Fire Coral by David Oakley

Photo by Joseph Northcutt on Unsplash





I sit on the left side of his bed so he can see me. His right arm, streaked with long red wheals and blisters, lies neglected on a pillow by his side. He cannot speak.

Colin grabs me, with his left hand, and tries to say something. No words come out, just a dribble from the sagging corner of his mouth. And he cries a lot, he can do that.

The consultant cannot explain the appearance of Colin’s arm. There is no rash elsewhere on his body.

*

This is how it had started, in a diary kept by me, a mere student. It would not be an exaggeration to say I was involved. I borrowed the secretary’s dictaphone and recorded our attempts at communication. And now, after the passage of so many years, I have found the tapes which I thought I had lost. So you don’t have to trust my memory…

*

He had few visitors. Sometimes his housekeeper came. Well, that is rather a grand description. She went to his house on Tuesdays and did some tidying and cleaning. I spoke with her on several occasions. She seemed a sensible person, not the type who would make things up.

His house was always neat and tidy,’ she said, ‘just a few bits of furniture, some prints hanging on the walls. Anyone visiting would have thought how boring. They would never have guessed in a million years.’

‘Guessed what?’ I said.

She paused, appreciating my look of expectation: ‘The cellar,’ she said.

‘What about it?’

‘It’s cram full of stuff. You can’t move for it. Every time he took a holiday, or even went out for the day, he would bring things back and put them in the cellar. There’s hardly anything in the rest of the house. He kept the cellar door locked, but I had a peep once, when he left it open by mistake.’ She gave me a knowing look, ‘he said to leave the cellar alone. Out of bounds, he said.’

I resented her use of the past tense.

*

I recall my excitement when Colin answered ‘Yes’ to a question. From that moment we worked hard. His speech did improve, but more often than not he struggled so hard to find the words that he made little sense. When I could not grasp what he was attempting to say, he tried to write it down, which was laborious because he was right-handed.

One day, when I arrived, and the curtains around his bed were drawn, I heard him singing quietly. This proved to be a breakthrough. We discovered that by channelling his words along musical pathways he could bypass the blockage caused by his stroke. He started to tell me his story in a low-voiced Anglican chant, quietly so as not to irritate the other people on the ward. The long phrases on a sustained pitch would have been deeply engrained in his subconscious: he had been a choirboy at his boarding school, he told me. Maybe that is why he sometimes reverted to archaic language.

When Colin was transferred to the rehabilitation unit, our conversations became more relaxed. I was eager to broach the subject of his cellar but could not think of a tactful way of doing it. In the event, this proved unnecessary as, one day, Colin chose to introduce the subject himself.

‘You must descend thirteen stone steps | to my | cellar
There are three chambers – stone walls and earthen floor – lit | by a |single |bulb,’

he chanted in his tenuous baritone voice. It was painfully slow. Anyway, enough of this preamble. It is time I shared what Colin had to say.

*

There were thirteen stone steps, as he said, and three rooms which were all dry. A coal hole in the largest room revealed its original purpose and his father had used the second room as a wine cellar. The third, and most remote, room was more of a short corridor. Half-way down, on the right, was a low brick-arched recess, about ten feet deep. The entrance was obstructed by a large stone slab where Colin’s father had ripened pears on sheets of newspaper. It was possible, by breathing in and stooping, to edge round the slab and enter the recess. A single naked light bulb, hanging on a brown plaited flex, served well to illuminate the two main rooms, but the corridor was dim, and the recess dark.

As a young boy, Colin had a recurrent fantasy that one day he would go down to the cellar and find a huge pile of presents, wrapped in colourful paper, lying on the slab. They were all for him, and as he unwrapped these marvels, he was thrown into a state of unimaginable ecstasy. Periodically, Colin would get a feeling that the presents might have arrived, and he would go down to check. When I asked him if this proved a terrible disappointment, he replied that this was not the case. He realised, in retrospect, that if he had ever found presents, he would have had to abandon the fantasy. After the age of seven he stopped checking the cellar and did not descend those steps for six years.

He went to boarding school at eight and the bullying started when he was ten. He never spoke of it to his parents nor to the teachers. Colin’s father did not approve of weakness in a boy. ‘Stiff upper lip’, he used to say. So he just struggled on. He described his early teens as an ordeal. When, at the beginning of term, all the boys embarked on vigorous accounts of their amorous adventures during the holidays, Colin had precious little to contribute.

*

After a week of physiotherapy, Colin was able to stand and take a tentative step. By contrast, there was little improvement in his arm, which remained paralysed. A dermatologist observed that the blistered wheals, streaked with blood, were characteristic of an intense reaction to histamine. The appearance was too florid for a nettle rash or insect bite, but he had once seen something similar in a patient stung by a jellyfish.

When the effort of talking tired him out, we tacitly agreed to suspend our conversations. It was after one such silence that Colin clutched my wrist with his left hand and started to intone on a low note, his voice reverberating with intensity:

The holidays had come to an end – and I dreaded going | back ˑ to | school

My father said unto me – ‘you must bring me wine from my cellar – since |I ˑ have | hurt ˑ my | ankle’

After locating the wine, Colin found himself revisiting the dimness of the third room. It was then that he saw a figure, deep in the arched recess, and he turned to look closer. A young girl, dressed in coral, stood, barefoot in the dark stillness. She smiled momentarily, though her face was serious. Colin tried to edge round the slab, but she shook her head and pointed to the bottle. I asked him to tell me more about her, but words were inaccessible. ‘What did she look like?’ I wrote on a piece of paper and handed him the pencil. It was Colin’s turn to shake his head. We sat in silence until the nurse said I should leave. With a great effort Colin started chanting: 

Late in that eventide I went down in | to my | cellar
And ‘Lo’ I placed upon the slab my |crickˑet | bat.

When I got to my room, I noticed that Colin had written something on the paper. In chaotic left-handed scrawl were the words she filled her skin.

*

During subsequent school holidays Colin revisited the cellar but did not see the girl in coral again. He went to university, studied law and was soon ensconced in a solicitor’s office. His thorough, if somewhat reserved, approach went down well with the clients and he was never to be short of money. He developed a taste for travelling, getting away whenever work permitted, if only for a long weekend. It became the warp and weft of his existence, the loom on which he wove the pattern of his life.

When Colin’s parents simultaneously died in an accident, there was no detectable change in his routine. The house itself, being sparsely furnished, was easy to maintain. Drab but tidy was how Colin described it to me, and he engaged the services of a cleaner to keep it that way.

Colin threw himself into his travels. In cultural towns he visited museums and bought numerous postcards of his favourite exhibits. On his return, he would mount the pictures in albums. I asked him to estimate how many postcards there were. He shrugged his left shoulder: ‘thousands,’ he said. On trips to East Africa he started a collection of cultural objects, figurines, native art and the like. He went fishing in Iceland and brought back geological specimens.

The acquisition of choice mementoes was augmented by a weakness for what Colin described as ‘kit’, and always of the highest quality. He bought two ice axes in Switzerland, top quality SCUBA gear in Australia and an antique split cane fishing rod, with three boxes of flies, from a dealer in London. He lined his cellars with warehouse shelving, and arranged the items in chronological order, using indelible marker to write the dates of their acquisition on the brackets. 

Colin travelled alone but was not averse to making casual acquaintances. He met up with a Swedish lady whilst diving in the Red Sea and they buddied each other for the rest of the trip. When the bus arrived to take them to the airport, they discussed another trip, maybe next year, to the Maldives. Over the ensuing weeks Colin spent some time considering whether there might be a romantic element in this friendship but decided, on balance, that there was not. The Maldives trip did go ahead, however, and formed the basis of a rich collection of shells and other marine objects which, over three decades, was to occupy a significant proportion of the cellar shelves.

*

A month or so after his stroke, the multi-disciplinary team organised a home visit. I pushed Colin in a wheelchair. The occupational therapist evaluated the access arrangements and the toilets. A stairlift would be required. They took Colin to the kitchen to see if he could make a cup of tea and I mooched about the house. It was unmemorable, anonymous except for the odd cliché, a framed Toulouse-Lautrec poster in the toilet. I could detect nothing of Colin’s personality in this banal residence. The cellar door was locked.

*

It was shortly after his retirement that Colin became aware of a slight mustiness in the cellar air. He had spent a few days in Brighton where he had read Moby Dick (for the second time) and had gone down to place his prized early edition on its appropriate shelf. His copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass lay a few ‘months’ to the left and its spine seemed to be excreting a small patch of grey mould. It did not take him long to establish that the stone flags in one corner of the second room were dark with moisture. I asked if he made plans to rehouse his collection until the problem could be rectified.

‘ I could not move them from their home. My things belonged | in ˑ that | hu ˑ mid place.’

Within a few weeks a small pool of water had accumulated in the corner of room 2 and there was evidence of ingress elsewhere. Two small green shoots had emerged from the angle between the bottom step and the wall. It was summer, and the weather was dry. Colin hacked at the weed, but it re-grew, and he became resigned to the changes.

*

It took nearly eight years for the cellars to fill with water of extraordinary clarity. The house itself was never flooded, the inundation running its course with the water lapping against the second of the cellar steps. The green shoots proliferated, forming a dense barrier so that Colin could no longer access the rooms. He spent the days at home and acquired no more objects. He stopped reading, preferring to watch trivial television or simply daydream. He slept a lot.

He was, in fact, daydreaming on the day of his stroke, when he heard a sound coming from below. He struggled to describe what he heard. He made it clear to me that he was excited beyond measure. An immediate and urgent investigation of the cellar was required, whatever the cost. Stripped to his underwear and brandishing a torch, he took a deep breath and descended the steps, only to be repulsed by a tangled barrier of kelp. He returned with the bread knife, dived down and sawed away at the weed until he ran out of breath. After innumerable forays he was exhausted but had opened a way. He spotted his cricket bat floating among the raft of material that had risen to the surface.

A nurse interrupted us at this point. He said workmen were coming to install the stairlift later that week. The patient was tired, and I should leave. I made to go, but Colin beckoned me back, grasped my hand and closed it round an old key which was lying on the bed. He smiled with half his face. The next day he told me what happened.

*

The first few dives were merely exploratory, to establish how far he could go and reassure himself that he could get back. It was fortunate that his buoyancy compensator had been an early acquisition and was therefore to be found near the entrance to the first room. It had not floated off because of the diving weights. Colin retrieved it at the third attempt. On its own, the BCD was not much use, but a pouch on the side held a precious cargo – his small ‘Spare Air’ cylinder with mouthpiece, an insurance policy containing just enough air to get him to the surface in an emergency. Fifty-six breaths, the divemaster had said, two, maybe three minutes at the most but it could be a lifesaver.

So Colin’s last dive was destined to be a short one. Stripped to the waist, he checked his mask, placed the weights in his trouser pockets, cracked the ‘Spare Air’ and dived down through the weed. He breathed slowly and economically, swimming with the minimum of effort. He made directly for the recess and hovered, neutrally buoyant, shining his torch at the stone slab, now a pinnacle encrusted with corals, fans, gorgonians and anemones. Shoals of clownfish, trigger fish and jacks flashed in the beam of light, switching colours with their synchronised movements. A black and white banded sea snake curved among the crevices. The girl stood in the depths of her coral cave, lit from one side by a purplish-golden light. She had not changed. She was as he had remembered her, every waking hour of his life.

There must have been about twenty-five breaths left. Colin swam round the pinnacle into the cave and held his right hand out towards the girl. The unseen fire coral tore at his skin and the agony was instantaneous, his arm lashed with a thousand poisonous needles, hot as sin. She slowly shook her head, her face tinged with sadness as she met Colin’s gaze of masked intensity. As the air ebbed away, Colin’s arm went numb, his vision faded and he dropped the torch.

*

The house was just the same as before. There was no evidence of a break-in. The floor was dry, but his BCD was in a cupboard in the hall, near where they found him. The stairlift people set to work and we left them to it. By ‘we’ I mean the housekeeper and I. We stood for a while in front of the cellar door, the workmen outside eating from their lunchboxes. Her eyes widened as I produced the key and opened it. There was no water, just a waft of air spiced with iodine. We saw the cellar walls, whitewashed, with the angle iron of the warehouse shelving, the skeleton of Colin’s life, now quite empty. The dates could still be seen on the brackets, but that was all. The housekeeper rushed up the stairs to phone the police, shouting that there had been a robbery.

I went into the third room. This too was empty, almost. Propped up against the stone slab was his cricket bat, a string of coral hanging loosely from its shoulder.

I took the bat and the coral, hurried outside and hailed a cab, imploring the driver to go as fast as possible. It was an emergency.

The nurse told me he had died shortly before lunch. Another stroke.

*

There were just a handful of people at the cremation service. I laid his necklace amongst the inevitable lilies. I had brought the bat too, but it looked incongruous on the coffin and I took it back. An old woman with milky blue eyes sat in a shaft of sunlight near the door, her wrinkled skin failing to mask an understated loveliness.

‘Did you know him well?’

‘In a way,’ she said in a soft Scandinavian accent.

I glanced at her left hand. She smiled and patted my knee. ‘No, no ring,’ she said, ‘I never met the right man.’ She was the only mourner who cried.

The green curtains rippled like sea grass as they closed around his casket. 

I placed the cricket bat by her side. She nodded, balanced it across the top of her Zimmer frame and shuffled towards the open door. I remember her bent figure, silhouetted in a corona of sunlight, as she made her precarious passage to the garden of remembrance.

About The Author

With a background in mathematics, David Oakley is a graduate of the MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. Writer of short stories, memoir, flash and travelogue, he is currently revising his first novel. He tends to write about characters who are socially inept or insecure. He has had stories published in Bandit Fiction, Storgy, Scribble, Making Writing Matter, and (shortly to appear) Flashes of Brilliance. He recently appeared in the new literary games-show podcast Prompety Prompt, which was the scariest experience of his career so far.

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