AND HE CAME TO ONE of the places known as Patrick’s Well and stood and looked out to sea and thought that yes, he could stay here for a while, so he placed his hands on the sloping stones of the roof of the well and let their coldness mingle with his and become part of it before setting off down the hill towards the flat, straight strand with those first few steps of what was to become a never-ending circling of this stretch of shoreline.
The waves amused him a lot that first time because the wind was blowing from across the golf course down the dunes and out to sea and when the waves started to break some of the white foam was blown backwards so that they were going in both directions at the one time, and he thought again about how much he would love a pair of jeans frayed like the ones he was wearing now, but dyed that colour of light-filled green glimpsed just under the white curl of a breaking wave.
And the rising sun at his back warmed him as he followed the tideline and the feeding seagulls took off and flew before him and settled again and took off again as he caught up with them, and they never once thought that it might be easier to fly back to where he had already passed so, to give them a rest, he walked closer to the centre of the beach where the sand was firmer but the flotsam not so interesting, and when he thought he was about halfway along its length he stopped and turned around to look back at the hill and the well and he noticed that there were dark clouds gathering in from the East and he knew that he was going to get soaked and he smiled in anticipation.
When he finally reached the causeway at the end of the strand he found that the first part of it was just rocks tumbled together in a line and that he would have to be careful of his footing before he reached the smoothed cement because his shoes were new and slippy, and he was shocked at the speed of the black shag skimming along the surface of the river and out to its mouth and back in again in the time it took him to clamber twenty yards.
Sitting with his back to the white pillar of the warning light, he watched what he thought were shoals of fish swimming through the incoming waves but which turned out to be the undercurrent of the river still flowing outwards beneath the waves flowing inwards, and he knew that he was looking at something that he could not really believe was happening even though he was watching it so he caught some of the saltspray and rubbed it into the sores on his wrists.
And the rain broke over him on his way back along the causeway and it stung his cheeks above the stubble and it stung his left leg through the rip in his jeans and it pitted the river on his right side and the sea on his left side and the wind stirred them both up and sped him along and over the rocks and onto the sand and back towards the stone steps on the side of the hill which led to the path which led to the town.
And some of the scenes along the shore seemed familiar, but he had had that feeling before in places he’d never been to, so he knew that it was just his memory playing tricks or else that instinct that sometimes all places are basically the same or similar and that it’s only the memories we associate with them that distinguish them, and he was glad when the path climbed again and he was able to turn and look back at the strand and the causeway and see how far he had come since morning and measure how far he could travel before night.
The sunset found him on the slopes outside the next village along the coast and, as it sank behind the headlands to the North, he stopped and stood still and waited for morning and then walked back the way he had come and spent the second night in the shadow of the well.
Sometimes he varied his pace so that he went a little further beyond or slept a little closer to one of the towns and he eventually knew nearly all the stones he passed and would now and then lift some of them and put them in different places along the way to give them a sort of holiday and to give himself a sort of memory test when he tried to put them back in their original places.
And this is where my story starts because I met him one night at sunset, silently sipping champagne on the rocks behind the harbour, looking as abandoned as a rock pool at low tide, and he was staring off into the West like he had lost something there as I sat down beside him and drank from the bottle he passed to me and looked at the sadness in his eyes and eventually asked him what he was doing there and he told me that he wasn’t sure whether this or the harbour wall in Portrush at midnight was his favourite place, but that he liked the suck and surge of the sea here, and I took some of the sandwich he offered and I asked him why he was staring like that and he told me that he was looking for the sun because he knew that one night it would go down behind those mountains and not come up again, or else that it would stay suspended above them in perpetual, glorious evening—he wasn’t sure which anymore—and that he wanted to be ready when it happened.
When he said it like that, looking into the distance across the sea like a fisherman or a mystic, I sort of believed him for a second or two before I caught myself on and took another slug of his champagne and got up to go but then he asked me to stay and something in his voice made me want to, so I sat down again and he showed me some of the stones he carried with him in his pockets like a child and, after a while, he started to tell me some of his story and it shocked me in a way that’s hard to describe because of the distances involved and because it was so difficult to tell if he was lying and because it was so hard to guess what age he was because, sometimes, he looked the same age as me and other times the white flecks in his beard made him seem as old as the moonlight, but when he showed me the soles of his feet and I saw the callouses and colours and the cuts of countless walks along this coastline, I couldn’t really stop myself believing him so I asked him who he was and all he said was that sometimes he felt as useless and as permanent and as devoid of meaning as the grey sea cracking against the elephant skin of the black rocks of Portstewart and, after a pause, I asked him again and this time he said that he was less than a man but more than an image, that he was a sort of red electricity bill, a kind of final reminder of a debt once owed, and I told him then that I thought I would have to kill him because I could not go on listening to that sort of naked truth for much longer and he nodded and said that yes, it probably had to be like that and that everyone had to do it in their own way and he reached into his jacket and handed me a long knife and I asked him had he nothing easier, like a rifle or a pistol, and he said that he hadn’t and that it had to be something like a knife so that you really had to put effort into it and really be aware of what you were doing and that only then would you be forgiven, and that got me really angry so I stuck it into him as far as it would go and I felt the thrill of the hot spurt of blood on my arm so I pulled it back out and struck again and again and all the time he looked at me with the sadness in his eyes as if he’d thought that maybe this time he had found someone who would stab himself instead, but I snarled at his sorrow and stabbed and stabbed until I saw the light leave his eyes and then I shrugged his body off the shaft of the knife and toppled it over and off the rocks and down into the dark waves.
And the sorrow hit me like a sledgehammer.
And I saw that what I had done we all must do in our own way and that it’s not just those who did it the first time who share the guilt.
And I sit here some nights watching the sunset because I think that some time it’s not going to rise again, or maybe it’s not going to set, and I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure which and I’m not even sure which I’d prefer.