Jack Ahlquist waited by the hospice entrance and watched his father stride towards him through the car park. Harry Ahlquist made a tight-jawed, shoulder-rolling motion as he came as if he was bracing himself for a fight. He probably hadn’t recognised Jack, but glared at him in the what-are-you-looking-at way that he might out-stare a stranger. The sun could have been in his eyes. It was warm on Jack’s neck, warm enough for the sweat to stick his shirt to his back and to taint the porch with smells of tar and hot metal. Jack swallowed, dry-mouthed, as Harry finally did a double-take and stopped.
“Good grief, what brings you here?” Harry’s eyebrows folded until vertical, parallel creases appeared in his forehead above the bridge of his nose. The eyebrows were thicker than Jack remembered, still sandy despite the silver over the temples, and they bristled in the old danger signal.
“Hello, Dad. Same as you, I expect.”
They stared at each other. Neither tried to shake hands.
“Well enough. Misses you. How long have you been back?”
“A while.” As he knew. That was Harry’s way of reminding Jack of his failings. Jack turned away and walked through the entrance, scanning the day room for his grandfather.
“Fell out of a truck and broke my leg. It’s mending.” Jack kept it simple. At least he didn’t need a stick anymore. They stood at the door to a room large enough to hold perhaps twenty ill-matched armchairs, some pushed back against the walls, others clustered around a blaring television. About half were occupied by sick, elderly people who looked as if they’d been waiting for something for so long that they’d forgotten what they were waiting for. French windows stood open to the garden, admitting hard sunlight and soft summer smells of cut grass and roses, a sweet layer over the undercurrents of floor polish and stale urine. A uniformed nurse near the door was putting a cup of tea beside a chair, her smile as shiny as the institutional china in her hand. Resilient. Caring but functional.
Sandra looked up and her smile broadened, probably because she’d recognised someone she didn’t have to watch die. Jack wondered how anyone had the emotional strength to do Sandra’s job; palliative care, with success measured by the gentleness of inevitable death.
“Hey, Jack.” She frowned past Jack at Harry, as if trying to remember his name.
“How’s Grandpa, Sandra?”
She winced, and spoke softly. “Soon, now. Today’s a good day, so far. We wheeled him into the garden.” She lifted her chin towards the French windows. “He’s talking ok.”
Jack nodded, relieved. In the early days, there had been regular spaces in between doses of medication when they could talk, the calm between stupor and agony. Now his grandfather was on ad lib morphine, you had to be lucky. Even when he was lucid, he could be confused. Jack stepped out into the garden, leaving his father to fire questions at Sandra in brisk, ‘I’m in charge’ tones.
Grandpa Eddie sat in a wheelchair on the lawn, face lifted to the sun, eyes shut, with an oxygen bottle for company. Lines trailed from his arm to a drip on a stand beside him. He’d lost so much weight that he’d shrunk within his clothes, and his neck stretched like a tortoise’s through the gaping collar of his shirt. He had almost no hair left, just a few thin wisps of silver fluff, and no eyebrows, either. Once he’d had great bushy things, thicker even than Harry’s, as if a pair of rodents had crawled onto his face and nested, but like the hair, they hadn’t come back after the chemo. Jack pulled a chair over to sit beside him, on the side away from the sun, and squeezed his arm.
“Jack, my boy!” Eddie’s voice was surprisingly strong. Not quite at the level where he used to bellow into a storm at sea, but still robust enough to belie the yellow skin. His eyes seemed to sparkle from deeper within their sockets, as if the man was shrinking inside himself. Broken veins on his face gave a bizarre parody of health, like an apple-cheeked skull.
“How are you, Grandpa?” Stupid bloody question. He was dying.
“There are good days, and there are bad days. The good days are when you come.”
Good. He was making sense. Sometimes he and Jack could have a decent chat; sometimes Eddie would rave as if another person was locked in the same body, someone altogether nastier.
“Are you comfortable?” How the hell do you ask an old man if he can handle the pain? That’s what the doctors had promised. ‘We’ll keep him comfortable for as long as we can.’
Eddie didn’t answer. For the first time Jack saw fear in his eyes.
“He’s in the garden, now. He’s coming for me, Jack.”
“Who’s in the garden, Grandpa?” Sometimes Jack had to humour him. The hospice lawn held nothing more threatening than figures slumped on benches.
“No. My garden.” Eddie shook his head hard enough to shake the dangling tubes. “Harald’s waiting at the cottage.” Eddie pronounced the name in two, emphasised syllables in the Nordic way. Har-Rald. He groped at Jack’s arm, staring at him again as if willing him to believe. Jack smiled in a way that he hoped was reassuring, and nodded past Eddie’s shoulder to where his father was crossing the lawn. Sandra watched from the doorway.
“No, Grandpa, Harry’s here.” Eddie had always referred to his son as ‘Harry’ rather than ‘your father’, so Jack used the old man’s language. “He’s come to see you.”
Disbelief, then horror, tightened his grandfather’s face into a rictus of fear as Harry’s shadow fell across them.
“How did he find me?” Eddie kept his eyes locked on Jack, but shook his head from side to side as if denying Jack’s words. “He’s dead. Harald’s dead.” The grip on Jack’s arm tightened as if Jack was a fixed point of safety in the middle of a nightmare. Beside them, Harry flinched as if he’d been struck on the face. Jack lifted Eddie’s hand and nodded towards his father.
“No, Grandpa. Look.”
Eddie turned, lifting one hand to shield his eyes as he squinted into the sun. Tubes snagged against the oxygen bottle.
“Not here.” Louder, now, almost shouting. “He’s following me.” Eddie tried to get up, lurching away from Harry so the drip almost fell and Jack had to catch him. Sandra began to walk towards them, frowning.
“Harald died on the beach. He’s DEAD.”
The shout turned heads all around the garden, and Sandra started to run. Harry squatted, dropping out of the sun’s glare, and reached out a hand to touch the old man on the arm. “Pa, please.” Eddie squirmed into Jack, whimpering, as Harry tried to turn him, and in a moment of sick pity Jack saw urine dripping from his grandfather’s seat.
“Pa, it’s your son, Harry.”
“Shot down like a dog.” The shout became a scream. By the time Sandra eased Harry away, Eddie was gripping Jack’s shoulder hard enough to hurt. It was incredible that someone so sick could have such strength.
“Don’t let him take me, Jack.” The scream disintegrated into a sob.
Sandra jerked her head towards the building. Time to go. Jack rose and slid his hand along his father’s shoulders to turn him away. It was the nearest he’d ever come to giving him a hug.
“We’ll try again tomorrow, Dad.”
Harry shrugged the arm away, his face working.
Jack rang Charlotte afterwards to say he’d stay in Grandpa Eddie’s cottage for the night. It was two and a half hours’ drive home, and the end was close. His wife didn’t sound too fussed. She might even have been relieved. She had a girlie night out planned, it seemed. Pals from the gym. Harry didn’t offer a bed, and it didn’t occur to Jack to ask, so he bought a cheap takeaway and a bottle of wine, and wandered through Eddie’s cottage, wishing that his grandfather could drift away peacefully on a cloud of morphine. There was such fear in the old man’s eyes, these days. It didn’t seem to be fear of death itself, but as the cancer ate into his brain he’d started raving as if the Grim Reaper lurked in the shadows. Today, it had been Harry, his own son. Two days earlier, it was ‘a Viking warrior in the trees’.
But then, Grandpa had always been obsessed with his Viking heritage. He was the kind of guy who taught himself Old Norse so that he could read the old sagas in their original form. The bookshelves in the cottage’s front room were packed with volumes of Viking history. Some of them were antiques, printed in Old Norse with Danish translations. Some had paper bookmarks sticking upwards, each with some cryptic reference written in Grandpa’s arthritic script.
Jack ran his finger along the books’ spines, reading his grandfather’s life in the shelves above the desk. A small photograph of his parents was wedged on a high shelf between almanacs and magazines, pushed almost end-on so the picture was partly obscured. A middle shelf held framed happy-snaps of his sister Tilly and her children. There was a larger one of Jack at his passing-out parade, his face tight with pride beneath the globe-and-laurel cap badge of the Royal Marines. In the middle of the bottom shelf, in pride of place between Sagas of the Norse Kings and the mighty Old Norse Dictionary and Grammar, was a big, framed photograph of Eddie’s beloved sailing boat heeling under a press of sail, with a younger Grandpa at the tiller. There was no other crew in sight, although Draca wasn’t a boat to sail single-handed. They were probably hidden behind the sails, but the photo made it look as if Grandpa was on his own, grinning, one leg braced against the lee side of the cockpit, in his element.
A brassbound clock, a barometer, and a compass ranged along the mantelpiece, beneath a framed Admiralty chart of local waters. In the recess on the other side of the fire, Eddie’s magnificent, wooden model of a Viking longship sat on white-painted cupboards beneath more shelves of books. Grandpa had made that. He’d been quite a craftsman before his hands gave out. The smell of French cigarettes still lingered in the room, a year after he’d finally kicked the habit.
Jack couldn’t stay in the room, not that evening, not on his own. He felt too much of an intruder. He took his wine into the garden, where Grandpa had made a seat by burying an old, wooden dinghy stern-first in the ground so that the bows made a protective arch. It stood at the highest point of the garden, near the cottage, where there was a view through the tree tops to the water, and the bench he’d fixed to the thwart had been a perfect size for an old man and a boy to sit side by side and tell stories. Since the previous winter, the boat seat had also been home to Draca’s figurehead, a piece of ancient, carved timber that Grandpa had found poking through the mud below the cottage one morning, on a day when extreme low tide and a Northerly storm had combined to push the sea away from the land. Eddie had cut a slot for it at the end of the bench so it would sit upright and stare at the sea beside him.
Ugly great beast. ‘My pet dragon’, Grandpa called it. ‘A piece of Draca to keep me company’. It was about four feet long, carved with a lattice of scales, and curved like a question mark or a bishop’s crozier, except that the hook bending down over the shaft formed a snarling mouth that could have been any animal with a long neck and jaws. Once it had probably been much longer, but the neck ended in a scorched stump that he’d trimmed and squared so it could be fitted to Draca.
It had its own smell, that dragon. In still air it was strong enough to overlay the garden’s pine resin and salt with something older, a charcoal and leather, old wood and male sweat kind of smell. Eddie had soaked it for months in the same stuff that they used to restore that Tudor ship, the Mary Rose; a polymer that drives out the salt water and hardens the timber. Somehow the carving still leaked scents trapped deep in its core. Jack had told Eddie it was probably a historical artefact, and that he should take it to a museum, but Eddie just laughed and said they were meant to be together; a Viking figurehead found by the descendant of Vikings.
Jack forced himself to remember the good times in this spot, not the ravings in the hospice; the stories, the shared confidences. He and Grandpa had come out here even in winter, lit a fire in a cast iron stove by the seat, and talked, staring at the flames. This place, this panorama across Freshwater Bay to Witt Point, then over the harbour to the hills rising beyond Furzey, had been part of Jack’s childhood and youth. Him and Grandpa. Always, in the good memories, just him and Grandpa. Jack wedged himself into the corner by the carving, put his phone within reach, cradled his wine, and watched the long summer evening fade over the water. He and Grandpa’s dragon would keep vigil together.
Jack woke with the kind of jolt that he’d have had if he’d let himself doze on patrol, resting up within an ambush position, and one of the sentries had woken him with a gentle touch and a wordless signal. Contact! For a moment he felt the adrenalin rush that comes before action, that familiar dry mouth in chill night air, but as his eyes probed the near-darkness he saw only the first stars over the harbour and the outline of Witt Point like a dark mass low against the water. His tension faded into mild loneliness, remembering the names of the men he had thought were around him. Abbott, Wolfe, Collins…
But something had woken him, and he searched his memory for the sign. There’d been a noise, perhaps just the creak of the boat seat settling as the temperature dropped, and he stood, senses still tuned. Behind him, to the West, the sky was pale enough to outline the hills rising beyond the cottage. In front of him, the water shone faintly, showing the nearest islands dotting the harbour, patterns of darkness that merged into a black mass, like low cloud. A light mist forming over the water dissolved the shorelines in irregular patches. A stand of Scots Pines covered the slope from the garden down to the water, and if he held his line of sight high in the trees he could let his peripheral vision scan the space beneath them. Then nearer branches stood clear against the mist weaving its greyness among the further trunks.
He knew those trees. There was no reason why they should suddenly seem threatening. Their trunks stood out against the water beyond, their outlines and spacing irregular, the way body of men might stand, watching, waiting. He began to understand why a deluded old man could think there was someone among them. A whole platoon stood there, and any one of them could be a ghostly warrior. Two branches, lifting almost horizontally from a trunk, had been perfect for a childhood rope swing that took him far out and high where the land fell away. Look at me, Grandpa! Now they looked like two arms stretched in crucifixion.
But tonight there was movement between the trunks, a shadow among shadows. And again, between different trees. The shape was indistinct, and always at the edge of his sight, disappearing into the background dark when he looked directly at it. If he’d have been on patrol, Jack would have snapped on his night vision goggles and crouched into cover, weapon ready. As it was, he grabbed Grandpa’s torch from kitchen and threw a searchlight beam down the slope.
Nothing. The glare panned through the trees, making shadows dance, until the beam was lost in a circle of opaque greyness above the beach. No people, no animals darting away, no eyes shining in the beam. Jack wondered whether to go down there. The torch was big enough to double as a club, if necessary, but he wasn’t fully fit. Not yet. If he fell over a tree root he could set himself back weeks. He snapped off the torch and waited, listening to the whisper of branches in the wind. The tide must have been out. He could smell seaweed from the mudflats rather than the sharper salt of open water. He waited until his eyes readjusted to the dark, and when he still saw nothing, he turned to go inside. The day had been hot, but this early in the season the night was chill, and he was only wearing a light fleece and jeans. He’d sleep in his old bed, in the little room at the back of the cottage.
Getting to sleep was usually easy, with a little liquid help. It was staying asleep that was the problem.
One summer when Jack was a kid, the family stayed on a farm for their summer holidays, and the farmer set out a magpie trap in his yard. In the centre, in a little cage within a cage, was a live magpie. The ‘call bird’, the farmer called it. He’d left it a dish of water and even a bit of dead pigeon to eat, but the thing flapped around making a lot of noise in that harsh, rattling way of magpies. As Jack and the farmer watched from inside his barn, three more magpies arrived and hopped down through the wire door to see what all the fuss was about. They went frantic when the farmer walked over and they couldn’t get out, and he shot them, one by one, with a .22 rifle he kept for vermin.
The Islamists hadn’t killed Jack outright because he was their call bird, but they’d used Corporal Collins for target practice. It was usually Collins that woke Jack in the black hour before dawn, and always with the same pleading look, that way he’d stared at Jack as if he could do something. Collins had come running back for him through the firefight, a mad, heroic, suicidal dash, and he was still coming back for him, pulling him out of the fug of sleep when the alcohol drained from Jack’s system and all that was left was the sour taste of guilt. Sometimes, in those first moments of wakefulness, Jack could smell roasting meat. Then he’d have to walk outside and breathe clean air, whatever the hour, whatever the weather. He’d have run, if he could. Even in summer, the air just before dawn can be pure as snow.
There was a line of peach in the sky to the East as Jack laced his boots outside the door, enough to show silhouettes of trees and the outline of the boat seat, hunched like a monk’s cowl against the night. Grandpa’s dragon would be in there, invisible, black within black. Jack reached in to touch its snout, and settled beside it until there was enough light to see his footing.
On calm, moonless nights the dawn starts in the sea, not the sky. Its flat surface reflects a light the human eye can’t see. In time, the light softened to show tendrils of mist, still hanging between the trees and floating over the water. The outlines of the Scots Pines began to form against it. Now the same two branches could be arms raised in surrender.
When the tide was just on the ebb it sucked at the beach below the cottage, a soft susurration at the limit of hearing. In the pre-dawn darkness it sounded like whispering, so human that he strained to distinguish the words. The break of each wave could be a soft consonant, a ‘f’ perhaps, followed by the longer vowel as the water spread over the shingle to leave a softer, lisping sound as the wave retreated. F-aay-th, f-aay-th, endlessly repeated. It was as if a mass of men waited there, watching, murmuring among themselves and all of one, menacing mind.
Enough. Jack didn’t want to start that line of thought again. Breathe the dawn. He stood, walking towards the threat, not running from it. Soon the sandy path beyond the garden gate was a faint paleness between black gorse, and its softness masked his footsteps through trees that were just trees, leading him away from the beach so the dominant sound was the pre-dawn cacophony of seabirds. A stream flowed out into the harbour in Freshwater Bay, tumbling off the hills fast enough to keep the inlet from silting, and sweet enough to allow banks of reeds to form at the water’s edge. Their sound was a soft, silken rustle, as real a bridge onto the peace of Witt Point as the rough logs across the stream.
On the point Jack sat on a stone, sniper still, at one with nature and its morning routine. Navigation lights winked out in the harbour, sending brief pulses of green and red over the water. Grandpa said he found them comforting, these signposts of the sea. Now there was enough light to see shapes moving, black within grey; the snuffling waddle of a badger, the dainty steps of a deer through the trees. He could inhale sea smells and pine resin and dew-damp grass. There used to be a Saxon chapel here, though there was nothing left of it but mounds in the grass and a few corners of dressed, mossy stones that had been brought up when some trees blew down in a storm. Even so, the place was cleansing, as if it had absorbed centuries of devotion and could give back a little of that peace. It was a spot where thoughts could be allowed to float to the surface of the mind.
And that morning, Jack could feel his grandfather slipping away with the tide.