The Last Watchman
© Clive Gilson 2016
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As she walked on slowly, surrounded by the smoky shades of a descending August evening, lost in childish daydreams and sunset shadows, Luisa kicked out in that desultory and inescapably teenage fashion at thick tufts of grass that knotted and clumped together along the edges of the coastal path. Fingers of flint and chipped out stones from the exposed Cornish coastal sediments ground and slipped under her feet. The path wound down here, down from the grassy cliff-top promenades, sliding down in switchbacks towards a pebbled bay a hundred feet below. Across the waters, out at the edge of this seemingly flat world, a late summer sun was dipping towards the horizon and shining a brilliant, gleaming pathway across the millpond sea. Wisps of high, strung-out cloud glowed orange and red and pink and purple with the up-lit illusion of a sun beginning to slide beneath a blackening ocean swell.
Luisa took a rollie from a plastic tobacco pouch wedged into the back pocket of her jeans. She straightened the rollie and picked a stray flake of weed from the healthily filtered end. Her bright red Chuck Taylor All Stars were showing a slight line of salt bleach now, the result of getting caught by a surging wavelet while walking the dog earlier in the day. Luisa kicked out at more of the thickly tufted grass at the path’s edge. Bloody dog, she thought. Useless. Everyone was useless. Just a drag. She lit up and coughed. Such a faff. She hated holidays. She hated the beach. She hated every last one of them. Idiots.
“I mean”, she said to herself, “I mean… OMG… I’m fifteen, right?”
When there was no one around to embarrass her Luisa loved to act out the different facets of her emerging persona. She switched to a lower octave, assuming the identity of Lou, her wild inner child who was allegedly blessed with cutting seam of sarcasm. “You’re a woman, my darling. Half the queens of England were married and pregnant at your age. Modern mothers are all too fucked over to notice what a darling you really are. They should get themselves down to Specsavers, my love…”
“Yeah, right”. Luisa laughed, but not too loudly. She hated it when people looked at her. Their looks always reminded her of how awkward she felt in her own skin. Luisa hated many things in this world, and direct eye contact was the worst a girl could get. Another tuft of grass surrendered under the stomping sole of Luisa’s utterly ruined Converse sneakers. She kicked through a small pile of flint shards, sending grey pennies skittering along the path and down a flight of stony steps kept in place by rotting wooden boards and cut down fence posts. Luisa imagined a room full of people and their looks. She imagined the skittering stones to be buckshot. At fifteen years and three months of age Luisa had not yet gained any real conceptual sense of proportionality.
As she rounded the last of the switchbacks and started the final descent down to the beach she saw a disturbing shape at the surf line, a human silhouette set against the falling sunscape. Luisa stopped dead in her tracks. Once again, and for the thousandth time that day, she was reminded that she truly and totally hated other people. She especially hated other people on her beach when she wanted to be alone, and she so wanted to be alone right now. It was the end of another frustrating and annoying day. Everyone really pissed her off at the moment. All she wanted was a quiet minute or two sitting on the rocks, an idle interlude when she could throw stones into rock pools, a moment to her bloody self. Was it really too much to ask, she wondered? Behind Luisa’s sweet young eyes the infamous Lou grimaced knowingly and shook her imaginary head.
And yet Luisa watched the shape on the beach for a moment and felt compelled to linger. She thought that she what she ought to do was to turn and take her grass mangling sneakers for a wander down the coast path towards Daymer but instead she remained rooted to the spot. That sense of compulsion grew stronger and Luisa crouched down low so as not to be seen by the man on the beach. Luisa checked the path behind her. She was on her own. Suddenly she felt the weight of her solitude and she decided that being a lone she-wolf was a vastly overrated thing. And yet…
Luisa was fascinated by the quiet little world that was laid out below her current vantage point. She felt drawn down to the pebbles and the dried out seaweed and the drifts of faded plastic bottle tops. Luisa edged her way forward, staying low, using the tufts of grass and the natural folds in the layers of rock as cover. She wanted to get a better look at this shadow man. She wanted to see what he was going to do with the weird wooden thing that lay on its side by his feet. She wanted to know what sort of a weird wooden thing it might be. She ignored the rabbit droppings that disintegrated beneath her knees as she crawled forward on the close-cropped grass that ran along the path’s edge.
The man in the halo of golden sunlight simply stood there with his hands buried in his jacket pockets. To Luisa he looked sort of old and weathered, a brighter patch at the crown of his head revealing the fact that he was a little thin on top. Then she noticed that he was wearing proper shoes on the beach. Even weirder, thought Luisa. He was like an old perv or something. She looked down at the stains on her sneakers. Real shoes on the beach. What a dork. And although the man remained in silhouette she became convinced that he must be wearing a tweed jacket, because it looked exactly like the one worn by Piggy Brown, her maths teacher at school, and that served to confirm her opinion. What a pervy dork.
Luisa continued to inch her way down the path towards a small wooden bench set upon a small flat ledge cut into the cliff face. She supposed it was there so that old people like her mother could have a rest on the way back up from the beach. She picked up a handy stave of driftwood left beside the bench by a long gone child warrior and she tested the weight of it in her hand. She felt hot and flushed. She suddenly wanted to run away, to find her aged mother, to be safe, to be peering out from behind maternal skirts. She dropped the stick into the grass by the seat. She had no idea what she was really thinking. Everything got muddled up in her head when Lou switched off.
Luisa made a definite effort to focus on the man and the matters at hand, and she was rewarded almost immediately. The weirdo down by the shore, who wished to take advantage of a still night and a neap tide, bent forward, arranged some stones to create a pair of shallow fore and aft troughs, and placed the strange wooden object at his feet into those troughs. Luisa shifted further forward, all the better to confirm what she was seeing. The perv had a wooden boat. She recognised the shape of it from books at school. It had a single square sail just forward of amidships, with a rounded stern and rudder. At the prow the keel rose up and came to a point, from which Luisa thought she could make out a dragon’s head. Luisa’s sense of spatial reality was poor but she estimated that the dragon-ship must be as big as her dad, so six feet long at least. It looked perfect, even down to having jam jar lid shields pinned to the outside of the hull.
Luisa surprised herself. She amazed herself. Curiosity overcame her natural state of reticence and she stood up boldly. She stiffened her spine and walked defiantly down the final flight of stone steps and onto the beach. She walked across the pebbles, making her presence in this shared golden sunset so uncharacteristically obvious. Luisa wanted the sad little man to look round and acknowledge her as an equal. As old and weird and teacherish as he seemed, Luisa found something beguiling in his apparent intent to sail a model dragon-ship across the seven seas. She found herself sharing the vision. She wanted to ask him simple questions like; how and why? And with the sharing, with the sudden urge to engage across the years and the hopes and the frustrations of a confusing, nonsensical life, she suddenly felt full of swaggering bravado and even felt the thrill of teenage menace nibbling away at the fraying threads of this adult world. It occurred to her then that she could get a much better look at the goings on from about eight feet away. The weirdo would never catch her in those shoes, not on these pebbles. Luisa felt in control. She coughed theatrically as she moved to a position behind the weirdo and just to his left so that she could keep the dragon-ship in full sight.
Only then did it occur to Luisa that at this range, when she ought to be able to see things in exquisite detail, she could still only make out the shadows of the man standing beside the perfect little dragon-ship. The optical illusion of a drowning sun sent spears of orange and red fire into her eyes. The man in front of her seemed to be made of black coals, absorbing the light from the falling evening sky. Luisa felt giddy. Only the wooden detail of the dragon-ship seemed to be made of flesh and bone and wood and linen and nail and glue. Every plank was made real in replica. In the middle of the open hull, set on tiny lateral decking planks, Luisa saw a tied down, brick sized wooden container. It reminded her of the box that Bruno, their last Collie, had come back in after he died of some cancer or other.
“Oh My God…” she hissed. “That’s… a dead person…”
The weirdo on the beach remained quite still. He continued to stare out to sea. Luisa could not see his face. She felt his response as much as she heard it. “Well, yes, it was a dead person… a long time ago.” The words that Luisa heard made no real sense to her. Instead she felt a deep tide of sadness that pulled her far below the surface waves that covered any of her previous emotionally lung-busting dives.
The man shifted slightly in his leather soled shoes, as if relieving a cramp, and as he adjusted his stance so his gravitational devouring of visible light ceased and the dull colours of tweed and brown corduroy turned his back and legs and head to the mottled camouflage of rock and dry brown nettles. He whispered something, and again Luisa experienced a sense of words rather than a direct hearing of syllables and consonants. With his whispering in full flow the old man on the beach slowly waved his right hand as if casting seeds over deep, gull littered furrows.
In watching the man’s hand move Luisa momentarily lifted her gaze from the dragon-ship as she followed thin and translucent skin and bone moving towards the deepening colours that closed like a descending theatre curtain upon the horizon. In the second or two that followed, as Luisa consciously thought about the dragon-ship and then turned her eyes back to where the dragon-ship lay, her frail sense of control in this confusing and contradictory world started to turn somersaults. She started to reel and spin. She felt sick. The troughs in which the dragon-ship had lain were empty now. The strange, tweedy little man stood quite still again, his right hand pointing out to the quiet waters of the bay. As Luisa wiped away tears that suddenly filled her eyes she followed the man’s gesture and saw there, out on the waters, the blurry outlines of her perfect little dragon-ship, sail unfurled, heading out towards the Atlantic swells, but in full, majestic and menacing glory.
“Ooohh…” Luisa gasped. It took a long moment for any form of words to regroup in her mind. Eventually she managed a hoarse and feeble little, “What..?”
Luisa’s breath felt hot and caught at the back of her throat. She sniffed and rubbed the palms of her hands into her eyes as she groped for better words. She felt physically broken, while inside her head scared little Lou ran around frantically bumping into bone and synapse and sinew, desperate, it appeared, to end their pubescent friendship. Luisa took one step forward towards the departing dragon-ship before tumbling to her knees, all the while rubbing at her eyes so that she could keep the winged beast in some sort of fantastical perspective.
Beside her the weirdo, the tweedy perv, the corduroy trousered freaky teacher, whispered something else. Luisa still could not recognise the words, but she knew instinctively that these words meant heat and light and power and fire. As she watched in fascinated horror the man turned the palm of his still raised hand upwards. From his palm there rose a ball of pulsing flame as though all of the light that he had previously absorbed was concentrated now in this miniature sun that danced above his fingers. The man flicked his wrist and the ball of flame spun through the air, landing squarely and brilliantly on top of the now coffin sized box lashed to the dragon-ship’s decking. There was an instant explosion, a perfect cascade of sparks that grew into a wall of bright fire as flame tongues erupted from the dragon’s mouth. Everything happened at precisely the same moment that the last halo of the drowning sun slid beneath the waves at the far edges of the world.
Luisa too felt as though she were the sun drowning beneath black waves. She coughed and retched, wiping mucus away from her nose and lips. She was teetering at the very edge of her old and familiar world. She stood upon a boundary and wheeled her arms in a desperate attempt to regain some semblance of balance. In front of her those flat, square edges that had contained the simple truths of her childhood were now a tumbling, crashing and howling waterfall of curving and crashing currents and eddies and undertows.
As suddenly as the image had appeared so it fell away and all was quiet and calm again. There was no wind left to blow a dragon-ship across the seven seas of old. The surf, such as it was, rippled meekly against the fringes of rock and sand now lying dry and exposed under a fully darkening evening sky. The salt-water depths dripped black silence. Only the dragon-ship shone, and Luisa was sure that she could feel the heat of the flames, even here on the beach. There was no wind left now, set fair or otherwise, to take a burning boat over the edge of the world, nor to whisper a name.
The old man in the tweed jacket and the brown leather brogues wiped a tear from his eye as he thought-spoke a name over and over again. Luisa strained to hear and from somewhere deep inside her core she felt the sounds and the senses of that name, repeated over and over again in utter softness and sadness. Bearing an unfathomable name upon her lips Luisa saw an image of a woman in flowing cream silks drift across the waves atop a full sized dragon-ship, an immortal vessel destined to sail beyond the sky and wander alone in the suddenly tumbling winds and cascading waterfalls of worlds long forgotten and yet to come.
That was the moment that Luisa understood one new thing. The old man on the beach was not a weirdo. Luisa felt the poor man’s utter sense of loss hit her like a wall of hurricane lifted debris. Bricks and dust and sharp shards of glass pierced her slender young body and she finally turned turtle, keeling over onto her back on the rough stone shoreline. She could not breath. She felt a vast tonnage of grief slam down upon her chest, stopping her heart and staying the blood in her veins. She felt fit to burst. She was too young to die like this. A million irrational ideas surged through her head. Lou cowered down in a childhood cave, covering herself in a blanket of mental banality as the real, living Luisa felt herself picked up by those gale force buffets to be smashed against the rocks of hitherto impossible future possibilities.
And Luisa breathed… And Luisa gasped and grasped at the air… And Luisa clung onto the arm of the weird tweedy little man as he gathered her up and held her close and safe and drew her into the peace that lives at the heart of the storm… And it was true dusk now… And the neap tide was turning… And the lady in silk was gone down to the seabed once again along with her black-charred dragon-ship… And Luisa held the strange little man as tightly as she dared, feeling his grief meld with every cell in her body… And Luisa sensed a vast space in the fabric of her universe, a space where this poor, poor man had watched his beloved sink below the waves across a thousand or more years…
“I will not cry her name…” Luisa spoke quietly and softly but as yet she kept her eyes firmly shut. For the first time in her short life Luisa knew exactly what she wanted to say. “I will never cry her name. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know”, said the man in tweed.
Luisa waited. She wanted to stay here forever, but she knew, deep down in her marrow, that here was a Neverland, a Neverspace, a Nevertime. She opened her eyes. She half expected to see a Viking warrior momentarily released from the thralls of endless and God-forsaken love-loss, like that pale boy in the Vampire films, but all that she saw was tweed and corduroy and a face lost in the shadows of rising night darks.
The beach magician released her, holding only her hand now. “You have no need to cry her name. You have seen her. Like me, you will wear her now. She is worn into your skin and your bone and your soul. When you dream, my darling, you will dream of a castle wall breached. Most men die. Most men and most women… You will dream of this shoreline. You will dream of cream silks and flames and waves lapping over a bulwark. You will remember the edges of the world and add your tears to the water that flows across our horizons.”
Luisa brushed sand and weed from her fingers. She released her hold of the strange man’s hand and turned away from him. “Have you watched her for a long time?” she asked.
The man in tweeds thought about this for a moment. “A day. A year, Five years. A thousand years. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that someone has watched over her. I have watched. Now you have watched. We have watched her passing together. I…” He paused.
Luisa felt another excruciating wave of grief pass through her. She sobbed out loud. She too felt the world shift beneath her feet, just as she imagined this old man had done once upon a time so long ago.
“It doesn’t matter. We have watched together… you and I… and so it goes…”, he whispered, placing his hands back into his jacket pockets. He stepped back from the girl. He turned again towards the sea. Luisa saw his shoulders sag and droop and she heard him sigh. Behind her, up on the cliff top, she thought she heard a dog bark. She turned to look upwards and sure enough she saw a torch beam cut through the darkness that sets the world to drifting mellowness before the howling moon rises. Luisa heard a name being called. She knew instinctively that the man was away to the salt-shores roamed by his beloved.
Luisa turned back to the sea and blew a kiss towards the now empty shoreline. She bent down and felt for the troughs that had once held the dragon-ship before she sailed. She found the aft trough and picked out one of the stones and put it in her pocket. She would be in trouble, of course, but she was growing up. As long as someone watched over her, just like the tweedy old man watched over the dragon lady, then she could be content in being loved.
Despite her recent loss of nerve the previously flaky Lou-Meister seemed ready to resume the endless teenage battle. Luisa grinned inwardly and wondered how long Lou might hang around? It did not matter. For now they could happily hang for a while longer, and so, together, they fished out the last of Luisa’s rollies, smoothed out the bent smoko, and lit up theatrically in the hope that a parent would see her defiance. As the search party descended the final steps onto the beach Luisa pointed out to a bashful Lou that none of it mattered anymore. She… they… she and he… were watchers and that made such a difference.
Also by Clive and available as free novels and short stories in eBook formats at Shakespir:
Dancing Pig Originals
Beasts Within series of stories
ShadowGrimm series of stories
Bogey Bear stars in…
Cry ‘Havoc series of stories
Cry ‘Freedom’ series of stories
Luisa is fifteen years old and infused. All she wants is a quiet moment down on the beach, throwing stones into rock pools, until, that is, she meets the last watchman... This is another new story by author Clive Gilson, available here for free until Clive's new collection is ready later this year, when all of Clive's new stories will be made available in print and eBook format here on Smashwords and on Amazon. Individually Clive's stories have been downloaded over fifty thousand times since the end of 2012. Clive's stories mix a love of traditional storytelling with magical realism. There's a lot of reality here, good and bad, but you're never going to be far away from the odd, the horrific and the mysterious...