A HISTORY OF MEN AT SEA by Jack Wildern

Chris said it would be easy. We just had to avoid crashing into the pier when we launched. He liked the sea and I liked getting lost. Taking the boat out to the fort suited us both.

It took two hours to get the old dinghy to the water’s edge. We didn’t have a car or a trailer so we made the trip from the dockyard dragging the boat behind us. 

A wave hit the hull as we passed the surf into calmer water. 

“There. You see it?” Chris pointed towards the shape jutting out of the sea, little more than a stone in the distance. 

A stone became a rock and then the rock became a cylindrical shape with black granite walls and armour plating. I imagined the ghosts of men lining the top, preparing themselves for our invasion.

Landing was hard. The iron piles that once supported a landing deck had disappeared. Our boat was a toy in a bathtub, as it heaved against the rusty ladder that served as the only means of access.  

When we finally got it tied to a rung and made our way to the top, we were drenched and cold and looking back at the town from the fort. The lights from the buildings blinked yellow and white. Chris took two beers from his wet backpack. 

“It’s even shittier from a distance,” he said.

The town was where we lived, but we could never call it a home. It was dying. The pipes that carried oil were drying up, quicker than the veins of those who worked them. 

There were machines in the fields full of rust that billowed fumes into the sky. Even from a distance we could see smoke engulfing houses. It would leak through windows and settle on the skin of men. 

Those men fought each other on Friday nights. My father used to take me to watch. There were no seats. Men drank. They all smelled of the fields where the machines laboured. 

“Yeah, well, we’re here now.” I threw my empty bottle over the side and heard waves swallow glass

We explored the lower floor of the fort first, swigging beers as we went. Chris pretended to be a sailor and spoke in an awful accent.

Before Chris, I hung around with a girl with red hair. We used to sit by the cliff edge and watch the gulls circle in search of dead things washed up on the shore. 

My father worked for her father, changing tyres with a wrench. He used the same wrench to beat the life out of her belly before he burst my eardrum and shattered my father’s legs. I have never told Chris this story. 

“Mate, this place is disgusting.” Chris ran his fingers along a toilet wall by torchlight. The concrete floor held human stains in dark, dry puddles. “You know, they’d only send men here who couldn’t swim. They’d drop them off by boat and leave them here to keep lookout. Poor bastards couldn’t escape.” 

The light from his torch picked up names scratched into the flaking paint. Amongst them, modern musings were written in pen and graffiti. A brickwork tapestry. A history of men trapped with stories and questions with no answers.

We laughed and smashed our bottles against the wall, destroying the names that came before us and giving them their freedom.

Later, we sat on the roof of the fort with our legs through the railings and cursed the town, which got further away as night fell. We listened to moans of steel rising and falling with the waves. 

Chris got up and saluted our life on the mainland. He held a hand next to his right eye. 

When I first met him, that eye was purple and red. He’d told me he’d been in a fight. Someone else told me his father had done it. Sometimes he rubs the place where the bruise used to be. I don’t ask him about it. 

We drank. We smashed our bottles. We scrawled our stories into the brick. Later, other men would come and add their own ghosts.


Jack Wildern writes short fiction. His work is featured in X-R-A-Y and Night Picnic amongst others. He lives in Hampshire UK.www.jackwildern.com

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

Read Next: THE OLD LADY WITH THE GOLD LAMÉ PUMPS by Kerry Rawlinson