I look out across the estuary, beyond the line of boats, moored in a messy row in the middle of the channel, to the far bank. A couple argues. I can see one of them jabbing his finger at another man, his head tilted back, the other’s arms folded across his chest, but I can’t hear what’s being said.
The kayak is easily lowered into the water when the tide’s this high. If I crouch, I can get onto the seat with both hands on the grassy bank. I get comfortable, tighten the bungees across my dry sack, and paddle out into the sound.
The wind is off the land and the kayak smacks the waves that roll in from upriver. I hear the line of yachts jockeying for position, the rub of rope, the dull thud of hollow hulls knocking. The man’s voice is suddenly clear across the water.
“… You lied to me!”
The silent man has his hair tied in a ponytail, his hands on his hips, feet firm.
“Why can’t you be honest? Just this once. You owe me that!”
He is shouting but now I can hear his anger is tinged with something else.
“Richard! Tell me what’s going on!”
I adjust the backrest and let the wind take the kayak down river. The sky fills the estuary with bright white light, a million mirrors across the water. A cormorant slices the waves between me and the men, surfacing a few seconds later behind me. I turn to see it take flight with its catch.
I drift with the wind at my back before starting to paddle. My position on the seat is good and I take my time to get the stroke right before slowly increasing the power. I’m pretty sure it’s still half an hour until high tide, but the wind out in the channel is strong and I don’t need to paddle hard to pick up pace. I allow myself to turn back one last time and already the men are out of earshot, a hundred yards away. Neither has moved. The taller silent one with the ponytail, Richard, I guess, has his back to me and from this distance the other man is hidden behind him.
I find the rhythm and take the kayak across the channel and then paddle towards where the estuary opens out into the sea. Sometimes I can feel clumsy, that the kayak is too heavy, my strokes uneven. But today it feels like it’s part of me, my movement efficient and clean. When it’s like this, it’s almost a meditation. If I allow my thoughts to dominate, a paddle clips the top of a wave, the blade taking an ugly scoop from the water. If I think about the men arguing or the things I should be doing, my progress becomes messy. But if I concentrate solely on the action, it’s like I could do this forever.
I keep my back straight and feel the strength in my arms, my abs. The wind is like a hand at the base of my spine and the craft cuts silently through the water. I describe a perfect oval with each stroke, increasing my effort as my preferred rhythm settles.
I forget about the men. Not actively, like it’s something I need to remember to do. But naturally, as I pull the water around the kayak. I know that this should be a good time to think about work, about how much longer I can stand being in the same room as the pair of them. Or about dating again. It’s nine months since Suzanne left me, and I’ve not seen anyone since. But I resist the urge and- for longer than I thought possible- I just paddle, energetically powering the craft along the estuary past the expensive houses and out towards the open sea. The horizon is perfect, a precise line.
I don’t think about my parents, who I haven’t called in months. Nor my friends who I really should make more effort with. Nor Derek and Wendy who are both in a relationship, and are also my bosses, and how I can barely stand things there a day longer. And I don’t think about Suzanne and how she’s still in my thoughts most days when I wake up. I don’t spend a second contemplating our last evening together, the argument we had, the things she said, in anger. With anger, but peppered, I knew then and have known since, with truth. About how I seem to spend all my time with my own thoughts, lost and alone. In a deep dark well, she shouted.
My mind is clear, and I twist the grip with the perfection of a craftsman, taking joy in the simplicity of the action, the attention to detail. I’m careful to keep my back straight, my belly in, my shoulders leaning forward slightly to give an extra reach to every stroke.
My focus has been on a tall pine between two bungalows on the shore. I’d set a course without thinking, and suddenly I’m almost at the foot of the garden. The garden leads to the houses, crouched low and sprawling against the line of trees. I slow my stroke and let the wind take me past the houses, two wide faces made almost entirely of glass. In one window I spot a telescope on a tripod, and in another a large model of a yacht, its sails filling the frame. The lawns have both been recently mown, stripes reaching almost down to the water. I think of my tiny flat, above the hairdressers on the high street, the main room dark and cluttered. The kayak lives behind the sofa and takes up half the space.
The tide will be turning soon I think, and I realise it’s a long way back. I’ve only been on the water twenty minutes and yet I’m almost at the choppy line that marks the mouth of the channel and the ocean beyond.
I dig the blades to slow my progress and feel the wind in my face. It’s gusty and I can see dark patterns on the water rushing towards me as I slowly make my way back the way I’ve come.
I pull hard on the paddles, my knees jammed against the sides of the kayak. Back in the middle of the channel the familiar slap of waves against the hull soothes me, but it’s slow progress against the tide. My watch says it’s one thirty, and I realise I’ve no idea when high tide is, or was. I’m aware of the weight of water dragging the kayak, trying to tug it out into the harbour, and beyond to the sea. I pull the water round me and fight against the current. It’s hard work across the channel and in the calmer water, out of the wind, on the other side, it’s still tough going.
“You’ve gotta be careful out there. You need to know the tides.”
Suzanne hated the kayak. I’d bought her one for her birthday, so we could go out together, but she only used it once. At first, I wondered whether she was scared of the water, or didn’t like the exercise. And then later, after we’d finished, when I’d seen it for sale on eBay, I wondered whether it was just because it was my thing, something that she didn’t like because I did.
I lean forward further, each stroke stronger, longer, more powerful. I can feel the burn in my belly already, the muscles in my core tense, stretched. My heart is thumping in my chest, from the exertion, and the dawning realisation that the tide has turned, that for every stroke I’m making, the water is dragging me towards the mouth of the estuary, the open sea.
I settle into a decent cadence, enough to keep the kayak moving against the tide, devoid of the panic I was beginning to feel. I slow each stroke, concentrating on precise execution rather than speed.
‘Slow and steady wins the race.’
My father at my school sports day, the only time he ever came. It was a long-distance race, ten-thousand metres perhaps, and his advice had sounded confident, unequivocal, irrefutable. From a man I’d never seen exercise. A father who was rarely there, and when he was, he was with his friends, drinking and smoking, telling dirty jokes, desperate for attention. I was a good runner, but I lost the race, coming second-to-last. I realise now that this was the beginning of an awareness that my father was a bullshitter. That his grand claims, about his work, his status, his achievements were to be trusted no more than his pathetic advice to his ten-year-old son. I remember hating him for that, blaming him for losing a race that I could have won. I can picture him now, a much younger man, as I jogged past, his sleeves rolled, his hand in a fist on the edge of the track, the rest of the pack way ahead.
“That’s it, Son, slow and steady!”
My mother always said she hated the water. There was a time when we’d swam in the sea in Cornwall and I’d been mucking around, backflipping into waves. I’d made her laugh with my antics, and she’d started to cough and splutter, out of her depth, panic in her eyes. I remember her going under, and realising that things were serious, that she’d swallowed a lungful. Again, I would have been nine or ten. I’m not sure where dad was. In the pub, probably, or chatting to a group of girls on the sand, cigarettes proffered in a fan from the packet. I dived into a wave and grabbed mum around the waist, lifting her up and out of the water, arms flailing. I can picture her now, her long hair plastered across her face as she vomited clear liquid down her front. I don’t remember her ever swimming again, and there was always the sense that somehow it had been my fault that she’d nearly drowned, that she was afraid of the water. Never that I might have saved her, that I should perhaps have been thanked, loved.
Years later I wonder whether it was that day that the love had dried up. Or if it had ever been there. I still dreamt about that time at the beach, even now. Less often, but still once in a while. Sometimes it played out just as I remembered. My mother standing in the surf, a torrent of bile, her eyes wild and raw like freshly gutted fish. And often I’d be treading water, beyond the break, the gentle rise and fall of the swell, and watch her disappear below the surface, unable to make a move.
I’d told Suzanne that I let my mother drown, in my dream. She’d told me to get a grip, to get over it, that she had loved me, despite what I said. ‘Just move on.’ She said I was a narcissist, that all I ever thought about was me, that I was stuck in a world between my ears. “It’s not all about you,” she’d yell.
I try and focus on the execution of my stroke, the blades turned to maximise the volume of water on each side, the clean switch as I lift and swivel. I’m pushing myself, concentrating hard, but my progress is slow. There’s a dog walker on the far bank and I struggle to keep pace with her as she works her way along the footpath. My breathing matches the rhythm of my paddles, like a swimmer, deep and steady. I try not to snatch the air, to let the panic brushing at the edge of my lungs take a hold.
The kayak feels like it’s inching its way back up the estuary. I fix on an ancient wooden post, upright in the water, and watch as it gradually lines up between me and a church spire a mile away. My strokes are powerful, efficient, but it takes ages to reach it.
I’m pushing myself now, balancing precision and power, pulling the water round each side of the kayak with increased vigour. There’s sweat in my eyes, on my top lip, across my back. I keep close to the shore, out of the wind, away from the centre of the channel. The tide runs faster there, where it’s deep, and I can see the gusts pulsing in dark waves across the estuary.
There’s a hawthorn, a quarter of a mile away, its branches twisted into a loose grip that looks like it might be about to snatch something from the water. I’m locked onto it and although it seems to get no closer, I can see the background slowly scrolling behind it, the only indication that I’m making any progress.
I’d been in trouble before, off the north Devon coast. A rip had taken me out and beyond a headland, but I’d known to succumb to it, to go with the current and see where it took me. I’d acknowledged then that battling it was futile, that I’d just have to wait it out, and try and get back from wherever it took me. In the end I had to paddle to shore in the next cove and carry the kayak up the coast path to get back to the beach where Suzanne had lain. I’d struggled to balance the craft on my head as I made my way up the ridge, my hands gripping the fibre glass tight. At the top I saw her, jumping from boulder to boulder, away from the beach. I swung the kayak onto the track and shouted through cupped hands. She’d kept running up the valley that ran down to the sand, a bag slung over each shoulder. I hollered again, but she couldn’t hear. In the end I stashed the kayak in a clump of gorse, and ran after her, up to the car park. I saw her before she saw me, the contents of both bags strewn across the bonnet of my car, her eyes wild, tear-filled. I’d hoped she might be pleased to see me, relieved at least, but she was furious.
“What the fuck were you thinking? I thought you were dead! Drowned! You’re a fucking idiot!”
I don’t think it was the first time she’d called me that, but I’d never seen her so angry. Pent up rage, four years’ worth of frustration bottled up, fired out across a National Trust car park. I just turned and made my way back down the path to the kayak. By the time I got back, I thought she might have calmed down, but it was like I’d pressed pause. I watched a woman fill a bag with dog shit from the verge of the car park, as Suzanne yelled something about being selfish, about only ever thinking about myself.
I’m tiring by the time I reach the hawthorn, its gnarled bark twisted as if wrung out by giant unseen hands. I’ve got the breath for it still, but my shoulders are aching, my back sore. I want to take a break; just a minute or two. But if I pause, I’ll lose all the distance I’ve covered.
I think about going ashore, pulling the kayak up onto the bank. But the tide is running faster, and if I stop, I might never start again. I get cramp and I’ve nothing to eat in the drybag. I keep my focus, the hawthorn taking an age to pass, the last of its blossom a halo at the tips of its branches.
I slow my stroke and extend my reach, a longer pull along each side. I’m running low on energy. There’s always this moment where I feel light-headed, almost excited, like there’s a little extra in the reserve, before I’m truly wiped. I grab it while I can, pulling the rushing tide around me. Up ahead I can see where I went in across the channel, the water already lower, a few yards of mud before the bank. I have to keep going and decide to hug the far bank, out of the wind, until I’m level with the car park.
The muscles in my lower back are aching and I can feel the pain pulsing up my spine and into the base of my skull. If I stop, I know my hands will shake. I’m fast running out of juice, and I’m dehydrated. My lips are cracked, and I don’t need to check my bag to know that my water bottle’s in the glovebox in the car. It’s calm on this side and I cross a shallow inlet that branches off the main channel.
There’s a tingle in my feet, like pins and needles, and then it’s in my legs, my belly, my chest. I’m crying, without warning, a complete surprise. I feel shot through, like a virus. It’s in my veins and I struggle against the tears, the sadness, to keep paddling. Perhaps this is what madness feels like? I must be exhausted because none of this makes any sense. I reckon I’ve only got a few more strokes in me.
Up ahead, there’s a shallow beach of mud and shingle. If I can make it to that, I’ll be okay. I can see the roof of my car across the estuary, between the row of yachts now smartly lined up in the middle of the channel. I wonder if I’m sick, if I’ve caught something, out here on the water. I’m shuddering, drenched in sweat, but my teeth are chattering and I’m cold. I’m losing my grip on the paddle and I can hardly maintain a forward motion. The temptation to stop, to lean back in my seat and let the tide take me is almost overwhelming.
There’s no-one expecting me, nobody who even knows I’ve gone out today. It’d be days before anyone noticed. Probably Derek and Wendy, a final call to the phone in my sack before the battery dies. Asking where I am, why I’ve not come in. A voicemail I’ll never hear. Somewhere out in the shipping lanes, a seagull on my chest, my eyes pecked out.
I’m done. I release the paddle and drop my head to my chest. My lifejacket smells of sweat and brine. I feel the tug of the water. I don’t want to know where it’ll take me.
I stare into the water that’s pooled in the floor of the kayak and close my eyes.
It’s seconds later, no more, and I can feel the bottom of the kayak scrape shingle.
I’m completely spent. I’m not even sure I can lift my head. Opening my eyes takes everything I’ve got. In the water between my knees, there is a man that might be me, and behind him, another man who I recognise instantly as the guy with the ponytail. Richard.
His hand is on the back of my neck. I’m still sobbing, quietly now, my shoulders shaking.
“You okay? It looked like you were… struggling.”
He gently massages my neck, his fingers at the base of my skull. I have nothing left but somewhere, set deep behind my ribs, I can feel something, and in that single, single moment, I imagine it might be the thing I’ve been searching for all these years. Love’s return.
About The Author
David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent. In 2021, his stories The Broken Heart and A Highland Reunion were published in STORGY Magazine, The Witching Hour in Lunate, Crows was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2021 and The Hesitant long-listed for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize.
Recent publications include:
The Broken Heart – https://storgy.com/2021/01/13/the-broken-heart-by-david-micklem/
The Witching Hour – https://lunate.co.uk/short-stories/the-witching-hour-by-david-micklem
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