Sea Breach by Jonathan Durie

Neil has fallen into the rhythm of the local paper. He’d worked in a bigger office in the capital. He didn’t miss the hassle. He's a writer with no particular ambition and so this is solid, easy work; bin collections, local council meetings, guess the year black-and-white photographs. Neil checks the grammar and never misses a comma.

As editor, he’s stopped worrying about the content so much. People read local papers for comfort, he reasons to himself when it rains at night. When half four comes the day is up. Neil shuffles ragged memos and drafts into his leather accordion briefcase and scurries out.

Neil has a squat, white-washed slate cottage on the upper edge of the village. He grows rosemary in a shaded nursery bed and cooks Italian food. The linguine boils and he thinks of his grandmother in Barga all those years ago. All her pasta that he pouted at as a toddler; he has questions for her now. His cat, Nettles, leaps on to the side board in a desperate plea for attention. The cat wants to be let out to pee in the basil. The rotting half-moon leaves of the basil plant are irresistible to the cat, apparently. On nights like tonight Neil has to trudge along the headlight-flashing road between his house and the corner shop; a long walk to buy a miserable tub of dried basil.

The village is so barren the shop isn't even in it. Nobody ever visits the hidden bay miles off the road with the cottage rows corded around. There's no reason why not; there's a long narrow beach, a stubby half-reclaimed harbour, a grey church with a granite war memorial. Even the red sandstone stacks of the former quarry at the far end of the beach have an appeal. The architects obviously went out of their way to make it as generic a coastal village as they could. From his cottage you can barely see how the white-washed hotel is boarded up with its windows painted black. The pub looks open from a distance with its jolly anchor sign swinging. Chance would be a fine thing, Neil thinks. The village has been a shell for years but they keep it pristine as a film set. The house lights in the village flicker off around nine p.m. Neil uses the lighting change as a prompt to pick his book up and go to bed. Outdoors, the curved Victorian gas-lamps adapted for street lights give out a bleary orange light down in the village. Somebody should fix those, Neil thinks.

The Estate owns the village and all of the land around. Centuries of the same family drawing the profits of drained coal seams and unstable sandstone quarries. The Estate built the village as an act of charity to dependents a few hundred years before. The village was a cage for peasants, according to Neil’s colleges. All industry was now exhausted. The profits swept into trusts and the original family lost to history. The Estate maintained nothing but the old tollbooth, which was no more than a spindly white washed clock tower. Even that obligation had to be legally enforced by the Historic Trust. Neil kicks a thumb-sized stone on the gritted path. The stone judders off a fence post and spins into the road. A car horn blares and Neil looks up and spots movement. He slowly blinks away the car’s full beam and forces his eyes to adjust. Down in the village a band of men make their way up from the beach. Men in flat caps and frayed shirts climb the rocks in silence. Fifty or more walking men and all dripping wet in the cold night. A halo of steam comes off them. None shiver.

Neil steps forward, gawping at the multitude joining such an isolated sea road. The village couldn’t house that many. I should have checked the council website he thinks, there must be something on; a wicker man to burn or so. The gas lamps go out. Neil tuts and shuffles across the road.

A vintage silver BMW clips the back of his thighs and sends Neil sprawling onto the sandy gravel.

Elspeth took the corner blind and barely registers a dent in her car. Her grey hair is loose from a haphazard bun and the rough ends are electrified by her tweed jacket. She is speeding for the first time in her nearly seventy years. Sweat loosens her mascara. She must reach the village. She must be there. The road has never seemed so long or the tarmac so sparse. All of her father's drunken songs are thundering in her skull. All of those wild-eyed warnings are chiming with her now; you'll see where the wealth comes from, he'd said. You'll know when I show you the Tollbooth. Now Elspeth has the only key to the Tollbooth. Since she had no brothers she was bound to keep the key and the secret. Even though she’d never once used the title, she was Earl of the Estate. She had been warned. Wait until they come looking, my girl her father had said with a murderous drunken grin. That will be a black night indeed. Elspeth’s father had worn the key around his neck. She could not bear to do so.

The car rattled over the curb of the shuttered hotel, 'the Swan', her Grandfather's vanity project. Tourism could never work in a place so deliberately isolated, built to be ignored. The unreality of the village with all its empty ornamental buildings. Elspeth feels the familiar constriction on her throat. She remembers the photographer from the local paper snapping her Grandfather’s glinting face. In the great house there was a row of keys to every house, the pub, the hotel, every building except the tollbooth. Locks were never changed in the village. That had suited Elspeth’s Grandfather but not the women he visited. Elspeth ratchets the handbrake up too far and the car objects. She tries to snatch the key from the ignition with a rattling hand. She cannot and abandons the car, headlights on beaming down the sea road.

Why must I do this? Why must it be now? After all those fat, pompous red faced men had sucked the juice? I didn't take any part in it as an adult. I left for years. Elspeth's thoughts reel far back to good married years in the capital. She tries to picture her late husband’s smiling face. Her daughter is further away still. Life had freed her to attend to this.

The night breaks into her mind with the shuffling of boots. Elspeth swings out of the car and crosses the headlights. Fifty dark haired men with black eyes stare up the road at Elspeth. They’ve brought no lights. They smell a perfect silhouette of her.

Elspeth raises her voice, even though it quakes, to say I cannot fight you.

She knows the men will not address her though they hear perfectly. They are tall and strong and their muscles are restless in the mist. They hesitate and she senses a fleck of either dread or pity. She studies the faces they turn down or away.

Promise me you will leave.

Elspeth sobs at the only concession left:

I will unlock the Tollbooth.

The men move as a body to close the gap between themselves and Elspeth. They pick up great handfuls of the woman with instinctive symmetry. They lift her with ease up, over their heads, moving like a great shoal together.

Neil hobbles down the road. Whoever the bitch was she can take me to hospital, he thinks. Imagine running someone over and then disappearing! Neil’s whole thigh is a bruise and electric to the touch. How do I drive to work in the morning with this? He lengthens his gait to try and stretch the muscles. He recalls the blue of the dashboard light on her face; an underlined grimace. Maybe she was on something, he thinks. You hear about old people and drug cocktails all the time; they suddenly have funny reactions and after-effects. He reaches the car with the door open and the headlights on and the engine running. Radio Four is turned up and blaring. She must be deaf as well. Nobody's in that much of a hurry, he thinks. A tall, muscular man with black hair skitters into a run towards the tower of the Tollbooth down the road. Neil gestures to him:

Mate, whose car is that back there? She hit me and I'm fucking bruised and soaked. Mate!

The man turns to Neil in his thin cotton shirt and rough wool trousers. Must be freezing dressed like that, Neil thinks. The man's face seems crammed in; his teeth are cracked, his eyes seem too impossibly black to have whites. He's grotesque but he smiles, this man. Weirdo, Neil thinks reflexively; big mistake talking to him.

We're taking the Earl to bed.

The man speaks in a strained voice like sand poured over rock, there is a shiver of a smile around his cramped mouth. He’s smoked too many cigarettes. Rotted his voice box, Neil thinks to himself. Neil opens his mouth to reply, to ease things, but his attention is torn away. A tight circle of men walk down the road behind Mark. They tread softly, and Neil wheels around and falls against the street light as they cover the tarmac. All their fierce attention is on the burden they bear. An elderly woman held aloft from head to ankles by many hands. She stares upwards. Her body is tight and clenched like prey. Neil can hear her short raking breaths.

Neil can’t force himself to interrupt. The endless pupils of their eyes and their mountainous shoulders subdue him. His throat feels thick and dry and he swallows heavily. The men glance at Neil placidly. The woman is set down tenderly, hand over hand, at the foot of the clock tower. They’re not hurting her, Neil thinks. She’s part of the ritual, she’s in on it. Elspeth slides an oxidized key into the heavy wooden door and is moved aside. One of the men wrenches the key so hard that the whole door skips up off the lintel. All of these men together could surely have torn the door off the hinges. They wanted the key, surely. Men cross the threshold of the tollbooth. They tread carefully. The interior of the bottom cell of the tollbooth is shallow; black moss puckers the walls. A lonely slab of sandstone leaning against the inner wall. Neil hears a heavy metal scraping across stone. He turns to see over the shoulders and heads of the men. He’s trying to catch the old woman’s hand through the crowd. If I can even brush her hand she might leave her trance, Neil thinks. Her eyes never leave the interior of the Tollbooth. A smell of coal dust filters into the night from the interior room. If Neil could shake the woman awake they could run. Someone in the village would call the police.

The men part from the centre as if magnetically repelled. Elspeth wants to cover her eyes. She wants to scream herself hoarse. She hears the familiar skip and swish of the creature. An unmistakable sweet, cloying smell eclipses the coal dust. How can it still be alive? Elspeth feels the scuffle and skiff as the thing shifts weight agonizingly forward across the cobble stones. She was eleven years old when she last shone a torch on the thing that now drew close. Her father sharpened a thin knife on a flint in the tollbooth as she looked down through the circular iron grate. Her heart seemed to beat high and hard under her tongue. Her father handed her the sharp knife and said:

Make a mark.

Even in the dark the colour of the beast was singular. Claret drops on mottled flesh, tufts of hair and white lines scoring where the skin has been cropped; the great worm glistens and Neil feels sick. The torn animal pulls itself down towards the pavement on scabs. A low moan escapes as it slithers onto the tarmac. Neil is mesmerized by eyes of a milky steel colour fixed on the sea. The thing must be blind and demented with pain, Neil thinks. The worm flashes bare teeth at the woman. The men form a guard around the creature. Neil spots a red tail like a sore flower dragging behind the worm. A form replicates in his mind. The creature is a seal. They’ve flayed a seal. Neil reels away from the men at the sheer sickness. What did they do? Torture the animal? Why would they keep it alive in such vicious pain? The men form two long rows like pews pointing towards the beach. The wounded seal at the centre, they march towards the beach.

Elspeth is offered the hand of the last man. He looks down at her with faint recognition. Thomas? He looks like her father’s valet, Thomas. He hasn’t aged a day over twenty by the looks of him. His cheekbones are still sharp and his skin pitted with acne. Elspeth first met him when she was three and here she is frail at seventy. He could easily be a hundred years old and yet he has forearms like knotted ropes. Elspeth studies him trying to remember if she ever heard about his death. A palm as cool as wet rock and his hand fully encompassed her knuckles. Elspeth thought of all the shame and guilt she’d pushed away. How much she’d feared the reckoning and cursed her birth throughout her adult life. Yet Thomas looks at her plainly, with the same calm eyes she’d known as a child. Elspeth squeezes his hand.

Neil’s thigh is burning now as he tries to keep up with the procession. He couldn’t find an angle to intercept the deadening momentum of the marchers. The car had hit him harder than he’d allowed and his leg was swelling in his jeans. He tries to massage and compress his thigh with puffy fingers whilst he limps. The men reach the beach and walk at a steady pace towards the surf. Neil drags his leg as he slithers over the rocks. The men glide over uneven stones, greasy kale and dead wood with an undisturbed tread. Even the flayed creature seems graceful on the sand. Sea coals crack and pods of seaweed pop under Neil’s steps. He stumbles trying to catch up.

The perished rubber band that had held back Elspeth’s curls ruptures. Her hair rolls over her shoulders in sheaves blown into a frame by the wind. The men keep up their steady drive for the sea. Elspeth has planned for this. She has ducked under in her bath. She can hold her breath for four minutes. Her feet begin to soak as the water breaches her tight leather shoes. Thomas’ grip closes as they drive deeper and deeper into the water. Her chest, her shoulders, her neck feel the waterline. The bed of stones beneath her feet slope way and she is flying in the water. The flayed creature is gone. Flat caps and trousers float around Elspeth. A white shirt snags on her fingers as she stops and tries to kick back towards the sand. Thomas swims on, relentless.

Neil is writhing on his side fighting for breath as dark specks roll across his vision. Sand circles his hair as he tries to hold up his head. He tries to visualize the tide line as the figures melt against the water. Are they swimming away? He can’t seem to keep focus; is the old woman fighting now? She’s digging in and being dragged like a rag doll by a bare arm. She’s pulled horizontal by the calm, powerful insistence of the grip. Her back is a ridge in the calm waters. Neil attempts to concentrate all of his remaining energy on seeing the woman. Surely she will drown, Neil thinks. His head throbs and sweat pours down his spine. Spatters of rain dent the sand near his eye. His vision skips just for a second and his mind rolls to the elements, his injured leg and this lonely beach. The horizon is almost entirely dark.

Neil gathers his entire will and forces his attention out to sea. He has to stay awake. The woman has disappeared in the length of a low wave. She’s slipped under and drowning, surely. He sobs as he scans for bubbles in the foam of waves. He drags himself forward on his chest. He can feel the damp scour his bones and he shivers. He slides over the clotted sand and works his arms and good leg until they burn. He slithers over the seaweed and can’t stop himself from getting a mouthful of seawater. A flat cap laps into his chest as the tide rolls further and further in. Neil flops over onto his back and tries to anchor himself in the dissolving sand by a heel. The waves lift him high under his arm pits and out on a web of foam. He scrabbles in the rocky shallows, exhausted as the current catches at him. Long shadows form in the otherwise dull sea. In his thrashing fever he tracks sweeping movement in the grey depths. A fleck of silver arcs past him as he pushes his chin above the surface. His ankle feels warm and held. His jeans are caught and tangled in a sharp edge. A painful stiffness overtakes his injured leg. He’s lost a shoe. He can no longer kick out in the congested water. He begins to sink. He takes in a full breath for a last thrust upwards and a sudden rip from bellow brings him under the frenzied waves. He drops into a world of muzzles and bristles. A plume of oxygen flushes out of his heavy laden chest. Neil’s temple batters against a rock.

A dozen sharp black eyes look out on the silence above. A heron cries out and pushes over the bay on long grey wings. A single kitchen light is visible from high above the water. The sea is thick with flat caps, woolen trousers and cotton shirts. A tweed skirt runs up the beach and is buried in the sand.