The Old Man of the Sea
by Allen Stroud
It is 1995 and I’m told my Grandfather has passed away. I am twenty-seven years old.
We called him Grandfather, but he wasn’t my Dad’s dad, or my Mum’s for that matter. I was never really told what he was to us, only that he was ‘Grandfather’ and that we should respect him. I was never told his real name.
As a child, I got used to his regular visits. He would always come at our house on the same day every year, bringing presents for all the children who’d come over. The day before, people would start to arrive, choking up our little street with their cars. Dad said they were all our relatives, but we never saw them any other time. The front room would be crowded with old people, who I guessed were Grandfather’s friends. Mum would ask me to help make lemonade for them and I’d play with all the different boys and girls.
I never remembered their names.
Eventually, some guests would leave, while others stayed the night in our house. Some slept on floors, a few in chairs. I always had to give up my bed and sleep in my parent’s room.
Grandfather would arrive early in the morning. Sometimes, I would try to stay awake and catch him, but there was never a car or the sound of footsteps on the street. He would just appear in the room, just before the sun came up and start talking to people. He treated everyone equally, young or old, as if he was everyone’s grandfather, asking after what they’d been doing and taking time to listen to their answers and shake their hands.
I remember his face. Old, tanned and weathered. His hands and arms rough like tree bark, some of his skin was scaled and patchy. At times it caught the light and glittered. He had a tattoo of an anchor on his left wrist amidst the worst of it.
His eyes were blue like the sea, his hair, a straggled mass of grey that ran around his bald head and over his ears from front to back. He didn’t walk well, as if moving around on two feet was awkward to him, but he never seemed weak, like many of the old uncles and aunts. He kept a cool distance from us all, not offering help with the cooking or the cleaning up after. He knew all the preparation was for his visit and didn’t want to lessen our effort by mucking in.
After breakfast, he’d sit with all the children. A big canvas bag would appear and out would come the presents, all individually wrapped in a delicate paper and tied up with twine.
At first, when I was very young, it was like an extra birthday, but as I grew up, I could tell the difference. I never got a present I wished for from Grandfather.
Instead, I got shells. Every year a different one. Some were big with whorls of colour, others plain or patterned. My parents didn’t live near the sea so, to begin with, I didn’t understand what they were, but got excited along with everyone else. All the adults would make a fuss over each one unwrapped, as if they were some sort of special prize.
Over the years, the gatherings became smaller. The boys and girls I played with got older. Some disappeared and we didn’t talk about them after. The old people disappeared as well. But Grandfather still came and with a flourish, presented me and those who remained with new shells each time.
I pretended to be excited out of courtesy to it all, seeing the trouble everyone had gone to and how much they valued this annual event. I thanked him kindly as I always did, being too well behaved to do otherwise.
After he left, the new gifts would join the others in an old shoebox.
Between visits, my parents didn’t say much about Grandfather. Any questions I asked were answered in ways that cut short any conversation about him.
Occasionally, I would get out the shoebox from the bottom of my wardrobe, open it up and unpack all the shells. I studied the collection for a long time, trying to work out why I’d been given them. Some were big, some small, some colourful, some plain, but no two were alike, or of the same type. There seemed to be no pattern to it. Sometimes, I would try to look them up in books at school, but I could only find the first few, given to me when I was very young.
The last time I saw Grandfather was when I was eleven or twelve I guess? Only three children remained amidst the small group of adults and elderly aunts and uncles. I was the youngest. He leaned down and took my hand, making me blurt out my question.
“Grandfather, what are the shells for?”
He smiled, his wrinkled face becoming even more wrinkled. “They will be your guide, dear one, when you are ready to follow me.”
When I became interested in boys, the box stayed, taped up in the wardrobe and the visits from Grandfather stopped.
I finished school and went to college. English and Drama were always my interests and slowly, I forged a career out of my gifts, qualifications and opportunities. I moved out of my parent’s house when I went to university, leaving most of my belongings behind, including the shoebox.
When I came back to collect things after graduation. I left the shoebox where it was.
The first house I owned, where I still live, was a little terrace in Bournemouth near the beach. When I first moved in, I thought about Grandfather and his presents. I always liked the sea. Swimming in a pool never felt the same. Each time I went back to my parents’ house, I thought about taking the box with me, but for some reason, I never did.
Only now, with Dad on the telephone with the news, am I thinking about those shells.
“You probably don’t even remember him...”
“No, I remember,” I reply. “All those gatherings of people when I was young.”
“Oh... Right...” Dad sounds hesitant, as if he wants to say something, but isn’t sure how to say it. “He left a will and some instructions.”
“I can’t imagine that’d be anything to do with us.”
“Actually, it is. I was wondering if you would come here and we could talk about it?”
The drive to my parent’s in the Home Counties takes just under an hour. On the way, I’m going over what’s been said and the strange, nervous words. What should I expect when I arrive?
What I didn’t expect was to see the old shoebox on the middle of the dining room table.
“Your mother is at the shops,” Dad tells me. “She’ll be back in an bit.”
“And you have some reason to keep this from her?” I ask.
“A few reasons,” Dad says. He sits down and traces a finger around the cardboard lid of the box. The tape holding it is worn and yellow. “I didn’t open this, they were given to you.” He pushes the box towards me.
I scratch at the loose end of the tape and it comes away. I open the lid and carefully, take out each sea shell. Thirteen in total, at least one I don’t recognise. I glance at Dad and frown. “Thirteen?” I say. “I don’t remember that many visits.”
He shrugs. “You were very young and later... well, you weren’t here when he came.”
A little part of me regrets the missed opportunity, but that’s in the past. “Are you going to tell me what this was all about?” I ask.
Dad runs a hand through his thinning hair. He looks older today than I ever remember him being. He’s leaning forward on the table, looking tortured by what’s not been said. “We should discuss what’s happened and what you need to do,” he says. “Grandfather kept a little house, out in Portland. You have to go visit and organise his affairs.”
“Shouldn’t that be up to someone else?”
“No, it must be you. His wishes were clear.”
I frown at Dad. “I don’t understand why you can’t just tell me what’s going on.”
“Please, this has to be done right, for your own safety,” he says. “I don’t want you put in danger, unless...”
“Unless you choose that”
I stare at him, but he’s not saying anything else. I cannot ease his burden. “Let’s do it your way then,” I decide.
An hour later, I’m on the motorway. The shoebox is on the seat beside me next to a lunchbox with sandwiches in that my Dad prepared. I’m driving, but my mind is on the conversation and on what I need to do.
The journey to Weymouth and Portland takes a bit longer than before. The roads are good, but it’s a distance to go. While the world goes by, I’m thinking about what Dad said and what he couldn’t say. I have directions, a route drawn in an A to Z in biro, a street name and house number. I’m not great at finding places and this is a difficult place to find.
Portland Beach Road is the only way onto the island without taking a boat. There used to be a railway line, but that was closed a long time ago. The view is beautiful, with the sea on both sides of the causeway and not much traffic. Today, the sky is overcast and a stiff breeze whips up the water, bringing little foaming dips and troughs. Ahead, is the old naval base, the only reason I know much about where I’m going as it was on the news when they closed it earlier in the year.
A roundabout, then another. Portland is a small island, little more than a collection of villages. The castle looms over everything. I finish off the last of Dad’s sandwiches and stay on the main road, heading towards Southwell and Portland Bill right at the bottom, near the water’s edge, turning left into a short street and following it all the way to the end and then further.
The roads aren’t so good here and the local traffic is a bit thicker. The island’s pretty flat for the most part and gradually, fewer and fewer houses either side of me.
The ‘Bill’ lighthouse is ahead, distinctive with its red and white stripes that everyone remembers from the children’s cartoon. I turn off the road and towards a bungalow set apart from everywhere else.
I park up on the verge in front. The house has no garage or abandoned car, just the little one storey building and a tiny shed beside it. The bungalow is totally different to everything else on the island. Faded white paint and a checkerboard of wooden planks, like some of those old pubs you see, but not kept and preserved with the same rustic charm.
I get out and walk towards it. The sea is very close, not far from the fence around the back garden. Dad said he’d inquired as to the property’s worth and was told coastal subsidence made the whole place completely unmarketable. “Why am I going then?” I asked him. “Why not just lock it all up and let it fall into the channel?”
“Because we owe Grandfather.”
“Owe him for what?”
“I can’t say.”
I pick my way through the unkempt garden. Everything’s been let go. Bushes stray over the path and the grass either side is as tall as me. Stinging nettles, brambles and thistles lurk in the lawn. The earth is churned and uneven, as if someone’s dug it up a year or more ago.
I’m on the porch and facing the door. The long brass key is in my hand. It looks far too big for the lock, but it slides in and clicks as I turn it.
The door opens and the first impression I get is a musty smell, like old damp, mould and neglect. The walls are moist under the plain painted wallpaper. I can taste the air and gag at first, but quickly get a hold of myself. I could be in worse places.
I walk into the front room and draw back the curtains. I open every window I can find, reaching up on my toes to the small ones. Some of the catches have been painted over, but they’ll not defeat me. Eventually, the outdoor breeze invades to battle the stale air.
As I explore, I discover more shells. They are everywhere, on every sideboard, shelf, dresser and table, covered in dust. No two are alike and none are the same as those from my box. I clean and examine them with my fingers, quickly making my hands filthy. A few are damaged and I find thin glue lines where someone’s repaired them. Grandfather must have spent ages collecting these. Not for the first time, I wonder why.
Grandfather has a dining table in the middle of the back room. One of the chairs is half turned, as if someone sat on it and left recently. On the table is a battered book, open and filled with scrawled handwriting. Next to it, I find a chewed pencil, clearly sharpened with a knife.
I sit down and take a closer look, gently turning the pages. There are drawings of the shells and of people too with lines connecting each to one another. I can barely read what’s been written, but one word stands out.
My name on a page, with a drawing of me.
I stare at the journal. I flip back to the beginning. Slowly, I start to recognise the letters and make sense of it all.
I came to these lands in AD 787. Three boats, delivered by Odin onto this barren arm, jutting into the deep. We were lost, souls left to the whim of the sea and rescued by the All Father for his own hidden purpose. We came ashore as survivors and beaten men, our hopes and dreams of trade and plunder broken by the waves we had failed to tame.
We made camp upon the sands of what is now named Freshwater Bay, tending to our wounded as any defeated army might. Olaf, our priest made sacrifices and called on all the Gods, but they did not hear his exhortations. Day and night our enemy harassed us with great waves and rain that washed away our camp and supplies.
Olaf came to me then and said, “I sense a foul hand in this wind. We are besieged by an ancient power that claims us for its own.”
“Is it the Christian God?” I asked.
“No,” said Olaf. “Much older. As old as the bones of this land.”
“What of your prayers?” said I. “Surely the All Father protects his own?”
“The All Father helps those who help themselves,” Olaf replied. He drew back his sleeve and turned his wrist to show me his arm. Scales puckered the skin, as if grown from his flesh. “A gift from beneath the waves. I know not what it means.”
“We should ask Odin,” I say.
“We are on foreign lands and our words are whispers to him. Much closer is a strange god of the sea who knows we are unbelievers.”
“What shall we do then?”
“We will placate this old god,” Olaf said. “We must make a sacrifice to him, so he will let us live.”
“I cannot renounce my faith,” I said.
“Nor I, nor anyone of us, but if our enemy is not appeased, we will never reach Valhalla.”
That night, I heard the words of the water. Harsh and bitter curses for us in a tongue I do not understand. We are the invaders of a land long claimed by another. I could not sleep, but gather with others around Olaf as he slit the throats of two lambs, casting them into the great fire to slate the god’s anger. “It may serve for a time,” he said. “Though I fear our foe will demand a greater offering from us.”
The next morning, the breeze calmed and we moved inland, away from the ships.
It was there and then that the island folk found us.
There is a noise in the house, as if someone is here. I stop reading and look up. The sun is lower in the sky and the ivy near the window casts long finger-like shadows into the front room. I stand up and wander towards them, peering out of the bay windows. No-one about. Must have been the wind.
I peer around the room again, taking in the rows of old books behind the shells and the discarded tea mug on a small table next to the sofa. I pick it up and take it out to the kitchen sink. The pipes make a grinding noise as I turn on the tap and the water spits a little before settling into a constant stream.
I clean the mug, find a kettle and fill it. I flip the power switch, but nothing happens. The electricity must be off.
I take in the kitchen. Old gas cooker, covered in rust, a fridge I dare not open and a few cupboard with assortments of plates and eating utensils. A few of them are unfamiliar to me. On the walls are broken and rusted knives, swords, and axes. Some of them are very old. The edge of an axe blade crumbles in my hand as I touch it.
I go back to the book and look at the words, examining the pages I’ve read and the ones I’ve not. The spidery writing is the same. One person has compiled these stories. Whether they are real or not, they are all taken down by one person. I find no crossing out or rubbing, as you might expect if they were being made up. Everything’s right there on the page.
I sit down and read on.
The villagers spoke strangely, but after a while we made ourselves understood and laid out our trade offerings to them. They had watched us make land and endure upon the beach, waiting until we chose to move inland before revealing themselves to us.
A rider was dispatched to their lord and whilst we waited, we exchanged words and food. Olaf asked them many questions about faith, but struggled at first to make his meaning clear.
“What other idols do you worship?” he said at last, pointing to the wooden cross around the neck of a man robed in white.
“None but Christ and his Father,” the man answered. “We abandoned heathen ways long ago.”
Olaf pointed out to sea. “Then how do you appease that god?” he asked. “We have felt his wrath and it is terrible. How do you answer him?”
“We do not seek passage through his domain,” the white robed man said, “and so he leaves us be.”
The two men fell into further talk of the mysteries. I left them and wandered along the shoreline. Far from our camp, I found broken white stones, arranged into steps and crude walls. Upon them, I saw the pictorial writing of some ancient tribe with crudely drawn figures bowing in front of etched waves.
These ancients had known our enemy, it seems.
Shouts drew my attention. Horsemen had arrived, their mounts lathered from riding hard. Their leader dismounted and introduced himself as I hurried back to the camp.
The newcomer’s was named Beaduheard. He held their King’s favour and the post of Reeve. His beard was brown, braided and plucked and he spoke to us in our own tongue. “You’ll come with me,” he said. “All merchants have to be recognised by law.”
I eyed my shipmates and their captains. None had the stomach for a long walk to wherever the riders had come from, but the Reeve didn’t seem to care. “You’ll submit or we’ll cast you back into the sea,” he warned.
One by one the villagers shrank away, leaving Beaduheard and his soldiers with their spears. We were too many to be surrounded, so they contented themselves with shouting and jeering in a language we did not understand.
I do not know whose blood was spilled first, but I saw a bright fountain of red and heard a gurgled scream. My axe was in my hand then. I marched up to one of the Reeve’s soldiers pushed aside his spear and chopped at his neck. The man’s collarbone shattered and he wailed as he fell, knowing he was powerless to save himself. I stood on his throat and turned, grabbing a second by his leather jerkin and leapt on him. His breath came in a gasp as we slammed into the dirt. I hacked and hacked at his face, denting his helm and cutting through his eye socket until brain and eye were a puddled mess upon the earth.
I sat up and looked around, the battle rage fading from me, leaving behind a heaviness in limb and mind. The fighting had ended quickly. Beaduheard and his people lay dead and dying in front of us.
A hand gripped my shoulder. Olaf, his beard flecked with blood, grinned down at me. “A sacrifice to the old sea god after all! Perhaps now we will see our homes again.”
“Aye, perhaps,” I said and stood up.
I stand up from the table. My eyes are drawn to the wall of the kitchen, the ancient rusted axe I looked at before. Could it be... No... Impossible.
All of this is a distraction. The sun is setting and I’ve no wish to stay here overnight. I go back to the car and return with a pen and a notebook of my own. Starting from the front windows, I begin writing down everything I can find, along with a comment on what it might be worth. Most things like the shells and battered weapons are given a question mark. Only a specialist could identify all the different types. It feels like a violation of my childhood even thinking about it. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
I pick up an old white stone from the shelf with three wavy lines etched into it. I remember the stones from the story with the drawings of people worshipping the sea. Underneath are a stack of faded photographs, most of them black and white, or yellowed with age. Children and adults crowd around Grandfather in the centre. He always looks the same – old but not the oldest and he’s always sat in the same place with the same smile.
I turn over the pictures and find dates written in pencil on the back. 1924, 1932, 1946...
The books are a strange collection. I read the names – Lovecraft, Derleth, Leiber, Bloch, Howard, Holdstock. None of them are authors I’m familiar with. The volumes are all hardbacks, old and well used. Some of them have marked pages and lines circled with pencil marks.
One phrase leaps out at me.
That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.
A shiver runs through me. I put away the book and make for the sink. I’m washing my hands even before thinking about it and I don’t know why.
Get a hold of yourself!
I turn off the tap and wipe my fingers on a dish cloth. A gust of wind makes the house creak around me. How old is it? Truly? How old are all these...
The voice startles me more than it should. “Who’s there?” I say, turning around and eyeing one of the swords on the wall.
The head of a middle-aged man pops around the door to the lounge. He’s wearing thick glasses and sports a flat cap and bushy brown moustache. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. Just, we don’t get a lot of cars up here.”
“This is my grandfather’s place,” I blurt out. “He died. I’m just sorting his affairs.”
“Died?” The man frowns. “I thought no-one lived here.”
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Oh right, yes, Sam Bradley.” He thrusts out a hand. I hesitate, but then take it in mine. His handshake is weak and cursory, a contrast to his enthusiastic grin. “Been in Southwell for eight years, but most people still think I’m an outsider.”
“Is that why you think you can walk into people’s houses uninvited?”
“Sorry I...” His smile disappears and he wipes his face with a hand as he tries to work out how to reply. “Look, not a lot that goes on around here without folk noticing. I thought it best if I—”
“Well you thought wrong.”
We stare at each other for a few moments before he flinches and looks away. “I’ll go then, glad all’s well.”
“Yes, so am I.”
“You really shouldn’t be alone out here. If you need anything I—”
“I won’t. Thank you.”
I follow him to the hall, noting his lingering glances at Grandfather’s things. When he’s outside, I close the door and lock it from the inside. Good riddance.
To the right, I spot the fuse box and open it up. Two of the breakers have tripped. I flip the switches and the porch light comes on. That’ll make life easier. There’s a phone on the wall next to the box. I lift the receiver to my ear, but get no dial tone.
I take up my pen and notebook again. This time, I go through the books, ornaments and furniture methodically, listing everything. I head into the bedroom at the back and note down all the old clothes and anything else I find. There’s a collection of old newspapers in a drawer, some of them stiff and brittle. Articles have been cut out of the pages and more pencil marks ring words and letters. More mystery to it all, more puzzles to mull over when I’m back in my own home and far away from here.
It’s dark outside when I finally take a break. I boil the kettle and make tea, using stuff I brought with me from Dad’s.
I sit down at the dining table again and turn to the book.
After the battle, the villagers do not return. Instead, they lock themselves away in their homes. Olaf walked down the hill to their settlement and asked to speak with the white robed man again, but he is met with silence and no doors open at his request.
The captains meet and decide to abandon this place. We shall sale home, with only the poor spoils taken from Beaduheard and his soldiers to be distributed amongst us. For my part in murdering two, I am given a wrought silver armlet from the Reeve himself.
As I placed the device on my wrist, I found rough patches of skin near my palm. They are similar to those Olaf showed me.
I too am cursed it seems.
The longboats are readied and all are aboard. We launched off into the water as clouds gathered in the east. A stiff breeze sprang up against us, trying to turn us back into land, but we were sons of Odin and bent our backs to the oars, driving onwards through the sea god’s waves and wind.
Muscle, sinew and bone work as one with the boat. I pulled upon my oar in time with the drum, as the wrathful spray of our enemy drenched me. The skin on my arms itched, but I dared not attend to it without giving up my work and revealing the curse to my shipmates.
“Thor is angry with us!” The man next to me shouted.
“No!” I told him. “Olaf says it is an older god of the deep who hates us for being strong!”
“To the crows with Olaf!” My oar mate cursed.
The sky was black with hate. The sea, a wall that rose and fell in our way. Each time the breakers came, I thought our boat would founder, but we held true and fought hard as warriors born to tame the sea.
If only our foe had been as mortal as us, with the same weakness of mind and body, the same doubts and cares that make men and women of us all. A heartbeat late upon the stroke, my grip slipped from the oar and the boom came about, crashing into my chest, dragging me from my seat.
The last I remember were Olaf’s words over the wind. “One of ours given! Now, grant us passage dread lord!”
The kitchen window smashes inwards, drawing me out of the book and away to the other side of the room. I’m staring into the darkness, a sword in my hand. I don’t recall lifting it from the wall, but the heft of the blade is reassuring.
I spot a stone on the table, a few feet from where I was sat only moments before, with paper around it, held on string. I want to pick it up, but I can’t. There’s black hole where the window was, watching me, waiting for me to move, to breathe, anything that gives away I’m there. If I stay still and silent it can’t see or hear.
I gaze at the wrapped stone and remember the parties and the seashells. It’s the same string from my childhood. The realisation helps. I can move now. I go to the broken window and peer into the dark. I can’t see anyone out there, but...
I put down the sword and turn to the stone. The string comes apart quickly, as if my hands are used to untying knots like this. The paper is wet, but the writing clear and legible.
Don’t follow them. Don’t read the book.
I stare at the words, trying to understand them. Whoever is out there is warning me off, but my Dad and Grandfather both wanted me to come here, wanted me to deal with all this. The question I asked about the shells all those years ago, if the answer is anywhere, it will be here.
Waiting for me.
I awoke next upon the sand, seawater lapping at my face. I got up and stumbled back into our abandoned camp. I ate what food I could find and tried to make a fire from wet wood.
For three days I lived like that, unable to get dry or warm as the sky poured out its rage. No-one came down from the village. No-one dared.
The strange scales on my arms spread quickly. I found patches on my feet, fingers and neck before I became too weak to fend for myself.
At the time, I believed the fever came from exposure on that beach, but I know differently now. I had been sacrificed to the sea god and was undergoing a transformation to become his instrument.
Hands carried me from the shore. A soft bed, a warm fire and hot, thick broth gave me back something of myself. I remember kindly eyes and quiet words, though I understood little of what was said.
Later, there were loud voices, shouting and screams. Determining which came from my fevered nightmares and which were real, remained impossible as does so to this day.
I don’t know how long I slept in that bed or how long it took me to recover. When I regained my senses, I found my body covered in the scaled sores. I sat up. Another person lay in the corner of the room. I crawled over and gazed upon a sightless face. It was a woman, long since dead and with the same scales about her skin.
I went outside and discovered more bodies. Some had been dragged from where they died and burned in a smouldering pyre in the centre of the village.
I was the only one left alive.
I lived in that place alone for many days while rain and wind beset the island. When people came, at last, venturing forth from the northern settlement, the storms had washed the earth clean. No-one knew me, but I managed to make them understand, telling them to stay away, else they would catch the plague that had killed the others.
I lived alone like this for years.
It’s dark and I’m cold. I don’t want to go outside. The adult in me says I’m making the choice because I don’t trust myself to make the drive back on unfamiliar roads, but I know what the real reason is. Whoever threw the stone could still be around, watching for me trying to leave.
I pick up the book and the sword and make my way into Grandfather’s bedroom. I pull off the sheets and take out new ones from the cupboard. For all I know, he could have died here, in this bed. I remember what Sam Bradley said – I thought no-one lived here. Surely, someone would have called an ambulance? There must be some record of the old man passing away, otherwise how would Dad know?
I shut all the doors in the house and turn off all the lights. The little bedroom has no windows and a door with a lock. I take advantage of that and sit on the bed next to a reading lamp, which I flick on.
I take the sword in both hands and look at it. The blade is rusted and pitted, but the wooden hilt has symbols carved into it that are still visible. Centuries ago, this was a beautiful weapon. I wonder if Grandfather found it where the men from the story made camp? If the story is true...
I put the sword on the floor in easy reach and lie down. I stare at the book’s battered cover. Should I read more? Best not to. This is no bedtime tale.
I turn out the light.
Time passed by. People returned to the village. I stayed away, living on the edge of the land, listening to the waves. The noise of it comforted me and it became my companion. There were words in the water, words that spoke of a purpose that would be revealed in time.
I collected up all I could of my old life. The broken swords and axes, the clothes, the discarded trinkets. I kept them safe around me, at first in the shelters I built, but later in my home.
I swam in the sea and hearkened to the call of the strange god who had claimed me for his own. I could dive far into the waters, pushing myself further and further underwater, where his words became loud and clear in my mind, but still I could not make sense of what he said.
I took shells from those depths, bringing them back as a reminder each time of where I had been.
In the reclaimed village, folk lived and died, leaving me to witness them from afar. I aged slowly by comparison and stayed distant, at times helping, but mostly being apart. They had names for me and made up stories about my life. I watched them and smiled, just outside of their firelight.
The sea always called to me back and for a time, I felt more at home in its embrace than I did on land, but I sensed my time in the deep had not yet come and I returned to retain something of humanity’s touch.
For a while, a woman came and shared my life. Agnel was her name. Before the sickness took her, she gave birth to a child who I sent back to live in the village.
Years later, the girl came to visit. She sat in my home for three days until I revealed myself. When I did, she stroked my hairy face and named me Grandfather. More time had passed than I realised. She was the daughter of my daughter with Agnel. She stayed the night and we talked, but I made her leave after that, afraid that the plague that lives in my skin would claim her too.
Sometime after that, a boy came to see me. I kept away from him too, but then relented and spoke to him for a night. He was my great great grandson. He told me I had many relatives, all living on the island and the coast nearby.
There were more faces and names. I wrote them down when I learned how, but there wasn’t much to write things on. I took to etching marks on stones, the same as the ancient people who dwelt here long before me once did.
Years went by and the sea god grew quiet. More ships came to Portland and two lighthouses were built. Descendants of mine lived in them and I visited on occasion, never staying too long, else I infect them, but there was never any sign of this that I could see. I never told them anything of the curse that killed the villagers and how I survived it, all that time ago.
Paper became cheap and I was able to record more of my life. Typewriters and computers were never something I felt comfortable with, but pencils and exercise books were soon easy to obtain and use. I wrote down everything I could remember in a hundred or more of them, with drawings of every family member I met.
Later, when many people moved away, I received invitations to visit them. After a while I began to accept.
Which is when I found you, Cordelia.
I open my eyes. The book and the sword lie on the floor where I placed them. Did I read all that? I’m not sure, everything is a blur of images. Grandfather’s kindly face, his voice, words on the page and in my mind. I can see the moments described, the faces, all of it.
The room is lighter than before. The door is open, its key lies in front of me. Someone has been here... I reach for it and notice the fraying skin on my knuckles. The exposed flesh beneath glitters in the light. I bite my lip when I see it and there is a sudden sharp pain. I’m up and in Grandfather’s little bathroom. I dab at the blood with a tissue and it quickly stops.
I look at myself in the mirror. Wild tired eyes stare back at me. My face has a greyish cast to it. Did I sleep? The words and images from the story are a jumble with what I remember from before. They won’t straighten out. Was it real? Was any of it real?
I turn on the cold tap and get the same grinding as before. My hands are shaking and a roaring, thumping fills my head. Get a hold of yourself! A splash of water on my face brings back some kind of poise. No-one’s here to see me like this. I can take a moment or two.
I shut the door and sit down on the toilet. Here in this little room I’m safe. Whatever happened before doesn’t matter, I’m awake and I can see all around me. This is all happening, the throb of my mouth as the cut dries, the wetness of my fingers, the seat under me. My breath, in and out, in... and out.
In... and... out.
I wait out the storm. Let it calm and subside. Only then do I start to think about what I read and what I remember. This time I concentrate on the words, the things said and described. The shells, the broken weapons, the chafing skin, they all fit with what’s in the house. If the story is fiction, it’s elaborate and woven with references to things I have seen in the house. The little comments about things and visiting people match my memories too. They all make it feel like I’ve discovered an explanation.
My Grandfather is more than a thousand years old.
I’m laughing at the thought, the peels come instinctively, bursting out of me and opening the wound on my lip again. Quickly the laughter becomes a dry cough and I’m back over the sink, retching uselessly. My stomach growls to remind me I haven’t eaten since yesterday. There won’t be any food in the house.
I run the tap again and wash the drool from the basin. I can’t stay here. Maybe I should just drive away?
No, I can’t do that. Not when I’m so close.
I open the bathroom door and go back into the bedroom. I pick up the book and return to the dining table. The pencil is in the same place, along with my inventory.
I glance at the broken window. The view outside holds no surprises in the morning light. I can see uncut grass and dull grey clouds.
I sit down and open the book, going to the part I remember reading last night before the stone broke the window and examine the next two or three pages. The story picks up where I left it, but not in a nice neat summary. Instead, I find detailed family trees, little sketches of people in the margins and annotations all over the place. I flip back over the bits read and see none of these additions. Good, at least I’m not completely mad.
I hear a voice and glance around. It’s coming from outside. I can’t make out words, but I definitely heard it. I’m on my feet and nearly out of the house before I even think about it and stop. What if I’m being—
No! I need answers!
The door handle is wet and slips in my hand, but that barely slows me. I hurry around the house to the right, until I’m standing in the grass opposite the window.
“Mister Bradley, I know you’re out here. You threw the stone into the house last night,” I say loudly and wait.
I look about me. If there’s a person hiding, then I don’t know where. Grandfather’s fenced garden is overgrown, but around it are flat fields, with little else. I listen to the sea and the cries of seagulls. I glance that way and hear the voice again, elusive, like a conversation you’re too far away from to make out, but you know you’re being talked to.
There is a crash, I turn around. Someone is in the house, They passed me as I walked outside. They’re in the front room— no, now they’re by the dining table, where the book is.
I’m running back to the door, I fling it out of my way and tear through the living room to confront him. He’s facing me as I enter, his cap on the table and a cold sweat on his balding brow. The book’s in his left hand, his right outstretched as if to ward me off. “No-one needs to get hurt,” he says. “I just want this.”
“Because he’ll have written it all down for you – how it all works. My need is more urgent than yours. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
I frown at him. Then I realise what he means. “You have cancer.”
“Leukemia actually, but the outcome is the same. I have five months to live. Your friend here has the cure.”
“His curse is not a cure, it won’t help you.”
“Trained medical practitioner are you?” His face reddens as he speaks. He’s angry and desperate, trying to justify himself. “Breakthroughs like this need to be examined in a laboratory, under proper conditions!”
“I agree,” I take a step forwards and he takes half a step back, keeping the table between us. “Look around you. Do you think this is the home of a scientist? My grandfather was an eccentric who loved the sea and old things.” I lower my voice. “Living with what you have must be hard, but this isn’t the answer.”
His shoulders slump and his gaze flinches from me. I make a choice and move around the table, putting my hand on the book. “This is mine,” I say.
His expression hardens, he snatches it away and grabs the collar of my blouse, pushing me back against a cabinet by the wall. “You think I don’t know about the shells, the presents and all that? I even remember you, Cordelia, sitting there with your fatuous smile, so sure of yourself as the chosen one!”
“Chosen one? What do you mean, I didn’t know anything I—”
“Yeah right, of course you didn’t!”
His hand is on my neck, his grip tightens and I’m struggling to breathe. The voice is loud in my head, demanding, urging, even though I can’t understand the words. I reach behind me and my fingers get hold of one of the shells, a big one. I pull it out and bring it down on his head with all my strength.
The shell shatters against his ear. He grunts, his glasses fall off and he drops to the floor, releasing me.
There’s blood on the carpet and the table. Bradley is lying slumped amidst shards of something that once lived in darkness and water. A tough and brittle outer skin, ancient and discarded, now broken in the aftermath of new purpose. All those years waiting and growing for both of us, to finally meet and become part of the same purpose at this one moment in time.
I run outside.
I hurry away from the house, across the field to the cliff edge. The sea is right up against the rocks below, foaming as it crashes against them. In amongst it all, I see a man, naked, swimming. He looks up at me.
He’s paddling in the surf. The waves could take him at any moment and smash him into the sharp stone cliff-face, but he doesn’t move away, he just looks at me.
It’s a thirty-foot drop at least into the water. I could die from the fall alone, but the answers are down there, waiting for me, my Grandfather is there. He can’t come back, not after last night. He wouldn’t survive on dry land anymore, he’s too far gone. If I want answers I have to go to him.
This is the danger Dad warned me about. They can’t make the choice for me. I have to choose for myself.
I kick off my shoes and take the last few steps to the edge. The mud and grass is warm under my feet, but that isn’t the feeling I crave. I yearn for the sea, the salt and the spray. Somehow I know I always have.