This piece is excerpted from Rob’s novel Seaweed Rising, out now from Sandstone Press.
The village lay on the south coast of Cornwall. Every day the fog came over the ploughed fields and sucked at what lived beneath. Gweek would have been called a fishing village, if there were any fish or fishermen left.
The college had offered Manfred a teaching position in remedial English. He’d done this work in the past. He had no children to look after and no partner to accompany him to the restaurants he no longer liked. It seemed the last stage had arrived, the time for checking out. Others in Cornwall had made similar decisions. A few weeks’ holiday had turned into retirement and death. He saw them in Falmouth and in Penzance. He saw them in St Austell and in Truro. They roamed the cobbled alleyways, pubs and waterfronts—aging alcoholic surfers, drug-addled Londoners and terminal cancer patients.
Manfred still considered himself different. Yes, his eyes had developed dark tunnels where the flecks of blue had been. Yes, he was past fifty, but he wasn’t yet dead.
He found a stone cottage overlooking the Helford River. It was technically a holiday let, but the cottage hadn’t been occupied in years. There was no central heating and the tile roof leaked. Inside, there was a strange creeping mist intent on crushing what was left of his soul. The place did have its attractions—and a view, over the back garden, of an abandoned fish factory. The garden itself was pleasantly overgrown. A pine tree attracted birds, which in turn attracted the neighbour’s cat. An old bathtub sat in the middle of the grass, with weeds and wildflowers growing inside.
Gweek lay in an inter-tidal zone, where many lived on houseboats. The smell of burning wood mingled with the smell of kelp. When the mist cleared, you could see upriver past a network of rickety wooden walkways. Some just ended over the water, like gangplanks. Plenty of ship carcasses lay about. When the tide came in, their rotting hulls rose high out of the mud. From his bedroom upstairs, Manfred stared straight through the missing planks. At low tide, tiny fish surfaced in the rock pools and sandflats, flopped in the beds of eelgrass and calcified maerl. The lucky ones spawned quickly in the dark. The unlucky were eaten by the kingfishers, egrets and oystercatchers.
A few farms surrounded the village. They seemed to be entirely comprised of collapsed trees and sunken wet fields. Behind the cottage, in the surrounding wood, the oak grew gnarled and twisted. These trees were ancient. They ranged from light grey to dark, almost black, even in sunshine.
Manfred went on walks to tiny damp hamlets with names like Goonhallow and Ponsharden. Hedgerows rose high along the footpaths. Empty shells of barns listed in the mud. Meadows of daffodils, come January, were picked by Eastern European workers. They lived in temporary trailer camps in the fields, surrounded by more fields, with no designated roads leading to them. What roads there were curved and climbed, then suddenly dropped. Men with beards pushed prams behind tall iron gates that concealed private drives. Manfred noticed seaweeds lurking in the grass, and more heaped under hedges. Overhead, ancient oak and pine grew along the streams and creeks leading down to the Helford. After a heavy rain, these trees looked like inverted kelp beds swaying in waves of wind. All the skies over Cornwall looked like former oceans.
Gweek’s only tourist attraction was a seal sanctuary. For something to do, Manfred joined the locals on their regular beach clean. He caught a bit of local gossip—someone mentioned that a start-up was moving into the old fish factory. A younger man, after noticing Manfred catch his breath, pointed out the red phone box with the village defibrillator.
There was plenty to be thankful for. What kind of person didn’t acknowledge it? In the city where Manfred last lived, he had a bus and two trains to catch, and if each of these ran on time, he made it to his first class in an hour and a half. Commuting to Gweek College meant opening his back garden gate for a short walk down the beach.
The campus consisted of four single-floor office buildings and a communal patch of grass. Students could take anything from hairdressing to animal handling. The staff were roughly half his age. Hardly any of them lived in Gweek.
On the first day, he met Simon. He was on the shorter side, with a small round head and wispy hair that wafted back and forth like grass in the wind. Simon also taught remedial English. They ran into each other in the corridor, heading into adjacent classrooms.
‘Manfred’s an interesting name,’ Simon said. ‘Not often you hear that.’
Each time he had to introduce himself, Manfred heard the same thing. Simon was still waiting under the fluorescent lights, as if for an explanation.
‘It’s a poem by Byron. My parents thought it would inspire me, I suppose.’
‘Ah.’ Over the top of Simon’s floating hair, a gust of wind and rain came through an open window. ‘If you wanted,’ he went on, ‘you could just go by Fred?’
Manfred went over to close the window. What a piece of magic it would be, if all his problems could be sorted by changing his name. Out in the courtyard some seaweeds had washed up from the last storm. He shuddered at the way they lay there, gathered in the wet. There would be more soon—he could smell them coming.
Maybe, he decided, he would go by Fred. It would be a rebrand that took away the curses. By the time he’d turned around, Simon had gone.
Falmouth was the nearest town. He took a bus, wandered the High street, made the obligatory effort.
Instead of sandwiches for sale, there were pasties. Instead of plain shirts, there were ones with blue horizontal stripes. The art galleries sold pictures of boats and seagulls. Noticing these things, while falling in step with the other tourists, gave Manfred a dry and hollow sensation in his stomach.
At least Falmouth had fresh air. Gweek lay near the mouth of the Helford’s brackish waters, but Falmouth had sandy beaches and blue water. Cliffs and coastal paths overlooked the sea. The docks were busy with workers. Cafés, restaurants and pubs dotted the waterfront. In the near distance, the metallic blue hull of HMS Echo stretched along the harbour. He’d read about this vessel in the Falmouth Packet. She had returned from the Indian Ocean on her search for the famous disappearing passenger plane, MH370.
He ducked into the nearest pub. He ordered a pint and overheard the ship’s crew unburdening themselves at the bar. They had spent twelve weeks in four-hour rotations, pointing their binoculars at the empty waves. Their ship apparently had the world’s most advanced sonar equipment, and they’d failed. He waited for a lull in their conversation.
‘That pilot must have been a professional suicide,’ he suggested. ‘The best ones, they simply disappear.’
The crew looked up. Their eyes quickly discovered the depths of his tunnels. ‘That’s just a theory,’ an officer said. His tongue plunged into his pint glass. He carried that particular arrogance of being in command of something small.
‘Who are you?’ another asked. His own eyes reflected the grey-black surface of the ocean.
‘Fred.’ He watched the man closely for a reaction. ‘Short for Manfred.’
‘Why don’t you just go by Manfred, then? Much nicer than plain old Fred.’
The others laughed. They were still laughing as he took his pint outside to the pier. There were families sitting at picnic tables with fish and chips. Other benches were occupied by men, all of them alone. Some had brought their pints. Still others were sitting under the railings, smoking and staring out at the water.
Cornwall had long been a magnet for invasive species. It was a promontory, a catch-basin at the confluence of waterways. Manfred had been drawn there for the same reason. Into its harbours came the desperate and the mercenary, the dissolute sex tourists and mackerel fishermen, the shipping industrialists and legless military veterans, the university students and unemployed graduates, all of them clinging desperately to these seafront bars like barnacles. Now he was among them.
There was no special shame in it. The country had eroded over the centuries, a nation rotting from the inside while its cliffs tumbled into the sea. He was at the edge of the pavement before the final brush of the broom. Men with cigarettes, men with pints. He’d seen them on the coastal paths, standing under trees or staring down at waves that urged them to jump.
At the end of the pier he stopped. A young family was regarding him from a distance. The parents were keeping their infant safe. Boy or girl it was impossible to tell, enclosed in its pretty red carriage. Manfred raised his glass as they pushed the child away. He couldn’t fault their caution. It was as if they saw his seaweedy ancestors alongside him in ghostly superimposition. There were always seaweeds at the turnings and seaweeds at the crossroads, their tangled shapes a mirror of his thoughts.
He went to the railing and stared down at the water. He could hear the crew of the Echo spilling out of the pub. Across the harbour, boats of all sizes were creating eddies in the water. The seaweeds were coming closer, into the regions between his ears. Soon they would cling to the underside of his chin. Plant holdfasts between his teeth.
Rob Magnuson Smith is a novelist, short story writer, and academic. His debut novel The Gravedigger won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Award. His second novel Scorper was published by Granta. Rob’s short fiction appears most recently in Granta, Ploughshares, the Guardian, MoMA Magazine, The Greensboro Review, Fiction International, and the Australian Book Review. He has won the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, been longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and twice longlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. His short fiction has been widely anthologized and dramatized, including audio recordings by actor Jeremy Irons. New stories are forthcoming in the Saturday Evening Post, Riptide, and Lapham’s Quarterly. A dual citizen of the US and the UK, he is a graduate of Pitzer College and the MA in Creative Writing at UEA. Seaweed Rising stems from an Arctic Circle Arts and Science Fellowship, a Writer-in-Residence at The Eden Project, and residencies at Moniack Mhor in Scotland. Currently he teaches at Exeter University and lives in Cornwall.