He knows all the moods of this sea, or at least, until the past two weeks, he would have said he did, but the movement of the tides recently has been so strange—like nothing he’s ever experienced before. Every day under the sullen sky, the waves swelled and swelled, never breaking into foam, just a long, continuous, menacing bloat.
He’d felt the god’s anger in the tightening of his skin, days before the first plague-arrows struck.
During the plague, there’d been no high tides, but now the sea’s reclaiming lost ground. Each wave, slavering up the beach, leaves a fan of dirty foam that seethes gently for a second before sinking into the sand, and then the next wave flings itself higher, and the next higher still. The tide’s reaching parts of the beach that have been dry for years, lifting thick mats of bladderwrack, carrying broken shells and the white bones of seagulls high above the shore.
The night they took Briseis away, one of the anchored ships broke loose from her moorings. Patroclus shook him awake and together they raced down to the beach, shouting orders, organizing teams of men to haul the ship clear of the tide. When dawn came, she lay listing to one side, the pale barnacles on her hull giving her the look of an ancient, warty sea-monster. No tide since then has reached as high as that, but still, it was a warning. Since then, they’ve checked the moorings of every anchored ship and carried some of the cradled ships further inland.
He’s dwarfed by the immensity of sea and sky. The dunes rise up behind him, their tall, waving grasses casting spikes of black shadow on the pale sand. But now a mist’s beginning to roll in, as it often does around this time. Within minutes, it’s enveloped him and he doesn’t have to see anything, only listen to the crash of waves breaking, only feel the ripples of water trickling between his toes. As a child, he’d slept with his mother in a bedroom facing the sea. After she left, he used to wake up in the darkness and pretend the waves were her voice soothing him back to sleep.
Memory plays strange tricks. One of his most vivid memories is of standing at the bedroom window and watching his mother wade into the sea, her long black hair fanning out across the water like strands of seaweed before the next wave swallowed her up. And yet he knows he can’t possibly have seen that: the sea wasn’t visible from the room he slept in as a child. No later imaginings, though, can distort his memory of the lonely bedroom, the ache of her absence. His father had tried everything: tempting him to eat; buying him expensive toys; every night, at bedtime, offering his own arms for comfort, only to have him turn away or, worse, tolerate the embrace but, like his mother before him, lie stiff and unresponsive within it. Priests, soothsayers, female relations, nurses—all were consulted and none of them knew what to do. The sons of the nobility were ferried in to be his “friends”—though they recognized instantly, as children do, that he wasn’t “right,” and, after a few desultory attempts, played only with each other. He stopped growing. And then, one day, when he’d become a pallid, silver-haired little shrimp, every rib in his chest showing, Patroclus came. Patroclus, who’d killed another child, a boy two years older than himself, in a quarrel over a game of dice.
The day Patroclus arrived, Achilles heard a commotion and, hoping it might be his mother back for one of her infrequent visits, burst into the hall, only to skid to a halt when he saw his father talking to a stranger. Close by stood a big, ungainly boy with a bruised face and a broken nose, though the injuries weren’t recent because the bruises had a yellow centre and a purple rim. Another “friend”?
“One of his most vivid memories is of standing at the bedroom window and watching his mother wade into the sea, her long black hair fanning out across the water like strands of seaweed before the next wave swallowed her up.”
The two boys stared at each other, Patroclus peering round Achilles’s father’s side. What Achilles felt at that moment was not the familiar awkwardness of meeting yet another “friend,” but something infinitely more disturbing: a long, cool shiver of recognition. But he’d been hurt too much and too often to make friends easily, so when the other boy, prompted by his father, held out his hand, Achilles just shrugged and turned away.
As soon as it became known that Patroclus had killed somebody, had actually done what they were all being trained to do, the other boys were queueing up to take him on. He became the one to beat. And so he was always fighting, like a chained bear that can’t escape the baiting, but must go on and on, whimpering and licking its wounds at night, dragged out to face the dogs again by day. By the time Achilles finally plucked up the courage to approach Patroclus, he was well on the way to becoming the violent little thug everybody believed he was.
How did they come together? He can’t remember—but then he remembers almost nothing about the two years after his mother left. He knows they fought, played, quarrelled, laughed, trapped rabbits, picked blackberries, came home with purple stains round their mouths, inspected the scabs on each other’s knees, fell into bed and slept—as naked and sexless as two beans in a pod. Patroclus had saved his life, long before they got anywhere near a battlefield. But then, Achilles did the same for him, fighting beside him whenever one of the other boys attacked, until they stopped attacking and recognized a natural leader. By the time Achilles was seventeen, he and Patroclus were more than ready for war, ready to take on the whole world.
Comrades‑in‑arms: commendably virile.
The truth: Patroclus had taken his mother’s place.
He’ll be back at the hut now, waiting for him. For some reason, Patroclus has always hated these nocturnal visits of his to the sea. Perhaps he’s afraid that one night Achilles might walk straight into it, as his mother did, when breathing the thick air had become intolerable.
Well, worried or not, Patroclus is going to have to wait. He’s not ready to go back yet, not ready to face the empty bed. Which needn’t be empty—god knows, he’s got plenty of girls. But that’s not the problem. The problem is, he doesn’t want the other girls, he wants that girl—and he can’t have her. And so he turns the pain of loss over and over in his mind, trying to grind it smooth, like the pebbles he’s standing on, every one of them smooth. The fact is, he misses her.
He shouldn’t, but he does. And why? Because, one night, she came into his bed with the smell of sea-rot in her hair? Because her skin tastes of salt? Well, if that’s all it takes, he can have the whole bloody lot of them thrown into the sea—they’ll all come back smelling of salt.
She’s his prize, that’s all, his prize of honour, no more, no less. It’s nothing to do with the actual girl. And the pain he feels is merely the humiliation of having his prize stolen from him—yes, stolen—by a man who’s his inferior in every way that matters. The cities besieged and sacked, the fighters killed, the whole unrelenting bloody grind of war . . . And he takes her, just like that. That’s what hurts—not the girl—the insult, the blow to his pride. Well, that’s it. He’s out of it now. Let them try to take Troy without him—they’ll soon come crawling for help when they find out they can’t. He tries to squeeze pleasure out of the thought, but it doesn’t work. Perhaps he should have followed his original instinct and gone home? Patroclus was in favour of it, and Patroclus, though it pains him to admit it, is almost always right.
There are no answers, or none to be found on this mist-shrouded beach. His mother won’t come tonight. And so he wraps his cloak round him and sets off back to the hut where he knows Patroclus will be waiting.
As he walks between the cradled ships, his mind fills with small tasks, lists of things he has to do. If the next spring tide’s as high as the last, they perhaps ought to think about moving some of the storage huts further inland. They were built eight, nine years ago after that first dreadful winter under canvas. The wood’s pearly-grey now from long exposure to wind and rain and no doubt if you looked underneath you’d find plenty of rotten planks. A rebuilding programme, then? Give the men something to do and at the same time demonstrate his commitment to seeing it through—whatever “it” turns out to be. Yes, keep them busy, he thinks—practical, earth-bound, a fighter again, nothing wishy-washy, nothing liminal, about him—as he slips like a shadow along the sides of his spectral ships.
From The Silence Of The Girls. Used with permission of Doubleday. Copyright © 2018 by Pat Barker.