The man’s lifeless face was eerie. James had never witnessed anyone die before. What was he doing swimming on a day like this? Spectators were pulled in together by the accident. Suddenly this became the business of everybody who was on the beach.
“If he’s not conscious, the chances are slim. Timing is everything.”
“Need to watch out for the undertows…”
James caught the trail of the conversations around him. Standing around powerlessly, a fast-gathering crowd came up with various explanations.
Earlier, James had pleaded with his mother to drive him down to the coast. The weather seemed promising: sunny, not too much wind, a perfect day for paddle-boarding, if you ask. At fifteen, as a sports-minded introvert, all he was keen about was biking, paddle-boarding or swimming. His new paddleboard was a modern technology masterpiece; he could not wait to test it out. James blew all his birthday money and more to buy the Aquamarina SPK-1, but it was worth every penny. His mum’s car didn’t have a roof rack, so now he could just inflate it whilst on the beach. What an ingenious idea! If ever James happened to meet the person behind this design, he would give him a massive hug. Also, according to the description, the board was a Ferrari on the water!
“Look, the sea is so choppy!” James threw his hands up in the air.
There was plenty of parking along Felixstowe beach. The wind was blowing steadily, creating small, but fast coming waves. Once again the weather forecast didn’t deliver! The sun was super dazzling though, creating silvery sparkles on the water surface.
“Oh, well, we can’t order the weather!” Leila, his mother, stated the obvious.
“I was so looking forward to testing out the paddle board!” James muttered, unreconciled with the situation.
“Sun’s still out. There is plenty of fresh air. It could be raining….”
When did his mother suddenly became such an optimist? He wondered.
James figured it made sense to stay for a while since they had driven all this way. Somehow the sea always drew him in, bringing him a sense of pure awe with its salty air and hidden, unmeasured power. He stared at the endless stretch of shimmering water as a seagull cruised above, as though affirming such thoughts with its gleeful screeching.
As soon as they parked, grey clouds began to gather and the wind picked up speed, blowing anyone on the Suffolk coast right back into their cars. James was still unpacking when the accident happened. A man swam too far and was being pulled by the tide out into the sea. He realized that people died all the time, but seeing that man losing his battle with life, made it more real than all the news he had ever watched. At fifteen, fit and healthy, he hadn’t particularly considered the subject of dying.
The Felixstowe life guards were doing their best to save the man. One was pulling out the boat, while the other grabbed the lifesaving ring. They were struggling against the waves; the ambulance helicopter was on its way. The man was pulled out. The gathered crowd cheered in relief, but in spite of the joint efforts of life guards and promptly arriving paramedics who gave CPR, the verdict was cruel: “Dead.” Dark green, slimy seaweed got tangled in his hair, mockingly sticking out as a warning to anyone who dared to challenge the sea. The poor man was carried away by the paramedics on a stretcher. A different feeling, matching the change in the weather, once more enveloped the crowd, now totally silent. Slowly, burdened by such sudden turn of events, everyone began to disperse, leaving the beach to the seagulls that were unaware of the tragedy.
“Let’s go, darling,” at last Leila pulled her son on his sleeve.
“Nothing could be done, man! The undercurrent is so strong here. Even an Olympic swimmer would have struggled. I wonder if he was thinking straight?” One of the life guards reasoned out loud. Both Leila and James nodded back, agreeing, not being able to change or do anything in the present situation. James had never felt more powerless, seeing a grip of death that close up, something that was certainly outside of a human control.
“Let’s go.” James zipped his jacket, pulling his hood tighter on his head. The sun, as though playing hide and seek, disappeared again behind the clouds. The wind, still strong, pushed its unwelcomed chill right through his coat. Witnessing a life snatched by his much-loved sea so cruelly, made James also think of his father. He was the first to encourage the love of water in him. They’d spent endless hours at the coast together, his father being a keen surfer.
Just like now, in one fateful day, a dramatic change in his life took place.
“James, I’m going away,” his father unexpectedly broke out.
James knew now that nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared him for that moment. The news was unexpected, breaking out as a storm on a prior tranquil day.
“Where are you going?” James asked, scared to hear the answer. Something in his father’s voice, sounding fake, confirmed his fears.
“I want to travel, explore some surfing first in Australia, then in Mexico. You know… while I still have the energy to do it.”
“What about us? How can you take off?” James still tried to reason with him. At the same time something unwelcome, powerfully dark by its sheer strength, pushed in while they spoke.
“You need to carry on with your education! Your mother will look after you. And before you know it, I’ll be back.” This promise sounded hollow, not relieving the spinning in James’s head one tiny bit.
A previously unknown feeling swelled inside him. James wanted to break something violently, releasing it out. If you want to play that game, I will never speak to you again, thought James.
Now, whilst looking at the dead man, the scene triggered that last conversation. James even refused to say goodbye then. His father’s promise to come back was like the seaweed to the dead man, still tangled in his hair, useless. The anger mixed with hate, entered as a stranger, but became as a permanent lodger now.
Shaken by the accident and by the crashing waves of vicious memory, he was surprised that his desire to live on the edge didn’t shift. The recklessness that drove him towards the sense of feeling immortal, stayed. Was it out of stubbornness towards his father’s decision to quit on him? Or was he simply wired this way? Often James wished that his mother shared his passion for water sport. At times he needed her to be just like his father, especially with the coming holiday in Dorset. In reality, she was a typical mother: overcautious, protective and worried plenty. James knew that such thoughts sounded mean even if he had a good reason to think it. At times, an irritation rose inside of him because they didn’t see eye to eye; her pestering him with criticism when he wanted a chilled-out parent!
The drive back was cheered up by the tunes on the radio that Leila put on loud. For the past few years James had tried to forget about his dad. He had not spoken to him in three years, but time didn’t seem to make his feelings less acute. Instead, his anger, fuelled by inner hatred, like a wild fire getting stronger, dominated all other emotions. The summer break didn’t sound promising either. He was in the soup, so much so, he decided to use his last desperate option. Prayer! James hadn’t spoken to God either since he had entered his teens. But today, he somehow felt different about it, realizing that he and the dead man on the beach had something in common. James simply couldn’t rescue his situation himself.
“God, please let this summer break not be ruined! Can my mother, for once, not worry all the time? I guess… I will try to talk to You more often.”
James continued in his thoughtful, quiet mood once they got home. He felt hiding in his room was best, while his mother got busy cooking dinner.
“Dinner is on the table. Hurry up!” Leila’s melodious voice urged half an hour later, returning James to reality. Walking downstairs, he suddenly felt convicted of his attitude in general. He didn’t have a bad life, it was just missing something, he knew that much. Lanky and still growing, he was constantly hungry. Most of his friends from school had bigger families. He envied them, but not the size of their dinner portions!
Leila and James were complete opposites. Singing was breathing to her. Leila found great pleasure in it, whilst adventurous sports made her nervous. Being at work in the office all day, then training her voice in her spare time, she didn’t possess agility of youth or train her muscles for hours, like her son. Being healthy, able to look after her son, it was all that mattered to her. And she was thankful for her thick, chestnut hair. James couldn’t imagine even listening to opera. Ever. His mother tried her best to raise him. The difference of opinion between them could not be put down to him “being a teenager” as some of her friends suggested. Was she ever a teen herself? This was mindboggling. At one point, James considered making friends with the lads from his mother’s church, but they were a bit older, and being on the shy side wasn’t to his advantage.
“Let’s eat while it’s hot,” Leila urged, looking keenly at her tall, fast-growing lad.
“Ok, mum, don’t fuss. Not hungry,” James replied. Don’t be desperate, a teenagers’ unwritten rule was glue, stuck in his mind. He could not easily shake it off even when he wasn’t around his friends.
“Are you excited about our trip to Dorset? I just got a confirmation e-mail saying that the cottage is reserved for the next week to Mrs. Leila Orwell. How about that?”
“I was, but not now, to be honest...” James began. “You’ve probably already lined up garden centres or concerts to attend. Especially now, since that man on the beach... You know that all I want is to spend every hour on my paddleboard,” he avidly backed up his obsession for sports.
“Yes, I do. I’m not planning on caging you! This is your holiday to enjoy. James, you are growing up so fast, but I will always be a hovering hen. Can’t help it. It's a mother’s instinct.” Leila needed him to understand.
Appreciating the pasta with pesto dish, James wisely decided to drop the matter. At least he secured some ground with her. As long as he was left out of the cultural experience, he would be happy. Arguing further before the trip was unfair.
“That accident must have been horrific for you to see. Will you come with me to church on Sunday?”
“When I’m ready for it, mum,” James stated. He would be the laughing stock of the school, a Bible basher. No, thank you. Maybe that is why he stopped praying, taking his frustration out on sports, having some control in his life. After his father took off, the last thing he needed was for his friends to mock him. James knew he was performing well, excelling in different sports, but he knew the feeling driving him was unhealthy, like doping. Brushing a depressing thought off like an annoying cobweb, James decided to meet up with Philip, his mate from school, before heading on holiday first thing tomorrow.
Leila wiped a tear. And why even bother with makeup remover! Surely tears were as natural as it gets. She had to smile to herself. “Lord, you have to do it. Please convince James of your truth. Convict him that today is the day of salvation!”
In the morning, everything was already packed neatly in their small, but reliable bottle green Volkswagen. His mother was super organized.
“Are you ready? Lots of miles to cover!”
Earlier, while pondering the prospect of a long drive to Dorset, Leila came up with a plan to stop and visit her old school friend.
“Why don’t we stop in Brighton to see Maggie? A bit out of our way, but Brighton on sea is a good plan, isn’t it?” James didn’t mind as long as the words “beach” or “sea” were mentioned.
“That would be totally cool with me,” James shouted through the half open door.
Thankful for technology, Leila Facetimed with Maggie, telling her when to expect them. A veggie feast was guaranteed, as Maggie was a committed vegan. James loved her chilled, organic, fruity desserts when the weather was especially hot.
“Maggie is delighted that she will see us soon!” Leila delivered her news. “She is pioneering a new raw chocolate bar that you will appreciate. Releases lots of energy, according to her.”
“Can’t wait to try it!” James, for some odd reason, always felt more comfortable with much older folks. Trying to talk to someone his age that he didn’t know, that was a real effort.
After a couple of stops at the services, they finally saw a sign, made out of colourful flowers: “Welcome to Brighton.” The car journey towards the holidays flew by incredibly quickly. The minute Maggie and Leila saw each other, still standing outside a red brick house, they were acting like a couple of school girls, laughing and hugging. James, rolling his eyes for a moment, was pleased that no one knew him around here and to learn that Andrew, Maggie’s husband, was at home. Nothing made him happier than the offer to walk to the beachfront. After a long drive in the heat, cooling down with the fruit sorbet, James was ready to head out of the door again.
“Do you mind if we take the dogs?” Two young Dalmatians with brown spots were wiggling their tails in anticipation.
“Not at all.” James couldn’t take his eyes of those beauties.
They took a narrow passageway down to the pier, the dogs leading the way. James studied Andrew for a moment, realizing that his solid build didn’t happen on its own. There was something reliable about him. James could not help sensing that.
“They’re very young. It’s better we avoid the busy streets,” explained Andrew. “So James, how did you get into paddle-boarding? Your mother says you would live in the water if you could.” He was curious, now laughing heartily at the thought.
“Dunno, really, just fell in love with it. I had a go at skateboarding. It was fun, but I found it too rough. Too many injuries. I prefer to do water sports, even with the wind against me. And yourself?” Andrew was easy to talk to.
“I grew up near the coast, then ended up in the Royal Navy. Easy to love the sea, isn’t it?”
James couldn’t agree more.
“How was it… in the Navy, if you don’t mind sharing?” James’s interest was on the rise.
“Not what I expected. Scraping ice off the submarine isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it made me how I am today! Tougher, with more endurance, if you like.”
“Oh yeah,” James nodded in agreement. There was something in Andrew’s personality that kept James captive.
“You know the type, like Job, from the Bible,” clarified Andrew.
“I paddle on my board even in winter,” James wished to impress Andrew.
“How about a Boxing Day swim then? Perhaps you can come down again and spend Christmas with us!” Andrew smiled mischievously. Then he threw a challenge. “No wet suits. Are you up for it?”
“What? That’s mad! Have you done it before?”
“Every Boxing Day, without fail. It strengthens your immune system and it’s good for the blood vessels, didn’t you know? It’s tradition in the Navy.”
“Does your mum approve of your water sport?” Andrew asked unknowingly.
“She’s frightened of most adventurous things on land, let alone in the sea! Opera is more her forte.” He spat his answer.
“I’ve heard her at one of her concerts. She is really good, you know. Her voice has such depth, reaching you deep inside.” Andrew meant it. Sensing some hesitation, he asked next: “You don’t approve?”
“Definitely not my style.” James rushed the answer.
“Hmmm, personally I don’t divide music into styles. Unusual you might think. . . . At least not since I was a teenager.”
“So, how do you view music then? There are different styles to choose from, aren’t there?” James didn’t wish to play word games, looking for a concrete answer.
“Of course, there is a personal preference in styles of music. But that is not what I’m talking about. I’m more interested in the music that we make. Our actions and words, just like music, display what’s in our hearts. What if everything that we did or said became music! How would your tune sound? Ever thought of that? Do you know what I mean? If we put the person before the music or talent, this way we can appreciate each other first of all. Then the styles lose predominance. Have whatever style you want, as long as your heart makes wholesome, enjoyable music.”
“When you put it that way… I’ve never thought about the music made by my heart. In other words, you’re saying that my mother is a kind, caring person, which shows in her actions so whatever style she sings in is awesome?”
“Clever lad. Your teachers must be thrilled with you!” Andrew laughed, pleased by such a conclusion. “It is that simple: when you work it out, styles will be of no consequence," he shouted out, pulling the dogs back, which were only eager to run faster.
A range of emotions showed on James’s face, then a deeply thoughtful expression settled in. More harmoniously, in one stride, they continued their walk along the beach. Andrew finally let the Dalmatians off the leash. An hour later, exhausted from such a fast pace, they were heading back to the house so James and Leila could continue their drive to Dorset.
“Such a pity we must drive on. The shortest visit ever! Will you come and see us whilst we are in Poole?” suggested Leila.
“Of course we will.” Maggie gladly accepted the offer.
James patted the dogs one last time. They licked his fingers with vigour in return. Andrew gave him a firm, but affectionate hug.
“It was a real treat to spend some time with you. Take care.”
“See you soon.” Andrew and Maggie waved.
James could tell that something had melted inside of him, but there was no time to dwell on it. His mother was already revving on the gas pedal, ready to get on with the rest of their journey.
A detour from Suffolk to Brighton seemed like a pleasant dream. Leila tried to wake James up, by shaking him on his shoulder, the night now covering their surroundings as a blanket.
"Ok, wake up sleepy! I think we made it! Time to stretch your legs!”
Ginormous pine trees and local houses, as though in competition in size, were overlooking the cliffs; the sea was shimmering in the light of the moon down below. A sense of peace washed over James while yawning, confirming that this holiday would be special, beyond his usually low expectations. Loaded with bags, he confidently marched toward the cottage. Why would he even think that?
“Wow, check this place out!”
Poole felt like a different world, James thought, as he stretched at last.
"A friend from church warned me about breath-taking views! Admittedly, the beauty of nature here surpasses my expectations." Leila took a deep breath.
James could not wait to check out the beach, but was sure his mother would insist on unpacking first.
To his surprise, she offered to walk down the Canford Cliff Promenade.
“Sure thing.” James didn’t need to be asked twice. Sleep was the last thing on his mind, which was already spinning with anticipation of what lay ahead. Armed with flashlights, they walked for a bit.
Soon, standing high up on the top of the cliffs, they could still make out the panoramic view stretched in front of them in the moonlight: majestic pine trees and his much-loved, forever-stretching sea.