J MacLean

Into The Sea

J. MacLean

Made in Wirral illustration by J MacLean Collage of a man standing by a fence, next to a rat, with clouds and a sun with rays shining down in the background

He was a big man. Boy. Man child.

He’d always been big. His first fledgling beard had sprouted round his chin, blurring his edges, from the age of twelve. He towered above his mates.

‘Would you look at him with his head in the clouds,’ Ma had said proudly.

He checked she was sleeping, snoring gently, with his baby brother grunting peacefully on her stomach, and left the house. Surprisingly quietly for one so big. He set out.

The gulls screeched like the entrance of the violins in a symphony underscored by the thudding bass of the waves hitting the sea wall. He walked on. His shoulders hunched to make the most of the hooded fleece, woefully inadequate, adding little protection from the winter chill. The giant windmills turned faster and faster in the increasing wind. The cranes, like red mechanical giraffes, their sightless heads raised towards the sky loomed out of the murk.  He was vaguely aware of the rhythm of his feet in their shabby trainers, squelching now as the rain crept in. There is something depressing about a seaside town out of season. Amusement arcades far from amusing anyone. The cafés and ice cream parlours mostly shut and shuttered against the weather. And the vandals. He peered into the window of the one resilient café, still open for a solitary customer listlessly pushing a final piece of sausage round the off-white, clay plate, getting the last bit of pleasure from the bean juice.

A tune slipped unwarranted from his unconscious.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside, Oh I do like to be beside the sea, Oh I do like to stroll along the prom, prom, prom.

This wasn’t a stroll it was …. what was that word the teacher used? A schlep, that’s what it was. A schlep. A final schlep.

He passed the old fort standing proud like an octogenarian, looking out to sea, ready, holding fast to the belief that it could still defend.

‘You’re my rock son, you know that don’t you?’ Ma’s words filled his thoughts.

The rain dripped down his face mingling with his tears and he tasted salt on his lips.

Big boys don’t cry went the refrain in his head.

This one did. His mind returned to his bigness. At school he was bigger than all the other kids. Not just tall but bigger all round. The other kids looked up to him. Literally and figuratively. Even some of the teachers. What else could he have done but channel his behaviour to fit his size? Big shoulders. Big feet. Big voice. Big trouble. He wore his clowning and defiance like a suit of armour to disguise and deflect attention from his feelings of inadequacy.  It worked. His little acolytes simpering and cheering him on inflated his ego and puffed him up to fill his outer shell. All eyes would be on him, waiting for a word or a gesture to tell them how to act today.  He felt like king of the world. Except he wasn’t.  He hated it. Ma had such faith in his abilities. He tried to tell her he was sorry for all the times she got called up to the school to discuss what he’d done this this time.

‘We just don’t understand Mrs Day, Sonny has a lot of ability, he’s a popular student. He could go far. He just needs to knuckle down and focus on his studies.’

They’d laugh on the way home. He’d promise not to do it again to do better next time. She’d shrug off her embarrassment, hug him hard and say the same thing on every occasion.

‘We’ll be okay Sonny, just you and me, tomorrow’s another day.’

And it was. Another day of the same old shit.

Some days were good. He could smile and really feel it. In control, calm and useful. Actually deserving of Ma’s pride.

Those days were getting rarer. Mostly it was like this. Panic swelling and surging like the gathering waves, the colour of slate.

After Dad had left, Ma crumbled. She looked to him to fill the gap. They swapped roles for a while. He became the parent looking after a poorly child. He tried; he really did. He learned to cook after a fashion and put the wash on. All the time trying to hide from the world that he just wasn’t up to it. Barely knowing if he was getting the right change or reading the meter numbers in the right order.

Once he let it slip at school that he was struggling but that only unleashed a stream of social workers and do gooders knocking at the door and poking their noses into his business. Ma was furious with him.

‘We don’t need them, we’re fine on our own. Keep your mouth shut Sonny.’

One of them once told him his size was a gift and he should use it wisely.

‘A big lad like you should be a great help to his mother!’ said her weaselly sidekick, smiling a big, toothy, patronising smile.

What did they know? Inside he felt small, tiny even. A tiny little useless fraud hiding in the big strong body.

The tide was right in now and the waves made a deep throaty kersplooosh sound as they smashed against the sea wall, making his bones vibrate.

He moved closer now to the edge. Another mighty wave crashed, dousing him from top to toe with salty water. It seeped through the thin fleece prickling his skin with its Jack Frost icicle fingers. Then came the guilt again mirroring the swell of the wave, although this came up from his toes to his head and down again before stopping, a great clump in the pit of his stomach, trickling into his soul.

He walked on. He lifted his face to the shapes of the buildings on the waterfront. But like the giraffes, he did not see. Head down again, on he went. Past crumbling shelters, grandeur fading but retaining their long-held dignity. Past the towerless ground.

It was raining hard now. The sky was the deepest indigo, the clouds great swathes of dense grey smoke.

He stopped. He watched the few boats writhing and straining against their ropes like an unbroken horse or a Victorian lunatic. Powerless against the tide. He climbed onto the wall and over the railings and spread his arms in supplication to the power of the sea.

He was Jack, a figurehead on the prow of the Titanic. Except there was no Rose and he was the wrong side of the balustrade. He had had a Rose once. Amie. She stuck around for a while till she tired of trying to coax the real Sonny out of his shell, leaving another hole in his heart. He could almost feel the electric tingle of her lips on his lips and her long nails caressing his cheeks.

There was nobody who would miss him. Ma maybe but that was her job. Besides she had Jim and the baby now.

Just then a couple of kids rode by, swerving in and out to dodge the spray. They shrieked and laughed with exhilaration as the waves nearly knocked them clean off their bicycles. One of them noticed him as he turned.

“Eh mate back off you bell-end. Bloody hell you’re gonna get yourself killed.”

“Shut yer gob Luke, that looks like Sonny Day.”

“He got that wrong it’s pissing down – leg it Jamie, he’s looking at us.”

They sped off as fast as they could, both very pleased with their little joke. Great peals of youthful laughter caught on the buffeting wind.

Sonny was known in these parts. Try as he might he didn’t seem to be able to escape the reputation that had clung to him since school. He would always be the one who had beat up the little kid. Little kid? They were all little kids compared to him. That one had a vicious temper and a malevolent mouth. He made it his business to taunt and humiliate the younger kids who would cower and run the other way when they saw him. Sonny couldn’t stand injustice and had finally given in to the burning rage and frustration this boy had provoked within him. It was a fair fight. The little kid more than held his own but then he had slipped, on a banana skin, like some sort of hideous comedy. Already off balance he didn’t stand a chance against Sonny’s big meaty fist that had already begun its trajectory towards the boy’s jaw. It connected and sent him flying back into the basketball hoop which propelled him forward again, face first onto the concrete. All he could think at the time was how the boy deserved it.

The small boy wore his injuries as medals.  Sonny was consigned to the mythology of secondary schools, along with having your head flushed down the toilet. He never defended himself. He didn’t have the words. His spirit was broken.

Then came the guilt and the shame and the remorse. It was always there in the down times. It hunted him down in the happy times and spoiled everything till the happy times were no more. He disappeared inside himself.

He just wanted it all to stop.

He caught a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. It was a rat scuttling along the railing beside him, its snaky tail curling round to brace it against the windy gusts. It activated a faint memory from a bygone storm. Could it be that rat? The rat that didn’t leave the sinking ship? The rat that was photographed clinging to the mast of the ship fighting its losing battle against the elements, hitching a lift to god knows where? This rat winked at him, he was sure of it and he found himself smiling. Its ratty fur was sticking up in wet tufts. It sat on its haunches and looked quizzically up at Sonny’s face. Its tiny paws with their tiny claws seemed to reach out to him. Then it ran up his sleeve onto his shoulder and they stared together across the water. Two misfits. Outcasts. Hated by some, feared by many. One big, one small silhouetted against the magnitude of the scene.

The wind dropped and the rain lessened a touch. That he was very cold and very wet crept into his consciousness and he felt the rat’s whiskers tickling his cheek like Amie’s kiss. The clouds parted slightly and the sky lightened causing the rat’s beady black eyes to gleam with inky pearlescence. He felt the little creature’s body fill with energy and just at the very moment that the sun burst through, sending bright shafts piercing his very core like a bolt of lightning, the rat leapt. Joyously. Into the sea.

The sky cleared. His mind cleared. He smiled again and he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what he was going to do.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum