Another Chart of the Silences

Hellraiser

Chaz Brenchley was born in 1959 in Oxford. In his early twenties, he wrote for a variety of magazines before penning his first novel, The Samaritan (1988). Since then he has written many more novels including The Garden, Dispossession and Paradise, plus the major fantasy series, The Books of Outremer: Tower of the King's Daughter (1998); Feast of the King's Shadow (2000); and Hand of the King's Evil (2002). Dead of Light (1995) and Shelter (1999) have both been adapted for the screen, and shortlisted for British Fantasy Awards. Chaz has also written three children's books: The Thunder Sings (1988), a novel; The Dragon in the Ice and other stories (1988), a collection of short stories; and The Fishing Stone (1988), which is a picture book. He was crime writer in residence in Sunderland from 1993-4 which resulted in a book of short stories, Blood Waters (1996) and was recently writer in residence at the University of Northumbria. He is a member of Murder Squad and of the Write Fantastic group of professional fantasy writers. His many short crime and horror stories have been anthologised widely, and include 'Scouting for Boys' and 'The Day I Gave Up Smoking', both of which have been shortlisted for Crime Writers' Association Macallan Short Story Daggers. In 2000, Chaz Brenchley won the Northern Writer of the Year Award. His latest books are Bridge of Dreams (2006) and River of the World (2007).

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 INTRODUCTION:

I get myself talked into things. Mostly in pubs. M'friend Sean O'Brien suggested that we might write ghost stories, and read them to people at Christmas. So I arranged an event at our local private library, the Lit & Phil; and then m'friend John suggested that we might publish the stories, and, hey, why don't we record the evening and slip a CD into the book? And m'friend Michelle said yes, but you'd need Arts Council funding, and...

And so all this came to pass; and so I really, really had to write the story.

And the Lit & Phil has a Silence Room which has always fascinated me; and I've always loved boats, and maps too; and I saw a TV programme about the man who first charted the coast of Britain, and I found someone who could correct my idiocies about sailing, and - well, when you've got all that, stories just happen, really. Ghosts occur.

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Some people think that a breathless hush is the natural state of the universe, as darkness is: that sound is like light, a rebellion of angels, a thin and fierce and ultimately doomed attempt to hold back the crushing weight of utter silence.

They’re mistaken. White noise is universal, it’s woven into the fabric: the sound of the Big Bang infinitely elastic, infinitely stretched. In the beginning was the Word, and what we hear is still the scratch of God’s pen on the paper as he made it, as he spoke it, as he wrote it.

I suppose, theologically speaking, the Word should be ‘Amen’. What goes around, comes around; in our beginning is our end. All of that. Hail and farewell, in a single recursive term.

I wish I could believe that that was true. The trouble is, I know better. I hear otherwise, on a daily basis. I sit in the Silence Room in the Lit & Phil, the quietest place I know, where even the books are bound and gagged, tied shut with strong white ribbon; and when I’m alone, when I’m not turning pages, when I listen past my lungs’ breath and my heart’s beat and my belly’s churn, all the ruckus of my internal economy, I think I can hear the faintest possible scritching sound, inherent in the air. White noise again: but this isn’t that everlasting, ever-fading echo of the slam of all existence. This is something entirely other, contained within walls, within covers. Books telling their own damn stories, staging a secret revolt in the privacy of their own pages.

I swear to you, it’s true. Go in, sit down, sit quiet, you can hear it for yourselves. It’s there, it’s always there; it’s the sound of all those books. Rewriting.

Death is a deception, it’s a trick. It’s a game that books play. What do they know? They want to keep everything, unchanging and for ever. That’s what books do. They take what is liquid, mutable, permeable, life; and then they fix it like a dye, set solid. Historically, what are the three most scary words in the language? It is written. You can’t argue with that.

But the rules change, surely, when the books rewrite themselves. Somewhere - downstairs, probably, on a shelf in the Silence Room - there’s a book that’s rewritten the border between life and death, unless it just scribbled something illegible in the margin. Like this:

 

 

It was a Saturday morning, and I was alone, content, down there at the large table with my back turned to the rest of the room and its alcoves. I had books and charts spread out before me, an ocean in my head. That afternoon I’d have the real thing beneath my hull, and I ached for it already; but out there, quite often I would ache for this. When a man can measure his happiness coming and going, he should probably be grateful.

What’s good can always be lost, or broken, or taken away: by our own carelessness, by other people’s clumsiness, by malice or greed or disregard.

I was working in that air of pleasant detachment which speaks to a period of deep engagement on its way: the sense of packing for an expedition, cooking dinner, dressing for a date. Unhurried, conscientious, anticipatory.

The door opened, at my back.

I was untroubled. The quiet sounds of another’s reading would do no more than scratch at my concentration, barely leave a mark.

There were two of them, I could hear that in their footsteps. Both male, I thought: the length of their strides or the sounds of their shoes, perhaps the timbre of their breathing. Some subconscious certainty, the same that said one was older than the other. By a distance, by a generation.

One of them smoked, I thought, but not cigarettes. A pipe. Not in here, though. Not anywhere in the library now, they’d changed the rule and as a non-smoker I still thought that a measurement of loss.

I heard the squeak of chairs at one of the little alcove-tables - and then I heard another kind of noise, not incidental, not the haphazard sounds of bodies in motion. Steady, irregular, deliberate.

And familiar, and I didn’t believe it. I still didn’t turn to look, because I couldn’t have looked without glaring, and then one or other of us might have had to say something; but I listened, and was sure. Those were the sounds of chessmen being set out on a board. And this was the Silence Room, it says so on the door, they must have seen; and it is impossible to play chess silently, or even quietly.

I didn’t turn, but my back was stiff with outrage. They paid no heed. They played, and every move was an offence; and soon - of course! - they started talking.

You can’t play chess properly without. It’s not exactly conversation, but talking counterpoints the play. Some moves have to be discussed, some lingered over like a line of beauty, some dismissed. And this was an older man and a boy, a youth, so the game was a lesson also; and the boy had that abrupt, husky teenage way of talking, stumbling over his words. It jarred me every time he spoke.

I could have swept up my papers and stalked out. Perhaps I should have done; hindsight aches for me to do it, for another me to have another chance. Matthew, I’m sorry. Look, I’ll go, and all things will be different for all of us, amen...

I didn’t move, though. Even that would have been a statement, an accusation, awkward for everybody. I preferred to stay in the tension of the moment, expressing my fury in my stillness, for anyone to read who cared to look.

Sometimes I thought the boy had looked, and understood, and only lacked the confidence to say. Or maybe I only wanted to think it. I had small evidence to offer in support, only the muted awkwardness of his voice and the sense that sometimes his gaze touched the back of my neck. Likely I was being sentimental; it’s an extension of the pathetic fallacy, to gift teenagers with any sense of decency.

At any rate they played, I seethed and nothing further happened until the older man murmured something and left the room. He might be fetching coffee, he might be visiting the toilet. It didn’t matter. He was gone; and some imp of the perverse felt it right that, just as the door swung closed at his back, the boy’s mobile phone should ring.

It rang with the theme from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, the brisk final movement, so that I took a moment to understand what it was.

Then I did swivel round in my chair, I was too blindly angry to keep still. The boy knew; he was already looking in my direction, even as his hands fumbled for the phone.

“Sorry...”

“If you were sorry,” I said, “you wouldn’t answer it.”

He blushed, suddenly and thoroughly; and still glanced down at the phone, stabbed it with a finger, lifted it to his ear. Hunched over it as though that would help, and muttered “I’m in the library.”

Something in that - the flush or the defiance, or else the combination - melted my anger in a moment. All that pent-up rage flooded out, leaving me hollow and brittle and defenceless. Before the other man came back I was bent over my charts again, even less likely to speak to either one of them.

After a while I slipped out and went walking through the library and up into the gallery. There had been a connection made, however frail, between me and the boy; I wanted that broken.

I went to old friends, old books, the narratives of travellers from a hundred years ago and further back: Hakluyt’s ‘Voyages’, Ibn Battutah. I dipped in and out, savouring the touch and the smell and the weight of the books as much as the words themselves. There’s a connection that matters, that reaches back through history to the minds that wrote the books and the hands that made them; that reaches forward also, to those who will read them in the future. With a book in my hands, I am encompassed, embedded, engaged.

When I went back down to the Silence Room, the older man was packing chess-pieces into their box. The boy stood at my table, looking down at the charts and my own notes where I had left them.

He looked up and flushed again. “What are these?”

Earlier today, any other day, I might have been angry. Now I was long past that. “Nautical charts,” I said. “Soundings, landmarks, details of the coastline, everything a sailor needs to know. That one’s contemporary; the others are earlier. This one’s three hundred years old. Well, you can see,” the paper crumbling at its edges and wearing in its folds, the ornate engraving of the compass rose and the cartouche.

“Are you a sailor, then?”

“Yes, I am. Don’t touch that.”

It came out perhaps sharper than I meant. He snatched his hand back as though I’d burned his fingers. So then I had to give him balm, a little. “No harm, only that it’s fragile. I ought not to be handling it myself, in all honesty.” Though I’d like to see anyone try to stop me. It’s odd how possessive you can be, towards what is not your own. I felt that Tom Turner’s chart was mine by rights of intimacy. I knew it better than any man alive, I knew it the way you know your lover’s skin, their every expression, the rhythms of their voice overheard on someone else’s phone. Soon I hoped to know it better yet, from the inside.

“So why do you? The new one’s better, yeah?”

I confronted the intricacies of explaining the marriage of art and craft and science to a teenager, and sighed. “The new one is more accurate, of course; all the benefits of GPS and satellite imaging, it’s exact. But this is beautiful, and it’s the work of a sailor, not a machine. This is real mapping, drawn to a human scale, one man’s expression of his world and its dangers. It’s the original, not an engraving; look, you can see the pen-strokes, you can see where he recharged his nib with ink, sometimes you can even see the pencil-lines beneath...”

He wasn’t interested in pencil-lines. “What dangers?”

Did he, could he really know so little? I took a breath to tell him, but the older man interrupted.

“Leave it, Matthew. You’re not meant to talk in here.” And then he nodded at me, and walked out to leave me gaping. The boy blushed one more time, mumbled something incoherent and was gone.

 

They were back the next week. This time, the boy Matthew came straight over to loom at my side. I had to glance up then, I couldn’t not; he smiled, put a finger to his lips and set something down by my elbow.

It was his mobile phone. He left it there, and again I was entirely robbed of righteous indignation. The phone could have been a promise, look, no calls today, or it could have been a more aggressive message, look, it’s in your hands now, up to you not to answer it if it rings. Either way it was an albatross, I could think of nothing else. Which he had known, definitively.

In the end I gave up any hope of working. There would be no sailing that day anyway, with a gale blowing in from Siberia. I packed my papers away and went to watch the chess.

The old man frowned up at me once, don’t interrupt, and turned back to the board. Matthew didn’t lift his head. His determination not to was so obvious, he reminded me of me.

Halfway through the second game, the old man got up and left us, as he had before. Once he was safely out of the room, I said, “I haven’t the faintest idea what to do if it goes off, you know. Except throw it at your head, obviously.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t. I switched it off.”

“Thank you, then. Though you’re not supposed to be playing chess in here either.”

“I know, but he won’t be told. Thing is, anywhere else, people come up and comment, criticise, make suggestions—”

“Suck air through their teeth,” I interrupted, “ ooh, you don’t want to do that, put the red queen on the black jack, that sort of thing? I know, I hate that too. While he’s gone, though - pawn to king’s bishop five.”

“Eh?”

“Here.” I showed him, on the board. “Just a suggestion.”

“Yeah, but - he’ll take it, won’t he?”

“Yes, of course.”

“So what am I supposed to do next?”

“You’re supposed to work that out for yourself.” I gave him back his own smile from earlier and left him to it, sitting with a book in my hand and listening to the gameplay when the old man came back.

I heard that sacrifice, and how he used it to queen another unregarded pawn, and how he won the game thereafter at a merciless canter. I heard the triumph in him; I heard the moment when he remembered I was listening, when he wondered suddenly if I’d give us both away.

Not I. I sat quiet, and he came across to scoop his phone up as they left, and neither one of us said a word.

 

The third time, he came in alone. He laid his phone down at my side and said, “Grandad can’t come today, he’s sick.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Would you, would you like a game?”

I could have said my work was too important. But that would have been to say that he wasn’t important enough: true, perhaps, but cuttingly unkind. Besides, it was working on me again, that gawky charm of the adolescent, the way he laid himself open for the rebuff. I’ve always admired vulnerability, in those who dare to show it.

So I said yes when I shouldn’t have, I broke a silence where it mattered most, and I’ve paid the least price for it since. Betrayal can be like that.

 

We played chess and he lost and I hope he learned a little, though I thought he knew already, how to lose. Something he may not have known till then, chess is a bridge between strangers, as between generations. Get them talking, and everything’s fair game.

Soemtimes, though, the less people say, the more they tell you. Matthew went to school, he went home. He spent time with his grandfather. He didn’t want to talk about his parents, nor much about his life. He didn’t really want to talk at all. Rather, he wanted to listen. He wanted to hear about my boat; he wanted to know why I spent my Saturday mornings in here with dusty old charts and books, when I might have been out on the water.

“Look,” I said, setting the chessboard aside and reaching for that despised paperwork. “Here’s ‘Great-Britain’s Coasting Pilot’, published in 1693. A naval captain called Greenville Collins had spent seven years charting the entire UK coastline, and this is the result. It was the first attempt at a detailed, practical survey; it changed inshore navigation for everyone who sailed these waters. But look, look here...”

I showed him the chart of our own waters, and let him find the problem for himself.

“There’s a bit missing,” he said. “What happens here?”

There is, indeed, a bit missing. A neat white square a mile offshore and two miles on a side, where even the rhumb-lines and the bearings break off, where Collins has delineated emptiness. It’s unique, throughout the forty-seven charts of the survey.

“The most dangerous rocks on this coast,” I told Matthew, “that’s what happens there. They’ve been wrecking ships since Roman times. People round here call them the Silences.”

“So why didn’t he, you know...?”

“Chart them? Because sailors are superstitious folk, and those rocks have an evil reputation. It’s a known hazard, and every captain tries to steer clear; but they say it’s like the Sirens, something lures you in regardless. You know about the Sirens?”

He nodded. “We did Odysseus in school. The sailors stuck wax in their ears, yeah?”

“They wouldn’t do it here. Collins’ crew simply refused to go within a mile of the Silences, they came near to mutiny; and if he couldn’t get closer than that, then his method of survey was useless. Hence this,” where his chart was so eloquently silent on its own account. “A local fisherman, Tom Turner, made and printed his own chart, here,” the original he’d seen already, “but that’s drawn from observation and experience rather than measurement. Tom was a sailor, not a surveyor. If you compare his plan to this,” one more, the latest issue from the Admiralty, “which is drawn up from satellite photos, you can see how inaccurate he was.”

Matthew nodded uncertainly, still waiting to understand.

“I want to make my own chart of the Silences,” I said. “I want to do it Collins’ way, using authentic instruments, just to see how accurate I can be. Whether I can do better than Tom Turner.”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“No need. Rocks are only dangerous if you’re careless. Admiralty charts are quite clear about depths, currents, rocks that are hidden at high tide. Though I’ll tell you what’s interesting,” and I was only doing this to tease him, though it was true, “they had to rely on satellite imaging for this one because GPS doesn’t work around the Silences. There’s some magnetic anomaly that interferes.”

“No,” he said, “I meant, aren’t you scared of the Sirens?”

“Would you be?”

He shook his head, grinning, suddenly all cocksure boy. And then someone else came into the room, and we had to move or else stop talking; and he helped me carry all those papers across the corridor to where there was a larger table and permission to speak, and somewhere in the shift and flurry of it all either he begged or I offered, I truly can’t remember which. Either way, a day’s sailing was the prize.

“Not without your parents’ permission, mind.”

“They won’t care.”

“Even so, I’d better come and meet them.”

Another shake of the head, this one quite urgent. “Talk to Grandad. Next week, if he’s better. He’ll be in.”

 

He was better, he was in; we did speak. In the Silence Room, naturally. When sin slides into habit, that’s when you’d best beware. Careless talk costs lives.

I said, “I’ll just give him a day’s run, see if he likes it. He won’t be a passenger. You can tell his parents I’ll bring him back wet, cold, filthy, smelly, starving, exhausted and intact. Here’s my number at home, if they want to talk to me directly...”

“I don’t believe they’d see the need for that,” he said, which was as much as he wanted to tell me about Matthew’s upbringing, and how he felt about it.

So the following Saturday I drove to the address I’d been given and found Matthew waiting by the kerbside, chewing his nails with doubt of me. As I pulled up he brightened in a moment, bounced into the car and said, “Did you bring any wax?”

“Wax?”

“For the Sirens.”

“Oh. No, not today. We’re not going near the Silences.”

“Aren’t we? I thought...”

He’d thought we were heading for adventure, danger, high risk on the high seas. I disabused him.

“Today, we sail in circles. Well, triangles, largely. Way out, where there’s no danger of hitting anything. You’ll learn the ropes, you’ll learn to say ‘aye aye, skipper,’ you’ll make mistakes by the yard and I’ll swear at you; and by the time I bring you back, you shouldn’t be quite such a liability. You still won’t know how to sail, that takes a lifetime, it’s like learning Chinese. Next time we go out, you’ll still make mistakes, but at least you’ll know what they are.”

I was deliberately making it sound like school. He sulked, a little, but that blew off as we came down into the marina. I gave him things to carry while I punched in the security code on the gate; then, “Which one’s yours?”

“There.” I pointed along the floating jetty. “ Sophonisba.”

“She’s enormous,” he said, in the tones of someone who’d been looking for disappointment, and hadn’t found it.

I hid a smile. “Big for one, certainly.”

“I really will be a help, then?”

“Oh, yes. You really will. Eventually. Not today. Today you’ll just be a nuisance.”

He grinned contentedly and followed me down the steps to the jetty, along to my mooring and so aboard my yacht, my life.

I opened her up and showed him over, stem to stern; then I tossed him my spare oilskins. “Turn off your mobile, before you zip them up. Sailing’s about getting away from all of that, being out of touch. It’s about the sky, the sea, the wind...”

“You mean it’s about the silences,” he said.

If he thought that, he’d never been to sea without an engine. He had a whole new world of sounds to learn, from the creaking song of rigging under strain to the slap and hiss of waves against the hull to the half-human cry of a gull over deep water.

Me too, though, I had my own learning to do that day, my introduction to the teenage wall of sound. The groans and curses I’d expected, but not the sudden yelps and whoops, nor the singing in a breathy monotone, nor the jokes, the jabber, the utter inability to keep quiet.

We tacked back and forth, sailing from point to point until he was tolerably comfortable with the sheets and telltales and winches. Then I let him take the helm, while we went around again. When I decided he’d had enough for the day, he didn’t raise a protest; he saved that for later, once we’d moored up back in the marina, when I introduced him to the mop and bucket.

I took him home in the state that I’d promised, drained and overloaded both at once. It wasn’t until he was stepping out of the car that I said, “Next weekend, then? If we make it a little more challenging?”

“You bet,” he said, with a rush of relief that made me feel mean to keep him waiting so long. “Thanks, skipper.”

 

Saturdays thereafter, we played chess and sailed; Sundays we sailed and played chess as we went, on a little travel set I kept in the cabin. I taught him crude navigation; how to use a Davis quadrant, to fix latitude; how to chart features with a running traverse, plotting them from two different angles. After one month he knew the code to get him through the gate, he knew where I hid the spare key in Sophonisba’s cockpit; I trusted him to cycle down early and set her up for a day’s sailing. After two I decided he was ready, we were ready, captain and crew; next week, the Silences.

We started early, while the sun was still burning off a dawn mist. The weather was perfect, a steady offshore wind and a smooth, swift sea. Easy sailing: we had a long beam reach ahead of us, on port all the way up to the rocks. I offered Matthew the helm, but he didn’t seem to hear. The second time, he smiled and nodded, and as he came I saw wires hanging below his hair, disappearing into a pocket.

“What are you listening to?”

“My new phone. Birthday present. Doubles as an MP3, it’s brilliant. Here, I’ll show you...”

“No, thanks. Not on board my boat, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, but it’s too early to talk. And I can still hear you...”

“Not the first time of asking, apparently. And I may not have time to repeat myself in an emergency. Turn it off, please.”

His face was foul, but he did as I asked. And took the helm, checked the course, did everything he ought to. Best leave him to it, I thought, show some confidence and let the wind blow the temper out of him. I spent a little time below with the charts and the GPS and then made my way forward, trimming the sails and settling into the bows where I could watch for trouble and eventually for the Silences.

No trouble came, only one curious seal, not worth drawing attention to. At last there were nubs on the horizon that were not the sails of other yachts; I called out and pointed, then took my time heading aft, in case he needed a minute to lose the earphones. I may be old-fashioned, but I’m not a tartar, and I’m not naïve. I’d made my point; if he wanted to defy me, that was his privilege. It was mine to be careful, not to catch him at it.

“Where?” he asked, trying to peer past the jib.

“Fine off the port bow; but you’ll only see them in profile on the skyline, so be quick.”

“Aye aye, cap’n. You have the conn.”

I think he got that from Star Trek.

It was hard to understand the reputation of the Silences, as we skimmed towards them. They lay low in the water, but there were no savage currents to beware of, no tidal surges; local knowledge ought to be warning enough. I took plenty of sea-room none the less, running no risks with my beloved Sophonisba. As always, the breakers were easier to spot than the rocks themselves, a sudden stitching of white water in a grey swell. We’d need to be closer coming back in the landward channel, if we were to survey them with any chance of accuracy; at this distance I could barely distinguish rock from spray from water.

Watching the rocks, I murmured as much to Matthew at my side. And turned my head for his reaction, and of course he wasn’t there, he was all the way forward. I shook my head against a momentary twist in my understanding of the world, as though I had fallen through an unseen door. There was no one there in the cockpit with me - and yet for a moment I had had no doubt of it.

I couldn’t recapture that brief certainty, any more than I could understand it. Let it go, then; stranger things happen at sea. I glanced up at the mainsail to see how it was drawing, and there was Matthew coming back to join me.

Matthew frowning, puzzled, a little upset. As he jumped down beside me, I saw those earphone cables swinging again: one in his ear, the other in his hand. Before I could say anything:

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry. But I was on my own up there, just looking, and - well, I thought it needed a soundtrack, that’s all. It’s no good without music. Listen, though, just listen...”

I thought the world made its own soundtrack, but I wasn’t sixteen. He was holding out one of those earphones on its wire, gesturing, impatient for me to share. Reluctantly, I touched it to my ear.

Nothing.

Or no, not nothing: white noise. A steady swish and slurr of interference, the echo of God’s heartbeat.

“What am I meant to be hearing?”

“Radiohead.”

“I think your gadget’s broken.”

“Only it’s new, and it was working fine, and then it just went...”

New toys do just go, sometimes; but I looked at him and remembered what he was clearly remembering, something I’d said before.

“Take the helm, I’ll go and see what’s what.”

Down in the cabin, nothing was beeping, nothing flashed. No little lights glowed on any of my expensive equipment: no GPS, no radio, no radar.

No warnings, and no way to cry for help. We were on our own...

On our own at midday in clear weather, open water, not a worry in the world. I glanced back out at Matthew; he looked aside and startled suddenly, as though he was looking for someone he knew was there and then not finding them.

I did that, I thought.

“Not your phone,” I told him. “It’s all out, all the electronics.”

“You said, that’s what GPS does around here.”

“I know I said it. That doesn’t mean I believed it.”

I was still reluctant. But I’d heard of magnetic storms, sun-spot disruptions taking out the power grid across a city; a local equivalent wasn’t beyond imagination, surely, some physical property of the rocks playing hell with reception...

I didn’t know. But I did shiver, and I did wonder if we ought to turn back. For sure, there wasn’t any other run of rocks I’d venture close to with my instruments down. I’m not foolhardy as a rule. But this was the Silences, this was special; I asked Matthew, “Are you happy to go on?”

He shrugged. “You’re the skipper.”

I was learning; that meant yes, for God’s sake, why not? with a subtext of I don’t suppose you will. I surprised him, then, I didn’t let him down. I just nodded, and took the helm.

Sophonisba was still sailing sweetly, over a sea like glass in motion. The Silences were a presence but no threat; I wanted to be closer, to see them better, to sketch their profiles from the seaward side. Half a dozen times I caught myself letting her drift in towards the rocks, half a dozen times I nearly sent the boy for his pad and pencils. Each time I checked the motion, checked the words before I was committed to them. In honesty, I didn’t want to speak. There was a hush to the air, to the moment, that words would only spoil.

A moment stretched, not ended, becomes momentum. A word not spoken gives us impetus. Sophonisba ran on beyond the line of rocks, and it was the easiest thing in the world to come about onto the starboard tack and so bring her back down inside that line. Sailing can be like that sometimes, where wind and water and boat all three seem to be unusually willing. Here there might have been currents in air and sea together, circling the Silences as a storm circles its dead centre, drawing a path that we could follow.

Between rocks and coast there was room to tack and turn; there was water enough beneath the hull, and a good sandy bottom within the anchor’s reach. Now we weren’t sailing, we were surveying. We dropped anchor half a mile off the northernmost rock in the Silences and established our position as near as we could without GPS, as Greenville Collins would have done it if his crew had let him: by landmarks and estimate, by telescope and eye. Then we turned towards the rocks and I took bearings on each of them with an authentic period compass, calling the numbers for Matthew to write down.

Surveying by running traverse is a technique as old as the compass rose, and we had practised it up and down the coast till we could do it without thinking. Suddenly, though, it was hard to keep focused. Water sang past the hull, urging us to movement; wind whispered in the shrouds like a summoning, like a question, why the delay?

Only the rocks were patient, and they needed to be. Perhaps they could afford to be. My eye kept shifting, caught by a spume of water flinging high or the eerie stillness in the lee of a rock where two waves met and held each other in a momentary stasis. My mind drifted another way, into fancies. I thought I heard footsteps aboard Sophonisba, although Matthew and I were neither of us moving. I thought I heard cries on the wind, greetings and questions, as one sailor might call to another across a gulf of sea. There were other boats in the corners of my vision, that were only gulls or clouds or nothing when I looked. I could see the same effect in Matthew, the way he shied suddenly and glanced around and couldn’t concentrate.

I didn’t talk to him about it. I didn’t want to talk at all. My own voice sounded harsh and alien here, calling numbers; his was an untuned string, a dull vibration, flat and grating.

At last we were done. We could weigh anchor and set sail, reckoning speed against the clock to know how far we went before we fetched up and let go again at the southernmost point of the Silences. That was hard; there was such a temptation to let her run, to come about on that helpful wind and work up the seaward side again, closer in this time...

But I turned her head into the wind, all the air spilled from her sails, Matthew dropped the hook and we were there, with all the work to do again, bearings to be taken on the same rocks from this new position. Later I could mark those two positions on a chart, draw in all the bearings, and where each pair of lines crossed should be definitive, this rock stands here.

Find the rocks, take the reading, cry it out. Listen for the boy to call it back - but how much more you hear in the emptiness behind his voice, how hard it is to care for what you tell him, or for what he says...

Was it him who moved to draw the anchor up, or did I send him to it? Were we finished, had I checked my figures, or did I skimp the work?

Did we have an argument, or did I dream it later, whether we should sail round those rugged rocks again? She was my boat and I was captain, but did he win against the odds, to take us southerly, homeward, away?

I don’t know, I can’t remember. I know that the sun was setting and I was at the helm. I could see the city’s lights tainting the sky ahead which meant that it was later than I liked, later than I could understand. Matthew was trimming the sails, quiet and confident; on that thought he glanced back to me and said, “So when do I get to go solo, skipper?”

That at least was a question easy to answer. “You don’t.”

“Oh, why not? She’s built for one to handle, and I can do it, you know I can...”

I didn’t know any such thing, but I didn’t need to say so. “The insurance is in my name. She can’t go to sea without me. Sorry.”

He groaned and sighed and made faces against the stupidity of regulation, as he ought; and then he said, “So how’s about that night sail you promised?”

He was right, I had promised him stars and moonlight and the extraordinary potency of the sea at night. We settled on the following weekend, if his parents would agree; and then he dropped onto the bench beside me. “What happened back there, that was really weird, wasn’t it? Or was it just me...?”

“Not you,” I assured him. “I think you coped better than I did.”

He shrugged. “They are haunted, though, those rocks, the old sailors knew. We should’ve listened.”

“We did listen. Once we got here. I just think the Silences listened back.”

That was how it felt, at least to me: that they were attentive, interested, listening. I thought he was wrong, though, it wasn’t the rocks that were haunted. The rocks just were. It was the water, the wind, the liminal world about them that held more than it ought to. If there are ghosts, that’s where they abide, in the shift between state and state, that blur where you can’t say this is water and this is air or this is life and this is death, that was then and this is now...

I didn’t say any of that to Matthew. We were better being quiet, I thought, each of us finding our own place to stow what had happened for mulling over later. Or for rejecting later as a fancy of the day, the rocks’ reputation, a desire to be impressed. Strange things happen at sea, but they happen inside our heads as much as they do on the water.

It was full dark before we berthed. When we were done cleaning up, Matthew reached into his pocket with a half-smile that would have been wider, I thought, if the day hadn’t been so strange. Still, he was a boy, he’d prepared this, he loved it; he said, “I’ve got a present for you,” and handed me his old mobile phone.

I gazed at it blankly. “I don’t use these things.”

“Time you did, then. I want you to. Look, we can play chess,” and he touched a key and the panel lit up, already primed, P - K4. “We can text moves to each other, see? I’ll show you how. And if you never tell anyone the number, then you’ll know it’s me, every time it rings...”

And clearly he wanted me to think this was a good thing. I thought his loneliness was showing, brighter than I’d seen it before; so I let him teach me how to text, and how to answer a call, and how to make one. Then he gave me the charger, with strict instructions - “every night or it’ll die on you, the battery’s shot” - and jumped on his bike and was gone. I sent a message after him, to await arrival - P - K4, his own move echoed back: I was teaching him the Ruy Lopez, although he didn’t know it - and locked the boat up. Thinking about ghosts, already finding ways to rationalise what wasn’t rational.

Halfway home, the phone beeped. In Morse. Three short, two long, three short - SMS, once and then again. I ignored it. Five minutes later it rang properly, Bach’s concerto for two violins.

I sighed, pulled over, picked it up.

“Hullo, Matthew.”

“Did you get my text?”

“Yes.”

“Only you haven’t sent your next move. Aren’t you going to bring your knight out? You always bring your knight out...”

“One of these days I’ll surprise you. But right now, I’m driving.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry...”

It wasn’t just a lesson in his loneliness, it was a lesson in his youth; no experience in dealing with adults, no expectation that I wouldn’t be able to answer.

When I got home, I sent him the move he was waiting for, matching his knight with my own. And spent the rest of the evening answering his texts, his moves, at brief intrusive intervals. When I wanted to go to bed, I realised that he hadn’t told me how to turn the damn thing off. Another half an hour, another half a dozen moves and I had to phone him, just to ask. He only giggled, and said goodnight.

 

A couple of nights later, I did have a good night, I had a really good night. Until that damn phone started up. I apologised, didn’t answer it, promised to leave it at home in future. Presumptuous of me, she hadn’t promised me a future; but she only quirked an eyebrow, and asked if I couldn’t turn it off.

“I don’t know how,” I confessed. “He won’t tell me.”

So then of course I had to explain, and she pealed with laughter and took it from me and nor would she tell me how to turn it off, but she did switch it onto silent running.

“Vibrator effect,” she said. “So you’ll know, but it won’t bother me.”

 

And a couple of nights after that, I had to phone Matthew and cancel our night sail on Saturday.

“But you promised...!”

“I know I did, and I’m sorry, but something’s come up.”

“Well, get out of it.”

“I don’t want to.” I could have lied, of course, but it was just too much trouble. “This is too good to get out of.”

“Oh, what is it, then, a woman?”

“Yes.”

That silenced him, but only momentarily. He was passionate, he was furious, he was almost tearful and pleading; mostly, I thought, he was jealous. Deep-down, fiercely jealous. He would not be placated, I would not be moved; we both said some harsh things before I hung up on him.

 

I regretted that, of course, the way you do. Not enough to call him over the next few days, but enough to keep the phone charged up and close at hand. It was still and silent all week, until the Saturday. Saturday evening, when for him we should have been out at sea already, watching the stars appear and hoping for the Northern Lights; when in fact I was in my bedroom, trying to decide what to wear.

I was running late already, and I didn’t want another confrontation. It was my turn to be resentful, that he should try to elbow his way into my evening. I tossed the phone onto the bed and tried to ignore it.

It rang three or four times in the half-hour that I took to get ready. That felt deliberately intrusive; when I went out, I deliberately left it behind.

And had a good, a very good time, and so I guess did she; at all events, she came back home with me. I left her in the living-room with Miles Davis and Macallan, while I made that traditional hasty scour of the bedroom, to change the sheets and hide what else must be hidden.

And there was the phone, needing to be moved off the bed; and when I picked it up the screen showed half a dozen calls from Matthew. I suppose this was part of the scouring, to sit on the bed and listen, not to leave unfinished business hanging over what lay between here and morning.

Half a dozen calls, but only one message on the voicemail. He sounded faint and frightened, far away. He said, “I’m sorry, skipper. Really, I am. I was, I was angry with you, and I thought I could manage her on my own. I didn’t mean to come this far. I don’t know what happened, I got into a mess and I couldn’t see the rocks but I don’t think she hit anything, she just turned over. I’m, I’m up under the hull and I can’t get out. I called for help, I tried to call you and then I called my grandad, and he told the coastguard. I think I heard a helicopter one time, but I guess it didn’t see us. It’s gone now, anyway. And my battery’s going, and then it’s going to be all dark in here, and I’m so cold already, I can’t keep my legs out of the water and I don’t, I don’t think anyone’s going to come...”

 

They didn’t find Sophonisba till the morning, drifting keel-up off the Silences. None of us were quite sure how that could have happened, whatever kind of mess he was in. It’s so hard to capsize a yacht. I kept constructing narratives in my head - setting him broadside on to the swell, perhaps, with a sheet stuck in the winch and every wave taking him closer to the rocks, panic building; he gets beam on to the wind and a big wave gybes him, the boom crashes over just as she’s tipping with another wave, maybe that might do it - but she was a sweet-tempered, endlessly forgiving boat, and I never really believed that or any of the others.

They never found Matthew at all. His body should have been there, trapped inside the hull, but it wasn’t. Perhaps he tried to swim out, in the end. They say that bodies are seldom recovered from the rocks there, something holds them under.

It doesn’t matter much to me, where his body is. He won’t need that again.

Nor do I think the rocks have him, in any sense that matters. Rocks have no reach, no stretch beyond themselves. All their strength looks inward.

I looked for Matthew on the boat, when they gave her back to me. That they couldn’t find him, didn’t mean he wasn’t there. I even sailed her when she was fit for it, back up to the Silences. I called his name into the wind, but he didn’t show. Why would he?

I sold Sophonisba, in the end. She had nowhere left to take me; and I didn’t lose Matthew, in losing her. I take him with me, everywhere I go.

I still keep the phone charged up, as he taught me to. I keep it in my pocket, mostly. Always set to vibrate, to silent mode. That way it needn’t disturb anyone but me, here in the Silence Room or elsewhere, anywhere.

Mostly, it keeps silent on its own account. Sometimes, though, quite often, it does shiver into life; and I do answer it, every time. At night, I keep it beneath my pillow and I sleep alone, so that if it wakes me, I can pick it up.

I’m too much of a coward to ignore it. I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll find another message on the voicemail. I don’t want that. I’d rather be there for him, every time he calls. I’d rather listen to his silence, to his listening: white noise, the hissing attention of the universe, that slow dragging pulse of nothing that - when you listen, when you wait, when you give it long enough, as I have - pounds in your head like surf over shingle, like breakers on a rock, all the surge and the suck of the sea.

 

 

 

(C) Chaz Brenchley 2006

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.