A short story from “Strange Days”

THE PROMISE

“So, you’ve come,” I said, turning to look at the man who sits next to my bed. He smiles and nods his head. His hair is white now, his face wrinkled, but he still has that old twinkle in his eye.

“I said I would,” he says. “I got your letter.” I smile at him and reach out my hand for him to shake. This he does, and it feels comfortable and right.

“It has been a long time,” I state the obvious.

“It has tom, over thirty years.”

“It’s good to see you. It’s a pity we didn’t do this sooner, pity your last memory of me will be this,” I glance at the drip, the morphine, the barren sterility of the room. My old friend Ken, shrugs.

“Nonsense. I will always remember you in your pomp, when it was our time, our golden years aboard ship.” He grins toothlessly and there is a glint in his eye that brings a tear to mine. I wipe it away and take a deep breath. It is a nice evening; autumn is in the air, the oak trees are turning to bronze and gold. The sun is setting – it is that “between time,” the time between dusk and dark when the birds start to nest and the light is filled with magic. I can smell a bonfire and the sky is orange and deep pink. I know there will be a frost tonight, the sky will be clear, the stars bright and sharp.

“What’s this all about Tom,” Ken says, following my eyes, glancing out of the window.

“I think it’s time to tell you, I owe you that.”

“You owe me nothing,” he says, shaking his head.

“And, I want your help.”

“Now that’s more like it,” he grins.

“Do you remember what happened?” Ken looks blank for a moment, and then he shifts in his chair. “Do you?” I press him. He nods his head.

“Just how ill are you, old son?” he asks, forehead knitting.

“Do you know what my favourite song is?” I ask.

“Something by Nat King Cole,” he muses.

“Yes. The party’s over, It’s time to call it a day, They’ve burst your pretty balloon, And taken the moon away.” I sing.

“And is it over Tom?”

“Not far off,” I nod.

A strange stillness creeps over the room and I know that Ken is sad. “Did you marry her?” he says at last, pouring a glass of whisky.

“Who?”

“Dorothy from Portsmouth.”

“Yes. For thirty-five years. She passed away three years ago, cancer.”

“Bloody hell,” he winces. “Nice girl.”

“Yes, she was.”

“Children?”

“Two, son and daughter. Ian lives in Canada and Sandra lives, well nearby but I don’t see her much.”

“I see.”

“You?”

“Still married, still happy, apart from the joints, I think they miss the sea air.”

“I live just down the road.” You were keen on gardening I seem to recall.”

“Yes. Can’t manage it these days, got a nice chap called Alexsander to help, he’s a Pole, but I don’t mind them. He comes round once-a-week and we drink coffee and eat cake together. I tell him the old stories and he pretends to be interested.”

“He probably is,”

“The young are seldom interested in the tales of the old.”

“Listen Tom, you don’t have to tell me anything.”

“I know, but I want to, then maybe you’ll agree to help me. We were close friends once, saw the world together, helped each other out of a hundred scrapes, thought maybe you would do me one last favour.”

Darkness is falling fast now. The trees are moving in the breeze and there is a blackbird calling. Soon the sky will turn to a deep blue, and the sun will dip below the horizon. I love watching the sun, set and rise. I’ve done it all my life, but nothing could have prepared me for the tropical skies, for the southern cross that blazes so bright, the stars sharp and so clear. Out in the ocean the skies are wonderful; great blazing furnaces of colour that seem to explode silently in your eyes. And the moon; so bright and white it turns the water silver and everything is tranquil and peaceful. But then there are the storms, great black banks of cloud like mountain ranges, lightning so bright it blinds, rain so hard it hurts the skin. There are so many extremes, from the roaring 40s, where the wind shrieks like a pack of demonic wolves and there is no sleep, to the calms of the doldrums where the sea seems to die. I have been lucky, I have seen many wonderful things in my time. Whales, dolphins, flying fish, sharks, beautiful clear seas with glorious coral. White sandy beaches and beautiful women. But never before or since have I seen anything so strange or amazing as the woman who gave me a promise, a promise that keeps me smiling, hoping, and even praying.

“Do you remember that night?” I ask. Ken pauses, his attention drawn by a squirrel who is climbing up a tree. He takes a deep breath, sips his drink and looks me full in the face.

“Of course I do. I still dream about it, even now.” Something shifts in his eyes and I know he is telling the truth – I know he relives it, that part of him died that fateful night. “We were good,” he clears his throat, “But she couldn’t take it, the sea was mad that night, the waves bigger than any I had ever seen. We were lucky.”

“Not all of us were lucky,” I whisper, the faces of the dead sailors parading inside my mind.

“You were always so cagey about it, so secretive,” Ken says. “You wouldn’t even tell me the full story, fed me some cock and bull but I didn’t swallow it, not green enough for that.” I smile at him, and feel guilty for not trusting him, but I know he wouldn’t have understood.

“Sorry old mate, but it wasn’t the right time.”

“And it is now?”

“I think so.”

“Oaky doak, I’m sitting comfortably, you may begin.” He sat in an easy chair next to my bed. I turn the lamp on, it is dark outside and chilly. There is a slither of moon, but it is a vague haze behind thin cloud.

“Smoke?” he offers me a thin cigarette.

“No, gave it up. You can’t smoke in here anyway.”

“Bloody soya munching hippies, live and let live I say.”

“I smoked a pipe for years, gave it up when…” I shrug and smile ruefully. “When I was diagnosed.”

“If it gives you pleasure, do it. Don’t let it stop you.”

“That was always your motto” I laugh.

“It kept the ladies entertained,” we both laugh, and it is like old times. We could be anywhere – the middle of the Pacific, the Atlantic or even a hospice.

“That Alexsander fella has a friend on local radio. His mother bakes cakes, very good cakes. I’ve got scones and jam,”

“Clotted cream?”

“Nope. Just jam,. But it’s good jam.” I reach into a cupboard and take out a Tupperware container. We finish our whisky and then sip tea and eat scones. I am transported to a tea room in Devon. I am eating a cream tea with Dorothy. We are happy. Afterwards we stroll along the beach and I talk about the sea. We plan, we talk of the future, and we begin to fall in love and kiss beneath a summer sky.

“Brave people, the Poles,” Ken remarks. “I’ve known a few in the navy, fine blokes all of them. And their women… well, charming.”

“Ken,” I brush crumbs from my fingers. “What do you remember of that night?” a distant, thoughtful expression plays across his face.

“We were on manoeuvres off the Falkland islands. It seemed to be a calm sea, weather fair. We were aboard HMS Gawain. We were on patrol, just doing our job when it happened.”

“It came out of the blue,” I reflected. “The sky turned black, the wind blew and the waves pounded us. I still can’t quite believe how our frigate was so quickly swamped.”

“I remember it listing, the life boats, the panic. Nearby ships couldn’t get near us, the sea was so bad. We were in the same life boat and a wave came and you disappeared.”

“Washed overboard,” I said. “The water was freezing, I thought I was a goner, so far from land I had no chance.”

“You turned up on Stanley three weeks later and wouldn’t talk about it.” He accused.

“No,” I shook my head. “But now…” I broke off and looked at my watch. “Sorry, I have to have my medication, it’s late.”

“I’m staying in a B&B, I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Thanks old mate,” I smile, grasping his hand firmly. “I look forward to it.” We exchanged meaningful glances, and I wish I had contacted him years ago.

It is a fine morning today. The sun is bright, the air crisp and I feel relatively strong. Ken is coming soon and I want to sit in the summer house and tell him my story. I am feeling nervous, not quite sure how he will react, or if he’ll even believe me. We’ve been through a lot together him and me, both joining the navy at the same time and seeing the world together. As I gaze up at the sky, the clouds wispy, the sun threading its way through the trees and filtering in golden puddles, I think of those days, of that day, the day the promise was made to me. Even now when I am old, when my bones creak like the oaks and my eyes begin to fail me, I begin to doubt myself. Memory changes with time, and the senses play tricks. But, as I gaze down the gun barrel of eternity, my diseased body failing me, I wonder what is to come. One thing is for certain, I must see the sea again, I must keep my side of the bargain. But when its over, when they’ve said prayers over my body and people have wept, I want my ashes to be scattered off Land’s End. It seems fitting that I should spend my death in the sea, the same way I spent my life. And it has been a good, full, long life, I regret nothing – apart from a few drunken brawls and a handful of liaisons with women whose morality and sometimes gender is in question. A wife in every port? No, just a string of drunken gropes, the odd slap and the occasional reprimand from a superior But, I lived my life, and I’m proud of that. I didn’t spend it behind a desk, slave to a bored boss.

My old dad would be proud of me. He was in the navy too, the merchant and then the royal. His ship was torpedoed by a U-boat but he survived to tell the tale. Ended up becoming chief engineer in a battle ship. I’ve seen action too, the Falkland war was my personal Trafalgar. What a bloody mess that was, to the edge of the world to defend a few penguins – I shalln’t go into that, I haven’t the energy – besides, Ken will be here shortly and I need to talk to him.

“You alright old son?” Ken says, clapping me on the back.

“Fine.” The summer house is a nice, healthy space. Windows look upon lawns and oaks, and the road is a distant rumble. There is nobody else here, just me and Ken. We sit opposite each other, and listen to the rain on the roof. “Tea?” I ask Ken.

“How about coffee,” he leans towards me conspiratorially.

“I don’t really…”

“With a slug of this,” he takes a bottle of rum from his coat.

“That’s the ticket,” I grin.

“So,” Ken was telling me a story. “He poked me in the chest and told me that if he ever saw me again he would report me to my captain!”

“What did you say?”

“If I ever saw him again I would make sure his captain knew about his first officer’s wife!” we laugh together and feel good.

“Do you remember Vic?” I ask.

“Vic…” Ken ponders. “Vic Swift?” I nod. “Yes, mad bloody bastard, always getting into fights with the locals. He joined the marines I think.” For a moment we are lost in the past, reliving old memories, revisiting old friends.

“I was rescued,” I clear my throat.

“Course you were, all we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Ken, I…”

“Did we rescue you, or one of the Falk Landers?”

“I don’t know.”

“What sort of boat was it?”

“There was no boat.” Ken looks at me, confusion written across his face.

“There has to have been, we were miles out, and the sea was a hell of a mess.”

“I know, but I am telling you the truth.”

“You must be mistaken; the exposure, the cold…”

“No,” I shake my head.

“Do you remember Stinky Taylor and Oxo?” I shrug.

“She was a woman.”

“A?”

“A woman. She rescued me and swam me to shore. I recovered on a small island and she took care of me. She was beautiful.” I muse. “She said I was brave, that she would save me and make sure I was safe. She said that…” I broke off, noticing Ken’s expression.

“Do you need some tablets old son?” he asks.

“No, I’m fine.”

The rain has stopped now, and the clouds move across the sky like mourners at a funeral. The sun begins to shine, a watery, sour light that seems full of grey. Ken seems distant, unable to believe me, unable to want to. We talk of old times – share jokes, reminisce

about those we loved and those we wished loved us. “Look Ken,” I continue. “She made me a promise.”

“A promise?”

“Yes. She said we would meet again, that when I needed her most she would come and save me once more.”

“Tom,” his voice is gentle. “It is impossible to be rescued by anyone that far out, unless they were aboard a vessel.”

“She towed me, dragged me ashore and kept me warm.”

“No wonder you’ve never told me, you knew I would never believe you. It’s a good story though. But Tom, we were in the south Atlantic!”

“I know. But it’s true.”

“Ok old son, ok.”

“I can prove it.” I pulled a smooth, round pebble from my pocket and showed it to Ken. It had a symbol etched into it that looked like a pair of ripples with a wave in the centre. “She gave it to me.”

“What was her name?” Ken asks.

“I don’t know,” I shrug.

“Pretty stone, nice pattern, but it proves nothing.”

“Why would I lie!” I raise my voice and it hurts my chest. Ken sits back and fixes me with his green eyes. “I can prove it all,” I whisper. “This is where the favour comes in.” I try to smile but it doesn’t feel right on my lips.

“Go on old son, ask away.”

“When it’s time will you take me to a beach, a secluded beach in Cornwall?”

“Course I will.” He says, not hesitating. “But it isn’t a favour, it’s a pleasure.” For the first time in my life, I notice a tear glistening at the corner of his eyes. He sniffs, coughs and clears his throat. “Bloody rum,” he says self consciously.

“I will prove it to you, she will keep her promise.”

“Of course she will,” Ken says, pacifying me.

“I’ll call you.”

“Right. But don’t leave it too long. We’ve still a lot to talk about.” We shake hands and he leaves the summer house.

I am tired today. My daughter has visited me and given me cake, advice and love. Or, cake, a lecture and patronising pampering. We never did see eye-to-eye; she could never understand why I went to sea and left her behind for so long. Salt runs in my veins and soil runs in hers. I don’t think she even learned to swim. Everyday I yearn for the sea, I want to be near it with every fibre of my soul. I long to smell the air, hear the gulls, listen to the pounding surf and watch the sun boil into the ocean at the end of the day.

The doctor never says much, he just looks at my chart, asks me a few questions, tuts and nods. I think the medication is doing its job, but I can’t really be sure, all I know is that sometimes I feel strong enough to hobble, and sometimes I need to be pushed along in a wheelchair. Today, I think is a wheelchair day. Young Alexander is coming with his friend from the radio. I think his name is Paul something, but I can’t remember. If it is warm enough I’ll sit in the garden. I had a chat with another patient today, a retired soldier. Nice chap, we’ve a lot in common. I spoke to Ken on the telephone too – he is fine, wants to visit, but I don’t want to see him until it’s the proper time. Everything, I think, has its right time, its right place in the scheme of things. I think I believe in fate, but am not governed by it, that’s lazy, it absolves us from responsibility. Dorothy went to church, I only went at Christmas.

My son flew over from Canada. He spoke with my doctor and there were tears in his eyes. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years and it was wonderful. He’s a fisherman, and I’m proud of him. He said he loves me, and I said it back. It’s strange to see a grown man cry; makes me feel embarrassed somehow. Today there is a heavy frost and a real nip in the air. The grass is white and stiff, the morning quite beautiful, I saw Venus, and it made me smile. I keep thinking of the men I knew, the men I shared the best part of my life with. I often wonder what they’re doing now; they’re old of course, but I hope life has treated them well, and not made their hearts too full of sorrow.

Well, today is definitely a wheelchair day. I can’t eat or drink, I am in pain and feel rather sorry for myself. I think about the woman, the beach, the island. Remember how we made love before she took me to Stanley. The sky was deep blue above us and she kissed me. It was the single most powerful experience of my life. The love making seemed so natural and genuine. I can’t remember her face any more, it’s a bit of a blur. But, most things are nowadays. I can no longer read and the television is a dirty blob of colour in the corner of the room. I listen to the wireless but it’s full of football and electronic drums that make my head ache.

They’ve increased my medication and this makes me sleep a lot. Last night I dreamed I was aboard ship again. When I woke up I was disappointed because I was still here, in this room, this shrine to the past. When I woke up I looked at my old photos and I started to cry.

I never wanted to know how long I have left, never wanted the pressure of knowing, of planning what to do. But, today I wanted to know, I wanted to find out how much time stretches before me. I knew there wouldn’t be much, I knew my body was losing the war against the illness. The doctor, handsome young man who reminds me of Clarke Gable told me I only have weeks. I was really quite brave, Dorothy would have been proud of me. But now, as I sit and watch the sun dip low, the light orange, the sky a rare shade of purple, I feel more alone than I have ever felt before. Of course I have had times when I’ve been afraid, scared even. The Falklands war, the power of the storm and the immensity of the ocean. But there is something different now, something final and daunting. I search my mind, evaluate and revisit old beliefs and prejudices. I weigh them against my situation, measure them against my faith and discover I have very little faith. I think it would be good to have faith, good to have a comfort blanket or safety net. But the only thing I really believe in is her, and she mightn’t even exist.

When I was a young man in the merchant navy I read the bible. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t change my life; I just felt sorry for the man called Jesus because it seemed that he tried his best, but ultimately the odds were stacked against him. I’ve tried to read it again since, but I keep putting it down because God always seems so angry, so proud. If there is a god I don’t want him to be like that, I want him to be merciful and great. I think the Buddhist have got it right, they keep themselves to themselves and seem happy. But then you see those druid-types dancing around Stonehenge during the summer solstice – they seem happy, no hang-ups, no issues, just nature, gods and ancestors. I wonder what my ancestors think of me? Are they proud? I hope my father is.

Today is a bad day. The rain is hissing down in bad tempered sheets that make the windows rattle. I can hear thunder, and it is gloomy. I’ve rung my daughter and told her I’m fine. I’ve rung my son and told him I’m fine. I’ve rung Ken and told him to come in today. I hope the weather will be fine – we’ll see. Oh, I met that Paul chap, he’s blind, nice man. Says that some sacred promises come true. I laughed at him because he sounded like a nutter. He didn’t take it personally, he just muttered something about trust. Young Alexsander told me this Paul chap is some kind of a psychic. Personally I don’t hold with such nonsense, I believe in practical solutions to real problems. But I suppose I’m a hypocrite because I believe in her. The woman in the middle of the ocean.

We sit on a bench, the sun is shining and the sea is in my nostrils. I feel happy, the sensation of the sand, the sound of the waves make me feel as though I’ve come home. “You ok?” Ken asks.

“Never been better,” I lie. “Just a bit tired, but happy Ken, very happy.”

“Good, I’m pleased Tom.” He fixes me with an intense stare and gazes out to sea.

“You know Ken, it took every ounce of will and strength to get here.” I tap the bench. “I am so weak I could cry.”

“Do you want some medication?”

“No, I can do without it.”

“How’s the pain?”

“I’ve had worse days.”

“And better ones?” I nod my head.

“Yes.”

“You know Tom, we could go back, it’s not too late, it would only take a few hours.”

“We’re here now, and I want to prove it to you.”

“Forget about it Tom, it doesn’t matter. Just think about yourself and try to get better.”

“Come on Ken,” I laugh, “We both know it’s too late for that. What time’s sunset?”

“In about twenty minutes.”

“Good. You need to get me as close as you can to the sea.”

“Can you walk? I don’t think I can push the chair through the sand.”

“You’ll have to help me,” I say breathlessly.

The beach is deserted, the sun is a red ball that kisses the golden sea. It is beautiful and we both have tears in our old eyes. “This is it Ken,” I say, a lump in my throat.

“Do what you have to do old son,” Ken says, a hand on my shoulder. I take the pebble from my pocket and kiss the pattern. I throw it as far out as I can, I use all my remaining strength. We stand and wait, the lacy foam washing about our feet.

“Sorry, I don’t think anything is going to happen,” Ken says. The sun is a bright line on the horizon, and the sky is a deep blue. I can see the moon, it shares the sky with the sun, and there is magic in the air.

“Wait,” I whisper. Then we see it, a figure walking down the beach towards us. A woman, naked and beautiful. My heart pounds, and I recognize her. She stand shyly at my side, the pebble clutched in damp fingers.

“I keep my promise,” she whispers. “I have come to save you again.” Ken stares dumbstruck as she takes my hand. “I saw you,” she turns to Ken. “On the life boat, before the wave came.” Ken’s mouth opens, but he cannot speak. “I swim many miles, dive many fathoms. Will you come with me?” I nod my head and we walk into the surf.

 

 

All text copyright BJ Edwards
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