The moon hung in the sky like a great white eye, blinking as clouds passed by. It was watching down as a man of middling years clambered along the treacherous crags and jutting rocks that were dropped there on top of the sand to protect the coast from damage by the sea. The man held his arms outward and slightly forward like a child pretending to be an airplane, and with a little wobble before each step, made his way slowly along. The blunt points of the larger rocks became his preferred targets as he aimed each next brave prod of his right foot forward. The light rain that descended all around him joined its brother sea and coated the stones with a slippery skin that he wished was not there.
As he gradually came to a corner in his path, he kept one hand on the sheer cliff wall and the other forward, acting like an eye of touch for his way onward. The coast took its turn and he went with it, eyeing the cliff shape for any sign of a dip that he could climb or better still, some steps or a ladder. But for the near distance, it remained an impenetrable obstacle. The threatening path he had been going along for the last two hours would have to continue.
The man took a rest on a long flat rock and decided to catch his breath. “Hello?” he called as loudly as he could. The sea was all that answered, as it crashed by his feet as if taunting him. “You’ve gotten yourself into serious trouble, Eric,” he said, looking at his reflection in the shimmering puddle below. His hair, usually short and light, was heavy from the rain’s hold and like his soaked clothes, weighed him down. He removed his left shoe and let the water run free from inside. He examined the sole of it and placed it carefully behind his back. He peeled his sock off laboriously and it flicked off from over his toes and slapped loudly against the rock below.
The man lifted his knee and turned his foot towards his chest, then took it in both hands. The skin that was usually hard and smooth had transformed as if it had grown by fifty years. The heel and largest toe were red while the whole underside of the foot was as wrinkled as an old prune left in the sun. There was nothing to dry it with, so to protect himself from the cold, he rubbed the foot quickly and harshly with his hands then retrieved the sock and shoe, wet as they were, and got them back on.
He cursed himself for never learning how to swim, and then once again for deciding that it’d be a good idea to go fishing alone. The clouds that ganged up on the blue sky above were ignored as he’d caught yet another unsuspecting denizen of the sea. The irresistible free nibble of food floating carelessly by its perceivable lonesome was the thing that each of the captured fish was likely to have cursed itself about, but it was little doubt that they were having the last laugh now. They were likely to be swimming happily and gratefully with a second chance at life. Very few of their brethren were as lucky once they had been lifted into the air by the lip at great speed.
It was only when the waves started to sway the boat more than the desired gentleness that Eric realised that it was time to panic, and that the shoreline was that bit smaller in his eyes than it should be. The oars proved practically useless from the beginning. The boat rocked more violently as time went on. Eric found that the oars were swinging very lightly because the boat was nearly capsizing with each passing wave. They had no resistance and so flailed in the air with his efforts constantly. With this plan proving to be clearly pointless, Eric gave up on rowing and decided to grasp both sides of his minute vessel and try to keep his weight on the side that was rising at any given second. This battle lasted over a minute, longer than he’d expected it to, before the boat felt a long, stubborn wave crawl underneath. It kicked out as it passed and knocked him over backwards as the somersaulting boat landed over him before splintering into dozens of pieces.
As Eric frantically threw about his arms and tried to stand on ground that simply wasn’t there, he choked on great gulping torrents of salty sea water. The last thing he saw before he thought he was finished was a flat piece of his former deck, which he reached with miraculous stretching and furious kicking. Once he had his head above water, Eric hoisted one leg over the plank of wood and held on for dear life. The waves were tall and felt angry as they bashed against his back, but they were pushing him loosely in the right direction, which was what he was counting on.
Well into the night, possibly four or five hours after the boat had toppled, Eric was fighting exhaustion and shivering constantly. He was determined not to sleep, but his eyes were heavy and draining and he was starting to give up. His head, which had mostly been held up to look forwards, had been resting on the wooden surface, tilted in such a way as to keep his nose and mouth as far from the water as possible. When the rocks took the light collision from his timber bed, he shook with fright and reached out instinctively, holding desperately to the edge of a tall flat stone.
The moonlight had showed him that going left or right meant going towards the unknown, and as far as he could tell, the cliffs were as high all the way along in either direction, so it didn’t matter which way he proceeded. He went to the right. He’d been walking along ever since.
With both shoes full of water again, he took another break.
His hands were going numb in the cold, and he could tell that his ears and nose were suffering a lot. His eyes were struggling to focus on anything and his brain was being refrigerated by the fierce gale coupled with his clinging icepack of wet hair. His throat was hoarse and he coughed with a guttural bark that would frighten away anything that came his way. Not that anything would be near.
The coastline seemed to go on forever. The cliffs appeared to be getting higher, steeper and more tediously taunting. Eric looked for thin, sharp rocks, or anything remotely similar to a stake, something he could use to climb the wall. After his first attempt using two large pieces of polished stone, Eric cut both palms as he attempted to heave himself off the surface. He fell heavily back down and crashed against a series of jutting rocks, one of which pierced his clothes and cut along his left shoulder. He rolled toward the cliff and cursed himself for not bringing along some climbing gear, a cursing that was perhaps a little unwarranted.
He struggled on for another forty minutes before his knees were groaning about the slippery surfaces of the rocks and his feet were completely devoid of feeling. While resting his back against a slanted slab, Eric removed both shoes and socks and sat awkwardly with his legs crossed and his feet behind each opposite knee. The rain was lighter than before, but still constant. Eric squeezed and twisted his sleeves to drain most of the water from them and brought them over his hands at a stretch. He began rubbing them against his naked feet and blowing warm breath against them. It seemed to work, though only slightly. The soles were still mostly numb, but it was better than nothing.
He got up a little while later and returned his shoes to their rightful places but decided that the socks were doing more damage than good right now. He wrung them out and put them inside his pockets, just in case they came in handy later.
Hunger was beginning to settle in more prominently, and it was the complaints from his stomach that made Eric pace up a bit. He began taking risky steps from one rock to another, even jumping along in a series to cover ground more quickly. The side of the cliff came to an end and turned around to almost double back on itself. As he shimmied around the cliff’s corner, he noticed that he was only minutes away from a source of light, which appeared to be coming from inside a window.
“Oh!” he cried aloud, almost dropping to the water with relief. He scrambled along, half-crawling as he went for most of the way and began shouting out “Hello!” in the direction of the little house that got closer and closer.
The rocks became stones, then pebbles, until they finally were just sand. The cliff lessened and spread out into a hill and the house was only two minutes of his half-limping, half-sprinting away. He continued to cry out for help and laughed to himself as he got closer.
The unmistakeable sound of television’s muffled song of action-film sound effects gave a dull, yet lived-in resonance to the little house, which made Eric feel as if he was back to normality. He laughed inwardly as he stepped onto a mat by the door that read Welcome and knocked attentively yet urgently on the solid oak door with his index finger. The numb anti-feeling it provided made him wish to try it again, but the door opened quickly yet casually, revealing a woman of later years standing in an evening robe of pink fluffy slippers with a look of passive indifference on her face.
He opened his mouth to speak but was beaten to the first word as the women opened her thin, light pink lips with a click of her tongue and sighed with all the grace of a sulking child and said softly, “Wipe your feet.”
Eric did as he was told, wordlessly, thankfully and thoroughly before he stepped over the threshold and into the warmth of the room. The grateful stranger glanced around at an impressive array of framed photographs, all depicting nautical scenes. As he tried to take in the countless trinkets that adorned the many surfaces around three of the four walls before him, the host turned back to face him. In a pile dumped into his arms he received a couple of white towels, a large grey blanket, a set of matching pink slippers and a red robe big enough for two.
“Thank you…” he said, meaning to go on. The old woman put a finger to her lips and looked away, took some careful stepped around her armchair and went back to her blockbuster movie. As she sat she pointed to a wooden chair by the fireside with a telephone on the wall above it and map of the area beside that. Without looking away from her television screen, she waited for his footsteps to approach the chair before lowering her twig-like, skinny arm.
Eric began towelling his hair as he stepped out of his shoes by the fire. “May I use the phone…” he tried.
The woman, clearly looking as if she’d been in this situation a thousand times, simply raised the same finger to her lips and nodded gently without keeping her eyes off the on screen car chase that was ensuing.
Eric sat and took the phone receiver into his clammy and sore right hand, held it up to his ear and dialled home. As the phone rang on the other end, he smiled appreciatively as the sounds of screeching tires and gunshots dulled to lower levels.
When he put the phone back down, the volume returned in time for the big explosion, which he was happy to watch in stunned, grateful silence until he would be collected.