The May Selected Writer is Adam Millard
Please feel free to email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
The minicab pulled over opposite the pier.
Nancy paid the man, who had kept her entertained for the duration of her journey with tales of recent nightclub scuffles and Lowestoft history. She knew a little about the town, for she had spent the majority of her childhood on the North Sea coast. It was, she thought, too long since she’d returned.
After marrying Roger back in ’72, they had moved to Cambridge. Roger’s affinity with the sea had not been as compelling as her own. They had revisited once or twice over the years, but only for dirty weekends or, on the odd occasion when business had been good, meetings with Roger’s board of advisors.
“Are you here for the week?” the cab driver asked as he helped to unload Nancy’s solitary case from the boot. She liked him, and saw his interest as nothing more than conversational pleasantries.
“Actually, just the weekend,” she said. “Staying up at…” she trailed off as she tried to recall the name of the sea-front bed-and-breakfast that she’d booked online. It was something comforting, something that had drawn her attention as she’d browsed the page. “Ah, The Homelea,” she said, rather pleased with herself, though the cab driver appeared to be in no rush, whatsoever, and would probably have been happy to stand all day while she endeavored to recall its name.
“Very posh,” he said. “Well, I hope you have a wonderful weekend and…” He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a yellow card, which he handed to her. “…if you need a cab while you’re here, I’d be more than happy to come pick you up.”
Nancy thanked him—such a lovely man—and waved him away from the kerb. Breathing the North Sea air deep into her lungs, she headed towards the pier. Thankfully, her case had little wheels beneath it making it remarkably easy to transport. Back in the day, Roger would turn red in the cheeks from hefting their cases along the promenade. His palms spent the majority of ’75 white, blistered and, on one occasion, bleeding. Nancy had patched him up at the guest-house only for him to remove the dressing an hour later complaining how it “looked ridiculous”.
Nancy reached the entrance to the pier—a huge arch towered above her which hadn’t been there the last time they’d ventured this Far East—and, as if in welcome, a squabble of seagulls flew by screeching and squawking to one another.
Dragging her case forward, the first thing she realized was how young everybody looked. Children chased each other around the pavilion, pursued by flustered parents. The tinny sounds of arcade-machines filled the air. A gang of what Roger would have referred to as “hoodies” stood beside a hot-dog vendor smoking something that smelt very earthy.
Things have changed, my love, Roger’s voice whispered into her ear. She shuddered, though not through fear of her deceased husband’s unannounced musings; it was nice to hear his voice. No, the tremble had arisen from a sudden gust buffeting past the boardwalk. It was chilly, the summer yet to start, and though the sun was up and in clear view, Nancy was glad of her coat.
She made her way towards the seaward end, her case jumping and rumbling on the boards beneath. Somewhere to her left, a disgruntled mother reproached a disobedient child.
Had it been this noisy back in ’75? She couldn’t recall. That had been around the time Showaddywaddy had performed in the nearby theatre. She remembered hearing Under the Moon of Love drifting out to them as they had stood staring out to sea, huddled together for warmth. When music was music, Roger’s voice said. Whether she was really hearing it, or just memories of something he’d said in the past, she couldn’t be certain. She wasn’t complaining, either way.
She reached the rails at the seaward end and tucked her case neatly behind a bench so that no dashing children—free, momentarily, from their parents—toppled over it.
The sea was fairly choppy; short, shallow waves overlapped one another in quick succession. The resultant sound was music to Nancy’s ears. How could anyone not appreciate the sea? It was glorious, expansive, timeless. She had often dreamed of setting sail and floating out, unaccompanied, to the centre of nowhere. She would quite happily drift forever, and never have to face another soul, another living being other than the ocean’s creatures. There were worse ways to spend one’s twilight years, she opined, smiling to herself.
To her left, something creaked and she turned to find a young boy practically dangling from the coin-operated binoculars which had been welded to the railing.
“Timothy, come away from there,” a woman said as she rushed across to pluck her son from the affixed apparatus. “Don’t leave my sight again.”
“Can I have an ice cream?” Timothy asked. As mother and boy faded from earshot, the last thing Nancy heard was the relenting “yes.” Anything for a quiet life.
Nancy returned her gaze to the coin-operated binoculars. She was suddenly absorbed by fond memories of her standing, peering in through the aperture whilst Roger gripped her tightly from behind. She’d told him that everything looked dark, not magnified at all, and he’d laughed, told her that he hadn’t put any money in yet. When he finally dropped a coin into the slot, everything was magnificent; she could see for miles, right out to the horizon, to where she often dreamt of floating until she was but a speck in the distance.
Without realizing, Nancy was moving towards the binoculars, which were weathered but obviously newer than the ones she had once peered through all those years ago. Fishing around in her purse for change, she searched the aluminum casing for directions. Everything came with so many rules these days, so many guidelines. She had to read half a page before it instructed her to insert 20p (though not in twos or ones as it didn’t accept coppers). Luckily, she had a few coins it would accept, and she plucked them out before reading through the instructions once again, in case she had missed something.
She stepped up to the machine with some trepidation. For some reason, she felt as if all eyes were watching her, that if she were to turn into the pier everyone would be lined up to witness what she was about to do. Of course, that was just her being silly, and yet she allowed the coin to hover over the slot for a few seconds before allowing it to drop.
Slowly, she lowered her head towards the binoculars. These things don’t last forever, Roger’s voice reminded her, and there was something chiding about his tone, something unpleasant that she hadn’t heard for a very long time.
As her eyes fell level with the machine, she noticed a silence from the ocean. The choppiness had gone, as if the wind that had, up until a moment ago, been blowing hard across its surface had been only temporary. The comforting squawking of seagulls overhead reminded her that everything was normal, and that time hadn’t stopped just for her.
There it was. The magnified ocean, just as she remembered it. Out on the horizon clouds hung low; low enough to touch, she thought. She swiveled the binoculars ever-so-slightly to the right. The accompanying creak of ageing joints sounded awfully familiar, and not just because Thomas, the boy that had got away from his mother, had recently been dangling from the machine. No, she could have sworn it was the same rusty groan from four decades ago, if such a thing were possible, which she knew it wasn’t.
She followed a low-flying seagull’s trajectory for a moment before realising her money would soon be out. Focusing on the sea would be much more rewarding. She pushed the machine to the left, which was when she was the ship.
A large freightliner, seemingly sitting right at the shoreward end. Nancy’s heart leapt up into her throat and she accidentally knocked the bridge of her nose against the machine as the confusion washed over her.
Quickly, she pulled her head away and glanced out to where the ship should have been sitting – had been sitting less than a second prior. There was nothing, but she was certain of what she had seen. Without pause, she lowered her face into the machine once again, but found only darkness staring back at her. The 20p had expired.
Her jellified legs threatened to give way beneath her, so she made her way over to the bench and her case, which remained untouched, as one might have expected. When she had regained her composure, she steadily walked along the pier, towards the large arcing entrance.
You saw what you were meant to see, Roger’s voice whispered, and now Nancy did shudder as a result. She hoped, as she ambled bewilderedly away from Lowestoft South pier, that The Homelea wasn’t too far, for she didn’t think her terrified little legs would take it.
Later that night, with a few glasses of gin inside her, Nancy knew that sleep would be far from forthcoming. She couldn’t shake the image of the ship, docked just off the pier, from her thoughts.
It had been there. She was many things, but silly was not one of them. Roger had, towards the end, lost his marbles a little, but she had remained stalwart, possessed of her senses as if she were no older than the day they first met. In all her years, Nancy had never professed to seeing ghosts, or things that weren’t there; she was a skeptic of the highest order, unbelieving of the TV mediums and groups that hung around apparently haunted locations with nothing but night-vision goggles and tape-recorders to do their bidding. If somebody recounted a tale of supernatural to her, she would find herself struggling not to allow her eyes to roll up into her face.
And yet that ship had been there.
Once suitably tipsy from the gin, Nancy decided that there was only one way to alleviate her worries, and that was to return to the pier first thing in the morning and glance, once again, through the coin-operated binoculars.
Why wait until morning? Roger’s voice mocked.
“Oh, shut up, Roger,” she said, immediately feeling silly for engaging the voice.
The pier’s open right now, he continued. You could go down there. See the sights as you are meant to see them.
Nancy wanted to wait until morning, when she would have the added comfort of the rising sun. The last thing she wanted was to go waltzing through the dark towards the unknown. Why Roger was being so insistent, Nancy didn’t know.
“There’s nothing to see,” she said, though she knew it to be a lie.
Oh, you know that’s not true, Nance, Roger’s voice whispered. You go down there, ignore the dark; go see the sights.
She knew there was no point in arguing. Her mind had already been made up. She flung on her coat and padded gently down the stairs, being careful not to wake the other guests, if indeed there were any. When she stepped out into the chill night, the silence hit her like a brick wall. Gone were the squawking seagulls from earlier that day, or yesterday, as it was almost two according to the watch Roger had presented to her on their thirtieth anniversary.
What am I doing? she asked herself, but she had no time to turn back as her feet carried her along the seafront towards the Princess Royal Fountains. By the time she reached them, she knew that the pier would not be open, despite what her dead husband’s voice had said. She crossed the road to find the gates leading onto the boardwalk chained, but she knew that if she was to turn her back, if only for a moment, a way through would present itself.
She faced the road. As she did, she tried to talk herself out of going any farther. When she turned back to the gates, she noticed the gap at the side of the right one. It was large enough to accommodate her ageing, slender frame. She slipped her coat off and stepped through onto the other side. As she made her way past the pavilion, past the bandstand, past the shuttered up hotdog cart that had been a leaning-post for the “hoodies” smoking their special brand of cigarette the previous day, she pulled herself back into the coat which no longer provided enough warmth to comfort her.
Keep going, Roger told her. So much to see, so little time.
She wanted to scream at him, to tell him to shut up. He’d been dead for almost three years and she’d never heard him talk on so incessantly.
She reached the seaward end and the coin-operated binoculars. Panic set in as she realized her purse was back at the guest-house, and yet she knew that tonight, for one night only, the machine would run just fine without payment.
Go on, Nance…
“Don’t call me that, Rog,” she replied as she lowered her head, pulling the binoculars across. The creak—it was the same noise from all those years ago; of course it was—sounded impossibly loud, and Nancy checked across her shoulder to make sure that nobody had heard. An empty chip-paper skittered along the abandoned boardwalk; somewhere, off in the distance, a tin-can rolled back and forth in the breeze. Apart from that, there was total stillness. Even the ocean sighed with relief.
As Nancy glanced into the binoculars, part of her hoped for nothing but darkness. It would have meant that she wasn’t losing her mind. Sure, standing on a deserted pier at two in the morning could be considered a little eccentric, but at least that’s all it would be.
But she was afforded much more than darkness. Much, much more.
Across the ocean, a battle blazed. Cannons fired from a hundred ships. Monolithic beasts, they were, spread across the ocean in perfect formation. Upon the side of one ship, Nancy could determine the name, HMS AGAMEMNON. Turret-mounted guns upon its citadel sprayed fire into the night, yet there was no sound, no tumult. It was like watching a silent movie but in full color.
For almost ten minutes Nancy remained mesmerized by the battle. She couldn’t believe that what she was seeing was real, that it had happened at some point in time. The ships were clearly vintage; there were no missiles, no underwater tomahawks. People stood on the bows firing muskets; bodies, dead or maimed, toppled overboard where the ocean swallowed them up like a ravenous beast. She could see it all unfolding in high-definition through the coin-operated binoculars.
She must have blinked, because as quickly as they had appeared the battleships vanished, leaving no sign that they had ever been there at all. The water was still, calmer even than the previous morning upon her arrival. Her back was beginning to ache from the unnatural position she had maintained, but she was loath to look away.
Don’t look away…
It was as if he could read her thoughts. “I wasn’t going to.”
Something glowed orange front of her eyes, but the sea remained perfectly stagnant. It was, she soon realized, coming from her left. She swung the binoculars around and found herself face-to-face with a ferocious conflagration. The bandstand was burning, though not the same bandstand that she had passed on her way to the seaward end. This one was white; she could see the paint peeling from the structure, floating up into the atmosphere where it blackened and disintegrated. This phantom blaze must have occurred at night, for there were no screaming people, no children running towards the safe arms of their parents. Pages of literature spilled out onto the singeing platform before joining the flaking paint in the darkening cloud above the bandstand. Whether it was the books that had caught fire, just some unfortunate accident, Nancy couldn’t be sure. She would investigate if the chance ever presented itself.
Nancy snapped the binoculars back to the ocean. It took her a few moments to pick out the object floating towards the pier, but when she did it was impossible to look elsewhere.
A small boat, perhaps large enough for two people, rode along on steady waves. There was nobody rowing it or steering it.
“What is it?” she asked, though she already knew the answer.
For us, Roger said. You and me, like you always wanted.
She had never told her husband about the dreams. There might have been occasions where she’d muttered in her sleep, but never during the waking hours. Roger would never have understood; he’d have laughed at her, mocked her, told her to grow up and stop being ridiculous.
We can float away, he whispered. Float until we’re nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
She followed the small wooden dinghy with the binoculars, and when it clattered into the stanchion upon which the pier stood she heard it. Surprised that it had made a noise—unlike the battle, and unlike the blaze that had reduced the previous bandstand to cinders—she said:
“It’s real, isn’t it?”
It’s a way for us to be together, Nance. It’s a way for you to experience the sea in its entirety, wholly experience it.
“But you hate the ocean,” she said. “You said you’d rather do a bungee-jump than go on that cruise with me. Remember?”
Roger, for once, had fallen silent. Nancy used this rare opportunity to locate the small boat with her own eyes, and not those of the binoculars. It was there, bobbing around, clattering gently against the pier. She could see it through the half-inch gaps in the boardwalk, and also the blanket that had been laid out on its floor. Ever the romantic, Roger had always taken good care of her, and it seemed that his gentlemanly behavior had followed him into the afterlife.
I don’t want to be alone anymore, he whispered.
Nancy was already looking for a way down to the dinghy. As if the boat might suddenly disappear, she began to panic. “How do I reach it?” she asked, scrambling from one side of the pier to the other. “How do I get down there?”
The wind whistled as if in warning, but Nancy was too enchanted to pay it any heed. When Roger told her that she had to jump to reach it, she didn’t hesitate for a second. Even as her body slammed into the freezing water, she remained focused on the wooden boat that would carry her out over the sea, drifting endlessly to nowhere in particular.
Her legs were broken from the plunge into the cold water, and her right arm hung listlessly against her frail body as it began to float along on the tide. The boat, that little glimmer of hope she had seen through the coin-operated binoculars and then, again, with her own eyes, was gone, as if it had never been there to begin with.
Through the binoculars welded to the railing up on the seaward end, Nancy’s body floated—broken—into the distance until she was nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
Adam Millard is the author of twenty novels, ten novellas, and more than a hundred short stories, which can be found in various collections and anthologies. Probably best known for his post-apocalyptic fiction, Adam also writes fantasy/horror for children, as well as bizarro fiction for several publishers. His “Dead” series has been the filling in a Stephen King/Bram Stoker sandwich on Amazon’s bestsellers chart, and the translation rights have recently sold to German publisher, Voodoo Press.