Not the first, in a long, long series
We knew he was no longer a user. It was more obvious than he ever suspected, and yet he feigned his ignorance of our knowledge with a sincerity which veered into the unsettling. There was much that was unsettling about him.
They say he used to live amongst the gulls, his haunches smeared with guano and regurgitated cuttlefish, heels hardened on wave-shattered crevasses. His addiction was something quite different, then, those same strange psalms echoing into the tides, being dragged with waves along the spits, and returned to his dry lips over and over again, every seven seconds the same, each minute made up of speeding, crashing waters. His mantra was something organic, something which could only be howled into the sea, waist-deep in matted kelp, his jutted hipbones crystallised and misshapen with grey-green salts and the residue of lands. They say Saint Cuthbert was no different, sodden and meditative on the habitable side of Lindisfarne, unable to preach to anything human, or unchanging, or still. They say many things, and these things are often true. Still, he was no longer a user, and we were all painfully aware of this, at the end.
There were days when he came inland, pulling something of the ocean at the heel of his boot. Our parents spoke of when it started, and yours probably did, too. At first, it was something infrequent, an oddity. A reminder of the sea, and what we all owed it; A man from the shore, whispering his prayers and whipping around him a miasma of salted, stinking air, coming to town to see what might change, to see what was staying the same. As the years went by, and the glass and chrome of amusement arcades spread their neon and ringing tendrills further towards the shore, as shops rose and fell and rose again with a swelling ferocity, the visits became more frequent. He began to stop for hours outside the bus station, and then for days in the acrid hollow of the underpass. Within time, he was seen almost constantly, sat there with plastic bottles kicking around his feet like driftwood, and later, with other paraphenalia. He no longer whispered his psalms and verses; he muttered them, to anyone who should walk past. He muttered them to me, and I ashamedly admit I turned my head, covered my nostrils with my red scarf and shielded myself from the ever-present fulmar mist which covered him, the air of barnacle crusted vomit and rockpools which hung from his bleached sleeves.
They soon took him inside, and cleaned him up as best they could. They spent a fortune on programmes and detoxes and god knows what else, and none of them were exactly sure why. It was the right thing for them to do, I suppose. He came out twice in one year, and fell straight back in again, immersing himself in the comforting sterile greens of the wards, washing his weathered body for hours in flesh coloured tubs with hard edged bars of institutional soap, scrubbing away the hard stuff, then the slightly softer stuff they give you as a replacement, then that which is hidden. Rubbings and attrition, gradual, hygienic erosion under chlorinated tapwater, sanding himself down under watchful, matronly eyes until there was only grey, loose-hanging skin left behind.
We met him properly, for the first time, in the foyer of that place. He looked gilded, laquered. Preserved. The heels of his shoes were fixed, and they no longer pulled the tides and the stink of oceans along with them. We talked at length, about many things. He mentioned the sea once, in passing, as you do. His speech was careful, slow, precise, as if purposefully avoiding certain patterns of speech, staying well clear of rhyme and of weighted endings. He walked into the town, his head held forward and his eyes wide, unlike he had ever allowed them to be before.
We saw him once more after our conversation, three weeks later. It was a Sunday, and the rain was coming down hard on the English coast and the people of the town were compelled to move to towards the point where the land ends and he was spread-eagled across the granite cliff faces, naked and weeping and displaying a hundred thousand bleeding gashes across his back and feet, as the grains of sand held in the waves took him apart, piece by piece. There was nothing left by morning except a man-sized nest, tucked into a gap in the black stone, lined with seagull feathers and the polysterene graininess of cuttlefish bones.