QSFer David Bridger has a new fantasy book out:
Living his life again. Same person, same fishing village, same years. But this time the world shows him a different face.
Ken Jackson builds traditional boats in a small Cornish fishing town, where everyone might not have heard everything about everyone else, but if they haven’t, it isn’t for the want of listening. Which complicates matters for Ken, because he has a secret: he’s living his life all over again.
It sounds like a dream come true. He’s got the chance to make things right for his loved ones, and to avoid all his old regrets. But the past is never that simple. Ken’s second life opens his eyes to different sides of people and places, and what’s a man to do when his hopes and dreams and carefully laid plans are ripped apart?
David is giving away one eBook copy of the book – comment on this post with your email address for a chance to win.
We walked down to The Anchor for the quiz night that evening. The kids had been nagging me to go with them for weeks. Six weeks, to be exact: since eight weeks after your funeral.
So there we were, and it was the beginning of my end.
It was the twentieth of March, the first day of spring, although it didn’t feel like it. Helen and Jane and I went arm-in-arm around the inner harbour wall as the water turned inky, the breeze blew salty, boats bumped shoulders like drunken kettledrums, and streetlights started popping on in sequence.
We paused outside the bakery so they could show me their new fancy cakes in the window display, and to let me catch my old man’s breath.
Helen squeezed my arm with hers when I noticed one of your famous glazed nut loaves on a raised glass shelf. The shop looked as good as it ever did. You taught our girls well.
People went quiet when we walked into the pub. No one actually stood up and applauded, but it felt like that nearly happened, you know? If I’d made direct eye contact with anyone right then, I think I would have embarrassed us all. So I held on to Helen and we claimed our table while Jane got the beers in.
Pete and Natasha arrived right behind us. By the time we were all settled, the awkwardness was over.
No one sat in your chair.
I’m sure people sat in it all the time when we weren’t there, but that night it was your chair again. Charles had the log fire blazing high, and yellow flame-lights shone along the carved arms your fingers used to smooth and polish during all those years we sat in our corner.
I returned several welcoming smiles while we waited for Charles to start the quiz. It was doable from our table, with our kids and their wives chatting around me.
Sheila Wood came over and hugged me from behind, her chin resting on my bad shoulder and her breath smelling like a pint of warmed vodka.
Helen narrowed her eyes so fiercely I thought she was going to swing across the table and slap the poor woman’s face.
Sheila stiffened, and let go of me, murmured that it was good to see us all out together, and returned to her precarious bar stool.
Helen was right. Sheila would never have done that when you were with us, and that night you were with us.
Pete and Natasha’s babysitter called. Baby Sara was sleeping sweetly, but Toby wanted to say goodnight to Mummy and Daddy before he went to bed.
Pete handed me the phone. “He wants to talk to Gramps.”
“Daddy and I are building a boat!”
“That’s exciting! I bet you’re really good at it.”
“I am. Daddy’s quite good too. Night night, Gramps. I love you.”
“Night night, clever boy. I love you. Give Sara a kiss for me?”
I handed Pete’s phone back. “You’re building a boat.”
“It’s just a plywood dinghy kit. Toby’s loving it.”
“You know my grandfather was a boat builder, don’t you?”
“I remember you telling me when I was little. I always wanted to give it a go with you, but we never got around to it.”
That would be because I was so rarely there when he was a boy.
Every now and then he dropped something like this into a conversation. I’m sure he didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable. I don’t think he and Helen ever felt they were losing out when I was away for so much of their childhoods. It was just how things were in a navy family.
And of course you more than made up for my long absences.
But, increasingly, I found myself wishing things could have been different.
Charles started the quiz with a few questions on the 1966 World Cup. The first one—name the England player who scored a hat trick in the final—drew a chorus of sarcastic groans, but there were more difficult questions to come. He ended the section with some obscure stuff about earlier matches in the 1966 competition that had people glancing around to see how other teams were doing.
I slid our team paper over to my side of the table and filled in the answers, then looked across the room to where Johnny Cable was waiting to share one of our nods of mutual respect. Aside from our quizmaster Charles, Johnny and I were probably the only people in the room who knew all those answers. I nodded back and was glad I’d finally surrendered to the pressure to enjoy an evening out.
The next hour passed in a warm glow of familiarity. The kids didn’t really need my help, once the ancient football section was out of the way. You and I grew a pair of good quizzers there.
“Which big cat,” asked Charles, “has markings on its skin that appear in an identical pattern to the markings in its fur?”
It was a new one on me. We all stared at one another, except for Natasha, who slid the paper across and wrote Tiger.
Our kids’ wives have turned out to be good quizzers too.
Charles asked his final question. “What was the name of the suffragette who threw herself in front of King George the Fifth’s horse during the Derby in 1913?”
We all looked at your chair.
Early twentieth century history: your specialist subject.
None of us said a word. Normal pub quiz noises surrounded us, but from inside our bubble everything sounded muffled. Blood was roaring in my head and grief swelled in my throat until I could hardly breathe.
I squeezed my eyes shut, but not in time to stop a tear of unspeakable loneliness rolling down my cheek and falling. It landed on my thigh. It didn’t make a slow-motion splat noise, but it felt like it should have done.
I had no idea how much time passed before Helen prised my fist open and pressed a clean cotton handkerchief into it. I gave my eyes a quick wipe and cleared my throat.
Jane was writing Emily Davidson in the answer box, so it couldn’t have been too long.
Pete went to hand in our paper at the bar.
I took a long swallow of beer and wished I hadn’t surrendered to the pressure.
Natasha was upset too. She offered to buy me another pint, but I only wanted to get out of there. Couldn’t make a scene by leaving before Charles had calculated the results though, so we sat there and watched other people enjoying themselves.
We came joint-first with Johnny Cable’s team. He and I sent each other a casual salute across the room, and at last I could beat a respectable retreat.
Charles was waiting for me inside the front door. “It’s good to see you, Ken.”
I shook his strong hand. “Good to see you too, Charles.”
He gripped my shoulder and his eyes shone. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through. Just want to say, we all miss Clare. Of course we do. But we miss you too.” He pulled me into a bear hug. “Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
Fortunately, he let me go before I broke down in front of everyone.
Outside, in the chill night air, Helen and Pete linked arms with me and walked me away from the pub while I took deep trembling breaths and tried to keep everything together.
Naturally, we went home by Sea Road and stopped to sit on our bench for a bit. The kids had paid to have it repainted and a brass plaque fixed to it after your funeral.
In memory of Clare Jackson.
She loved the view from up here.
I sat in the middle with my back against the plaque. The kids squeezed on either side of me, and we stared out over Porthfurzy in silence.
It was one of those eternal salty nights you always enjoyed so much, when the wall holds an approaching mist away outside the harbour for a pause. The sea was hidden under a milky cloud that swirled and refracted moonlight eerily, while inside the harbour wall every light was sharp, and random noises sounded closer than they should.
The foghorn sang its first long, mournful note.
Helen rested her head on my shoulder. “Mum loved that sound.”
“She did.” I closed my eyes and almost heard your contented sigh.
The rustle of Helen’s showerproof jacket suggested she was looking behind and past me to the cemetery farther along the cliff.
I wondered if the kids knew that I climbed that hill every morning after breakfast, to spend time with you and all my other loved ones asleep up there on the cold skyline.
No one spoke until the foghorn groaned again. Then Natasha said she and Pete had better get home.
They’d already said goodnight and were leaving, when he remembered something and turned back. “Where was your grandfather’s boatyard?”
I pointed down to the sea wall’s shorter flank, where it met the steep gorse hill near the eastern edge of the cove, directly across the harbour from our house. “You can’t see it in the dark, but it’s the sloping patch of wasteland at the end of Easterly Road, between the old fish market and Johnny Cable’s house.”
Helen chuckled as Pete and Natasha walked away in step, his arm around her shoulder and hers around his waist.
I squinted at her. “What?”
“You and Johnny, in the pub tonight. You’re like a pair of old rock stars.”
I snorted. “Er, how, exactly?”
“Local boys who went away to find your fortunes and came back celebrities. Him a famous artist. You a war hero. And you can’t stop it even now. Every year you’re the two big beasts slugging it out at the top of the pub quiz league, all politely self-sufficient and distinguished alpha-like.”
Jane was chuckling too, and I couldn’t help grinning at the cartoonish description.
“You and Johnny are our local heroes. And that salute across the pub tonight just blew everyone away.” Helen kissed my cheek. “Don’t ever change, Dad. We love you.”
We were still smiling when they left me at the front door.
“See you in the morning,” Helen said. “I’ll bring your breakfast.”
But my smile slipped once I was alone in the house. I didn’t feel like any sort of hero, local or otherwise. It was okay sharing a joke with the kids. It’s part of a parent’s job to help lift the family’s spirits when times are tough. But, left to myself, I knew my failings all too well.
“I love you.” I said it aloud just to hear it again, because I missed telling you.
Into bed, propped up on one elbow with my good shoulder against the headboard, staring out over the harbour, holding your pillow to my cheek. Your scent had faded from the fabric weeks earlier, but it was hardwired in my memory.
The entrance light flickered on in Johnny Cable’s place across the water. He must have been just getting home from the pub.
I waited a few seconds.
Sure enough, next thing his whole ground floor lit up, throwing out an intense wash of cold blue light that stretched long shadows across my grandfather’s old boatyard and the abandoned fish market in one direction, the junction of sea wall and gorse hill in the other, and between them a rhomboid of night-dark wavelets lapping at the rocks below his pale art deco house.
His view of the old fish market framed by the characterful town had given him several paintings over the years that he’d sold for good money. His thing was the crumbling remains of Cornish industry, and people liked it. Whether it was ruined tin mine chimneys, derelict cottages, or the decaying skeletons of abandoned boats and fishing industry buildings, buyers snapped them up.
No matter how many times you and I had debated this over the years, I still didn’t know how I felt about him making a commercial gain from the broken old dreams of my county. But who was I to judge? I was certainly no art critic.
You had a more generous perspective. You liked to say he recorded for posterity the remains of a vanished community life.
Whichever it was, he did it well.
The mist finally surmounted the sea wall and rolled into the harbour, and Johnny’s house lights glowed through the first swirls of it where before they’d shone bright in the night.
The foghorn sang its long melancholy note, but I didn’t even get close to hearing your happy sigh. All I could hear, all I could remember, were your tears the last time the foghorn had sounded for you, on the night you died.
You were so tired. You even looked it at the end. Suddenly, crushingly tired, for the first time in our long life together.
Two years of fighting the cancer: the surgery; all the chemotherapy and radiotherapy; the accumulated mountain of fears and denials and brave determinations; those precious months of false hope when we dared to think we’d won; and then its relentless return and the non-negotiable final verdict.
It kicked the life out of you and left you with nothing but exhausted tears.
It kicked the fight out of me and left me with nothing but bitter regrets.
If only I’d been there for you more. To help you bear the load. Especially in those tough early years when the kids were little and you had to find your place in my hometown, so far from your own family and the support they might have offered you.
If you hadn’t been so tired out by all those years of coping alone while I was away fighting in other people’s wars, maybe you’d have had sufficient strength and stamina left to fight your own battle.
If I hadn’t spent my life chasing excitement and being important elsewhere, maybe you wouldn’t have died.
I stretched out and stared up into the darkness, suffering again that world-ending moment when you stopped living while I lived on.
Nan would have said your soul was waiting for the tide to go out before you left your body and began your final journey to the West.
We’d never believed any of that old guff, you and I. But in that moment, I wanted you to have a soul, and I wanted it to be there inside you, still, waiting for the tide to go out. I wanted more than anything for you to be going on. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just: on.
So I waited with you while the tide came in, and when it folded back on itself I half-convinced myself that I saw you relax. Like one more invisible exhalation, two hours after you’d breathed your last air in this world. I kissed your cheek, and whispered goodbye, my love, and more of me died that night than stayed alive.
If I could do it all again, I’d do it differently. I wouldn’t join the navy. I’d stay home and get a normal job, be a hardworking husband who was there for my family. For you and the kids.
I’d stay in Porthfurzy and learn my grandfather’s trade from him, so he wouldn’t have to retire in sadness and sell his yard to the still-busy fish market. I’d be a boat builder and would come home to you every night, to help share the load of bringing up Helen and Pete. To help you pace yourself and conserve your energy through all those long years, ready for your big fight.
I’d be more open and honest. Like one of Natasha’s tigers, having the same stripes on my skin as in my fur. I wouldn’t chase impressive status, or relish the way people responded to me when I couldn’t discuss my work.
I’d be transparent. Like Johnny Cable and his house of many windows.
I’d be more loving, and more deserving of your love.
If only I could start again.
The foghorn’s song was distant and muffled. It seemed to last forever.
My eyelids closed under their own weight. The world and everything in it slowed down. Including my heart. Eons passed between its beats until, finally, it didn’t beat again.
It was the end of my beginning.
David Bridger settled in England’s West Country after twenty years of ocean-based mischief, during which he worked as a lifeguard, a sailor, an intelligence gatherer, and an investigator. Then he got hurt, came home a bit physically broken, and for good measure caught a severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) virus in hospital. Now he lives on the coast and writes science fiction and fantasy novels.