Sam didn’t know which sea he was in. The grey horizon showed no land in sight. There was only the column. The murky water far below churned, reminding him of stormy mornings spent running away from waves crashing over the sea wall near his childhood home. Sunny beach afternoons spent making entire civilisations out of sandcastles and matchsticks. Always trying to edge farther away from watchful eyes to find shells in new rock pools.
Later, he had ventured as far as the shores of a sunny foreign town, where he lost interest in shells. He liked the taste of suntan lotion as she kissed it on to his lips. Ice cold beer in the cracking heat; the soft, Gallic murmur of her voice close to his ear. She always tasted of 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. As the sun set, Sam had no idea when or if he would be rescued. He curled up into a foetal position, drew his coat around his body and fastened his hood against the wind and sea spray.
He expected to wake feeling cold, hungry and exhausted, and his expectations were met. The column had sunk during the night and now the crashing of each wave was clear, instead of a constant shush. He could hear a faint bleeping sound, like a marker buoy. He cocked his head at the horizon while the sea moved in dark, muscular swells with not a ship in sight. It made Sam think of losing his parents in a Christmas shopping crowd when he was five. The crowd’s bustle sounded like the waves below. Like the waves, the people seemed dangerous. An intoxicating, terrifying freedom tingled through his body. He remembered his mother pushing through the seas of people and her crushing hug when she found him.
By sunset, the sonar beep seemed closer still. Sam slithered along the salty concrete on his belly, pushing a few particles of salt and sand over the edge. Peering down, he saw that he was now only a few feet above the tallest of the waves crashing against the concrete.
With no sign of the buoy, he shuffled back to the centre of the column and resumed a game of noughts and crosses, thinking of Sophia. He thought not of their beginnings, but of their endings. The games that they had 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. Wondering where she might be now, he drew another cross on the concrete to end the game.
The following morning, the waves were washing over the lip of the column. The sunset transformed from red to golden via a billion colours inbetween. Sam placed his palm flat on the concrete and the cold seawater ran over his fingers. The sonar beep of the buoy now seemed to be coming from directly above. The wind roiled thick clouds into angry swirls, painting black vortices in the greyness.
Sophia sat on the edge of her bed and cried, holding something in her hands. The same sun that broke through the hospital blinds refracted through the tears on her cheeks. While the buoy’s beeping grew louder, Sophia turned the picture over. In the photograph, they were smiling.
The memory was interrupted by the crack of wood on concrete. Sam looked down and saw a hooded boatman with an oar in each hand, in a small wooden dinghy. The beeping of the invisible buoy had become so shrill that it made his head hurt, but the boatman seemed unperturbed, rolling stoically with the water. The wooden hull tick-tocked against the concrete like a broken clock.
The boatman removed his hood and inky black hair spilt over the robes. Sam recognised the unmistakable shapes of Sophia’s face as she smiled and offered him the oars. Whatever bonds had kept him on that concrete dissolved when their eyes met.
As he stepped into the boat, the sinking column created a whirlpool, making the sea gurgle violently. The giant pillar shot upwards into the sky, like a needle to a cosmic vein.
Sam let go of the oars and held Sophia, but beneath the black robes, he felt only bones. 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. She tightened her embrace and a putrid, sickly smell rose from the black hood. He remained trapped in the clinch, while a galaxy of glowing algae shimmered in the dark water.
The oars were surely on the seabed by now, lost beyond the universe of phosphorescence. She laughed softly and Sam clung tighter, certain that if he were to pull away, the face he would see would not be Sophia’s.