Leonie Harrison lives on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Canberra and writes mainly short stories and flash fiction with several publications to her credit.
Gone, the Sailor
by Leonie Harrison
There are rules about burial at sea. Olive hadn’t expected to learn them quite so soon. “A Viking send-off,” Ron had said. “No hole in the ground for me. I want to go out in a blaze of glory.” He’d explained how when a Viking dies, his body is set adrift on the sea in a burning boat. “Then his mates keep watch through the night,” he’d told her. “And if the sun comes up red the next morning, it’s a sign that he was a true Viking warrior.”
Stupid bloody idea thought Olive, dismissing it out of hand. Ron couldn’t call himself a sailor. He could barely go out in their little runabout without feeling seasick. The closest he came was the half-finished boat in their back yard. Hours he spent on that boat, he and Tim their youngest. The other two had left years ago. Robert, the oldest boy, had some fancy job in computers and Colin worked as a consultant, something to do with business management. They’d both tried to explain to Olive what it was they did, but they may as well have been speaking a foreign language. She could never understand how she and Ron had grown these two young men who lived in such alien worlds. There was the occasional visit home, but the seaside town where they grew up was too small to hold them.
Tim was the practical, down to earth one. Rock solid like his dad. He loved the small community and his job as a mechanic at the local garage. Most of all, he loved working with his father, the two of them, side by side, lost in the rhythm of bending and shaping the hull. Olive sometimes thought they’d be sorry when it was finished, they’d miss that easy companionship, except now they never would build their dream.
A carpenter. That’s what Ron was. A man of wood. His hands were calloused from years of sawing and rasping and planing. He was never happier than when working with his beloved timber. Ron was a solid man with thick neck and shoulders. True he’d gone a bit soft around the middle, and he didn’t have much hair left, but his arms were still firm and strong. He wasn’t pretty, but he was dependable as they come, always ready to lend a hand. No local fundraiser would be complete without Ron’s smiling face and booming voice guaranteed to part even the most reluctant scrooge from his money. “All in a good cause,” he’d say. Ron thought the whole world was a good cause, but behind the ruddy complexion and jovial manner lurked the menace of high blood pressure and a struggling heart.
Of course he had to play in the veteran’s grudge soccer match. When he pitched full length on the field after scoring the one and only goal, Olive was shocked but not surprised. It took the crowd a little longer to realize that Ron would never get up again. The whistles and cheers hung for a moment in the air then vanished into stunned silence. There were people who still couldn’t bring themselves to look Olive in the eye, ashamed to think they’d cheered, as Ron lay helpless on the ground. She wanted to tell them it was okay, that Ron wouldn’t mind. He would have enjoyed the rousing finale, but Olive couldn’t find the energy or the words. She couldn’t find the energy for anything these days. Except the images. No matter how hard she tried they never changed. Time and again she saw Ron kick the ball. Saw the fluke, magnificent goal, and the wide triumphant smile as he punched his fist in the air. Time and again she saw him topple, but she never saw him rise.
Burial at sea was out of the question. “Was he a fisherman?” they’d asked. “Did he serve in the navy?” Ron was neither. How to explain what the sea meant to a landlubber like Ron? The smell, the feel of it, the dip and rise of the swell that to him was like a beautiful symphony. The sea was Ron’s soul place.
“You do know there are depth restrictions?” No, she didn’t know. Seems Olive didn’t know much at all. There was a form of course. A sea dumping permit they called it. Olive shuddered at the thought of Ron being dumped at sea in waters at least 3,000 meters deep. It was a relief to hang up the phone.
Now, here she sat on the beach surrounded by close friends, as she watched her eldest son attempt to launch the makeshift raft that held his father’s ashes. At least Ron wouldn’t be on the raft. Olive didn’t think she could take that. In his place, on a bed of straw, sat a wooden urn; all that was left of Olive’s warm, larger than life husband. It didn’t seem right somehow that the great lump of a man who’d meant the world to her could be made so small. Now they would burn him a second time, only events weren’t going so smoothly.
“Keep it discreet,” Alderman Haynes had said. He’d never had such a request before and wasn’t sure what to do. “We’ll make it unofficially, official. No need to involve the police. I’ll have a word to Tom Bryce. Make sure he’s on patrol somewhere else at the time. “
It began just fine. Sunshine. Calm sea. A perfect day all things considered. They hadn’t counted on the quirks of nature and the fragility of raw nerves, or on the fact that the whole town would gather to witness Ron’s last hurrah. The discreet ritual was turning into a public debacle.
Robert had insisted that he be the one to launch the raft. “I’m the eldest,” he’d said. “It’s up to me.” At thirty-three he looked younger than ever to Olive. She felt a thousand years old herself. She cursed Ron and his grand schemes. This was too much to ask of a son. She’d promised, but promises and crazy notions are not the same as reality. Reality is a son dressed in his best suit, about to burn what remained of his father. Ah, the suit. Robert had insisted. “For dad,” he’d said. “I want to do him proud.” Olive didn’t have the heart to tell him that the rolled up sleeves and trouser legs spoiled the effect.
Olive watched as Robert pushed the raft out through the flat surf, carrying a lump of timber wrapped in a fuel soaked rag. This makeshift torch would light his father on his way. Knee deep in water, Robert steadied himself and leaned forward to give the raft a gentle push. A wave came out of nowhere, tilted the raft, pulled it from Robert’s grasp and dumped him in the water.
Probably the only wave in the whole ocean today. Just as well his brothers were there to drag him spluttering from the surf, otherwise they might be having a double send-off. The other two at least had the sense to strip down to their swimmers.
The crowd that had gathered were mostly neighbors and townsfolk, with the odd tourist craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the local color. Olive sensed their concern and support but wished them anywhere but here. They watched as Robert tried his best to wring out his drenched suit, only to give up and wade back out to the raft. His hand reached into his pocket. Out came a soggy box of matches. To make matters worse, the torch he’d dropped when he’d been dumped by the wave was drifting away down the beach, too wet now to be of any use. A groan ran through the crowd.
The look on Robert’s face might have been comical under other circumstances. Olive knew that look. She’d seen it countless times. When he was three and the duck bit his fingers. When he was five and the chain broke on his new bike. When he was thirteen and he found out that Sally Wilson had kissed his best friend Jimmy Reynolds. Olive was caught between tenderness and irritation, as she watched the grown up Robert’s face crumple, the “oh” of surprise as he struggled to work out how come his matches were wet and what to do next. His brothers weren’t much help. There they stood patting their bare chests and thighs searching in invisible pockets for dry matches. Neither of them even smoked.
Olive’s friend Betty stifled a moan. Olive’s eyes darted to Betty’s face, afraid of what she might see there. Olive herself didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or curse. She felt rather than saw the crowd turn, heard the indrawn breath as Sergeant Bryce appeared. He was a good man Tom Bryce, and a good policeman. A loner, he’d kept even more to himself since his wife Julie had died two years before. Olive understood that now. Problem was, Sergeant Bryce wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be somewhere else, turning a blind eye. He walked toward her dripping son who was trying his level best not to cry and to look as if he was in control. The men of this town have a lot to learn, thought Olive. She didn’t notice the can, not until the Sergeant handed it to Robert, along with a length of dry rag and a lighter. Then without a word he turned and walked away. The onlookers watched the Sergeant walk back up the beach and barely restrained themselves from clapping and cheering.
Robert took a moment to collect himself while his brothers rescued the drifting raft. He set out again more warily this time. His suit was beyond redemption but he held his arms high to keep the rag and lighter out of the water. When he reached the raft, Tim and Colin held it steady while he doused it in petrol. Tim took the empty can and he and Colin turned to go but Robert called them back. He tore the rag into three strips, one for each of them.
“Oh, my,” thought Olive. She was having trouble breathing now. A great slab had lodged in her chest and something hard had clamped around her throat. Betty’s grip threatened to cut off the circulation in her arm.
Robert lit the rags and together the brothers tossed them onto the raft. Olive’s heart lurched when the petrol caught in a rush and threw the boys off balance, but they managed to steady one another. As the smoke settled and the flames took hold, they leaned forward as one and pushed the raft out to sea. It didn’t go far, just sat there bobbing up and down in the gentle swell. In its bed of flames the urn sat silent and still until the timber burnt through and it slipped beneath the waves. Olive watched as the three grown men, her boys, stood with their arms around each other thigh deep in water. The plank in her chest swelled and threatened to burst at the sight of their heaving shoulders.
The crowd watched in silence as the raft burned. When the last of the flames died, all that was left were a few charred pieces of timber floating on the water. The brothers turned and waded to shore and made their way up the beach towards Olive, their faces stretched in grief and pride. People nodded their heads in respect and clapped them on the back as they passed. Smiles mingled with tears as they dropped, spent and exhausted, at Olive’s side. The four of them huddled together and held each other tight. It was done. Robert tipped back his head and gave a great howl. His brothers joined him, their voices soaring to a crescendo of triumph and relief.
At this signal the crowd erupted into a mighty cheer that turned to a buzz of excited chatter. Gradually, conversations petered out and now that the ceremony was over, people felt awkward, not sure what to do. Several shuffled toward Olive for a brief word, a kiss, a hug, or a few tears before heading home. Others stayed to begin preparations for the night’s vigil.
The mood soon turned to one of celebration as picnic baskets and coolers began to line the beach. There was outright laughter now as logs were piled high for the bonfire. Food and drink softened the night and brought shared memories, teary speeches, and toasts to Ron and Olive and their three sons. The older folk settled into quiet conversations of “remember when” while the young ones fed the bonfire and their spirits.
Out on the ocean against a backdrop of music and laughter, bobbed the charred remains of a timber raft.
Olive felt a hand on her shoulder shaking her awake. She didn’t remember falling asleep. She rubbed her eyes and looked up to see Tom Bryce standing over her. Out of uniform he looked younger, more relaxed. The boys were already awake, coaxing the embers of the bonfire to life. A light breeze played across the water and the only sound was the gentle lap of the waves.
“You won’t want to miss this,” said Tom. He pulled Olive to her feet, took her gently by the shoulders and turned her round to see what was unfolding. People had begun to stir. They crawled out of their sleeping bags or from under blankets and rose to their feet. Dozens more leaned against the handrail and at some unspoken signal, linked arms to form a human chain of support and solidarity. Olive gasped as she turned toward the headland. There must have been twenty or more cars, with more still, down on the breakwater, the beam of their headlights pointing out to sea. The town had come to pay its last respects.
Olive opened her mouth to say something but there were no words for what she felt. Tom nodded. Something in his eyes told Olive that he understood. He smiled at her, handed her a steaming mug of tea, and looked towards the sea. Olive turned to follow his gaze and caught her breath. Before them stretched the first glimmer of a new dawn. It began as a bright line of silver along the horizon. It ran across the water, up into the sky, and pushed aside the stars and the darkness. The spreading light stained the morning first a pearly white, then yellow, then gold. A gasp rippled across the headland and along the beachfront as a giant, red ball climbed from the ocean up into the sky. It rose to welcome a Viking warrior home.
Copyright 2019 by Leonie Harrison