from A Sense of Loss,
Gay Men's Press, 1993
This story should be familiar to anyone who knows the story of the
I dropped anchor a hundred yards from shore, weary yet reluctant to be
near land once more. I do not know how long I had been at sea. Weeks
certainly, months perhaps. Sailing slowly round Africa, I had glimpsed
the continent from afar but never wanted to approach; there was pain
there and I bore too much pain of my own.
I had last docked in an Asian port where the gleaming yachts of the rich
turned their backs to the juggernauts of commerce strung out along the
opposite shore. My barque with its triple masts and yards of rigging was
out of place, a symbol of values and origins that my neighbours could
not identify. But, when I wish, I am courteous and for a time I was
welcome as quiet host and thoughtful guest. There is, after all, a
common language in such places - the grammar of wealth, the vocabulary
of currency and commodity, the accents of clothing and custom. But I
soon tired of self-absorbed businessmen, their middle-aged wives and
uncertain and arrogant children. And so one night, on impulse, I pushed
back from the pier, slid out into the sound and hoisted sail in the
shadow of a passing tanker.
I chose the small harbour at random. Balking at the English Channel and
the memories that lay beyond, I found myself sailing aimlessly through
the Irish Sea. On the west coast of Scotland I thought I might find the
illusion of tranquillity. So I pulled out an old chart and plotted a
course past an outcrop where boulders lurked below the surface like
animals in the jungle and over a sandbank that was passable at high
tide. It was early dawn and the shore lights winked in loneliness as I
watched the clatter of the anchor chain. When the sails had been stowed
and decks cleared, I looked round the bay at the handful of small boats
bobbing with quiet dignity, heard the cack of a seagull and the growl of
a distant car and went below to sleep through the day.
In the early evening I rowed across to the beach, haled the dinghy over
the pebbles above the highwater mark and entered the bar that beckoned
like a lighthouse. Two men were playing darts; behind the counter a
woman in her forties replaced bottles as a tall and dark youth in his
early twenties poured me a whisky with a quiet greeting. I thanked him
and took the glass to a corner of the room where I sat and watched the
Locals drifted in, nodded at me and greeted each other in accents as
thick as my own. It was a small community, indifferent to strangers, and
I welcomed the fact that they left me undisturbed. An hour passed before
a quiet voice broke through the silence I had drawn around myself and
asked if mine was the newly-arrived yacht. My eyes focused on the
bartender picking up glasses from the table in front of men and I
answered yes if he meant the triple-master. "It's a lovely boat," he
said in the local lilt. "Where are the rest of the crew." Dead, I almost
replied. "I handle her alone." He looked at the tired, aging man before
him and smiled, polite and disbelieving. How long was I going to stay? A
month, I said, maybe more. Here? he asked. I nodded. But why? For peace
and quiet, I said.
At closing time I watched the customers drift away. My drink waited, for
I was in no hurry to return to a berth where I might not easily find
rest. The young man came over with a beer in his hand. "Do you mind if I
join you?" he asked. I shook my head, surprised that he did not want me
to leave. "There's no hurry," he reassured me. "The law knows we don't
serve after time and Mother" - his head tilted towards the woman behind
the bar - "lets me clear up in my own time."
There was a silence that neither of us wished to fill. "You're from
here?" I asked eventually. "Aye, but I've been away. Came back, like you
for peace and quiet." There was a softness in his voice that suggested
vulnerability, yet deeper strength. His eyes were dark and his
expression serious. We talked for a little about the village, the nearby
farmers and the fishing that had died. There were tourists in summer,
English, Americans and Europeans who slept upstairs and filled the bar
with their enthusiasm and questions before driving on to Oban or Kyle.
He wondered where I came from, where I was going. I answered politely
and he let the matter drop. "It's a beautiful boat," he said. "I said it
when I woke. I've never seen one like it before." I asked if had sailed
and he told me of days spent on his father's smack, or weekends on a
rich friend's yacht. "I'd love to have my own boat." His longing hung in
At last the room and our glasses were empty, the conversation at an end.
At the door I thanked him for his company, stood in the street for a
moment letting my eyes adjust to the dark and made my way over the beach
to the outline of the dinghy. As I pulled away, I saw his silhouette
watching, eventually turn and go indoors. The windows stayed lit for a
moment and then only the streetlamps marked the shore.
An hour later, as I lay in my bunk, the nightmares began.
The months at sea had allowed me to forget not their existence
but their intensity; once again I lay helplessly buffeted by my
past and future, by the women I had known and the woman I had killed,
by men who had sailed and died with me, by hurricanes and becalmed
seas. In fear of my life, my soul, yet knowing both were long since lost,
I sat up and lit the lamp to banish these visions. Yet all I saw as
I stared across the cabin were the hundreds who bayed for my life,
all I heard were the agonies of the damned and all could feel were the flames of hell. Against my will and again and again I kissed her lips, held her breast, lifted the knife, saw the blood surge, protested my innocence rather than a repentance I did not feel, heard sentence pronounced and set sail to struggle against storms within and without for year after endless year.
The light of dawn brought calm and I slept exhausted through much of the day. A voice hailing woke me and I peered through the porthole to see the young man from the bar balancing in a motorised dinghy a few yards away. In irritation I pulled on clothes and made my way up on deck. On seeing my mood and dishevelled state, he apologised. "I didn't know you were asleep. I just wondered if I you needed any provisions."
"I haven't taken stock," I lied.
"I brought milk and bread and eggs, stuff like that." He gestured at the cardboard box beside him. "I can take back anything you don't need." I did not want the obligation of payment or gratitude, but I have learnt that kindness is better received than refused. So I welcomed him aboard, took the box down to the galley and offered him the hospitality of alcohol or tea. Cups in hand, we sat on deck in the warmth of autumn sunshine, watching the waves and the anchored boats apparently abandoned by their owners, the distant headland with its stubble of grass.
After a time he asked if he might look over the boat. Of course, I said, standing up, glad to play host to an honest guest. I showed him details of the rigging, the stowed sails, where sheets and halyards were coiled. Again he amazed that I could handle her alone, that all was so neat and clean. Below, he peered into my cabin, with its bedclothes strewn across the floor, and the crew's quarters, neat, prim, untouched. The oil stove and the brass taps of the galley he saw as quaint, the sextant and compass as fascinating. "And your stores?" "Here," I said, sliding back a door, and he stared at rows of packets and tins in languages he did not recognise and I had forgotten.
Back on deck, in another lull, I asked where he had been and why he had come back. Glasgow, he said, to help his mother. I sensed the same reticence in his words, the same avoidance of truth, that he no doubt sensed in mine. We talked then of the sea and of the world, but whatever had happened in that city, in his past, had scarred him, for he spoke not with the aspirations of youth but the pessimism of age. Yet his tone was friendly, undemanding and cheerful and in the conversation and silences that accompanied it I heard the echo of a calm and peace that I had not known for many years.
"I have to be going," he said eventually, unwinding the painter that yoked his dinghy. "Are you coming over this evening?" Probably, I said. I watched him row with steady, solid strokes as he had watched me the night before. It was already dusk, the streetlamps were lit and brightness shone at the windows of houses. I think he waved from the pier, but it was too far to see and, suddenly tired, I turned and went below.
That night I sat again in the bar, my neighbour a man like many who have strong opinions and a strong belief that you wish to hear them. His words washed over me, leaving only the residue of his insecurity, the aftertaste of emotions that had shrivelled in the furnace of an overactive intellect. My attention wandered, found nothing to cling to. The young man I now saw as a friend smiled but was too busy for more words than welcome. For a time I watched not him but his mother, wondering if it was from her that her son had inherited his patience and politeness. She was a handsome woman, with generous hair that had once been blonde and
features complimented by the lines of middle age. But as she moved from counter to bottle to till, listening to one customer while serving another, glancing over the room to see who had arrived and where they stood or sat, she did so with more efficiency than warmth. I looked for, but could not see, kindness in her eyes, affection in her smile.
The other women in the bar were even further from my desire.
Two teenage girls with boyfriends sat in tight coloured clothes that missed the mark of fashion; a grandmother, a local character, chaffed all in hearing; wives sat with men in the posture of many years of marriage.
There was none that I would want to talk to, none who would want to talk to me.
I closed my eyes and thought back over the monotony of the past years, saddened that I no longer knew what kind of woman I wanted, what kind of woman could love me.
When first I set sail I was frantic, seeking out every woman in every port I docked.
I turned first to the beautiful for, although in middle age, I still confused physical attraction with perfection, smiles with sympathy, the surrendering of virtue with self-sacrifice.
Yet my predicament did not allow me to ignore women who were unattractive, women whose youth had given way to character, women whose dishonesty was as apparent as their cosmetics.
So I wooed each I met with an ardour that at times was close to violation.
Some were flattered, others bewildered, not a few were hostile.
I pursued them regardless, interpreting against all evidence their every gesture in the light of my own desperation, defeated only when they fled my company, when their menfolk challenged me, when the nightmares had become incessant and drove me back to sea.
Over the years, unwillingly, I came to understand that such behaviour was selfish and self- defeating, a repetition of my earlier crime. I tried then another course, turning from pleas of passion to pleas for sympathy, plainly stating my past and laying bare my future. A rare few responded with pity, that most captivating and destructive of emotions, but with most all that my honesty engendered was laughter at my presumption, disgust at my crime or disbelief at my words. And so each time I spoke, I would watch my companion carefully, waiting for her eyes and heart to grant the absolution that would set me free, but all that I saw, again and again,
was the abyss that forever separated me from the human race.
Eventually I resolved to court no more. For, I realised, whether I spoke as an ardent lover or a repentant criminal, it was not my companion I wanted but the peace she represented. No matter which path I pursued, whether I acknowledged my situation or disguised it, the rejection was the same. For many years I despaired of ever finding freedom. But then, I argued, perhaps my greatest hope lay not in my own persuasion but in others' altruism. And so I began to treat women with the same politeness as I addressed their fathers, brothers and husbands. Some indeed, finding me handsome yet distant, sought me out and I spent many pleasant hours in their company. Yet when it seemed that intimacy was at its intensest, when affection had earned the name of love and the moment had come to tell my story, I would do so, only to see each, abruptly or on reflection, withdrawing from my life and leaving me alone with the sea and my vessel once more.
Although I could never become indifferent to my fate, with the passing of time, I began to accept it.
I allowed myself a succession of mistresses who saw me as no more than an eccentric but undemanding seafarer and in their company watched the unfolding of history.
I saw the seas explode with ships and trade and violence and the wilderness retreat from the aggression of cities and industry.
I became distant, omniscient, no longer surprised by any human action, no matter how foolish or cruel.
As clearly as through glass, I could glimpse through one person's boast or another's demurral, through a lover's promise or a child's plea, the brutal fears and desires that lay at the heart of individual lives.
Yet if I turned my glance upon myself, my vision failed; there was no clarity, only a heavy, dark blur of emotions that I could never identify.
For a week I did not return to the bar, preferring the memory of its company to the company itself. I stayed on board, cleaning, doing unnecessary repairs, reading and writing. Twice I rowed to the headland and tied the dinghy to a rock on which other boats would have quickly broken, before climbing to the peak to survey the coast and distant hills. There was a calmness there that I welcomed, a sense of age and peace; apart from the streetlamps in the village and
the grey tarmac that threaded across the landscape, I reckoned the bay had looked little different when I was young.
My young friend rowed out one day, concerned at my absence and the thought that I might be unwell. We talked a little as I thanked him for his solicitude and ignored the opportunity to invite him aboard. Disappointed but not offended, he smiled as he rowed back and I wondered for a moment whether the disruption would have been more welcome than the solitude. Eventually, however, I ran out of petty tasks, found my mind with nothing to distract it from fear of the nightmares ahead. And so after dark one evening, as a westerly rocked the boat and worried the sea, I wrapped myself in woollens and waterproofs and made for the shore. The bar was half-full, the young man, working alone, greeted me, and, with the whisky I had come to enjoy, I settled in a seat by the window.
It was towards the end of the evening that I noticed the tension between my friend, clearing a table, and two young men of similar age sitting with their girlfriends nearby. There were words I only half-heard and a sudden movement which made him spill the contents of a glass. As he reached over to wipe the beer away, the comment "Keep your hands off me!" pierced and silenced the conversations around.
"I've no intention of touching you," my friend said in quiet tones.
"That wasn't the case a couple of years ago. In fact," the youth stood up, "I've never given you the reply you deserved."
The fist was ready to strike and no-one was prepared to protest. I did not doubt that my friend could defend himself, but before I could think I found myself shouting "Sit down, sir, and behave yourself!"
The shock of the authority in my voice caused the aggressor to hesitate while the surprise from the rest of the crowd dissolved some of the tension. "Who the hell are you?" he asked uncertainly.
"It doesn't matter," I replied, "but I see no point in fighting."
My friend, carefully, moved away.
"But you don't know what he did." There was a disagreeable whine in the voice.
"No," I admitted, "but it obviously wasn't murder."
"Probably nothing he didn't want," a voice came from the crowd. Suddenly there was laughter, of both amusement and derision. Not quite understanding, but aware that the danger had passed, I sat back in my chair. The stranger sat down, red-faced, and started talking to his companions in words I could not hear. My friend took dirty glasses to the bar, served the next customer. The old woman beside me shook her head and I learnt that the aggressive young man was known for getting drunk.
It was only when the bar closed that its caretaker was free to come over. "Thanks," he said. I shrugged my shoulders; "I didn't do anything."
"You made things easier for me."
I noticed his tension, but could not tell whether it was from fear or rage. "Are you all right?" I asked.
He nodded. "More or less, but I've been expecting something like this."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a private matter," My expression must have said something, for he added, "but if you want to know..."
I was curious, but did not wish to listen in the anonymity of the bar. So I suggested he lock up and we row over to the yacht, where a quarter of an hour later we sat in the warmth of the cabin, rocked gently by a night breeze. In comfort and privacy and encouraged by alcohol he relaxed and began to talk about himself.
He had lived all his life in this part of the world, moving to the village from the nearby town when his father had bought the bar a few months before he died. He had not been unhappy, but in his teens a desire for companionship had grown too strong to be satisfied by the few other youths he knew. So one day he had gone to Glasgow, staying first with an aunt and then with friends he made in the city. He had looked for and found work, but had sought with greater eagerness the friendship that he desired. At last he met a man ten years older than himself, an architect, a traveller, someone with wit and wisdom.
They had lived together for two years when the older man fell ill, a lingering, wasting illness from which he died. So my friend, burdened by an anger and sadness that he could not resolve, had returned home because there was nowhere else, he said, that he wanted to be.
"But the boy who wanted to fight you," I asked, "how does he fit in?"
He looked at me as if astonished by my naivete. "Years ago I wanted to make love with him."
For a moment the words did not make sense; when they did, it threw the story of his friend in Glasgow into another and truer perspective. We stared at each other in silence. I had an image of his body naked against another man's; the idea was repugnant and I pushed it away.
I knew that there were men with these desires, had known them in my crew. But I had always seen their actions as impelled by drunkenness, perversion, the absence of women, acts which reflected the instincts of animals, not the tenderness which men and women share.
"I thought you understood," he said, seeing my hesitation.
"You were in love with this man?" I asked. "As I..." have never loved, "As I might love a woman?"
"Yes, I loved him."
"But a woman..." The words died. I realised to my surprise that his expression, his tone, had suggested a more honest and therefore deeper love than in all my years I had ever achieved. "But men and women are so different." My words were weak, said nothing of what I intended, and as I heard them I realised how irrelevant they were.
He smiled. There was another silence. I stared across the table and saw a man much older and wiser than he appeared. Floundering between distaste and lack of understanding, I held back words that would only reveal my ignorance. Reaching for the bottle, I filled my glass, offered him more but he refused.
"I've told you my past," he said. "Now it's your turn."
I pretended not to understand.
"What aren't you telling me?"
I could neither lie nor tell the truth. "Many things," I said.
"This boat," he said. "The crew. Where you came from. None of what you've told me makes sense."
I closed my eyes, naked, exhausted, afraid.
"Just how old are you?" he asked.
I looked at him. "Old. Much older than you think."
"How old?" he repeated.
I told him.
He sat silent for a minute, then shook his head. "I don't want to believe you. But I do." He looked down at the empty glass in his hand, finally glanced up. "Tell me about it."
I did not want to, afraid that he would understand too little or too much. Nor had I ever told my story to another man. But his stare was a plea for honesty that I could not refuse and behind that lay the promise of a temporary catharsis. So, slowly, and with none of the anxiety and flattery that had accompanied the tale each of the
hundreds of times when I told it to a woman, I took him back to my
house in Amsterdam, to my wife, my crime and my doom.
I spoke slowly, listening to my words before I uttered them, offering only facts and rejecting rationale and justification.
He asked no questions, listened with no other expression than sympathy, so that at times I wondered whether he had heard or understood.
"All these years," was his only comment.
"All these years."
I felt drained. There was another long silence into which I sank in gratitude.
"Do you..." he eventually said.
I held up a hand. "Don't ask. There's nothing more to say." And although I wanted the subject never to be mentioned again, I knew that that was impossible, that it would always be between us.
The silence returned. Eventually I suggested that we go up on deck to look at the stars. Caressed by the wind, he stared up at the Plough. I silently greeted Orion, wondered whose ships sailed around him. Bringing my gaze down,
I saw the string of streetlamps waiting for dawn, heard the lapping of the waves marking the passage of eternity.
He wanted to speak, but did not know what to say. "I have to go," he said at last. "Will
you row me back to shore?"
I wanted him to neither go nor stay. "Keep the dinghy," I said.
"You can come for me tomorrow. I'm not going anywhere."
He looked up as I threw the painter down at him. "Thank you," he said, "for everything." I watched his silhouette until it merged into the darkness and went below to sit in the empty
For a week it seemed that the nightmares abated, reverted to no more than unpleasant dreams.
I spent more time ashore, not only in the evenings, sitting in the bar, but during the day, exploring the countryside around. Twice my young friend borrowed his mother's car, driving me past compact woods and stark mountains, nervous sheep and sullen cows. We visited the town where he had grown up, and the sight of crowded pavements and illuminated shops, of
parents and children, of couples young and old, so moved me that I had to stand aside,
to calm my breath and hold back my tears.
In the bar I had become familiar and others became familiar to me. It was a quiet
community, similar to many others where those who were energetic left and most of those who
remained were content with their lives. They saw me as others have often seen me, a man with
money but no direction, politeness but little charm. Thus I found I was left alone by those I
did not wish to speak to and only spoken to by those who had something to say.
My friend spent more time on the boat and I welcomed his company. Twice we sailed out
into the sound and I let him set the sail and take the wheel. He had the ease of experience, eye
forever wandering from the top of the mast to the compass to the bow, a light touch on the
helm that kept us tightly to our course. It was then that I saw him smile, not only the mouth,
but the dark blue eyes which broadened and shone.
We talked often, sometimes about the most trivial of subjects, the weather or the best way
of cooking eggs, more rarely about our past and the paths that had brought us here. He had a
tact which some never achieve and which in others only comes with maturity but which in him
was innate. His questions were quiet and delicate; the answers I gave revealed more of myself
than he understood. In return he talked of his short life and the man he had loved. I listened,
as if to a symphony from which some harmony was missing, trying to bring the together the
deep emotion he described with the image, brutish and coarse, of the two of them naked
together. And when I heard the description of the man's death, a thin body unable to breathe
sinking into extinction, I mourned not for the corpse but the young man he had left behind.
One night a new vision shocked me from the sleep I had come to enjoy. In the court where I
had been condemned I watched my friend accused of my crime. As sentence was pronounced
he stared into my eyes, wondering why I would not speak. Awake, helpless in my bunk, I
followed the crowd that hounded him to my ship, saw him stand helplessly, rigidly, on deck as
my crew cast off, watched the vessel sink into the night, his eyes never leaving me for as long
as they could see. The scene repeated itself again and again, sometimes with the skeletal figure
of his friend pronouncing judgement, sometimes with my wife laughing at me from the crowd.
And each time I was caught between the horror of his fate and the horror of my silence.
Dawn brought peace and a few hours of rest. I was woken by his arrival, clambering on
board without the permission he no longer needed. He looked down from the deck and saw my
expression, the books and belongings that I had stumbled to the floor. "I'm sorry," he said, "do
you want me to go?"
I remembered I had offered to take the boat out again that day. "No," I shook my head.
"I'm all right."
He waited until I had dressed and recomposed myself and joined him above. It was a
perfect day for sailing - blue sky against which a steady wind drove clouds across sea and
land. He stowed the bag he had brought and the box of fresh provisions, brewed coffee and
came back on deck. Towing the dinghy, we tacked south out of the bay, then headed towards
the islands that lay on the horizon. He stood at the helm as I sat out of the breeze in the
õ 7 .3 Scockpit. Standing tall, with the wind ruffling his hair, he resembled one of the heroic mariners
of fiction rather than the squat, disfigured men with whom I had always sailed.
"I could do this forever," he said.
I did not appreciate the remark.
His look almost made me apologise. "I was serious," he said.
"Then you don't know what you mean."
"Yes, I do." He fell silent as he corrected our course. "I mean not going back. I mean
taking this boat and sailing it out into the Atlantic as far as it will go. I mean being your crew
for the rest of my life."
For a moment it seemed as if the vision of the previous night was continuing, but no, this
was a reality that I could to a small extent influence.
"You still don't know what you mean."
"I do," and there was a strength in his voice that was new to me. "You're the one that
doesn't understand. "I want you." His eyes fell from the horizon to hold mine and there was
such intensity there that I thought I saw his soul reflected. "I want you," he repeated.
"For what?" I asked, suddenly disturbed and angry. "For whatever you did in that man's
"Yes," he said quietly, his eyes once again on his task. "But that's not important. I just
want to be with you. Always."
"Because I'm in love with you."
The word was strange, one which I only sometimes understood and which formed no link
between him and me.
"There's nothing for me at home. You've seen that. And I don't want to go back to
Glasgow or London or any other city. They're just big and concrete and noise. People don't
have time to be themselves." We were in deeper waters now and the boat dove and rose; his
hands on the wheel adjusted the course automatically, without thinking. "I just want to be on
my own somewhere, with someone like you."
"Someone like me?" Anger broke the amazement that had kept me silent. "There is no-one
like me. You haven't heard what I said. You don't know what it means to sail with me. You
would never, ever, come back."
"I'm sorry," he said. "With you. And I know I would never come back. I don't want to
come back. In the bag I brought with me is everything I need. Clothes, books, money. We
need never return."
I thought of taking the wheel, but to sail back to the bay was against the wind and if he
was not willing, it would be a fruitless struggle like many I had had before.
"Why condemn yourself?" I said eventually. "You're young. There must be many of your
kind who would like you, and who you would like. Why not try to find one and lead a normal
"Throw away a gold coin in case I find a silver one - is that what you're asking me? And
what is a 'normal life'? A house, a job, someone quiet and safe? A normal life is the one I
choose to lead. And I want to lead it with you."
"You don't know me!" my anger returned. "You see only the politeness, you don't see the
hate." I stared at him with a sudden loathing for the humanity he represented, a loathing that
emerged after festering for years. "I would kill you this instant if I thought it would bring me
peace. I would fire a rifle into your brain. I would take a sword and pierce your heart. I
would tie you to a rack and hack off your arms and legs one by one, leaving you to bleed to
death if it would bring me what I sought. Don't you understand that you mean nothing to me,
that my own peace is all that I want?"
He said nothing. I could not read his expression. I startled to see that my words had come
true: his torso was skewered to an invisible wall, the stumps of arms and legs dripping blood as
he looked at me in love and compassion. I closed my eyes and he was still there; I screamed
"Forgive me!" and fell to the deck, where I lay for hours or seconds gripped by his pain before
I looked up and saw him standing calmly, hands on the wheel, eyes out to sea.
He made no comment as I slowly gathered myself up against the pitching of the sea.
Eventually my shaking ceased, my breath slowed, my mind returned; I sat up and straightened
my clothes. I expected him to speak, to offer some platitude, but he said nothing. I realised
that I had never given way like this in front of another before. Each night that I faced the
nightmares it was always alone. If others approached, the visions would fade and somehow I
could recompose myself. I did not know why the same had not happened with him.
He glanced down at me, his expression unchanged, before looking back at the sea. "What
are you thinking?" I asked, challenged by his calm. "That here is a senile old man who tells
absurd tales and has nervous breakdowns?"
He shook his head. "I don't know what I'm thinking. There are no words. But I feel .."
"I don't know. I don't think so. Admiration, perhaps."
"Admiration?" I scorned. "For what? A lunatic? A murderer? A ghost?"
"For what you've been through. For what you are, a man who..."
He did not fill the silence. "Who what?" I asked.
"Don't ask me; I can't explain. I only know that I love you."
A coldness swept over me, a coldness as frightening as the peal of thunder and as welcome
as a shower of rain. I did not want to hear any more, I did not want to say any more, I wanted
only to close my eyes and lie motionless until the world had come to an end.
I looked forward and saw we were not far from our destination. The island had a bay, he
had said, where we could anchor, ruins of a castle he had once explored. I stood up, walked
round the deck checking winches and ropes, looked back at the dinghy bobbing unwillingly
behind us. "A drink?" I offered, going below. He asked for coffee and I brought it up with
some biscuits he had provided. I took the helm and he sat in my place, back to the wind, feet
on the opposite bench. He seemed so much more mature than his age - a man in charge of
his life rather than a boy at the mercy of others.
The silence deepened, and when he broke it, it was almost as if I had known what he was
going to say.
"What do I do?" he asked.
I pretended not to understand.
"If you won't take me with you, what do I do to set you free? Do I cut my throat? Tie
rocks to my legs and jump into the ocean? Ask you for a gun so that I might shoot myself?"
"Don't talk about it," I said.
"Do we die together?"
"Don't use that word!" I shouted. "Never, ever, use that word again!"
He looked away, watched a seagull in the wind. "Don't you see," he said at last, "that I
can't let you go?"
"Of course you can." My voice was quiet again. "In time you'll find someone."
"Now you don't understand," he said, in tones of anger and regret. "You don't even try to
understand. I don't want 'someone'. I don't want to spend my life looking for something I've
already found. And if I can't be with you in life I want to be with you in death."
I did not need to watch my course to know that we would follow it. But I could not look
at him at that moment. My heart, my soul, was filled with an emotion I had never known, a
joy, a hope, a love and a sadness at hearing the words I had waited for centuries to hear. In
that moment I had a vision of the two of us together sailing across the world in a friendship
based on a peace I had never known. We would grow old together and I would find the
happiness I had never found in my wife or in the hundreds of women I had known over the
years. We would share everything, meals, sunrises, storms, ideas; even, I realised without
apprehension, a bed.
And if that vision were not enough, there was another which was even stronger. The two
of us in the eye of a hurricane, a few minutes' calm before the wind returned. A hundred
yards away the shoals of some shore. The gale ripping the sails, driving the vessel towards the
rocks, breaking its back and throwing us to the waves. And the sweet, sweet sensation of being
sucked under, lungs filling with water and darkness falling as I saw through the murkiness my
companion dying beside me.
My mind returned to the present; we were close to the shore. I looked down at him.
Without my asking, without my even seeking, he was indeed offering all that I ever longed for.
If he offered once more, I did not know what I would say.
"Well?" he asked.
"Will you take me?"
I hesitated, then my mind was decided. "If you really want me to," I said, seeing his
longing and fear, "I will. But first there is something I can do for you." He did not
understand. "The castle," I explained. "You wanted to see it. Something to do with your
A smile appeared. "There's no need."
"But I want to."
We dropped anchor in shallow waters twenty yards from shore. "Take some food if we
need it," I said, as I brought down the sail. He went below and returned with a rucksack of
drink and biscuits.
"I'm going down to change my shoes." When I came back up he was waiting in the dinghy.
"Catch," I said, throwing him his bag. The movement caught him off-balance, the dinghy
flailed and spun. I threw off the painter, rushed forward and with more thought than effort,
hauled up the sail, watched the anchor rise from the seabed. In that second the wind changed
direction, swept the boat round towards the headland and out to sea. I made my way back to
the wheel, eyes focussed on nothing as I blotted out the cries behind me. He called my name,
begged me to stop, I heard the desperate splash of oars as he tried to pursue me, the cries of
pain fading as I headed out to sea. My eyes were dry as they clung to the horizon, only my
heart wept for the only person who had loved me and offered me oblivion.
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