With eyes that expanded in tributaries of deep wrinkles my old friend absorbed the sun as he did every day, squatting on the seaweed rocks Indian style, comfortable and easy despite his eighty-five years, or maybe because of it.
“Never suffered from back trouble,” he often reminded me, as I would sit with “piss poor posture” beside him, that and the fact that he was twenty years a widower, an important piece of his life I feel he was compelled to share regularly to keep his love alive. I once made the mistake of suggesting he was repeating himself, but only once.
As always he was squinting at the horizon when I arrived at the rocks. The stones were hot from the sun-baked day and his open shirt blew in the breeze as a white sail of near contentment, exposing a silver chest glistening in the evening sun. His ribs barely moved as he gazed trance like at a point I could not see, oblivious to my clattering disturbance of an arrival and the feelings of inadequacy that washed over me with tidal force whenever I was in his presence. Not due to any malice on the part of my old friend I must add, for I never heard him speak ill of anybody in the many evenings we had spent together, indeed I rarely heard him speak at the rocks. Words were easier for him only as I drove him home, away from the sea to his clapboard residence and manicured yard.
At the rocks, it was his silence that very often spoke loudest.
Over time I had slowly come to learn some of the history of a life that seemed to be a service to others, his secret Army days of letters and fox holes, the choking darkness of a part time smoke jumper in the forest fires of Montana and the frequent journeys into far off oceans at the request of his country. But such snippets of information were never spoken of with pride or bravado, characteristically short on detail they only served as markers to the parts of his life that took him away from his “lovely Katherine’ and the childless home they had built together. A reluctant hero, I had come to realise early on in my relationship that the risk of death didn’t seem to create fear for this humble old friend despite his trips into unfathomable danger. It was the distance from his wife and the fear of never seeing her again that had left indelible marks on his soul and had been the punctuations of his living, a living now in its final chapter, a life of solitude, other than the fumbling idiot he allowed to join him on the rocks of a summer evening. I let my bag fall from my hands, again.
Grabbing my rattling fishing reel from rolling into the cracks of the creviced rocks we sat upon, I winced at the disturbance and searched his face for annoyance. But today was no different to the others and he smiled his eyes as he continued his gaze into the summer spray.
As I began baiting my hook, he greeted me as normal with a slight nod and a wink of weathered eye. But today he spoke earlier than was usual.
“I’m expecting a visit from the lovely Katherine today”
I smiled as ever and nodded my agreement to what I knew to be a friendly warning, usually mentioned on evenings when he would refuse a ride home as he stayed “ a while longer” until the sun set and the spray became colder.
“So mind your manners young man”
His late wife Katherine had been a stickler for decorum. “Don’t let the lovely Katherine hear that one” he would chide me after I told him the latest racy joke from the office water-cooler, sometimes taking a old wrinkled photo from his breast pocket, kissing it gently and telling her not to mind the young lad, “doesn’t know haw to act around the ladies”, he’d chuckle and wink at me thorough tanned lines and dazzling eyes that sometimes shone of mischief, but mostly reflected his sadness.
Rattling reel and line now retrieved, bait squirming, I quietly cast off and joined him in his squint, listening to the lapping of the waves and lullaby of the spray hitting the rocks as my old friend scanned the place where sky touched water and eyes blurred with salt and memories. Sometimes he would just look at the distance and never drop his line into the sea, other times he’d watch until his eyes watered and I would talk about football to cover the moments wishing I could help him in some small way. There were other times when I would intrude on his peace and whine about a problem of unimportance or an event of little meaning only to hear his silence and get comfort and solace from a nod or shake of his silver head. Knowing, that hours later, long after our one-sided conversation had ended and I was parking on his street, waving him off, he would utter a single word of insight. And as always I went home wishing I could provide him with a wisdom that would ensure his night was as mine, because my sleep always came easy on the nights I fished on the rocks with my friend.
I recast the bait and watched the calm waters roll their waves and the gulls circle the smaller boats heading for port. I could see the pier far off to my right and make out the dog-walkers, roller-bladers, cone lickers and weight losers strut and roll through the evening air, and I began to daydream of Greece.
A tug on my line drew me back and I noticed my old friend had moved closer to the edge, catching my line with his shoulder, something I had not seen him do before. I pretended not to notice as he shuffled even closer to the water, holding my rod in one hand in case I had to reach over and save him from slipping in. His eyes were clear and a slight smile creased his face, adding to the map of life his wrinkles portrayed. He sat on his ass and tentatively placed his sandaled feet into the brine. His smile grew wider and I saw the youth that had left him as his features relaxed and he almost glowed. I followed his eyes.
And then I saw it. A wake suddenly appeared and the lapping waves grew larger, splashing the trousers he had rolled to his knees as normal. At first I thought it was a hungry seal or a dolphin approaching the shore at speed, as the ripples grew even wider and the waves soaked the rocks and immersed his dangling bony legs. But then this shadow from the sea began to surface and I could sea the tail and fin swimming strongly as it pushed forward. And suddenly, in a symphony of graceful and feminine movements, it rose above the spray in front of my old friend.
My rod and reel finally rattled into the rock crevices as I let it go with the shock of what lay before me. I rubbed the stinging spray from my eyes and tried to blink away the apparition of this beautiful creature from the sea. She widened her eyes and tossed her head as her blond hair dried instantly, covering her naked torso in a golden mane of sunshine as her green-scaled tail reflected the silver and bronze of Gods creations.
My old friend leaned over and whispered into her ear and I saw his tears land on her alabaster shoulder as she touched his arm and brushed his cheek with her lips and spoke words that only he could hear. Her tail tread water in a rhythm of splashes as she rose to her full height and hugged my him tight to her breasts, smoothing his silver hair and kissing his tanned scalp in a manner she was accustomed to.
And as suddenly as she had arisen she arced her back and elegantly entered her sea again.
As the silence recovered my old man retreated from the edge. The wake subsided and the lapping of the waves and lullaby of spray on rock returned the world to normality. He took his feet from the water and resumed his squat. And as my wrinkled friend gathered his rod he turned to look at me, and winking he said.
“The lovely Katherine sends her love, sorry she had to rush off, seems there’s a fishing boat in trouble out there”.
He turned away again, cast off and put his sandals in the sun to dry as the gulls squawked and the larger boats began returning to port.
It was dark before I remembered to move from the seaweed rocks and shake the vision from my mind. We had not spoken since Katherine had left us; my old friend was content in the quiet, tugging his rod gently and leaving me to enjoy my mental breakdown. Our homeward journey was also wordless. My passenger smiled to the horizon as we traveled the coast road to his clapboard house and manicured yard and I knew that a night of sleep would evade me.
As we stopped outside his home I startled with fright as he spoke.
“Think I’ll sleep like a baby tonight” he grinned as he jumped from my jeep like a man on a promise. He took his tackle from the back and I could hear him offer me a spare rod and reel for tomorrow’s fishing. As I began to pull away, thoughts elsewhere and mind racing, he thumped the back door to get me to stop and walked around to my open window. He paused and coughed slightly, clearing his throat.
“Katherine told me not to be so proud”.
He stopped and looked embarrassed and placed his tanned wiry arms on the doorsill.
“Just wanna tell you what it means to have your company of an evening ye know. The lovely Katherine came to thank you especially …so eh… thanks ok…see you tomorrow?”
He didn’t wait for my response as he ambled into his yard and put his rods into the metal rack standing on the stoop. He closed it’s door with a metallic clang and for the first time I noticed the picture of a mermaid spray-painted across its front from hinge to knob.
I don’t remember driving home that night, I just recall smiling until my jaw hurt as I looked at the place where sky touched water and the lovely Katherine taught fish how to swim with elegance and grace.
And my sleep still comes easy on the nights I fish on the rocks with my friend.
This started as a small ditty for one of Gretchens RB writing exercises. But for some reason the character wouldn’t leave me and I had to engage with the old man again. I think it was the idea of the joy we can bring to others that need company? I Don’t want to sound all tweedle dee dee but in view of the season maybe its worth reminding ourselves that the gift of time is the most precious gift we can give somebody.
But it’s also about loving who we have, when we have them.