The last days of June were warm and bright, and the calm sea spread itself in a vast sparkling invitation to sail, so the boat club was busy when Frank arrived for the last time. Act normal, he whispered to himself, inhaling deeply as he approached the bar. Act as if it’s just another Saturday.
‘Morning, Frank. Usual?’
‘Morning, Sally. Yes please, love.’
He always ordered the same breakfast: eggs, bacon, fried bread. Sally poured him a mug of coffee and watched him fumble with a teaspoon and sugar.
‘You look tired, Frank.’
‘You look lovely.’
‘Don’t change the subject,’ she chided, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Oh, I’ll survive. Didn’t sleep well, that’s all. This heat.’
Outwardly Frank looked in good shape for his seventy-five years. He was slim, medium height, straight-backed and tanned from his outdoor seaside lifestyle. He hadn’t shaved for a few days and sported salt and pepper stubble the same length as his close-cropped grey hair, on which rested a pair of battered sunglasses. He wore deck shoes, baggy shorts and a faded Spanish T-shirt from a family holiday decades ago, a sun-bleached souvenir of the better days when his wife was alive and their son was a boy.
He hadn’t expected to still be around this summer, and his doctors shared the same surprise. He could see it in their eyes at his increasingly frequent hospital appointments. Everyday life—climbing stairs, pulling on socks—had become a growing struggle, like sailing into the heart of a storm. He was being attacked from within. The pain and bouts of deterioration came and went, but the body as a whole managed to battle on.
His hand shook as he lifted the mug, and some of the coffee spilt onto Sally’s pristine bar. He hoped she wouldn’t notice, but he could tell that she did, and he saw that she pretended it had not happened. She knows, he thought. She knows I’m getting worse.
Frank settled at a corner table, away from the glare of the windows overlooking the beach. He watched other members arrive; parents yawning, teenagers absorbed in smartphones. Some of the old timers came over to talk to him about the membership fees going up and the repairs to the big winch that hauled the boats back up the beach. None of it mattered to Frank. Not now.
An hour later he was rolling the tarpaulin off his boat in the yard below the clubhouse. Tomfoolery gleamed in the sudden sunlight; fourteen feet of hand-crafted mahogany, bronze and thick varnish, the prettiest little sailboat in town. Frank asked two men who were working on the winch to help him, and the three of them rolled the boat on its trolley from the yard to the wooden slipway, then over shingle and sand to the water’s edge.
‘Lovely boat, this,’ one of the men said, running an oily hand gently over the immaculately smooth prow. ‘If you ever think of selling her, let me know.’
Frank smiled at him. ‘Maybe,’ he said, slightly out of breath. ‘Maybe.’
He climbed into the boat and the two men, unaware of the endeavour they were enabling, pushed him carefully out into the gentle waves which lapped the sand. Frank saluted his thanks, hoisted the mainsail, wedged himself on the slatted aft bench and drifted out into the crescent of the bay. There was little wind here, in the shelter of the harbour arm, and he had to coax the boat away from the beach, whispering to her like a lover: come away now, come away. Gradually the sail filled with sea breeze, the hull tilted and the tiller strained. That’s right. Let’s go now, just you and me.
Frank’s hands stopped shaking. He felt comfortable at sea. The familiar boat was an extension of his body, solid and reliable, unlike his flesh and blood, and he sailed her with unconscious competence, the way other people drove their cars.
The land receded. Distant beach sounds of dogs barking and children squealing carried to him across the surface of the water, and as he passed the jutting concrete slipways he could see anglers reeling in silver-glinting fish. The candy-striped beach huts and the white hotels lined up in military style on either side of the pier grew smaller and smaller. Then he turned his back on the coast and steered Tomfoolery further out to sea, pointing her bow at the invisible continent miles beyond the horizon, on the far side of the Channel’s busy shipping lanes. Ahead of him a procession of cargo ships and cruise liners was making stately progress from east to west, suspended in an impossible illusion above the heat-hazy horizon. He sailed out further than he had for years; two miles, three, five, nearly out of sight of the land. He would not be able to swim ashore from here, not in his condition.
He tied one end of a long red rope to the base of the mast. He dropped the coil into the water, and watched it unwind into the wake as the boat sailed gently on. A vivid memory flashed into his mind like an image from an old slide projector: his young son Tom jumping into the water and holding onto this same rope for fun, pulled along like a hooked fish.
He lashed the tiller and set the mainsail so that the boat would carry on gently on its true, straight course without him. He lowered himself into the cool water. He stroked the hull; off you go now, you’re free. In the enormity of the sea and sky the distant town looked thin and inconsequential now, a temporary, fragile cluster of man-made bric-a-brac perilously perched on the edge of the land. The world taunted the town, mocking its impermanence. Civilization looked like a flash in the pan from here, a quickly healing scar, a temporary blip on the vast radar of the universe. Frank surrendered himself to the elements. He imagined the depths beneath him and the vastness of the sky above, the invisible stars in the bright canopy. He span around, away from the coast, turning his back on the town so that all he could see was blue sea and blue cloudless sky and the boat a few yards ahead of him now, connected to him only by the umbilical cord of the rope. He let the rope pass through his hands, loosening his grip, letting the boat pull it through his fingers. The twine-whipped end arrived. He held it with his right hand only, letting his left arm sink below the surface of the water. How easy, how simple. Time to let go now. Time to let go.
His physical pains dissolved into the deep. He could move more easily, suspended and caressed by the healing salt water. His boat was twenty yards away now and he watched it as if seeing it for the first time, the wooden transom with its scrolled gold lettering. He loosened his grip on the rope a little more, finally pinching it only between his thumb and forefinger. He tasted salt in his mouth and felt the burn of the sun on his forehead. The rope slipped out of his grip and the boat pulled away.
For a moment he trod water on an invisible meridian between this world and the next. If he swam fast, he might just catch the rope. He pictured himself from far above, a gull’s-eye view of the boat and his head, tiny specks on the vast and glistening sea. What did he matter to the unforgiving ocean? What did anything matter? He was ready to go now. The sea would swallow him without noticing. Tides would rise and fall, ebb and flow without him, for ever and ever amen.
Then suddenly he was swimming hard to catch up, grasping at the water between him and the boat, but he could not find the rope.
Frank had bought the boat thirty years ago. He had taught Tom to sail in her. Kings of the Water, they called themselves, in the days when they used to race. Tom had grown to love sailing and had moved on to bigger yachts, greater challenges, serious ocean crossings. He was settled in Chicago now, a university lecturer with an American wife and two American children, and since Rose had died, the boat felt like the closest thing to family Frank had left. When he was aboard he felt Rose’s presence. He could picture the two of them sailing in the years after Tom had left home, heaving to on summer afternoons a mile offshore and skinny-dipping, lying naked in the boat, sipping Pinot Grigio from the bottle they towed in a net to keep it cold.
Rose was the one. He shouldn’t have let her down the way he did. He sometimes wondered if he would see her again—if heaven would allow it—so that he could say sorry once more; but his atheist heart always blocked the notion, and left the matter open like a wound that would not heal.
Tom sailed on Lake Michigan with his family now. He sent photographs. Here were Tom and his wife at the wheel, and there the kids jumping from the bow in some crystal-clear freshwater anchorage. They all looked happy. They wouldn’t miss old Frank, not now. He didn’t want to be a burden. Frank hadn’t told them about his illness; he didn’t want to bother them. He hated the thought of a long, drawn-out death, with Tom flying back and forth across the Atlantic to watch him fade away. He didn’t want to fritter the inheritance on care homes and expensive, speculative treatments. For what? A couple more years of pain and infirmity? Better to go now. Kings of the Water, he and Tom used to toast, clinking glasses in pubs after a race or a long passage. Better to be remembered that way.
He would live his life differently, he knew, if he were to be given a second chance. His failings sailed through his mind in a flotilla of shame; his selfishness, his faithlessness, his deceit. And then, bringing up the rear, his joys; the early days with Rose, walking and talking on the cliffs at Beachy Head. Kicking footballs with Tom in autumn-leaf parks. The crunch of friends’ car tyres on gravel outside their house, the snaps and bangs of wood fires in Christmas grates.
‘He died what he loved doing most. Sailing,’ Tom might say to his family and friends, sometime soon.
The breeze died abruptly. Frank had sailed to this point on a beam reach in light southerly airs, but now all was still, a hole in the wind. Even from his low vantage point in the water he could see that the surface around him had flattened to a milky marble. Tomfoolery’s mainsail flapped and sagged; the boat rocked gently and turned her bow slowly around to face Frank, the rope dangling in the water for him like the reins of a riderless horse.
The last days of September were warm and bright, and the boat club was busy when Frank arrived.
‘Morning, Frank. Usual?’
‘Yes please, Sally.’
Act normal, he told himself. Down below the windows he could see activity in the boatyard; sailors readying their craft for a final day’s sail before the winter set in.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
‘Kings of the Water’ is an extract from my novel, The Dogwatch, which is a work in progress.
Tim Barlow lives in Hastings, England. He has been writing on and off for much of the last fifty years but apart from a few pieces in anthologies, he is unpublished. He passed his Master's degree (with distinction) in Creative Writing from Hull University in 2022. He writes short stories and poems (which he reads at open mic poetry nights) and is working on a full-length novel called The Dogwatch. His work is mainly realist fiction. He is a member of Hastings Writers Group.