The Seventh Wave
The boy stood on the beach and threw stones into the sea. Above him, in the car park, his grandparents sat in the car. The wipers made half hearted attempts to keep the windscreen clear so that they could have seen Wales in the distance, if they had looked up. But they didn’t. His Granddad would be reading the Sunday paper, struggling with huge sheets in the thin gap between his stomach and the steering wheel. His Nan would have nodded off by now. I expect the radio’s on, he thought to himself. That means they can’t hear the seagulls and they can’t hear me.
Days out with them were like this. Picked up soon after ten to give mum a break, helping Granddad wash the car, giving Nan a hand scraping the carrots. Not talking about Dad. Sunday lunch. Meat smelling of sick, lying brown on the plate and needing to be chewed and chewed again. Carrots. Have some more carrots and don’t you like the roast potatoes and you don’t need ketchup with this. Followed by play quietly your Granddad’s asleep. And now that you’re eight you can look after yourself for a while.
It was not all bad because they lived only twenty minutes from the sea. Not the sea like Spain, which was blue and still; nor the sea like the pictures in Creatures of the Deep Ocean which was black with green dragons rolling the fishing boats onto their sides and pinning them down with a smile. This was an in between sort of sea. There were waves: grey waves which brought things in and took things away again like plastic orange rope and slick seaweed; lapping waves which tempted him to pick a rock and stand on it for as long as he dared; waves which came in gangs, his dad used to say, and that every seventh one was the leader.
He wondered at the people who got out of their cars and stood looking, bunching their anoraks around their hunched shoulders before driving away again. It was beyond him how anyone could stand at the top of the steep beech and not want to throw a stone in the water. One old man had slithered down the rattling shingle and he had stopped to talk to the boy. “The ocean will tell you,” he said. “that stones are like people. You’ll never find two the same and each one is known to its maker.” Nan would say he was mad as a hatter, but as far as the boy could tell, it was hard to tell who was mad and who wasn’t at the moment.
When the man had walked so far along the beach that he was no bigger than a black gull, the boy got back to business. He chose a stone and hurled it at a rock. It shattered into sharp fragments. Perfect. Squatting down, he selected a large, flat pebble with smooth edges and no face at all and using the splinter as his pencil, he carefully chalked NAN onto the blank surface. Seeing there was a bit of space left, he drew a circle, with frizzy hair and a closed mouth. No eyes. Then he counted slowly to six and as the seventh wave rose up and curled in, he hurled NAN into the sea and imagined her being dragged out by the hands of the undertow man and dumped on the seabed, half way to Wales, where it wouldn’t matter if she talked about Dad or not.
Satisfied, he repeated the process with Granddad, only he had to find a slightly longer stone and he didn’t have room for a picture. Granddad also, with his don’t mention this and don’t talk about that, was cast out into the cold embrace of the seventh wave and the boy could hear him being tumbled and rumbled in the churning water until he too would be dropped off somewhere in deep silence. He sort of hoped it might be near Nan because although he was angry with them, he did not want them to be unhappy.
There were a lot of other stones left on the beach, probably enough to write the names of all the people who never talked about Dad. Seventh waves came and went, asking him if there was anything else he wanted to say. In a mad and very angry moment, he even thought of writing MUM on one of them, but he knew he didn’t mean it. She would be sad enough as it was, having her bit of time to herself all on her own. A horn tooted, a flat mechanical summons compared to the cry of the gulls and the black crackle of the sea. He looked back and saw Granddad levering himself out of the driver’s side, beckoning him.
Just one more, he thought. He picked up a mottled pebble, chipped and uneven. On it he wrote two letters: ME. The horn blared again, louder and longer this time. He stood with the toes of his trainers in the surf. The dusk was creeping in with the tide and on the horizon Wales was lighting up for the evening. Here you are then, he said, take me.
He could see the seventh wave had heard him, even before he counted. It was magnificent, gathering force and summoning up the idle water from the flat parts of the beach. It was coming just for him and exactly at the moment he said seven, he threw the ME stone so that it landed in the curl and the curve of the momentous wave and he was gone. He took what was left of himself and trudged back to the look how you’re soaked and what will mummy say fug of the car, ready to disappear into Monday morning.
The following Sunday, he was back. A different sort of day. Sun out. Families. Nan with the window wound down a couple of inches for a bit of fresh air and men and their boys building leaning towers of pebbles. It was a day for skimming. The sea was flat, caught between deciding whether to stay out forever or drag itself back for more. He chose rounded, flat stones and put them in piles according to whether they’d be a two-er or a tenner. Suddenly, the mindless rhythm of picking, sorting, skimming and counting was broken by the shrieks of the other children.
Look! Look at the big wave coming in. Run!
The boy didn’t run. He didn’t see the point. The seventh wave was his friend. It saluted him, tossing its head and preening itself all the way in. It pushed the lesser waves aside and as it broke, it flung a billion grains of sand and a million pebbles onto the shore before grabbing new treasure and legging it back to the Atlantic. With his trainers wet and his jeans clinging damp to his thin legs, he was proud he had stood his ground whatever the cost and he looked deliberately and disdainfully at the kids now creeping back to the sea. The seventh wave had called him to account and he had not let it down. When he looked down, the boy could see that the wave had stolen all his skimmers, but it had left something in their place. One ordinary pebble, made beautiful by the sheen of the spray. He picked it up, felt it heavy but familiar in his small hands, felt it fitting in his unheld palms. The seventh wave had left, but its magic was still rippling the surface of the sea, turning it over, turning it over. He understood. He turned over the stone in his hands. It was his stone. ME, it said, the white writing still clear despite its long journey and the battering and scrubbing of its journey through the ocean. ME.
And there was the mad as a hatter man, perched on the breakwater, winking.