By James Rowe
My grandfather always longed for the water. On good days, when I was very young, he would take me on his knee, under his shelves of swimming trophies, and tell me how to best the Blackpool sea—how the water was a beautiful but fickle being, cradling you one moment and in the next dragging you into its wilderness. At that time, he looked at me as though I too might fall under its spell.
When my grandfather spoke of the water, he did so with the same tenderness as others when they speak of home. When he spoke of its creatures—like the goldfish he bought me in a bowl with a rock pool and a fluorescent castle when I was six—he did so with jealous fervor. “Aren’t they wondrous?” he said to me, pointing a tapered bony finger at those water-creatures, whose eyes looked like painted knuckles. He told me that they had no teeth and that they crushed their food in their throat. It was my throat that his hand found the day that I forgot to feed them.
Friday evenings, he took me to the baths for swimming lessons, and that same, scaly hand stretched across the middle of my back. He ordered me to float, to hold my bottom close to the surface. Gravity, inevitably, dragged it down. The chlorinated water crept inside my nostrils and over my tightly shut lips. When my grandfather prised my hand away from the side and pulled me into the center of the pool, I began to cry.
“Fucking fairy,” he said.
He blamed my mother, loudly, to her face—and she in turn looked at the carpet, the coving, the PVC around the window frame discolored with mildew.
As I grew, my grandfather’s rules expanded like a cold pool collecting under a leak. “You should respect your elders,” he said, and then berated me for conceding too quietly to his demands. “You should play out more,” he said, and then loomed in the doorway like a long seaweed, demanding to know where I, so suspicious a boy, could possibly want to go. “You should not stare,” he said, when I saw his scalp begin to flake. “You should not hide things,” he shouted, when he began to forget where utensils and tea bags and detergent were kept. “You should keep the floor clear,” he said, when his feet, repulsed by solid ground, launched him into walls and furniture. “You should always have water ready for me,” he said, when he began to wheeze and scratch his narrowing throat every time he took a breath.
“I can’t understand you,” he told my mother one rainy day, the water gushing out of the broken gutter at the front, its shadow dripping across the tissue-thinness of his face. “This air, this place…you’re killing me.”
My grandfather started to take long baths filled with salt crystals. He ran them twice a day. I expected every morning to enter the bathroom and find him changed—to find that the water had finally laid its claim to him and crafted him into something else.
He was already in hospital when his transformation began. The rejection of the air and every fragile thing that needed it.
The water began as a gurgle in his chest. Then it crept under his fingernails, drowning each joint and swelling his hands to pale pink sponges. Then up his arms, all the way to his sharp and jutting shoulders.
“Do you feel alright to be here?” my mother asked me, after the doctor had pulled us to one side and told us that the pneumonia would take him soon.
Unlike my mother, I had no fear of what was going to happen.
We sat with him. It took six hours. We were instructed to keep him sitting upright, no matter how he might try to shift onto his side. When his lungs filled, his body rejected him and began to fight the water he worshipped, wrenching him forwards and backwards, forcing his hands to latch onto the bed rail as though they could somehow pull him back to safety, back to some distant shore.
My mother righted him five times, holding him against the propped-up pillow. “What are you trying to do to me?” he gargled, first to Mum, then to me. My mother cried, not understanding that the water had eroded the gentle and needful in him like moss and shell from a rock. What was left was as honed and strong as any weapon.
Finally his legs slumped forwards until his soles were touching the railing at the end of the bed. His mouth formed a pebble-shaped oval. The water under his skin began to freeze.
My mother said a short prayer with her eyes closed, touched his temples lightly, and kissed his forehead. Then she walked to the end of the bed, leaving space for me to approach and do the same.
But I knew better.
Water makes for a cruel master, I wanted to explain, and has no patience for sentimental ritual.
“Kiss him at least,” she said, her nose running.
But you should never touch what is not yours.