by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
The key was a problem. One of his worst dreads was losing his clothes while he was in the water. Flitting back home naked in the dead of night was not so daunting as the thought that he wouldn’t get in without his key. The former notion was an exciting challenge – but the latter didn’t bear thinking about.
He had an idea. Slipping the key from his key-ring, he felt in the gloom for the piece of string he knew to be there on his mantelpiece. Now he was able to knot the key round his neck. The solution to that problem stiffened his sinews to attack the remaining ones. Stripping off his pyjamas he wound a towel round his middle, meaning to dress over it. The risk of being stopped by a policeman was bad enough – but it would be ten times worse to be carrying a bag – even if that bag held nothing but a towel. A towel without a bathing costume…? That would lead to questions he didn’t want to answer.
He cast the towel aside. He was thinking in a box again. The pilgrims at Lourdes were never able to dry after they’d bathed in the sacred waters. Their clothes simply went back on. People who’d been there said it wasn’t too bad. It soon stopped feeling cold and damp and didn’t spoil your clothes. The watchword for a skinny-dip was feasibility, not comfort. So that solved another problem. Amazing that the sacred things he knew could help him plan for something profane.
Nor did he need underclothes. Drawing-on his old clothes over his bare skin felt deliciously obscene. It was the very fact of wearing underclothes all the time that made it so nice to leave them off occasionally. If you habitually went around in a single garment, swimming trunks, or running shorts like he used to do at Scout camp, the thrill passed off and it soon felt normal. It occurred to him that much of the use of conventionality – never going down to the beach at night, always wearing underclothes – might be to heighten the pleasure of an occasional lapse.
It was comforting to realise that conventionality had such sound underpinnings. Maybe he oughtn’t be so quick to disparage it.
Another of his worst dreads was being spotted through the lace curtains and reported to the police. The fine used to be Forty Shillings – according to the odd enamel sign one still saw screwed up along the front line. It was much more now – something like forty guineas. It would break him. It would bring shame on his family. There would be an article about him in the local paper. Maybe not on the front page – somewhere deep inside. But people who knew him would sniff it out like a truffle and gleefully point it out to each other…
Alan Hall, of The Green Man, Prince’s Terrace, was today fined forty guineas for gross indecency arising out of an incident on the seafront at 2 am when there was nobody about. Pc Bloggs reported seeing a naked figure creeping down to the water’s edge by moonlight. When cautioned, the accused was alleged to have replied…
What would he reply? He felt himself burning with shame when he considered the consequences. His contemporaries were incensed by the existence of such laws. “When we govern the country,” they used to say, “we’ll get shot of all this nonsense!”
But he thought of John McNab. The story of a man whose doctor’s prescription was to go and steal a horse – in a country where horse-stealing was punishable by death. He didn’t fancy the Middle East, so he did the next best thing and poached game in Scotland. He even wrote to the laird beforehand telling him what he was going to do – which ensured that the gillies would be out in force looking for him.
What about putting a small-ad in the local paper? –
Alan Hall, a fine upstanding young specimen of manhood, proposes to bathe in the nude somewhere along the Seagate seafront on the night of Saturday the Eighth of July …
A super idea! All police leave would be cancelled!
He could hardly have known that somebody else’s nude swim in a country estate that very same day was fated to have global repercussions. Ones which would touch him personally.
When all these forty-guinea laws were repealed, he considered – whatever would happen? A lot of compulsive disorders with perfectly harmless outlets like public indecency would suddenly enter an acute phase – possibly a florid one. Perhaps more people would go around killing victim after victim, blowing themselves up in public, letting off poison gas in underground stations – things like that. Just to get some transient relief from their chronic condition.
He was in a funny mood that night. He tiptoed down the stairs without a creak and silently locked the front door behind him.
There had been scarcely a breeze at home, but it was blowing strong on the seafront. Strong enough to support him like a hammock as he leaned back in its warm embrace. He glanced up and down the wide promenade, eyes open for the black figure of a policeman standing in a shop doorway. There was no one in sight. He climbed down a flight of cast-iron steps to the beach, feeling the pebbles lodged in its square holes pushing up the soles of his sandals.
He could hardly hear the crunch of his feet on the shingle for the hiss of the wind. The sea was wild. As wild as the feeling in his lights. Creeping into the clammy darkness of a granite groyne, he felt the wind die down in its lee. The groyne descended from head-height to knee-height as it sloped down towards the sea.
He stopped and began to unzip his windcheater. The residual breeze plucked chords of sensation on his flanks and nipples.
A voice behind him! He jerked round. At his feet the shadows congealed in a dark mass. The condensate spoke again. “Sorry, did I frighten you?”
Alan squatted on his haunches. “Yes, you did a bit. I wasn’t expecting anyone here. Are you sleeping out? On a night like this?”
“Why not?” said the voice, which Alan now made out to be female. “It’s cheaper than a boarding house.”
“It’s so wild…!”
“But it’s not cold.”
Alan had to agree. The wind, though vigorous, was benign.
“What are you doing here?” said the girl. “Are you looking for a place to bed down too?”
“I came for a dip in the water.”
It was the girl’s turn to be surprised. “But it’s so rough!”
“I’ll be all right.”
Alan considered moving on down the beach to give them each back their privacy when she said “I’ll look after your clothes.” Hesitantly he slipped his windcheater off his shoulders and shed his old corduroys, first turning round so as not to flaunt his manhood. Once naked he stepped back into his sandals to negotiate the pebbles.
At the water’s edge he shed his sandals and placed them on the groyne. He wondered if he’d ever see them again, for the waves towered above his ears and dashed pebbles over his feet as they plunged head over heels onto the beach. Picking his feet up high he sprinted into the water.
…to be continued.