Ray Cluley debuted in Black Static #6, the same issue my story “Special Needs” appeared in, and then promptly disappeared from sight for a couple of years, but he’s made up for that since with stories in three consecutive issues, beginning with this small beauty from Black Static #19.
The story is told from the perspective of Tommy, a young boy, and it opens with him on a beach and seeing a man standing by the edge of the shore. Immediately Cluley sells the reader a dummy, with the boy avoiding the man because he ‘didn’t like to get too close to people in case they touched him’.
For most of us that statement suggests some form of child abuse, but having put the idea in our heads Cluley is too subtle a writer to delve into anything quite so obvious. As he roams up and down the beach, Tommy picks up various objects, and they evoke in him the feelings of those who previously possessed them – an empty beer bottle makes him feel ‘happy, slightly muddled’, a plastic heart causes him to grin because ‘hearts were good and what he felt made him laugh with joy’ – and memories of these moments from their lives.
We come to realise that Tommy is an empath, sensitive to the emotions of others, able to ‘read’ objects, and this is why he has to avoid people, because of the way in which their memories and emotions overwhelm him (but Cluley does give a hint of the boy’s circumstances, how and who he is able to live with). As far as that scenario goes, there are echoes of the plight of the telepath in books like Silverberg’s Dying Inside, his mind saturated with the thoughts of others. Tommy has to keep a distance from most people to preserve the integrity of his own psyche.
But what’s crucial here is that he is a child, and often doesn’t understand what he is experiencing, or rather let’s say he lacks an adult context for the experience, as for example with ‘the small balloon things he wasn’t allowed to touch’, though the square wrappers he often finds near these balloon things cause him to feel ‘all excited and nervous and excited and excited’.
Each day the boy visits the beach and collects things in the plastic bags he carries with him. Much of what he picks up he discards as rubbish, either because they are too old or have got too wet to communicate any feeling at all, and sometimes because they make him feel bad. Tommy is very conscientious about keeping his beach tidy. And the things that make him feel good he carries home with him, so that he can enjoy the sensations they evoke over and over again, his own palace of other people’s memories, a consolation prize for the intimacy he is denied, an ersatz sensation of connecting to other human beings.
Each day the man appears on Tommy’s beach, standing alone and staring out to sea. The boy doesn’t approach him, but he does walk in the imprints the man’s footsteps make in the sand, and what he feels is loneliness, sadness. And also something else that ‘felt weird and confused him at first’, the man’s awareness of him, of Tommy, and the wish that he wasn’t there on the beach.
Tommy goes down to the beach early the next day, and he finds a neat pile of clothes with footsteps leading down to the sea. He touches the clothes and ‘sobs burst from Tommy the moment his fingers felt the stiff linen of the trousers’. The feelings of being sad and lonely and empty are so intense that they nearly overwhelm the boy.
Tommy is an empath; the man’s pain is his pain, and he wants nobody to feel this way. The boy goes home and returns with his tiny hoard of pleasure giving objects, placing them on the man’s clothes, so that he will find them and they will comfort the man, as they do Tommy. But although he waits a long time the man does not come back from his ‘swim’, and eventually, deciding that he must be ‘shy’, Tommy goes home, leaving his treasures behind, all the boy can do to ease the suffering of another.
At the heart of this beautifully characterised and movingly written story is the antipathy between knowledge and understanding. As with the case of the used condoms, Tommy doesn’t have any context for what he is experiencing. He knows the man’s emotions intimately, better than anyone else could, because of his ‘talent’, but he doesn’t understand them or grasp the terrible significance of the pile of clothes abandoned by the water’s edge. Knowing something is not the same as understanding it.
And there’s an additional irony here, in that Tommy recognises in the man’s feelings of sadness and loneliness something of his own condition, the emptiness that he fills with ‘meaningful’ objects. A holy innocent of sorts, Tommy doesn’t realise that he is being given a premonition of his own possible future.
The horror here, the very bleakness of this story, arises out of the friction between Tommy’s understanding and that of the reader, our terrible knowledge that the boy’s happiness is nothing more than a chimera; and perhaps, after all, that is the truth of all happiness, that it’s grounded in the shifting sands of delusion and misunderstanding, and we’re all searching on a beach for the things and people who give us pleasure, our lives meaning, while ‘disregarding all the rest’.