I have posted a short story I wrote about eight years ago. It is from a particular place and time in my life, and the beginning, a cycle ride home at night, was a ride I made every day in winter after working in an office all day –a job I hated. The night of sweeping fog where the horizon mysteriously disappeared and waves broke from within a flat grey wall is still a vivid memory. The town is Bournemouth and they were beginning to lay the sand bags for an artificial surf reef which briefly opened a year or so later to much controversy because it didn’t seem to work and now it lies there, unseen and forgotten but encrusted with life –a multi-million pound habitat for ocean dwellers.
The story has a labyrinth structure, but it follows a one-way journey that has no return.
Fade to Grey
A September evening darkens, and so begins the reversion of the day as the light is no longer free to flood.
You cycle eastwards along the promenade, hedged in on the left by a black wall of rock and earth slanting upwards, and to your right the open expanse of the ocean. The base of the cliff is capped by a line of beach huts; their plastic bargeboards glint in the yellow light from intervals of lamp posts. The apex of the cliff face forms a paper-cut silhouette against a trim of purple sky that glows faintly.
Passing between each lamppost you notice that your foreshortened shadow rises from the rear wheel and follows a parabolic curve before elongating and then fading away into the pale of oncoming light. This cyclical pattern fixes your attention downwards and you read it synchronously with the breath and draw of the tide. Gradually your own breathing synchs with the tide and you experience a feeling of walking off-stage.
Now you pass the closed pier and the fences surrounding the piles of sandbags being prepared for the artificial reef.
And the light is changing.
A thin mist gathers atop the ocean, blending sea and sky. You apply the brakes and turn to face the sea. The wind pushes through for a second and you hug yourself and then tighten your scarf.
You gaze out over the ocean: it looks like dark, wrinkled skin. A wan moon, uncovered by passing clouds, exposes silver curls that flit across the molten negative. Compelled to come closer, you prop up your bike and descend towards the tide line where the pebbles are flooded by the thinning silver.
You reach the boundary and stop. There is a sudden disappearance of perspective as the sky and sea merge, consuming each other. You stagger slightly as you fail to parse the grey void. And then the waves cease altogether and a high-pitched note crashes through your head so abruptly that you dive forward until your fists are wrist-deep in wet sand. Your last sensation is one of falling, as if the ground extended its throat and took you.
You come to. Opening your eyes, you feel around for a physical base and ease yourself slowly onto your feet. You look down at something solid, and then trace an upward path with your eye, taking in a snapshot of the wasteland on which you stand: a table of virgin sand extends before you and falls away into dark clefts and winding valleys; islands of sea water glint like scales, and drain away in silver rivulets; intestinal piles of wracks lie scattered about and the moon embalms it all in a white crust. The wind has evaporated leaving an acrid, salty taste to the air.
Turning around, the black cliffs and the promenade are visible, and the unseen lampposts form a single horizontal line of lanterns. They are far away: perhaps even a mile or two. Your stomach drops again as you try and decipher your journey, but practical issues assert themselves, and you rally your nervous thoughts.
You begin by making uncertain steps towards the shoreline. Adrenaline and mental fatigue have made you shaky, but after a few minutes your confidence grows, and you can make more confident strides. It is not long before you start running, desperate to reach safety.
After reaching a wall of exhaustion, you fix your eyes forward realising with deep fear that the stack of cliffs has remained in the same proportion to the sand and sky. You run again, panic knifing your forward. Once again you stumble into a breathless full stop. The cliffs and the pinpricks of light are no closer. You wonder at this dreamscape and its ability to confound natural laws.
You remember that your mobile phone is in the top pocket of your jacket. You take it out. Your stiff fingers struggle to key the correct depressions. You take a deep breath and call home. The backlit display shows the number, and one bar of network strength. The bar disappears as soon as the phone connects, but it is still ringing. Then the dialling tone ceases, and you anticipate a voice, a human note and for the briefest moment you think you hear a faint sound, buried inside the signal, a fractured echo from the other side. A second later there is just the crackle of sand and wind.
After pacing around for sometime and kicking various objects, you scoop down to pick up a nearby shell. It is a common dextral spiral; there is nothing suspicious about its form. Peering inside, you find an empty chamber: no trace of the architect that unconsciously built this fortification against nature. You hold the opening to the labyrinth up to your ear, and hear the parlour trick of the sea rushing in.
Questions repeat wordlessly over as you continue to pace about. The moon continues along its consecrated pathway. Nothing else moves. Do you sit and wait for dawn? Could there be any new decisions to make right now? You wonder if the cliffs are a false memory: burned into your traumatised consciousness as an exit sign.
Now you start to walk briskly, parallel to the shoreline, in order to warm and stretch your tight muscles. Perhaps you also hope to find something. You turn through 180 degrees frequently, and so the shore flips from the left to the right-hand side and back again.
You notice something etched into the fuliginous blur at the edge of your visible landscape. It resembles a human figure, and it seems to be moving away with some haste. You walk briskly after it. The shifting mass of lines slowly congeals into a more distinct figure. You can make out an adult, fairly tall, and walking with his or her head bent forward. This person is covered in some sort of heavy shawl, and is making sweeping gestures. As you shorten the distance in between, you are certain of hearing the incoherent sounds of someone talking under their breath. These words are inexpressibly alien to you, and each syllable seems to coil around the next, reaching you as a serpentine tail of whispers.
And suddenly it is like you have turned a corner in the darkness and crossed a liminal boundary. The figure has vanished and although you run on blindly for some time you find nothing. Then the phone bleeps.
Your cold hands make sloppy work of the zip but eventually the glowing screen lies in front, cradled in your hands, and a single message reads: ‘Where are you? Why did you go? Hannah.’ You desperately key in a reply and stare at the send button but it remains greyed-out. You wait and wait and stare and stare at this new exit sign. The logic that an incoming message must allow for an outgoing one begins to torture you. Finally, a mental joist collapses, and you sink into a posture of benediction, under complete submission to this new wilderness. As the adrenaline fades you curl up further, trying to harness some inner heat. The cold injects itself, and moves with anaesthetic effect despite your efforts. You feel brittle and your skin seems to glow with a faint aurora. Gauze-like patches fall and flutter down and settle in a wet plumage over your back. It is snowing.
You wake sometime later; it is still twilight. You hurriedly check the phone, but there is neither a message nor a signal. In the distance a sucking and gurgling sound can be heard. You drag your stiff frame in that direction. After encircling an atoll of rocks you decide to follow the seabed as it slopes downwards. A single silver line emerges across your path. The drain-off has formed a thin stream that is snaking down the gradient and you continue to walk in that direction.
The stream snakes through depressions in a shallow valley that slopes more steeply downward and, as your trace the path mentally, you see it eventually reaching the continental shelf and falling away into nothing. As you descend the wet dunes rise up on either side, and soon the tapering pathway is overhung by poised rocks that seemingly float in the night. Downcast shadows form smooth black tiles lacquered across the seabed in geometric patterns. One particular rock protrudes like a twisted arm, held up to shield the moonlight. A milky aurora refracts around the silhouette, and downwards fall columns of kelp strands that you push past as you continue forward.
Ahead you notice a narrow fissure into which the seawater is pouring. Bound to an irrational desire, you continue towards the gateway. The mouth is a few metres square and, as you squint downwards, you can make out that the water drops down a steep jutted shelf to flow across a cavern floor. You climb down carefully with the moon on your back; the rocks are wet and wrest further heat from you numb hands. The spray from the column of water stings your skin. You pause at the bottom and look ahead.
You are standing in an irregular corridor that slopes away until it melds with darkness. There is the sound of water running over rocks, and further ahead the churning noise of a greater volume of water. To your left a tooth of clay hangs from the ceiling, and, at this moment, a chunk of it falls into the water revealing a gleaming, milky stalactite. Keeping your back close to the rocks you advance forwards. Take out your mobile phone and turn it on: the blue glow highlights the waxen contours of the wall to guide you.
Edging slowly down the tunnel, the sound of distressed water moves steadily closer although it is hard to tell at what distance this might lie. The air is thick and moist; you breathe it slowly. Your eyes are fixed on the single patch of rock that is visible in the halo from your phone. Ahead you notice a faint ambiance, like a silver mist of light. You continue forward along the exterior and gradually it is apparent that the tunnel opens into some kind of chamber. The stream disappears over a ledge, and the echo of the waterfall reveals something of the dimensions of the room. The ledge seems quite close, and you crouch slightly and hold out the phone to follow the shelf of rock. The water falls a few metres into a subterranean lake. A few single beams of moonlight sift down from above, and sink their shafts into the rippling water. To your right a thin beach of sediment rims the lake. Straining your eyes to pierce the gloom on the far side, you think you can make out some kind of object, something artificial. You look for a point to descend the ledge and alight onto the beach.
You step onto the shingles and hear a soft crunch. As you follow the wall the dead stare of the lake is following you. Something almost strobing-blue unfurls from a crack in the rocks and expands into a clump of stalks, each supporting a large spherical membrane. An orb brushes your skin and you feel it break the tissue with hooks and attach itself, the globe distorting as it creeps over your arm. You watch and feel this with a fascinated horror before your baser instincts wrench the spectral tissue away from your skin and a colony of pinpricks spout blood down your arm. The polyps quiver and you notice on their underside there are hundreds of tiny budding stalks: cloned offspring that are ready to drop off into new timelines, hungry to grow and multiply.
Behind you something emerges from the lake. You can hardly turn around to face it. Mulching toward you is something resembling an inflated, pink cucumber with two rows of tubular tentacles as legs. It has four antennae on its back, and its skin is pale and translucent. It looks like a pig-shaped balloon and the mouth is guarded by rows of small translucent filaments. Occasionally it stops to, seemingly, sniff the air and then it adjusts its trajectory and continues toward you. You edge backwards and almost fall into a boat that emerges from the folds of shadows. It leers up towards you, its squashed face covered in a build up of organic matter. To get away from this creature you heave against the bow and push the boat off the thin beach to test its buoyancy. It lists to one side, but seems stable. You notice within the dank interior a single plank, laid lengthways, and you decide this will do for a paddle. You pull yourself into the boat and use it to push away from the cavern wall. The boat leans wildly at first and you compensate with your bodyweight. Pushing the wood downwards it hits the bottom and you can punt your way into the middle of the lake. The creature is still moving slowly across the beach, its antennae probing the darkness.
On the far side of the cavern the water drains into a passageway. You punt in this direction since this is the only exit. Through the archway you pass, and into a tunnel that pulls you along by a weak current. As the light fades you turn to watch as the bluish moon of the opening wanes into a half, and then quarter moon as the tunnel follows a bend. Soon you are in darkness, with just the sucking draft of water below your feet. You feel the boat wobble when you move, and so you remain standing, staring ahead into the void.
Suddenly, there is a scraping noise and the boat jolts to a standstill. You drive the wood into the water and push, but a barrier is resisting the boat’s momentum. You reach inside your jacket with frozen hands and carefully remove your mobile phone. You turn it on once again, crouch slightly, and hold it out over the bow. There seems to be a thin dam rising out of the water; it looks vaguely crystalline with its hard, regular indentations. The water flows thinly over the ledge and then runs in a skin over a smooth decline. The current is holding the boat against the dam and you stand there, fixated, wondering whether to turn back. However, some base instinct is driving you forward, and you find yourself unable to go back.
You ready yourself for the impact of the ice-cold water as you attempt to free the boat. You swing your legs over the stern, and a second later you feel bitten in half and hear immediately your burst of deep breathing. You crouch and push the stern of the boat forwards, hearing it scrape over crystalline teeth. It budges forward slowly, and as it approaches the tipping-point you begin to pull yourself back inside; but, since your legs remain pinned by cold currents, you slip back into the water. Frantically you drag your whole weight behind you, using your arms to do the work, and manage to turn sideways and lever yourself back into the vessel. As you clamber forward your weight tips the boat and the wooden tub careers forward and slides down the smooth rock surface. You see nothing ahead of you but blackness, and are aware only of the rock scraping against the bottom of the boat as you descend like a plumb line.
The boat crashes into a deeper and level body of water and the force of impact throws you forwards, arms outstretched. The boat bobs up and down and might have spun around to face in any direction, but since there is only a depthless black curtain you cannot take a bearing. The smell of the sea infects your nostrils, and fills your mind with exotic images of fish eating one another and then rotting inside.
The far-off noise of cascading water wakes your senses. The distant pounding immerses you between interfering slats of vibration. The echo seems to originate from a lower point than the boat, causing your imagination to waver before logical impulses.
As you continue to drift through a black abyss, the boat still lurches to one side, and the cold is an itch of reality. Every jerk of the boat corresponds to a shifting landscape. After a time the darkness is interlaced with the thinnest strands of colour, almost imperceptible, but you are aware of them multiplying.
From below, on the right hand side, a long globule seeps upwards, moving by a flagellation of membranous skirts. It resembles a squashed jelly bean filled with Christmas tree lights, and the bioluminescence smoothly pushes back the shadows and allows you to see dimly ahead.
The boat appears to be travelling down a cyclopean aqueduct suspended over an abyss. Waterfalls spout from the rocks and disappear into the depths in rigid, flowing columns. The deck curves around to the right, allowing sight of the immense arches that sit atop the piers. As they become distant the piers look like long black stilts supporting the thinning deck, and this creates a negative image of an inverted forest supporting the humped limbs of some ancient leviathan. As the sea cucumber, or whatever it is, moves over a ledge into a cavity, the lights go out and this brief sketch, the proportions of which terrify you, is replaced a blanket of darkness.
Further downstream the boat once again comes to rest. Once more you take out your phone and examine the barrier. It is another of those crystalline structures sawing into the hull. Submerge yourself in the chilly depths, this time deeper than before. Push with your last reserves of energy and shift the boat to its tipping-point. Lever yourself back inside before the cold takes you.
The boat descends on a steep slope and grinds downwards to greater depths as the layered hum of the cataract grows and grows until its vibrations charge through the air.
The boat is struck on its side by a moving wall of water and a guttural, spewed-out note echoes into the stillness above –this, you later realise, was your scream. There is a compression of time and space and you suddenly meet the deck in what feels like midair. Rotten wood bows under your collapsed frame and your senses are overrun with feedback.
After a lost interval your mind snaps back to the present: you are being carried off on a tangent at great speed and the boat is being tossed around like flotsam. You continue to lie prostrate, cowering as you race underground. Water constantly spills into the tub and chases the lowest point. This quickening tide is your spirit level and you use it to try and anticipate the moment that you might be thrown into the deluge.
The rapids propel you through what must be several miles of serpentine tunnels. The torrent then begins to dissipate slightly, and your course becomes levelled. Now there is only the delicate tone of the water as it flows against the rocks. The river feels deeper and more sluggish, and on a few occasions the boat scrapes the tip of some sleeping giant. The walls here begin taper outwards, and into a smoothly even cavity. Ahead there is a light source, and it is picking out the relief patterns of a detailed orifice; something organic composed of honeycomb tessellations. At the edges solidified ligaments course outwards over the rocks as if joining the alien structure to the walls, and around the central opening there are large alabaster muscles, smooth and interconnected by the nerve-like wires. The opening displays the weird symmetry of echinoderms, and this is grotesquely represented by circular rows of white teeth with fimbriated edges. Inside the mouth the walls are smooth and show traces of carvings. They have been eroded by the passage of time and water, but the workmanship can still be detected in suggestions of aquatic forms. On the ceiling there is a form similar to a huge crab. It is depicted as rising up from the mantle and threatening the skies above.
You are now passing through the aperture and instinctively hold a breath. You gulp down the urge to bail out of the boat and swim back up the channel. The strange geography surrounds you and your mind is drawn into bizarre constellations of matter. You snap back to the present as the boat is launched into a swelling, ebullient mass of bubbles. It is a cold cauldron, and as your eyes adjust to the faint lightness you realise that you are in a round chamber, about twelve meters in diameter. The water level is rising rapidly and there is a backwash through the rectangular entrance. For a panicked moment you foresee the boat being swept back into the tunnel and a crushing weight of water folding over you. However, the column of water rises fast, and the opening is quickly submerged.
For the first time you look up, seeking out the light source. Miles above there is a rectangular opening. It is smaller than a postage stamp, and its faint luminosity is scattered over the surface like grains of sand. You can hardly believe it when you realise that this is a piece of the night sky and you are rising towards it. For the first time you feel a twinge of hope; just a little light pulls at you and washes you. You sit back in the boat, too exhausted to remain on your feet. Briny water comes up to your knees and the slackening of adrenaline once again brings on a state of intense shivering and your teeth knock together like brittle tiles. The watery floor loams and the rocks slowly retreat back into the silent depths. Staring upwards you fix upon that rectangle of stars and gaze forward into the fleeing past. Lost in this reverie you almost don’t feel the phone pulse, but your subconscious is especially tuned in. In your hands again, the cells of light translate another message from Hannah: ‘I don’t think I can do this without you. I want to name him after you. Is that ok?’ Tears pelt down your cheeks and you curse aloud because you can’t reply, can’t tell her it’s going to be ok. For the second time you curl up and try to block out the wilderness and drift in timeless sleep.
You wake and rise on tightly-wound muscles, noticing now that the water itself has a brighter hue, and silvered bubbles rise from the surface. You lift your head slowly to look upwards. The rectangular doorway is only fifty metres distant, but you are surprised to find that it is hardly larger than a household door and given the apparent distance when you looked at it last, it should be much larger. You realise that there is a high probability that the boat will become pressed against the ceiling of rock and you will be captive in a pocket of air. You immediately reach over the side of the boat and begin splashing your arm in order to bring boat directly under the hole. Your arm is tugged downwards by the swirling current and the boat spins and is carried by forces stronger than your weak limbs. With a creeping fear you fix your eyes upwards on the rectangular hole as it passes back and forth overhead. The night sky appears now as from sea level, and the stars flicker between their luminous colours.
The doorway is now only ten metres distant and you stand and stretch upwards to meet the rock. The heavy slop of water pushing against the surrounding fissures echoes loudly in the remaining chamber. The boat is not directly under the hole but you hope to be able to grasp the roof and make a final push to correct your position. In the last few metres luck plays in your favour and you are able to push against the clean edge of the doorway and, like an actor rising through a trapdoor onto the stage, you emerge from the underworld into the moonlit desert you left hours before. The boat has cupped the doorway seamlessly and once again no water lies in view.
Exhausted as you are, fear pushes you to quickly haul yourself up over the jamb and onto the moist sand. Convinced the boat must soon buckle, and cave in under the mounting pressure below it, you drag yourself away, forcing your body to respond to your commands. There is a stench of carcasses of rotting fish. The seabed is heaped with twitching and silent forms, their scales like rough frost. The slimy expanse rolls outwards over slight undulations, creating a grey swamp soaking up the careless piles of dead flesh.
There is a near object jutting out from the mire that casts a slim shadow, and it has one straight edge and one curved. You aim yourself in this direction, and haul your way through oozing mats of carcass and seaweed. It is while you are walking, head bent low to focus inwardly, that you observe, from the corner of your eye, several domes of silver water rise silently from the earth and then immediately push outwards in a thinning skein across the mud. The water keeps on flowing and flowing and you stop dead at this terrible and beautiful sight. As you scan around you realise that hundreds of these pores must be within sight alone, and each one, like the doorway you left through, is the head of a pressurised column of seawater.
An outcropping wave skims over the sand and breaks against your ankles. Another wave, slightly less deep flows into this front and there is a powerful rip tide as the greater mass is pushed upwards creating a temporary breakwater. You continue slowly forward fighting the current. Your legs no longer feel like part of your body and you are aware of them as a detached, mechanical part that you will forwards.
You raise your head and are taken aback by the sight of a boat, almost an exact replica of the one that brought you from the deep –it is almost as if some supernatural hand is placing them at your disposal. The boat has floated on the shallow sea and is now being carried towards you.
The swelling tides and seams of water compressing one other create whirlpools and stretches of water that run like conveyor belts. The boat is pulled by one of these, and its course lies outward of your reach. You attempt to wade in its direction but a wall of current blocks you; then you notice a horizontal wave spreading in flat lines over the other waters. This break hits you and throws you under into a silent arrest. You are spun around and then pinned against the ocean floor. You open your eyes and are dimly aware of light cutting through the disturbed plates of water. Your lungs begin to feel tight and you thrash more wildly towards the surface. Then you stop completely and surrender. Still pinned there you begin to see a bright diamond growing from the sand and a pain centres in your forehead. Inside the diamond you fall through moments of your life suspended like illuminated panes in a fractal diorama. You are overcome with tranquillity, ready to float over the event horizon, but a voice buried deep inside says: “kick upwards once more, one last time”. It is Hannah’s voice and it says, more insistently: “Come home”. Your legs respond and a rising current of water scoops you up and breaking the surface you gasp fresh air and all around you it is a maelstrom.
To your left you see the boat again and it is stationary among these elemental tides. You swim in that direction but you are swept in an arc that takes you around the boat to the other side. As you begin to drift back towards where you began it occurs to you that you are in caught in a system of which the boat is trapped in the eye. This labyrinth is embedded in the torrent of rising water like a walled city, and you, its captive, are being pulled through the peregrinations of its laws. Once again you surrender the fight, and allow yourself to circle the boat in decreasing circumferences.
The boat is now only a few metres from your grasp, and you realise from the angle of water against the sky that exhaustion has let the current drag you under the surface again. Water laps over your head and you kick desperately upwards and stretch out a limb: you watch impassively as it rims the sky and clasps the wooden hull. Then you are dimly aware of stressed tendons, and then, as your weight leaves the buoyancy of the water, the bodily awareness that you have to pull with every last reserve to mount the side and roll onto the deck.
As an artificial boundary once again separates you from nature’s volatility, you lay there shivering and clutching your knees to your waist with your eyes screwed shut. The boat is spinning and you feel this in the centre of your stomach. You open your eyes later, for just a brief moment, and see a boiling mass of dark water like a cloud of moths tangled and writhing around a dying spark. Shelving water columns and sudden precipices fall darkening below you in a giddy chaos of changing forms. Closing your eyes again you concentrate on a single static point and seek to erase the chaos outside. The point expands and fills your consciousness in a halo of darkness.
You wake to the day breaking over you in a golden haze. The warm light and blue sky invigorate your shattered senses, and you pull yourself towards the prow. Looming above you in either direction are the sandstone cliffs you left behind uncounted hours previously. The joy of salvation fills your numbed body and mind, and you gaze forward with a wilful exploration of your environment. Then a stunning sight meets your eyes. Turning right you notice for the first time that you are not alone. Hundreds of small boats like your own are bobbing up and down on the weak tide. In each vessel there is a single passenger. You meet the gaze of another, and see yourself huddled there looking back. You stare and they stare back as the waves crash against the shore.
Your phone buzzes and you take it out. The warm sun is seeping into your bones. Another message from Hannah: ‘Your son was born today. He has your name, your eyes and your small ears. He is the most beautiful thing on earth.’
The shore is coming closer. You type in a message and hold your breath. It says: ‘Live a long and full life. I am here, in the sea that goes out forever. I love you both. Tell him from me.’
The send button goes blue for just a second and your thumb goes down like a hammer. The message appears ringed in green. Your boat runs aground and you step out of its embrace for the last time.