Not completed until 1989, this story refers back to a real life incident in the summer of 1980.
There was no sign of another living soul when we arrived at the beach.
It had been an awkward scramble down an ill-made path between gnarled rocks, along a rope and timber catwalk slung across a narrow gully beside a deserted cabin, its red and green paint peeling in forlorn witness to a long-past occupation. Then down a steep slippery sandy strip to the gleaming beach below.
After a long, hot day of traveling across the strange deserted mountains of Calabria, we were glad to be together and alone. Free from the stress of knowing we could speak little Italian if challenged; free from the wariness of knowing we had been in ‘bandit country’, where it was hard to unconvince yourself that every stranger was a potential mafia hitman.
The beach had looked inviting because it seemed inaccessible, lying low beneath a lonely road that teetered along the edge of the cliff that rose above this lovely cove. And the blue sea looked shallow and cooling despite the glare of the afternoon sun.
We clambered like kids towards the silky strip of sand, and groaned in unison as we saw that, closer to, the sea was grey rather than blue, filtered as it was across a shelf of black rocks encrusted with mussels. Still, it was our beach. We had made the effort and we now could it enjoy it at our leisure.
That was when we first noticed the boy.
He was maybe 12 or 13 years old, in serge shorts and long socks, tattered plimsolls and a shabby shirt and grey short-sleeved jumper, looking more like some errant English schoolboy who had bunked off to go to the seaside than one the scugnizzi we had grown familiar with in the big cities. He was perched incongruously upon the rocks beside the path we had slithered down, sitting as still as a sculpture, staring down – at us.
He was too far away for us to make out the expression on his face but his presence brought a momentary chill to the occasion. Not so much because we were now no longer alone, but because there was something ominous about his stillness. It seemed unnatural. He had been nowhere to be seen during our descent. We had walked for an hour along the cliff road without seeing a living soul or a single passing car. There had been no sign of habitation, apart from the derelict hut beside the gully, and still there was no sound of traffic on the road high above us. Yet he seemed to be relaxed, as if he were at home and we were aliens trespassing on his territory.
As we arranged our rucksacks in a cosy shaded nook, out of sight of the young observer, we muttered self-consciously “Who is intruding upon whom?”
When we looked up, he was gone. We shrugged, and began to strip off ready for a swim.
And then he was there again, closer. Just above us now, and still silent and staring, Not out to sea, not at anything other than us. His face seemed vacant but his eyes were clearly fixed on our every move.
Half out of our clothes we found ourselves whispering.
“Who’s body is he more interested in?” we chuckled – that of a heavily pregnant young woman or her unfit male companion? We hastily donned the costumes we had hoped we would not need.
And then he was gone again. We neither saw nor heard him move. Our first thought was that he might be after our belongings. To lose them on a deserted beach would be too much. They had survived the ferocity of teeming cities and holiday resorts, and the seedy shadows of the cheap back street pensiones we had stayed in, and more crowded buses and trains than we cared to remember.
We opted for safety first. While madonna trod cautiously across the sand to paddle in the nearest rock pool, I slumped down beside the rucksacks trying to make myself inconspicuous while keeping a eye out for our juvenile stalker. It felt bad to have developed sudden anxieties about this stranger but the boy himself seems both odd and even hostile. He was unlike any of the cheerful peasant boys we had encountered elsewhere in Calabria. His clothes had seemed shabby but his demeanour had carried an air of entitlement, as if he lived a sheltered even privileged life, where others did for him and he was master.
And then he was there, again. Standing just a few metres above the rock pool as if he had emerged from the cliff face itself. He stood stock still apparently staring out to sea, but then his head slowly turned and he directed his gaze first towards the bathing woman and then, accusingly, at me.
His sudden appearance seemed to have robbed us of the ability to speak or move. I was now doubly anxious, he was far closer to my companion than to me. In the split second it took me to come to my senses, I struggled to my feet and called out in halting Italian “Cosa vuoi?”
He evidently heard me, but turned and made his way back up the rocks, then towards a ledge at the sea’s edge without saying a word. He stood, imperiously, arms folded, legs akimbo, staring out towards the sparkling horizon.
Alerted to his presence by my call, my travelling companion rushed back to our niche and we huddled together beside our bags and debated our next move. Should we act normal and paddle or swim as if he were not here, or pack up as if our business here were done, and it was time to move on?
We opted to share a cigarette and watch the unwelcome intruder. By now he had squatted down on his ledge and had turned to watch us. This was no longer a secluded bay with a shimmering sea. A sense of foreboding now overshadowed its original attractions.. We could not shake off the sensation that the boy was there because we had come.
Was this his ‘private’ place? It was if he were silently saying we had no right to be here or to bathe in his sea. Had he once lived in the fisherman’s hut before its colours had faded? Had someone close to him died here? Or at sea? We could not decide whether he was a sad or a sinister figure.
While we swapped our nervous interpretations of his behaviour, clutching our valuables, he suddenly leapt from the ledge onto the sand and set off across the beach towards the farthest cliff, turning once, twice, three times full circle as he ran to stare back at us, but never stopped running. Once he reached the foot of the cliff he crouched down, clutching his knees, and then slowly looked up and across – at us. It was as if he were asking “What, are you still here?”
Now he was at a safe distance we decided he must live his life and we could live ours. Making our way back to the shoreline, hand in hand, we began to laugh, ostensibly at the oiliness of the rocks at our feet but really at our stupid, almost superstitious reaction to the boy. And at the foolhardiness of cavorting on a lonely beach when we had no idea where we were nor where we might eat and sleep that night.
The boy was still there, we knew, and when we glanced in his direction his gaze was still upon us.
As we splashed about in the rock pools, and prised shellfish from the rocks in the irresponsible way that holidaymakers do we sensed that he was on his feet and moving again. Sure enough, when we straightened up and turned to watch him, very deliberately, he too turned sharply towards the cliff face. It was as if we had caught him creeping up on us in some children’s game. He scuttled off out of our sight behind an outcrop of rocks, and for once we felt that we were in control.
What to do now? Somehow we had felt safer when we could see him. To run to our bags, and be seen to do so would justify the contempt we felt he had unfairly shown to awards us. To ignore his disappearance and lose our belongings would be equally as foolish.
The glories of the beach were lost on us now. All we had eyes for were our brightly coloured rucksacks, tucked into a tiny crevice hopefully out of his sight and reach, and the pathway to freedom.
Just as we were beginning to relax, there he was. How long had he been sitting watching us from a crag high above us our heads? His face, expressionless as ever, staring down at us. Evidently he knew every nook and cranny of the cliff and all its secret passageways.
It was only then that it struck us we had seen or heard no birds on the beach. None wheeled above the cliff tops; none waded in the shallows; none called from their camouflaged nests. None swooped on the minimal waves.
Nor had there been much life in the rock pools. No crabs, no little fish, no anemones, just the static mussels and whelks. We were truly alone with this silent boy and the sightless, silent shellfish clamped to the rocks.
”This its ridiculous.”
“If he’s intent on spoiling our frolics, we shall just have to go without.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s time to find somewhere to stay, anyway,”
Our nervous conversation was punctuated with bravado and we packed up..
We marched towards our bags, clutching each others hands. He slipped from our sight momentarily but he suddenly he was there again standing motionless right above the shaded crevasse that held our bags.
He stared down at us. We felt as naked as we had imagined he might have wished us to be. Our unease was entirely of his making. We felt unclean as if his blank stare was a sneer, as if w had been caught in flagrante.
It was difficult to move, but when we did, grabbing at our bags, he did too. Tossing his head like young foal he dropped down onto a sloping grassy patch between the rocks, turned on his heel and was gone. It was as if he were the incarnation of a mountain goat.
We dressed quickly like naughty children caught larking about in the changing rooms. We felt foolish but each tried not to appear too flustered. We could not se him but we were convinces he was watching us still. Gathering up our things together and made our way towards the upward path.
And there he was, astride the path some fifty metres above us, looking down scornfully. We turned back towards the beach, nonchalantly, as if to suggest we were giving it one last fond look. But the tightening grip of our hands told us juts how afraid we had become. When we summoned the courage to glance back, he was gone.
We rushed towards the path, The climb was as stiff upwards as it has been coming down. We were halfway to the rustic bridge , our only way off the cliff face, when we noticed that he was there, half hidden in the scrub between the nearest end and the roadway above.
Perhaps his ruse had been to trap us all along. How could we get back to the road if he would not let us? This was his domain and we, poor frightened foreigners, were at his mercy. A mere boy, but with the confidence of one who knows a secret that other might perish without. Now we were really scared.
A jagged rock tumbled towards us from where he was hiding, gathering momentum and bouncing high as it clipped the rough edges of the gully that we must cross. Had he dislodged the rock deliberately or tossed it with intent? Had we come all the way for this – to die at the hands of an adolescent assassin on a deserted beach?
Were there accomplices up their waiting to take us? Did the innocent old hut hide a gang for whom he was the look out? Would they ambush us for what little we had to offer – cash, travellers cheques and dirty clothes – then throw us off the cliff? Were our stalker’s odd clothes taken from the body of an earlier victim – a holiday-maker’s child who had fallen into the his clutches?
We sank to our knees, weak with anxiety, our imaginations running riot. Sliding into a sitting position, our tightened grips adding to the tension, our rucksacks pressed against the rock face, we stared out to sea. Then pressing our heads tougher we took deep breaths and signed almost as if we were resigned to our fate.
A rogue cloud, an early vanguard of the approaching dusk, briefly took the heat from the sun and the colour from sea, reflecting our mood. We were aching to look over our shoulders to see what he was doing, but equally anxious not to reveal the extent of our desperation. Was there any other way off this god-forsaken beach or were we going to have to confront our fears and our foe head on?
As the sun reappeared the beauties of the view took hold and once more. It was a truly magnificent little bay. We loosened our grip, and glanced up – there was no sign of the boy.
“Oh God, where is he now?”
“We have to make a move.”
“Let’s try to be casual about it. Don’t let him see we are scared of him.”
“Do you think there is another way up to the road?”
We got to our feet, torn between fear and tears. Hugging each other, we made our first faltering steps towards the bridge, still some way ahead of us. There was neither sight nor sound of the boy.
“Do you think he’s’s hiding somewhere else in the gully?”
“Maybe he’s gone to get his mates from the hut.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Pretend it’s not happening. He’s only a child.”
“Maybe he’s just a moody teenager whose been forbidden to go into town with his mates.”
“I bet his dad has given him a clip around the ear for being so sullen.”
“Yeah. He’s been told to go a cool off on the beach.”
“And so he’s taking it out on us.”
“Maybe he’s just jealous of our freedom to travel.”
“Look, he’s gone anyway.”
But he had not. When we scanned the route ahead, there he was, squatting now beside the decrepit hut. And still watching us. It felt really creepy and calculated – as if he had been listening in on our pathetic attempt to quell our fears.
“Maybe he’s got a knife and he’s going to slice through the ropes on the bridge.”
“Oh god, it wouldn’t take much. The ropes are frayed and the wooden slats would give way in a trice.”
“But… it’s our only way to safety.”
We were acutely aware that shouting for help was no solution. At best our voices would just echo around the deserted cove, as would our final screams as we plunged from the wrecked bridge. The scrub and trees above us would prevent our calls reaching any human ears were anyone e living is the wooded hillsides beyond.
One last time we adjusted our rucksacks, and strode towards the start of the bridge. As we did so the boy rose from his crouched position and disappeared behind the hut. Was he tempting us to take out lives into our hands and cross the primitive catwalk?
We had to. There was no other option. Eyes wide open but seeing nothing, our muscles taut, we stepped almost together onto the rickety bridge.
Another rock plummeted down into the gully. The shock stung us into immobility. Clutching the worn rope handrails we stared down, straining our eyes to discern the erratic flight of this latest missile. And there, just below us, hugging the shadows on the other side of the gully, sat the boy. He was looking up at us over his shoulders, his arms hugging his knees. As our eyes met this, he turned his head and stared out to sea, dismissing us.
Was this the ultimate double-bluff? Showing us there were other ways up and down the cliff. Should we infer that he no longer had an interest is us and we are free to go? Or had he already signalled to his companions that we were ripe for the taking? His job done, we were now their prey.
Almost in tears we made it across the rest of the swaying bridge, keeping our eyes fixed on the old hut, and breaking into a run as soon as we hit the upper path. Our internal screams only subsided when we could see no movement from behind the broken shutters of the hut, and the road was in sight.
Breathless, shaken, almost hysterical with relief as we clambered up the the path to the roadside and collapsed. We laughed out loud at our stupidity and hugged each other.
But there, way down in the distance was the boy, standing on an outcrop silhouetted against the white of the sea. We knew from the tilt of his head that he was still staring up at us.
We glanced quickly at each other, gripped hands tightly and started to run.