Castaway - 4. The 'Nor Buoy
-- It is very much, yes. I found an escapism in the sea. It’s ever changing, yet a constant.
-- Tell us what your next record is.
-- My next record, Kirsty, is “Sailing By” by Ronald Binge.
“Stewart darling, come on, come home. We can talk about it.”
“I will, just give me a while.”
“Where are you anyway?”
“I told you, I’ve gone to one of my favourite offshore weather stations for some quality down time.”
“I’ll just reach the end of this episode of Extras and then I’ll head back and tell you, and my uncompromising father, all about how I’ve ruined my media career and your pride .”
“Its getting dark come ba...”
Stewart hung up before his mother could finish, putting his replacement mobile into his rucksack which he lowered carefully down into a small wooden boat which rose and fell dramatically on the waves, its sail flapping freely.
The Nor Buoy stood 3 miles off the Essex coastline to the south-east. It marked the outermost boundary of the Thames Estuary before it gave way to the greater North Sea. An ominous hulk of green metal, rust bleeding down its side, it rode the grey waves like a giant cork. To reach it by sail took well over an hour with the wind in your favour. Stewart considered it his own; a constant reference point through his life; a place of contemplation and refuge ever since he discovered it one lonely summer, aching with teenage heartache and shame.
Lying to his parents, he would launch his boat, Moongazer, at strange times of the evening and night, sail out past the MoD garrison at Shoeburyness, the streetlights of the esplanade flecking the silk-cut waves with orangy yellow, until they grew into thick, black, cold rollers. Then further still – the glow of Britain’s coastline misting over to an afterthought of light – all the time bearing slowly down on the cylindrical silhouette, which appeared eerily out the darkness, spiked with solar panels and weather equipment, bobbing dourly against the starred sky.
Leaning long ways across Moonshine’s bow, he would tie the boat to it, before clambering up the iron sides to read or watch films on a portable DVD player by torchlight. On some more reckless occasions he’d do away altogether with life-jackets, radios, distress flares... arriving in the pitch black, shivering, returning later with only the intermittent flashes of the Foulness lighthouse and a stoic Martello Tower for guidance.
It was his brand of teenage rebellion; cooky, yet somehow workable...for him at least. Some run to an eccentric old aunt’s, some to deserted children's play areas and gum-freckled swings, some to their online pen-pall... Stewart fled to his nearest weather buoy. It made perfect sense.
Today’s visit had been a purposeful one: to sit and thoroughly relive the humiliation, trauma and possible consequences of the previous day’s events: his rushed entrance into Television Centre, the coffee in the presenter’s lap, the cursing live on air, and the near setting on fire of the radio studio. So far, at least according to his inbox and major worldwide news networks, there had been no immediate repercussions among the listening public. Aside from an initial twitter trend and one online forum which seemed – to all intents and purposes – rather anoraky, there had been little discussion about the sudden severance of the programme from the airwaves; though several accounts of a voice shouting “f**k you Stephen!” had been mentioned. So long as the confusion surrounded his name was upheld, Stewart was happy. It would appear the gallery engineers managed to pull the plug quickly. God bless those gallery engineers.
Closing his portable DVD player, he lowered himself down the barnacled sides of the 9 foot riveted cylinder pulling Moonshine’s unsteady hull toward him. Night was falling, the fiery disc of the sun casting strawberry blond streaks into the cloud to the west. The boat itself was old, wooden and in horrendous need of repair. The rudder was half held on with domestic rope, and the sail was frayed to the edges. Mildewed water bottles and a picnic basket were crammed into the front locker haphazardly, receiving a fresh dousing of seawater every time he confronted a large wave. Tacking north east towards the warm lights of Shoeburyness, he found himself wondering incredulously at the comparative absence of laws and regulations connected to sailing compared to driving. Anyone can get into a boat and cast their fate to the wind; on land you needed tax discs and licenses.
How easy, he thought, on this particular evening, to murder someone by sea. Slinking out, lightless, soundless from the deserted, muddy coastline, who could possibly know? His mind mulched over the notion, as ice cold spray coated his left side.
The return to shore was quick this evening, the wind behind him, and before long he was ascending the twisting front garden of The Shambles, thorns from overhanging rosebushes scratching his jacket, a fox limbering into the bushes complacently, before his mother was revealed in the warm picture frame window. He entered.
“There you are.”
“There indeed I am.”
Stewart kissed his mother; the absence of eye contact making the action pointless.
"I'll put the kettle on"
The drone of a robotic hoover came from the nearby living room. Peering across the hallway into it, Stewart could see the television flickering, partially obscured by the back of his father's head which rose sharply above an antimacassared 80’s armchair.
His mother spoke: “Break-in up in Scotland – apparently the person had a camera and took pictures of everything in front of the lady who lived there.” Her voice seemed a semi-tone deeper than usual; the living room a tad warmer and more untidy; the pictures claustrophobic within their frames. Everything coated in soft-focus dust.
“So tell us all about it, darling...”
“There’s nothing more to say really, other than that the media world is remarkably insular and by this time next week everyone will know and my name will be dirt. I may as well gnaw my legs off...”
“Oh for goodness sake Stewart”, his Dad interjected sharply, “don’t be so facetious. What happened about that job interview?”
“The one at H&M? I didn’t hear back.”
“You need to try harder, you’re living in a fantasy land.”
“Well limitless apologies for the disappointment, but I’m actually doing my best.”
The BBC have disciplined you in the past, Stewart, for your – and I quote – “outspoken and cavalier disregard towards broadcast guidelines.” Would you agree?
-- Every corporation needs its token loose canon, Kirsty, you know that, surely!”
Stewart gazed through the window out over the rolling front garden and sea. Across the mudflats, now exposed by the ebbing tide, the intermittent flashes of the Nor Buoy could be seen shimmering in the distance, a subtle pinprick of light through the mist: flash-flash-flash—WAIT—flash-flash-flash.
“Take a seat, Stew.” His Dad didn’t look away from the TV; the remote encased in his hand larded with symbolism.
Stewart spoke tiredly: “If this is going to be a tirade about yesterday and/or my current job prospects, spare me. I’m a cretin; a fruit-loop; I cocked things up; I’m fallible; sorry for being such a disappointment.”
“Stewart,” – his mother’s voice crackled and rasped: she became a 1930s telephone – “just sit down, darling”.
The robotic hoover knocked a table, his graduation photo positioned on it trembling at the impact.
“You know we’ve not heard from you for 6 weeks now.” His father’s voice quiet, but clear...
“Been busy; Hurly Burly of life and that”, Stewart replied, feet up under his chin, taking nuts from the coffee table bowl and cracking them loudly.”
“So busy you couldn’t even call us once?”
Then it clicked. The strange atmosphere; all the room knotted in grey threads, heavy and colourless. Stewart felt the serotonin drain from his head in a sinking negative-of-an-orgasm.
“I’m not well, Stewart.”
“Your dad received his results from the clinic. Remember at Easter...?”
“Easter. A...a bladder infection, wasn’t it. Wasn’t it? He drank cranberry juice and it disappeared.”
“I also thought I better get it checked out to see if there was an underlying cause. It’s cancer.”
The robotic hoover biffed an errant cobnut up against the wall; "Please remove foreign object."
“And... God. You know... How bad is it?”
“It’s definitely malignant. We’re waiting to hear back from the doctor about treatment options. They’re thinking it might be radiotherapy.”
“That’s better, right? I mean, that means it’s not as serious as the chaemo one, right?”
“Could be just the same; the treatment method doesn’t match the severity of the tumour.”
Silence, only a TV correspondent, speaking at minimal volume, standing at the end of what looked like a street of tenements. Mrs. MacFarlane was treated for shock earlier on today; though Edinburgh Royal Infirmary have told BBC News that her condition is stabilizing. It remains to be seen what the motives were behind this peculiar attack. Nicolas Conway BBC News Edinb—“
The screen blackened, his mother placing the remote on the coffee table... eyes glassed with tears.
“We must put our grudges behind us, sweetheart. At least for now. It’s going to be a tough few months.”
“Of course.” A pause. “Dad, I...”
“Don’t worry about it, Stewart. I know how hard things are for you at the moment. Rather puts things into perspective though, doesn’t it.”
“Like the old posters say, we’ll have to “Keep Calm and Carry On!”. He stifled a laugh.
“So tell me what happened yesterday with the TV thing...”
“Oh it doesn’t matter. Sure it’ll blow over. Just a blip, you know. Had to make a fool of myself at the outset of my career – I’m going to need at least a dozen tragic starting-out stories or else what I’m I going to chat about when on those panel shows when I’m famous, eh!”
His father gazed serenely back, smiling softly.
“Stewart you look cold, I think you should go and have an early night darling.”
“I’m 24 years old, Mum, you sound like you’re sending me to my kennel or something.”
“I just think we’ll all feel a lot better after a night’s sleep that’s all.”
The grandfather clock chimed 12.30.
“I’ll head off in the morning,” Stewart retorted, as if making a point about something, though not entirely sure what.
In his bed, he sat up, staring unblinkingly. The vibrato trills of lonesome Curlews on the mudflats wafted in through his window on a marshy breeze; the moon casting a silver runway across the water some distance out. His brain hunched under the thick, dark weight of news. Cancer. He turned on the radio. 20 minutes had slipped by. The shipping forecast:
His head steadied under the lullaby-like sound. Cancer. Not the sound, or the context, but the shape of the letters in print. Cancer. A brand hovering above his cerebral cortex bearing down on it searing those 6 letters into his grey matter. C-A-N-C-E-R. The smell of roasting flesh. Until finally he jostled at the forecast’s mention of the Nor... His buoy. Symbolically him. His hangout. Constant, and unchanging: