Stranger on the Shore by Chris Green
He was there lurking in the shadows each time we went to the beach. My dog, Tarquin, a salt and pepper schnauzer would sometimes bark agitatedly as we approached. Tarquin had a habit of running up to strangers to introduce himself, so I would at this point throw a stick for him to chase after, and avert my gaze. Something about this spectral figure suggested that that he wanted to be alone and I was intruding on his space. At first, I found his baleful presence intimidating but by and by I convinced myself there must be an innocent explanation for his being there alone every evening on this remote stretch of the coast. Perhaps he was camping there. People had been known to camp on the beaches around here in the summer – at least until they were moved on.
My argument was that if he were a fugitive from justice or a child molester, he would surely have been caught by now. Besides, if he were the latter, this would not be the place to come. Very few children ventured on to this rough shingle. There were much better beaches for children a few miles away. This was a dog beach. And certainly not the most accessible dog beach. Perhaps he was an erstwhile mariner or a solitary poet or something. Whichever, it was clear that he did not want to make contact with me in any way. He was so well camouflaged that at first you might not notice he was there at all. He seemed to have the ability to find shadow where there was none and like a chameleon blended in perfectly with his surroundings so that at a distance of say ten or twenty yards, he was of indeterminate age or race. Tarquin and I gradually became accustomed to his clandestine behaviour. It became just a normal feature of our evening walks. After a week or two Tarquin did not even bother to bark at him.
Had I found him particularly disturbing I could have easily taken Tarquin up the other side of the cove towards the cliff path for his walks, but since my retirement, I had to admit I had become a creature of habit. In fact, if I’m honest, I liked to walk this way because Amy and I used to come here when we were courting. The Spring of 1961, it would have been when we met. Spurs were top of the league (I could still name the whole first team) and Wooden Heart was at number one in the pop charts. Amy was a member of the Elvis Presley fan club. I took her to see Flaming Star at the Gaumont, or was it Blue Hawaii? I was more of a Cliff fan myself. Livin’ Doll and Travelling Light. They were great tunes. Anyway, one time when I had my short back and sides at Reg Cropper’s, I had gotten ‘something for the weekend’ and we fumbled about behind a clump of rocks. Yuri Gagarin was in space at the time I remember. Ever since then I’ve felt an attachment to this beach. Amy, bless her heart, died three years ago from complications after a routine operation. I was inconsolable. That’s when I got Tarquin to keep me company, what with the children grown up and long gone. But I always thought of Amy when I walked this way.
I dropped news of my sightings casually into my daily conversations around the village. Mrs Chegwidden in the Post Office said she often went to the beach with her pastels, but had never seen him, nor had Spike at the garage where I had the Daewoo serviced. Barbara from the Age Concern Shop, who knew everything that went on around the area, hadn’t heard anything. My neighbours Breok and Merryn had not seen him, and my other neighbours Jack and Vera suffered from an intermittent deafness and did not understand what I was saying. Mushtaq in the general store where I bought Tarquin’s James Wellbeloved said he hadn’t got time to go to the beach since Nasim had gone off to work at The Eden Project. No one seemed to have caught sight of my man of mystery but me. I wondered if P. C. Trescothick might know something, but after the incident with Tarquin and the sheep, I did not like to draw attention to myself.
I kept an eye on the local newspaper, in fact went to the library in the nearby town to look at back copies. I remembered the days when I used to take Adam and Alice there after work on a Monday when the library was open late to give Amy a bit of a break. We did this I recall for several years in our Kermit green Deux Cheveaux. I would take the opportunity look at the local paper while they were choosing their Roald Dahl or Stig of the Dump. There never seemed much to report in those days. It was a quiet backwater.
The Advertiser today described a different world. A serial killer who had preyed on female cab drivers in the locality had been apprehended. A man had died in a charity cliff plunge to raise money for Disabled Surfers. There was controversy over a proposed Dial a Drink scheme being introduced where alcohol could be delivered to your door 24 hours a day, this on top of the more liberal licensing laws that were leading to lawlessness after hours in the local market towns. There were reports of chilling attacks on pensioners outside the post office, and a piece about nightclubs and bars being issued with ‘cocaine torches’, that door staff could shine into clubbers faces, which would make microscopic particles of the drug glow green. Clubbers; the only club there used to be around here was the United Services Club. There was a story about a dancing goat that you could hire for parties and another about a woman who crashed her car while teaching her dog to drive. There were, however, no reports of a furtive interloper living on a shingle beach in my neck of the woods.
It was outside the library that I bumped into Mikey.
‘Well Fuck me on a Friday, Frank! Good to see you, mate. It must be five years,’ he said. He was tilting a little. I imagined he was no longer on the wagon.
I agreed it had been a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen Mikey since Amy’s funeral.
He quickly confirmed my suspicions about the drinking.
‘I’ll tell you what old mate. Come and have a beer with Stan and me later. We’ve started going to The Buccaneer.’
‘The Buccaneer?’ I questioned. ‘You can’t be serious.’
The Buccaneer as I remembered it was a bit select. Amy and I had had our silver wedding celebration there. Silver Service. Thirty pound a head back then. Adam was going through his punk phase at the time and had come in his bondage gear with his orange hair and full regalia of safety pins, embarrassing us all. It would have been hard at the time to predict that he would become a science teacher in Cumbria. Pillar of the community, married with the standard two children and a Ford Focus. Alice’s career path had been a tad unusual. After passing a City and Guilds Level 3 in the unlikely subject of Advanced Dog Grooming, she had opened a Dog Spa in the Cotswolds with her friend Terry. Terry, I should add is female. Probably no grandchildren there. My main regret I suppose was with the family so far flung, the only time I saw them was at Christmas. It could get lonely with just your own company all day long. There was Tarquin of course, but he was not a great conversationalist. Alice suggested I joined a dating agency but I wonder if I’m not a bit long in the tooth for all of that. Mikey’s voice brought me out of my reverie.
‘All the other pubs round here have been turned in bistros, Frankie, you know, posh nosh for the grockles,’ he said.
‘But the Buccaneer is the most exclusive of all the places around here.’ I protested, looking him up and down. ‘Surely they wouldn’t let you in in your tatters.’
‘You don’t get out a lot, Frank, do you? The Bucc went into a downward spiral in the nineties,’ he said. ‘Fortune Inns you might remember went bust. It was empty for yonks, five years or more. If you don’t count the hippy squatters. No one wanted it. Till The Flynns took it. Doesn’t do food anymore, well you can get scotch eggs and crisps. Cheapest beer around here, though…… All the holiday people go to The Yacht or The Jolly Slaver for their t-bone steaks or salmon in white wine sauce.’
‘Whole new world round here, Mikey, Seems determined to leave us the likes of me behind,’ I said. ‘Do you know what? Remember Rose Trevillick? I’ve just read in the paper that she has been fined for feeding the ducks in the park. What is going on?’
Mikey did not remember Rose. Or the park.
‘Stan’s doing well,’ he said. ‘He’ll be really pleased to see you. ‘Keeps talking about the time the two of you took the boat out around the headland that really bad winter.’
I had known Stan and Mikey for over twenty years. The three of us had worked together for a time doing shifts at the china clay factory. ‘Worked’ of course might have been a euphemism in Mikey’s case. He spent most of the time at the factory avoiding it. When you first met Mikey, you would listen to his stories with rapt attention. He had been junior billiards champion of the South West. He had had a trial for Plymouth Argyle Football Club. He had been the fifteenth person to complete the Rubik Cube. He had once been a roadie with Cream, and claimed to have once had a fling with Christine Perfect, or was it Julie Driscoll. To look at Mikey, all eighteen stone of him and not an inch over five feet four, you would have to say that either seemed unlikely. Stan, on the other hand, was someone on whose word you could rely. If Stan said that the Martians had landed you would expect to see little green men on your way to the Co-op. The thing was that Stan was quite likely to say that the Martians had landed. He had been for as long as I could remember into the study of UFOs. You might say Stan was impressionable but he was genuine.
The smoking ban meant we had to sit outside The Buccaneer, but as it was a nice evening I settled Tarquin down with a pork pie and a bowl of Guinness, and Mikey, Stan and I began to catch up. Mikey told me that he was back in the music business managing a Kinks tribute band called The Kunts – with a K. They had not as yet had many bookings but Mikey said they were good musicians and the singer looked just like Ray Davies circa 1966. ‘Only a question of time before they make it,’ he added.
‘You don’t think maybe the name might be the problem,’ I said. ‘I mean the punk era was 30 years ago.’
‘Not at all mate,’ said Mikey, There are bands called The FuckFucks, The Smackheads, The Leper Coons, Alien Autopsy, Jesus Chrysler, all sorts of irreverent names.’
‘I shouldn’t think many of them are on the tribute band circuit,’ I said. ‘There’s a kind of respectability involved when you book a band at the local town hall.’
Mikey said he had not had a proper job since he was laid off from the china clay factory. He got by by signing on at two different addresses, doing cash in hand felt roofing, and selling pirate DVDs at car boots. I recollected Jack at the butchers telling me he had bought Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards at a car boot and that he hadn’t been able to play them on his machine. Mikey was so indiscreet. He spent the next ten minutes reeling off a catalogue of scams that he had been engaged in. Nothing big or dramatic, but every one it seemed at the expense of some poor unsuspecting victim. He had no morals. No wonder Irene had divorced him.
Mikey’s mobile rang – Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, giving Stan the opportunity to talk about his newly discovered fascination with ‘rods’. I must have looked a little bewildered so he started at the beginning.
‘Rods,’ Stan explained ‘are possibly the best evidence we have of alien life to date, These things move much too quickly to be seen with the naked eye, but they can be captured on film and seen when the film is played back in slow motion. They appear to have appendages along their torsos which move in a wave like motion, and the torsos bend as they move. Rods can be from a few inches to several feet in length. They have been filmed all over the world. I’ve started filming them.’
He showed me some of the still photos of ‘rods’ he carried around with him.
‘Impressive, huh,’ he said with a self-congratulatory smile. ‘We could go filming one night down on that beach where you walk your dog, Frank. Round towards the cave. I’m sure we’d find there were rods there. What do you say?’
I was unconvinced. All the same, I agreed to go with him the following evening to look for rods. I had not had chance to bring the subject of the stranger on the shore into our conversation. I thought it would be better now not to mention it. This way I could just see what Stan made of him first hand. Mikey said he would not be able to make it.
‘Sorry guys,’ he said, grinning. ‘I’ve got a date.’
Not being used to drinking so much Old Thumper I had just about recovered and taken Tarquin for a quick walk along the river bank when Stan picked me up late in the afternoon the following day. We both blamed the excess on Mikey and agreed that he had always been a bad influence.
‘He’s always been that way,’ Stan said. ‘Difficult to have just a pint or two when Mikey’s around.’
‘Not going to change now,’ I agreed. ‘What’s this band he was talking about?’
There is no band,’ said Stan. ‘He was just winding you up.’
‘What about the date then,’ I said’
‘What do you think?’ said Stan.
‘Another Christine Perfect?’
‘Or Julie Driscoll.’
‘Lives in a fantasy world, doesn’t he’
‘Always has, always will.’
We stopped off at The Buccaneer. It was nearly empty. Errol, the landlord explained to us how he had bought the place for a song, put on tap a good selection of strong ales and farmers’ cider and within a few weeks business was booming, but lately, The Bucc’ was going down the pan. He blamed the smoking ban. Most of his drinkers he said were also smokers. Also, a number of his guest beers had been banned from sale because they were too strong.
‘And of course, there’s the recession.’ he said. ‘Mikey’s probably my only regular customer. And he’s out on a date tonight he tells me.’
‘Not going to bring her in here then,’ added Stan.
‘No I don’t believe he will,’ said Errol.
It was nearly twilight when we arrived at the beach, the ideal time, Stan said, to film rods. He had some sophisticated video equipment. Nikon. We unloaded it from his Land Rover and carried it along the deserted shingle. A flock of herring gulls began circling a little way off. Their distinct trumpeting echoed around the bay. I had read somewhere that you could detect eleven distinct calls, each with a different message. A stiff breeze was coming in off the sea so it took Stan took a minute or two to steady the tripod in the ground. He then carefully set the camera up.
‘The secret is to use the sports setting,’ he said. ‘This will ensure you have a high shutter setting so each frame of video will look like a single picture without blur.’
I took his word for it. Maybe it had infra-red for night vision or some kind of thermal imaging. I was a bit of a technophobe so I did not like to ask. I was more interested to see whether he had noticed the shadowy figure in the scrub crouching behind the a clump of broom. It seemed he hadn’t. I wondered whether I should prompt him. I left it awhile, during which time he continued to make tiny adjustments to the camera settings. He talked excitedly about someone called Jose Escamilla from New Mexico, who had been the first person to film rods.
‘Over forty eight million people have visited his website and thousands have submitted photos of rods.’ he said. ‘I’ve put several of mine on the site. Jose emailed me to say how impressed he was by them.’
All the time he was speaking the figure did not move. He carried on crouching behind the scrub, camouflaged increasingly well by the gathering dusk. Stan peered through the viewfinder even though he had said that rods could not be seen with the naked eye, they only became visible during playback.
‘Stan,’ I said finally. ‘What do you make of that fellow there hiding behind the rock?’
‘Where? he said.
I pointed and he took a good look in that direction. He squinted myopically.
‘I can’t see anyone, Frank’ he said.
‘There,’ I shouted, pointing again. The figure was indistinct now. He had blended in with the landscape. A few seconds later I could not see him at all. He had disappeared.
Stan hadn’t at any stage picked up on the urgency of my quest and suggested that we moved on round to the cave before it became too dark. Stan had calculated also that there would be a window of a couple of hours before the tide was fully in. If we left it any longer we might find ourselves cut off. He handed me some equipment, folded up the tripod and off we set off into the gloaming. I was glad that I had not brought Tarquin. He did not like the cave very much. Perhaps it had something to do with the unusual acoustics.
Stan set up some backlighting and we spent an hour or so filming in the cave.
‘I am sure rods are extraterrestrial.’ he said. ‘We are used to seeing aliens being portrayed as two legged, two armed, two eyed human-like beings. But the truth of the matter is, and again this is only my opinion, alien life should be, well…. alien! Rods demonstrate they have some type of intelligence, as they will often dodge things that they would otherwise collide with. I’ll show you some of the film I’ve got later.’
While Stan held forth about the properties of rods and the incredible speeds they travelled at, I found myself looking for signs of the stranger, a sleeping bag or a backpack or something. The cave contained a random sample of the kind of marine litter one might expect to have been washed up and a few discarded food wrappers and crumpled beer cans, there was nothing suggest that anyone had been sleeping there recently.
On the way back I kept my eyes peeled for another glimpse and scanned the rocks with Stan’s powerful torch, but he seemed to have gone into hiding. I took Tarquin down to the beach regularly over the next few days but not once did I catch sight of the outlander. I looked amongst the scrub and sat for hours on a rock listening to the surf wash up on the shingle in the hope that he might suddenly appear. There was no sign. I began to question whether I had ever seen him. After all, no one else had. Had I become obsessed by an apparition? Or had I stepped into the twilight zone?
I thought about what Stan had been saying about rods. About alien life being alien. There was so much we did not understand. I had for instance read a little about superstring theory. I had got bogged down in the detail, but the theory posits that all physical matter is made up of vibrating elements called ‘strings’ rather than ball-like particles of conventional physics. String theory proposes that there are eleven dimensions; four correspond to the three ordinary spatial dimensions and time while the rest are curled up and not perceptible. This would help to explain a number of things. In such a scheme of things why shouldn’t there be rods? For that matter why shouldn’t there be a presence on the beach that only I had been able to see? If you thought enough about them, most things were plausible. Like the idea of the expanding universe, it was best not to think too much about them.
I had made the decision to give up on my preoccupation with the stranger, when I got a call from Stan. He said that he had transferred the film he had taken at the beach onto to his computer and was going through it frame by frame. He wanted me to come over right away and have a look.
Fifteen minutes later Stan was ushering me into what he referred to as his editing suite. Scattered around the walls were a series of prints of what appeared to be oversized illuminated insects. I took these to be Stan’s photos of rods. He sat me down in front of a Mac Pro with a large widescreen monitor. He then called up the media player clicked on a file and a film showing fairly unspectacular scenes of shingle and brush began playing. I watched as the camera panned along a small stretch of rocky outcrop. I recognised it of course, but it made dull viewing. Perhaps I was missing something. I had expected that he was going to show me some shots of rods from our visit to the cave.
‘But have a look at this,’ he said excitedly.
He stopped the film and played it from the beginning, jogging it forward one frame at a time. The images were a little hazy, but if you looked carefully, there was a figure crouched behind the rock just as I had seen him that night with Stan. Each frame confirmed his familiar presence.
'What do you think, Frank,' said Stan looking me in the eye. 'It's you, isn't it?'
We had stepped into the twilight zone. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved