Flecks of blood and scales loosen, as if turning to rainbows in his hands, as he picks up the fish and breaks its neck, feels the minute rim of teeth inside its jaw on the pad of his forefinger, puts his thumb behind the head and snaps.
The jaw splits and the gills splay, like an opening flower.
He was sure he would catch fish. He left just a simple note: “Pick salad x.”
Briefly, he looks toward the inland cliffs, hoping the peregrine will be there, scanning as he patiently undoes the knot of traces, pares the feathers away from one another until they are free, and feeds them out. The boat is flecked. Glittered. A heat has come to the morning now, convincing and thick.
The kayak lilts. Weed floats. He thinks of her hair in water. The same darkened blond color.
It’s unusual to catch only one. Or it was just a straggler. The edge of the shoal. Something split it from the others.
He retrieves a carrier bag from the dry bag in back and stores the fish. Then he bails out the blood-rusted water from the boat.
Fish don’t have eyelids, remember. In this bright water, it’s likely they are deeper out.
He’s been hearing his father’s voice for the past few weeks now.
I’ve got this one, though. That’s enough. That’s lunch.
The bay lay just a little north. It was a short paddle from the flat beach inland of him, with the caravans on the low fields above, but it felt private.
His father long ago had told him that they were the only ones who knew about the bay, and that was a good thing between them to believe.
You’ll set the pan on a small fire and cook the mackerel as you used to do together, in the pats of butter you took from the roadside café. The butter will be liquid by now, and you will have to squeeze it from the wrapper like an ointment.
The bones in the cooling pan, fingers sticky with the toffee of burned butter.
He was not a talker. But he couldn’t imagine sitting in the bay and not talking to his father.
There is a strange gurgle and a razorbill appears, shudders off the water, flicks its head and preens. It looks at him, head cocked, turns as it paddles off a few yards. Then it dives again, and is gone.
He takes the plastic container from the front stow. It has warmed in the morning sun, and it seems wrong to him, the warmth. As if the ashes still had heat.
He unscrews the lid partially, caught by a sudden fear. That he will release some jinni, a ghost, the fatal germ. No. They’re sterile. He throws science at the fear.
He’s had to go through so many possessions, things that exploded with memories during the past few weeks; but it is the opposite with the ashes. He tries to hold away the fact they know nothing of what they are. Wants to remind the ashes of events, moments. To make them the physical thing of his father.
After the brief doubt, he relaxes again. Can feel the current arc him out, its subtle shift away from shore. A strong draw to the seemingly still water.
He has a sense, out here, of peace. Thinks, Why do we stop doing the things we enjoy and the things we know are good for us?
When he had fetched the kayak out from under the tarp, there were cobwebs, and earwigs in among the hatch straps.
He had not told her he was going. He’d expected it to be a weight he wanted to lift by himself.
There is a piping of oystercatchers, a clap of water as a fish jumps. He sees it for a moment, a silver nail. A thing deliberately, for a brief astounding moment, broken from its element.
Round the promontory, he fades the kayak, lets it drift, wiggling his ankles, working his feet loose with arrival. The water beneath him suddenly aglut, sentinel somehow, with jellyfish. He wonders if they are a sign, of some increasing heat perhaps. Then the noise of music hits him.
A child knee-high in the water, slapping at the waves. Another coming tentatively down the stones. A mother changing inside a towel.
The ashes sit perfectly in the drinks holder by his legs.
Laid out farther off, an adolescent girl. The sound of her radio travelling. A pile of bright things.
The child has found a whip of kelp and slaps at the waves.
It’s O.K., Dad, he says. We’ll come back later.
The sound of a Jet Ski, from the beach in front of the caravans. An urban, invasive sound.
We’ll come back when they’ve gone.
Out in the distance, a small cloud. A white flurry. A crowd of diving birds.
They won’t be here all day.
Then he paddles, the ashes by his legs, in a straight line out to sea.
It’s as he’s holding his hands in the water, rubbing the blood and scales from them, that the hairs on his arms stand up and sway briefly, like seaweed in the current.
The birds that had indicated the fish had lifted suddenly. They are faint implications now, a hiatus disappearing against the light off the sea.
He is far enough offshore for the land to have paled in view.
The first lightning strikes somewhere out past the horizon. At first he thinks it just a sudden glint. The thunder happens moments later, and he feels sick in his gut.
He sees the rain as a thick dark band, moving in. Starts to paddle.
Then there is a wire of electric brightness . Three. Four. A rumble that seems to echo off the surface of the water.
He counts automatically, assesses the distance to land. Another throb of light. The coast still a thin wood-colored line.
The wind picks up, cold air moving in front of the storm. And then there is a basal roll. The sound of a great weight landing. A slow tearing in the sky.
One repeated word now. No, no, no.
When it hits him there is a bright white light.
He wakes floating on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe. Around him hailstones melt and dissipate. They are scattered on the kayak, roll off as it bobs on the slight waves. There is a hissing sound. The hailstones melting in the water.
He stares around, shell-shocked, trying to understand, a layer of ash on the surface of the water. He cannot move his arms. They are held out before him as if beseeching the sky.
Dead fish lie around him in the water.
He gets himself to the boat, the boat to him, drawing it with his leg, shaking until he frees the toggle, turns, kicks, twists, trying to lever with his useless arms. Somehow tips himself into the boat.
Live, he’s thinking. Live.
His fishing rod on fire upon the water as he slips off the world again, and passes out.
He moves because he coughs, a cough made of glass. Slowly lifts himself. One eye closed with salt. His face has been in the floor of the kayak and the salt is from the evaporated water. The sun had come out hard after the storm and evaporated the water, leaving the salt in a crust on his eye. When he opens the other, the light blinds him.
It hurts to breathe because his whole body hurts. As if he has suffered a great fall. His mouth, too, is crusted with salt. He does not know where he is. There is a pyroclast of fine dried ash across his skin.
He blinks and struggles to raise himself a little, the kayak shifting below him. The world slipping, rocking. When he grimaces, his lips split and bleed.
He looks down at his hands, feels the briefest twitch in his right arm, a wave and it spasms, smashes unfeelingly against the inside of the boat and goes dead again, falls against his side, a fish flicking after suffocating.
What happened? His consciousness a snapped cord his mind tries to pull back together.
His left hand stays inert, fractalled with purple; seems tattooed, in a pattern like ice on airplane glass.
The right arm, for a while, is wayward. Movable, but numb, clumsy.
He does not know how long he has been like this. Who he is.
He sees a rouge burn through the dry salt on the muscle of his forearm, sees the line of his shinbone startled and red. Feels his face. Like something felt through packaging, hears more than properly feels the paper of his dry cracked lips. He has the strange conviction that if he opens his stuck eye he will see what happened.
When he tries again, it’s as if that eye leaves his face and flutters by him. A butterfly.
It takes him a while to focus, to accept it. He’s forgotten there is other life. It puppets around him.
He cannot believe that a thing so small, so breakable, is out here. A thing that cannot put down on the water. How far must we be from land?
The butterfly settles on the bright lettering of the boat. He watches it open and close its wings in the sun. Opens and closes his working hand.
He reaches up and scrapes the salt from his closed lid, picks at the hard crystals. He wets his hand in the water, blinks with the sting as he bathes the eye.
When he refocusses, the butterfly is gone. For a split second, he believes again it was his eye, then he spots it, heading out over the water.
He feels a confusion, a kind of throb in his head. There is a complete horizon. A horizon everywhere around and no point of it seems closer than another. It brings claustrophobia. He does not know if he’s moving—if he’s travelling. He cannot tell in which direction if he is.
He feels only the rock, the sway, the dip and wallow of the boat.
For a moment, as he lifts from sleep, he thinks the warm sun on his neck is someone’s breath. Hears, far off, the sound of a speedboat engine. There is land in sight, like a presence that has woken him.
He wakes with the understanding that the paddle is gone, and with that comes low panic.
His good arm has been in the water, and it is only as he raises it that he feels the little finger has been stripped.
It is torn and frayed to the first knuckle, skinned and swollen ragged with water, the pain searing and hot. The
nail is still there but tooth-marked where the little fish have bitten at it. As he touches the finger, his head spins, and when he passes out, again, it’s like another white light shoots through him.
The thump of the fin stirs him.
His head was resting on the gunwale as the dark fin struck..
He does not move. Cannot move. A few yards off, the fin rises again, a half-metre sail out of the water, a gun-gray body. His primal systems fire a wave of fear through him, the adrenaline trying to get through him like water poured on ice; and the fin folds, disappears.
He is frozen, urinates, cannot move his head.
When it bumps again it is as if the fin had grown tactile. It folds and flops, reaches into the boat, hallucinatory, cartoonish, like a sea lion’s flipper. And then the body of the fish, clownlike, lolls side-on in the water, a disk the size of a table.
This cannot be happening, he thinks. The sunfish and he eye to eye, its curious fin folding, flopping. An aberrant ripple to the water in the otherwise lambent calm. This is it, he thinks. This is it.
The sunfish stayed with him for hours. It could be said it steered him. It was almost the size of the kayak in length and bumped and rubbed the boat with a droll instinct, as a cow might a post.
The sunfish is not fishable, not edible, and no instinct has been driven into it to stay away from man. And perhaps it was the warmth of the boat it liked, with the plastic heated by the sun. Or perhaps it was something more.
But it stayed and bumped the boat for hours, and by doing so steered it; and it cannot be known whether it was deliberate, benevolent, that it did not steer the kayak farther out to sea.
He tries the screw of the locker in the center of the kayak, confused by his sureness that there is a first-aid kit, confused given the things he does not know. The locker will not shift. Focus, he thinks. Just accept the pain. Focus on the fact that the land is there.
He turns in his seat and reaches for the dry bag, husbanding the finger. Uses his teeth and his hand to open the bag and spill out the looser things—the sunblock, the T-shirt, the old cloth.
His ears are blistered and cracked. His skin parched and sore, stretched and gritty with salt. He rubs the sunblock in. A baffling thought of holidays. Works urgently, as if the next few moments were vital.
He rubs it on his dead hand and is frightened. That he cannot feel it. That it lies so inert. He feels a sort of horror at his body. How long has this taken to happen? How long have I been out here?
He looks again at his useless hand, the now fernlike pattern. It seems to follow his veins, mark tiny capillaries, a leaf skeleton disappearing under the tide line of ash into the sleeve of his top.
A wave of sick goes through him.
The idea of breath on his neck lies under everything. A suspicion that someone has been left behind.
He takes the T-shirt and wets it, wraps it on his head, the touch of it a heat at first against his burned skin. But then it cools, and there is a sort of weight lifted, as if the sun had stopped pressing.
He unzips the pocket of his buoyancy aid and fumbles out the phone, drops it into his lap as he pops open the waterproof pouch. He turns it upside down and tips the phone out, thunk on the boat, picks it up and tries to start it. Nothing.
Take it apart. Let it dry out.
He struggles with it until the back slips off. And there against the battery is a wren feather.
He traps it with his thumb. Holds it carefully. His memory like a dropped pack of cards.
Next door’s cat. Its strange possessive mewling, crouched over the wren, the bird like a knot of wood.
The bird vibrated briefly when he picked it up, a shudder of life. Then flew away.
He could not picture her, but a sense of her came back with that.
They had kept a feather each.
Shouts. Faintly. Loud shouts that reach him quieter than whispers. That seem to carry on the air like faintly visible things.
He notes movement, just a shifting of the air, the smallest breeze that bears the shouts; a sure current, the kayak drifts. Goes sideways past the shingle bay.
He is in a dream. He sees, there, a penguin crowd of people bathing in their clothes. In black-and-white suits. They are playing in the water. Children in waistcoats. As if a wedding had run into the sea.
Where am I?
He lifts his arm. They are far off. Tiny on the shore. Tries to shout. Shouts like a puncture. Like a hiss of air.
Hears the draw and swash of the waves breaking in the bay, sees the children jumping the water. The sound of play. A bus parked on the road behind the beach.
Are they celebrating the end of the world? he thinks. I am dreaming. They are bathing in their clothes.
He watches the land fade, as if it were slowly sinking into the ocean.
He has bailed out the cockpit as best he can. The cloud of dark piss, the tide mark of salt that shows how the water has evaporated.
Scales of mackerel decal the inside, here and there is a zip of dried blood.
The ringing in his head is a hum now, a low choir, the flick of water on the boat constant, random, like the sound of work in the distance.
For a while, as he drifts, it is not the thirst, nor the sun, nor the open space around him that occupies him most. It is the need to stand up.
He tries the locker again. Pressures and turns with his thumb and finger, patiently, until the screw hatch jumps and, after a few hard-fought-for millimetres, rattles loose.
He fishes out the built-in pouch, squeezes the toggle and loosens the drawstring.
He unrolls the first-aid bag, the rip of Velcro a strange abrupt noise that seems to tear the fabric of sounds he has got used to. With the violence of the act, some of the dried ash falls flaked from his skin, as if drawing attention to itself.
He opens his mouth—winces at the chapped cracks of his lips—and bites down on a roll of gauze, uses an antiseptic towel on his finger. He even smells the sting, as he did as a child, Dettol on a grazed knee. He rocks it away, humming through the gauze, rocks until he can open his eyes on the pain.
He tears the dressing packet, puts the pad down on his thigh, and wraps it clumsily around his finger. The effort makes him reel. Then he pulls the papery tape with his teeth and gets an end around the dressing, jams the roll between his knees, makes a clumsy bandage. Fits on a plastic finger guard.
The water slapping the side of the boat picks up. It’s just the angles, he tells himself. It’s because I’m shifting my weight.
He leans over the front stow, unclips it, and draws out the large dry bag, sees the small pan in the hold, the rolled cloth that contains cutlery, a wooden spoon.
He feels odd little humpback lurches, an empty sickness without food. He has the bizarre sense that he could reach out, feel the same little kick in her stomach.
He pulls out a carrier bag. It is heavy with a bottle of water and a bottle of dark beer. He stares at the beer for a moment. He was going somewhere. He was going to drink a beer. Then, fumbling, urgent, he takes a drink of water, warm, hot almost, wets his mouth, lips, lets it spill wastefully over his chin. There is a shock at the immediacy of its effect, a voice screaming, Do not waste this; do not drink too much. He brings the bottle down with a sort of fear. Don’t drink too fast. Remembers watering a dry plant too quickly.
You have to save this, he thinks. Dry dirt will repel the thing it needs the most. Stares again for a moment at the beer.
He empties out the dry bag: Small gas stove. Espresso cup. Coffeemaker. Small plastic box of coffee. Tackle box with traces, hooks, weights, swivels, lures. Thick jumper. Reel of fishing line. Cagoule.
You went out. You went out too far fishing.
He keeps to hand the thick jumper. Tucks the cagoule in by the seat. Takes a brief inventory of the boat. He does not add: One man. One out of two arms. Four out of ten fingers. No paddle. No torch. One dead phone.
The sun drops beautifully.
He takes off the buoyancy aid and pulls on the jumper, useless arm first.
He puts the cagoule on, again the useless arm first, but cannot zip it up. Then he puts the buoyancy aid back on, and in the doing of it loses the T-shirt from his head. Watches, stoical, as it floats out on the water. There is a slight swell to the sea now, and the pan and the bottle in the forward hold roll and scrape inside, roll and scrape with the loll of the boat.
He scoots forward, opens the hold cover, horribly aware in that instant how small the kayak is, stuffs the pan and the bottle under the dry bag to jam them.
Of all the things to put up with, that would be too much: the persistent clunking. It is one of the few things he has any say in.
He has a horrible fear of falling out of the boat. Its frail platform. Of being afloat in the coming darkness.
He slips the bungee from the back bay over himself like a seat belt, fastens one end of the paddle leash to the carry handle, the other round his ankle. It is nothing. But it is all that he can do.
With dark, the cold hits. It is immediate, comes with a sureness that it will get colder.
For a long time he fights the need to piss. Or what feels like a long time.
The swell picks up. The boat dips, sways as if two unseen hands are shifting it, panning for rare minerals. With his empty stomach, he feels a constant bowl of nausea.
He lifts off the bungee, kneels in the boat, and pisses off the side, a weak stream, a stench he hears pattering on the side of the gunwale. But where it hits the water there is a sudden light, a gorgeous phosphorescence.
When he sits back, he redoes the bungee round himself. That some of the stars on the horizon might be the lights of ships, of land, he can’t allow himself to think. Cannot allow himself to imagine the warmth, the food, the safety they would mean. It is better that they are stars.
How long? How long has it been? Is this my first night out? I would have been thirstier, wouldn’t I, if I’d been out longer?
He looks. A child awake in a dark bedroom. And, after a while, the stars seem to fade, at first very slowly. He does not know if it is an illusion, but they start to go out, like houselights across a night landscape.
He unwraps the emergency blanket, the silver foil of it speaking with reflected light.
The boat shifts up and down, a lullaby hush.
It is cold and it is pitch-black. Blacker when he opens his eyes, blacker than it was when they were closed—a stunning nothingness. He is hardly conscious. And he hears the child’s voice. Hears the clear troubling cry of a child.
This is not real, he thinks.
He feels that his heart is slow, his breathing flaccid.
Then comes the cry again.
The cold a complete tiredness. A calm. Like an acceptance of drowning.
I can go now, he thinks. I’ve done my best. He feels passive toward it. He is so cold that if there was any challenge to him he would let it happen, gently yield.
A spray of water covers him, pattering the plastic blanket, falls on him, warmer than his skin, and he opens his eyes, sees the green light, the perfect shape of dolphins playing round the boat.
Somewhere he feels his ticking heart, an engine trying to start. Was he nearly gone? Was he gone? The child’s cry, close by now, of the dolphin calf, and the mother breaks the water, a luminous green form leaving a figure of itself in the air, bright water dropping, a glow, crashing color landing, back, into the water.
The calf sounded so human. A baby in an upstairs room.
Stay alive, he thinks.
A bright tail, beautiful triangle.
You have to stay alive.
He wakes with a strange, specific clarity. Three solid simple things: her, the child, his physical ability. These, now, are his landmarks. The night has left him alive.
He sits up. His skin where it is bare has tightened. Where he touches there is a fine sand of dried salt.
He is uncertain of it, but he seems to sense something from his deadened arm.
He takes the fish from the carrier bag in the dry bag, and the fishing knife, and puts the fish down on the side of the boat, bringing a hollow gawp to his stomach.
He cuts behind the gills, turns the blade flat and draws it along, feeling it bump over the bones of the spine. The fillet peels off like a flap, the meat changed and cured in the heat.
He chews the fillet, the salt meat of it, then drinks some water, cooled again after the night.
It is not possible for him to believe that he will die, but he begins to fear that he will leave her alone.
This is going to be about rhythm. You cannot control anything else. Just your rhythm. You have half a small fish and four inches of water. If you grow impatient, it will go wrong.
The foily taste of the fish grows as he swallows the water, brings a sting to his mouth.
You have to conserve energy, and you have to be patient.
When he turns round to stow the dry bag, there is the land.
This is just rhythm, he says. You cannot race. You will move the boat only a little, but you must not be impatient.
He takes off the jumper and folds it into a pad. Then he kneels on it, puts on the buoyancy aid, and picks up the small frying pan as a paddle.
After a few strokes, he gets the boat around.
The pain of resting on his burning shins balances the pain of using his raw finger into a tough holdable thing.
That’s the land, he says. That’s everything. It was a low undulating line. It’s all about rhythm now.
All of his life he’s had a recurring dream: the car leaves the road. It is never the impact that terrifies him, wakes him. His fear comes the moment he feels the car go.
His life does not pass before his eyes. There is even a point when he feels calm. But then he sees the faces of the people he loves. He sees their faces as they see him go.
The lick came into the waves late afternoon, and with it a wide swell to the water. The clouds now were an intentful dark strip on the horizon and they were incoming, and the breeze came before them, bringing patches over the water like a cat’s fur brushed the wrong way. He had continued to paddle on and off. Had thrown up after eating the second piece of fish, and that had affected him.
There was a thin bare moisture in the breeze, and every now and then he opened his mouth to it. Gradually he neared the land. The colors now distinguishable.
It was less easy to bear, having the land in view. He did not think, If I die you must find someone else; he could not think that. He felt a great responsibility.
He wanted to make sure she knew how to reset the pilot light on the boiler. Pictured a coffee cup, never moved, the little liquid left growing into a ghost of dust. The note: “Pick salad x.”
He thought at first it was a bag or a sack floating stiffly in the water. It was a fence banner. He turned the boat frantically, the handle of the pan rattling and worked loose now.
Seaweed and algae had grown on the banner, so it looked somehow furred, like a great dead animal on the surface of the water.
He pushed at the fur of algae and it slid easily, uncovered a bright picture of a family car.
There were metal eyelets in the corners and along the edge of the plasticked canvas, swollen and rusted in the water, and as he lifted it into the boat the banner caught and bridled in the breeze, the car rippling.
He scraped the bigger patches of algae from the banner with the back of his knife, then doubled the fishing line and fed it slackly through an eyelet and brought it back, tying it to the cleat where he clipped his seat. He did the same at the other corner.
Then he cut the toggle away from one end and took the drawstring from the hem of the cagoule to give himself a cord. With that he tied the other corners of the banner around the carry handles of the boat.
When he put his feet to the banner and lifted it aloft, the wind caught it with a snap.
He had an idea that the land was a magnet. If he could get close, it would draw him in.
The light dropped prematurely with the rain. At first thin, persistent gray drizzle.
He cut the top from the bottle and filled it where the rain ran down the sail of banner. His skin loosened. His eyes stung with salt that the rain washed into them. Every so often he bailed out the boat.
It was a light, saturating rain that pattered sharply on the cagoule he had put back on. Through it the land was visible and gray. Very sparsely, lights appeared.
The wind now brushed the crests from the waves and it filled the sail, blew a fine spray into the boat.
In the falling light it seemed that a shadow lifted up from the water and went past him. A low whirr of shearwaters. A ghost.
He thought then how, for the time he had been drifting, he had not seen other birds. He had not seen a plane.
What if this is it? What if there has been some quiet apocalypse? Some sheet of lethal radiation I survived. Some airborne plague.
He thought of the sunburn on his body, a momentary scald. Of the butterfly. A sect, drowning themselves in the water. The heat, liquid. Sluicing from the air.
Partly, there was relief in the idea. That he would not hurt them if they were already gone.
He shook the thought away.
The premature evening stars. How she wanted glow-in-the-dark dots stuck to the ceiling of the nursery.
When it was beyond doubt that the land was nearing, he wept quietly. The tears went into his mouth.
He lifted the banner with his feet a little and saw the growing details of the land. Then he rested, looked at the picture of the bright car. He could not get it out of his mind that she would be waiting on the beach; the bell of her stomach.
It was only then he recognized the danger, staring at the car: The car leaves the road. I have no way of steering. The land is now a wall.
The light was going. The storm was coming.
He felt it in the water first, like a muscle tensing. He would be better off farther out. If he could stay in the boat. If he could stay on it. Ride the storm.
He could hear now, distantly, the boom of water hitting cliffs. A low echo. The first sound of land.
Hold out. All you need is daylight. You could go in on your own if you could see. Trust the buoyancy aid, trust the float. Just swim yourself in.
He turned, tried to look back out to sea. A dark bank moving in.
The squall came in like a landslide, with a physical force.
It cracked into the sail and drove the nose down and he struggled to level the boat, the cockpit filling and spewing.
As the sea picked up, he knew it was useless. The sign sang and hissed and seemed to bolt from him. You feel the strike, he knew now. You feel the strike coming.
He cut the cord, sending the banner out like a kite. A bird flapping. Then the line snapped and it ripped free, skimmed off over the water. A car out of control.
He held the carry handle, tried to jam his useless arm behind the seat.
You should have kept the banner. You should have kept it as a sea anchor. It might have kept you on to the waves.
His father’s voice was everywhere now, as if he had entered the sky.
There was no control. There was a randomness to the water. As if a great weight had been dropped into it. He was horrified, tried to convince himself they could not see him, that they were not watching.
The back tipped, tipped him, plunged with the whole body of the kayak shuddering.
In the half-light it was as if the boat had been driven into a dark rut.
He tried to press the kayak into the water, to cling on, as if to the flank of some great beast. Tried to lean the kayak into the waves. But the boat went round. The sea was up. An uprushing ground.
He thought of the land, the rock. He passed now beyond any sense of danger to a blank expectant place as he undid the paddle leash.
I do not want the boat to come with me. It would be like a missile.
If a bird the size of a wren can survive in the jaws of a cat.
Trust the float now. You have to trust the float.