On dewy grass above the sand dunes, shadows of pandanas leaves swayed to meet each other and part, like guests at a dinner party wandering through conversations. A withered man wearing a heavy coat stood in the space between the lips of the sea and the powdery sand. The water, begging to lick his knobbed feet, was always disappointed as he shuffled stiffly backwards before it could reach him. He never gave in to its pleading to envelope his body. Especially not on this cold morning, before the sun had risen and the beach was lifeless. The water, uninterrupted by a wave or ripple all the way to the horizon, was at its most likeable for Clement. In a mood like this, the ocean did not wish to devour his body with ravaging waves, but to caress him, to comfort him.
Clement stood still, letting the line of sunlight ascend his body as the sun rose. He folded his coat on the sand as beams of warmth pierced his skin, smoothing away goose bumps on his arms. His shoulder blades and spine jutted through a thin white singlet. Most of the hair had fallen from his body. A gold watch with a brown leather wrist strap hung around the bottom of his palm. He only took it off to shower and sleep, its face ticking towards him on his bedside table. June gave it to him on his fiftieth birthday.
With the rising of the sun came people. He wore his coat when people were around. Clement picked up the coat and brushed a layer of sand off shakily as a tanned girl jogged past. He watched her muscled legs pounding into the sand, her arms swinging in time with each step. If Clement did not look down, he could almost imagine the body he had in his twenties. He used to be unaware of his strength.
Whenever he and June took Ethel to the seaside, it was June who waded through the shallow water, holding her daughter’s tiny fists above her head as her legs sporadically kicked the water. Clement sat on his red beach chair, reading the day’s paper. Somehow, in his long lifetime he had never swam in the ocean.
Squinting wistfully at the early surfers, he imagined propelling himself through the water. Weightless, buoyant, like floating through the blue sky.
Clement slipped his arms into his coat and turned his back to the water. Let it creep up the sand, let it swallow people in its salty embrace, let it eternally kiss the land. He did not need to swim in the ocean. He trudged back up the sand, smooth with the absence of footprints. His feet moved slowly. Clement realised, with a thought as slow and icy as the morning tide, that he had not done everything in life he had hoped to. As a young man, he dreamed of abandoning all he knew and adopting the road. He was spontaneous, but never acted upon it. Domesticity took over, creeping into his life until he had sunk into middle age by his thirties. Now, he was near the end. June had died and Ethel grown up, leaving Clement to do what he liked. There was nothing to hold him back except his own mind.
This epiphany welled up inside him, flooding his body with a heavy dread. Soon, he would be unable to come to the beach. Soon, he would have to move to a nursing home. Soon, he would die.
Clement turned around to the lake-ocean. The sun was still rising. His legs began to move, knees high through the sand, towards the water. He shook his coat off, eyes to the horizon. He took off his shoes, socks, trousers and white singlet. Clement still stared at the horizon, the invisible line where dark blue met light blue. His veined feet disappeared in the sudden gush of a wave, reaching frothy fingers to his kneecaps. The hem of his boxer shorts darkened. Higher and higher, until they clung to his thighs. Higher. Clement skimmed his hands on the water at his waist, creating ripples on the calm water’s surface. Water inched past his wrinkled belly-button, up to his ribs. He walked like an astronaut. He still stared at the horizon, barely aware of the ocean around him.
A sun-bleached surfer bobbed a few metres away from Clement. He heard the old man wading behind him, barely audible over the peaceful waves. The fragility of the man’s skin and his sunken, hairless body made the surfer swivel his board around. “Hey, excuse me – do you need some help?” Clement was now submerged to his shoulders. His head jutted out of the water, like an ancient turtle breathing in air. In the space of one wave collapsing onto the sand, his head had disappeared. Laying down on his surfboard, the young man propelled himself towards where Clement had been. His head was just below the surface, his body upright but limp, as if he had been frozen in mid-walk.
Sunlight splayed through the water’s layer, illuminating the sand here and there as the surface rhythmically bobbed. Clement felt his body become liquid, swaying with the water. The chill in his skin disappeared. This salty underworld caressed his aching body, his fretting mind. He just floated, light as nothingness.
The surfer wrapped a strong arm around Clement’s ribcage and hoisted the tiny man onto his surfboard. His red eyes stared at the surfer’s face, blinking with saltiness. Vaguely, he realised that this face reminded him of someone he used to know. A youthful, powerful man, full of life. Himself. The sky behind the boy’s head had morphed from pink to light blue, nearly the colour of the ocean.
Clement did not notice the sand he now lay on, the surfer’s hands pumping his chest, or the thick water coming from his mouth.
He saw the shadows of ripples upon underwater sand.