Beyond the Sea

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A stranger walks alone along a beach on a frozen winters day. Before the last of the lights on the promenade go out; he needs discover who he is, and where he is going.

Beyond The Sea

 

The fading sun was beginning to lose itself in the freezing waves, as he turned from the street of shuttered Guest Houses onto the promenade. Its pastel oranges and reds would soon be overcome by the gathering swirls of grey and ultimately black. It was as if Poseidon was slowly pulling it down from the heavens into the invisible watery deep. 

 

He surveyed the beach but could see only emptiness. Far in the distance, a lone figure walked with a dog. Off its lead, he watched the dog, dart, and circle in merriment. Like King Canute it seemed to challenge the waves to part, only to scamper away at their first icy touch. Again, and again, it would repeat the same fruitless action: daring to challenge the exactitude of its own experience.

 

Stuffing his hands into his pockets he could feel the bitter cold running like crushed ice through his veins. He watched the figure and its marauding canine companion move further and further along the sand until finally, it disappeared from view. For a moment he felt a pang of melancholy, as though the tenuous strings that had briefly bound him to this stranger had suddenly been cut adrift. That amidst this emptiness, they were somehow connected, even though only he alone was aware of it. 

 

Turning for a moment he looked at the ranks of empty buildings behind him. Inside the window of a café, he could see an old ice cream sign. It was safely packaged away for the winter secure from the vagaries of the harsh weather. He thought how far away the heat of summer felt. Those gentle, refreshing breezes of a summer's evening where the light goes on and on. A time and place where the world felt as though it were larger and time infinite. Its languidness at odds with these short violent winter days. 

 

‘No one left and no one came,’ he thought to himself. ‘Just like the bare platform at Addlestrop.” He wasn’t sure why his brain had joined up the dots of the world around him and spat out a line stolen from an Edward Thomas. Why it had computed this information only to recalibrate it into a poem, or sometimes a song lyric or a line from a film. He wondered for a moment if he was alone in these thought processes; whether others experienced this too. Or was it that their minds only dealt in logic or didn’t think to comprehend anything at all.

 

But of one thing he was now certain: he was alone. Surveying both directions, he was instantly aware of the Robert Frost poem about the fork in the woods but challenged himself not to let its lines echo into the tangled realms of his head. 

 

He decided to turn right, along the sea's edge, into the unlit outer limits of the front. After just a few steps he removed one-hand from his pocket. For a moment he used it to clench the metal barrier that guarded the beach from the concrete path. Looking for lights as a sign of distant boats out in the gloam, he could see nothing. Only the waves gradually making their way across the beach, till such a time that they would ultimately envelop the sand. 

 

And it was then that he saw them in the last of the orange light. The outline of footsteps making their way from the perimeter wall to the sea's edge. He wondered how far those footsteps had reached before they were airbrushed by the waves. Who made them and why they were here on this bitterest of days?

 

The thought echoed and bounced around his head. He tried to control it but could only counter it in his consciousness with the opening line of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ – he couldn’t fathom why he had made that connection, except out of some form of acceptance of loss. 

 

Within his mind, there was a constant unrestrained cacophony of noise. Claim attracted counterclaim as he issued his own statements and rebuttals. Though his face appeared silent, there was an orchestra of noise lurking within; its sound more junkyard than philharmonic

 

He stood and wondered why his memory hung on to these discarded filaments of information, yet he struggled to remember so much else. As he stared across the seafront, he challenged himself to remember every last detail of the scene before him. Aware that at this brief moment in time, he was the only person in the vast expanse of the universe that had seen it as it was at this perfect second. It felt like something to cherish, that for a moment he was both alone and yet privileged in his seclusion. 

 

He closed his eyes for a moment, like a shutter on a camera imprinting it in his memory, and then he turned to follow the path that meandered into the darkness. Glimpsing a tiny light way out into the distance, he determined for no other reason than it was there, to walk towards it. 

 

As he did so, he caught one final look at his reflection, as the street lamp reflected his figure into the last of the windows. He ran his numb fingers through his pale brown hair and wiped his glasses on the sleeve of his torn leather jacket. His youthful face was pale, his cheeks rosy from the cold. He would have given anything for the balaclava that his mother used to make him wear to school. He kicked the icy sludge with the sole of his sodden leather shoes and watched as it carelessly smeared the brickwork and traced an errant pattern on the bottom part of the window. Watching his hot breath smudge his appearance from view, he turned sharply on his way.

 

Quickly forgetting the surrounding scene that earlier had been so important to him, he thought of the American boxer Young Stribling. The light-heavyweight that fought twice without success for a world title. In his mind, he could see him working out in the gym; skipping and throwing punches at a heavy bag. Then the scene cut to one of a smashed motorcycle on an empty highway. Bleached with the sun it ran in a straight line forever, blurred and invisible into the horizon; at odds with the broken body of the fighter that had once screeched on its tarmac with impunity. 

 

And then the image changed to that of Don Cockell. Plucky, ‘Dumpling’ Don as he was christened by the press; adrift under the heat of the overhead lights on a sultry San Francisco evening. Battered, beaten, flailing and covering: taking everything that an unrestrained Rocky Marciano could throw at him: until he could take no more. Don wanted to “win it for Britain” except he didn’t. But he carried heart and valour as if they were precious objects that he was fearful to put down.

 

He laughed for a second as he thought of Bobby Darin singing ‘Beyond the Sea’ with his coiffured hair and bow tie. Imagining him here now in the freezing cold, his voice lost on the wind. 

 

Another distant highway, another time, and Jimmy Dean in a Porsche Spyder: the outcome the same. “You’re tearing me apart he shrieks” on a different day, safe in a film studio set. “You say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again. And then the final questioning plea: “How’s a kid supposed to grown up in this crazy zoo?” 

 

As soon as he spoke the words to himself, he pictured them bouncing around indiscriminately in his head like fireflies. But he knew the words were false, just dreamt up by a writer somewhere in Hollywood. They were not authentic like so much else. 

 

Perhaps, this is the closest he would come to any form of illumination. He was tired of trying to analyse his thoughts. Of making sense of the jumble and isolating the mechanisms that triggered them. The concept of why some memories were retained and others discarded. Of trying to understand why his aimless thoughts led him to Stribling, Cockell, Darin, and Dean. 

 

Why not something or someone else? Why not just the prosaic, the binary requirements of existence: like a dog chasing a stick or a cat waiting for its next saucer of milk. 

 

He allowed himself to smile at the pointlessness of his question. As he did, he aimed a half-hearted kick at a cigarette packet in a nearby puddle. As his foot sluiced through the card flopped into a soggy mess. Standing over it he stamped his shoe on it until it was flat and unrecognisable and with a final aimless flourish ground it into the wet concrete beneath. As he did so he felt his toes clumsily tingle.

 

On the other side of the barrier, he noticed an old rowing boat discarded on the sand, it's colour anonymous in the half-light. It was obvious that the elements had rotted their way through its side. But for a moment he could not suppress the thought of carrying it down to the sea, and like Ulysses sailing “beyond the western stars.” But despite its decay, he could also see that there were no oars. It was just a promise of escape but one that could never be delivered. Perhaps, ultimately the incoming waves would wash it away like some sort of Viking funeral –minus the flames- bobbing about in the sea forever until such a time that the wind and the sea reduced it to nothing.

 

As he walked on further it felt as though the distant light was never getting any nearer. As though it was unreachable out there in the black. He thought of turning around but was uncertain that he could ever retrace his footsteps. Soon it would be fully dark and he had left the last of the street lamps far behind him. A sudden surge of panic coursed through him at the thought of being lost there alone in the dark.

 

Without thinking he began to run towards the light but after a few strides, he had to stop. It was as though his legs had been stripped of their movement and his lungs removed of their breath. So, he beat on, slowly, patiently towards the light as though he were a distressed vessel and it the beam from a welcoming lighthouse. 

 

As he got closer, he thought of stopping on a rusted old bench, but something deep in his consciousness drove him onward. He felt that should he stop that he may forever lack the impetuous to rise again. That anonymous chink of light at the end of the seafront suddenly became to him the most important thing in the world, yet he didn’t know why. If it offered salvation, then, salvation from what? Perhaps, it offered the last shred of light in an ever-darkening world.

 

Finally, he reached it, his joints throbbing with cold. It was nothing more than a hut bereft on its own far from all the other stifled activity. Looking through the window at its red and white chequered table clothes he wondered why it was open on this bitterest of days. A large circular clock ticked on the wall, behind a counter that should have been bedecked with cakes and other treats, but was now almost empty, except for a tea urn and a couple of neatly stacked cups and saucers. 

 

He could see the back of a woman behind it, arranging something in a backroom. He paused and then leaned forward to push its wooden frame open. As he did so the woman turned and a sudden surge of heat warmed his body. He took out his hands and rubbed them together and took several deep breaths as if to gulp in the warmth. 

 

“Well, what is a young lad like you doing here?” the figure on the other side of the counter, said kindly. “You’ll be catching the death of cold. You’re about five months too late for the funfair,” she smiled. 

 

He tried to respond, but couldn’t manipulate his lips to make a sound. 

 

“I’m afraid we are about to close. Scarcely anyone comes up here this time of year. It hardly seems worth opening really.” Before adding as an afterthought: “You’re the first I’ve seen today.”

 

She pointed at the clock as if to reiterate her point. He looked at its hands as it gently ticked to a quarter-to-five. “I’m sorry, we close at five,” she confirmed. “You really do look a sorry state. I feel so bad but I can’t even offer you a cup of tea, I’ve closed everything away for the night.

 

“But you are welcome to stay until then and warm up a bit. I’m afraid I can’t let you stay any longer than that.”

 

He felt a faint smile touch his lips as the lady walked behind the counter, into the back room, and closed the door. 

 

Slumping into a chair he heard a slight screech as the legs dragged indiscriminately across the floor. He watched the clock, it's ticking like a drumbeat, tapping its way inextricably to the hour. Once again, the fear returned of what he would do once the lady turned off the light, the last light across the whole panorama of the seafront, and sent him out into the impenetrable night. Fixated on the minute hand he fortified himself with thoughts of Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’.

 

Rising from the chair he walked gently to a rectangular mirror on the sidewall by the counter; feeling almost surprised to see his own face looking blankly back at him. He smoothed and patted his hair down and did the best to adopt the steely gaze of Marshall Dillon. A man friendless in a town that had deserted him to face the impending arrival of the Miller Gang alone. 

 

He moved his right-hand to an imaginary holster and then without making a sound pulled the trigger on the empty doorway where the Miller Gang stood. Tex Ritter warbling “Do not forsake me oh my, darling,” as he turned to watch the clock tap out the closing credits. 

 

He walked back to the mirror. He wasn’t Cooper anymore, only himself. Gazing at his youthful promise he felt vaguely distant from it as though he were staring into somebody else’s face. Resuming his seat, he willed himself to remember who he was and why he was there, amidst the debris of his tangled thoughts. To catalogue and comprehend the decisions that had led him to this spot at this time to face a reckoning that he could not comprehend. 

 

He felt the terror rising in his body as he watched the minute hand begin its final 360-degree circuit on its way to 5 o’clock. His fingers drummed the wooden table and he shuffled his feet nervously on the floor. Quicker and quicker, it felt like the minute hand was moving. He saw the lady walk calmly through the door and out to the counter and by the time he shifted his gaze back the clock had hit five, and everything turned in an instant to black.

 

 

***

 

As they pushed the rotten door open it snapped half off its hinges. “Bloody hell,” the first man, said. “This place is ripe for falling down.”

 

They both stopped for a moment. “Do you think that’s him over there?” said the other man. “I think it must be,” he replied. “But how the heck did he get in here?

 

“Up there,” he speculated, laughing at the nearly non-existent roof. “Although, he doesn’t look in much condition for climbing.”

 

They looked at the figure sat alone, his head resting softly on a battered table. His skeletal hands and their thick blue veins looked as though they were congealed with ice. Amidst the rubble of discarded beer cans and strewn crisp packets, they could make out his soaking wet slippers and a pale leg, covered only in striped pyjamas, giving way to an old dressing gown. 

 

“How long do you think he’s been here?” one of the men mused. “He was reported missing this morning,” confirmed the other. “He looks like a gust of wind could blow him over. Supposed we had better check his pulse.”

 

Kicking rubbish and moving broken furniture out of the way they reached for his hand, but as they did so the figure slowly raised his head. “You alright, mate?” one of them asked. But his rheumy eyes just stared on into the distance. “Can you hear me?” he tried again.

 

“You’re wasting your time,” said the other. “He’s a dementia job out of Sunnyside. He doesn’t have a clue who he is or what day it is. Totally gaga. Although it must be three miles from there to here; not a bad effort for someone in his state.”

 

“I wonder why he chose here? This part of the seafront has been derelict for years,” said the younger man.

 

“Well, it used to be big down here way back in the old days. Back in the 50s, I heard there used to be a funfair and coffee bar and stuff. But that’s going back some. Unlikely this old fella had a clue where he was going. Probably just kept walking and got tired; lucky we found him before the night properly set in. 

 

“Phone in and get an ambulance down here, then we can get out of the cold.”

 

They pulled up the two remaining chairs and shared the table. Two policemen and a frail old man in a frayed dressing gown staring at the pealing paper on a wall where an old tea counter used to reside. 

 

One of them pointed to a mirror on the sidewall, its content smashed and broken beyond repair. “Never mind seven years bad luck,” he joked. “You could look into that thing forever and never see anything.” 

 

For a brief moment they sat in respectful silence but then they quickly forgot he was there. They talked about getting back to the station and getting home; their plans for the weekend. Whilst the old man all crooked and bent looked vacantly into nothing. The big round clock that used to hang on the wall had gone decades hence. It’s ticking cut off and forgotten somewhere in the impenetrable past. 

 

Eventually, an ambulance arrived. As they carefully led him out no one noticed the Miller Gang in the doorway; not even the old man. The ambulance’s lights flickered down the promenade but he didn’t see them. Nor gallant old Don Cockell, or Jimmy Dean’s Porsche Spyder. He had forgotten them in the darkness and no one else cared to look. 

 

As the door of the ambulance closed the two policemen looked out onto the cold sea. Its waves had now completely covered the beach and beat their way against the metal barrier. They didn’t know that somewhere underneath the foam there were once footprints in the sand. 

 

But now not a trace of them remained.

 


Submitted: December 14, 2021

© Copyright 2022 garrydwhite. All rights reserved.

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llywrch

Very carefully written. However, I don't see how this a parable for anything--unless Shakespeare's lines about "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" is the point.

Or I've missing the point entirely -- which is quite possibly the case.

Wed, December 15th, 2021 6:16am

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