The evening I die, the moon is shining like an old-fashioned cola bottle top, squashed metal set deep in the endless purple nothing. The light reflects off the water and my lips taste of salt and garlic and ash; the grilled sardines we’d eaten overlooking the harbour still sitting a little too high in my old belly. I’m glad of the wine though.
Dutch courage I’d joked, though it was in fact Italian. A rich Sicilian red – or so the label said. Velvet and vanilla. Cranberries and crayons. A bottle and a half did the trick regardless. Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can and wine to accept the things I can’t. Somebody said that once. Either way, I’m cut enough not to feel the brisk kiss of the low-season wind slicing through the bay. Cut enough not to feel much of anything at all, thank God.
Lilly enters the water first, her dress mushrooming around her waist and revealing the great white sag of her bare behind. And oh, what an ass. Not the puckered and pock-marked thing breaking the surface now, a half-deflated swim ring, worn out from a lifetime of carrying others. That’s not what I see. No. I see a girl a quarter of her age, with a sway in her hips that has nothing to do with scoliosis or arthritic knees. How did we get so old, Lilly?
I chase the waves down the shore, skipping like a scared teenager in love – which of course is precisely what I am beneath the silver hair and varicose veins – that same green kid flinching as my wife reaches out to touch my shoulder across the decades. She calls to me from the sea, her voice a bowl of honeyed gravel from a lifetime of small talk. And the cancer.
-Come on in, it’s like a bath.
She smiles and the years vanish, the sky splitting open just like it did that very first night, spilling the moon and all the stars into the water below.
-Some bath, I say, but I wade out to meet her anyhow. She slips her hand into mine.
We’ve been planning this trip for years – forever maybe. I was stationed here in the early Sixties, though I did little during my National Service but practise building and blowing-up bridges for eighteen months. One way or another, I guess I never really stopped.
Naturally it was a little different back then; nothing but a few fishing boats and the birds for company. All the fishermen have gone now, displaced by the high-rise hotels that metastasise along the coastline. Day-trippers with their all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets and their by-the-hour deckchairs. Still, that’s the marvellous thing about cataracts. The world behind me is a blur. There is nothing left but the ocean. And Lilly.
The water is up to my armpits before I attempt to swim. It’s been years, and for a while I don’t think I’m going to get afloat. The clothes aren’t helping either. I’d thought to kick off my shoes on the shore, but I kept everything else on for fear of the cold. Now though, my dinner jacket is in revolt, the tails tangling around my legs and weighing me down while my shirt billows up around my face, threatening to suffocate me in a cloud of easy-care cotton. I wrestle with my dicky bow until eventually Lilly paddles over to help me. And suddenly I’m back at the morning of a job interview a million years before, Lilly taking the tie from my jittering hands and expertly re-looping it before reaching up on tiptoe to land a soft kiss on my cheek. Telling me I had nothing to fear – it was a sure thing. And nothing has changed. Nothing. Only now, it’s both our hands that shake.
I gift the tie to the tide then shake loose the jacket and my trousers too, slithering free like an ancient snake shedding his skin. Reborn. I attempt to take Lilly’s hand again, but the waves are stronger this far out and I’m scared I’ll be sucked under. I follow close behind her instead, her strokes a delicate dance compared to the wild thrash of my own ruined legs. But I keep my head up and my chest puffed out, pushing forward until I can no longer feel the jagged rocks beneath me when I pause to catch my breath. Out of my depth.
Lilly stops too, and we bob there the two of us, treading water. The shore is nothing but a string of pearls now, and I realise for the first time how far we’ve come. It’s quieter out here than I’d expected, no crash of waves, no roar of wind. It’s almost an anticlimax, as if the world can’t be bothered to rise to the occasion. Lilly turns to me and smiles.
-Did you see that young couple on the beach earlier?
-On that beach? I say, nodding towards the darkness. I’ve started to shiver now that we’ve stopped moving
-While we were having dinner. They had a little dog with them. A Pekingese I think.
-I didn’t spot them.
-They looked so happy, walking arm in arm. Everything in front of them. They could have been us.
-Except we never had a dog, I say.
-That’s true, says Lilly. We never had a dog.
My hand searches the water for her, slipping through layers of material until it finds the small of her back. And oh God there’s nothing to her; the skin stretched so thin my fingers splay between the clefts of her spine, everything open and exposed, like the carcass of a roasted bird. We turn and swim into the night without a word.
Everything has been planned to the last detail. Even though it is only Wednesday, the room is booked until the end of the week. We didn’t want to cause any more trouble than is strictly necessary. We have ordered breakfast to be brought up first thing, so our absence will be discovered swiftly. Who knows, maybe they will be able to rent the room out early and double their money? On the bed the concierge will find two letters. The first is open: a simple explanation in English and Spanish along with a list of contact numbers. The second is addressed to our sons and contains all the relevant legal paperwork: wills, insurance, repatriation forms, as well as spare keys to our house and car. I have no doubt they’ll take care of everything efficiently. They’re good boys after all.
The water is choppier the further out we go, the shore obscured altogether now as we submit our frail bodies to the precipitous peaks and troughs. I try to stay close to Lilly but it’s hopeless, the waves tossing us around like the ants we are. Soon I am alone, unable to tell the sky from the sea. I am lost. My muscles burn from the exertion of fighting the inevitable, my breaststroke nothing but a feeble scoop. I swallow water, flounder, drown. Panic sets in, but with no real ambition. I scramble hopelessly for something to hold onto before a final, giant wave rolls over me. I am going down.
I am eight years old, lying face down in my backyard. I have been playing on a rope swing that my father built for me, an old tyre slung over the widest bough of a splintering apple tree. The swing has been a source of great tension in the household, with my mother branding my father irresponsible for building the damn thing and banning me from even going out into the garden while it was set up, lest I should slip and fracture my skull. But I have disobeyed her and crept out. And of course I have fallen, though in truth the only thing fractured is my pride. Still, for some reason I have chosen to lie here perfectly still, playing dead. I wait to be discovered by my frantic mother, who a few minutes from now will run outside and scream and cry and curse my father with a dozen words I’ve never heard, before my fraud is revealed and I am very nearly beaten to death all over again.
But right now it is that waiting time, a limbo between living and dying. I breathe very gently through my nose so as not to give myself away. I can smell fresh dirt and cut grass. Somewhere, two or three gardens away, a radio plays, though I cannot tell which song. And the sun beats down and warms my back. And the lawn is alive with earthworms and beetles and things that crawl and I scrunch up my mouth and pray to little baby Jesus that one will not make its way into my ear and build a nest. But I do not get up. I do not move. I just lie there in that little pocket of eternity, waiting for the sky to fall.
I don’t understand what is happening at first. Out of the blackness, there is a speck of light. For a moment I think perhaps it’s ‘the tunnel’, that for once all of those soppy Hollywood writers were right. But then the light expands and I realise it’s that squashed metal moon rushing towards me, growing bigger and bigger. I sense for the first time a tugging under my armpits, a pair of strong hands hooking under me, hoisting me upwards. The surface breaks over my head and I am thrust into a world of roaring violence.
-¿Está vivo? ¿Está vivo?
I cough and bring up half the ocean onto my lap. More hands reach forward, a blanket is draped around my shoulders. Gasping for air, I look around to find myself surrounded by a huddle of thickly bearded men, their eyes wild with concern. I have been saved by fishermen, of all people.
-Toss me back, I say. Toss me back. But the words are little more than a rattle in my chest and cannot be heard as the men whoop and smile and tussle my hair. For they have saved a foolish tourist from drowning – they are all heroes tonight.
And as the boat is turned around and a course set for the mainland, one of the men breaks out a flask of Orujo and passes it around. I shake my head when it reaches me, shuffling along the bench to face the sea. The moon has vanished behind a cloud, the oil burners on the little trawler all but erasing the outside world. I keep watching anyway, the white crests of waves scratching the night like static. I mouth a word under my breath, two syllables, repeated over and over. A promise, a prayer.
About the Contributor
Liam Brown’s debut novel Real Monsters was published in 2015 by Legend Press. It was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary and longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Award. His next novel, Wild Life, is due out in June 2016. He lives in Birmingham, England.
Beastings - Benjamin Myers
One of the best British novels in recent years in my opinion. Myers captures the terrible beauty and crushing isolation of the Cumbrian fells as a mute girl is stalked across the unforgiving landscape by a psychopathic priest. A sense of loss permeates nearly every page of this stark gothic fairytale, which builds steadily towards an unforgettable, fist-chewing finale. A must-read.
More from Issue Four:
- Ghosted by Max Dunbar
- Daisies by Sadie Nott
- Rasp by Hazem Tagiuri
- Greenwood by Clyde Liffey
- Exit Vania by Myriam Frey
- Cwtch by Jane Roberts
- Starfish by Lorette C. Luzajic
- Awshukh; Disease by Dipika Mukherjee
- Gabriel by Hannah Stevens
- Footprints in the Snow by Louise Mangos
- Changing Rooms by Ian Dudley
- Crow-Light by Sean Burn