Gill Schierhout

The Final Watch

Robert Silverskein sits on a concrete bench near the sea.  The sea is like blood, darkening as the moon’s brightening sucks up the light. The red water meets the blue resistance of his eyes.  He watches the cold slow growing orb of the moon coming up from behind the sea.  He dare not allow his body to feel its hunger so he sits, stationary.  A girl’s skirt uncoils from around her slender legs with a gust of wind as she passes by. 
That’s generosity, he thinks, all that fabric!
“If you can sew…” their father had told Catherine.
She had sweated and slaved after school – the patchwork pink top, the grey pinstripe suit.  She had never sewn a circle skirt. 

Robert Silverskein is a man who believes in the dawn. He does not only believe it will come, he believes he aids its coming by keeping vigil. The golden path of the moon falls across the sea from the surf right out, further, almost to the horizon.  There the path seems to end, as if to follow it is certain death. 

Robert puts his hand to the knot of his stringy tie without loosening it.  He almost always wears a tie these days.  A civilised man, must, after all, recognise that he cannot be trusted to move freely in this world, there must always be a hook, an easy place to grasp at him, to hold him back. 

It is only when the moon’s halo is fully ringed around it, only when it is so firmly embedded in the darkening sky that it seems it will never be unstuck, that Robert Silverstein reaches for the small box in his pocket.  It is the sort of box that would ordinarily only hold one thing – a ring, or a locket or cufflinks.  Robert holds it carefully so as not to spill. 

How many times has he sat on this concrete bench? How many times has he pushed his hands into his right coat pocket and pulled out the box, felt the hard contours of the box, its embossed golden border, afraid to open the box, afraid to leave it closed?  This evening he snaps it open.  And so when a sneeze surprises him and he fumbles in his trouser pocket for his crumpled torn handkerchief, and his legs seem to cross and uncross on their own, it seems quite fitting, pre-ordained even, that the box tumbles off his lap, bounces three times on the grassy slope, hits a rock, and slides without so much as a splash into a dark rock pool below him, frightening an octopus’s slow sentient path from one hidden crevice to the next.

It is as if he is a boy again, half-sliding down slope to the shoreline.  He often wondered if Catherine’s secret messages, the ones she would throw out to sea in sealed bottles on the outgoing tide, were ever found.  At last his stick locates the fallen box.  Triumphant it rises, dripping the salty slimy soup of the sea. 

Robert must have been ready for this moment, something in him must have known it was about to happen.  He must have been preparing for it through the long confused period leading up to his recent diagnosis with Huntington’s Chorea, that cruel and incurable degenerative disease of the brain.  He must have been silently readying himself during the even more difficult times that followed; when his father, a pharmacist with ambitions for his son to be a doctor, disowned him, sent him to Halfway House and Sheltered Employment, but came back now and then, with no other purpose it seemed to Robert, but to remind him of his sins.   

Robert carries the small dripping box back to his bench.  He knows without looking that the golden curl, the gentle wrap of the letter C against the red velvet innards of the box, will never now be retrieved.  The hair is unstuck and sucked out to sea tonight, become one with the curious kelp.  The curl was dead, not only dead, but harsher than death, divorced from the head that loved it.   

There was another item in the little box, and the thought of this makes Robert’s breath sallow and unkempt.  Unlike the curl, the small vial now set free from the box will no doubt float.  Robert watches a surge of tide seeping into the rock pool and sweeping back out to sea.  His eyes find the vial, but not for long.  It is an awkward pharmacist’s gift to his son – a small quantity of cyanide in case Robert, still a decent god-fearing man, can no longer bear to watch the devastation in his wake.

Robert has not been this close to the water for years.  With only a passing, elated thought, he strips off his tie too.  He leaves it in a coil beside his carefully folded clothes.  But when he enters the water, it is as if surrounded by teachers, careful not to make a splash. 

An early pre-dawn wind whips the ocean’s surface into small spinning tornadoes, like miniature lives they scud across his sight.  The bottle of cyanide is within his grasp now, washed back towards him in the sea.  He holds the bottle for a moment, triumphant, kisses it goodbye and tosses it further out, out to the gleaming path of the moon. 

For a while he floats on his back looking up at the rising morning star.  His father, driving to work along the ocean road sees a stringy blotchy man with slate grey hair and wasted legs, loping to the shore, drying off on his coat and replacing the peels of his clothes.