The stranger looked the type who didn’t stay in one place too long. While I served the other customers, I watched him drink his pint of dark ale and brood silently. He wasn’t local and we don’t get much passing trade.
Dark hair escaped from his dark green knitted hat and curled over the collar of a very shabby leather jacket. The rest of his clothes were an odd assortment; ripped jeans, well-worn cowboy boots that he must have got from a charity shop somewhere, and a spotless open-necked cream shirt. He brought a couple of messenger bags with him and kept them at his feet.
I found him fascinating, and the symbols tattooed on his hands only added to the mystery. Obviously my inspection wasn’t as subtle as I hoped because Sam, the other barmaid, started to tease me about him.
“Watching the customers again. Or maybe just Mr Mysterious over there, eh?” She nudged me while handing change over the counter.
Xander watched the bacon bits sizzling in the pan and sighed. He had to cut off the mouldy parts, since there was little else in the fridge. If he didn’t sell a painting soon, he’d be on the street. It had all been so different years ago, when he was the toast of the art world. He specialised in disturbing dreamscapes that recalled Dali but were even more fantastical. Monstrous creatures roamed his canvases, and critics loved his ‘glimpse into the eerie world of the grotesque’ as The Times put it.
Lately he sold hardly anything. The world had moved on, and it was harder to surprise the modern generation.
The ketchup bottle was almost empty too. He squeezed the last few drops onto stale bread. He spread it out in a pleasing pattern with his finger, thinking it looked like an ancient sign of some kind.
“Hmm, what was it he said on Demon Hunter? Something like congregandum eos coram me? Not that you can believe a TV programme.”
He turned to get the bacon and almost screamed at the apparition in the corner.
“No, you’re not going mad, yes, I am real, yes, you did summon me. By accident, apparently.” The creature spoke with a weary inflection to its deep, rumbling voice. It folded its huge, leathery wings with a dry, crackling sound.
People are calling my name – but for all the wrong reasons. I can’t believe you’d expect me to lay myself on the line for them. I am not the man I was. I am not as strong, as fast or as foolish as I was thirty years ago and the world has no right to ask any more of me. For God’s sake. I gave it all before, gave up my one and only love, my peace of mind. I risked everything.
Yes, people chanted my name, put my picture on magazines, even made movies about me. But you didn’t want the rest of the story, did you? Didn’t want to know how my spirit was broken. Didn’t want to hear about the nightmares that haunted me day and night. I see all those faces still. They told me it was a price worth paying.
Tell that to the ones I couldn’t save.
Yes, I got a medal from the president and a pension, but I was alone. I am alone.
So why should I come back now? I’ve had thirty years to figure out that people want you when they need you. And when they don’t need you any more, you’re dead to them. The fate of the planet lies in my hands, and my hands alone? Don’t be absurd. It’s never that simple.
Find another young idealist to sacrifice themselves. Not one of you would trade places with me, and that’s how we see the real truth. If I take on this fight now, and win, what is there in it for me? I already know what the world’s gratitude consists of. And if I try and fail, what is there in it for me? I already know the bitter taste of rejection. There are many less painful ways to die.
How dare you come here to weep and beg for my help. How dare you pretend to care about anything other than yourselves. Guilt and fear is written all over you. Save us, you cry. We are all human, all in it together. Well then.
If that is true, let us all burn together.
I deserve better than this. I have paid the price already.
I never said goodbye to my mother. By the time we realised she was leaving, we found that her body remained but her soul was already on the train. Her eyes were fixed on an unknowable, distant destination. We waved when the whistle blew, but she never looked back. Worrying away at that loose thread, I believed that goodbyes are important. So when I heard that he was going into the hospice that day, I went.
It was one of many such days. Endless activity, calls to action, demands to be met. But this call was my own, and not to be deferred. He smiled when I told him that I had to come before he left. In between pauses to catch his breath, he told me how much he valued our friendship.
In turn, I thanked him for his advice, freely given and always useful. We reminisced about past times, while afternoon sun bathed the room in a warm glow and a ticking clock provided a constant rhythm in the background.
He said he didn’t want to burden his wife any more, and shushed her murmured protests. This was the right thing for both of them, he said.
She was a strong woman, and she did not cry. She watched him with love and she smiled, because he needed to see it and she had to give him whatever he needed, now that all prayers were useless. Pain would be borne later, in private. She offered tea, but I could not delay my commitments further.
He coughed and wheezed. Joked that he sounded as if he had been on twenty a day, and I responded that life just wasn’t fair sometimes. It’s never been fair, and we shook hands.
We had spoken the truth, but we ended with a lie.
“See you again,” I said.
And he replied with a smile, “I hope so.”
We parted with a final, double-handed handshake, after which I held back my sudden impulse to hug him. It would have felt like surrendering to the inevitable. When all seems lost, the tiniest shred of hope is the only thing left to us, and we cling to it lest we drown.
He was tired of fighting, and he faced his future calmly. Intangible and yet absolutely present, the word we would not say hung in the air like smoke.
I sat at a window table in the coffee shop waiting for my perennially tardy friend Clare. I’d come to expect the text saying she was running late two minutes before we were due to meet. I didn’t mind though. I got the first round in; a large latte for her, apple and elderflower tea for me, and millionaire’s shortbread to share. She’d be along, and I could people watch while I waited. Usually it was a chance to daydream with the hum of early Saturday morning as a soundtrack.
The slam of a car door outside rang through the entrance as a patron came in. The dark haired woman stormed off, pulling her shoulder strap over her head. Her blue bag bounced on her hip and she dodged other shoppers with grace and speed. As she approached the coffee shop her frown was obvious, dark brows lowered and jaw set.
Her companion caught up in a few long strides, grabbed her wrist. She spun round, shook her hand free. I sipped my tea and watched the back and forth. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, clenched his fists at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of drama.
My phone buzzed again. Clare was running really late, so I finished the shortbread. We could always get another. Meantime this silent altercation had drawn me in.
He opened his palms, placatory. Her shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. There was a brief pause. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she’s losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms. Roll credits.
She walked away. He watched her go, then called out. She hesitated and stopped. I held my breath. She turned back and I saw her face clearly. She bit her bottom lip, nodded fractionally and walked up to him. The wind tugged at his light hair as she cupped his face between her hands and brought him down for a soft kiss. The tension in his shoulders relaxed and he reached for her at the exact moment she stepped away. She gave him a small, sad smile before leaving without looking back.
The man still stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving off.
I was still wondering about them even after Clare rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel. At least that could easily be fixed.
Maybe truth is stranger than fiction but life is not a fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.
(A video uploaded to YouTube shows a woman, her face in shadow, speaking directly to camera. A soundtrack of wave sounds accompanies her words.)
Curfew has been in effect for some time. We didn’t think it could happen here and many people openly flouted the rules. Until James Beck vanished and never came back. He was the first. We were all more careful after that.
The news is always cheerful, telling us things are getting better and our leaders are making great progress with diplomatic approaches. Just carry on with your lives. Be sure to be indoors by ten o’clock. Everything will be just fine.
The dream came occasionally at first. I thought I was just pining for old times, wind in my hair, sand in my shoes, melting ice-cream licked from my fingers. Nostalgia for a rose tinted past in a grey present and uncertain future. It was always summer, warm but not too hot, the sea rippling deep blue under azure sky. There were no clouds.
Upbeat news fills monotonous days, yet my night world sparkles with sunbeams on gentle waves and the drowsy heat of midday. They tell us not to worry. We don’t worry; we lie alone in bed staring at the dark and hope it hides the monsters.
I must go down to the sea again. My sister used to recite that poem over and over until the words lost all meaning. It comes back to me now, the soundtrack for my wide-eyed nights and my eventual dreams of summer. They are long in coming, but now they come most nights.
I asked Daniel to come with me, but he said he was too busy and anyway, we’d risk being out after curfew. It’s just one time, I said. I won’t ask you to go again. He said he’d think about it.
Once I upload this message, I’m going back to the beach. I know what I will find.
The sky will be a hard, pitiless blue. The sea will darken, and pause for a moment before a brilliant flash. And the sky will flower with a thousand suns, and the last cloud will rise.
If anything remains of us, know that some remembered summer.
These entries were made by Bard Loren, and discovered after her disappearance. In addition to the journal, she uploaded over 15 dozettabytes of data, which will greatly offset her tragic loss on this unsuccessful mission. This is her legacy. May she walk with two shadows.
Journal entry: 147.15.1
This is a place more wondrous than I ever thought to see with my own eyes. Everywhere is green.
Bright colours flash and call above me, I think they are called ‘birds’. All around are things I cannot name. But I must try to name them, for that is why I was chosen. I am the foremost Bard of Novaterra, and I swear on the twin suns this is no idle boast. I store the images in my digicodex for later analysis back on board. All those nights in the archives, imprinting lost languages and reading the history of the Founders have come to this.
I have my epicsongs composed and ready, to share with the good people here. This is the greatest honour, to see our origin planet, and save any who wish to leave it.
I confess I hardly recognised this place from the files. The Founders recorded how their home stagnated, torn apart by war that followed desperation when the skies turned grey, the waters rose and land became scarce. That is why they turned to space. We have made the journey of these few light years much quicker than they.
But I did not say it was easy. It is cold in the space between stars, and no place for humankind. We were relieved when the planetary beacon guided us safely to the docking station. Although it was entirely unmanned, this did not surprise us. It is hardly necessary to waste human toil on such a routine task.
I must rest. Solar days are shorter here, and there is only 0.2095 oxygen in the air. No doubt a good 18 hours of true sleep will help wash away the lingering effects of hypersleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.2
This place is magical. Despite the warnings of the cyberdoc, I removed my helmet today. The air is quite breathable although I am gasping and sweating as I press on through green vegetation, towards the last recorded location of a sizeable humankind settlement. I am both excited and apprehensive. Will they understand me, and I them? Do they have their own, ancient culture to share with me? Will they understand the concept of a Bard?
I carry our history, our thoughts and ideas coded in organic memory storage. Perhaps they do not have the necessary interface and holo-display, but we carry these on the ship. The rest of the crew have stayed on board, broadcasting on all frequencies, but I wanted to experience this world first hand. Darkness caught me unawares and I had to return to the ship. More tomorrow.
Journal entry: 147.15.3
I asked the cyberdoc to enhance my performance, and grudgingly it performed a small gene splice. Now my oxycytes are more suited to the stronger, bluer sunlight here. Sol is much closer to Earth than our twins Novasol 1+2, and we have adapted over the generations. Oxygen is abundant at 0.2547 on Novaterra, and I really feel the difference. It was predicted of course, but to actually feel it- that is another thing altogether.
Captain Marish does not like my wandering. She only tolerates it because I am a Bard, and therefore expendable. But I am bringing back valuable data, and I upload my digicodex each night before sleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.9
I discovered today that my blood is dark red now. Maybe this is unwise, but I have discarded my Exosuit. I found liquid water running on the surface! This I know is a key characteristic of Earth, but to see it, feel it, taste it. I walked into the water to understand it better, but slipped and fell. I cut my hand on a mineral formation beside the water, and watched in wonder as dark drops welled from the cut and dispersed into the liquid water. I keep saying this, but you have to see it to believe it. No mining, people can actually live on the surface here! Amazing.
Journal entry: 147.16.3
I have not encountered any humans, but have recorded many types of lower animals. Marish tells me that all is in the archives, but what does she know? The Academy does not encourage questioning, and after all I am the one who has spent more than fifteen twin-sols studying Earth.
I find myself out of step with the crew. They refuse to come out of the ship, and my sleep cycle seems to be related to Sol’s movements.
But the things that are not in the archives are marvellous. Where the trees thin out, Sol’s yellow rays are warm on my skin. My breathing is easier now, and I carry skinbond for minor injuries. At night, I see unfamiliar stars that do not appear on my maps, and there is a single moon.
How could the Founders have considered this place so terrible that they journeyed across the stars to find Novaterra? It seems utterly beautiful to me. Oh, the epicsongs I will compose when I return! They will be the stuff of legend.
Journal entry: Sol 16
I have decided to use solar dates from now on. It makes more sense, and when I stay out overnight in a pod I get a little disoriented keeping to Standard Time. I came across the strangest thing today. (Image attached). I will research these metallic structures in the database.
Journal entry: Sol 21
There has been no response to broadcast and the Captain wants to move on. The metallic structures are manmade, and they were some kind of primitive transportation. They all point away from the settlement co-ordinates in a long, unbroken procession. There are no humans, anywhere. Are they hiding? Did they flee, and if so from what?
Journal entry: Sol 35
I have uploaded all my data. I cannot find the settlement; it is as though the earth has swallowed it in green. But I have Sol warm on my skin, rich scents as yet unnamed and the taste of liquid water on my lips. My skin grows pinker each day, and the only grey is beneath my unisuit. I feel strong and I am happy. I cannot convey to you the joy I feel when I hear the birds sing, and I leave that to another, better Bard than I.
Meantime, I have taken the interface and holodisplay, and some supplies. When I succeed I will activate my beacon. I am sure that no one would willingly leave a place like this, that the Founders would surely have called “Eden”. My search for humans goes on, for I must find them.
I thought I was over you. It’s been a while now, and they say time heals.
They don’t say how much time.
I got a new phone. It was a good opportunity for a clear out, you know, out with the old, all that. Anyway. I should just have hit delete all, but I’m always careful, don’t want to discard something important. So I listened to all the messages, clicking through, delete delete.
Your voice caught me by surprise. Your tone was sad, asking me to call back. I didn’t remember ever getting the message. Listening again, it sounded like you really needed to speak to me. Whatever you had wanted, obviously it could never happen. I’d sat in the front pew, blinded by tears. Grief swallowed my voice and I couldn’t sing for you one last time. That broke me even more.
I deleted that message.
Then the messages started, from an unknown number. They were crackly and unclear, but your voice was always there.
I deleted them all. They kept coming, though I changed my phone again. One day I heard you on the landline answerphone, and my heart stopped, for a panicked moment. I threw out the answerphone.
It felt like going mad.
After a while, I started to wonder. Were you really trying to contact me? Nobody has ever proved communication from the dead, and I certainly didn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. But. What if it was you, trying to pierce the veil from the other side?
The idea took root in my mind, and I stopped deleting the messages that popped up on my voicemail. I listened to them over and over, your almost-words teasing me.
I ran them through voice analysis software, trying to make out your words. Sometimes I thought it was just you breathing, but with distant singing and static. Waiting for me to reply.
I have so many things to say to you.
I have a brilliant idea about the source so I bought a ham radio and I’m combing the frequencies. I’m certain that if I tune in right, we can talk again. There’s a lot of wavebands to cover, but nothing is more important than this.
I will devote all the time we didn’t have to finding you. No matter how long it takes. I already know what song I will sing.
WINNER OF THE HE BATES SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2016
Sean wiggled his toes and felt tiny grains of sand slip between, insinuating themselves under his nails and scouring his skin clean. The familiar sensation calmed his jittery nerves, and he decided to sit and wait. The boat was nowhere in sight yet, but it would soon come. No sense in stressing over it, and who could be stressed under this warm sun, with the sea stretching away to the edge of the sky? Sean placed the heavy rucksack carefully on the sand and sat next to it, creaking a little. He burrowed his feet into pale sand, adjusted his wide brimmed hat and watched waves come and go.
The first day he saw Valerie, she joined his lunch table. She sat opposite and of course didn’t speak to him, chatting to her friends instead. He joined in the conversation but she paid him no mind. No matter, he thought, there will be another day.
Over the course of many lunchtimes, groups of colleagues gradually bonded as their Venn diagrams first overlapped and then coalesced. The bright sun of her smile lit up dark eyes and skin and drew him in, inexorable as gravity. When eventually he asked her out, he held his breath awaiting her answer. Her words sparked a flame in his heart, and her smile was the only thing he saw.
He brought her to the strand where he had grown up, playing fetch with a series of childhood dogs long gone. “I’m going into the water,” he said, stripping as he spoke. Valerie looked doubtfully at the churning blue grey waves, far away over pale sands. “You’re crazy. You’ll die out there, or get exposure or something.” She zipped her jacket right up under her chin. “Don’t think I’m coming with you. I only do warm tropical waters.”
“Oh, I know that. Wish me luck.”
He smiled and kissed her, taking a little sunny warmth with him, and ran headlong into the cold sea. She waved and watched him swim for a few minutes. When he emerged, shrunken and tinged blue, she pulled the blanket from the beach bag and waited.
“You’re an idiot.” She wrapped him up and rubbed his back while his teeth chattered. “Maybe, but I’m your idiot.” He pressed his cold lips to hers, and when he pulled back she watched his face crease in a smile.
“The sea is in your eyes,” she said, but in answer he shook his head.
“No, don’t be silly.” Sean pulled on his shirt and she handed over his sweater. “Tell you what, I need to put some coffee in my stomach. Warm me up a bit.”
They held hands walking back to the car, then found a café on Wexford Main Street where they sat a while over steaming mugs, letting the colour return to Sean’s pale cheeks. Valerie dragged him into the jewellers’ shop after that, where she picked out silver earrings set with deep blue lapis lazuli. She liked to have a souvenir from the places she visited. He stood by, in the shop he had never really noticed on a too familiar street.
Back in the English city where they lived, far from the water, Valerie wore the earrings sometimes and Sean remembered the strand. He had escaped its narrow reach, but now and again he took her back to the cottage where he grew up. His mother cleared the spare bedroom for Valerie, and fed them potatoes, cabbage and corned beef.
On their way back from the pub one night Valerie stopped in the middle of the lane. She squeezed Sean’s hand and looked in amazement at the deep blue sky sprinkled with stars. “Wow. This is too fabulous. No light pollution, and look! You can see the Milky Way here. I love the stars so much.” She gazed into the sky, transfixed, and he saw the wonder of the heavens in her eyes.
He knew, then.
In Tenerife, Valerie and Sean sat on fine sand, the sun warm on their skin. The travel agent had warned them that the beaches were black, but they didn’t care as long as it was hot. “Anyway,” she pointed out, “the sand may be dark but it still sparkles when the sun catches it. You just have to look closely.” She let a handful slip through her fingers and scatter on the wind, and he had to agree. It was easier to spot pale seashells where they nestled among dusky, glittering grains.
She bought silver earrings shaped like crescent moons in a little shop behind the main street. He held her hand tight and gathered her up into a warm embrace that smelled of her rose perfume, of safety and love.
The boat approached, and Sean picked up his rucksack and sandals and waded out to meet it. The boatman chatted about weather over the sound of the engine, and the hurricane that had devastated the neighbouring island the year before. Sean relaxed as they talked about anything and nothing important, and the boat slipped out of the bay.
The sea here was turquoise and blue, and he could see clear to the bottom. It was nothing like the angry, snot green sea that had lashed the strand the day Sean asked Valerie to marry him. The storm came in fast and brooding grey clouds touched the sea. Rain soaked his bare head but he felt only anxious excitement. Down on one knee, yes, all that, the ring in a blue velvet box and their black Labrador frolicking around them.
He was back in Wexford, but he was not yet home. She was what he sought, and his heart swelled again when she rushed into his arms and kissed him over and over. Between each kiss, the word yes.
Later, Valerie sat under a huge umbrella while he went down to the water’s edge. She was careful to keep their daughter in the shade, and the toddler clapped her hands in delight when her Daddy returned. In his hands he bore the seaside in miniature, and he sat Anya down with the bucket. She fished around in the bottom and drew out sand, and a shell. But the shell held a surprise, and she dropped it in shock when a hermit crab popped out. Sean picked it out again and showed her, and Anya forgot her tears in her fascination with its tiny waving claws.
The pale sand of Puerto Pollensa Playa was quite the equal of more exotic beaches, with sun sparkling on the blue sea of the bay. They would return many times, until the children were old enough to let Valerie wander the shore gathering shells, just as she had on a Caribbean beach long before. The children squealed around her as shells grew legs and scampered back to the sea.
Sean watched her emerge from the shallows, his dark Venus, a child on each hip and still, that smile he knew so well. They were both transplanted, yet no place seemed foreign as long as they had each other.
Much later again, Sean and Valerie walked a Norfolk beach in wellies. They buttoned their coats against a cool wind, accompanied by another black dog running in and out of the water and three reluctant children, dragged from their phones and consoles to the outside. Valerie strode ahead, as if wanting to be alone. There were no shells, but in any case he saw her head was up. She was not looking for them. Sean brought up the rear, and the distance stretched between them, filled with children and work and accumulated grievances.
They had their house, far from the sea, with her beachcombing finds lined up dusty on a shelf. They had their family, their dog, their shared life. They had all the beaches they had seen together, but Sean felt oddly misplaced again, as though he were once more the immigrant in search of something he could not find at home. Home was slipping away, fading and less substantial the more he tried to grasp it. The sun was permanently obscured by clouds, and a chill fell over them.
One by one, the children left to pursue their own half-seen dreams. The dog and the house grew quieter, and in that space he sought her again. Sean and Valerie went back to Norfolk, and walked side by side this time, talking. He took her to brochure worthy beaches all over the world. On Whitehaven beach she laughed when she heard the brilliant quartz sand actually squeak underfoot. In the Australian desert she gazed with delight at Jupiter’s rings, seen through a telescope. In Mauritius he presented her with the most perfect conch shell he could find, pressing it into her hands and closing her fingers around it with a kiss.
In their white linen bed she sighed when he held her close. Once more she said, “You really do have the sea in your eyes. It’s not a tropical sea, but still lovely to me.”
He did not disagree this time. Instead he smiled and kissed her again, soft and sincere. They crept back towards each other cautiously, remembering all the seas and beaches and storms they had shared, and he was safe again.
Sean asked the boatman to stop his little craft some way from the shore. The boat bobbed on the surface, and despite his hat Sean felt sweat bead on his forehead. He took off his sunglasses and rubbed one hand down his face. It was so peaceful, he could almost believe he was alone. He missed the sound of waves on the shore, but this was the time and place.
Sean pulled the jar from his rucksack, and then felt around for the blue velvet pouch. He took them out in turn; the lapis earrings, the crescent earrings, the shells and smooth worn pebbles she had picked up, the pretty pieces of broken coral he had gathered for her when snorkelling. Without her, they were random objects, and he cast them into the warm sea in tribute and watched them sink out of sight. Their fate was no longer his to decide.
When he leaned over, her wedding ring swung on a gold chain round his neck. He tucked it back inside his shirt, reassured by its warm weight against his skin. Under the impassive gaze of the boatman, Sean uncapped the jar. He swallowed hard.
“I brought you back to tropical waters, just like I promised.” He turned the jar over and spilt the contents. The ashes drifted away on a warm breeze, and melted into the blue green sea.
He fought the lump that came to his throat, but nothing could hold back the sea of tears that blinded him. The boatman thrust a tissue into Sean’s hand, and he wiped his eyes. He stared out at the sparkling horizon and its promise of adventure in distant lands until his vision cleared, and his heart stopped trying to follow her.
“Take me back,” he said, his tongue thick and dry. “And thank you.” Sean replaced his sunglasses and sat down, clutching the empty jar to his chest.
“No problem, man, no problem at all. We go home now.”
Back in England, Sean sold the big house and named a star for her. Though Valerie would not see it, he knew she would have loved it. She had always said that rituals are for the living, not the dead, and he was both amazed and comforted to find himself smiling at the thought. He had left home, and found a home, and he did not think any beach would feel like home again. But she was in the stars and the oceans, and one day her treasures would wash ashore cleaned and tumbled, waiting to be found.