WE ARE WOLVES
I’d hear music coming from the house. A piano. It would carry over the dunes, and if I was out there, I’d stop and listen. It fitted somehow: the wind, the waves, and the music all together.
It was never enough for me.
19th April 2000
We were, I think, seventeen.
We sit in the dark, up on the top.
“Those people they buried here,” I tell her, “they are all hidden near the beach.”
She rattles the long marram grass with her fingertips and tries to spook me. “Not all,” she says. “Not Jacob Anderson.”
“Drowned at sea? Or drowned in sand?” I ask.
“Drowned at sea.”
“He woke up out there somewhere, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of seawater.” She looks at me: that look I love when she says I’m grinning like a fool. I sip from my can of cider. It tastes like stomach bile now. It’s disgusting: flat and warm from my hand. I offer her some as I thumb the rim. She shakes her head.
“He’d fight it wouldn’t he,” she continues. “As he drifted in and out of consciousness.” It is as if she is watching it happen and can see the detail of it all: this exhausted man, flopped over a piece of wreckage too small to hold him, gasping and sucking in water. “He started counting from one to ten. If he was still alive at ten, he would count again,” she tells me. “He lost consciousness each time he tried, only to wake choking and coughing seconds later. This is how he existed. Once or twice each minute he re-lived a miniature life; each one with its own horrible birth onto a floating timber, his mouth gaping open, water glugging into it like a bottle.”
She tells me, that after some time he would have heard a familiar sound. At first, he’d think it was a bird maybe, but it would be someone calling from a small boat that moved silently through the mist towards him. He’d see it disappear and reappear again as it approached him through the debris of a wreck. “At one point,” she says, “as the mist began to lift, Jacob would have seen the shoreline of this beach and really thought that the people of this place were going to save him.” It never ends well. Whichever of us tells it. “There was a splash,” she says, “sending out ripples in the still water. Underneath him, as they passed, something knotted around his legs and pulled them together. The last he saw of the boat was its disappearing silhouette as it moved back into the mist. A rope from it tightened, and the oarsmen dragged him away from the wreckage, away from the shore and out to sea. As he was pulled through the water, he drowned. It took a count of sixty. That’s how they did it.”
There are never any survivors. She knows the dates of some of the wrecks: 1680, 1686, 1711, 1758,1759. Recently added to her list are three more. In 1803, she tells me, a ship – the Freda – grounded on the sandbanks. It tipped on its side as is so often the way and was broken in the waves. There were no survivors. 1855, same again. 1856, just one year later, same again. Broken in the waves. It almost sounds as if they were rocked to sleep. These are her words for it. It is how ships founder on this rockless shore. It doesn’t matter which of these dates relates to Jacob Anderson. It wouldn’t change a thing. His story would fit any of them. “The day he drowned,” she says, “his personal belongings washed up on the beach and were collected by children. A coat was reused. Timber from the deck repaired a windowsill in a house. So yes. Jacob Anderson: drowned at sea.”
She thinks I am impressed, and I am. I can’t hide it. Always the numbers though. The counting one to ten. I tell her she’s sitting on the bones of dead men, and she pushes me over, “– used to it.”
I take the cider and drink the last of it. I have no wish to go home, so we walk along the slowest paths. His house lights I can see; mine I can’t. Elding, my home, is sunk between dunes, too low to be seen. I prefer it on the top, ridge to ridge kicking sand.
“Always the numbers,” he says. But numbers make sense sometimes. So, I tell him about the scale of the presence of things. “You know how some things have more presence than other things?” I tell him. “Like a silver box that you keep your necklaces in, over say a cereal box that you keep cereal in?” Lukas takes the can back and nods as he tips a drop into his mouth. “Well, you could place them on a scale couldn’t you, that measures the presence of things from one to ten. The silver box would, I think, be six and a half.”
It goes the other way of course. If something is not there anymore, like say a grandfather, its presence is not measured as zero. There is such a thing as minus one to minus ten. A minus five might be a picture space where family photos once hung on the wall. Most minuses are small though, the size of fingerprints or empty plates which once held birthday cake. I’m thinking minus ones or twos. Big numbers are rare. Big numbers to the negative are even rarer. I have seen minus nine – I saw it in an empty chair. It looked sad. Most of my friends’ houses – almost all houses I have visited – are full of zeros. Elding, my house, has the full spectrum.
We are walking to the sign on the coast road, where I will leave him. I will then return home, and as I do, I will think of flames and burning and candles falling over and thatch – because I am on my own, and creeping thoughts do what they do. They creep in. Neither of us wants to go home so we sit on the verge. It’s an odd landmark – the sign; we meet there, depart from there; it also separates me.
Beyond us is a plantation of conifers. One of a few planted when people imagined things might grow here. They are dense and dark. This one is dotted on one side with newly built summerhouses which show signs of life. On the other side, the shadows have sapped the life out of everything: they choked it all until the trees themselves began to die. Snapped branches tangle on the forest floor. It is musty in there. Nothing else grows.
“Want to go in?” I say, nodding to the plantation. I know he has to go home. I just couldn’t think of anything else.
“I’d better go,” he says, “said I’d be home two hours ago.”
“Okay,” I say.
He kicks the sand from the tread of his shoe and jogs along the road. I watch him: two minutes, three minutes.
I follow the track to Elding. I can find my way home easily in the dark. I’ll play the piano. Which is what I do every evening, and every day, as much as I possibly can. On the scale of the presence of things, my piano is plus ten. If ever it was not there, it would leave a space of minus one hundred.