by Simon Kewin
A raw westerly blew in off a huge ocean, waters stretching all the way to the far corners of the world. He watched the turquoise waves being driven at him, herded across the Atlantic to surge, clash and recoil on the brown rocks, or peter out and fall down dead on the broad expanse of the beach, their strength quenched.
It was a good omen; a wind with the promise of treasure. The gulls knew it too. They wheeled and called up above his head, words of indignant loss in their voices, wings ragged and scattered in the turbulent air. There would be a good haul tomorrow, fish-flesh and flotsam. He wondered if anyone would come to claim the driftwood when he did not.
He found a short hank of rope, blue as the sky on a bright summer's day, half submerged in the honey sand, a tight bowline in one end. He picked it up, inspected it for a moment, turning it over in his hands, imagining where it had come from, who had lost it to the waters. Thrown overboard from a cargo vessel in the West Indies. The remains of a sunken yacht from as far as Cape Horn or as nearby as Cape Wrath. He put it into his backpack with the day's other treasures and continued his progress along the beach.
He walked around its whole wide arc, the land's lip as it sipped at the sea, gathering the day's haul. His footsteps in the soft, yielding sand a long, wavy line, as if he was making a child's picture of water.
As the sun drifted out of the sky and into the sea, he reached the end of the beach and, turning, walked back towards his shack. Half way there, still below the high-tide mark, he stopped and, taking a piece of the driftwood he had gathered, drew out his name in large letters in the sand. When the tide rose in the night, it would seize the letters, gather them up.
He had built the shack on a little level patch of ground between beach and moor. No-man's land. Built and rebuilt and extended it over thirty years as the sea gave him the materials. As he did so, built his life from scattered scraps too. Worn timbers, salty, smoothed to glass from their long journey through the ocean, were lashed together with scraps of rope. His walls were decorated with shells, rounded shards of glass, colourful shapes of plastic. A window pieced together from more of the glass fragments, as colourful as any in a cathedral, looked to the west. A torn sail, a spinnaker, was thrown over the top to keep the rain and spray out, weighed down against the winds with heavy stones and plastic bottles filled with sand.
Inside he shook off his oilskin, an old, old find, and struck a match. He lit a candle and emptied the backpack onto his little table. It was his birthday today. Somewhere amongst the items he had collected would be the special one. In front of him, the window glowed and sparkled in the evening light and through it came a memory of that first birthday on the beach. He stood for a moment, remembering the feel of his father's hand in his as they walked the beach together, half a century before. He had spotted the circle of blue glass, a jewel from the sea, and picked it up in delight. A single letter on it : T, the first letter of his own name.
He sifted through the haul. There were several twisted scraps of driftwood, the sort he would previously have carved into sea-serpents or mermaids and, varnished, sold to the local tourist shops so that he could buy the few things the sea and his little garden didn't provide. There was a doll's head, one eye gone. He placed it on a shelf with all the others, a gallery of small, smiling faces to keep him company. A Mermaid's purse. A yellow plastic duck, its merry eyes still smiling. A starfish, a broken fish-skull. A couple of small sea-beans, smooth and brown like teak. Treasure from all over the world, South America, India, Africa, all brought bobbing onto his own beach.
Then, a square of wood, thin as if from a tea chest. Under a coating of sand a single letter clear upon it, stencilled in purple. This year, an H.
He opened a small wooden box where he kept the other thirty-odd letters, his most precious possessions, and added the latest. Once, when he had first returned here, he had thought there must be some simple message to them. He only had to wait long enough for them all to be given to him, unscramble the puzzle, and there would be his answer. Now, these years later, he no longer tried to fathom out what he was being told. The letters were merely a whisper, a glimpse. Spray from the sea, from which it was impossible to know the sea itself.
That night was wild. The shack rocked and swayed, the sail snapping and banging on the roof. Half-asleep, it seemed as if he was already at sea, his hut a boat. He dreamt that the waters had come up and carried him off, that there was no solid ground any more. He was washed ashore back on the beach with his father, that hot summer's day, the sand slumbering in the warmth.
'Treasure!' The fingers of his hand were smooth and soft as he picked up the glass pebble.
'And see, it has the first letter of your name on it too. It was meant for you. Hold onto it.'
'Who sent it to me?'
'The sea perhaps. I don't know.'
'But I thought you knew everything!'
'Well. I know everything that can be known. But some things are just mysteries.'
'Let's look for others. Perhaps we can spell my whole name.'
He dropped the circle of glass into his bucket with the shells and scraps of seaweed and they carried on, picking their way along the water-line, their heads down as they searched the sand. He couldn't remember them leaving, the end of that day. Perhaps they were outside somewhere now, still looking.
Storm clouds, grey as if they were solid lead, livid purple, swept in over the beach, a deep depression in the Atlantic flinging walls of air at him. The beach was blown away. Whole years were blown away. The storm dropped him in London. He was a man now, but still very young.
He had drifted for a long time, the terrible storm clouds dogging him. Sometimes there was a lull, often the winds raged and battered. The simple certainties he had gathered into his arms as he grew up proved to be impossible to hold on to. God was the first to go, left in a doorway on an icy night in Soho. One by one the facts that he had collected together like sticks twisted and slipped out. As he tried to pick up one, two more fell.
He lost his faith in solid ground. Numbers betrayed him too. Once they had made sense of everything for him. But they could only measure what was measurable; there was too much they couldn't explain to him.
'I'm leaving. I'm sorry,' she had said. He could see simply by looking into her eyes that she had made her mind up. Arguing was futile.
'I can't explain. I just feel—I mean I know—that I have to. I'm sorry.'
'I don't understand.'
He was at his lowest ebb, homeless, battered by rain and cold even when the sky was blue. At the end, all he had left was the little wooden box containing the four letters, the circle of blue glass; an O of some silver metal; a knot in the shape of a G; a U burned through a scrap of orange plastic - all picked up from the beach on other years' holidays. He sat in the rain and looked at them for long minutes, remembering being a boy, the rain dripping off his hair into the box.
It had taken him two weeks of hitching to find his way back. He arrived a few days before his twenty-fifth birthday. On the day itself he found the letter N, embossed on a scrap of tin, itself trapped inside a small green bottle, buried in a line of seaweed at the high-tide mark. An actual message in a bottle.
Looking out to sea, feeling the whole wide world out there suddenly very close, the wind streaming through his hair and his beard, he knew without any apparent decision being made that he would stay. He had started work on the shack there and then.
The locals, what few of them there were, had tolerated him. In truth they liked the idea of a beachcomber; the knowledge that someone was looking after the place and whatever was washed up. He distributed to his neighbours what he could. Occasionally crates of goods would arrive and he would salvage the contents and share them out. When, fifteen years ago, the whale had stranded itself, it's huge soft body as grey as slate, he had roused everyone and, together, with the help of a tractor and then a boat, they had hauled it back into deep waters. Its fin as it slipped into the depths had been like a hand waving goodbye. Back on the beach they had embraced each other and smiled.
He awoke, sweating hot and icy cold, to find his shack under water, up nearly as high as his bed. The storm had driven the sea right up over the beach. His belongings, shoes and scraps of wood, bobbed around like ships upon a model ocean. The walls swayed as if the whole shack was preparing to fly. He rose, dressed quickly and waded outside. The wind was still fierce but the storm was abating. Away in the southwest, a line of light sky was visible beneath the solid black edge of the clouds. He could feel the waters ebbing, tugging at him as they receded down the beach.
Quickly he crossed to the Flotsam, the boat he had built, like the shack, from scraps and driftwood. The remains of so many shattered boats that he had brought back to life. But she was meticulously caulked with tar and seaworthy : a stout, solid craft for deep waters. She was bobbing and rocking, finally impatient to be off.
He waded between shack and ship three times, loading up the supplies he would need. Finally, he took the small wooden chest and stowed it away inside the small wheelhouse.
He hauled himself aboard and cast off. The ebbing waters took the Flotsam and sucked her rapidly down the beach towards the sea. He turned to look back at the shack and was surprised at how far away it already was. He watched as it finally succumbed to the waters, collapsing into splinters of driftwood, reclaimed by the ocean, flotsam once more.
He smiled and, turning back to the west, watched as the current bore him out to sea.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Simon Kewin. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Simon writes fiction, poetry and computer software, although usually not at the same time. His fiction has appeared in Nemonymous, Here & Now, Abyss & Apex, Albedo One, Redsine, Quantum Muse, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Deep Magic, amongst others. He has had poetry published in a variety of magazines including Cadenza, Voice and Verse, Helicon, The Affectionate Punch, 12th Planet and Sepia.
He lives deep in rural Herefordshire (in the UK) with Alison and their two daughters Eleanor and Rose.