He had slept with his eyes open for as long as he could remember-pupils like pinpricks in green discs flecked with gold. As a boy he would wake in the middle of the night, jolted from sleep, trembling and staring into the frightened eyes of his mother. Amid the fitfulness of childhood, and the terrible raging of his youth, he slept with lids peeled back, eyes frozen in their sockets. Later, his wife – and other lovers –reprised the mother’s nocturnal role, with frantic shakings and muttered disbelief throughout the course of their marriage, when they shared a bed. All through the silent frustration of middle-age, he slept with naked eyeballs.

And now, as he endures the final distresses of his ageing body, wakefulness melts into sleep and back again without the least twitch of his wrinkled lids. They fall around his eyes in folds, like blankets kicked to the bottom of a mattress.

When he dies later this afternoon, it will be some time before his passing is noted, his glazed staring eyes being mistaken for sleep. Two hours will have elapsed before his daughter-in-law notices the stiffening of his limbs, the stillness in his lately heaving chest, purple capillaries laced through cold cheeks.

But that is not for a few hours. For now he rests easy, only slightly aware of the discomfort brought about by his failing organs. He lies back on the couch propped up with pillows, the television flickering in the comer. Eyes like mint jelly beaded on ancient parchment pass gently over the room, taking in the plunder of his life. The faces of his children are trapped in wooden and silver frames. The son, grinning and toothless in school uniform, awkward and tense in black gown and colours. And wedding photos-his wedding, as well as the son’s. A black and white photograph, freezing his youth, his yet to be unfulfilled expectations; his bride’s hopeful smile and frightened eyes. Pictures of Christmases long forgotten, the son in wellingtons and duffel coat alongside a snowman. And Lily. Clutching her doll to her side, eyes wide with wonder, flaming green irises that mirror his own, their gaze unswerving as she peers out from her tarnished frame.

He sighs and lets it all sweep over him. This jumble of thoughts, this rich torrent of memories, days and moments, aches and glances. He feels his old body tremble as he allows them to flush through him-poetry and pain twisted into a life that he is almost ready to leave. His eyes settle on the envelope of sea that he can view through the window.

His memory has been shaky lately, faltering as his mind becomes complicit with his body’s treachery. But on this last afternoon, his thoughts are luminous, his jaded senses suddenly alive. Yeasty smells of baking blend with the salty breeze from the open window. Low voices and whisperings journey from the kitchen, travelling across floorboards and under doors before reaching his ears. And as he burrows deep into his store of memories, one distinct event keeps lapping at the edge of his consciousness. He stares at the blue sea trapped between net curtains, and lets his mind travel back …

 

The boy is restless from sitting still in the silent house. The effort of keeping quiet and being good has built up into an unbearable pressure for the six year old, and his father takes pity on him. Gripping the boy’s hand, they escape into the bright June morning, leaving the dark airless rooms behind as they wander down to the sea. A breeze skips through the sunlight and dances across the water to Coney Island where the sheep stand and chew, idly participating in the stillness of the morning. Overhead the seagulls scream before swooping and scraping the rippling surface for prey.

The boy leads the way past the tennis courts, marching along the curving path to the boatyard with its filthy nets and stench of rotting fish. They stop to admire a boat that is standing awkwardly out of water, suffering the indignity of its exposed hull and rudder. The boy peppers him with questions about the weight and height and cost of such a vessel. The man answers compliantly, aware of the thinness of his voice as it breaks the silence.

They climb the steep gravel gully, up to the grassy bank and walk with heads turned, facing the sea. The sun is high overhead when they reach the turn and scramble down to the rocks and craggy headland below. The boy picks his way, a sandaled foot testing each rock for movement before lending his weight to it. He carries his bucket carefully, anxious not to spill the contents.

The rock pools are black and gloomy, their underbellies coated in a dark gelatinous mass, thick clumps of seaweed stubbornly concealing the treasures within. They perch on their hunkers on a slab of rock overhanging the largest pool and the boy spills the contents of the bucket between them. They pick through the scraps of chicken rescued from the carcass of yesterday’s dinner, and deftly wrap morsels in the blue twine, knotting the bait firmly before lowering it into the murky depths. They wait. The boy jiggles his twine, impatient and anxious to catch first. He runs the line across the surface, dragging the bait underneath the kelpy mass. His efforts are rewarded. A black crab emerges and is prised from the safety of the pool, swept up into the bucket. The boy holds his catch aloft, his freckled face a confusion of smiles.

He doesn’t know if it is the sun heating the back of his neck, or the boy’s unabashed joy, or the thought of his wife lying torpid in their bed, her face set, locked in her private grief, or if it is just the aching beauty of the morning, but the man suddenly feels something dark and urgent welling up inside him. Frightened of the emotions boiling around his heart, he straightens and moves away, back across the rocks. He hears his son call after him and raises his hand without looking back. Quickly, quickly, he gets away, seeking out a place in the long grass where he can sit and watch from the safety of distance.

The boy watches him, momentarily confused, before resuming his solitary pillage of the rock pool. The man’s breathing begins to slow. He watches as the boy abandons the pool, seeking out virgin territory, deeper cavities rich with crustaceans. Some older boys have gathered at the diving board, and their splashes and screams travel on the wind, uniting with other human voices rising up off the beach. It seems that all around him life is thriving, its energy clamouring amid a multiplicity of sounds. And as he lifts his head to watch the divers, wondering how such beauty can exist alongside such pain, he sees a red dress on the horizon. It moves towards him through the marram grass. Brown legs with thick ankles over gym shoes. Chocolate hair caught up in a spotted scarf. She walks with the assurance of an athlete, but there is gentleness in her movements. She watches him through small currant eyes in a full-moon face, lines beginning to sprout from the corners of her mouth.

She slows and then stops, casting a long shadow across his face. Until this moment he is unaware of his tears. And above the roars of the swimmers and the cries of the gulls, his grief rises and soars, his words mingling with the wind, her name offered up like a prayer. The stranger in the red dress does not say that God works in mysterious ways. She does not say that Lily has gone to a better place. She does not offer a reason, or serve up a platitude. Instead she sits next to him and takes his hand in hers, holding it in her lap. He looks down at those hands, the coarse brown skin, a freckle on the ring finger, pink nails with chipped white arcs and broken cuticles, lying amid folds of rough cotton…

 

Once, the old man heard his son tell the story of a childhood memory. He cannot recall what the occasion was, or to whom the story was told, but he remembers the blueness of his son’s eyes clouding over as he gave his account of a bright June morning spent scrambling over the rocks, plumbing the depths of the pools. The old man’s limbs began to tremble as he was suddenly transported back to that morning, revisiting the scene through the boy’s eyes – the blueness, the brightness, the clamour and colour that flooded a small boy’s senses, momentarily distracting him from his sadness and confusion. And until that story was told, the old man had never realised that his outpouring of grief had been witnessed from a distance. He listened to the words spoken, and saw the boy again, water lapping at the toes peeping out from his sandals as he watched his father’s silent retreat up the hill to where the grass grew tall and dry.

That forgotten feeling began to bubble up around the old man’s heart as he prepared his features, poised for her appearance on the horizon, her welcome entrance into that precious memory. And then something happened – something startling. With a few fleeting words, spoken without malice, but from the murky mutable well of memory, the son brought forth a new version. In an instant she was swept away, her red dress disappearing from the horizon, her cool palms snatched from his grasp leaving his hands clutching at air. And in her place, the memory of the boy’s mother was resurrected, and gently drawn into the scene, cast in the role of comforter. The old man felt his heart tighten at this revocation of a precious remembrance. He resented his dead wife’s intrusion, and then immediately felt ashamed. The son’s words, spoken clearly and honestly, told of his mother’s compassion, his parents’ shared grief as they sat in the long grass, quietly comforting each other. And in that instant, he realised how all the events of his life might be altered, his history revised through another’s telling.

The old man blinks. Memory fades and shifts. But how he remembers those hands, their coolness wrapped around his own hot clammy paw. And how the coolness seemed to seep into his veins, drenching his grief, immersing his fevered mind in its cleansing tide. In the years that followed, he had sought that same comfort in the arms of lovers, labouring for solace in heated beds. But all the infidelities could not compare with the cool respite, the simple release of those chaste hands. And as the breeze teases the net curtains and he stares past at the patch of blue, his view is briefly interrupted by a passer-by, the quick movement, a snatch of colour – a second of vermilion – and then it is gone.