“It wouldn’t make sense to back out now.”
“So go. Ricardo’s already out there.”
This he knew – far into the distance, beyond the stones and the sand and the surf, was a dark speck Aidan recognised as his companion, up to his waist in seawater. Five minutes earlier Ricardo had held out a pair of goggles, his own suspended around his neck, and told him he’d see him there ‘if he was coming,’ heading down the steps and across the beach in shorts and flippers as if no eyes could be trained on him or that he didn’t care that they were.
There were four of them, and if they were younger they could have been called drifters. In reality they were mostly grounded, without having truly taken root, never moving far in the gentle ebb and flow of lives long since established. Three already showed the physical signs of maturity, ambushed before they’d shed the idea that it would never happen to them: George was almost entirely bald, what little remaining trimmed neatly every six weeks; Ian possessed a permanent stoop, the jutting neck and rounded shoulders an occupational hazard of many years of office work; and Ricardo’s gut had begun to gather fat, a tentative bump promising to blossom in the near future. Only Aidan had so far managed to avoid the decay of age, even retaining the audacity to check crown and hairline almost every day.
“Go ahead,” Ian said, head thrust forward from his neck like a wilted flower as he sat on the end of a wooden bench. “It’s what you wanted all the way here.”
“What about you?” Aidan asked, referring to George. He knew that Ian would never get into the water – would never strip to his shorts in public at all – but George had a tendency to ‘get involved,’ as he had since their college days, to immerse himself as fully as the limitations of the day allowed. More than that, Aidan felt uneasy joining Ricardo on his own; Ricardo was mostly George’s friend, not his.
“Not today,” George replied. In the car it had been ‘probably,’ then ‘maybe’ on the walk here. This would be his final decision. “But you go ahead. We’ll wait here.”
Aidan paused, glancing at Ian long enough to see him nodding enthusiastically, before committing to the act.
“Alright. I’ll see you soon.”
“We’ll be here,” said George.
There was nothing else to do but begin the descent, first down the steps to the beach, then into the ocean itself. The sun was still high in the sky – a little more to the west than he’d have liked, but still giving off warmth – and the beach remained populated. Aidan left the bench and followed in Ricardo’s footsteps, George calling after him that he’d be ready with a towel when he returned.
He stood at the edge. No one else was in the water but Ricardo, some distance ahead of him – barely in calling distance, he predicted. Others walked along the sand, they and their dogs leaving sharp imprints in the wetness of the terrain. Removing all considerations from his mind but the normality of the undertaking – that to immerse himself in the ocean was as natural as the drawing of breath – Aidan took as many steps as necessary for the sea, finally, to make contact with his skin.
It was cooler than expected, but his pace didn’t slow. He became aware of a sudden mild discomfort, more mental than physical, the acknowledgement that he was putting himself in an unfamiliar position, a million miles from the safety and sanity of home. Wanting to close the gap between himself and Ricardo, he waded further in, up to his knees, then his thighs, and with each gentle wave came a sharp jolt of cold, shooting up from his legs to his chest like a poisonous injection. He felt breathless in strange ways.
Up ahead, Ricardo turned around, but whether he was looking at Aidan was hard to tell; his goggles blocked a clear view of his eyes. As if on cue Aidan put on his own, the tight rubber band tugging painfully at his hair, before seizing his chance.
“How far are you going?” he called out.
Ricardo turned around again, offering no further response.
“How far are we going?” Aidan called.
“Further,” Ricardo called back. “It’s too shallow to swim here.”
It was confirmation of a fact that had been somehow overlooked. The water came up to Aidan’s waist; where Ricardo stood, it did the same. They would have to go much further to be able to swim freely.
“Watch your step,” Ricardo said, before adding something else, which Aidan couldn’t hear. The sound of waves made communication more difficult than he’d anticipated. Ricardo continued his way out, Aidan following loosely in the same direction. Treading on soft, saturated sand that spilled over his toes with every step, his mind focused not on navigation but the chilling temperature of the sea. He wondered whether it would have been warmer if they’d arrived earlier; but even at its peak, would the sun have been able to warm this whole stretch of the ocean?
Ahead, Ricardo disappeared under the waves. He reappeared a few seconds later, pushing his hair away from his face. He turned to Aidan and called something, again lost to the waves.
A hardness could now be felt under Aidan’s feet; he imagined some kind of large rock or reef supporting him, its firmness somehow more comforting than the yielding softness of sand. Still the water felt cold, and still it came up to the waist. Aidan turned and saw the distance between himself and the shore; on the bench where he’d left them, George and Ian were even more indistinct than Ricardo had been. The two of them were now a long way out, and the only ones in the sea.
Ricardo slipped, his body falling on its side and causing an inaudible splash in the water. As this happened, Aidan’s own foot hit some kind of rock with force, the big toe of his left scraping roughly against its surface. There was no pain. Ahead, Ricardo righted himself and continued, showing no sign of stopping.
He realised then that he was further out than he wanted to be. Caught halfway between idea and actualisation, he insisted to himself to make the most of it while he was there. Wanting to fully submerge himself, as Ricardo had done, he took a deep breath and went underwater, surfacing only a second later to a violent spreading chill. His right foot slipped and he used his arms to regain balance, finally feeling the floating sensation of swimming, and a wish to continue this. In waters reaching no further than his belly, he pushed his legs back and his chest out, becoming mostly horizontal, and thrashed about, managing a few strokes without making any apparent distance at all. He repeated this process three more times, his feet slipping and sliding on the rocks each time his body assumed its upright position, before giving up. He made his way back to shore without calling out to Ricardo.
It was when the water was down to his knees that the shaking began to set in. Over the following minutes, after George came running over with a towel as promised, it came to feel more and more like a strange sort of paralysis – he could move, but had no control of his movements. Later he would discover, from Ricardo, that the thing to do was to enter and exit the water slowly, ‘to allow the body to acclimatise,’ and Aidan would shrug it off, the discomfort of the venture giving way to whatever exhilaration it had offered. Already this was happening: unable to speak or move in any meaningful way, George standing by with the patience of a saint, Aidan felt no regrets. Standing vulnerably on the beach, the sand giving way to a shallow pool that lapped against his feet without washing away the blood, he felt an emotional wellbeing, catharsis to some unknown restraint.
A large strip of flesh had been torn from the sole of his right foot, its edges now shaded a red that seemed still to glisten. There were others: a series of abrasions on his right ankle and heel, and what must have been the deepest incision, in the centre of his big toe; but it was the largest cut, the glistening red strip, that he examined most intensely, a quiet fascination forming at its straightness and neatness, as if the wound had always belonged on his body.
He hadn’t cleaned or bandaged his feet upon his return to the shore that day; as soon as the shivering subsided, he’d pulled on his jeans and then his shoes, polluting them with sand and other debris before heading with the others to a quiet Italian restaurant. The remainder of the day, including a long and tranquil drive home in the back of George’s car, had been strangely mesmerising.
Three days had passed, and three more remained until his return to work. Aidan had avoided the office roles that had claimed Ian and George, instead working in ‘store operations’ for a large supermarket branch, a position which saw him on his feet for most of the day and which had only recently begun to exhaust him before the end of his shift. Progression seemed unlikely, but a switch was still possible: perhaps the office would one day claim him after all.
His feet on the ground, bare against the wooden floor, he found himself moving without a destination. The rented apartment was dimly lit, furniture bathed in a dark orange hue and blurred shadows forming across the walls. At the fading visualisation of his injuries came a sudden montage of others, of disease and abscess, amputation, before just as quickly they were washed away, under the restorative qualities of deep water. This image, too, was eroded, this time by the reality of what he was seeing: his own reflection in a small hanging mirror, murky and indistinct. He needed a shave, he thought. He needed a haircut.
Careful not to put pressure on his feet, which were sore in places, he entered the kitchen for late-night cereal, the convenience of which a habit he’d never shaken from his youth. As he ate, his mind paused on George, and Ian, and Ricardo, each of whom he would not be meeting for several months. He saw himself in the car again, George in the driver’s seat and Ricardo next to him; himself in the back, Ian to his left.
He could have done things differently, he thought: he could have left his mark. But would it have changed anything?
The door knocked, a sharp rap surprising him out of his reverie. It came quietly, to avoid waking others, but firmly enough, Aidan thought, to imply some kind of issue. Apprehensive, he looked through the spy hole, seeing the hazily familiar face of a man only a few years younger than himself, and tentatively opened the door.
“No guests,” the neighbour said, in what seemed a tryingly neutral tone.
“I don’t have any guests,” Aidan replied, looking for a moment into his apartment as if to confirm this.
“Then who the fuck are you talking to?” The neighbour let out an audible sigh. A shade softer, he said: “Look, just keep it down, alright? Walls are paper thin.”
The neighbour turned and left, and Aidan quietly closed the door. He went to bed shortly after.
It became sensible to go to hospital. The skin around his feet was puffy and red – pressing down and releasing a finger on it caused the area to radiate with whiteness, before returning to a painful scarlet – and unless he was imagining it, the biggest cut, on the sole of his right foot, continued still to glisten, as if even after all this time the blood had failed to properly coagulate. Beyond a slight discomfort when walking was the possibility of serious infection: he thought of septicaemia, and with it came the same images that had flashed through his mind two days earlier.
There was no urgency to his thoughts or actions. He demanded a certain level of decorum of himself, the most immediate being that he would not go to any public place looking as he did now: a vagrant, he thought, confirming his suspicions in the mirror, where his reflection looked even shabbier than it had when he’d looked last. The image was an issue that required methodological solving.
Emerging from the bathroom with brushed teeth and a clean shave, he dressed with his eyes on the news channel, as if what was being broadcast had any relevance to his own life. When he was ready he picked up his house keys, leaving the apartment and making his way to a barbershop he’d never visited before, but which was closest to where he lived. He took gentle steps towards his destination, his feet more tender than painful, the risk and mess of opening half-healed wounds a greater concern than any physical discomfort.
He felt typically anxious in the barber’s chair, another habit left over from adolescence. It was not easy to sit there, another man wielding scissors and razor and cutting swiftly around the ears, across the nape, all the while hoping that the end result would be as he desired, and knowing that if it was not, there was nothing he could reasonably expect to do. He alternated between closing his eyes and watching his reflection as the work progressed, scissors snipping with a rhythm that lulled him into a strange sense of security, as if promising that for the duration of the procedure, he was in safe hands.
Aidan would declare the cut ‘a good job,’ going so far as to provide a tip even though, after all these years, he had never discovered whether such a move was good conduct or bad. Despite this, he left the outlet satisfied. Only once had the scissors pulled tightly on a lock of hair, yanking them upwards from the root before they were cut; a shock of pain had spread across his scalp, with surprising violence, before it faded.
The only thing between him and an immaculate presentation was a scattering of clipped hairs, only a few millimetres in length, clinging to nose and ears and neck. Still it seemed prudent to have taken a shower before his visit, but he’d decided there was no time: he had only that day and the next before he returned to work, and he wanted to be able to relax, the afternoon’s necessities behind him. Presently he was sitting in a waiting room, the area busy but not overcrowded, nothing visibly wrong with any of those around him.
He waited. What he’d been expecting before arrival he was now unsure, but he found the interior of the hospital altogether calming, almost serene. With his wounds concealed beneath socks and shoes, he’d imagined he would stick out there, a healthy man in the midst of broken arms and bleeding legs. In reality there was nothing to suggest he was any better or worse than any other. He waited, patiently.
It was an hour and a half later that his name was finally called. The words glided to him softly, a dignified request for a dignified presence. Rising, turning to the nurse who would assist him, he made his approach, forgetting in the first few steps to tread lightly, and walking thereafter with a barely perceptible hobble.
“Just this way, please,” she said, no urgency or fatigue in her voice.
He was led into a small cubicle and told to take a seat. The nurse pulled a curtain across the entrance, sat on her own chair and asked him what was the problem.
“It’s my feet,” he replied, as clearly as if he’d rehearsed the lines. “I was swimming in the ocean, and I scratched them on some rocks.”
The nurse nodded, before asking him to remove his shoes. There was a professional courtesy to her every gesture and inflection. She was a young Indian woman, and he recognised her as pretty.
After a brief examination he was told what he’d presumably been hoping to hear: there was no infection and little risk of one. The nurse exited the cubicle and returned with the necessities to wash and bandage his feet: a small container of soapy water, cotton buds and gauze. Gloveless, she dabbed at his wounds, cleaning away the blood and black spots of dirt that had become embedded around the edges of each cut. When his feet were bandaged, she stood, smiled and said that in a few months, there would be no trace of his injuries, ‘not even a scar’ from the longest. Then she told him that he was free to go.
As if the vestige of a vanity of a younger age, he inspected his body from all angles: front, side, and as much of his back as he could make out. There was no protruding gut or sickly hair, no blemishes on his skin or undue curves in his spine. Altogether he felt as if staring at the image of a man neither young nor old, but with a body that had been well-maintained, made impenetrable to the ravages of the world and invulnerable to whatever marks that might be inflicted on it.
He wore only shorts and the bandages, untouched since the day before. The journey began early, and he’d made it alone: the first bus had departed at half past five in the morning, and there had been another four to wait for and board before finally he had returned to the coast. There had been no time to book a ticket on a coach; his trip was that of commuters and tourists, each fragment fused together like an art project.
Emerging from the dressing cabin, he felt beneath his feet not the texture of the sand but its warmth. The sun was higher in the sky than before, an almost equal distance to east and west. He made his approach towards an ocean still gentle and still empty, but glittering in the brightness with the promise of something he’d missed. The surf lapped against his feet, the bandages growing damp and heavy with seawater.
In his mind came the image of a car; he was in the backseat, but no one was driving.
Hasen Hull lives in London. His short story ‘Adult Adolescence’ appeared in Freak – Pure Slush Vol. 13, and ‘Transcendence’ in Flash Fiction Magazine – Issue 1. Other work has appeared in Litro, Eunoia Review, The Flash Fiction Press and Praxis. He enjoys photography and long journeys.