god moving over the face of the waters

I don’t write many short stories, but I did one on request for Off the Record, an anthology put together by Luca Veste, in which every story was based on a song title.

I also did a story for the second anthology, Off the Record 2: At the Movies, where the stories were titled after films. You can read my contribution, 9 Songs, to that here.

Together, the books form an admirable project, as every single penny of profit from both go to literacy charities, here and in the US. Luca and Paul are to be congratulated for putting so much work into something entirely selfless, and it’s a testament to their efforts and enthusiasm that so many writers were prepared to give them stories for free.

I already posted 9 Songs. I’m posting this earlier one now. It’s quite short, and I’m not sure what to make of it; people who have read a couple of my other books will recognise the fear of drowning and the sea. Regardless: here it is. Both Off the Records are still available, by the way. They’re priced cheaply, and they contain a huge number of excellent stories. Buying them can only make the world a happier place. So, if you like this and 9 Songs, and want to read 84 more stories that are even better (for less than £3 in total), then you know what to do…

 

God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters

 

The night before, I walked the coastline.

I didn’t set out until after midnight because I wanted to avoid the search parties. At that time, the sky, the sand and the sea in between were identical shades of black: indistinguishable except for the moonlight that caught the ridges of the waves, and a prickle of stars overhead. The beach itself was invisible. Pebbles crunched beneath my feet, and then that sound faded to the steady push of packed, wet sand as I approached the water.

Everyone feels small when they’re facing the sea. It’s the open horizon, I think, and the realisation of how unimportant you are in the grand scheme of things. It’s like standing on the edge of an alien world – or perhaps like staring into the face of God, and accepting how incomprehensible He actually is. How little he cares about you. Assuming He even deigns to notice you at all.

The sea noticed me, of course. I felt it in the rush of hiss and retreat, and the sudden waft of ice in the air as it came rolling up the beach at me before pulling back its swift, foaming fingers. The water feathered impotently around my shoes. If I ventured in then it would take me without hesitation, of course, because that is what it does, but right here I was safe.

I squatted down and flicked at the sea.

The contempt in my message was clear, and I heard a deep, chained-dog rumble from out towards the horizon: an angry folding of faraway water that longed to reach out and take me but couldn’t.

A moment later, the smell of coconut filled the air. The contempt in the sea’s reply was equally clear.

“Fuck you,” I told it.

Then I stood up, hitching my rucksack higher for comfort, and started looking.

*****

The first coffee of the morning curdled.

I stared down at the tatters and shreds of cream on the surface. The milk was in date, so it was probably something else. Perhaps it was the rucksack, which rested in the corner of the kitchen now, stinking of fish and rot. Whatever it was, I tipped the coffee away and made a fresh cup, this time without milk.

It was a little after eight-twenty. Through the window, the sky was white as mist. I took the coffee out into the cold morning and wandered through the shivering grass of my back garden, then opened the gate in the chain-link fence at the bottom. There were a few boulders out here, a short incline, and then the beach.

I sat down on one of the rocks, wrapping my hands around the cup for warmth. Beyond the beach was the fluttering, blue-grey sea, with gulls wheeling overhead like flies. The water was still half-asleep right now, but grumbling to itself. Bruised – but too dozy for the moment to remember why.

I hoped it woke up soon.

I hoped it saw me up here and knew what I’d done.

In the meantime, I sipped my coffee and thought about Anna.

*****

People often wonder why I never moved.

Sometimes they even ask me outright. The place must be so big for you now, they say. It must contain so many difficult memories. And, surely, it’s painful to wake up every day, after what happened, and see the sea out there?

They don’t know anything, these people.

*****

By the time I finished my coffee, I’d spotted the helicopter: a tiny orange speck hanging over the vast expanse of horizon, the fluttering chop of its propellers dull and insignificant, barely there. Down the beach to my left, a group of indistinct figures was moving steadily along.

I sloshed the dregs from my cup onto the rocks in front of me.

The sea had come to life a little by now. It was still groggy, and finding it hard to pull itself slowly up the beach, but I could sense the muscles it had: the tendons below the surface that were clawing this enormous, heavy thing up the sand towards me. It knew what I’d done. Eventually, it would tire and wash itself away again, drained of energy. But for now, I enjoyed the sight of God struggling and crawling before me.

I’m not afraid of you.

Despite the disparity in their physical power, the group of figures would reach me long before the sea did. Six policemen, with orange jackets over their normal uniforms, feeling their way slowly and uselessly along the braille of the coast.

Hague, of course, was one of them.

*****

Eight months ago, a little boy went missing off the coast here. It’s a familiar story. He was on the beach, playing with his older sister, and he went out too far into the waves. You just can’t get away with that here. This stretch of coast is notorious for its unforgiving currents, and you’ll find few, if any, locals willing to swim in it. By the time the little girl alerted her parents, the boy had been swept out to sea and was presumed drowned.

Hague was involved in the search. He walked the coastline with different volunteers for a period of two weeks. He knew the boy was dead, of course, but finding the body was important to him. Not understanding the whims of the sea, the parents held out hope – and would no doubt continue to do so until their son was found. So Hague walked the coast, seeking closure for them.

I watched him, day after day.

Finally, in the second week, I walked with him.

*****

As they approached now, Hague’s expression was grim. The others actually looked the same; I supposed searching for a dead child could do that to you. It was as though they’d passed around an emotion to wear before heading out this morning, like Vaseline at an autopsy.

I heard the scuff of their boots on the sand.

“Jonathan.”

Hague nodded as he drew to a halt in front of me, his fellow officers grouping behind.

I nodded back. “Morning.”

“It is morning, yes.” Hague looked over my shoulder at my house. “It is that. But not a good one. You’ll have been following the news?”

“A little.”

“You’ve heard about Charlotte Evans?”

Yes, I had. Ten years old, but she looked younger. Her photograph had been on the news the past few nights: curly blonde hair and plump, sun-red cheeks. She wouldn’t look like that anymore.

“I saw something on the television.”

“It’s been three days now.”

“That’s bad.”

“Real bad, yeah. So it’s not going to be a good result. But we’re walking the shore for her. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

“I don’t think you’ll find her.”

I probably said that too quickly, but I realised that I didn’t care. He was making me sad – this man who always kept looking – and I wanted him to go away.

Hague inclined his head. Looked at me curiously.

“You don’t?”

“You know what the sea’s like around here,” I said. “It happens, and it’s awful. But I think that she’s probably gone.”

“Well, maybe.” He frowned. “Maybe not. People have a way of turning up in all sorts of different places. Don’t they?”

“Do they?”

He looked at me.

“Sometimes they do. They sure do.”

I heard the fluttering of the helicopter alter slightly as it angled away. Behind the police, the sea was making steady progress up towards us. For a long moment, Hague and I stared at each other. And then the spell was broken. He came back to life.

“Well, I guess we’d better get moving. You keep your eyes open, Jonathan. Let us know if you see anything.”

I nodded. As they headed off, I watched him talking into his radio, and I knew that he suspected. Something at least. Something that was too alien to make any real sense to him.

That’s the way it is though.

In my own way, I’m as incomprehensible as God.

*****

Eight months ago, when I volunteered to walk with Hague, it had been out of frustration. Every day, I’d watched him trailing alone along the shore, knowing the whole time that he would never find the little boy. I’d wanted to make him understand. Or maybe, more simply, I’d wanted him to stop.

At some point, as we walked, I tried to explain the truth of the matter. The little boy is gone, I told him. Because that is what the sea does. It only takes. It never gives back.

We stopped walking.

“Not necessarily.” He looked at me strangely, then shifted gears as empathy took over. “I mean, I know we never found your Anna, but we looked. We walked then. I mean, I – ”

And I missed the rest of what he said; memories washed the words under. Her soft, brown arms, clear beads of water clinging to her skin. The tangled dreadlocks of her wet hair. The coconut scent of her suntan cream. And then the look of fear on her face as the sea’s strong fingers circled our waists and pulled.

Swim.

Jonathan – swim.

Her screams, after we were separated, the sound of them slashed into pieces by the waves.

The last I heard of her.

I interrupted him.

“It would be wrong, wouldn’t it?”

“What?”

“It would be wrong. If it got to choose.”

“Jonathan…”

“No.” I should have noticed how uncomfortable Hague had become, but I didn’t – or else I didn’t care. “It wouldn’t be fair. If it took Anna and didn’t give her back, for no reason at all, why would it be different for anyone else? Why should it?”

Hague stared at me, helpless, not knowing what to say. Eventually, he gestured at the sea: a motion that didn’t need accompanying words. It’s chance, he meant. Chaos. It must make sense on some unfathomable level … but we can never understand. You have to let go. Accept. Like so much of life, all we can do is walk the shore in the aftermath, hoping.

Take whatever scraps are thrown our way.

That’s what he meant. I shook my head in disgust and walked away from him, not looking back. But I felt his gaze following me as I left. I don’t know what he thought.

I do know that after our conversation Hague stopped looking for the little boy.

*****

Later – after I’d put the stinking rucksack at the far end of the cellar – I went outside again and made my way down the beach.

The police and helicopter were gone now, and the sea was retreating. I spent some time following it down, stepping on its angry edges. If I was swimming in it then it could and would take me. But the beach and the coast were mine. It needed to know that.

“Fuck you.”

I knelt down and flicked at the water with my fingers.

And I told it that it couldn’t choose people and single them out. I wouldn’t let it – and I didn’t care if it was angry about that. Here, on the cusp of incomprehensibility, we would meet each other halfway or not at all. It could decide what it took; I would decide what it gave. And if it wouldn’t give me Anna back then it wouldn’t give anyone anything.

“Fuck you if you think she’s going home.”

As I stood up and walked away, I sensed a groan in the faraway water behind me: a melancholy whale-song of sound. The scent of coconut oil followed me as I made my way back up the beach. But there was no contempt in it this time. I understood deep down that, out of all the dead it held, it was simply giving me all it could find of her now.

I didn’t acknowledge it. The sea was giving me all it could, but I kept my back to it and walked to my house. And perhaps, in its own alien way, it was unable to understand why that wasn’t enough.