Seven weeks to the day since Sydney Quick went silent, his son walked the coast path on autopilot, as he’d done almost every day since his mum died.
Soldier’s Buttons, Robin noted the spiky blooms of cornflower-blue underfoot as he trod his familiar, solitary track out of Newlyn harbour. The cliffside above Mousehole, the next village along, was raucous with heather, sweet-scented bells ringing silent and glowing in the early-evening sun, a sun that showcases a unique shine in this small corner of Cornwall. The surrounding sky was burnt orange, a stain that would soon blossom into lilac. Blue skies were rare in this part of the world and time of the day, signalling when they did appear a good day ending.
Sitting in the deafening silence of their house was not an option, with his dad still mute and his mum’s usual music reduced to just an echo, so Robin set off each day to walk for hours at a time. He’d plated up a steak-and-kidney pudding for Sydney before packing up another for himself, now quickly thickening with fat upon its allegedly greaseproof wrappings. He planned to eat it alone, looking out to the sea, untroubled for just a moment by the otherwise constant reminders that his mum was dead, that their lives may as well be over too. He’d left Sydney sat at their scrubbed kitchen table, silent and staring into the belly of their stove, from which on That Day he’d removed Bessy’s favourite cake tin, contents aflame, with bare hands and without a sound, the pain of his blistering palms no match for the agony of his shattered heart.
An invisible skylark whistled a relentless solo above him as Robin pounded his path. He’d long since learned not to look up, for it was only to be heard, not seen. Its wings would flutter in a rhythm that melted into the air around it, creating a haze to hide in.
Campions, with bright pink petals inexplicably named red, or else white with a bladder-like seedling on the back, baked dry by the sun.
Foxgloves, tall, bell-shaped, open only at the top and favoured by the fat bees that disappeared inside them.
Sally me ‘ansoms, the satin sheen of their daisy-like purple blades shimmered as they began to close up for the evening.
Robin named the flowers that appeared on his route as his mum had routinely done. He heard the briskness of her tone as he echoed the names she’d taught him, experiencing his latest surge of guilt, this time for having given up the practise too young. Too many walks they’d now never have, too much time lost too soon.
Don’t think about that. He resumed his identification of the blooms; kidney vetch, thrift and squill.
Unlike his fisherman father’s, Robin’s skin hadn’t been accustomed to the outdoors, but its daily exposure to the hottest month of the year had already left it thickened and sun-spotted, each burnt layer long-since peeled and replaced by a darker, more robust one. It was the closest to ‘tanned’ Robin had ever been and the shine of his sad blue eyes was enhanced by it; the saltiness suited him. In an attempt to even out the harsh lines left on his body by his white Wrangler vest, he’d removed it, allowing it to hang limply from the waistband of his sports shorts, reflective blue nylon edged with lemon piping. Clothes shopping in and around Newlyn wasn’t up to much so he’d bought these on his first trip to a big city, his first shift as a conductor on the trains, having left behind the ticket office soon after That Day. The menswear assistant who’d served him at the department store suggested he try them on first. Robin had declined, avoiding his eye and dashing for the door, purchases close to his chest, back to the train station. He’d not been up for much conversation for a while, although hadn’t quite been reduced to the reticence of Sydney. The chaos in which Robin’s father usually existed had also been extinguished in the same moment as Bessy. Robin imagined Sydney, conspicuous by his absence, as the subject of much chatter at the Swordfish Inn and guilty gossip in the harbour in the weeks that followed. He’d even heard the people of Newlyn recounting the tale in hushed whispers as he passed, claiming that Sydney had not made a sound since his blood-chilling howl of despair that ‘could be heard as high as Paul,’ another village that overlooked their port and hosted their dearly departed in its cemetery.
Robin had been spared the sight of his mother’s body, broken in the road upon which she’d been blasted by a speeding Ford Zephyr, blue, later found abandoned at Penzance train station, from where Robin had just come, from work, back home.
Robin knew to where he was headed, a small stone outcrop beyond Lamorna that he didn’t know the name of, only occasionally inhabited by others and not easily stumbled upon. This time of the evening suited him, dog-walkers would be done for the day and any schoolkids were still in term- and therefore proper bed-time routine. He’d have it to himself.
He arrived unaffected by the walk, though it had taken an hour and a half, no longer breathless at the steep inclines and jagged edges of the coast path after several weeks of treading them on pointed toe to ease the pressure on his leg muscles. They’d grown accustomed to the shape of the path just as he had, reshaping themselves accordingly, the arch of his feet not adequately supported by his usual choice of daps. His face, freckled and big-chinned, was lightly sprayed by the saltwater from playful waves of aquamarine that slapped the largest, flattest rocks, right on the shoreline. Robin breathed his relief deep into his chest, filling the cavity with that now-familiar sense of freshness. He positioned himself under the cliff face, overlooking a rock pool that received intermittent swirling jets from the sea in a rhythm that Robin habitually matched his breathing to. He meditated without knowing it, resting, allowing his thoughts to take instruction from the hush of the distant horizon, the sun still high above it, threatening to drop. This was the moment he’d survived so many days for. He sought it daily, and it never lasted, but he always hoped it would. He felt out the smoothness of the rock he sat upon with the flat palms of his outstretched hands. He closed his eyes to capture and trap the moment behind them.
After a spell, a shadow was cast over the slowly descending sun. Robin sensed it from behind his closed eyes, wondering with annoyance from where the culprit cloud had come. The distant roaring of the sea negated any silence, but the remaining stillness was broken by a low “Oh, hello” that caused Robin’s eyes to snap open and his breath to catch in his chest, its rhythm broken. “Didn’t mean to startle you,” came the rumbling voice of the man now wandering into Robin’s view, standing over the pool that had lost half its contents since he’d arrived. The tide was turning.
Robin mustered a greeting, taken aback by the sudden appearance of a stranger in his solitary space.
“You the Quick boy?” the stranger said. His dark eyes absorbed the reflection of Robin’s blue. “Seen you down here a few times.”
“Oh, yeah I have. I mean I am.” Robin’s vision was growing accustomed to the now dusky light, a glistening sky of amethyst. That had come quickly, had he fallen asleep? The man, familiar but hard to place, continued to look and Robin realised that he was shivering gently from a mild chill in the air. He hurriedly slipped his creased vest back over his shoulders where it clung damp and tight.
“I live up there.” The man gestured indistinctly back in the direction of Lamorna. “Just out for a walk like.” Robin smiled, politely, unsure how to process this disturbance to his usual routine, but didn’t answer. The man returned the smile and took a seat alongside Robin on the rock, holding out an enormous, nicotine-stained hand.
Robin slipped his own hand, half the size, into it, noting the calluses upon his palm. “I’ve seen you at the fish market. I’m Robin.”
“Wasson Robin, good to know you,” he replied through thick, cracked lips and unusually straight teeth. “Sounds about right; I work down there.” He looked out to the horizon while Robin’s eyes flicked down instinctively. The yellow hue of Sims’s skin glowed over the grey rock beneath it while his rough hand worried the flush surface.
“You know my dad?” Robin asked automatically, not really wanting to know. Sims’s eyes returned to Robin’s, who coughed through a haze of timely sea mist, inhaling the smoke and salt embedded in the denim dungarees Sims wore over a long-sleeved t-shirt of moss green.
“I know of him,” Sims said, “but everyone knows of Sydney Quick. That was a really sad thing that happened, I’m sorry.” Robin’s stomach fell an inch or so. He acknowledged the ‘sorry’ with a nod of his head before turning and looking out toward the point on the horizon at which purple gave way to a layer of rust and then the blue beneath, his own image mirrored. The retreating sunshine danced seductively on the sea’s surface, twinkling a thousand wise eyes.
Why is everyone sorry?
Neither spoke for a minute or so. Robin noticed that Sims too was breathing deeply, also in time with the ins and outs of the ocean in front of them – the learned habit of his trade, perhaps?
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An alien bleeping pierced the quiet. Sims stared his confusion down towards the boulder upon which they sat, where Robin’s hand had also rested. Robin reached down to silence the new wristwatch he’d bought along with his sports shorts. Casio, digital, silver. It flashed 20:00, a sensible time to start the walk home before the sun fell off the end of the earth. Fumbling to switch off the sound, he pulled out several sun-bleached arm hairs caught in the strap’s links, flushing with the embarrassment of it, which Sims either didn’t notice or politely pretended not to, looking out once again. Robin reviewed the man’s profile: strong, wide-nosed and unshaven, bearded like Sydney. Not quite in Sydney’s more senior years, he was certainly older than Robin. His skin was tanned in a way that Robin’s never could be while Sims’s was rich in tone, his deep brown bush of hair and wiry beard only gently speckled with grey.
“It can’t have been easy,” Sims said, breaking the interminable silence. He turned to face Robin fully, his broad torso following his head a moment later. Robin felt the large and blistered hand land upon his shoulder and found that he didn’t mind, that it was comfortable.
“No, it’s not. I mean, it hasn’t. Been. It hasn’t been… easy.”
“I’ve been there.”
Robin’s eyes asked how without words.
“My Dad. The war,” Sims explained. “You’re doing fine.” He smiled a true smile – straight teeth exposed and parted, eyes creased at the corners. It wasn’t one of the sad, sympathetic smiles that had been offered to Robin endlessly since That Day, and he returned it.
“You’re twenty-one, right?”
Robin nodded. He’d have guessed Sims was about thirty-five, give or take a few years, but it didn’t yet occur to him to wonder. Sims gently lifted his hand from Robin’s shoulder, lowering it to his knee, exposed far below the piped edge of his shorts, as Sims turned further inwards on the rock and said through his throat, “You’ll get through this, you’ll grow from this.” Robin stared. He took a breath and believed it, for the first time, imagining just for a moment a future in which his mum’s absence was not felt so raw with each passing minute. A single tear welled in the corner of his big blue eye, rolling onto the end of his freckled nose from where Sims wiped it away with a yellow thumb and pulled Robin, softly, yet with the full strength of his working arms, into an embrace. Robin’s breath froze in his chest as he tried to decipher the unfamiliar feeling. He’d never hugged a man who wasn’t his dad, and it’d been a long time since that’d happened. And this felt different. Sims held Robin with a closeness he’d never felt, never even considered. He relaxed into it, weeping gently, realising again that he didn’t mind, that he was comfortable.
The embrace lasted longer than Robin expected, not knowing what to expect. Their chests were pinned together, rising and falling. Robin’s tears ceased in the cool breeze of the evening, suddenly warmer. He smelled Brut under the sweat on the skin of Sims’s neck, medicated shampoo in his hair, and was still inhaling it deeply when the man pulled away.
“You okay?” Sims no doubt spotted the fleeting disappointment that Robin felt cross his face upon being released. Robin looked back and nodded as instinct carried him closer still on the rock, the butterflies in his stomach battling a churning storm. Understanding filled him and he communicated this to the man through his eyes and his grip, reaching out to pull Sims’s hand back to its former position on his knee, hoping beyond hope that he’d not misread the signs, that the longing was mutual.
The firm flesh of Robin’s thigh quickly became awash with goose bumps as Sims’s hand brushed across its outer edge, backwards, to meet his other at the base of Robin’s spine, just under the vest. His vast hands held Robin there with a tenderness that didn’t match their size. Both men breathed their mutual relief heavily into one another’s necks, returning to their embrace.
What kind of Cornishman gets stuck on the coast path? Robin lunged over yet another formation of rocks in the shadow of the looming cliff, constant and solid. His daps were soaked by the pools and puddles he couldn’t see in the darkness. He’d deviated from the path heading back for fear of falling off it with no light to guide the way home, dominated as it was by huge heads of rock bowed to the ocean that opened out onto nothing. The descent back into Lamorna was treacherous enough by day but under the cloak of darkness it vibrated with risk. With the sea keeping a respectable distance he’d tackled its Cove from the rocky shoreline, just enough artificial light from the empty windows of surrounding cottages to keep him on track, but he needed to get back on the path. Under a sliver of moonlight, he’d be fine once he got as far as Mousehole, but his usual return path would be unrecognisable in the absence of day. The closed blooms cloaking the path had bowed their heads to the darkness, the fragrance of heather extinguished by the descending sea mist.
Robin’s vest was torn under the arm, his shorts damp, and his breath broken by the effort it was taking to get home, by the late-evening chill and by the euphoria of what had just happened. His mind raced with the sensations now slipping away like seawater in his cupped palm. He touched a hand to his large chinbone, tracing a fingertip softly against the skin that had been rubbed raw by the bristle of Sims’s beard. He ascended the cliffside back onto the coast path, panting, and remembered with a burst of longing the impression of Sims’s cracked lips against his own. He felt again the instinctive arch of his own back against their rock as Sims had lowered the weight of his body onto Robin’s, which unclenched in turn.
“Get a grip,” he blurted out loud into the empty space surrounding him, “and get up this sodding cliff!” Up on the coast path there was enough moonlight to offer a gloomy vision of a few feet ahead at a time and the safety net of thickets and trees on either side. It was less of a path at this part, more of a jumble of rocks scattered by the hand of a giant like the roll of a die. The sea breeze blew over the clifftop, chilling Robin, whose skin pimpled between its freckles. All birdsong had been silenced and he continued with caution, his brain working at quite the opposite pace. With each step taken a new image surfaced. Fingering the tear in the underarm of his vest, he remembered snagging it on a sharp edge of the rock as he’d fought furiously to release Sims from his dungarees. Sims had chuckled and calmly lowered the straps before turning his attention to Robin’s torn vest, peeling back the white cotton, transparent with sweat, exposing the shivering chest beneath. He planted a lingering kiss upon the scratch the rock had left on the skin under Robin’s arm.
Robin stopped, breathless, remembering the surge of rushing blood that repeated itself now. He’d felt more alive than he had in weeks, more excited than he had in his whole life. His excitement shone now as it did then in the moisture of the blue nylon caressing his thigh, reflecting the moonlight.
In the cold light of Mousehole, the tiny village and port that connected Newlyn to Paul, in whose cemetery Bessy was now buried, Robin experienced an echo of the heart he’d heard beating in Sims’s chest, upon which he’d laid his heavy head. His own hammered against his ribs as a well of emotion forced itself upwards, thickening his throat. He caught sight of his reflection in the window of the Ship Inn as he passed it, doors closed and blank – it must have been past midnight, but Robin couldn’t check, his watch shattered by a fall he’d taken after leaving the stone outcrop. Robin’s mirror image was ashen and windswept. The air here was still, his eyes glowed in the stark reflection of the streetlight above while his mind’s eye reflected the image of the man he’d left on the rock, smiling serenely and silently as he hauled up his dungarees. Robin remembered those shoulders, the dip of his collarbone, the sweat that collected in it and the expanse of curled hair decorating the barrel of a chest beneath.
Stop. He gave an internal gasp of panic that pulled at his stomach from the inside. This is wrong, you’re supposed to be grieving your dead mum. What would she think? What would his father say? Nothing. Robin remembered bitterly that Sydney had said nothing at all for seven weeks now.
Guilt consumed Robin as he arrived back in Newlyn and it occurred to him that to continue in this direction would be to retrace and reverse the steps he’d taken on That Day. He’d been there, he’d arrived on the scene within minutes of Bessy taking her last breath. He must have seen it. The car that had ended her, he must have seen it. It would have driven right past him on its way out to where he himself had come from. And he’d missed it, too distracted by the boys on the beach and the fucking flowers that lined the path.
Robin arrived at the bottom of their terrace, greedily accepting the deep breaths that had been stolen from his mother in that very spot. He surveyed the empty scene, the tide behind his ocean eyes overflowing, washing away the events of the evening.
He’d remember it differently. His arousal would give way to guilt, his excitement to shame. He’d bury that which had felt so right under a barrage of blame and demonise it. He’d reflect on an older man, husky and breathy with excitement and gratitude for being granted the permission to touch such young, firm body. He’d flinch at the thought of hands thick, fumbling and dirty-yellow that had grappled at him without caution, leaving marks upon his skin and his memory. He’d convince himself that the fisherman, a workmate of his father’s, had been lying in wait for his arrival, ready to strike. His grief and his guilt would battle with, beat and overwhelm his gratitude to Sims for being his first, for being there, then.
The lust and longing with which he held onto that man.
The completeness he felt in that moment, as each gasped the breath of the other.
Sydney was awake that night, awaiting the safe return of his son. The newly healed skin of his once-blistered palms pressed together as tightly as Robin’s body had against Sims.
About The Author
D. G. Champken is a new writer of prose and narrative non-fiction, husband and marketer of beer. His work is appearing for the first time on Bandit Fiction. Danny grew up in the North East of England before relocating and losing his accent to South Wales. He’s now back in England and cultivating the tone of voice of his hybrid tongue in the South West, based in Bristol but conducting an intense love affair with Cornwall.
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