by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Immediately the swell lifted him up under the armpits and swept him aloft. The Moon stepped boldly out from between the clouds, which modestly raced to close the gap. The foam-smeared sea, like a watery terrain, sloped this way and that, rolling him to and fro – a new-boy at boarding school tossed in a blanket. The elation was headier than a draft of sherry straight from the bottle – headier than the vapour from a beer vat. He felt himself plunge as the grey seas rose up all around him like an ambush in the night. He felt himself propelled skywards again, as the waters gathered beneath him like an elephant lumbering to its feet.
When the experience began to repeat itself to diminishing effect, he flailed with his arms in the direction of the lamp-lit promenade to make his exit from the water. Like a child being dandled, his feet swept the sandy gravel before he was instantly borne up again. Eventually he got a purchase on the stones and tried to scramble onto the foreshore.
It was now that the sea chose to turn from a jolly playmate into a mean enemy. A wave crashed onto his back, hurling him face-downwards on the fluidised shingle. Then, seemingly hauled back by his heels, he was dragged laughing as if on rollers into the craw of the next wave.
It happened again. And again. He swallowed bitter water and stopped laughing.
Suddenly it struck him that the boisterous sea under him and over him was apt for the taking of human life – and was maliciously bent on demonstrating its capability. Its furious rumble vanished in muffled gurglings as his head was repeatedly submerged. Fighting to the surface, lungs stabbing with pain, he snatched breaths in the spray-filled air as wave after wave smashed down on him in remorseless rhythm, like a cosh boy felling an old lady for her handbag.
A mouse in the playful paws of a cat, his fate was out of his control. But fate decreed that each stumble and being sucked back into the beak of the succeeding wave took him further up the stones than down. At last he was able to stand tottering upright as waves dashed pebbles harmlessly over his ankles. Spluttering seawater from his throat and nasal passages, he blundered over to the groyne. It seemed to have stood off a dozen yards and when eventually he reached it he leaned against it, panting his rasping way through one minute and into the next.
The last few steps across the dry stones had been like walking on knives. He felt about for his sandals. By a miracle they were still there on top of the groyne. He pulled them on, toppling painfully onto his elbow in the process. Then he dragged himself up the beach, lugging his heavy body like a sack of wet sand.
It had been an experience first of untrammelled glee, then one of panic, then acute agony. Just then the balance seemed to be in debit. But gradually his muscles came to life, his veins began to throb with blood like globs of warm honey, and he felt mighty.
The girl sounded anxious. “I wondered if you were coming back!”
“God!…” She put her knuckles to her mouth.
He dropped to his knees on his pile of clothes and rolled onto his back. “…Ahh!” The scudding clouds swept over him like a stampede of moonstruck horses and his pulse thundered in his temples.
A spark of mischief tickled him inside. “What would you’ve done if I hadn’t?”
“I’d have had some clothes to explain.”
Alan barked a single syllable. “Hah!” What would he have done in her position? Gone off without saying a word and left the clothes there? That would have been the smartest thing to do. Nothing else would have done much good. Did he really imagine she’d have run to a phone box to call out the lifeboat? Or gone looking for a policeman in a shop doorway?
Well – she might have done. He felt a twinge of guilt for putting her in that position. Slowly he began to drag on his trousers and windcheater. It felt like putting HP sauce back in the bottle.
“Haven’t you got a towel? Use mine.”
“Don’t need one. They never dry the pilgrims at Lourdes.”
“Have you been?”
“No. It’s just what I’ve heard.”
She tutted. “Come here,” she commanded like a schoolmistress, reaching for her towel. Alan glimpsed bare breasts swaying in the moonlight. Peeling off his windcheater and trousers once more, she patted him dry.
“Come inside for a warm-up.”
“What – inside your sleeping-bag…?”
He dithered. It was every schoolboy’s dream, and vain boast, but one which he himself had yet to fulfil. Now it came to the point, the idea stabbed him like a needle plunged in an inch above the navel.
Exasperated, she jerked back to rest on her elbows. “All right then – don’t.”
He snatched up his clothes and fled.
As he briskly paced home in the dark, having dressed hurriedly beneath the lofty promenade, he wondered at himself. Why had he drawn back?
Because it was wrong? Sinful? Forbidden? His upbringing held this out as a post-hoc rationalisation, but he knew it wasn’t true. At resisting temptation he was no better than anyone else. He would have succumbed – had the temptation been there. Or even the curiosity.
He knew well enough by now what flesh felt like, whether it was the cold flesh of a plucked chicken, or the warm flesh of a patient’s body. Creases and folds in the skin harboured foul-smelling dead pasty matter. If you ever came across a clean crease, well! – it had been sponged out already.
Apart from its layer of subcutaneous fat, female flesh felt no different from your own – except it gave you no sensation. Kissing someone on the mouth was only like sucking half an orange – teeth standing-in for pips. That plus a tongue emerging – rough like a nail-brush on soapy hands. The female breast was nothing but an outsized cyst, its nipple just a conical scab on the skin.
So what was so appealing about close contact with a woman’s body – beyond the big idea? Provided you didn’t ponder it too deeply or realistically? Was the allure all in the packaging and the marketing? The contents were just like detergent – “dirty-gent” a school-friend used to pronounce it. Essential. Functional. Messy. Base.
Far from doing him serious harm, the encounter – like a so-called “slipped disc” – may merely have exposed damage already present. His job, he supposed, had left him with an occupational deformity, one from which he’d never recover.
An incalculable loss? Or the absence observed of something lacking – something which never had been there?
Forget Yuri Gagarin and Vostok I. He himself was the Man in Space!
…to be continued.