THE READING MAN CopyrightÂŠ Ivan Jones The beach was almost deserted. I had strolled along the cliff edge to the cove from the campsite to watch the tide come in; as fast here as at any point on the English coast. I did not like swimming but even if I had I would not choose to swim in this place. The tide had already turned; high surfers were snatching at the sand. There was a man sitting alone on the beach, with his back against a rock and a straw hat on his head. He had his shoes off and his trousers were rolled up to his knees as though he had been paddling. He was reading a book and was deeply absorbed in it. In the centre of the beach, and dominating it and a little nearer the sea than the reading man, was a big sand castle, a moat dug round it, waiting to be filled. The children who had built it had gone. At first the sea frolicked like a horse, whinnying and snorting foam which crashed up the beach, licking the sand and lashing the rocks. Gradually, it swept to the foot of the castle, filling the moat. Repenting, it backed down the beach, only to be caught up and carried forward again by another thunderous wave. This went on and on, but its pace
quickened with every minute that passed. At last, it rattled and fizzled round the buttresses of the castle eating the sand away like a child munching a soft ice cream. The waves came again and again and soon were sweeping round the castle, tearing at its walls as they slid up to within inches of the reading man. It was one of those hot, May days and I was surprised to find the cove so empty of people. Though not yet high summer, this small inlet often attracted visitors on sunny days. As I watched, the sea spouted, coming in faster and faster; spray rising in plumes. The castle crumbled. I looked out to the horizon; a faint purple haze. The castle was swept away with the next wave. I watched it surge up the beach sniffing and running like a dog on the loose. The tide startled me; it had swung so quickly. An empty sandy beach was now almost full of pounding sea. Where was the reading man? I snapped my attention to where he had been sitting. He was there still. Suddenly the wind and spray from the sea tossed his hat off his head. It skittered along the top of the water and came to rest near to me. But the man just went on reading. The water had washed over his bare feet, over his legs, soaking his trousers. I watched as the water crashed in a wave breaking above his shoulders, soaking the book in his hand, which he now held upright once more. He turned a page. I shouted to him, holding aloft the hat which I had pulled from the water. I thought of going to him, but I was wearing my shoes and trousers and a sweater. And anyway, he knew what was happening and he wasn't trying to help himself one bit. I shouted again more loudly. Still he did not respond. The sea came in again and again getting higher and higher all
the time. Then it surged above his head; and ran towards me splashing my feet, forcing me back onto the sea wall. Again I shouted, turning and looking round to see if anyone else had noticed the reading man. But there was no one else. And now, as I turned to look I saw the great foaming mass of water had completely covered him, so that even as it withdrew, it was impossible to see his head. I screamed, pulling off my shoes and socks. I was going to go in after all to see what could be done. I lowered myself into the water which was freezing cold and full of ferocious energy. I tried to make headway towards the man but I was driven back and just managed to get out of the water before it sucked me under. Now, soaking wet, and gasping I gazed towards where the man had been. Suddenly a hand rose from the water, with the book still held firmly in its grasp. A new series of white-maned waves wrenched it from the hand and it fell. A solitary page was torn out of it and floated like a petal on the surface, bobbing in motion with the tide. I looked at the man's hat where I'd put it on the wall. Then I gaped across the turbulent water. After a few moments I looked down at the man's hat, but as I did so, a seagull swooped down from one of the cliffs and snatched it from the floor. It carried it far out to sea; far, far, far; into the purple horizon it flew. And then I saw a dot fall slowly through the horizon and a white speck rise on the sea, like a splash. Ivan Jones 1977 No part of this work may be downloaded or used in any way without the author's or his agent's written permission.