The world was silent apart from the rumbling of a distant ocean that could be heard at night when all was still and people were mostly asleep.
The old man wriggled in the worn chair looking for a comfortable position. He rubbed his face with his tobacco stained fingers enjoying the raspy sound of stubble on his cheeks. Smoke rose from an ashtray at his elbow and his sleeve dragged coffee stains across the scarred desktop.
Somehow he had taught himself to use the mouse on his computer backwards so the "tail" pointed at his wrist. The mouse clicked quietly as he scrolled through dozens of entries. A low fluorescent light hovered over the keyboard illuminating the surrounding clutter of dirty cups, magazines and sheets of paper covered in scribbled email addresses and a dusty travel clock. Cables trailed off into darkness. In the daylight the cables would be seen leading to an old printer, a flatbed scanner and a digital camera as well as speakers, all partially buried among piles of sketches.
He clicked open the software package for building websites and looked into his Nocturnal Emissions file. He (I) had created the site for those nights when sleep was impossible and he was alone with his thoughts. He wasn't always comfortable admitting he was recounting his memories so the stories were always told as though he was making them up.
It had taken a lot of soul-searching before he decided to chance revisiting the memory of that night on a lonely beach on the east coast of Australia but it was a good tale and he enjoyed the knowledge that there was mystery in the world
Old Man of the Sea
It had been two o’clock in the morning when he decided to go beach fishing on the North Entrance Peninsula. The North Entrance Peninsula is a narrow spit of land that faces the ocean on one side and a lake on the other. It is virtually a sand dune with a small town down the middle, a bridge at one end and a road out of the other.
He had gone onto the beach to face a boiling, storm-swept ocean. The waves were pounding in and ripping the beach, tearing the sand a yard deep along its entire length. It was a moonless night and the peninsula was in the grip of a gale.
Old injuries made walking difficult and he was tired by the time he had travelled from the dark parking area on the beach-front. He knew it was pointless to attempt fishing but his body ached and it made him stubborn. He had built the rods himself and the pleasure of handling them and setting them up almost made him forget he was being whipped by gusts of biting sand-laden wind. He picked up his big beach rod, cast the bait and a heavy sinker into the darkness . The handle was placed into a sand-spike about ten feet away to the side of the spot he had chosen to sit his gear. He did the same with his second rod, a big, graphite, multi-tapered spinner.
The tide was well on its way to high for the night and he was being driven back as the beach was chewed away at his feet. He remembered constantly shifting his gear to keep ahead of the waves. There was no chance of catching anything. He couldn't even guess where the channels were to cast into them. It was a primal thing that kept him there. He was disabled, hobbled to the limitations of his body and the storm was a primal exhilaration that lifted him out of himself!
His face had begun to stiffen from the windblown, salty-rime when he saw a figure approaching out of the darkness. A tall, stiff-legged man materialised from the north and came slowly along the stormy beach. The fisherman had shone his torch onto the fishing rod as the newcomer arrived. The stranger walked up and stopped beside him as though they were friends who had been meeting by some arrangement, yet saying nothing. They stood side by side, looking out to sea like that for some time.
The cold was cutting through his clothes and burned into his aching joints. In his bag among the boxes of hooks and spools of spare line there was a thermos of strong coffee and if he was alone he would have groaned aloud with relief when the torch illuminated it's squat plastic shape. The lid doubled up as a cup and he was shivering as he splashed coffee in a wide arc trying to hit the opening.
The fisherman turned towards his silent companion and still cupping it for warmth offered the steaming cup.
The companion leant in towards him so they were almost cheek to cheek and asked, ’Are you offering me your drink in your only cup?’ The old man had answered, “Yes”. “And before you yourself have had any?” He had replied. ”Sure, that’s just being polite.” The stranger smiled and leant back saying, “The good Mulloway (a large sportfish) are out there.’ and pointed to the boiling ocean. The old man had laughed and nodded, “Yup, right out there”.
Calmly, as though addressing a child the stranger said, “No, you have to stand on that sandbank and cast outwards”. He pointed to a faint silvery streak in the boiling ocean. “Right about there.” He insisted. The old man recalled smiling patiently and looking at him to see if he was joking.
The stranger’s face looked like parchment and seemed to be stretched across his mouth so each tooth was clearly defined. His eyes seemed to disappear into the shadows and you couldn’t see them at all. The colour of his skin was yellowish and almost see-through. Did he have hair or a hat? He wore breaches or pants that seemed badly made and were rimed with salt or worn to thread-bare whiteness in places. His old gumboots (Wellingtons?) were reminiscent of the rubber-over-hessian type that people used to wear long ago. They were turned down at the top. There was some reddish colour in the weave of his shirt, perhaps it was chequered flannelette. He seemed tall and was very thin. He stood stiffly as though in pain.
He looked back to the fisherman's face and said, “You have to be careful who you talk to on this beach son.” His voice was intense “Yes, he said, there is at least one man on this beach who is best avoided, he is a very strange and dangerous one.”
Having spoken, the guest seemed to come to a decision. He glanced into the cup with a look that might have been regret and cast the liquid into the sand where steam was caught against the weak glow of the torch. His body language seemed to relax just a little as he handed back the lid. They continued staring out into the sea as the old man refilled it and sipped a few mouthfuls. There didn't seem to need to be any offense taken at the waste oif a whole cup of coffee. The stranger didn't appear to expect any.
The wind was violent and they had to get close to talk. The stranger’s voice was a creaky whisper. “You are alright though, you have naught to fear. Ye are a good man and he’ll pass you bye!’ he said as he handed back the still-steaming cup. The old man had wondered how this person would know he was a good man. Why should anyone worry if he passed them by or not? Without another word the stranger turned and walked back across the wet sand in the direction he had first appeared. The old man went back to pretending to fish.
Sitting before his computer the insomniac smiled grimly as he relived the cold chill that had made him shudder and almost drop his fishing rod into the wild surf that had almost begun to claw at his feet.
The night had been dark. The stranger had been as much as twenty yards along the beach when he first hove into sight and yet he could be seen clearly. The old man had to use the torch each time he moved back from the reaching surf. He had fumbled for the thermos and it wasn’t even visible as a blob in the blackness until he lit it with his torch. Each time they had spoken, however, the old man could see the other’s face clearly, even the colour and fine detail of the skin! The stranger’s voice had been a whisper and yet he could be heard against crashing waves and gale-force wind. His eyes were in deep shadow and yet there was no light to produce shadow.
He had pointed his torch at the sand the stranger had just vacated. There were no marks apart from those left where the rod-holder was pushed into the sand. No footprints leading away. Nothing but bare, wet sand! Even with the force of the wind scouring the beach the wetness of the sand should have preserved footprints for a few minutes.
Sitting back in his chair the writer winced at the stiffness in his joints. He had oftened wondered about this event. There were a host of strange and unexplained events in his life and this was either one of the oddest or something given momentum by his imagination on a stormy night. A lot of his life had been spent in the bush or in cities at night and he didn't feel he was nervous enough about being in the dark to have begun enlarging real events into myth. He shrugged and grunted as his body complained. He had been getting better lately but not anything that could be called healthy or well. Let others decide what might have been on the beach that night, he was just relating memories as they hove into his mind and demanded attention. One's muse is not always kind.
Copyright Steve Solomons. Site by Weblight Studio (Australia)
Old Man of the Sea