We're sitting on this beach together, the old man and me, staring out to sea. There are gulls flying in circles over our heads, screeching like gulls do. Big bastards, bigger and louder than the gulls I remember from holidays when I was a kid.
The old man shades his eyes and says he can see ships in the distance.
I look, trying not to think about Mary, trying not to remember the water in her hair, in her mouth. I remember it anyway.
'What ships?' I say.
It was a mistake coming here, says a voice inside my head. You should stay away from the sea.
I know I should. But I can’t. Not for long.
'Three of 'em, a long way out,' says the old man. ‘I was a sailor, once, Jack. Got a trained eye.’
I scan the horizon for the old man’s ships, but still can’t see a thing.
While I'm searching I hear him cough, hawk up some phlegm and spit it into the sand. It's been five, maybe ten minutes since the last time he did that. I glance at the mess. There's less blood in it now.
'You see that?' he says.
'Yeah,' I say. 'It's a good sign.'
He nods, pats his mouth, and reaches deep into the folds of his stained and crusty coat. He hauls something out of an inside pocket, places it on the palm of his hand, and holds it up for me to take a look.
'You see that?' he says.
My eyesight's no good for ships, even worse for close-up stuff. I squint. It looks like a bottle. A tiny glass bottle. I reach for it, but the old man closes his hand and shakes his head.
'Just look, Jack. Don't touch. Like you do with women in windows.'
My name isn't Jack, but the old man's been calling me that ever since we met - all of an hour ago. It makes no difference what he calls me. Jack will do. It's a better name than most, a better name than I deserve.
His hand slowly opens up for me, a grubby flesh-flower, the bottle a glittering carpel at its centre.
I shuffle up the log we're sharing until I'm sitting right next to him, my left leg pressed hard against his right, a flap of coat between us. His stink has me breathing quick and shallow, but I'm not as particular as I used to be. Everyone I know these days stinks. I stink, too. Like the song says, it really doesn't matter any more.
'You see it?'
His lips are swollen from the kicking he's taken. His voice is croaky.
I lean in close, my nose six inches or so from his hand.
The bottle is just like the other one. The one the kids stole. It's full of dark yellow liquid.
'Yeah, I see it,' I say. 'What's in it? Whisky?'
I sound hopeful, and the old man cackles.
'Whisky?' he says. 'No. Used to be. Not any more, though.'
I shake my head. I don't want to look disappointed, but I am, and he sees it.
'What about the other one?' I say.
He coughs and spits again. Almost no blood this time.
’Nope. No whisky there, either. Thieving little bastards.'
The two kids who jumped him and took his other bottle are long gone. They couldn't have been much more than thirteen, fourteen years old. They didn't see me dozing behind the sand dunes, dreaming of the waves, didn't know I was there until they felt my hands on them.
Stepping across the sand, not too fast, not too slow, I was thinking of Mary. The sound of the sea brings her back, conjures images. That’s why I’m drawn to beaches like this. I need to see her in that deckchair again, her pink hat on her head, her straw basket at her feet. The downside is I also see her in the water, her arms open, her hands slack on her wrists, her hair floating about her head like poor drowned Ophelia.
The smallest kid was nearest - an ugly specimen with a blue-painted head and a ring through his nose. He'd already stamped on the old man's face and his booted foot was drawn back, cocked to finish him with a kick. I grabbed him from behind, found his nose-ring and ripped it out. He screamed a high, piggy squeal, and his cupped hands flew to his nose to bowl his own blood.
The other kid was a tub of lard, his fat face already slack with fear.
I caught them both by the hair and smashed their heads together. Not as hard as I could have, but hard enough.
When I let them go I could tell Blue Head wanted to make an issue out of it, but though I'm nothing like I used to be I can still trade on my looks. I look like bad news. I eased out my knife, made it wink in the sunlight, smiled sweetly at them. Now we were in the pipe, in and of the moment. Decision time. Moments like this, Clint Eastwood drawls inside my head: So, tell me, punk... you feel lucky?
The old man groaned. He rolled onto his side, braced himself, and threw up.
I looked at Fat Boy, raised my eyebrows, and moved forward. Fat Boy broke and ran, heading for the sand dunes, still clutching the old man's bottle. I turned to Blue Head. He glared at me, but there was no real fire there. After a few seconds he followed his friend, walking backwards, shouting filth, promising revenge. Same old shit. Nothing I haven't heard before.
I helped the old man to his feet and we moved over to the log. We sat down and I took a look inside his mouth. Couple of loose teeth, a chunk bitten out of the side of his tongue. Painful, but nothing serious.
'You'll be OK,' I told him.
I was feeling sparky. Sparky for me, anyway. Today I’d made a difference, been of use to someone for the first time in... how long? I didn’t know, but it was a good feeling.
The sun was going down, sinking towards the flat blue sea. That old man and me sat on our log like a couple of good friends, sharing the dying of the day.
And then he brings out his bottle...
'Whisky,' he says, chuckling.
His free hand pats his mouth once again, delicate on the swollen lower lip.
'No, what you're looking at here, Jack, is all I've got left of my old lady.'
He strokes the little bottle with his little finger. The nail is cracked in two places, and amazingly dirty.
'Your old lady?' I say.
He nods. 'Sandy,' he says.
He snorts. 'Wife? Hell, no. We didn't have no paper. But she was more of a wife to me than the one I married. Twenty years we had together, Sandy and me.'
'That’s a good time,’ I say. ‘A good, long time.’
The old man says nothing. I stare out over the water, and now I can see his ships, three vague white smudges where sky meets sea.
‘So what happened to her?'
He looks at me and shakes his head, like he can't believe I'm so stupid.
'She died,' he says. 'She went and died on me.’ He plucks the bottle off his palm and holds it between his thumb and forefinger. 'And this... this is all I've got left of her.'
We sit there, both of us fixed on his bottle, thinking our own thoughts. I think of Mary, wonder about Sandy. Maybe, in a different life, a different universe, the four of us could have been friends. Maybe we could have had normal lives. Jobs, dinner parties, kids.
'So what's in it?' I say. 'It still looks pretty much like whisky to me.'
The old man lifts the bottle to his lips and kisses it. He holds it up to the sky and the low sun sends a spear of sharp, amber light straight through it.
'What you're looking at here, Jack, is a bottle of piss. My Sandy's piss. Eau-de-Sandy, you might say.'
I stare at him, wondering if he's for real, but something about the way he's loving up that bottle convinces me he's telling the truth.
I nod, too. It takes all sorts, I tell myself. If anyone ought to know that, I should.
'How long you had it? When did she die?'
'August 11th, 1990,' he says. 'Three-fifteen in the afternoon. Hot, like it is today.'
I concentrate for a second or two, do a bit of back-counting on my fingers.
He nods again.
'August 11th,' he says. 'Sandy's deathday. You got a watch?'
I don't know what to say. I know how I look - ugly - and I've hurt my share of people, but I'm not much good around death. When Mary’s mother wanted to talk to me, talk about what happened, get some of her questions answered, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help her. I told Mary’s mother I was sorry, and then I walked away.
Now I tell the old man the same thing. I'm sorry, I tell him, and no, I haven't got a watch, but look, the sun's low on the horizon. It's maybe eight, nine o'clock.
He doesn't say anything and we sit in silence for a while.
I hear a scutter and scuffle behind me and spin around, thinking Blue Head and Fat Boy have come back for a ruck after all, but it's just a bird kicking up sand.
We listen to the waves break and the gulls scream overhead. The bird behind us stops scuttering and flies away.
Finally, I ask him.
'So how come you carry a bottle of thirteen-year-old piss around in your pocket?'
He looks at me and shakes his head again. 'What does a kid like you know? You wouldn't understand.'
I shrug my shoulders. If I closed my eyes now, I'd see Mary in the water. I think about showing the old man my own keepsake, a lock of her hair. Maybe show him we have something in common.
'Try me,' I say.
He's shifting his tongue around inside his mouth, worrying away at something. Suddenly he puts half his hand in, takes a deep breath, yanks. When he pulls his hand out, he's holding one of his loosened teeth. He spits into the dust. Red again.
'Little bastards,' he says. 'What's the matter with kids these days? They got no respect.'
'Don't it hurt?'
Once more, the idiot look.
'Hurt? Sure, it hurts. It hurts like hell. But pain's nothing, don't you know that yet, Jack? Pain's all in the head, just chemicals and electricity, like everything else that keeps us ticking.'
I remember something Mary used to say about people. ‘They’re full of stories, amazing stories. Even the ones who look like nothing’s ever happened to them.’
Me, I’ve never had much time for humanity, but there’s something about this old man. Even I can see that.
'What's your name?' I ask.
He shakes his head a third time.
'Names are like pain, Jack,' he says. 'They're nothing. Unless you're dead, of course.'
He smiles back at me, his teeth red with blood.
'So... you wanna hear about Sandy, or not?'
He puts his tooth on the palm of his hand, next to the little bottle full of dead Sandy’s piss. He snuggles them up close together. 'Reunited,' he says, turning to me and grinning.
I notice for the first time that his eyes don't match. The left is brown, the right green. They look tired and heavy, but they’re still alive.
'OK, Jack. The thing you have to understand about Sandy is, she was into liquids. Born in the rain by the sea, right out in the open on some beach. That's what she told me, anyway. All her life, had this thing about liquids. I'm a liquid person, she'd say. I'm the second state of matter.'
I remember long-ago physics lessons. The teacher whose Adam’s apple was the size of a hen's egg. The young lab-assistant with the big boobs, all the boys watching as she moved through the room.
'Solids, liquids, gases,' I say.
'You got it, Jack. Now you and me, we're a couple of Solids if ever I saw 'em. First state of matter types, both of us. Anyone with eyes can see that. But not my Sandy. She even moved like a wave. Sandy didn't have a walk - she had a flow.'
I knew what he meant. I’ve known a few women like that. Some of them, you put it down to their long skirts, their high-heels, but a few flow even when they're naked. Mary was one. I’d watch her flow from kitchen to bedroom, back to kitchen.
The old man carries on talking.
'Sandy, she had this big old bath. She'd lay in it for hours, her skin getting all puckered. Stay there all day and all night if she could. And she'd pour in these lotions. Christ, she used to spend half my pay on her lotions. But she'd come to bed oiled, smelling so good you can't imagine.'
He’s wrong. I can imagine, but I don’t need to. I remember.
I reach into my pocket, take out my little box, show him Mary's lock of hair. He stares at it, touches it with a grubby finger, nods.
‘She gone, too?’
He’s a strange one, this old man. I’m glad I was able to help him.
I notice the sun has sunk a little lower.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Mary. She was a second state kind of girl, too.’
I’ve got this pang in my gut, a longing I haven’t felt in years. Someday soon I might try going back home again. See if anyone remembers me.
We don’t talk for a while.
Suddenly the old man gets up and walks towards the sea. His ships are closer now. I join him, Mary’s hair still in my hand.
He kisses Sandy’s bottle, holds it for a moment longer, then tosses it into the water.
‘I came here to throw ‘em both in,’ he says. ‘Still... one will do.’
He looks at Mary’s hair and raises his eyebrows, but the time isn’t right for me, not yet. I take out my box, put her hair back inside, return the box to my pocket.
‘Maybe one day,’ I say.
The old man nods.
‘It’s getting late,’ he says. ‘You got somewhere we can sleep?’
My van is parked beyond the dunes.
‘Yes,’ I tell him.
The gulls scream overhead, and the sea surges back and forth, moving its molecules of matter.
(States of Matter was a winner in the Writer of the Year Comp 2004)
Thanks again to Glenn Osborn for the illustration.