I can see him holding on to the far buoy with his head leant back, staring out to the horizon. I watch his bright red cap bob between the waves as I sit in my lifeguard Kayak. Paddle across my lap. Swimming shorts dampened by the sea.
It’s been three days now.
“Seth,” Colin booms from the shore, pointing towards the man. “Go and bloody check on him then.”
I’m there in less than thirty seconds.
“You OK?” I slam the paddle into water to stop and circle him.
“I’m fine,” he replies.
His face is tanned and weather-beaten with loose dark red skin around his jaw. A lop-sided grin creeps out the side of his mouth, revealing a chipped front left tooth. Sun block congeals on his grey stubble.
“Do you need help getting back to the shore?” I ask.
“I’m good here,” he smiles into the distance. “Thanks.”
“Are you cold?” I angle my head down to try and catch his eye.
“I’m ok.” His blue goggles give nothing away. “Thanks for asking.”
“You’ll be colder than you feel.”
Colin’s asked me to push him on this. He says not knowing their own body is what kills people out here.
“I’m good.” He bites his bottom lip.
“No panicked feelings?” Colin wants me to explicitly ask this one now. Says sometimes people don’t even know how scared they are.
“Nope.” He lets the saltwater lap up into his face as he angles his head up to look at me. “I’m going to stay out here till sunset and then make my way in.” He then turns back and stares into the distance.
I follow his gaze. Maybe I’m immune to the view but all I see is blue. The ocean a slightly darker shade to the sky. Silhouettes of tankers mark the horizon.
“OK, well I’ve got to give you this.” I dangle a whistle on a red string in front of him. “So you can alert us if anything changes. Things can change quickly at sea.”
“Really?” He looks up at me. His red swimming cap creases as frowns.
“It’s my boss,” I nod over to the shore.
I feel awkward as he looks me up and down. “I’m just doing my job.”
“Health and safety, eh?” He takes the whistle and tuts as he puts it round his neck.
“Something like that,” I say.
It’s not how Colin had put it. “I’m not having some nutcase drown on me,” is how Colin put it, “losing me business.” Colin’s an old school local who knew my Dad back in the day, although we’ve never spoken about that. He gave me this gig when I finished school couple years ago and let me take it back on my summers in between Uni. The most capable swimmer in town gets it once they’re 18 unless Colin thinks there’s something up with them. I guess that’s been me for the last few years and it’s done me well enough.
After a week, the crowd at the Boar’s Head started to notice him. Not your regular blow-in, but not yet a settler either.
Blow-ins pass through for day or two. Hoping the fresh sea air with blow something away. Settlers hang around – not local by name or accent but they start to feel familiar enough. Some of them get accepted into the Boar after a while, but others stay on the outside. Something about them reminds us that we live at the end of the line.
The Boar’s Head sits at end of the harbour arm with rusty boat parts hanging from the low ceiling, heavy black wooden doors, and small green windows. Old currency and photos are pinned to a corkboard behind the bar.
I think there’s a photo of my Dad in there – hidden under the sun-curled images of drunk middle-aged men with red faces. He was a settler – a city guy who came for something and found it for a while before leaving when I was seven, which I’ve been told to feel lucky about over the years. We don’t have photos of him at home but sometimes I can picture his face – crooked teeth, blue eyes and light brown hair down to his collar. I don’t think about it all that much – it doesn’t really matter what he looked like fifteen years ago.
“I saw him out there again,” Alf says hunched over the pump. “Yer man with the red cap. I’ve got Colin in here moaning about him last night. Wants rid.”
“Yeah.” I take the pint of pale and Alf waves my money away. He’s like this for the first one. I don’t come in all that often, so I let it slide.
Questions come from around the L-shaped bar. What does he want out there? Does he chat? Is he lost? Does anyone know he’s there?
“He doesn’t talk much,” I say. “But I don’t ask much.”
“He’s out there for hours,” a voice comes from the end of the bar, “it’s amazing he can stand it. The cold water with no wetsuit.”
“It’s amazing the kind of pain the body can withstand,” The old major passes his empty to Alf.
“That’s true,” Alf smiles as he re-fills.
I take my pale and sit with my old school friends Jenny and Tom. We squeeze around three low stools and a dark wooden table. The sailing trophy cabinet towers over us as Jenny nurses a coke, having driven over. Tom’s got a pint of pale.
Jenny plays with the gold locket around her neck as she talks. A gift from her grandmother that I recognise from my bedside table when we were seventeen. Her pink trainers bounce as she talks about moving in with a man eight years older than her. He works in sales and owns a place in the new estate by the big Tesco. Tom updates on lads that have joined the army and his brother who’s been sentenced to three months. He was unlucky by all accounts. He won’t go the way of their father. Tom says he’s sure of that.
“How’s Cambridge?” They ask.
“You know we have to wear cloaks to dinner,” I say.
“No way!” They laugh. “Cloaks.”
We’re distracted by the old boys’ speculation. What sort of pain would lead a man to do that to himself every day? Running away from something. Could be war – we see them down here. Lads who’ve been in Afghanistan or Iraq. Could be gambling. That can ruin a man. Could have set his family on fire by accident when he was drunk.
“Could be any and all of them,” Alf says. “We can only hold what we can hold.”
“All this drama when you’re back,” Jenny angles her head towards me. “Why do you think he’s out there?”
“Don’t know,” I look up at the keels and ropes dangling from the ceiling. “Why do you two think he’s there?”
I look at Jenny, then Tom, then back to Jenny.
“Just some fucking freak, isn’t he?” Tom gulps his pale and Jenny looks down at the cigarette stained green carpet.
It’s grey today. The sky and the sea match the stone harbour walls.
I watched him swim out around noon. He always looks the part. Red swimming cap. Sleek, fitted blue goggles. Whistle around his neck. Alternate breathing on every third stroke. His arms are short, but he looks to have the strength and technique to do a few laps of the course, yet he stops as soon as he gets to the far end buoy. Slaps his hand down onto the metal base and hangs off it with one hand. Let’s his body move with the tide.
It’s been two weeks now.
“All ok?” The saltwater splashes my face as I circle him mid-afternoon.
“All good, friend.” He leans back against the buoy with his lop-sided grin, “Usual answers to the usual questions.”
I laugh as I circle him. Unsure if I want him to take me more or less seriously.
“I’ve got a new one,” I say. “Does anyone know you’re out here?”
“Well,” the man laughs, “I expect most of the town knows by now.”
Like all the towns on the coast, you drop in and climb out through one narrow road. Cars hide in the crook outside Mary’s store and wait for each other to pass.
Mary sells semaphore bunting, shell ornaments and whimsical prints alongside regular groceries that people actually want. Something went on between Mary and mum when Dad left. I don’t know the details, but she’s always keen to tell me how well I’ve done, and she never asks after mum.
“He’s headed out there again,” Mary whispers into my ear as I place the choc ice on the counter.
“He’s there every day,” I rummage for change.
“You need your energy,” She pushes the change and the choc ice back towards me. Mary doesn’t charge locals. With her place on the hill and this shop, she’s not short of money. Only reason she keeps it open is to gossip.
“Thanks,” I start to turn around.
“What do you think it is?” Mary grabs my arm and crouches down towards the counter. Her eyes dart towards two Asian tourists inspecting the bottom of a church made of shells. “The man in the red cap…he’s staying in my shepherds hut up on the hill…. I’m sure your mum has told you…”
“Yeah, she mentioned something.”
“I’ve barely had a conversation with him, but I wouldn’t call him unfriendly.” Her bright red lipstick gathers in the corner of her mouth.
“Right,” I say.
“Do you know what I mean?”
“No,” I say.
“I ask if he needs anything,” Mary straightens up and raises her voice as the tinkling bell confirms the tourists’ exit. “He says no. I’m fine. But it’s the way he says it. With this friendly crooked smile.…do you know what I mean? What’s a man with a smile like that doing swimming out to the far buoy all day every day?”
“He does smile a lot.” I catch the shards of chocolate as I bite into the choc ice.
“Have you asked him?”
“Why he smiles?” I say between bites.
“Why he’s there,” Mary stares at me over her crescent-shaped glasses like I’m hiding something from her.
“No,” I glare back. “Have you?”
“It’s not my place.”
“Well.” I think about saying that it is her place because he’s literally staying in her place, but I don’t. Instead, I ask, “Does it matter?”
“Don’t you want to know?” She leans into me. “I mean you’re out there every day in case something happens…. I don’t see why you don’t have a right to know.”
No, I thought, I don’t want to know.
It’s spitting rain and the choppy sea skittles over the rocks and foams into the bay. Fishing boats bounce against each other in the harbour.
I watch the kids ride the small waves on the shoreline. They’re not to go past me.
Red cap turns up later than usual. Nods at me as he ambles out on the tiny pebbles and dives into the water once he’s at waist height.
I nod back and watch him plough through the waves and past the first and second buoys before slapping his hand down on the final one. He takes his usual position. Clings with his right hand and lets his body sway in the waves.
I wolf whistle him to check he’s ok.
He turns towards me. Waves slap him in the face.
I give a thumbs up.
He gives a thumbs up back. Same lop-sided grin.
It’s been a month now.
“Can’t believe you actually live here,” My Uni friend Claire looks over one shoulder at the red, blue, and yellow fishing boats clinging to the harbour on moss coloured ropes. Then, over her other shoulder, at the shallow turquoise bay lit up by late afternoon sun.
“Well I sort of live in between here and Uni,” I say as I watch red cap climb out of the water and grab his towel from the rocks.
Claire and her boyfriend Gavin have walked the coastal path from his family holiday home four or five bays over. Gavin’s at a different college to us – we’ve met a few times but don’t remember anything about each other. He doesn’t act or sound like he’s from here, but he carries himself like he belongs anywhere.
“Will you come back here?” Claire looks at the rusting lighthouse on the other end of the harbour, “After we graduate?”
“And do what?” Gavin butts in. “These places are great for a week or two but…I mean, you know.” He nods at me like I understand.
“I don’t know what I’ll do,” I see tankers on the horizon in Gavin’s mirrored sunglasses.
“I know,” Claire cups her hand over her eyes and blinks at me. “Terrifying isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I smile. “I try not to think about it.”
Claire smiles back as she scratches her ankle. She’s walked too far in pumps.
“I told you the whole walk over.” Gavin bounces his trail-running shoe on the harbour floor. “We’ll be fine…my Dad can help you out with internships… or you can travel… I mean with our degree.”
“This guy,” I nod towards the man taking off his red cap. I’ve never seen his hair before and it’s longer than I expected. Mousey brown and grey curls fall to his chin. “He’s been swimming out to the far end buoy every day,” I point to the swimming course. “Then just hanging on to it for hours. I mean like 5 or 6 hours.”
“What?” Gavin screws his face and looks over his shoulder at the man.
“I check on him every day,” I say. “But he’s content to just stay there bobbing in the water, looking at the horizon.”
“Really?” Claire turns to face the bay, “Is he ok?”
“He says he’s ok.”
“He can’t last out there,” Gavin shakes his head as he turns back to me. “The water’s too cold. No way he can stay out there all day.”
“He does,” I say. “Then he walks away like nothing has happened. Same lop-sided grin on his face.”
“Not possible,” Gavin shakes his head.
“It’s true,” I say.
“He looks happy,” Claire says as she watches him button up a white linen shirt.
“He does, doesn’t he.”
“Happy?” Gavin screws his face behind his mirrored sunglasses.
The late morning sun bounces into my eyes as I watch the regulars power round the course. It’s an impressive sight. Ten people ploughing into waves with such purpose. Neatly angling their heads for air.
Each of them mumble “hi” to red cap when they pass the farthest buoy.
“Don’t fancy joining them?” I shout over once they’ve passed.
“No,” he laughs at me and turns towards the horizon.
I follow his gaze. I want to know what makes him smile, but I just see a tanker and a couple of sailing boats. And blue. A lot of blue.
“What you looking at?” I ask.
“Blue mostly, isn’t it?” He shouts into the distance.
Almost two months now.
We all cram into the Boar on the last Saturday in August as jobs start to wind down. A few longer term caravaners try their luck. The swimmers and fishermen are in.
The man in the red cap is the talk of the night – how has he manged it? Every day for two months? No wet suit I hear. I reckon he’s special forces or something. I reckon he’s killed a man with that stare out to sea. Reckon he’s had a breakdown. Doesn’t feel anything anymore. Could just be bad luck. It’s not one thing but it’s a mountain of bad luck things. Something’s made him think that the only thing that’ll heal him is the water.
“Stop making out like he’s interesting!” Colin slams his palm on the bar. “He’s given me a headache all summer long.” Colin necks his first pale and nods at the empty, “If anything happens to him, the Council will be all over me.”
“What do you make of it?” Alf nods to me as he pulls the pump, “Must be a headache for you too.”
“At least I get some company out there,” I smile.
“It’s no joke lad,” Colin grabs the full pint of pale. “Your old man was the same. Everything was a joke to him. Never took his life here seriously enough. Don’t head that way.”
I turn to Colin but he won’t look at me. He motions to Alf to pour me another one even though I’ve barely dented my first. I wait for him to say something more, but he just stares behind the bar towards the corkboard.
“We’ll get some beers into that brain box of yours Seth,” Alf slides the pint in front of me. “Give you a good send off before you’re back for Christmas.”
“Seth,” My name bounces around my head. “Seth.” My bedroom door rattles on its hinges. “Wake up Seth! Colin’s asking for you to go in. The young girl from the village over has called in sick.”
“Yeah,” I croak.
“Full day’s pay for a couple hours he said,” mum speaks through the door. “I’ll put some breakfast on.”
I prop my head up and wait for the scent of sizzling bacon fat.
My room is changing. The walls have been sanded free of blue tac marks and primed for a lighter shade of white. We decided that Oatmeal White will be warming in the winter and would catch the sun in the summer.
The bed I unclasped Jenny’s bra on will stay. The desk that I learnt irregular French verbs will stay. The Nintendo Dad bought me will go.
“I’ll get going with that painting next week,” Mum lets the egg slide off the pan onto my plate.
I rip yolk open and spread it over the bacon.
“Nice people. Outdoor types who walk the path in decent shoes. That’s what I’m hoping for. People who keep to themselves.” She sits down and pours herself tea from the pot.
“Yes,” I gulp my tea. “Only those with breathable waterproofs are good enough to take my place.”
“No one’s taking your place,” Mum places her hand on mine.
“I know I was just…”
“It’s your room whenever you want it.” She moves her hand away and clasps her mug. “Anyway, the world is just opening up for you…I mean Cambridge…where did that come from? Your father wasn’t a clever man, and neither am I…. you don’t know what you’ve got ahead of you.”
“Still another year to go.” I fill my mouth with beans, “I don’t like to think about it to much.”
“I guess he’ll be out there again today.” She gulps her tea, “Hope I don’t get people like that staying….I mean Mary says he’s no trouble…but it’s the thought of him out there and why he’s doing it….that’s the thing isn’t it?”
“He looks lost,” I say.
“What does that look like?”
“It looks like staring blankly at the horizon and water lapping into your face. That’s what it looks like.”
I watch locals and blow-ins clamber in off the rocks as the high tide covers the bay in the late summer evening.
Then I hear red cap’s whistle.
I can see him. The usual position. Head back against the metal base of the buoy as he looks out to the horizon. I checked on him at the start of the shift and got the usual responses to the usual questions. The usual lop-sided grin as he let the saltwater splash his face.
I’m there in thirty seconds.
“OK?” I ask.
“Could I grab a lift back?” He winces, “I think I’ve tired myself out today.”
“You’re tired?” I feel my heart bounce against my chest.
“Yeah.” He grins, “I’ve been out here a while. You know that.”
“How you feeling? Cold? Panicked?” I ask.
“None of that.” He shakes his head, “All the usual answers to all of that.”
“OK,” I throw him a float as my heart returns to normal. “Wrap that around you and grab on to the back of the kayak.”
His body weighs me down as I slowly bring us back to shore. I feel Colin’s eyes through the binoculars. I hear the chatter of the Boar’s Head in my ear.
“You know we won’t patrol so much out of season.” I take a rest from paddling and look over my shoulder at him draped over the back of my kayak, “Colin will be around but it’s really just for regulars.”
“Aren’t I regular now?” He takes his goggles off but keeps his cap on. He doesn’t flinch as the sea laps over and into his green eyes.
“Regulars complete the course,” I say.
“I’ve never really thought of it as a course,” he curls his lip and looks up to the sky.
I let us drift. I feel I need to come back to shore with something. So I ask, “You not worried? If you keep doing this into the winter the water will get colder and the sea state will turn.”
He leans his head back and lets it dangle off the side of the kayak as we float with the tide.
“No,” he pulls his head back up and looks at me. “No. I’m not, but I get the feeling that you’re worried.”
I turn away from him and slam the paddle into the sea. His body slows me down as I scoop water left, then right, then left. I feel the frustration of the town building up inside me. Why can’t he just hold his shit together like everyone else? If he’s got a point to make, no one fucking gets it.
“You know the whole town thinks you’re running away from something,” I shout into the breeze as I paddle fast.
“What do you think?” He shouts back.
I stop paddling.
We stay silent as seagulls squark above and the tide bobs us along. I turn around and look at him laid across the back of my kayak, waiting for me to respond. I suddenly feel a lifetime younger than him. “Aaaaahhh, never mind,” I grin.
I start up paddling and we soon gather speed as I get used to the weight of his body.
The smell of sweating moss fills the air as we near the rocks. I can picture my Dad. His blue eyes, freckles across his nose and light brown hair covering his ears. I can feel his hand helping me clamber over the rocks. Thinking about it now, he probably wasn’t very good at judging the tide. It moves quickly in the last half hour of the day and if you’re not local, you can easily get caught out. He wouldn’t have really known what he was doing either.