‘Some say he is mad. But there are those who believe in the power of the Sandwriter.’ Silas cast a furtive glance around the bar then stood back and pretended to polish a glass.
‘What about you?’ I asked, ‘Do you believe?’
His laugh was a little forced as he shook his head. ‘Oh, no. I don’t believe any of that stuff.’
He did not want to let on that he might give credence to any of this primitive mumbo jumbo, but I knew that he had heard those tales whispered in the murky gloom around small fires. They were powerful things.
I sipped at my beer and stared out at the noise of the waves. The dim light of the lamps only illuminated a few yards of the beach that the bar opened on to. Beyond that was only blackness. The high pitched whine of an army of mosquitoes assailed my ears, bringing back memories as thick and heavy laden as the warm night air.
It had been two decades since I was last here, a turbulent twenty years during which my life had been ripped to pieces and my dreams shattered.
It still pained me to think of my last visit to this place, but I was here to try and erase those demons. I fortified myself with a large mouthful of beer and let my mind replay the scene.
We had come on holiday. Janet was a little reluctant. It was not the tourist haven it had become, but rather a wild and unvisited place back then and surely not somewhere to take a one year old. But I was young and invincible. Nowhere was too tough for me to cope with and camping on a remote African beach posed no problems.
We had found a perfect spot, a good half hour walk from the nearest village. First priority was to get the tent up, then we could relax and enjoy the scenery. The golden-white sands stretched off in both directions and white topped waves hit the shores with pleasing, powerful thuds. A jungle of palm trees just off the beach stood guard over us.
I soon learnt how deceptively strong the currents were when I plunged into the sea that first day. I was a good swimmer, but suddenly found myself being pulled further from land and only through a major effort made it back, exhausted and a little shaken. From then on we stayed close to shore.
Janet blamed me and, I suppose, I blamed myself too, but would never admit it. There were two parents on the beach that day, one of us could have kept an eye on little Susan as she crawled around, but we had both dozed off in the warm sun. Janet woke first, a mother’s intuition one could say, and it didn’t take long for the panic to set in. We ran up and down the beach shouting Susan’s name. It was only when the waves spat out her ragged teddy bear that we realised what had happened.
Janet was inconsolable and the local authorities ill-equipped to be of any help. We combed the beaches around our campsite, hoping that by some miracle, Susan had survived and made it back to shore, but the locals all shook their heads sadly as we made our enquiries. They knew the waters of the sea and how it took people. I could see it in their eyes. Every village seemed to have lost someone.
Back home the tension between us was unbearable. We could hardly look each other in the eye, both blaming the other for our loss. Janet had the added ammunition that I had chosen the holiday venue.
‘If we had gone to a normal place, then there would have been people around to help,’ she screamed one day.
‘Well, you agreed. You could have said no,’ I replied lamely, but with no less vehemence.
The divorce followed swiftly and, not wanting to recall the messy details, I ordered another beer from Silas.
When he brought it, I asked, ‘So where do I find this Sandwriter?’
He looked at me, not sure if I was joking.
‘Sir? You want to talk to the Sandwriter?’
He leaned conspiratorially closer and whispered, ‘Meet me at the large baobab tree at the end of the road. Tomorrow morning, nine o’clock.’
I did not sleep well, the heat and mosquitoes playing their part. Despite that I was in good spirits and unperturbed that Silas was half an hour late. My companion nodded a greeting then indicated for me to follow him. He did not talk and acted as if I should walk a few paces behind him as if he didn’t want to be seen taking me to this mysterious Sandwriter. We walked along the beach quite a way till Silas veered off through the palms. I followed. A few feet in, and almost hidden from the beach, was a small hut. Silas gestured for me to enter.
It was dark inside, but cool, a welcome change from the heat of the beach. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw an old man in dirty rags, sitting on a small stool in one corner. He didn’t look up at us, Silas spoke using the local tongue, his voice soft and reverential. The old man nodded, but didn’t say a word. Eventually, he stood up and we followed him outside to the beach where he began making strange symbols in the wet sand with a stick that he carried. The waves came in and washed the symbols away and he would write again. He did this for about ten minutes, then nodded and looked expectantly at me. I slipped him a few notes and he disappeared back to his hut.
I can’t say I really believed anything would happen, but felt disappointed that nothing did. As we walked back to the hotel, my mind kept going over the story of the Sandwriter. The legend said that his wife had been pulled out to sea and drowned. The Sandwriter, mad with grief, had written to the ocean, pleading with it to return his wife. The next day, she had washed ashore, exhausted, but alive. I never really believed that Susan would be returned. I guess I was just hoping that I could pass a message on to her through this man. I now felt silly, as if I had been duped.
Back at the hotel I relaxed round the pool. Then after lunch, went for a long walk along the beach, often stopping to look out to sea and wondering. It was late in the afternoon when I saw her lying on the sand, half in – half out of the surf, the waves gently lapping against her body. As I got closer I saw that she was about twenty years old. Her long blonde hair, wet from the water, snaked around her like seaweed. I started to run, my mind screaming at me that it was probably a tourist in distress, but I had to know for sure.