All That Was Not Lost

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The following is the result of my #SummerOfWords - a challenge I set myself, and others, to write a book a little at a time. You can read more about that challenge and link up to the other participants here. Mine is a short story which I wrote over 14 installments, but is still the longest tale I've ever told. And of that - and of all who have joined in with #SummerOfWords - I am very proud.

All That Was Not Lost

In circumstances which could best be described as sheer chance, Annie crossed the path to the beach at exactly the minute the mail boys bike collided with the corner post.

'Are you okay?!' - letters and postcards and parcels of a smaller size, scattered themselves haphazardly, whilst the flustered owner of the bicycle scrabbled to right himself from the fall.

'Let me help you with those' - and stooping to collect together what she could, Annie satisfied herself that he was not badly injured, straightened his cap in a somewhat motherly fashion, and carried on her way.

And that should have been the end of that.

But I've heard it said before that circumstances will always endeavour to point us in the direction best disposed to their needs. As if outcomes - favourable or otherwise - may be aided and abetted by what appears of the littlest consequence at the time.

And indeed it was not until days later that the smallest of the fallen parcels happened to catch her eye, glinting as it did in its silver wrap, and tumbled to a clever place of hiding amidst all things green - climbing and trailing and mimicking the track to the shore.

But glint it did - and never the type to miss an object of interest - Annie plucked it then and drew it forth into our tale.

And if the breeze altered slightly, if the air cooled a fraction amidst rustling trees, she gave no sign of noticing. Had you passed her on the footpath that afternoon, there would have been little about her stature to suggest even the slightest notion of an important event one may later wish to recall.

Yet important it was. For something lost - which could easily have found its way to earth - to sand and soil and underneath - was in that moment saved. And as is the case with all forgotten treasures which find their way into the right hands, it made its decision to stay - employing every force of magnetism that an inane object possibly could.

Assuming, of course, you believe objects to be inane - which Annie did, which I did, and which most of us do today - until events twist and skew themselves in such a fashion that we are given reason to doubt. An uncomfortable vantage point - and one from which our world can never present itself quietly to the eye again.

But then and there the silver foil was nothing more than the ordinary wrap of a birthday gift. Distinct perhaps from the standard manilla brown, but an innocent, cheery parcel none the less, and one which Annie was keen to deliver to its intended recipient as soon as she could find the address.

Of which - obviously - there was none.

None at all - no evidence that a label may have been placed or peeled or lost. Smooth bright foil - muddied only in slight by its brief foray into the wild.

Perhaps it was the size (for small things are often of the greatest import), that drew her to peel the paper back. Or the perfectly acceptable fact that an un-opened parcel, bearing no forwarding address, could present little clue as to whom or where it should belong. Whatever the reason it is not important now, and I have little doubt that the object willed Annie - pulled and whispered and urged in its own quiet way - to be opened up.

A cardboard box - brown and utterly plain. And inside a compass - silver and of such tiny proportion - one immediately knew it to be a special thing. Precision and workings of a delicate size, all encased in the sturdiest of metal shells. Heavy and solid - carved on the rear with an intricate fish - and a pleasure to hold or observe.

I speak as one who knows. I have, over the years, handled piece upon piece of intrigue. Beauty and charm and objects to challenge the mind - items of great value and greater purpose - curiosities by which I have been lucky enough to make a decent living.

But Annie knew nothing of this, and slipping the thing safely in her pocket, she folded the shiny wrap and briskly walked the 50 metres home.

Home was atop a slope. With a view along the estuary and a clear aspect to the wind farm 15 miles or so off-shore. Out of season the village was quiet, achingly so, but she loved the place - with the keen possession of one who has been city bound and known longing for the coast.

'A fish out of water' she had said - until the day came when they packed the boxes, turned the key in the lock and moved 60 miles south.

There was no post office in the village. No scuffed and wooden counter at which to explain her find. She placed the compass on the dresser shelf, hung her raincoat on the back door peg, and peeled some potatoes for the evening meal.

..........

Annie had family. A boy at school and a husband who was absent week about. A ferry to sail to the Irish Coast. It suited living here - a watery horizion to peruse when it felt like a while since Adam had been around.

Lonelier at night - Tom in bed and not really one for TV. She often left it on - a voice in the corner of the room - flickering lights and a certain reassuring drone. But there was little of interest, when Adam arrived home the screen would fall silent for days.

Tom missed his Dad. A Daddy's boy. Tears and sulking silence as his father packed to go. 'I'll be back soon Tom - look after Mum and remember you're chief keeper for me now'.

A game invented on leaving their city flat, when Tom had refused to settle in a new bed, shaped like a boat by a dorma window on the top floor. Keepers fell asleep first - dreamt of pirates and sailed their wooden bed across the waves, watching and guarding and keeping rival hordes at bay.

"I never see the ferry Daddy - I never see your yellow cabin with the yellow light".

"I'm asleep Tom - like you. Lights out at bedtime - lights out in the water or we'll keep the sea awake".

So Tom slept well and kept the waves. 8pm to bed and only when rain or hail battered the bedroom glass did he wake and creep the boards to Annie's room.

And they walked to school, half a mile and a quiet road. Past the hotel, past the gift shop and the RNLI. Driven in wet weather and once winter arrived barely another soul in sight. 

But it was summer now - approaching 3pm and time to go. Grabbing keys from the dish on the dresser Annie regarded the compass, running fingers over silver grooves and curves. She would drive tomorrow to the nearest town, to the post office where she could explain the bicycle accident and the lack of address. They would know what to do with it there. It was a pretty thing - the sort to fascinate Adam. Bad timing that he was away. 

Like she'd reasoned with Tom when he brought home the kitten from the end of the village path - it wouldn't do to keep what wasn't theirs.

..........

And it wasn't theirs - not by right. Not as one makes a decision to buy, or is presented with a carefully chosen gift. It had been found and - luck or design - it had little intention of moving on.

A silent hall - once Annie slammed the door and footsteps faded down the garden and beyond. But for a little noise. Two goldfish in a vast glass bowl swam oblivious as a whirring, clicking and spinning vibration gradually increased.

On the flat polished top of the dresser the compass circled, slowly building speed. And if magnets, absolutely anchored north, can spin on axis and skew magnetics to their own clever means - I imagine the compass did exactly that.

For right then all which had been calm was called upon - snapshots, books and notes on the fridge door. Words and numbers and scribbled scrawl. Every thought and memory - every bright sunny day spent beside the beach. Every rain storm, every ordinary cup of tea. Letters written home - every laugh, every cry, every tear. Fleeting moments drawn forth. The compass pulled on every waking memory since Annie had first walked through the front door. In the filtered sunlight of the hall they clustered and fused and glowed. Like a giant spinning storm of thought.

Which spun out through the letterbox and followed Annie down the road.

And it may not be the reason she forgot. Or the reason why that afternoon and in the days ahead she felt her head may burst. Why evenings were spent in the company of letters and journals and baby albums of Tom. Why distraction found her in every corner she turned. Why the silver compass with the silver scales, blended and merged and was thought of little more. Why it became familiar - urged the house and those who walked its halls, to forget entirely that a curious and tiny thing had not in fact always been around.

And the shiny paper, crushed and lost in the pocket of a yellow mac - hung on a peg and left to dry - survived as the only reminder of an afternoon walk and a find.

But it was the holidays now. No more school and seven weeks of Tom at home. Let it stay dry, she thought. They had plans for the sunny days - their first proper summer at the beach. Days and weeks to spend outdoors.

'Home now Tom'.

And as he crossed the door, the tiny compass dial - bent and spun entirely off course - snapped back in place to magnetic north.

The compass had found Tom.

..........

Annie's boy. Tom who knew of keepers and guarding the sea. Who listened carefully whilst his father whispered of night sailors who followed the stars. Who found their way by compass like the one he held in his palm.

He had never before found anything like that. Knew when he retrieved it from below the hall dresser that he wouldn't tell his Mum. Slipped the silver roundel in the stuck-fast velcro pocket of his shorts.

And the holidays began. Of bikes and sturdy trees. Sandcastles, wading and skimming stones on the beach. A moments run from home to sea.

And the sun warm and gold. The wind dropped and the water resembled that of a mill pond. It seemed to Tom that all around him life took on a brighter note. Like colours and light turned up a notch. He swam, he ran, he climbed - he shone - somewhat brighter than before.

As if the roundest, smoothest pebble could be called to hand by the mere desire that it should be his own. As if tide crept closer only to cool his hot and weary toes. Tom - that summer - believed magic was his own. But if the compass wielded magnetic power at all, there was another over whom it had little control.

Adam - week off, week on. Tom would have given the beach, the sea, the world beyond, to have his Father stay home. Like the other Dads, of the other boys, the rest of the length of the shore. And maybe that's why Adam brought Mackie home. A westie pup. And Tom - and Annie - fell in love.

And Mackie wouldn't leave his side. Annie paid for a red leather collar with a name tag at the neck. A silver fish - on which Tom in the town store, insisted. It looked good they agreed. Reminded Annie of something else, slipped from mind. A trinket she expected - from the gift shop by the beach.

The dog suited Tom, she loved the days when the three of them walked. Tom always had a plan, a place to go. He had settled well. They made a brave pair - small scruffy dog and her freckled boy with the new-found glow.

And it was Mackie who found the boat, kept on the beach and under a worn hessian sack. Two oars, and the whole thing very small. A wooden dinghy of sorts. The dog tore at the sack and jumped aboard. Annie laughed and told Tom it was Davie's boat.

So Davie Blane, from the cottage by the sea wall, took Tom and his gutsy dog aboard. Never far from shore but a tight squeeze and Annie declined to go. Little by little Davie taught Tom how to steer and how to row.

And Davie learnt of keepers, and of guarding the waves, in return.

'You swim Tom?' and Tom nodded his reply.

'Lessons mind, at the pool in town - tell your Mum. We've lost to the sea here once before. A local fisherman, maybe 60 years ago. Superstitious fool. What the sea wants the sea will take. It's an old notion hereabouts. But he never learned to swim - claimed he held too much respect for the waves. A death wish Tom. We practice common sense these days.'

And he bought Tom a hat - from the RNLI - red cap with the letters stitched 'Lifeguard'.

'You're skipper mind.'

'Keeper', Tom replied.

Davie Blane just winked and smiled.

And Tom slept well in his boat shaped bed. Afternoons spent aboard the dinghy gave night-time adventures much added depth. Tucked under sheets with the hat. And he hid the compass in his pillow case. Kept from Annie in fear that she would confiscate the very thing he loved the best. Only Mackie was allowed, and sometimes when he held the compass Tom heard Mackie growl.

And the nightmares of before, when they had first moved to the new home, were gone. Tom dreamt great adventures, sailed oceans navigated by compass and by dog. He would build a dinghy of his own - as soon as he was old enough.

Adam saw the difference in his boy, told Annie so.

'He loves it Adam - the sea. He's happy here, and he adores the dog. I guess only - he misses his Dad.'

'There's the chance of a local move Ann. Island hopper route - mixed shifts but based from home. It's only maybe though, don't mention it yet to Tom, I wouldn't want to dash his hopes.'

Or her own, Annie thought.

But Adam was due back. Kissed his wife and walked with Tom to the car at the foot of the path.

'I like the hat'. Pulled the Lifeguard cap from the boys head and ruffled his hair. 'Chief Keeper remember. Make sure Davie knows that'.

And Tom - who would have done most anything to make his father proud - was overcome then with a need to tell of what he hadn't whispered to another soul. Hand in pocket he pulled the compass out.

'Look Dad. Look at what I found'.

The sun glared suddenly through broken cloud. Hit the silver case and momentarily blinded Adam head on. Squinting and shielding his eyes he took the compass from the boy.

'Where did you find this? Tom?'

There was no mistaking the breeze. Like a low whistle then, the sort to stir and raise quiet seas.

'From Davie', Tom lied.

'It's no toy son, we'll give it to Mum, I'm sure it's something Davie wants to keep'.

'No!' Tom would be caught out. 'He said I could have it just tonight. Mum agreed'.

Adam couldn't quite pinpoint what didn't feel right. 'Be sure and keep it in the house. I'm late Tom - tell your Mum I'll call. Say I'll phone her from the boat tonight.' He handed Tom the compass and reversed out the drive.

It took only a moment for Tom to realise. 'Dad!' he cried, but it was already too late. 'Dad - stop! - you've got my hat'.

Tears pricked his eyes and he knew Adam was gone - 'My hat', he said in defeat. 'Davie's hat. The one I need to sleep'.

..........

And cast your mind back - 20, 40, even 60 years. Do you remember how it feels? To be that young - when treasured objects and belongings are all you've yet accumulated in the world. To take words at face value and not yet have the maturity of perspective when things go wrong.

Well that was Tom.

And Annie tried to understand why the missing hat caused so much upset. Told him they could walk the next morning, buy another cap from the beach. But it was no use. He cried through dinner, bath and book.

Tom told her that he couldn't sail - couldn't keep the sea for Dad - couldn't sleep - without the hat. But keepers were Adam's game, amidst the upset the meaning passed Annie by. 'We can phone love - Dad will tell you that you'll get it back.'

So they tried - but the voice on the boat said Adam was aboard, busy with pre-sail checks and couldn't come to the phone. 'He'll call back', Annie re-assured, and Tom was put to bed.

And it was no more than one of those things - when lack of understanding and bad timing conspire against events. But I believe to speak to Adam may have put Tom's mind a little at rest. I blame - in some part - the lost phone-call for all that happened next. For as Mackie slept, Tom slipped from the covers and slipped from the bed. Took the compass, woke the dog, and crept the hall and stairs.

Wellies and socks, rubber handled torch and a newly oiled latch on the front door. 'Quiet Mackie - shhhh'.

It was gone 9pm when they reached the shore.

And if Tom felt scared dragging the wooden dinghy from its hiding place - if he glanced towards home at the top of the slope and mouthed his mothers name - then he told himself that Chief Keepers need to guard the waves. That those with boats - with a dinghy they've been taught to sail - do the job best themselves. For he couldn't sleep without the hat. It was at sea, on the ferry with his Dad. West over waves and past the wind farm. Tom would sail and get it. A keeper could do that.

And if a compass can call on thought and catch an eye, if magnetics can pull and brighten the day of a child who misses his Dad - north and south and all but magic in the palm of a hand...

Can it know in this moment that things have gone too far?

And if so - can it act? Like a soldier trained for war, who fears and wants - in equal measure - the moment he's been training for. Who waits and needs for that hour to come. Who is poised, ready to go. If the compass had a purpose could it help now that it's owner had a cause?

In the growing breeze the current was strong. Cloud gathered above and sun-bleached skies of the afternoon were gone. Tom and Mackie - within minutes - were 50 metres off the shore.

..........

Annie was ill at ease, it had been months since she'd seen Tom so upset. In the corner of the lounge the TV flickered and the volume droned. She attempted a book but the words swam. All had gone quiet from Tom's room - loathe to disturb she waited until late.

Gone. And the dog.

'Tom?'

Annie walked, flung open doors the length of the hall. There was no one at home. Nothing to indicate where the boy or Mackie had gone.

She grabbed a coat. Outside the evening grew heavy and overcast. The breeze built as she raced the slope towards the beach.

'TOM! Where are you?! MACKIE!'

Nothing. Quiet but for the sea.

From the path she scanned the beach - sand and pebbles clear to the waters edge. Harder to distinguish shapes by the boulders to the left. And then, 'The dinghy. Oh Tom no...'

From its corner the boat was gone, hessian sack the only clue it had been there at all. It made no sense that Tom should take it on his own. She could see nothing on the water, the bay curved inland and it was hard to see beyond.

'TOM!'

Silence but for waves breaking the shore. Sweat prickled Annie's scalp as she dropped the coat and ran towards the road.

And when was the last time you ran like that? Like a child - wild hair and flat out. Lungs fit to burst and an ache that urges you to stop. Oblivious to all else around. But Annie was no girl - it was a mothers sick, sudden panic which drove her on.

Dizzy and panting for breath she hammered on Davie Blane's door.

..........

It grew colder in the boat, cotton pyjamas made not the best sailing clothes. Mackie sat, huddled by Tom's legs and listened to the creaking of the oars.

They had drifted, pulled by the current around the bay and Tom could no longer see home. As the waves grew it suddenly seemed foolish to be out, on the water when it was getting dark. And Tom the little boy he was. This was further than Davie had ever rowed - in the growing dim he could barely see the wind farm to the north. Adam's ferry seemed a long way off and Tom wondered might they be able to turn. A wave surged and rocked the dinghy, and rain - which had waited all day - began to fall.

Tears then, and the compass in Tom's pocket felt solid and warm. He drew it out and held it close. Still dry, Mackies fur felt safe against the cold.

And I've long wondered at possessions which mean the most - present in time of great fear and greater love - at the notion that they may act as a sponge. Like a sword thrust in battle or a keepsake clasped at birth. That energy and emotion may be soaked up, recorded, and become an inherent part.

As for the compass Tom knew nothing of the past. Neither cared nor asked. Fear was in the moment and the sea was rising fast.

..........

And it was Davie who raised the alarm. Banged on every wooden door the length of the row. Coats and boots and Annie's neighbours swarmed. Some to the beach - and others to the RNLI station on the road.

And the shore was lit by torch, voices rang as men and women called out for Tom. And a few, older than most, remembered a different night and a different storm. Whilst strangers arms held Annie close - who cried and shook and took her eyes, not a minute, from the coast. From the horizion where any moment now she'd see the boat - see Tom and see the dog.

And from someone else's phone, she sobbed to Adam and told him that their son - for all she could assume - was on the water and was lost. And from a ferry which high winds had kept in dock, Adam heard her words and dropped the phone and ran.

And they say it is the dying who see life flash before their eyes, yet stood in sand and pouring rain Annie blinked through Tom's past. Infant boy swaddled and safe in a hospital ward, crawling then and later running out the door. Child's cries screamed from the gulls above - ghosts on a beach in a growing storm.

The lifeboat launched - engine roared and searchlights on. And someone handed Annie back her coat. Yellow and hooded and a summer of not being worn - not since the day that school had stopped. It was cold - hand placed in pockets she found the silver foil.

..........

And in the boat Tom rocked, small and lost, held onto Mackie and called for his Mum. Called for his father and cried out to go home. Whilst the swell grew - should a higher wave fall then the moment when the boat would tip was close. No further now. The compass did the only thing it could to prevent the disaster it had been sent to stop - abandoned all resistance and plunged itself back towards the earth's magnetic core. It fell from Tom's hand and fell from the boat. He lunged to grab it, and was thrown with Mackie to the surf.

And who went over first? From the liferaft Davie wasn't sure - with the dingy in their sights they were seconds from the boy.

And in the water Tom saw lights, thrashed and gulped as cold waves crashed and pulled him down. Underneath he made nothing out - not Mackie who scrabbled for life, nor the solid, silver fish, round in appearance and brighter than the lights. It had never willed for Tom to take the dinghy out. It swirled and circled and then sank further down. Deeper than Tom and quickly - lastly - out of sight.

It was Davie's arm which pulled Tom out, short of the worst of the crashing swell by yards. Had the boy sailed any further he would almost certainly have been lost.

They radioed the beach and Annie collapsed.

..........

But Tom - and Mackie - made it home. And the village cheered and wept and carried on. And a few, Davie Blane amongst, slept sound in their beds and knew that 2 lives had, thanks to them, been saved. And as is the way with all great adventures of boyhood, Tom set foot on the road to becoming a man. A distant future of slipways and lifeboats and late night alarms. Of those lost - in the water and out of their depth. The service of others who found themselves in need of aid.

And I speak as one who knows. Who has - a long, long time ago - clung in the dark to the side of a boat. Who lost a father but held a younger brother close. Who cried and yelled and trusted help would come. Who gripped a compass tight in a watery palm. Who owes her life to the men who left the warmth and safety of home. Rescue bound in the worst of sudden storms.

I would not live to see a story such as theirs be lost.

And my compass in a box. Lucky charm at sea that night and all the years to come. Mine to only weeks ago post north. Wrapped in foil with a handwritten scrawl. 'For those who keep the sea at night to find their way back home'. Posted to the RNLI on the North Shore Road.

For I need it no more.

A speeding bike under summer sun, a label lost in a sudden fall. A chain of lucky events which led to Tom.

Assuming - of course - you believe in luck. Which Annie did, which I did, and which most of us need never otherwise have reason to explore.

The end.






8 comments:

  1. Wonderful. I hadn't had a chance to read the last few instalments, so I just took a break and allowed myself the pleasure of reading the whole story in one go. Loved it! You are very talented, such a way with words xx

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    1. Thank you - it was a labour of love and I'm so pleased you liked it x

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  2. Such a great read - a tiny tear of joy rolled down my cheek! x

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    1. Me too! Sniffling at my own fiction... Tom and Annie really got under my skin! x

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  3. Oh I believe in luck, and if I hadn't before I most definitely would have done after reading this. A beautiful tale told so poetically. Helen you have such a rare talent xx

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    1. Thank you so much this story became really special to me x

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  4. Oh Helen, I absolutely loved this, this is just my kind of story and you told it with your usual fabulous skill. This, is as good a short story as I have ever read and I've read a lot. You never fail to wow me with your words and I intended to read this with my cup of tea and, well, my teas gone cold, I couldn't stop to pick up the cup. Superb xxxx

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  5. This is just gorgeous! Read the final part through tear-filled eyes. So beautiful and lyrical and just...wow.

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Thank you so much for commenting - it really does make my day x