My Father Was a Man of the Ocean by Philip Webb Gregg

Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

My father was a man of the Ocean. He had salt blood in his veins and his heart beat with the rhythm of the tides, as does mine. But not, I think, as strong as his. I cannot speak to the waves the way that he could.

I have brought the shovels and the wheelbarrow, and the sun is nearly down. The Oysterboy will bring the torches and meet me at the gate. He loves me, I know he does. He will do anything for me, I know it. He has wide shoulders and strong arms, and his palms are rough from the ropes. He kisses me nervously when he arrives, and I notice, not for the first time, that his lips are a lot softer than his hands. I smile at him, and we walk along the path as the sun sets behind the hills. First, he talks, muttering uneasily about small nothings, then when I don’t respond he goes quiet and looks at the darkening sky. It is mid-summer; the night will be short. I tell him we will have to hurry.

It was my grandmother, my father’s mother, who gave us this gift. She came from the sea. One summer morning, on a Wednesday, so the story goes – striding up the beach as naked as the crystal sky. When she reached my grandfather’s door she knocked three times and said: ‘I have come to take you as my husband.’

When we arrive, the Oysterboy hesitates, looks at me and asks if I’m sure. His jaw is straight like the bow of a boat, but his hands have become restless birds, diving in and out of his pockets and flapping at his sides. He asks again, desperate for reassurance, and there is a trembling in his voice like the rough spilling of sand. He sounds so much younger than me, though we were born in the same long winter. Touching his face in the dark, I whisper something in his ear, then I pick up my shovel and start digging.

She was not a beautiful woman, my grandmother. Her skin was not smooth, her lips were too thin, and her hair was never anything more than a tangle of salted brown – the colour of dry seaweed. Still, my grandfather loved her from that day until the day he died. They had three sons in the brief years they shared. Two of them disappeared into the surf just a few months after they were born. The third – my father – chose to stay. I often wonder where they went, my uncles. Perhaps it was to them my father would converse.

It takes us a long time, the digging, longer than I expected. After the first hour the bones in my back begin to twitch and moan. I feel as if my spine were made of warped driftwood. We wedge the torches between stones, moving them often, as we go deeper and deeper into the earth. Fortunately, the Oysterboy is stronger than I am; he works tirelessly, digging in rhythm with his breath. I am glad he is here; I could not do this alone.

In the short, warm nights of summer, my father would sit out by the sea, his huge frame curled underneath him, resting his head on his hands as he talked. I would watch him by the light of the house, for hours and hours as he spoke his words to the waves. Then I would go down early the next day and wish the sea good morning, hoping it would say something, anything, back. It never has.

The coffin is pine, a soft wood. Still, it takes many blows before it cracks. We fall back when the stench hits us, a smell like nothing I’ve ever known. The Oysterboy dry retches, like drowning while breathing. I place my palm between his shoulder blades and wait, holding the tears from my eyes. Slowly, after a long pause, we peel away the lid, piece by piece, revealing a thing that no longer looks like the man I loved. His face is bleached beyond all memory, his fingers are pale and fat like naked little crabs, and his whole body is bloated and frozen in death. I begin to cry as we lift him out of the ground. I could never have imagined he would be this heavy.

Three days ago, the tides stopped still, and my father fell down in the kitchen while scrubbing fish. There were scales all over the floor when I found him. His mouth was blue and gaping like a catch. Heart attack, they said. High blood pressure. They buried him the next morning in a graveyard miles from the beach. I haven’t slept since.

Again, the Oysterboy asks if I’m sure. He tries to hold me in his arms but I push him gently away and start filling in the grave. Silently he helps me. It takes a long time, every movement aches and burns but we have to hurry. When we finish, we pat down the mound, hiding the fresh earth and replacing the flowers. Next comes the hardest part, the journey through town.

They didn’t listen when I told them it was wrong. My father’s wife, and all her pretty sisters – they called me child, and little girl. They even laughed when I told them about my grandmother. Old fishwives’ tales, they said. But they don’t understand. My father was not born to be buried in the earth.

The streets are painfully bright and filled with the stench of dead fish. The Oysterboy and I take turns to push, making slow progress. We pass sleeping houses and closed windows, moving as soundlessly as we can. The body of my father sits gracelessly in the wheelbarrow, his huge frame curled underneath him. There is the slightest hint of a squeak in the axle, it whines with every cobblestone. My heart shudders when we see a group of cats, three of them, sitting around a bin overflowing with bones. They watch us fearlessly, like old women with pearly eyes shining in the streetlights. We meet no one else.

He should have drowned. He should have fallen from his boat in the heart of a storm and never been found, or walked out one evening and never come back. Both of these I would have believed. I would have accepted.

Eventually we reach the sea. Both of us are utterly exhausted and the sand is slippery and awkward. The surf roars up in the early morning tide, spraying us with welcome. As I brush the wet hair from my eyes, I am reminded of my grandmother with her salt-brown, seaweed locks. I glance at the Oysterboy beside me, his features tired but beautiful. I touch his shoulder, his neck, his face. I do not smile and he does not speak. Silently the sun rises over the ever-breathing ocean. Then, with the last of my strength, I pick up my father and walk into the waves.

That was the first time I heard the voice, liquid and female, whispering, ‘Thank you.’

About The Author

Philip Webb Gregg is a dyslexic writer and a lisping poet. He enjoys the contraction of two impossible things which inevitably enable each other. He is an editor for the Dark Mountain Project and makes his living as a general scribbler. He lives in Cambridge, UK, where everything is nice, and he hates it.

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