Sublimation

‘It’s his passion,’ said Tom.

Tom and I had taken a stroll along the coast after lunch that day in January. The sky matched the roaring sea in its white-grey livery. When I licked my lips, I tasted salt. I was staying at Tom’s house over Christmas and New Year. He lived further down the beach in a lovely old, weather-beaten cottage. The pebbles under foot and punishing wind made our pace slow. We clutched our winter coats close. I spotted the man, half naked, in the shallows. He was a stout middle-aged man with a white beard. He was bent double over the foaming sea as it swept about his waist. He then stood up straight to face the milky horizon. I asked Tom who he was. Tom said it was old Nick, a fisherman here on the coast. I said I didn’t think people came with the prefix ‘old’ anymore. Like ‘Ma’. And he didn’t seem ‘old’ anyway. Tom said he thought it was Nick’s choice of prefix. Nick bent over again to face the water. A few moments later he stood again. He repeated this motion over and over. I called to him and asked what he was doing. The wind snatched the words and Nick heard nothing. He bowed again to the churning sea. It was then Tom told me it was his passion.

‘That’s what he calls it,’ Tom explained. ‘Never says what he’s doing or why, just that it’s his passion and he’s there every day. Bowing in the waves.’

I asked if the action is his passion or the sea itself. Tom shrugged, he didn’t know. We carried on walking and left Old Nick to his genuflecting.

We were sat around the dinner table when there was a knock at the door. Tom’s wife Julia opened the front door as we heard her say ‘Hello Father.’ She returned with a tall, strong looking man behind her who was dressed all in black. Julia offered him a seat which he took as he removed his coat and scarf. Tom apologised that we had just eaten but would he like some wine? Yes, he would. I watched as the three of them chatted. They talked of local politics and parish news. Logs popped in the fireplace with a spray of orange embers. When a calm appeared, I asked the priest why he had stopped by. He smiled and said the Wallers had invited him. They thought I could do with a chat. I sighed. I told him I wasn’t interested in the pitch but thank you for trying.

‘I can see that, son. And I ain’t sellin. There’s not as much preachin in this business as you might think. Most of my job is listenin. Listenin for things most people don’t hear. And I can hear you screamin at me from across the table without you makin a peep.’ He took a slow mouthful of wine. ‘A common question people ask in your position is ‘Why?’ And then they yell at me that God’s a monster, why did Jesus do all that sufferin and why did prayin do no good? And you know what? I’ve read the books, I’ve seen the films, watched the TV shows, seen the scientist rain down a fire of knowledge against the pious priest and heard all the arguments against what I do. I know the rhetoric and to be honest, I’m done with the argument. I don’t have an answer for any of that shit.

‘Couple o’years back kids went missin round here. Boys and girls. Between nine and fifteen. In the end there were nineteen of them had vanished before they caught the bastard. He was some wealthy old toff who lived on the hill. Owned a load of property in the town. Praised as a hero by local businesses and the papers before he was found out. He drowned em he said. They asked him why and he said he didn’t know. Turned out he had early stages of Alzheimers. Even he didn’t know why he’d been doing it. I want to believe God made him do it for a reason but all the parents I talked to that long year showed me why. Suffering. We all suffer, some more than others and I choose to believe this makes us stronger. But that ain’t a reason. That ain’t why. Because there isn’t a reason. Whether you believe in God or not, there ain’t a reason.’

I was folding my clothes and putting them in my bag the next morning. The floorboards creaked and echoed around the walls as I passed over the square of light from the window. It was a fog smeared day. The sea and sky a uniform, rippling grey. Save for the bowing figure in the shallows. Old Nick stood up straight again, waist deep in the waves, framed in my window. I watched him for many long minutes as he continued his ritual. He bowed low and stayed there then stood again. The waves lapped at him, buffeting him back and forth. There was a knock on my bedroom door and Tom came in. He said he was going for an afternoon pint and if I wanted to come. I agreed but just needed to finish packing. I’d meet him downstairs in ten. I turned back to the window as Tom left. Old Nick had gone. A set of dimples in the shingle stretching away from the shallows the only evidence the sea hadn’t swallowed him.

The Trident pub was almost empty. We found a table near the fire. The cold midday sun through the clouds cast white light into the room. We didn’t talk, it would have filled the pub, we just enjoyed the quiet. It was freezing outside but wearing my thick jumper and sitting by the fire was almost too hot. Combined with the beer I was drowsy. I looked out at the sea and the endless sky through the large Victorian windows. I told Tom, in a muted tone, I saw Nick again, bowing to the sky. Or the sea. Whichever. He shrugged and said he didn’t think Nick was doing any harm, just a ritual. A man at the bar turned to us.

‘A superstition really. Some men have a rabbit’s foot or don’t walk under ladders. Some men pray to God or worship a football team. Nick wants to fend off the sea. His Dad drowned when he was a teenager. They used to fish together, his Dad taught him how. They got caught in a storm one day. Bad one. You can guess the rest. Life doesn’t care if it’s a cliché or not. Nick made it back to shore but left town soon after. He came back a few years later a man of the world. He goes out to the sea, I think, to beg reprieve. Ask it to spare him before he goes out fishin’ again. Or after fishin’. To thank it for getting him home safe. A lovely fella, Nick. Doesn’t come out often, but he’s a gent. I say let him have his superstitions. Or rituals, if you prefer. Anyway, cheers.’

The man raised his pint at us. We returned the gesture with a nod. I finished my drink and stared into the glass. Tom patted me on the back. I nodded. The fire crackled and the floor creaked as he went to the bar.

My wife and I never visited Tom and Julia here, they always came to stay with us. More to see and do in London I suppose. Damn sight cheaper up here, mind you. Our first Christmas together was spent on a futon on the floor. We had only moved in the week before and didn’t have any furniture. She still made Turkey though. In that shit oven. I got her a necklace, she made me a jacket. It was bright red. Wore the damn thing through. When we started furnishing the house we said we’d leave the spare room empty till we needed to fill it when she got pregnant. It’s still empty. What I never realised about marriage was its mundanity. You propose and pledge in the heat of desire and even the wedding, after a year of arduous preparation, is lit with a fire of passion, but a marriage is details: Keep the toothbrush in the cup. Insurance paid on the 7th. Birthday on the 12th. Key in the drawer. Her glasses on her book. Alarm for 6.15. №5 Mascara. Doesn’t like mashed potatoes. You end up ignoring the tree for the leaves. They say life only exists as a symbiotic chain. Living cells bond to form an organism, organisms combine to form an ecosystem, ecosystems form a planet and so on. Think of all the inert objects used to build a car. Alone they are static, together they move at sixty miles per hour. Then what is life? Or what makes life, Life? The smudge on her spectacles? The hair in the sink? The tissue in the bin? Everything put together would make my wife, surely? In the same way as life is a reaction to an aggregate of cellular processes? Or are all these things now just stars circling a black hole?

My phone rang that evening. It was my boss asking if I was still coming back to work on Monday. I said I was, but she didn’t seem to mind if I took longer off if I was enjoying myself. I said I wasn’t, I wanted to get back to work. The break had been lovely, but I needed to get back to real life. She said she understood but to still take it easy. When we hung up I tried reading again but was too distracted. I picked the phone back up and called my sister. She was getting the kids to bed so sounded distracted too. I apologised and said I could call back, but she seemed keen to talk. I asked her how Christmas was, she said quiet and different. I agreed.

‘Everything’s different isn’t it? The world’s just such a mess right now. I feel sorry for the kids. Where are we even going to be in ten years? We just didn’t realise the damage we were doing. Or maybe we did, and we just didn’t care, I don’t know. Every time new year comes around I just think what did I do last year and what do I do this year? I mean the world’s gotta change, right? We can see that now but how? Who’s gonna change it? And even then, life just gets in the way of that. Earthquakes, volcanoes, Tsunamis. What’s even the point in any of it? I’m sorry, I just… Last year, y’know? I can’t imagine how you feel. I look at the kids and they’re oblivious to all of it. I mean they’re aware, but they don’t understand it yet. What are we leaving them? It’s gonna be an uphill battle for the next generation let me tell you. But what can we do? Not much is there? And then you feel guilty for trying to ignore it again. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to dump this on you. Will you come and visit again soon? The kids miss you. I miss you…’

I told her I would. I’d love to see them all again soon. It would be a nice diversion for everyone. I told her I had to go as I had a long drive tomorrow and needed to sleep but to give the kids a kiss for me and wish Jerry well. Hanging up was like a door closing on a party. All the lights and sound disappeared suddenly and the silence that leapt in to replace it pressed against my skin. Dark rushing in to fill the light’s absence. I put my book aside, turned off the lamp and went to sleep.

A bad dream woke me early. A cold, dawn light was growing in the room. I got up and drew the curtains. In the pale light I saw a figure walking across the shore, removing his thick cable knit jumper as he went. It was Nick. He waded out into what must have been the icy surf and began his prayer. Or his ritual. Or his superstition. The house was silent. The beach was empty. I threw on my warm clothes I had left out to travel in and stepped out of the house. The morning wind was bitterly cold. It was still gloomy as I approached the figure bowing in the tide. I stopped where the water lapped at my soles. Nick was a few feet in front of me. He must have known I was there as the pebbles had crunched and rattled as I approached. If he did, he did not acknowledge my presence. I watched him with his head tilted back, breathing deep, then bowed forward. Then I saw what he was doing. He was dunking his face into the sea. His face submerged, there he stayed. I watched for him to resurface. And waited. After longer than I could hold my breath I shifted, wondering whether to stop him, when I saw him jerk. He twitched violently, convulsing, when he lifted his head he vomited a mix of sea water, bile and blood into the ocean. He coughed hard. I jumped into the waves and grabbed him just as he stood straight to face the sky again. He turned to face me with wide, penetrating eyes, foam caught in his beard, water streaming from his nose, blood and vomit crusting his mouth. He was shuddering to near titanic convulsions. We stayed there for a moment, him staring, me horror struck.

‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘My passion, boy.’

The tide was coming in and broke against us, unbalancing us but we stayed put. The biting cold burned into my legs and abdomen, the icy wind pinching my ears.

‘Your passion is to drown yourself?’

‘Have you never heard of baptism? I’m washed clean every day.’

‘I don’t think God would want you drowning Old Man. Now let’s get you -’

‘God? Are you a fool, boy? There isn’t a God. Don’t be so naive.’

‘Then…but why the… the “Baptism”? Are you just trying to drown yourself?’

‘Yes!’ Nick gripped me by both shoulders, his face lit with a wild delight. ‘When you breathe in that water the you from yesterday dies. Drowns. And you can leave him in the waves. Then a new you comes out, alive and reborn. Starting a new life, every day, for you to give a new meaning to it all. There’s no meaning to any of this. You create your own. You see? The closer to death the more you see the reason to live.’

‘You’re breathing the water into your lungs?! Do you know how much damage you’re doing to them? It’ll kill you! You might not drown but it will kill you.’

‘So what? You think we’re important? Whatever has happened to you, let it go. Give your own life meaning. Be reborn.’

With that he shoved me bodily into the surf and held me there. I was so surprised I didn’t have time to take a full breath and the painful freeze of the water was like a bolt of lightning across my skin. As a reflex I gasped at the stinging cold, salty water filled my mouth making me gag. Panic flooded my body as I writhed in agony trying to wrest myself free from Nick’s stone grip. I tried to cough as I gagged but my body immediately wanted to draw breath and sucked in two lungfuls of freezing sea water. I had never known agony like it. Like being stabbed from the inside. My whole existence screamed in pain and terror, begging for air, for warmth. All played out in near total silence. I could hear the sea rolling and my faltering heart beat pounding my oxygen starved blood into my neck and ears. My thrashing faded, and I felt myself slipping downward into the dark. And then I saw her, swimming up through the dark, her hair floating like a mist around her face, and I let go. I reached for her with open arms.

I was heaved, bodily from the ocean and landed on the hard, stone beach. I vomited a thick stream of sea water and stomach acid that poured out in violent gushes. it stung as sharply on the way out. I soiled myself at the same time. My body purging itself in terror and preservation. Then I coughed. Deep heaving coughs. Coughs that made me gag and vomit again. But I sucked in the cold, fresh, pure, crystalline air like a starving man at a feast. My lungs caught fire afresh. Every gasp was like a blossom of flame in my breast.

‘That’s it, get it out. Clear it out.’

I couldn’t protest. I could barely think. I was shivering so violently. I could see Nick putting his shirt and jumper back on.

‘That feeling? When a baby is born that’s what its first breath of air feels like. He’s been living with water in his lungs for nine months and then out he comes. Into this oxygen rich world. You think your lungs hurt? A baby’s skin has never felt the touch of air, never been anything but body temperature and surrounded by water. No wonder they scream.’ Nick came and sat beside my foetal form. ‘You’ve just been born, boy. That old you? Dead. Rolling in that wash. You’re as fresh as a baby, lad. That’s how it feels. What are you gonna do with this new life? Be like Jesus? Born again? Make a meaning out of this life, boy. That’s where meaning comes from. Not God. You.’

He stood, patting me on the back as he did bringing a fresh wave of heaves and coughs. I started to cry. Not merely to clean the salt from my eyes but at the overwhelming, crushing, paralysing, wide-open expanse of that moment. Like a door had been opened again that had been shut for so long. A prison unlocked. The agony of experience flooding in like daylight to a room. Old Nick looked out at the sea, the wind fluttering his long white beard.

‘That ocean is full of the dead. Old Mes…’ He spat out a glob briney phlegm. ‘You know why the church call it ‘The Passion of the Christ’, lad? ‘ He began to walk away, calling over his shoulder, leaving me coiled in my own agony, still gasping like a beached fish drawing its first breaths of poisonous air. ‘In Latin Passi means “Suffer”. Passion is literally suffering. Choose how you suffer, lad. Choose your suffering.’

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

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Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.