Fun Guy’. I nodded and hmm’d in all the right places, but kept my eyes fixed firmly ahead, as if the road too was demanding my attention, concentrating hard only to kill the pain.
The wind had begun to turn, the South-Westerly becoming sharper, more brisk, cutting in from the West. We headed up and Matt, showing all that he had learned over the years, trimmed our sails finely as we cut through the wind. I watched him as he we held our course, working with me to control the flutter as the sails began to huff. The determination set into his face reminded me again of Ellie: Ellie at sea controlling the boat as she had controlled the course of our life, setting her own course with me behind. I had always liked to think of myself as her keel, helping to keep her course both steady and true, lifting her when seas were rough. But now it had become apparent that I had become little more than ballast to her, as she had sailed on without me, leaving me a beached wreck, little more than salvage in the brine. Ellie, now as Matt, to the fore, always looking to be the one in charge.
I called Matt’s name, and he turned, a further reminder of his mother.
“Let’s head south.”
Without speaking we worked together to bring the boat across the wind. The sails began to fill out as we adjusted the trim, until they billowed, as full as my life had ever been, and the boat began to beam.
The Sun flitted in and out between the clouds, shifting in an instant from a cutting glare to golden lining. The breeze had begun to chill as it rattled my waterproofs, but this was why I sailed. This was why we sailed. In my mind I could still see the joy in Ellie’s face when we bought our first boat; the sweat we both gave on hot summer’s nights as we scraped and painted, and the ecstasy when we sailed. Our life had purpose, a single, shared goal, one that we saw both independently and together. There was a rhyme and a reason to our life, and when we returned, exhausted from our weekly work, there was the freedom of our life: The open sea, the elements to challenge us, the unpredictability of experience. This was life. And then came Matt. Not that I ever complained, for he was as much the result of me as he was Ellie. We had always talked of a child, children, and then here we were with a son, a boy to inspire and enjoy; and yet somehow, inexplicably, things had changed. His arrival had moved us in a direction that we could not have predicted or foreseen, and suddenly our true and steady vessel had begun to list beyond our control.
Ellie started to change too. Perhaps she was beginning to realise her own weaknesses, her own inability to dominate her surroundings. Perhaps she could sense my fear at no longer being able to reach out and touch my own ideal of freedom. Which ever may have been true, Matt had pushed us on to a new course, and even then I knew that his wind was driving us on to the rocks.
I had lost concentration, but it was Matt’s tone of voice that brought me back to the here and now. He was sharp, caustic, his voice slicing through me in the same way that Ellie’s had learned to do these days. It was the same voice that had destroyed me with blame and guilt when she had left. The same accusational tone that had bled me and left me scarred and feeling worthless. And now it was coming from Matt, without whom the events of my life would have taken their more natural course, who was using it on me.
“Dad! Dad! Get a grip; you’re letting us run! What’s up with you?”
I had shuffled back in my reverie, and allowed the boat, and with it us, to drift with the wind, and now, encased in my raging mind, I felt unable to move.
“Oh, for God’s sake is no one capable of doing anything except me.” The words were Ellie’s, but it was Matt’s eye that cut me dead. It needed two of us to turn the boat around now, and as I wasn’t moving, Matt clambered back and we took on a full run.
“Mum’s right. You have lost it.” Matt’s words swept into the swell.
A sudden sharp increase in the wind smacked into our sail, and I felt the boat begin to heel. Instinctively Matt swung himself upwind in an attempt to pull us around.
“Sheet out, Dad, sheet out!” he kept yelling, over and over again at me. I knew that for a lone sails man avoiding a roll would take skill beyond Matt’s years, but before me the scene was being played out in slow motion, and, after all, this was all of his own making. Without him I would be talking the waves with Ellie, in a partnership that had blossomed with love, respect and friendship. We would be righting ourselves and forging onwards, defeating each challenge as we always had. I felt the rope slip slowly through my moistened palm. The boat rolled almost to a list, and gybed uneasily. Mat saw the boom as it lurched heavily towards him, and he flung himself prostrate to the deck.
Over, loop, through, loop. I tugged hard, checking each knot thoroughly, meticulously ensuring that there was no free movement. Again and again I repeated my work, pulling hard against the force of my knee, my arms straining, my palms burning from the friction of the hemp rope. The thoughts within my head were continual, smashing from side to side like a pinball, repeating the same words over and over and over again: “It’s all his fault, it’s all his fault.” My conviction could not have been stronger, and I could not have been more sure of my actions. I needed no ratification, no outward justification, I was set on a course that I knew was true, a course that would lead me once more to where I knew I belonged. I felt no uncertainty as I reached down into the hold and hauled up a sack of ballast. Its weight seemed more marked, more intense, as I dragged it closer, as if it, at least, was displaying some reluctance. I forced it down beneath the ropes, its rough sacking tearing at my bleeding hands and the soft material beneath them. With renewed determination I knotted it and then wrapped and tied it tighter and tighter. I was done, but not yet sated.. I knelt back on the deck of the drifting boat, and for a moment we became little more than flotsam, aimlessly bobbing like the last apple at Halloween.
Matt’s body was secure, trussed securely like some over-sized turkey, hanging inert from the butcher’s pole, ready to be plucked and stuffed. The cut in his forehead had stopped bleeding now, and the red-brown trail across his cheek seemed to be reaching out for a lifeline. I could hear no wind now. The sails were wrapped, but even if I had left them full, I would have been unable to detect their motion. Matt appeared to stir slightly, then there came a groan, gentle at first, then with greater vigour as his eyes began to open, and he struggled for movement. For the briefest of moments his brain seemed unable to register his plight, then, as the current burned into him, his eyes shot open, desperately trying top make sense of his surroundings. He fought against the ropes, but I had become an expert. As his body strained his eyes met the hollow shells that mine had become. I barely recognised them as they flashed from confusion, to fear to imploring. The blood pulsing through my brain kept on repeating, “It’s all his fault, it’s all his fault,” yet I could feel the salt water sting my eyes as I eased his body over the side of the boat: By the time I had blinked them free, the water had stilled.
I would bring the boat around and sail north for some twenty miles before I reached for the radio. The coastguard’s fruitless search began and ended in becalmed waters. I was cold and wet, but fear no longer collected in shivers down my spine. I was alone, but, for the first time in a long while, alive with anticipation.