It was the end of October. The summer season was over in the sleepy seaside village of Foreness. Chris checked his watch. Four fifteen. He had driven from the final, insane argument with his now ex-girlfriend, stopping only to pack a small suitcase before he left their home for the last time. He walked down the promenade towards the pier, but it was closed. Standing on the edge of the promenade, his hands resting on the green painted metal fence, he looked out to the grey ocean. He was totally alone and that suited his mood. The whole town seemed deserted, with ‘Closed’ signs up in most of the shops, arcades and hotels on the front. He hadn’t seen a single person since he had arrived. Lost in his own brown study, he remembered he had been brought here by his parents three times in his early teens. He had loved those holidays in the dim and distant past. Holidays that seemed to last forever, full of adventure and joy. And now he was back. He needed somewhere to escape and he had instinctively chosen Foreness, this place of childhood happiness, memories of a time when there was no pain, no sadness.
He walked down the nearest steps down onto the beach, finding a discarded deck chair to sit on. Sitting near the concrete wall, he looked out to the sea as darkness fell.
Waking with start, he rubbed his eyes, not quite believing he had managed to fall asleep. He checked his watch. It was seven thirty. He supposed he better find somewhere to sleep for the night. Climbing the steps from the beach to the top of the seawall, he was amazed to find the promenade was crowded with people. There were about fifty, all staring out to sea. It was an incongruous sight. There was no buzz of conversation, no-one was talking.
He walked up to the nearest person, a man of around fifty years old.
“Hi. How are you doing?”
The man didn’t immediately respond, his attention focused out to sea. It took a few moments for the words to register.
“Um, yes. Hello. As well as can be expected, I suppose.”
“Nice to meet you Philip.”
Philip was staring back out to sea. Chris did the same, trying to work out what these people were looking for. He couldn’t see much, just the beach and the edge of the sea. After that the darkness was complete. Away in the distance he could see a tiny speck of light from a fishing boat.
“Can I ask what you are looking for?”
Philip looked at him in amazement.
Chris was suddenly aware he had said the wrong thing.
“I thought you were one of us.”
“It’s normally only this group who come here on this night. The locals leave for the night, to give us space.”
“I’m not local, I just arrived this afternoon.”
“That would explain it.”
Philip lapsed into silence, continuing to stare out into the darkness. A few moments passed, then Chris knew he had to ask.
“Why are you all here then?”
Phillip spoke without taking his eyes off the shoreline.
“Have you ever heard of the H.M.S. Forstall?”
“No surprise. It was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. All hands went down with her, a total of two hundred and thirty-four souls. October the 31st, 1942.”
“Seventy-four years ago tonight. And it happened just out there, just off-shore. It’s a war grave now.”
“And you’re here to mark the occasion.”
Chris glanced at the other people. Some were old, some were young. Most were middle aged. Chris guessed they were the families of the lost sailors.
“I am the grandson of one William Henry Partridge. Able Seaman, aged twenty-five years old on the night the Forstall sank. My mother’s father. She is getting too old to make this pilgrimage, so now I do it. My boy will take over in a few years.”
Suddenly there was a shout from further down the line of people.
The people starting moving, down the steps to the beach. Philip turned to Chris.
“You may not want to see this.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
Philip smiled. A dark smile without happiness or humor. He gestured at the other people.
“We come here, on this night, not just to remember, but to meet them. The crew return to shore, once a year. Every year, on the 31st of October. I think it’s because they died on All Hallows that they are able to return the world of living. After all, this is the night when the veil between worlds is the thinnest, when the dead can return. All we, the living must, be here to greet our families and pay homage to their sacrifice.”
“That’s not funny. What a horrible thing to say.”
Philip smiled the same smile.
“Why do you think the town is deserted? On this night, the dead return and we must be here to greet them. Come with me, if you think I’m lying.”
Philip walked down the steps. Chris stared at him for a moment, then followed.
Later on, in the daylight and well away from Foreness, Chris tried to piece together that night. Those few hours when he saw the dead emerge from the sea to be greeted by their extended families. But it wasn’t a complete picture. His mind had blanked out a lot of what he had seen, almost as if he had been drunk or drugged. He retained some memory, but only brief flashes. Memories of darkness, of white faces, of naval uniforms and of figures stumbling through the waves back onto the land. Memories of the dead returning from the sea. He didn’t remember making his way back to his car, after, but he guessed Philip had helped him. He vaguely remembered driving out of Foreness, tears streaming down his face. He remembered begging his girlfriend to take him back and she agreeing, just as tearful as he was.
As he grew older, he always remembered the night at Foreness on the 31st of October. Those broken fragments of memory never lost their clarity. He always wondered if those families still met on the promenade to greet their long lost relatives. He guessed they must, but one thought often kept him awake at night; what would happen on the night when the families no longer gathered to greet the crew of the Forstall? When the new generations of the families simply forgot or no longer cared or believed. What would the sailors do, where would they go, when that day inevitably came?
~ RJ Meldrum
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