Legacy: France

I vow never to remember the past again. In the darkness my arms ache. I can still taste salty tears-although that could be salty splash from the odd slightly bigger wave. I vow never to remember again. I vow silently. Then loudly in the darkness and then- think how foolish that is. I row to what I think is the south. The anger is building inside of me. I would be very angry if I wasn’t rowing. I need to focus.

I can see it in the distance as night is somehow falling. Land. I don’t want to land in the middle of the night. I am sticky. I smell. A good off shore breeze would take my smell to every predator within 100 miles and they might just as well line up to eat me. I am tired, fatigued. Too tired to fight. I want to get there in the morning, creep up a rocky beach, hide the boat, sleep somewhere soft and safe.

I can still make it out in the semi darkness. Land. The machine has faded now, I drew a line on the seat for north and south. I will row hard towards the shore and then creep south down the coast overnight. Hope for a short night. Clamour out of the boat in the early morning, hide the boat, scrabble up the beach. Sleep, soft and safe.  

Except night comes quickly. I can see the stars twinkling overhead now, the darkness engulfing me below and on every side. My only light, a glittering night sky. The shore can’t be far away but I can’t see it now.  The problem is if I don’t land, I could lose the shore in the night and find myself lost and back at sea. This landing will not be how I want it to be-like so much of life. I rage against it but I can hear waves lapping on a shore even if I can’t see it. It’s a risky strategy. Anything could be on that shore. There might be no way off that shore. It might be cliffs above it. I might hole the boat on the way in.

Still I have no option, in the darkness it will be impossible to hug the coast. I wished for moonlight but it is faint at best. Light clouds rake across the sky blotting it out at will. The stars offer nothing, lighting up galaxies humanity will never see. That was a dream once wasn’t it? I will not remember the past again.

I will have to take my chances on the shore. I listen carefully, trying to tell myself that I can guess whether its rocky or not by the sound of the lapping waves. I try and hold the boat still for a moment. I am close. How close? I look into the murky blackness-how deep will it be here? I need to wash. I smell. Even by my very low standards I smell, of blood, urine, faeces. There is no wearing these trousers again. I think about getting out and swimming the boat in. That would be an insane risk to take.

Its not just the rocks I have to worry about, there will be the debris that was once houses buried under the blackness. Maybe there were never houses here, unlikely. For the past few miles I have been travelling over what was once the coast of France before the flooding. That’s makes cliffs unlikely although there are places where half of a hill has sheared off into the sea. Welcome to the brave new world! I know that I have been travelling over what was France because the device was old and it thought that I was navigating roads and towns. I am not. This is water. Its what makes my location uncertain. The landmarks I was following are somewhere below in the murky blackness of the water. The machine is completely gone now. I am tempted to throw it overboard in frustration.

Maybe there is smoke rising from a settlement just a little way off. In the darkness I can’t know that. I sniff. Smoke would travel on the wind. I look to the left and to the right. I could try, hug the coast all night, or I could weigh anchor here and wait until the dawn. I am not sure that I can live with the smell of myself for another night. I want to feel clean. The boat is rocking while I think. For the first time in the murkiness I feel seasick. The way I felt seasick on my first journey across this water. I wonder, did she-I will not think of the past. Focus on the task.

I can hear the waves lapping as I try to keep the boat stable. Risk assessment-how many of those had been done once, paper, pen clipboard-not like this. Sitting in a boat unable to see a thing, to land or to sail on in the blackness. Is the blackness even relevant?

I’m hungry. I smell. My arms ache. Did I make a decision or just drift into shore. I can’t remember. I hear the crunch of small stones under the boat, not the flood of water as its holed by a rock. I let the oars go loose in their-I wished I knew what the hell they were called but I came to rowing quite late and the name escapes me. They clank loudly and splash in the water. I could do without that noise. I can feel the boat as it moves with the ebb and flow of the waves. I listen carefully and hear nothing. I would like to spring out and leap to shore but that would be silly. I have been sitting here for days I didn’t count, didn’t want to count. I will not remember the past.

Instead I ease myself up on wobbly arms. I try to get my legs to support me. I have been sitting for days on end. This is not going to be easy. Its not how I imagine it. I stand there hunched over still, my back wants to stay sitting. I grab the sides of the boat wobbling everywhere. The noise of the oars clanking even more, they ring out in the night. I can’t concern myself with that. I must focus.  Trying to straighten out my back, slowly, endlessly. This seems to take an age-an hour, half an hour. I slowly unfold. I hurt-everywhere.  I am standing. The boat is still going back and forth with the waves. I stand.

Now to get out. This is not going to be graceful. I turn to one side slowly. Stretch a leg, stretch the other one. One of them reaches up and out of its own accord. I can’t be directing that-I am too tired. I am clutching one side of the boat now.

I stretch the other leg out. In the darkness I can’t tell- what went wrong. I am in the water. It is not deep. I still have one hand on the boat-focus- importantly –the boat is still full of my stuff. I sit there with my back to the shore. My whole bottom half is in the water. I try to talk to myself quietly. My throat hurts. My voice is raspy. I should not be making noise. I talk to myself more loudly. I know this is wrong but my own voice telling me what to do is all that is keeping me alive. ‘Hold the boat’ I tell myself.

‘Find the rope.’

‘Its at the front.’

I am completely vulnerable. I am conscious of that. I am tired. Beyond tired. ‘Be quiet’ I say. I say it again. My voice dies in the night. I listen for footsteps, other voices, noise? I wait for the thing that will come from the shore to get me from behind-the vice like grip on my neck as I am pulled into unforgiving jaws or for the thing that will come into the shallows and take my legs. I push the boat back into the water and search for the rope that is at the front.

‘I have found the rope’ –I say it out loud. ‘Grip the rope’ Fingers grip. How does that work. Its like magic. How my body obeys me. For a moment, through the fatigue, I am astounded by my body. Then I just lay down. I know I should not. I let the water wash over me. Heal my aching limbs, clean my body. Somewhere in the darkness, the blood and urine and faeces is swirling away. I am glad I can’t see it. It is taking the scent of me out into the ocean- for the predators to smell. I cannot stay here.

My voice is failing me. I look up at the night sky, at the clouds racing across the canvas of stars. I breathe in the air, taste it, smell it. I tell myself, in my head, it smells like France. I almost laugh, smells like France, the subtle hints of abandoned berets and fields of garlic drifting on the breeze- the remnants of used bike tyres and striped shirts tangible in the air. As if somehow the stereotype is captured in the very oxygen I breathe such that France is still here. There is no certainty. I’ve no idea if this was France once. The machine said it should be France but it was well past its best when it told me that. In so far as there is certainty in anything, I am certain this is not England. I lay for a long time until I feel clean, invigorated, hungry. The darkness seems quiet and I lay my head even my ears in the water and listen to my heart beat. To breath going in and out of my body-I remember those words, as long as there is breath in your body, you must go on, you must find a way. You must live. I am exhausted, hungry, tired. I will not remember the past. I let the anger go with the blood and the urine and the faeces. I haul myself up and out of the water. I prepare for the rest of the night and the morning, in my head –a checklist-breath in and out, on and on.



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