If asked to describe himself, Billy would have said he had never been anybody’s fool. If anything he had been a leader, though where he led his friends is another question.
One deep velvet night he sleep-walked from the stillness of a boat into the silken waters below. His wet landing was as silent as the moon sliding across the sky. Treading water he saw that his canoe had disappeared. There was nothing but him and the huge, silent ocean, holding him in its cold embrace.
Knowing the way that he had come, he turned as if to swim to the shore, but it was more distant than he had thought it to be. The faraway beach was brightly illuminated as if it were mid-day. All his associates from former times stood together, at the water’s edge; the men who he had twisted into whatever shape fitted him, encouraging them to cruelty and crime and infidelity; the women he had seduced with promises, just to get them into bed, and then abused. Yes, he had been a leader of men and women too, and even from that distance he could see the proof of his leadership in the faces of his estranged children.
The effort of staying afloat was exhausting him. If he could get their attention he was sure someone would rescue him. He shouted for help and he waved, his arms splashing arcs of glittering diamonds across the dark, before disappearing like dampened sparks as they hit the brine.
All his old friends turned their faces his way, and each gazed at him coldly for a few moments, then turned and walked away from the shore, towards their homes and their loved ones.
Just one boy was left, staring out to sea, and it took a minute to trace the memory of the tale behind his face. Then he recalled the stolen car, telling Jim to get in, he was taking him joyriding. He remembered Jim’s unhappy look, and how much ot took to persuade him; his determination to terrify Jim and the surge of pleasure when Jim started screaming; his feeling of Devil-may-care, replaced by the fear that invaded the air, the sharp taste of tin, the explosive sensation beneath his skin, when the car went over the edge.
Billy couldn’t remember if he cared when he saw Jim’s bleeding head, but now he felt shame for his distant escapade. Jim shrugged and yelled into the waking light “Sorry I can’t help, but I’m dead.”
Billy turned away to hide his tears, and found he had drifted to a rocky island, with spiky trees that grew from the stones, and every tree had one giant leaf with a murky eye which stared as he climbed the beach, and although unease prickled beneath his skin, he was so tired that as soon as he reached a soft patch of ground he lay down, longing to sleep.
A fine white mist danced around him, it’s tendrils reaching into his mind, and as it thickened he examined the way he had led his life, the pain he had brought, the suffering he wrought with the selfish games he had played. With breaking heart he vowed he would change if it wasn’t too late. He would make up for all the wrong he did as soon as he woke from this illuminating dream.
Then into the mist strode Jim, arms outstretched; forgiving him everything, and at that instant he knew that he, too, was dead. Somewhere far away his cold shell would be discovered by a cleaner when she came to change the hotel bedding, and nobody would care, and instead of the feeling of dread that may be expected, all he could feel was relief.
©Jane Paterson Basil