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Still catch the tide

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September 21st: the autumn equinox. It's early morning, but morning with no dawn. The grey sky blurs into the grey sea. The light is weak and metallic, like a headache coming on.

There's some mad fucker swimming out there in the flat, unrippling water. Sean stoops, dips his fingers into the sea where it laps feebly at the land. It's icy cold. The swimmer must be mad. He (he? too far out to tell, but Sean sees the pale expanse of a naked back: could be a lass skinny-dipping, but chances are it's a bloke showing off how hard he is) is moving through the water without a splash, surprisingly quick, keeping pace offshore as Sean wanders north along the shingle beach.

The stones are grey and white. There's no colour anywhere, no shells, no washed-up rubbish, not even seaweed. Everything is monochrome.

At first Sean thinks there's a dead animal -- a dog, a seal -- cast up on the beach. As he gets closer, though, he sees it's a heap of clothing. Must be the swimmer's. There's a fur coat (who wears fur any more?) that's covering the rest of the pile. Sean reaches down without thinking, attracted by the glossiness, wanting to touch the way he'd touch a dog or a horse.

"Don't."

The voice is hoarse, oddly accented, carrying. Sean looks up, the coat in his hand. (Beneath it, revealed, there's an ugly green and white shirt, a pair of jeans, boots, socks.) The swimmer's come silently in to shore: he's standing there, the water to his waist, staring wide-eyed at Sean. His hair's longish, a colour between red and blond; he's tanned, stubbled, muscled. Sean gawps at him.

"My coat," says the swimmer. "Put it down."

The coat feels like the fur of a living creature. Sean curls his fingers into it. "Nah," he says. There's something ... he remembers something his Nana used to say, a story she told him over and over again about a man she'd met on the beach one morning. She'd stolen his fine fur coat, and he'd followed her home. "Stayed long enough to leave me something to remember him by," Nana'd said fondly, gazing at the photograph of her son, Sean's dad.

"You need it, don't you?" says Sean now. "It's how you change."

Because if he's wrong ... if he's wrong, if this bloke's just a mad early-morning swimmer, Sean can just laugh it off and walk away.Something in the swimmer's expression, some dark intimation of defeat, tells Sean he's hit the nail on the head.

* * *

"You should give me back my skin today," says Viggo.

It's part of their daily routine. They untangle themselves from one another -- Viggo's skin always cool against Sean's; Viggo soaking up Sean's human heat -- and from the bedclothes. Sean gets the bathroom first. Once he's dressed, he makes breakfast while Viggo bathes. After an hour or so he'll emerge from Sean's bathroom, smelling of the sea, ravenous. He'll wolf down whatever Sean puts in front of him, drink coffee by the pint, read the Bridlington Chronicle, hum along to songs on the radio. And once he's done with the news, he'll fold the paper and set it aside and say, "You should give me back my skin today."

Sometimes he's fond. Sometimes he's angry. Today he's playful.

"Now, why on earth would I want to do that?" says Sean, buttering another slice of toast.

"Because you want to set me free?"

"Maybe I'd miss you," says Sean.

"Maybe I'd come visit."

"Maybe I wouldn't have much use for you, when you're ..." Sean gestures. "Not a man any more."

"You mean, when you can't fuck me," says Viggo. His eyes are dark and gleaming: he licks his lips.

"You couldn't fuck me either. Not if you'd ... changed," says Sean.

"I could blow you," says Viggo.

"Aye," says Sean. "An' you could do that right this moment, too." He shoves his chair back from the table, so there's room for Viggo to kneel. "Mebbe I'll give you back your skin, if you're good."

Viggo looks up at him. Sean can feel warm breath through the threadbare cotton of his pyjamas. "I don't think you want me to be good," says Viggo. "I don't think you'll ever --"

Sean's hand is gentle on the back of Viggo's head, guiding him down.

* * *

From the Bridlington Chronicle, March 22nd:

"The search has been called off for a man who was reported missing yesterday after his clothes were found on the beach at Ravenspurn. The man, whose name has not been released, was a keen swimmer, and was often to be seen on the beaches south of Bridlington. "He was a good bloke, a strong swimmer who loved to swim in the sea," said Mr Sean Bean, a friend of the missing man. "He was more at home in the water than he ever was on land."

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