Wind blasted off the sea and salt-spray stung his lips. As he walked, the sun broke through cloud cover and lit up wind turbines on the horizon. They fanned out to sea like a giant military graveyard. Beautiful, he thought.
He stumbled when his collie Tess skidded to a halt on the packed sand at his feet. She dropped the thing she was carrying: a human hand and forearm, severed just short of the elbow joint.
She barked and sprang back on her haunches, delighted with her find. She wagged her tail until he shooed her away. The arm still had a lot of its flesh. It was bloated and blue, but could only have been in the water a day or two. He prodded it with his stick. Where the arm ended, the cut was clean and straight. No splintered bone or torn skin. It looked like it had been separated from its body with a saw or an axe.
He looked around him. There was no one in sight. He acted quickly, before his conscience could offer a second opinion.
The beach hut measured 15ft by 12ft. It was one of 25 that lined the dunes. A golf course connected the foreshore to the small coastal retirement town, and the only way to the beach was a shingled path across the fairways. The hut he chose was painted sky blue, and its weatherboard walls were peeled with neglect. Now that the warm autumn was over and winter was here, all the other huts had emptied.
He’d arrived just before dark last night, and it took 30 minutes to get through the padlock with a hacksaw blade. He opened the door, and at that moment Tess chose to scare up some gulls.
“Muzzle it, Tess!” She barked and ran in tight circles while the birds wheeled and cawed.
Inside the hut were a hob, a chest, an oil lantern and an old rocking chair. He swung his backpack off and unrolled the carry mat. Tess trotted in moments later, her fur wet. He locked the door. After a cold tin of beans and a shared can of Spam, he pulled out his sleeping bag and collapsed.
Tess woke him with her whimpering. She nuzzled his face. It was so dark that he forgot where he was, until the hut gave a violent shudder as a wave crashed so loud it seemed right at their door.
“It’s alright girl, it’s just a storm, like the weatherman said. We’re safe here.”
He spoke to her like she was a child and it settled her, but when rain bulleted the roof, he lit a candle to find she’d squatted in the corner, with a puddle spread beneath her.
By mid-morning the worst of the storm had passed, but the rain was still heavy. After a breakfast of biscuits and water, he opened the door onto the beach.
“Let’s find out what the sea brought.” Tess ran across the dunes in high spirits.
He’d been a beachcomber for three years since his divorce. That his wife kept his house and their money might seem a rough deal to most people. But it was a liberation. It allowed his hobby to become his life. He’d studied storm patterns and analysed ocean currents in his spare time, but now he followed his tide book and weather reports all around the coast.
The original beachcombers were castaways on Pacific islands who lived off the shore and traded with passing boats and local tribes – they were drifters, criminals and bums. Like them, he lived off his finds, which he hocked at pawnshops. He camped wild on beaches and cliff tops in warm weather, and broke into caravan holiday homes, beach huts and sports halls out of season. He left accommodation tidier than he’d found it, and he always left a gift, something he’d found that would more than cover the cost of a new doorlock. He had very little but he’d never felt more alive.
Tess ran at the sea. She barked at the wash and backwash as it made a tambourine of the shingle. He surveyed the tide line on the beach, which curved round to the north, and set off in that direction.
Straight away he encountered several glass bottles and a rubber duck. It was a good sign. Britain’s west coast did a fabulous job of sieving North Atlantic currents, and a storm like last night’s often brought a bumper harvest. He’d found some unusual stuff down the years: an empty wet suit, a CPR dummy. There were dozens of messages in bottles, from lonely cruise liner passengers and horny oil riggers. He kept the ones that moved him.
Tess was in the dunes. She growled and barked and yelped.
“Come on Tess,” he yelled, but the words vanished on the wind the moment they left his lips. And that’s when Tess dropped her find in front of him.
Freshly dead bodies sink in seawater, this much he knew. And as they decompose, they fill with gas. Sometimes heads, arms and legs break away – they disarticulate, is the term. He’d heard of people finding a foot or a head. They’re usually the first to come off a corpse. Rubber-soled shoes are a buoyancy aid, while skulls have a low weight-to-size ratio and can trap air to float.
That’s what you’d expect from a plane crash at sea, or a sunken ship. But by the cut and condition, he reckoned this arm had washed down from one of the local rivers and into the sea in the last couple of days, then been blown back ashore by the storm. This arm’s owner might not even be dead.
The hand was part-bound in seaweed, which he untangled with his stick to find that the wrist wore an Omega watch and two gold rings on the sausage fingers. He pulled-on his rubber gloves with a snap and unfastened the watch. It was unscratched and had kept perfect time. He slid it into his pocket. The rings were more difficult. On the third tug, one came off. It degloved the flesh from the finger, which slipped off the bone in a pulp of fatty tissue. The second ring came off the same way. He wiped them on a cloth and pocketed them too, then walked down to the sea and threw the arm as far out as he could.
“Tess, come on, we’re going.”
She picked up on the note in his voice and came to him, ears to her head. He returned to the beach hut and gathered up his belongings, then strode out across the golf course. As he waited for the bus into town he patted his pocket over and over, to check the watch and rings were still there. The only other person in the shelter, a woman, edged away from him along the seat bench. When the bus came, he sat near the front, with Tess on the seat next to him, and drummed his fingers on the window. At the terminus, he was first off the bus and zigzagged through the lunchtime crowd. He’d been here before, knew where the pawnshop was and knew the owner.
“Jesus, you look terrible,” said the owner.
They negotiated, and he was about to push the watch and the rings across the counter, when he hesitated.
“Deal?” said the owner, and peeled notes off a thick roll he pulled from his pocket.
The shop was lined with mirrors, to make it seem bigger than it was, and at first he didn’t recognise his own reflection. It shocked him. He looked homeless and deranged. He looked like what he’d become: a grave robber.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said.
He scooped up the watch and rings and left. Back on the street, he passed a police station, and for a moment wavered, but to report the arm would mean names and addresses and an account of his actions. He wasn’t ready to be brought back to society just yet.
He followed signposts to the library instead, and asked his way to the newspaper archive. Seated in the warmth, he scrutinised the watch and the rings under the library lamps for engravings. One of the gold bands had a date, and had come from the ring finger, he recalled. It was worn, but legible. For hours he searched online deaths and marriage indexes; he gathered bound copies of local and national papers from recent weeks, and scoured them for missing persons.
Catherine O’Conner felt bad that she didn’t feel anything when her husband disappeared. He’d been on all-night benders before, without telling her, which she explained to the police when she finally reported him missing on the third day. She needn’t have worried about how it looked: he was known to them.
Months earlier she’d found a hydraulic press in the garage, packaging in his sock drawer, and a set of mini scales under the seat in the car. She pieced it together. Darius was a bouncer who spent six nights a week keeping a nightclub free of drugs, and the rest of his time he prepared and sold them.
He never hit her, but she was scared of him, which was why she didn’t make a fuss when she found a gun in the boot of the car. When he disappeared, behind the genuine concern she showed the police and her children, she felt relief and little guilt.
Catherine drank from a large mug of hot chocolate, a rare luxury these days. She’d allowed herself a break from Christmas shopping for the girls. She was exhausted, having worked an extra shift at the shop each night these last two weeks, to bring in extra cash when she needed it most. Catherine was feeling overworked, underpaid and thoroughly miserable when he approached her in the crowded coffee shop.
“Do you mind if I sit?”
She looked up and saw a smart, suited man. Although his smile was calm, he looked at her in a way that bothered her. She waved her hand at the free seat, and busied herself with a booklet of money-off vouchers.
“You’re Catherine, aren’t you.”
She looked up, wary, and found him leaning in, across the table to her, with an eagerness that made her sit back into the cushioned booth. She scanned for the nearest male member of staff and an exit door.
“Who are you?” she said.
“I know your husband.”
She gave a sharp breath, and dropped the booklet.
He’d learned a lot about Darius O’Connor, but he didn’t know how much the wife knew. Darius went missing six weeks ago and when Catherine reported him missing the police had opened a murder inquiry. Three weeks ago a family walking their dog had found his mobile phone, keys and a pair of his shoes in a dinghy tangled in reeds at a fishing lake. The lake was five miles inland from where he’d found the hand at the seashore.
“Where is he?”
She was shaking but her voice was flat. He was a good judge of character and she wasn’t scared, she was angry.
“I think he’s dead.”
She relaxed a fraction.
“So what do you want?”
“I want to give you this.”
He handed her an envelope. She was suspicious and frowned when she looked inside and found £500 in £20 notes.
“It’s money I owed him, and it’s money I want you to have.”
He got up to leave.
“Wait,” she said. “Who are you? How did you know him?”
“I didn’t know him well,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But he handed me a gift once, at a time when I needed it most.”
“But who are you?” she called again.
He had pushed past the crowds queuing for their coffee. He seemed not to hear her. As she gathered her shopping bags and struggled to follow him, she saw him untether a dog and walk into the Christmas crowd. She forced and apologised her way to the door, and although he wasn’t walking quickly, although he seemed to drift rather than stride, he was gone by the time she reached it.
© Rob Ganley
Rob Ganley lives in London with his wife and son, and they escape when they can in a campervan. He’s a magazine editor by day, and his short stories have appeared in print and online at leading independent lit names such as Bartleby Snopes, Litro, and in audio at Liars’ League London and the Society of Authors. He’s a member of Quad Writers; for extracts from his novel in progress, visit their website.
Drift was read by Frances Uku on November 7th 2012