Perched upon a steep incline that reaches down to the promenade, a dozen houses stand. Their brick work is often dusted with the sands that carry up from the beach, and the paint upon their faces is weathered and worn. As it is the north sea that they face, the houses often feel cold; for the winds of the north are unforgiving and their breath chills not only the waters but the surrounding lands; and no buildings, however strong their timber or solid their brickwork can fully protect against the elements. It is folly to think otherwise, though no doubt the hands that raised the houses by the sea thought differently, and to their credit, after a hundred and twenty years the result of their work still stands; but in time the rain and the wind will win over. The cold has crept and seeped. Its touch has infected each nook and cranny; unseen it eats away at the timber and brick, until finally, the cement will crumble and like the men who laid the foundations and laboured upon their construction, all will be forgotten.
For now though, the houses are occupied. Here, at number 9, the house nearest the cliffs edge, a boy lays awake listening to the ocean. It is something he does often, even though, with his window slightly open, the cold permeates his room and causes him to pull his bed covers tighter around his slender frame. The chill is a small price to pay he reasons, for as the sounds reach his ears, his imagination stirs. He imagines himself walking upon the waves like Peter in the gospels, or sailing upon ships old and majestic, joining his shipmates as they sing of lands undiscovered, for such is the lure of the sea to a small boy. So attuned is his hearing to the sounds of the sea he has come to distinguish it’s moods. From the hush that comes as it breaths gently upon the shore when calm to the thunderous crashes of its anger as it throws its weight against rock and stone, the boy knows each well. Which is why tonight, he appears anxious – for there is a still to the air. And in the quiet an altogether different noise stirs him from his rest.
He leans his elbows upon the sill of his window and looks out into the night. The sky is black as though something as swallowed the heavens, the beach and ocean indistinguishable; for each is dark under the heavy cloud. The boy listens more keenly, and somewhere to his left the sound that stirred him comes again; it is a soft sucking noise, of a boot lifting from mud, or of fruit being pressed and bled. For some reason it unsettles him and for a moment it seems as though the ocean, joining him in anticipation, holds its breath, and the boy senses a presence, of something moving upon darkened shore. Then the breeze lifts, the waves move and the familiarity of the tides is resumed , and though he listens a while longer, the strange noise sounds no more.
Seaside towns are places of extremes. In the summer months they are filled with tourists and vendors, their like filling walkways and roads; shops bustling with trade take on more staff and hotels proudly display their ‘no vacancy signs’ as testament to their hospitality. These weeks are the life blood of the coastal destination, where the fortunate traders make enough to see them through the winter, and those that do not, are noticeable by their absence come the following year. The colder months though, bring desolation. The traffic of people diminishes, the hotels lay empty and the beaches, once full, become vast expanses of solitude. And, so it is of no surprise that come morning, the boy, Matthew, finds the beach empty.. His parents sleep late on weekends, and if truth be told he prefers to be free of their company, It gives him a sense of freedom, and allows him time to do the things that adults have little concern with. He spends a while combing the beach for trinkets and searching rock pools, then, with his pockets lined with shells, sits amongst the sea grass, looking out to the horizon. An oil rig sits far off to this left, it’s bulk made small upon the ocean, and closer to the shore, a small fishing vessel slowly bobs, cutting its way through the waves. The boat looks old; even from this distance, Matthew can see stains of rust weeping upon the hull and the white paint of the steering cabin, weather beaten and peeling revealing an earthy brown beneath. To the rear of the boat a net sways, suspended by an iron mast, and a tall figure, a man dressed in dark waterproofs is prodding the contents with a stick. Seemingly unhappy with his catch, the man releases the net back into the sea and then, just as he is making his way back across the deck, he stops and faces Matthew. The boy waits a moment then raises his arm in a wave but the man does not respond. Perhaps, he isn’t looking at me Matthew thinks. He rummages through his bag for his binoculars and raising them to his eyes,brings the boat and it’s passenger into focus. The man is hooded , but now aware he is being watched, lifts his arms and removes his covering. The man is bald and pale, his skull covered in brown patches that like the boat, seep with a dark unpleasant looking fluid. He stares at Matthew through dark eyes, black shark like eyes. There is intent there, Matthew feels, and that in catching the mans gaze he has somehow singled himself out for the mans intentions. A shiver passes through him and he lowers his binoculars. He looks down, returning them to his bag, a sudden urge to return home growing within him. By the time he looks up again, the man is waving.
During dinner the boy sits in silence picking at his food. At his mother’s insistence he finally tells her of the man on the boat and the thing he thought he knew to be under his window and both of his parents laugh. Their laughter makes him angry which in turn gives rise to their displeasure; dinner ends with him threatening to run away and they in turn wishing him to be a quiet, more gentle child. Neither of them mean the words they say. Even now as he sits upon his bed, his arms folded across his knees, tears drying upon his cheeks, he is readying his apology, just as they are readying theirs. As it is, it is his mother who speaks first. She knocks on his door and entering carrying a mug of tea and tray of biscuits (chocolate digestives, his favourite), sits down beside him, pulling him close. The tears came again, but this time they are good tears, healing tears and all thoughts of the man on the boat melt away in the warmth of his mothers embrace. ”No one man will harm you Matthew” his mother tells him ”Not here, not anywhere. Remember that”
By the time his last biscuit has began to melt at the bottom of his mug, his eyes are heavy with the promise of sleep.
He is standing by the shore again, though he has no memory of leaving the house. The sky is dark and the moon, full and watchful, bathes the beach in a blue incandescence which lends his surroundings a cold, sterile setting. Yet, even with this, he doesn’t feel the slightest chill upon him. He begins to ponder this when he sees the boat. This time it looks even more dilapidated than before. The shell of it now has holes so big as to let the moonlight through, it’s twin masts bent, the top cabin a crumbling ruin. Like a cancer that had lain dormant during the day and has now run rampant amongst it’s beams, spreading it’s disease throughout, the ship sits like tumour upon the sea. And here now is the captain, emerging from below deck, his head hooded once more, making his way from starboard to stern. The net he now inspects is full and heavy and Matthew wondering what the man has caught finds himself rising from his standing position, floating over the water until he is but a man’s height above the deck – the impossibility of which pays him no heed, so intent is he on watching the boat beneath him. The hooded man reaches to his left and pulls a lever. Gears are set in motion whirling loudly in the night air and the net moves from the ships edge over the deck, the dregs of it’s contents, seaweed and small fish spilling from the netting onto the boards. Something large moves in that net, Matthew can see, it squirms and wriggles trying to free itself, emitting a yapping noise in it’s extremities. Though the sound is distressing, the man appears ill-concerned, carrying on with slow deliberation, making his way under the netting to a large reel which he then precedes to turn, shifting the catch onto the slickened deck. The contents spill out, the stench rising into the air, foul and fetid, of things rotting and old, and there amongst a myriad of fish and crustaceans, lay something resembling a human form. The man leans down brushing away the scuttling crabs and weeds and resting his arm under the beings shoulder helps it to its feet. If feet they are, for it the creature looks more of the sea than of the land. Its skin is white, almost luminous in the moonlight, its flank lined with molluscs made fat upon its flesh and its fingers and toes are marked by webbing, thin and lined like that of a chickens. It is a horrid yet pitiful creature. It continues to yelp as the man helps it to the ships bow, its legs trembling as it tries to walk assisted , its limbs uncoordinated as an infants having been brought into the world from the warmth of a wet and comforting womb. Matthew feels his position move, now hovering to the left of the two figures. Though within feet of the fisherman, it appears he remains unseen, for the man carries upon his labours, sitting the creature down upon a wooden seat where he then reaches for a piece of hose, turning its end until a stream of water erupts. The creature sits silently now, its head down as the man goes about washing it, moving his hands over its limbs as he does so, removing the molluscs and barnacles from its skin, the weeds from its ears and nose. Strange as it seems, the water is removing more than just the filth of the ocean, the creatures flesh itself seems to melt as the water washes over it, congealing on the ships deck like a mound of fat until the form of it looks altogether more human. The fisherman moves again obscuring Matthews view and judging from his motion is now rubbing the creatures face, much as a mother’s would was a child’s – vigorously and thoroughly. The man then steps back, pleased, and looks down upon his handiwork. The creature, still seated, now has thick dark hair, wet it sticks to its scalp and rains down upon it’s brow, and now, slowly, it raises its head. Matthew lets out a gasp, and as he does so the fisherman looks towards him. The man smiles. It is a knowing, vindictive expression. It plays upon his thick features like an oil slick, stretching out until it escaped the confines of his face, and then growing ever bigger, blacks out the moon and stars until all is suffocated under it’s reach.
Matthew wakes up screaming, his pyjamas soaked, his bed wet. Within moments his mother is at his side, the light on, her words repeating over again ”It was just a nightmare Matthew, just a nightmare.”
Perhaps, but the face still hovers there in the corner of his vision. Like a ghost upon the air, invisible but to those who know of it’s presence, and it watches. The creature’s face, washed and reborn, with features Matthew recognises immediately, for just as on the boat in his dreams, he sees it as his own.
The morning is overcast with the promise of drizzle which is fine with him. He has no desire to visit the beach after the nights events; instead he sits by his window trying to read a Star Wars paperback though his mind continues to drift back to the diseased looking fisherman. Eventually, the words on the page became nothing but a jumble of indistinct phrases and he puts the book down, it’s spine opening upon the floor. He looks out at the sea, empty but for the circling gulls, clouds gathering in the distance. Perhaps the weatherman was wrong and it is a storm that is coming. He watches a moment longer, then satisfied there is no boat to be seen, goes downstairs to join his parents.
The day passes quickly. They watch films; one a comedy set on a camping site, the other a Sindbad epic, and by the time the evening comes thoughts of the mysterious boat and its occupant have began to fade. He sits listening to his fathers bad jokes, and wins at cards, and as a thank you for his mums concern over the previous night, helps with the dishes after dinner. ”Would you mind taking the rubbish out” his father calls poring himself out a drink. ”Course” Matthew answers.
He retrieves the bags from the kitchen and opens the back door; the cold air enters immediately, rain drops hitting his face. His walk to the bins will take him along the side of the house to an enclosed area at the rear of the garden. The rain is heavy, already the ground beneath his slippers is sodden and so he dashes now, cursing the weather as he goes, mud splashing his trousers. It is as he nears the compound that he sees the figure. It hunches amongst the bins, but seeing him, it now rises up, and steps from the shadows. The boy is naked, his skin wet with rain water, his hair hangs limply across his brow. Closer the boy comes, his features becoming more distinct as he nears through the downpour, and there, only as the boys eyes settled on his, does Matthew realise, what the fisherman’s intentions are.
He drops the bags he is holding and goes to let out a scream but a hand has now covered his mouth. An arm forces against his back, dragging him into the dark of the elm trees that line the garden. He kicks his legs, his slippers falling off as he does so, and now he is down on the ground, the fisherman stuffing a foul smelling rag into his mouth, placing a knee upon his chest, winding him, tears stinging Matthews eyes . The naked boy has followed and is now leaning down, pulling at Matthews trousers. They come off easily and the boy holds them for a moment, turning them this way and that until finding the front, he then eases his pale legs inside. Matthew raises his head again, terrified. The fishermans huge face looms close to his, his breath putrid, it smells of fish left in the sun, and ponds green and thick. And then the man raises his fist and the rain, the half naked boy and Matthews thoughts dissolve into blackness.
Matthews parents never really knew what caused their son to change so quickly. One day he was fine, they would say, the next…well, he was never quite the same after that night. He was quieter, slower; his speech somewhat garbled. They loved him though, as only parents can love, and in time the boys speech improves and he becomes more like the son he was, only dare they say it… better. There were no more nightmares, no more screams in the night. By all accounts the son they had always hoped for.
There is an old fishing vessel seen off the coast of Cornwell not long after Matthews parents are first wondering what has happened to change their son. It is old, and rotting looking. On it’s deck a hooded man walks along with what observers take to be his son, though the boy appears unhappy to be there, his face turned to the shore, seemingly searching for something on the land. As the years past the boy will began to forget the life he had before, the memory of his parents will fade just as his skin will grow pale until the sea is all he can remember. Now and then, the old fisherman will walk ashore and select children to be replaced by things of the sea, and Matthew will help, for the old man tells him he will not be long for this world and it will be Matthews duty to carry on his work. Sometimes the children they take will be thrown overboard, their stomachs slit and weighed with stones. Other times they will be allowed to join the ship and learn off the things that wait to be lifted from the waters. Perhaps, in time, Matthew will dream of a place where the sheets of his bed were once clean, and he had a mother who brought him sweet tea. But, on waking he will shrug off such thoughts as mere fancies and return to his work; scrubbing the red from the deck, pocketing trinkets from the clothes of small dead things.
For such is the lure of the sea.