Standing on the stone-wall of a sea-river I am discovering that storms can do my breathing for me. I’m amidst a grey angry squalling storm that buffets my body and dries my eyes. Gulls squall too, barking high-pitched hideous skirls that stir my insides and curdle the air. Not far to my right fishers cut the heads off their catch, fling innards into the river, the sea-river that is crashing with sea anger. Yachts tilt one-way and then the other, surfing the swells between their moorings. Their rigging chimes a cacophony against their masts and even the jetties groan as dense curls of water pound their timber uprights and spill from their walkways. Protruding from the river like the backs of prehistoric fish, the posts of the breakwaters shift under the might of the undulating surge. Farther on, near the mouth of the waterway, the river is shrouded in a distant thicket of rain and wind.
My world, reduced finally, contains only myself. I have escaped, perhaps for half an hour, to where no one will pursue me, although the old woman will be watching from her window, observing and assessing everything. If she could, she would yell out, tell me to come in from the wind and away from the bloodied carcasses of fish, away from my favourite spot on the parapet wall where fishers are working to clean up death. Eventually even the scales will be washed away or picked up by the wind. Squalling sea gulls will flap and change direction, head for cover instead of squabbling chaotically for innards.
The fish are being cleaned on huge concrete slabs where there used to be a small fish market. The old woman told me about the fish being sold on the slabs; she’d pointed to the spot with a claw-like finger, saying, ‘Life was straightforward then, everyone knew where they stood. No one knows now. Position doesn’t count, and they use the steps to do their dirty filleting on.’
Even then, right as she said it, I thought she was mistaken about position. I knew what she meant, that the difference between the rich and the poor wasn’t as noticeable as it used to be. But I was thinking, especially in her company, the difference was glaringly obvious. I wasn’t concerned about wealth though; on this holiday nice and nasty were uppermost in my mind and class didn’t matter in the slightest when judging the nice from the nasty.
I didn’t say anything. I never would because of the screams and the cracks like the slap of an empty sail when a yacht is turning about. They’re the sounds of a naughty teenager receiving a long leather strapping, the sounds of him being turned into a whimpering, cowering boy. It wasn’t by chance I’d heard. I was standing outside an open door unable to move away.
For the moment though, all that is in the huge house and I am on the wall discovering that storms can do my breathing for me. Air curls and roils in my nose.
And then there’s something to watch, someone I know making his way along the jetty. His slicker is pinned closely to his chest and billows like a huge floating buoy on his back. He can hardly walk against the wind. He is the old woman’s son, the naughty boy’s father, the one who had strapped. I watch him reach his little boat and fumble with its rope, his legs spread to brace himself against the bluster. He is going to shift his tinny to the other side of the jetty so it won’t be pushed into the small pier. To move it, however, will be near to impossible.
White water spits at him ferociously. The wind swarms and flocks feverishly around him.
We’d been playing at the time, the boy and I, balancing cards, building a card mansion. It was a precarious monolith in a precarious monolith. We used every card deck in the house – eighty-three of them in all, although some cards from some decks are missing. Our heads were bent in concentration at the far end of the stretch of card-house when the father came to stop the game. We’d almost covered the entire floor of the parlour and some parts of our building had four storeys.
The boy didn’t want to get up to leave the town we were building. It’s a hard thing to do, to take yourself calmly to your room for a strapping.
The rims of my eyes are hot, even the wet air doesn’t cool them. The father works far off in the teeth of a howling seascape. For the first time since I’ve been here I watch him without fear; for the first time he looks like a small man who has no control over his surroundings. I see him bending into the wind, his clothing licking his ribs, his hood a flag behind him, fat in the hands of the wind. He lunges forward, the rope taut in his grasp, the boat whisked about on the water. He is struggling, battling against nature just as he was when he ordered his son into his room and told him to prepare himself for the worst.
When I think about the boy I feel confused. Perhaps I’m nervous too. Even though he’s ugly and dumb and I’m brighter than he is, he has a way of getting me to do what he wants. He thinks highly of himself and bosses me around when we’re playing card games of Fish and Switch and Cheat. The boy eats too much salt and his teeth are green.
I’m going to tell the boy no the next time we’re lying aloft, tell him that it’s too dangerous. I’ll say I don’t want to do it anymore, not because I don’t like his gentle explorations, I do, but I don’t want to cause trouble. Anyway, he’ll probably be too sore from that leather belt and he won’t want to do it for the next few days at least.
I don’t like the boy or his father or anyone in this house. I want to ask when my friend – the boy’s sister – will be coming. Her mother is bringing her. Yesterday they were supposed to be here, but yesterday the father told the boy and I it will be the end of the week. I wanted to ask how many days that is but it was as if my tongue was stuck to my mouth, bound down there behind my bottom teeth, just like it is now.
Above me the house looms. On the jetty the father toils and strains and I am happy to see him having difficulties, struggling to remain on the pier. I can tell the wind wants to blow him into the river; it is actually trying to pick him up and throw him into the water. He hangs onto a post, grips it because he knows the wind is trying to push him in.
The storm gives me strength. It does my breathing for me.
The father has managed to get the boat untied and to the end of the pier but that is as far as it is willing to go and the wind won’t even let him stand up.
I turn, catch sight of a flung innards, see it land and cling to the concrete wall, stick to the polished aggregate like a jellyfish would. I don’t want the fishers to go, yet I can tell they are hurrying, racing to finish before the rain – that is close and strangely not coming – arrives. If they leave, the boy’s father will be sharing the storm alone with me and I might not be able to cut myself off from him. He hates the fishers. While they’re here he won’t approach me, he wouldn’t dare. In fact, if I walk towards them, get absorbed in what they’re doing, he will stay away completely.
I move along the wall with tiny steps, the storm broiling and undecided, clinging to me. The grey waves of the river send fingers of water over the wall to touch my feet. I’ve only known the river briefly but already I’ve seen its raw belly, its unsightly parts with soldier crabs and limpets that never come off rocks.
For a while I concentrate on the eye of a large flat fish wobbling under the pressure of a scaling tool. I look up. The river is hungry for the father.
‘The father is brighter than the boy,’ the old woman had said, ‘he’s an engineer. The boy will never be an engineer. The boy is a no-hoper, a bed-wetter, a bloody belly-acher.’ And he fondles me I wanted to say, puts his hands down my pants and strokes and taps and adores me until I am so relaxed I am floating. On the bed but floating.
The fishers are loading their catch into a truck. It begins to rain big wet dobs of water that dribble slowly down my face. The truck’s brake-lights flash and die. The fishers are going home, leaving me with my river, the storm and the father. I look back. At first, I can’t see him through the rain and haze but he does emerge – like an octopus from its cloudy camouflage – out of the mist. He’s trying to secure the back of his boat to the pier. My loathing for him flourishes. And then, like a hooked mackerel, he goes up and off the jetty.
I stand rigid. Could the storm have actually plucked up an enemy and flung him into the river’s rabid current just like that?
Air rushes at me, breathes for me. My eyes narrow. I glimpse the white stripes of his slicker as his arm thrusts upwards from the river like the marker in a yacht race and my ears burn with the rise of a scream that could be a lone gull, or not. I’m calm. In the tumult I’m steady, a pinnacle that remains steady in a storm that’s driving through me, protecting and distancing me with its clatter. In this weather I am filled with power despite nothing being as it has appeared to me before. I stand, anchored, staring out, numb with thinking someone’s slipped from a wet pier, that they’ve been taken, their breath gone from their chest, breath that is so easy in the storm, breath that comes rushing at me.