Sam could not tell for sure which sea this might be, but guessed from the clouds making the sunrise grey that he was probably not far from his native Britain. The occasional icy blast of wind, the murky green water churning as far as the eye could see and the salt of the spray, all reminded him of childhood. Stormy mornings out on the promenade, spent running away from waves crashing over the sea wall. Sunny afternoons, lazing on the beach, making entire civilisations out of sandcastles and matchsticks; trying to edge farther and farther away from his parents’ watchful eyes; exploring this exciting landscape of sharp shells, wet sand and bare female flesh. As time went on, he managed to venture as far as the shores of some sunny foreign town, where he lost interest in shells altogether. A smorgasbord of sensations was suddenly upon him. The taste of suntan lotion he had smeared all over his face upon arrival at the beach that day; ice cold beer in the almost-unbearable heat; her scent as she approached and the soft, Gallic murmur of her voice close to his ear. The taste of her lips: too many cocktails from the night before and toothpaste.
He stretched out his hands across the smooth stone of the column and leaned back on his elbows. The stone was reminiscent of the concrete used for seawalls. As the sun set, Sam remained atop this column, no clearer on why he was there or when he might be rescued. He curled up into a foetal position, drawing his coat around his body and fastening his hood to protect him from the wind and spray.
He had expected to wake feeling cold, hungry and exhausted, and his expectations were met. The sky was less black than it had been the previous day, but still the sunrise was a joyless, neutral affair. The column had sunk during the night and now the crashing of each wave was clear, instead of a perennial shush. He could also make out a faint bleeping sound, such as might be made by a marker buoy. He cocked his head whilst looking at the horizon, trying to work out just how much closer to sea level he was.
The sea moved in dark, muscular swells. Not a vessel to be seen. Sam recalled losing his parents in a Christmas shopping crowd when he was five. The crowd’s bubbling and whooshing speech and footfalls, the rustling of bags, sounded like the waves below. Like the waves, the people hadn’t seemed dangerous, despite their size and proximity. Panic gripped his throat as if one of the shoppers had mistaken him for an ornament. The release of the grip and the rush of blood back to his head, created an intoxicating feeling of freedom that tingled through his body. He could go wherever he wanted, yet still he was compelled to stay rooted to the spot in much the same way as the column dictated his location right now. He remembered his crying mother pushing through the charging crowds that day and nearly collapsing his lung when she hugged him.
Again, the column had sunk overnight. Sam was even considering peering over the edge to see how far up he was. The sonar beeping seemed closer, too. He still could not place on which side of him the buoy might be, so he slithered along the salty concrete on his belly. He soon reached the edge, pushing a few particles of salt and sand over. Peering down, he saw that he was now only 15 feet above the tallest of the waves crashing against the column.
He was certain that this was all to be expected. Once he had found the centre of the column again, he resumed his game of noughts and crosses, and thought of Sophia. He thought not of their beginnings, but of their endings. The games that had been played. Pointless, timewasting games like noughts and crosses. Played out in tears and sleepless nights instead of sand and seawater. He should have forgiven her for what she did. He thought he had. he wondered where she might be now, as he drew another cross on the concrete to finish his game.
By the next morning, the waves were reaching the lip of the column, making noughts and crosses impossible. The sunset transformed from red to golden via a billion colours inbetween. Sam placed his palm flat on the concrete and the cold water ran over his fingers. The sonar beep of the buoy now seemed to be coming from above, which made no sense, as the buoy was still nowhere to be seen. Sophia was sitting on the edge of her bed and crying, holding something in her hands. The sun that was breaking through a blinded window – like the hotel room in Nice – refracted through her tears.
Upon waking the next morning, the wind was up and the rain was cold. Where yesterday he had been content, now he was empty. His stomach growled with hunger and the buoy’s beeping grew yet louder. Sophia was still sat on the edge of the bed, holding a picture frame obscured by the glare of the sunlight. In the photograph, they were smiling.
The thought was brought to an abrupt halt by the crack of wood on concrete. Sam looked down over the side of the column and saw the boat. At one end was a hooded boatman with an oar in each hand. The beeping of the invisible buoy had become so shrill that it made his head hurt, whilst the boatman seemed unperturbed, rolling stoically with the calmer water. The weathered wood of the hull tick-tocked against the concrete like a broken clock.
The boatman removed his hood in the half-darkness and a lustrous head of Mediterranean black hair billowed out. Sam recognised the unmistakable shapes of that face -those lips which had so often collided with his own – as Sophia smiled and offered him the oars. Whatever bonds had kept him fixed to that concrete dissolved as he clambered aboard.
The column’s sinking had created a whirlpool and caused the sea to gurgle and rumble. With a sudden violence, the column shot upwards into the billion-colour sky, like a needle to a vein in the cosmos. Sam let go of the oars and held Sophia, but beneath the black robes he could not feel the womanly curves he so fondly remembered. As he buried his face in her shoulder, he caught none of her scent. She said nothing in response to his declarations of undying love. There was a void in his arms. His hands traced the outlines of sharp bones, and a putrid, sickly smell rose from the black hood. Sam remained in the clinch, looking over the lifeless shoulder at the glowing algae in the dark water, shimmering like a galaxy of green and yellow stars.
Beneath the breeze, he could hear a soft laughter from the bones he was holding. The oars were surely lying on the seabed, lost beyond the universe of phosphorescence that now surrounded the boat. Sam clung tighter to the bones, certain that if he were to pull away, the face he would see would not be Sophia’s.