The Call of the Ocean
I’ve always felt it, this affinity with the sea. In those places where the sky meets the water. Where, in the dim light of dawn or dusk, it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
I remember, as a boy, in Pevensey Bay and Brighton, I would sit, clinging to my ice-cream or scoffing fish and chips—I couldn’t take my eyes from it. The swell. The foam. The dragging of those perfectly rounded pebbles out from the beach, only to be thrown back on to the shore again.
I remember, too, the first time it spoke to me. I looked up to my great aunt, clinging tightly to my hand, and said to that kind-yet-ancient face, drawn over with the lines of almost a century of salty air, “Does the sea ever speak to you?”
She broke into a jovial smile that she wore so often in those seemingly endless summers and said, “It speaks to us all, Ash. That’s the power of it. How can anyone not feel something in the face of it?” She gestured towards the water with a sweeping motion of her arm.
“But it really speaks to me, auntie. It calls my name.” I nodded down towards the pebble beach and we were both quiet for a moment. The tide was coming in, creeping up slowly to swallow the stones, to hide them away.
“Ash,” it said as the waves broke onto the pebbles. Then the water retreated, the sound of the shifting stones a percussive paragraph of mumbling, the odd word escaping the thunderous noise to find my ear.
“What else does it say?” My aunt was, I realise now, humouring me. But I shared with her those words I could fish out from the noise.
She looked at me, the smile that was forever wrought upon her face in my mind’s eye somehow askew.
“You can hear that?” she said, her eyes suddenly intense.
“Can’t you?” I said, turning my head once again out to the waves.
My relationship with the sea changed after she died. It became fleeting, sporadic. Without that family connection, my parents saw less reason to visit the coast. We stayed in our London suburb, the only sea one of grey concrete, though that too was hard to distinguish from the sky. When I did manage to find stolen moments with the sea after that, I felt pangs.
Still, it spoke my name. I found a certain forgiveness in that, for my absence. I listened to its words. Tried to perceive its messages. But however much I trawled, I could only snatch at what it wanted to tell me. Always my name. Then forever those same words.
There was more there, but the white noise masked it. Choked the message so it was as impenetrable as dense sea fog. It became a mantra of sorts. The call of the sea. Private. Just for me.
Twenty-five years later and I sat, listening once more. Not to the sea this time, but the ocean. Lisbon had been my home for some three years and finally, like a dream brought belatedly to fruition, I could now marvel at the great blue of the Atlantic every day, on waking. I sat on that day with Mar, our first child, holding her in her nest of blankets as her wide eyes gazed out upon the deep for the first time. She cooed and squealed as I turned my body to look at her hazel eyes, the green-blue of the waves reflected in them. She paused then, her always-wriggling feet stopping still, her mouth wide as she looked out to where water and sky were a single, indistinguishable line.
“Mar, meet the ocean. Your namesake and my oldest friend,” I said softly into her ear.
And so it was that, in the morning, we would walk to the beachside while her mother was at work. Time unfolded rapidly, her pram soon replaced by a pushchair, replaced by us strolling hand in hand, but always, unfailingly to the ocean. She was nearly two-and-a-half when she first spoke – quite normal for bi-lingual children, I’m told – but she learned fast, reading hungrily and bombarding us with questions. Naturally, no topic fascinated her more than the ocean. The walls of her room were awash with mermaids, dolphins and sea monsters. Her mother naturally disapproved of the giant squid and company, but Mar protested loudly and at a painfully high pitch whenever she threatened to take them down.
It was a Sunday, in February. We had walked for miles. I remember because my feet were sore. I kept asking her if she wanted to turn back, but she kept shaking her head, her ringlets of almost-black hair flicking back and forth across her narrow face. “We have to keep walking, Daddy. We’re going to my favourite beach.”
I wracked my brain, trying to remember when we’d been so far along the coast together, every time drawing a blank. “Which beach is that, sweetheart?” I said, trying to mask the doubt in my voice.
“The stones beach. We came when I was very little.”
“Stoney,” I corrected and tried to cast my mind back. I decided she was probably using her imagination but, past forty now, I was in need of the exercise. We continued along the snaking path that cut in and out, always hugging the shoreline. We turned a tight corner, beneath an old mansion house that had seen better days, and then came out onto a stretch that stood above a sliver of sandless beach, odd rocks and pieces of slate from the ruin above dotting the seabed as the tide drew in.
“This one Daddy, this one,” she said and squirmed free of my hand, running toward the two-bar fence that obstructed the drop down to the beach.
“Careful,” I called. “Don’t go to the edge until I’m with you.” I sped up to a jog and came to her side just a metre or so from the fence. I grasped her hand tightly and looked down at her face. She beamed, her high cheekbones somehow elevated higher than usual. The infectiousness of it quickly brought a grin to my own face.
“Are you sure we’ve been here together, Mar? I can’t remember,” I said, turning my head to take in the scenery. I knew the area well from when I’d run here, a few years earlier, but couldn’t remember bringing Mar this far along the path.
“I told you, Daddy, I was very little.”
I shrugged my shoulders. She was happy, it was a beautiful day. What more did I want? I lead her over to a bench that overlooked the water and we sat.
“Do you want a snack?” I said, opening the zip on my rucksack. I reached in, pulling out a bag full of pastéis de bacalhãu—a kind of fish and potato cake—and handed one to her. She brought it straight to her mouth, biting into it with her fledgling teeth. She chewed, swallowed, and then paused, her eyes glazing over as she looked out over the water.
“Does it talk to you, Daddy?”
I finished my own mouthful, then looked down at her. “Does what ever talk to me, my love?”
“The ocean.” She paused. “Sometimes it calls my name.”
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, insects crawling on my back, beneath my shirt. “It does, does it?”
“Mmhmm, and, when we come here, with the stones, it says other words too. I remembered them. When I was a baby. But now I can hear them.”
“Other words,” I said, a quiver in my voice.
“Shh!” she raised her finger over her pursed lips, then she whispered. “Listen, Daddy. Maybe it’s talking to you, too.”
It was. Of course it was. It always had. I wanted so much to know what the waves were saying to her as they crashed on to the beach, but I didn’t want to ask. Fear paralysed me. I stroked my fingers through her curly hair, brushing it away from her eyes.
“Dark,” she said. “Cold. Under. Hold,” She looked up at me again. “What does it mean, Daddy?”
“It’s probably nothing. Just the sound of the rocks,” I said, heat rising in my cheeks. I had heard it too, but to me it was the same as always. I couldn’t pick out the ‘Hold’ no matter how hard I strained my ear. I kissed her head. We finished our snack in silence.
It was another holiday. This one was sunnier, thin woollens traded in for t-shirts, jeans for cargo shorts. I jogged down on to the beach, trying to keep up with Mar, the straps of my rucksack jingling together musically. The sunshine of spring had well and truly arrived and the freshness that cut the winter air had been overhauled by balm and fruit and fragrant coffee from the reopened stalls dotting the coastal path.
We sat on a crinkled blue blanket and stared out at the water for a moment, each of us listening for the sound of our names. For messages. For broken words. Then it was time to play. I removed the bucket and spade from the bag, pointed out a good patch for sandcastles on our quiet area of beach. Mar looked up at me, shaking her head. She scampered over and began piling sand with her arms, smoothing it out into shapes.
“Do you want a hand?” I said, feeling the coarse texture of the grains between my fingers. She shook her head again, her grin threatening to consume her face.
“I’m making dolphins,” she said, proudly. I nodded in approval. “And mermaids, and sharks.” I ruffled her hair and pulled my Kindle out of my bag. I kissed the top of her head before stretching out.
“Love you, kiddo,” I said, squinting against the dazzling light.
“Love you back,” she said, blowing an exaggerated kiss with one of her sandy hands.
The hours flowed by, punctuated by breaks to visit the toilet, to apply extra sunblock, to put up the parasol when the sun found its highest spot in the sky. I read and watched Mar play. We devoured our picnic after the heat had eased off, then paused for a moment to watch the ocean again.
“Can I have some more water, Daddy?” Mar said, her eyes still locked on the waves rolling in. I reached into the bag, pulling out the bottle. Empty. I looked behind me to the kiosk. Still open.
“Stay here,” I said and lifted myself to my feet. I dashed to the kiosk, put a two-euro coin on the counter and asked for a litre bottle of water. I waited, smiling, as the young man bent down and opened the fridge, tugging out a bottle. He stood and handed it to me, went to give me my change. His face contorted as he looked over my shoulder. His hands began scrabbling at the flimsy catch on the kiosk door. I spun around, following his eyes.
“Mister, is that your kid?” he said, but I didn’t turn back. Couldn’t.
Time slowed to a crawl as I saw only the top of Mar’s hair above the surface of the water, perhaps twenty metres from the shoreline. The bottle plunged from my hand as every sinew in my body focussed on nothing but closing the space between us. The spray from my hurried pace surrounded me, foam flung up into the air with every thundering footstep. I raced to where she had been not fifteen seconds before and groped around beneath the surface.
I called her name, screamed it until my lungs ached and my throat burned. I dived down and swam, my eyes wide, salt stinging. The boy from the kiosk was with me in an instant, two fishermen from along the beach, too. We scoured relentlessly.
She was gone.
I heard it said once that burying your child is the very worst life can throw at you. Something no-one should ever have to do. I never doubted it until I buried mine in an empty coffin. She was never found, my Mar.
I say the coffin was empty, but I should have known at the time that I was burying my marriage. I didn’t even blame her. Would I have been more forgiving if she’d been the one to lose our girl to the ocean? I supposed not.
I decided to stay. That same area, always in sight of the ocean. Always within earshot of the waves as they rolled in, my name a whisper on every breaking wave.
But what was the message. The words it had tried to tell me. To tell Mar.
“Dark. Cold. Under. Hold.”
What did any of it mean? Eventually, I had to know.
It was a Wednesday. Cloudy, the sky hanging low and bulbous. Every now and then the sun would burst through, bringing light and warmth and stilling the wind. I had walked for hours. The coastal path was deserted.
I leaned against a two-bar fence and looked down at a tiny crescent of beach, rocks and slate fragments strewn around, dragged one way and the other by the water. I slid between the two bars and lowered myself carefully down, before sitting uncomfortably on a piece of driftwood. I watched the waves roll in, listening to the sound of my name on its breath.
I closed my eyes. Focussed on the words.
“Dark. Cold. Under. Hold.”
For the first time I heard it. My eyes sprung open, the dim light faded still further as the sun crept behind the horizon. I listened to the words over and over. Beneath the waves a shadow formed. I stood, stepped forward. It grew sharper, indistinct shapes metamorphosing into familiar features. Mar’s tiny form watched me from within the spray, kelp woven among the tresses of her dark hair. Her eyes pleaded with me and I stepped closer.
Her mouth moved, but the voice I heard was not hers. It was the voice of the ocean. The same as it had always been, only with new clarity.
“It’s so dark here. So cold, under the waves. Please, hold me.”
I lay down on my side on a rock, my eyes still locked on hers. Tears cascaded from my eyes and pooled under me, becoming one with the saline of the rising waves. I swallowed hard and looked at her, a smile blooming on my face in spite of the pain. The tide came closer with every passing minute. We would be together again, as the ocean called our names.
Kev Harrison is a British writer of dark fiction, living in Lisbon, Portugal. His debut novella, The Balance, is out now from Lycan Valley Press. His novelette, Cinders of a Blind Man Who Could See is available now from Demain Publishing. His work has also appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Lost Films from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, as well as The Other Stories from Hawk and Cleaver and Tales to Terrify podcasts.
You can find Kev at: