No 17 - May 2002
Daniel trembles and dreams in the wicker chair. Behind frail violet lids the children skip circles along the shore. How he aches to tumble from his crocheted cell and scatter the blistering sands to the four winds! Under a warm autumn sun his face fizzes with the distant memory of sherbert fun. Anonymous in shapeless clothes the old man dreams on. Bamboo fingers bat woven willow armrests and build sandcastles the size of Camelot, And sighs breathe fire at waterdragons and seaserpents, driving them back to the briny depths. The sighs deepen in a face lined by so much longing. Run with the waves tireless with youth, back to the Icecream Man selling sundaes and icy poles in heavy pine-scented shade.
But, his waking mind reminds him, the Icecream Man and his van are a half century vanished. Their cold sweet place in the stand of Norfolk Pines lies buried beneath that large white building at your back.
On the grassy lawn, bent figures doze out their days in armchairs facing the sea.
“Huh?” Daniel opened his eyes and yawned away the memories.
“What do you think, Daniel?” Jimmy ignored his queen’s peril to repeat the question.
“About what, Jimmy?” Fully awake, Daniel crowded the tiled board like a jackel.
“About the big ‘D’!”
No-one in the Home spoke the word aloud, however frequently it entered their thoughts. There were plenty of euphemisms available.
“Oh, that.” A frown tickled Daniel’s forehead and he said too casually, “I don’t think about it. Time for that when I’m packed and on the coach.”
Jimmy slanted forward and said urgently, “I can’t stop thinking about it. I feel it hanging over everything I do like some enormous sombre beach umbrella. There’s no sun anymore where I live.”
“Could be that’s natural.” Daniel eyed Jimmy’s knight. He said. “Maybe it shades me as well, only I’m too busy living to notice.”
“It’s become an obsession with me.” Jimmy whispered. His eyes glistened in the green striped shadows. “Sometimes I stop and think it’s gone. Then I smell the corned beef warming itself and sprouts for lunch and there it is casting a shadow fit to drown out the sky. One day, maybe today, that giant parasol is going to snap and fold me up in ark spiny wings and stack me away for good.”
“Are you afraid?” Daniel’s eyes didn’t leave the chessmen.
“Yes, yes I am!” cried Jimmy. “I can feel the fear form cold on my skin and soak the sheets at midnight. It pins open my eyes and stretches them in the dark and funs with my pulse. Fast, now slow, now playing hopscotch with me as the pebble. Then a break and me with my eyes staring at nothing like a crazyman wondering if that’s it. And thinking maybe I can handle it, maybe it’s not so bad after all. And then that ball of muscle inside these ribs.” he tapped the bony cage, “gives one almighty heave and I remember how to breathe again and I’m scared.”
“What do you fear?” Daniel had words with his bishop and sent him crossways with terms of surrender. The white knight bowed gallantly from the table. “Checkmate.”
“The end! The final sundown, the last gasp. The finish of all of this and me just a few words somewhere on a stone or plaque.”
Jimmy stared around wildly. Daniel looked with him. His eyes bounced from scatterings of blanketed props. To their left, a great-aunt, tilted and blank, sightless with senility. To their right, a vetran fumbling arrowroot biscuits into a mouth grown slack with years. And all around, hosts of statues dozing where they’d dropped or mumbling at puzzled cronies, their cistern voices gurgling in the clean air.
“The end,” Jimmy repeated, more softly this time as if a moment of excitement had tired old bones. He slumped against the chair and stared at the board.
“But why?” Daniel was puzzled. “What will you miss?” His gaze swept the Home, solid and uncompromising behind them. “Surely not this place? Don’t say you’ll miss the dearth of dignity it stamps on our every waking move? And unconscious moves” he added thoughtfully. “The visits from family, redcheeked and restless just blown in on their way to somewhere else? Sons and daughters trying not to look too closely at you and the Home in case they see something. Grandchildren the opposite. Staring with bubblegum eyes at your teeth by the bed and commode in the corner and wondering where their parents found such an alien pet. Will you miss being rustled out of bed and sponged and clothed like some old puppet? Being wheeled out to air in a jumbled crowd of mummies when the weather permits or sitting inside with the stink of ammonia in your hair when it doesn’t? Will you miss that, Jimmy?
“I don’t know!” Jimmy was crying now. Tears coursed along the creased skin and settled at the folded corners of his mouth.
Daniel sat very still and watched his friend weep. At last he said, “Tell you what I’ll miss. This!” A spotted hand swept the beach. “The sea. I’ll miss that forever.” His voice was very low. “Everything about it. The rocksalt and seaweed smell of it. The taste of it, like tuna at the back of my throat. All its moods. Sunpuddied and smooth like today. Or charging the land like a Fury when the north wind taunts and goads it like a wild thing. And when temper’s spent it sulks in long grey sullen lines beyond the storm-shattered strand, even then I’ll miss it. And the sound of it....” Daniel’s eyes glazed and the voice was a whisper.
He strained his ears past their grassy perch. On this calm day the beach was quiet. Even so.... Something nudged the weary eardrums, stirred in cochlea and trembled the fine hairs sprouting there like seagrass. He stared. There! A seagull crying to the wind, so sad Daniel felt saltwater spring from his own wrinkled ducts. And there. The lazy frothiness of waves on rocks, each bubble a tiny explosion in the still afternoon, in the distance a dog shouted and someone whistled a soprano. The ocean breathed and creaked gummy branches overhead. If Daniel really concentrated, he could hear the sizzle of sand shifting at the water’s edge, grinding to extinction in another million years.
“You grew up here, didn’t you?” said Jimmy.
“So long ago, so many years now it’s almost a dream.” Daniel’s brown eyes, tinged blue with so much seeing, swivelled to his friend. “I was born over there.” His forefinger arrowed the headland. “Born, raised and taught to be decent by the sea. Sunkissed urchins, the lot of us. Dolphin pups ripe for adventure along the strand.”
With the memory, Daniel sensed himself moving out from the crinkled caricature of a man he had become, into something else. Something younger, lighter than air.
“The times we had, Jimmy, the times. The beach was our garden and the sea our school. No cave unexplored, no rock unturned. We learned all its secrets. From the tiny electric fish hiding in crystal rockpools to the invisible currents waiting offshore to snatch a careless boy and take him on a journey around the world. We looked for crabs and cuttlefish, shark’s teeth and shells. Filled our hands and pockets with gifts from the sea.”
With a face full of sun and ocean in his lungs, Daniel said, “They were our waves that best the shore and our gulls who swooped past picnickers demanding food. Our feet knew every grain of sand and every slippery patch on the rockledge.”
In his mind, Daniel threw off his shoes and burst from the chair. His voice rose and headed to the horizon. Beside him Jimmy dozed, perhaps forgetting for a moment his fear of dreaming.
“The best place for parrotfish? We could cast our breaded hooks direct into their beaks, in summer we challenged the sea and skidded through pearl green tunnels. In winter we wandered barelegged in jumpers, watching the sea heave and waiting for Spring. I grew old watching the sea. The times we had. I’ll miss those forever. We were so full of ourselves and the world and the promise....”
His words tumbled to a close and for a while there was nothing but the quiet sounds of the sea breathing through an old man in the sun.
“Wait for me! I’m coming!”
Hands stretched forward, Daniel runs. Runs swift as the Nor’easter winging seagulls and clouds aloft. Sand sprays and settles in his wake, churned by feet suddenly bare and brown. A faint cry slows his step, but ahead the others have reached the rockpools and he aches with their cool promise. There is no time to spare for an old man called Jimmy gesturing wildly from his chair. This is no place for pity. School is out forever. Only an eternity remains to fill his hair with salt and cram pockets with treasures scooped from rocky nests.
Daniel reaches the water’s edge and the waves touch his feet and welcome him back.
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