On a bench overlooking the slow curve of the seafront sits a small man in glasses and brown slacks. By now, he blends into the landscape, his eyes having faded over the years until their grey-blue tint exactly matches the sea. The light changes all the time, from sunny morning to cloudy afternoon to overcast twilight, but the sea seems to be the same colour always. It’s early evening now. Tiny people buried in coats are scattered about, creeping home. The man takes off his glasses and polishes them with a steadiness of motion that betrays a long-held habit.
He is interrupted by another man, whose frame is taller, his hair longer, his shirt open further. Get this down you, he says, his voice louder, and hands him a beer from the pub behind.
Simon James and Simon McDonald had known each other too long to stay friends. Simon James had a thousand nicknames, usually Jamie or Jim, but Simon McDonald had never been more than Simon, and finally the name had eroded into simply “Si”.
Sit down, Si says, but Jim doesn’t often sit down. He paces and fidgets like a child, and thinks Si sounds more like his father than his partner. “Partner” wasn’t even a word Jim would ever have used before he met Si. He would have said “lover”, but Si always said “husband”, and they eventually met in the middle.
Jim crunches down the seashell beach to the brink of the ocean. Today the tides have brought him a bright bivalve shell, richly orange in the half-light. Si stays up on the concrete. He is a writer of romances, with a mildly profitable series to his name. With him as always is a pad of paper. He sets the pen to it, but the wind is blowing the pages about and he can’t get a word down.
Jim comes back with the shell and says, let’s go into town tonight. He waves at the headland where you can see a corner of the town poking out, up where the beach is fine and sandy.
Why, says Si, what’s happening?
Anything, Jim says. It’s been ages since I went. This is not strictly true. It’s Sunday. He last went two days ago. The town is where his job is, in a patent office.
Si says, you can go. I need to get this done. There’ll be nothing happening. Sundays are the worst days, and Saturdays.
Monday. On the local news, someone had gone out to the shore on a foggy evening and got surrounded by the tide. Poor guy had drowned. They show an interview with the wife in her grey living room, her face craggy and worn away. It makes Si nervous. He often wandered the beach in the evening, enjoying the peace and quiet.
Jim comes home a few minutes later than usual, and Si meets him in the hallway and holds him tight. Jim still has the cold air caught in his hair and the folds of his clothes. He is confused, but he hugs Si back.
That night, a gust of wind reaches in through the window and Si nuzzles into Jim fiercely. Half-asleep, Jim feels in the embrace something warm and intense that he has not felt in months. They throw off the covers and make love, naked and open, and fall asleep against the cold night.
The morning is equally cold, and Si finds himself alone; Jim has left for work. Usually he inadvertently wakes Si as he gets out of bed, but Si is becoming a heavier sleeper.
Si tries to work too. He goes round the seafront with his notebook and sits in a dozen places. The cheap plastic tables at the cafe. The teashop with wrought-iron furniture set out under thick umbrellas. The plush pub seats. Nowhere gives him a story. Eventually he settles on some steps, tucked away under the pier. The tide is out, the beach is empty.
Enough of this nonsense, Si thinks. Writer’s block is such a juvenile thing. It sounds grand but all it really is is laziness, and at his age Si should be well over it. So he does what he always does when he can’t think of anything better – he looks back over his old characters, plucks out a couple at random and sets them against each other. They can’t be the same as before, of course. Tweak the dials a bit. An intelligence upgrade, a sense of humour bypass, and they’re good as new.
And that goes a little better. Daisy and Stephen meet each other on a train, and she is charmed by his wit, and he admires her long chestnut hair – chestnut is a good colour for hair – and they continue in this vein for about three thousand words. A good day’s work, all in all, considering the slow start. Si packs up.
Jim dawdles on the way home and gets in late again. Si greets him warmly, dinner comes out of the oven and they watch television. No bad news tonight. Everything is fine. Jim remembers to close the bedroom window and Si slips off to sleep almost immediately
Si wakes in the night. Lying there in the dark, he becomes aware that Jim is also awake.
Hey, what’s up? Si says, uncomfortable, like he has stumbled into something private.
Why are you awake?
I’m just awake. Jim sounds irritated.
All right, says Si, and rolls over.
After a moment, Jim says, I can’t sleep for some reason.
Si wriggles into a half-sitting position. Have a hot drink, or read a book.
Tried that already.
Well, I don’t know what to suggest. Si says. Jim doesn’t move. His eyes are closed.
Anything I can do?
Jim shrugs, rustling the bedclothes.
Si shuffles back down into the covers and tries to sleep again. It takes a little longer this time. He feels uneasy, as if he is leaving Jim behind.
Morning. Si wakes late again, cold again, missing Jim again. He looks back at what he’s written. In the watery morning sunlight the words are flat and empty. He will have to frustrate the romance somehow. In the hour that follows, he marries both his protagonists to offstage spouses, blinds Stephen, makes Daisy a kleptomaniac, and eventually derails their train into a heavily populated area, maiming them both beyond all hope of recovery. It results in a good three pages of clutter and crossings-out, and Si takes great pleasure in tearing them out and feeding them into the shredder. It is going to be one of those days.
So he abandons his notebook for lunch, and turns on the computer. A pleasant surprise: in among the junk emails is one from a fan, a Mrs. Anne Turlough. Si is unaccustomed to fan letters, but has received enough to know that between the outbreaks of praise they tend to always say the same things, and this one does nothing to break the trend. Have you always wanted to be an author? How do you get into writing? Even: Where do you get your ideas?
Si puts fingers to the keyboard for a reply. No, I wanted to be a chimney sweep, but I’m not tall enough. Delete; Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. As if there was any other answer. To get into writing one requires a strong work ethic, knowledge of one’s audience, and large reserves of discipline. Where do I get my ideas? Why do they always ask that? Si leans back and looks out of the window at the little waves steadily folding themselves up the beach. With a smile, he types: The tides bring them.
After sending his reply, he pastes the email into Word and saves it: one of his few indulgences. Except his mouse slips on the menu and he opens up something else by accident. Something from the “Recent Documents” list.
It’s a file Si hasn’t seen before. A Hundred Things to Do Before You Die, it says, and a list. Go to Egypt. Learn to play the guitar. Get a tattoo. Si scrolls down. There aren’t a hundred things there, it must be a work in progress, but there are quite a few.
Si hits Print in a sort of daze. The printer obligingly churns out the pages, three of them. Staring at them, Si imagines for a crazy moment that he’d written the list himself and forgotten about it. Although he’s fairly sure he’s never wanted a pool table, or to go to Amsterdam.
An hour after the usual time, Jim’s key turns in the lock. When he comes into the living room Si does not even greet him, just holds the list out. Jim reads, and then looks up at Si’s expectant expression, and after a moment just says, yeah?
Si asks, when did you… when did you write this?
How many did you end up doing?
Some of them.
Jim half-snaps, what do you mean, end up?
Si doesn’t say anything.
I haven’t ended up. And he switches the television on and won’t say another word.
Si withdraws from the room and feeds the list into the shredder, where it joins Stephen and Daisy in a tangled heap in the waste-paper basket. He decides to take an early night, and is asleep before Jim comes up to join him.
Thursday crawls emptily by. Si knows that this is the time of life when men start having mid-life crises, but the thought had never given him much concern before. He had had a mid-life crisis at the age of nineteen, and then another, smaller one at twenty-four, and since then things had been more or less steady. As for Jim, Si hadn’t expected him to have one at all. He didn’t think he’d get that far.
In between these sorts of thoughts Si tries to think of Stephen and Daisy, but they prove reluctant to be resurrected. Daisy is a thoroughly uninspiring character, and Stephen is stubbornly refusing to get involved in any plot Si can think of.
He writes them off as a bad job, and resolves to begin anew. But it’s easier said than done. Any ideas he can muster die as soon as they have appeared, and paranoia and anxiety bubble up around them. Si cannot distract himself with anything. It is a frustrating day.
Jim is early home.
Let’s go into town tonight, Si says. I’m bouncing off the bloody walls. And you have the day off tomorrow. Come on.
Jim seems oddly reluctant, but Si won’t take no for an answer. He has cooked dinner already. Si is lively and talkative as they eat; Jim is distant and withdrawn.
They catch the bus. Jim takes the window seat and stares. Buildings grow higher as they slide by, like the sides of a canyon descending into the ground. Si starts to feel nervous for reasons he cannot explain. The journey has the opposite effect on Jim: he grows visibly more comfortable as they draw into town, and is the first to get up when the bus stops.
A wave of noise hits as the doors open. They disembark under a flickering streetlight. Si puts a hand on the pole as if the stream of people on the street will carry him away. Where to? he is about to ask, but Jim has already spotted someone he knows, and plunges into the crowd. Uncertainly, Si follows.
Jim is in his element. He whirls from bar to bar, every inch the social butterfly. Barely a moment goes by without him raising a glass to someone, or receiving a pat on the back, or a kiss on the cheek. He shouts, and laughs, and says more in an hour than he has said to Si in weeks.
To Si it is all just a wall of light. He gets tired of hanging on Jim’s sleeve and asking who was that with every greeting, and instead focuses on the alcohol as if it will make sense of things. All it does is steadily reduce his ability to block out the background noise. The relentless babble, nebulous and menacing, rises to smother him. Lamps tilt, swim and gain halos.
In a club where the lights flash a relentless rainbow disco, Si shelters in a toilet cubicle. It’s a slight respite even though the smell of detergent makes him nauseous. Someone is having sex in the next-door cubicle, and the man on the other side babbles into a phone as he pisses. Si has had enough.
Leaving the toilet, he pushes his way through to Jim, who is half-dancing with a couple of men Si doesn’t recognise. He tugs on Jim’s sleeve and shouts into his ear, let’s go.
Jim can’t hear. Let’s go, Si tries again.
Let’s have one more, Jim shouts back. You’ll feel better.
Can we go, please? Si feels like a child, repeating himself, bellowing at Jim through the noise. The effort pushes out a few frustrated tears.
Jim looks at him and just says: you can go. And the look on his face, almost scornful, is quite unlike him. Like Si is a stranger.
It is as if the look pushes them apart. Si stares. The two men have never been very alike, but in this moment Si cannot see anything of himself in Jim. There is not an atom of him left. The night has washed Jim clean. Si barely recognises what’s underneath.
The road leads straight back home, but Si needs to get away from people. It is slightly quicker to walk along the coast. The beach ought to be empty on a cold night like this.
It is indeed empty, and cold: colder than Si had realised. The warmth of the town does not extend very far down the hill. As he moves away from the orange-lit streets, down the steep steps to the black, moonless beach, he meets a wall of chilly air, like darkness gone solid. His feet touch sand. He’d expected to find a path, but it does not start until further along the coast. He starts to walk, regardless. The danger does not even occur to him.
The sea has taken on the colour of night. It lies on the beach like oil, gleaming, waiting. And then the town disappears around the bend and it loses its gleam. The moon, unseen, is pulling. The sea extends an inky finger silently across the sand.
Shallow, it brushes Si’s shoes so gently that he does not even notice. He is walking briskly, concentrating on going in the right direction. Afraid of walking into the cliff in the dark, he is slowly veering away from the land.
The wind strikes up as he comes further away from the cliff. Another black finger of water glides up the shore. The sea is quietly swelling, gathering around Si, drawing him in. Still unnoticed, it pushes another shallow layer under his feet. There is a soft spitter-spatter as he walks, but the sound is swallowed by the wind. The layer fattens, creeping higher.
There is a change of texture underfoot, the sand giving way to tiny shards of shell and grit. Si’s footsteps begin to crunch, and this is what makes him finally look down and see the water thickening around him, crawling up his shoes and dampening the edges of his trousers.
Smothering a jolt of fear, he quickens his pace, and tries to judge his distance from home by the coarseness of the beach. It is still fine, sinking away under his feet, each shallow footprint lingering for a second before being swallowed up by the encroaching sea. It seems impossible to him that he has wandered into danger so unthinkingly, no matter how disorientated the night has left him. The wind is wailing unrestrainedly. Abandoning his pride, Si runs.
The beach deepens. Si finds the water halfway to his knees and thrashes through, fearful that every step might take him further down. His lungs gasp fitfully as if the water is filling them.
And suddenly he is belted in the stomach, the wind is knocked out of him, and he almost falls. He clutches at the thing he has run into, and his fingers feel rotten, water-fattened wood – a groyne. He clings to it gratefully, even before his knowledge of the beach kicks in and he remembers that the groynes signal the start of the path. He fumbles along the structure, feeling the water relinquish its grip as he moves higher, and eventually finds the metal railing. He pulls himself up onto the path and squats there, gritty and waterlogged and exhausted.
He knows the path leads home, but he does not feel truly safe until he has trudged the full distance to his house and stands dripping on the carpet.
Si finds the bedclothes undisturbed in the morning. Jim is a restless sleeper: it is clear he has not returned.
Si gets up and eats breakfast in a sort of automatic way. He gets out his phone to send Jim a text message, but can’t think of what to say. In the end he just asks where he is. There is no immediate reply.
Outside the window the beach lies there, grey and tranquil, showing no sign of its nocturnal menace. After breakfast Si goes out with his notebook and sits on a bench close to the house. The seafront is deserted, devoid of both people and ideas. Si cannot write a thing.
By lunchtime he knows Jim is not coming back.
Maybe he will return to pick up his belongings, and offer some sort of explanation, but he won’t stay. The sea has lost its grip on him. He is not the same person who used to live here.
Si wonders if he could get away too. Get a house in town, or move further inland, maybe go back to his parents in the city, get a new job, meet new people… the thought makes him dizzy. What is keeping him here? But the same time, what is out there for him?
Si turns over his pad and writes on the last page, A Hundred Things To Do Before You Die, and he writes a little “1”, neatly, and marks it with a dot. And then he just sits there because he can’t think of anything to put down. Not a thing. Not a single solitary thing.
Ahead, the waves slip over each other, tugging at the beach, pulling grains of shell and sand down the shore and into the sea where they sink, settle, and rest forever.
Artwork by Assel Kadyrkhanova
About this piece: ‘The story is set on a particular beach in Wales: not so much the physical details, I’ve changed most of those, but the feeling I got from it, of what kind of person would live there, at what stage in their life, and what might happen to them. It’s also partly a comment on the kind of writer I really don’t want to be.’ Patrick Robertson
About Patrick: He’s a Creative Writing student originally from London.