It was one hundred and three, or if someone got in his way, one hundred and six steps down to the shore. He always took his time – a deliberate setting of one battered DM shoe in front of the other. The way was mostly hazard-free, the path was a gentle, paved slope and then one tiny jump onto the sand. He needed to be careful not to drop what he was carrying. If that fell to the ground, he would lose everything.
When he got close enough, but not too close, he spread out his coat and sat down on the sand, placing his tape recorder beside him. He always timed it with the tides – too far out, and he wouldn’t hear it, too far in, and the water would catch him. He knew the sound of the tides, and planned his whole day around it.
Today was a good day – not windy enough to make the mike roar, but sufficiently breezy to help the waves in their quest to hit the shore. He shooed the pigeons away, listened for any other human intruders and then counted his finger across the buttons before pressing the one with the selotaped label marked ‘record.’
“What you doing mister?”
Sighing, he turned to the voice,
“I’m enjoying the seaside.”
“But why don’t you just paddle and look out like everyone else?”
“And why don’t you mind your own business and go back to your sandcastles.”
“There are no sandcastles, see?”
“Just get lost, will you?!”
The child huffed off. He resumed the recording. People would wonder why he recorded the same thing most days. They were wrong – the sounds were always different – the wind, the water, the birds, the people. In summer or sometimes earlier than that, there was the sizzle and crack of barbecues, the scrape of spades against sand, the banging of buckets, the clink of flasks of tea, the thwack of deck-chairs, the whizz of frisbees and footballs, the shrieks and occasional wails of little children. Those sounds held him and healed his loneliness for a brief, precious time.
He came in the winter months too, but his fingers were stiff so it was hard to start and stop the tape. Sometimes he got back and found that the only sound he’d captured was his shivering breath. He taped over that. The best ones were when the waves were roaring and crashing against the shore. They took him back, those ones.
As it got colder, he stood up, put on his coat, lifted his tape recorder and headed back.
“Marty! I thought I’d find you here!”
Marty’s shoulders drooped.
“You and me need to get going.”
He found his arm pulled and stumbled to keep up with the longer strides of his ‘carer’. He hated that word. He didn’t need cared for, he just needed to be left in peace.
“You still playing with that tape player, Marty?”
Marty didn’t answer. He dragged his feet over the hundred and three heavy steps back to the nursing home, his hands tightly gripping the recorder. He kept it beside him as they pushed unwelcome food against his mouth, as they ‘sweetheart’ed and ‘dear’ed him. He lifted his legs and arms to get his clothes off and pyjamas on.
And then. Finally. He pulled his recorder onto his knees, closed his eyes and pressed play.
They didn’t understand, any of them, what it was like for an old sailor to live so close to the sea, and never be able to see it. But, thanks to his tape player, and his ears, he could. With every recorded sound, every gurgle, every splash, every pulling back and coming in, he saw the sea. Not like everyone else, not like it was before he lost his sight, but now he had learnt how, he saw it better than he’d ever seen it before.