Like the building he has seen better days. When he is outside, looking back from the beach, he examines the wide sweep of its deco walls, the planar immensity of it dirtied now by peeling paint, the yellow and brown stains of salt and gull shit miring the clean edges. It is then that he feels the call of the water again.
He is, he supposes, not the only one to find a second chance here. He observes the yellowing net curtains at unlit windows and wonders who lives inside, imagines pensioners and others, like himself, newly poor. His own window is now devoid of any barrier to the view, like a freshly capped tooth in a neglected mouth.
This is home now and he will make the best of it. He places pictures here, on his mantelpiece, of the children, bright faces smiling on a Greek beach, two years before. He likes his new view unimpeded, and switches a light on when he leaves, a guide on dark mornings.
The hut is a hidden boon, included in the rent, the agent told him when he had come, jittery and nervous, to view the flat. It is the only one in the row of brightly painted huts not boarded up for the winter. It sparked memories, that first time, of swimming as a child, beach holidays where his parents, too poor to go abroad, had piled them in to the car for days out from London, to the coast. Before sunscreen, he had fled the sun, playing all day in the sea.
Exercise, the counsellor at the Phoenix Centre said, was good. She’d urged him to go for interminable walks between group sessions, once the shaking in his hands receded. He spent his time trudging the fringe of a lake at the centre, past drab ducks sat idling in the water. He’d thought of swimming then, remembered those childhood beach days, remembered too his father, bone weary from roofing, sat in a deckchair, perpetually tanned in his shorts, drinking beer after beer while they played, part of the tide of memories that had crept up on him since he had stopped.
This beach is better in winter. The gulls are raucous of a morning and evening, wheeling loudly above his flat. The sound of them, the thought of the hut and the view from the window had let him imagine, that first night alone there, what it would be like to swim again, to be free from the cinching constraint of his clothes, to float free of himself in these waters. He imagined it as he sat there in his new armchair in the gloom of the late afternoon, watching the dog walkers along the shore and the ebb and flow of the tide, cradling the idea, like his fragile sobriety, close to him, nurturing it.
He wakes now without need of an alarm each winter morning from dreams of his wife, asleep elsewhere, alone he hopes, and his children. He lays a moment in the dark, scanning, by habit, the state of himself, surprised still to find his head clear, the voices of his children still ringing, in an echo from his dream. He anticipates the cold outside the duvet, holds himself inert a moment longer, joying in the potential for movement. Then he rises, stands in his shorts by the window, quiet, checking the sea, looking out from the flat’s darkness for the quiet pulse of the tide. Most days it is calm, a little chop on the water all there is to see. Others, it churns with heaving shore break and he knows that the visit will be brief and scary, a stepping into forces way beyond his own, a surrendering to the elements, the crash of water and susurration of stone.
He likes the flat days more, days when he can stay out, floating.
He turns the light on only when he leaves the room, goes to the bathroom and pulls on the wetsuit he has left to dry from the day before, in the bath. He stands a moment to admire how the taut stretch of neoprene pulls his gut in, smooths his lumpen, changing shape. He looks sleek, he thinks, and new in these smooth black curves, the stretch of the suit an extra layer, the retort of its elastic like a sheathing that snaps back with him, gives his movements control and urgency.
Then he is down the stairs from the flat, out into the cold air of an unheated corridor, the key to the hut in hand, past the blank doors of other residents, hearing the slap of his flip-flops on the echoing stairwell that curves around the outside of the building. He emerges from the stairwell’s shelter to the first gust of cold wind, the fresh reek of salt air and seaweed’s iodine rot.
He unlocks the hut, pulls the metal bar aside, lays its cold length down, gently, hearing the sound of its crunch on the pebbles, each sound a wrinkle in the cold quiet of the winter morning. He pulls the doors open, shakes the jerrycan of water he fills each week to bring down here, checking it has not frozen. He fills the kettle, glad for the hut’s gas stove, lifts the canister each morning, knowing that soon he will have to spend some of his dwindling savings to replace it. He readies the matches, places bag and sugar and milk in position for his return. Then he pulls on the hat, feels the crimp of rubber and neoprene against his temples, the crunch of his compressed, greying hair concealed beneath the tight shell. He pulls the goggles tight, prepares himself.
When he slides the sandals off, the first pebbles close to shore are still a shock on bare feet. He keeps his feet and hands exposed despite the weather, flexes them now as he stands and waits, drawing warming breaths into himself. He has considered boots and gloves, but this, he thinks, is cheating, the sacrifice of his skin part of the deal, a necessary baring. He bounces on the spot, waiting until the compulsion of the plunge frees him from thought.
The first bite of the grey waters always shocks, but he welcomes the slide of it creeping up his legs as he strides further, the resistance breaking as silver foam as he strides out past the shore break. And then, on the good days, when he does not have to contend with the surge and crash of waves, the sharp slap against the face, the windmilling of arms, darkness of water, slide and gasp for cold, bright air, the warming and falling to a rhythm, chop and beat of his legs fluttering. Those, he knows, are the magic moments, when he moves and glides, his body taut and buoyant, the suit working with him to bring his arms chopping down. It had been difficult at first, each stroke a struggle against burning lungs. Now he knows the rhythm of it, plays with the bob and rise of the water, the beating insistence of his kicks, the gradual warming of the air and water in the suit.
He stops, breaths heavy clouds when he reaches the final buoy half a mile from shore, and looks for the distant pin-prick glow of his flat, his light. Often, that far out, he can see other lights too, immense tankers gliding further out, the pinpricks of fishing boats hunting for the morning catch. But he turns always, looks for again for his building, thinks of the old chair sat in his new flat, there by the window, the pictures of the children. When he finds it—and it is not hard, white and immobile on the shore—he steadies his breath, releases himself from the bobbing of the yellow buoy. He sets off across the bay, tracking the coastline, his daily pattern now, returning home.
Afterwards, he struggles up the beach, shakes feeling back into numbed fingers, bounces on the spot again and dances on his frigid toes, bobbing and flexing, his limbs heavy without the forgiveness of salt water.
The hiss of gas, the sulphurous crack of a match sends a spurt of warmth into the cold air of the hut and, as he waits for the steel kettle to sing, he cups his hands around the flame, coaxing feeling back. Above him, on a shelf, his boys smile down at him, a single picture that he has brought there, one he wills himself, each morning, not to look at until his return. He nods a silent greeting, imagines them coming here in the summer, the crowd of beach toys in a corner and laughter.
The sweet tea is a blessing and as he drinks it, he feels the joyous ache of new muscle and enjoys the play of warmth and cold that comes with the sun’s first winter light, and the comfort of his hut against the wind.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
JOHN HERBERT is a teacher from Brighton, UK, holds a PhD in modernist fiction from the University of Birmingham, and is an alumnus of New Writing South's Creative Writing Programme. He is a multiple winner of the AdHoc Fiction and Microcosms Fiction competitions, was highly commended in the 2017 Brighton Prize and appears in their print anthology this year. His short fiction is published in The Forge Literary Magazine and DNA Magazine in 2018.