That night when the man came home the boy was gone. The boy was 18 and it was to be expected and even hoped for that he would spend so much time out in the city, but since he’d started the new treatment his instability was more frightening to the man than anything that had gone before.

The man mapped the boy’s day by the things he’d left behind. He picked up dirty clothes – the boy’s T-shirts, his padded boxers and stiff chest binders – and put them in the laundry basket. He cleaned the unwashed cereal bowls and teacups with cigarette ends in. The man looked for but did not find any new knives in the boy’s stale and dirty room.

The last time he’d talked with him his son had been smoking in the garden. He’d tried to hide the cigarette when the man had come outside. It was a hot night, busy with sirens and loud music. Boys on unsilenced mopeds raced through the streets in laps of rising noise. The honeysuckle on the garden wall was ragged and needed looking after though the scent was wonderful.

“Go ahead and smoke”, he’d said. “It’s all right. I mean, it’s not all right but it’s all right.”

The boy was hunched over. His thick black hair was cut short and damp with sweat. He was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt that had once belonged to the man, and he was barefoot. His pale arms were a mess of cuts and scars. The newest cuts were deepest and longest. The boy put his cigarette out and lit another.

“You OK?” the man had said. “I feel like I haven’t seen you for weeks. You’re not up when I go to work and I’m asleep when you come back from wherever you go every night.”

The boy smoked and made a small, distressed noise. The man reached over and took the lighter from his son’s hand. He lit his roll-up and put the lighter back in the boy’s lap. He stroked his head.

“Is it just everything Joe?” he said, “or something new I need to know about?”
“It’s just, it’s really hot, Dad, you know? I can’t breathe.”
“You want to take your binders off? I mean, you’re home. You’re safe here.”

Joe shook his head.
“You haven’t been happy in a while,” the man had said. “Why is that, do you think?”

Joe shrugged and played with his cigarette pack. The pack was covered in writing and little drawings.

“I don’t mean happy. You know what I mean. I know it must be harder in the summer. I mean, I know it must be harder to pass, and you must be uncomfortable all the time.”

Joe smoked, holding the cigarette in his left hand and rubbing his eyes with the heel of his right.

“Not uncomfortable, that’s a useless word,” the man had said, and bent to crush his roll-up in the ashtray by Joe’s foot. He stood up and exhaled hard.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. All I can tell you is that you will get to where you want to be.”
“You can’t promise me that,” Joe had said. He made a hiccuping sound and rubbed his eyes again.
“No, I can’t, because who knows what will happen. But I believe it.”
“It just feels like nothing’s happening, Dad. Like this is going to be forever. I’m such a freak.”
“You’re not a freak, we’ve talked about that. That’s not going to help you.” The man put his arms around his son.
“You are my brave, strong boy,” he’d said, and kissed Joe’s dirty head.
“You just have to hold on.”

The valley of Wied Il Ghasri in Gozo begins at Ta Dbiegi Hill, passes down through the village of I-Ghasri and on between iz Zebbug and Ta’ Gurdan Hill, before ending in a narrow channel of sea wedged tight between steeply rising limestone cliffs.
The man and his wife and their 13-year old daughter, who they had called Rose but who, in the last month or so, had stopped answering to that name, had once looked down into the deep ravine at the luminous and clear water shining like a needle far below. They had stood by the first of a long sequence of rough steps that led down to the beach.
“Wow Daddy,’ Rose had said.

The man who had told them about the dive had said there were 100 steps.

“After you get down to the beach,” he’d told them, “you’ll need to surface swim about 300 yards before dropping down at the point where the water becomes open sea. Keep to the wall on your right-hand side. You can’t miss the entrance to the cave. It’s a tough entry,” the diver had said when Rose asked him, “but it’s worth it.”

The man did not know whether he would be able to make it down the winding steps to the beach where they would enter the water and begin the dive. It was not the number of steps, or that he would have to carry the heavy kit, but the old conviction that he would fall. There was nothing to stop him but a single, sun-worn wooden rail that he would not trust with the weight of all that he would be carrying. Dark, crescent-winged swifts wheeled and swooped against the pale cliffs below. In the bar he had been excited to hear about the cave. Now, he knew that if he had not had Rose with him he would not have tried.

“Why’s the water green so close to the beach Daddy, “she’d said, “when the rest of it’s blue?”
She was laying flat on her stomach with her head and shoulders stuck out over the edge of the cliff. He looked at her – rangy and long-limbed in her vest and shorts. Her close-cropped black hair was wet with sweat at the roots. He’d had to tell himself not to call her back from the edge.

“I think it’s the vegetation under the surface that makes it look green,” he’d said, “the water there is pretty shallow. What do you think,” he’d said to his wife, who was standing close to the car with her arms folded, a red- checkered headscarf over her long, dark hair.
“I’m not going.”

“Why not?”
“I’m just not.”
“I’ll carry your kit down.”

She’d got back into the rental car that had the three wet suits draped over it to try and dry them out between dives. She’d closed the door, and the man had watched her reach to turn on the air conditioning.

He had got lost trying to find the place, and they had driven for a long time on single-track unpaved roads that had all looked the same. Driving over the broken, signless tracks they were thrown around inside the car. Rose laughed. His wife’s lips were drawn back tight against her teeth and she did not speak.

The man drank from a bottle of water and he poured water over his head and over Rose’s head. She carried her black fins and wore a khaki belt with a two-kilo lead weight on each hip.

“See you down there, Dad,” she’d said.

He’d watched her walking down the steps, flat chested in the compressive wetsuit, her short black hair tamped down and shining with water. The yellow dust his daughter raised from the rough steps stuck to her damp neoprene dive boots. He’d watched her until she passed beneath a limestone overhang and disappeared.
“Have you had a pee?” he’d called after her.
“Try not to pee in your wet-suit,” he’d called again,” we have to take it back to the dive shop, remember, and it’s really hard to get rid of the smell.”

He’d opened the boot of the big car to get the kit.
“Aren’t you at least going to go with her down to the beach?” he’d said to the back of his wife’s head.
“What for?” she’d said. She hadn’t turned to look at him, but he’d been able to tell she’d been crying.
“Why would you even ask me that,” he’d said. “For niceness. To see she doesn’t fall.”
“She doesn’t want me anywhere near her. She just wants to be with her Daddy.”

That morning his wife had found Rose in the bathroom, her chest carefully wrapped in toilet paper, stuffing a small rolled wad of paper down inside her shorts.

Sweating freely, he’d lifted the two sets of heavy kit and stood them carefully next to a big rock.

“Christ,” he’d said, before slamming the boot closed. “All she wants is for you not to look at her like she’s a freak.”

The heat and the weight of the tank and the steel backplate had dug into his neck and shoulders as he’d walked carefully down over the sun- bleached dusty steps. The voices of sunbathers on the little beach were loud in the ravine. Wild thyme and purple heather grew on the cliff side. Yellow crown daisies grew on the shore. Rose waited for him by the bright water.
They swam on their backs through the inlet towards the open sea. A matching narrow ribbon of blue sky showed between the tops of the yellow cliffs. A sunburnt man had called after them from the beach.

“There’s nothing down there,” he’d said.
Rose, wearing her mask and black hood, kept flipping over to look under the water.

“Sea grass,” she’d said happily, in a voice made deep by the mask she was wearing. “Sea grass and big yellow boulders and little silver fish.”

The man was still up when the boy came home.
“Joe,” he said, “Where have you been?”
“I met my friends Charlie and Fred. There was an open-mic night in Vauxhall.”
“Did you read your stuff?”
“I’m not ready for that yet, Dad.”

“OK, well you look great.”
“Charlie’s just got back from Florida.”
“Has he been on holiday?”

Joe laughed.
“No Dad, he’s had top surgery.”
“Right. Sorry, the same place we’ll be going to in December?” “Yeah.”
“Is he OK? Did it go well?”
“Yeah, he’s really really pleased.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Yeah of course.”

“It won’t be long now, just a few more months.”
“I know. I can’t wait though.”
“I know. I was thinking. You remember that trip to Gozo?”

“I was thinking we might go back there afterwards, when you’re healed. Not straightaway. We’d have to save again.”

They swam in bright water, through clouds of fiery cardinals and silver damsel fish, until he saw the indistinct dark break in the reef wall. Using his torch to light their way, they swam over dark boulders until they were inside the huge domed interior of the cave. He swam ahead, into the heart of the cave, and then turned to look back at what he had come to see. The dark entrance they had swum through was now the opening to the sun-lightened celestial blue sea, radiant and shimmering in the darkness, and in the centre of it was Rose, coming to him out of the light. They ascended together, and once at the surface, and inside the cave, the blue light at the entrance was below and shining up at them, and the high interior of the cave was dark, so dark that the man could not see how far back it went.
“How about that light?” he’d said.
“Listen Dad,” Rose had said. “Boom!”
Her voice went out into the darkness of the cave and came back deepened and transformed.
Surf pounded against the roof of the cave.
“What is that Dad?”
“It’s just the sea hitting against the outside.”
“It’s really noisy.”
“It sounds like a storm but it’s nothing really,” he’d said. “Imagine how scary it would be if it was even a little bit rough.”
“I’m not a bit scared,” Rose had said. “I like it here. I feel safe.” “Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I just like it. Ask me my name, Dad.”
“What’s your name?”

“Joe!” she’d shouted, against the noise of the crashing world outside.
“My name is Joe! JOE!”
“You ready to go back Joe?” he’d said.
“I guess so.”
“You want to lead?”

“You know where you’re headed? Just swim towards the light. That’s
the opening.”

“OK, but which way do you go when you’re through the other side?”
“Keep the wall to your left,” she’d said, spitting in her mask and
rinsing it before putting it back on. “Then just follow it home.”

Howard Cunnell

About Howard Cunnell

Howard Cunnell's novels are Marine Boy (2008) and The Sea on Fire (2012). Fathers & Sons - A Memoir, is forthcoming from Picador.

Howard Cunnell's novels are Marine Boy (2008) and The Sea on Fire (2012). Fathers & Sons - A Memoir, is forthcoming from Picador.

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