Jericho sits on the bench and looks out to sea.
If he feels the cold, damp wood against his ass, you couldn’t tell…
If he tastes the sharp tang of salt spray on the air, you wouldn’t know.
Sitting in slumped silence, he can hear the plaintive, persistent echoing chimes of a distant buoy, somewhere out on the horizon; the sharp noise cuts through the cries of the children.
There is something else there, too; something barely audible. Jericho hears it, but it is indistinct, too slight a sound to compete against the static wash and bubble of water as it swells underneath the nearby jetty. The next steps he must take are as unclear to him.
He looks past the dancing shapes of the boys, out past the trawlers, over the water, looking for a signal, a clue to his next action.
Does he smell the herring stink in the air?
Can he sense the fear, the pervasive dread… the smallest life hanging in the balance, subject to the whimsy or boredom of the immature?
Cloudbanks in the distance, further even then the buoys, stand taller and faster then mountains made of ice. Their clouds touch the water. Obscure everything within. Their thickness seems to bear out the boundary warnings, clanging, clanging…
Go no further. Hinterlands ahead. Here be dragons.
Truer words ne’er spoken… Jericho thinks.He looks around, taking in the promenade. One way, down to the empty hotels and abandoned pebble beaches. The other, the older end of town, the pubs reeking of fishgut and bad spirits.Slippery cobbles and paving slabs; the waterfront is dead.“Jesus.” He mutters under his breath.
He looks more closely at the children, utterly absorbed in their game.
Is this really all I’ve got to work with?He stands up in one fluid movement, and brushes down his long overcoat with one pass. Ah, why not?He reasons…These boys will be as fair and honest a barometer as anyone.Jericho strides over to the jetty.
One of the boys notes his approach, and tugs on the sleeve of the tallest of them. All four turn from their playful vigil at the end of the jutting pier, and face him, game interrupted. He is vaguely aware of a closing of ranks; the boys seem to be huddling together.
“Alright, mister.” The tall boy says, scratching his chin in an unconscious parody of adolescence. “What you want?”
“Hello, lads.” Jericho says, faltering momentarily. His voice sounds unfamiliar. How long has it been since I last spoke to anyone? “I was just wondering where the nearest open shop is?” He lies.
One of the smaller boys responds with his own question.
“Got any fags, mate?” He says.
Jericho stares levelly at the boy, and says:
“I’m not your mate.”
“Well fuck off, then, you fucking paedo!” Says the boy, face contorting with cold hatred. Jericho guesses that he isn’t more then nine years old. A puppet to childhood. He is just an automaton, parroting someone else’s words, and Jericho realises that there is nothing to learn there.
He glances around the group, and turns to the tallest, who he has guessed is the leader. The previous speaker spits venom and bile, but he has been dismissed already, whether he knows it or not.
Jericho flicks his tongue very slightly across his lips, wetting them. They feel cracked and dry, and he remembers again how alien speaking aloud is to him now.
“How old are you?” He says to his new target, with enough authority that he hopes the boy will respond despite himself. He is right.
“Old enough.” Then the boy flinches under his new glare. “Thirteen.”
“Thirteen.” A half-smile creeps across Jericho’s face. “Good enough.”
“What are you doing out here, son?”
“Who the fuck wants to know?” Intimidation seems to be wearing off. “Wanker!”
The other boys, reassured by their peer’s defiance, move noisily to Jericho’s flanks, jeering all the while. If Jericho feels them move into place around him, he gives no sign.
“What would your mother say if I told her about your foul mouth?”
“She would tell you to fuck off and mind your own business, and thrash my arse for not cutting you.”
“And what about your father?”
“He would do the same. And he’d give you a kicking besides. You piss-streak wimp.” Disturbingly free of intonation, he adds, “He’s out on that boat over there, and he’ll be back in a bit, if you want to ask him if I’m lying.”
His cronies laugh. Jericho does too, and the boy falters; his friends following suit.
Jericho gives the laughter a second to echo away.
Leans in closer to the boy.
“Son, if you don’t answer my questions, and without the lip, you and your friends will be opened out and in the water, and your father’s boat will float in on a tide of your blood.” He pulls back, and tries on a reassuring grin. “Be friendly. Or would you rather ask me if I’m lying?”
“My name is Jacob!” The boy blurts out. Now he is shifting from foot to foot, and Jericho wonders whether this conversation will end before someone’s water has broken.
“Good. Good boy, Jacob.” He hates using the hard word on them, and he has already lost the taste for this conversation. He wants to hurry it along. “So, Jacob. What on earth are you four lads doing out here, on such a cold and blustery day?”
The buoy, silenced by a shifted wind for the last few minutes, answers the question first. Clang, clang, indeed.
“We were… we were just out playing, mister. We didn’t cause no trouble.” The boy answers quickly afterwards.
“Out playing? And your mothers didn’t try to keep you all safe inside?”
“Me mum wanted us to stay in and play playstation. We wanted to go out and play in the fresh air. That’s all.”
Jericho felt the boy’s fear overriding his desire to rebel, and found his words sincere.
People tended to be scared of Jericho, once they really let their guard down. It used to happen way back when, when people actually knew who he was, but human instinct still kicked in quickly enough these days.
“It sounds like your mother wanted you where you could stay warm and well.”
The boy shakes his head.
“Nu-uh. She does it all the time… even when the sun is out and it’s hot. I hate being stuck inside. Me and my mates like to play outside.”
“Hm. And what is it exactly that you play?”
“Well, all sorts. Tag. Bulldog, when there’s more of us. Other stuff…”
“That all sounds… refreshingly rustic.” Jericho has heard enough. He wants to get away from the boy, and the fear that he sees in his eyes. “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
“No way, mister… I don’t even know why you’re asking me all this.” Tears start to form in the corners of Jacob’s eyes. “We’re just bored, that’s all. We didn’t mean nothing.”
Inexplicably, one of the boys behind Jericho starts to wail. If Jericho even notices, it is hard to say whether or not he recognises the boy as the one behind the earlier outburst. He screams and cries “Sorry!” and “We didn’t mean to!” and “I won’t do it again!”, and Jericho seems to slump in his coat, but it isn’t clear why…
Is he weary, or tired? Is it anything to do with these boys at all? Is the sudden ammoniac scent of urine in the air enough to drag him down with disgust and regret?
Jericho lifts a hand to his brow, closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. When he opens them again, the boys are still there, all shaking, or crying, or wailing, but otherwise stuck in place. He waves his hand, signalling that they can go, and within seconds they are gone, tripping over each other until they are lost down some alleyway or fuck knows where.
“Well, that was pathetic.” Jericho mutters, alone again. “At least this time they did okay.”
They were rude, and bullish, and eventually spineless, but ultimately, they were just silly little boys playing at being hard-cases. No real cruelty there… just boredom and misplaced attempts at alpha-dog power-plays. Probably not helped by over-protective mothers and absent fathers.
Thank God. Jericho thinks. Not evil, not even casually. Just a bit rubbish, really. At least it’s over for now. Jericho, weary, pulls his ancient carcass along the jetty, taking in the view. The mountains in the distance, of nothing substantial, of air and mist and turbulence, draw his eye. The sound of the buoys.
He rests against one of the posts that sinks deep into the ground beneath the water beneath the darkness beneath the sodden planks. Looks down, and something bright catches his attention in the otherwise grey and sullen pitch and flow and eddy. Looking closer, he discerns the tattered carrier-bag, barely suspended in the seething, sucking dullness.
He notices the holes that can only have been made by the pitching of stones; He notices the weak and spastic motions, moving against the natural tides surrounding the rustling plastic. Finally, he notices the sudden, unmistakable flash of matted orange cat fur.
Then, seconds or minutes or hours later, the bag has filled with water, and the orange and white cluster of sadness slips from view.
Jericho glances around him, half expecting to see the boys, laughing and pointing at him in the distance. There is nobody there, but Jericho knows that the facts of it are the same; Jacob lied, his friends lied, and worse… they lied while play-acting the breakdown of a lie, and the final arrival at the truth.
Typical. Jericho thinks. That’s the thing about this thing he does. He has to pick a proxy, and make a choice based on how they perform. He has to take for granted that what they are is typical of the species. Well, that’s that, then. Again. Rip it up and start again. If Jericho registers the rising wind, the increasing tempo of the buoy’s noise, it isn’t clear. He walks back up the jetty, and walks down onto the pebble beach. If he takes pleasure in the reassuring crunching of the stones beneath his feet, he doesn’t show it.
Slowly, steadily, Jericho walks to the water’s edge. He doesn’t even pause when he reaches the lapping tide; he just keeps walking.
Soon, he is waist deep, and if you could see him, you would see that he is unaffected by the swelling, pulling waves around him.
You might expect him to falter, to at least show the slightest twitching genetic memory of drowning, just before his head goes under; you might expect it, but you wouldn’t see it. No air bubbles to mark his passing.
Short hours later, the water will start to rise. Slowly, relentlessly, without drama, but inevitable and fatal all the same; on every beach, in every sea, a tide that creeps up to the high-tide line, and keeps going.
The anchor chains keeping the buoys in place will lose slack and before long they will be pulled beneath the surface, or float far away. Fishermen and sailors will not notice the swelling waters until they return to the shifting, unrecognisable shore, although in the backs of their minds they may have felt the sudden absence of the steady warning clanging bells.
Back on the slowly shrinking land, you might never make the connections… the chains of action, consequence, judgement and final determination that link the solitary man and the boys and the land and the sea and all of the rest of us.
And as all that we are and know are swept away by the floods, you might never once think of Jericho.
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