Zack liked the storm, from seven floors up, cosy and warm, watching from behind a double-glazed window as the whole darkened world beneath him was ripped apart. This was the worst one of the present winter, maybe even the worst since he’d been here. How many years was it now? Seven or eight? He watched the waves rise up twenty feet above the street level and hammer down to explode against the low sea wall, drenching the cars unwisely parked along the seafront.
The heavy winter tarpaulins that protected the roundabouts and the switchback rides were flapping wildly in the wind, periodically inflating into monstrous tethered balloons as though the whole fairground were a huge breathing animal, impatient to be free. He saw the metal framed awning from a shop dart along the road to smash into the shuttered front of another business with a crack like a starter’s pistol.
He watched a rolling dustbin follow the same route, ricochet off a parked vehicle and wedge itself under the handrail on the opposite side of the road. The airborne litter made the wind a visible, tangible force, sandblasting the shops and the empty booths, breathing life and malice into every unsecured object it encountered.
People don’t think about the winter when they come to live by the seaside, he mused. All they can imagine is ice cream and candy floss and girls on the beach. As if the sea could be tamed and civilised to fit in with commercial convenience. He of all people knew that the sea wasn’t like that.
He turned from the window and looked at the white telephone on the table by the door, standing out in the gloom of the darkened room.
Strange that Sarah hadn’t called. She called him up for far less than the kind of demolition that was going on out there tonight. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe it was dead calm in London, and they hadn’t said anything on the news. He glanced at his watch. Not far off midnight. She’d be in bed by now. Had to be up early to go to work.
No, wait a minute, this was Saturday, she didn’t have to be up in the morning at all. He could phone her himself – phone her and tell her he was alright. He liked reassuring her, telling her he was fine, that he was a latter-day Superman who had coped with far worse on the Caribbean run.
But it spoiled it if he had to take the initiative. She was the one who should be phoning him, she should be concerned, not the other way around.
A flash of lightning lit up the room for a fraction of a second and cast a huge and grotesque shadow of his stooped form on to the wall behind the phone. The shadow was reaching out with one hand to pick up the receiver. It was like a photograph of his thoughts.
He counted the seconds before the thunder deadened his hearing and pounded his stomach. Five seconds. Not much more than a mile away. No wonder it was loud. The lightning bolt seemed to release a tension of some kind and a deluge of rain struck the window behind him. The storm was really getting into its stride now.
He walked stiffly across the room, mentally cursing his rheumatism, and picked up the receiver. No dialling tone. He put it down again. The lines must have been damaged. Hardly surprising really. That explained why she hadn’t called.
He glanced at the mantelpiece and noticed that the luminous numbers on his digital clock had gone dark. That could mean only one thing. The electricity lines were down as well. He clicked the light switch by the door to check. The room remained in darkness.
Slumping into his favourite chair he let his mind drift back in time. Electric storms always made him think of other electric storms, as though the flashes of energy could cut through the fabric of time and make them all coalesce into one.
He remembered the night Sarah’s mother left him, twenty-two years ago now. There had been a storm just like this. Thunder, lightning, high winds, torrential rain-the whole lot. So much noise and drama he hadn’t expected her to hear him come in at all.
But she was still wide awake. She waited until he sat down to take off his shoes-he remembered feeling guilty that he had come into the bedroom so wet, with shoes that would leave stains on the carpet-then she just said: “I’ve had enough, Zack.” It was all she needed to say. He knew what she meant. He argued a bit, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“I have to go away, Lucy, I’m a sailor. That’s what I do. I go to sea. I go away and then I come back again.” It didn’t work of course. There was too much wrong by then. The times when he was at sea weren’t the problem. It was the times when he wasn’t at sea that everything went wrong. Imagine leaving home on a night like that though. The woman must have been crazy.
He wondered vaguely what had happened to her, where she was now. Sarah knew of course but they had an unwritten agreement that they would never talk about her. It was a good agreement, it meant that they never ended up bad-mouthing one another to their daughter or using her to pry into one another’s business. Twenty-four years of marriage wiped out like a lover’s message scrawled in the sand below the high tide mark. Sensible and civilised.
His thoughts darted back through another great block of time and he was standing with his father just inside the open gateway of a giant container warehouse on the Plymouth docks. It was the middle of the day and outside a thunderstorm raged.
All work on the quayside had stopped, men were sheltering and the huge container vessels were bobbing up and down like great pistons in slow motion, straining at their moorings to be free and take their chances in the swelling rain-blasted Atlantic.
It was the moment when it really got through to him how merciless and unconquerable the sea was. “Good thing we’re not out at sea today, Zack,” his father shouted over the noise of the rain on the metal roof, “the witches might get us.”
It was part of their private language, a reference back to some foolish childhood thing that neither of them could remember, even then. But for Zack at that moment being out at sea on a day like that seemed like the most wonderful and romantic thing a man could possibly do.
“I’m not afraid of the witches,” he had answered. “I want to go to sea-the same as you, Dad.” He wondered now how his life would have been if he had never stood there with his father watching the storm.
And yet he had endured his merchant seaman career for all those years. What was it about the life that had appealed to him, he wondered? Why had he kept coming back and signing up for more? It wasn’t the work itself, or the money.
He could have worked fewer hours on a building site, put less physical effort into it, come home every night, and earned more money. No, the point about going to sea, he realised now, was the illusion of purpose that it gave to your life.
You were always going somewhere. It didn’t occur to you that it was the same place you had been to a dozen times before, with the same dockside bars, the same card games, the same cells to sober up in, the same Mission to Seamen, the same whore-houses and the same whores, and soon you would be coming back again to a domestic situation that would be just that little bit worse than when you had left it. Like walking round and round in ever diminishing circles.
A massive lightning bolt out to sea directly in front of the window dazzled him for a moment so that the dim shapes in the room vanished. Almost instantly an explosion of thunder left his ears ringing.
It’s getting nearer, he thought irrationally, maybe the witches are coming for me. Well, what if they were? What did he have to stay for?
The harshness of this thought brought a rush of sadness and self-pity. All those years when he thought he was going somewhere he was right. This was where he was going.
To a shabby retirement flat on the seventh floor of a concrete block in a South Coast resort. The company of a few clapped-out drinking companions and a weekly phone call from a daughter that he didn’t really know any more.
He could imagine her mother nagging her to ring: “Sarah, have you phoned your father yet? You promised you’d do it every week.” What did he really mean to Sarah now, he wondered?
Probably an embarrassment to be kept secret from her posh boyfriend and all those smart London media people she hung about with. A weekly duty call. That was what he had to show for a lifetime of hard work, bad decisions and the pointless pursuit of some kind of daft schoolboy dream of a life on the ocean waves.
Maybe that was it, he thought. Maybe he was just a boy who had never grown up. Peter Pan out playing pirates with his mates.
Good mates, they had been though. People who’d look after you, who’d give their right arm for you if it came to the crunch. That had been his real family, where he had been fully comfortable.
There had always been a sense of strain at home, a sense of being on best behaviour, of waiting to be pounced on for something he had said or done or left undone. A sense of never measuring up. He could feel it again now, just thinking about it.
The best time had been when Sarah was little. His baby girl. He’d only gone to sea twice in the first eight years of her life. He closed his eyes and they were back together in his old battered Ford, turning left from the road to Margate onto the track through the woods that opened out into the campsite at the end of the tunnel of trees. “We’re going into the tunnel of trees now, Sarah.
Cuddle up tight so the witches can’t get you.” She would lean over and hug him and bury her face in his chest as the sun vanished and the mighty trees bent over to clutch at the lurching vehicle.
“We’re through the tunnel now,” he would tell her as they re-emerged into the sunlight and the higgledy-piggeldy lines of caravans and ridge-tents. “I’m okay,” she would shout, releasing her grip and smiling conspiratorially, “the witches didn’t get me!” It was their private game, their excuse for the cuddle that both craved but neither felt able to ask for directly.
Another thunderbolt broke his train of thought.
He moved closer to the window and looked down. He imagined himself outside, crossing the street towards the sea-wall, clambering up the steps and over it, the sudden shock of the icy water, then swimming out to sea to meet the witches. They had been waiting there for such a long time. Why should he make them wait any longer?
The rain turned the scene outside into a smeared impressionist painting so that he could almost see the little figure that was himself rising and falling with the mighty waves, then vanishing without trace beneath them.
A life that was itself scrawled on the sand below the high tide line. No more of the aches and pains and indignities of growing old. A poker player of his experience must surely know when to fold.
The half imagined, half seen things beyond the window held him in rapt motionless attention. In his mind's eye he was watching the bleak final scene of his life.
He became aware of a sound much closer than the noises of the storm. He lifted his head, suddenly alert. Somebody was knocking at the door of his flat.
“It’s me, Dad!”
“Sarah?” He hurried to the door and pulled it open, and she ran into his arms.
“I couldn’t get through on the phone,” she sobbed.
“Have you driven all the way from London in that storm? There wasn’t any need. I’m fine.”
She stepped back and looked up at him in puzzlement.
“You? Of course you’re fine. I’m the one who isn’t fine.” She stifled a sob. “I’ve just …finished …with Clarence. I had nowhere else to go.”
She stared into his eyes and he saw the face of a hurt ten-year-old. He gently put his arm around her shoulders.
“Come, Sarah,” he said. “Get your coat off and sit down. I’ll see if the gas still works and make us a cup of tea.” He hugged her and she buried her face in his chest.
“No witches here, girl,” he assured her, smiling, “and the tunnel of trees isn’t very long. Before you know it, there'll be sun again.”
Outside the lightning flashed one more time, but it was much further away. The storm was coming to an end.
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