The Meaning of a Life – short story

As promised, here is your short story for Halloween 2017…

The Meaning of a Life

The meaning of life had eluded Greg Williamson. Despite his 45 years on this earth, he had failed to find a satisfying answer. A successful career and two failed marriages had not even hinted at a meaning to a life that felt devoid of rhyme or reason. After his sister died Greg had taken an immediate decision. He had driven, alone, to the coast. To think. To retreat. To survive.

Nature hugged him as he drove there. It was a contrast to his city life which seemed full of angular, straight lines and laptop screens and rectangular pop-up adverts. Here everything was curved or else twisted. Here, the rules were different.

He parked at the top of a cliff. There didn’t seem to be anyone far below on the secluded beach. And there were steep steps leading down to the beach. It was a lucky find – to find an area in which there were no other people. Most of the tourists were at the popular destinations and few people went on holiday at the end of October.

Dusk was coming. Greg looked across the sea and saw only dark clouds.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said aloud to himself. But his inner storm was also at its height and Greg knew it. Down to the beach it was pebbles rather than sand. He followed the call of the sea. Wrapping his coat tightly, Greg looked at the shells which had been washed ashore. There was a large jellyfish which had been washed aground too long to live. Some kind of shiny black tar could be seen between the pebbles. The dull, wet sky seemed to permeate his body, to saturate his skull. The cold winds seemed to blow right through him as if he was not even there. As if he were invisible and his life had no meaning. He looked out across the grey sea and despaired.

His mind gripped hold of the name of the beach – Smugglers Cove – and the childhood fantasy of adventure and hidden treasure made him feel a little better. He would walk the beach, storm or no storm. He would clamber across rocks to the left, across bladderwrack seaweed and explore. And maybe the exploring would change his state.

I suppose he had never expected to go out quite so far. I suppose he had never intended to go across the barnacle encrusted rocks and explore quite so many miles of coastline. But it was like a siren song inside. As the winds buffeted his body, he felt compelled to continue. He was, as he had always wanted to be, in the moment and out too far. Certainly not waving. And going back was a worry which was boxed in a clam at the back of his brain.

When he reached the cave entrance it seemed to be a place of lost dreams. Dusk now. Total dusk, when the strangest things can happen.

The cave seemed to have always been there, its dark opening like a mouth willing to swallow him. He explored. The cave itself felt bitterly cold and austere, but it provided some shelter from the wind. The waves outside approached and seemed to warn: ‘Curiosity killed the called.’

There was no smuggled treasure to be discovered. There were a few bottles and rusty cans and in one corner a pile of paper which looked suspiciously like toilet paper. Someone had scratched a name and date into one of the cave walls: ‘John – ‘10, 10, ….’. The year had been eroded.

He sat at the entrance, his back to the darkness and he looked across the sea to the approaching dark clouds. There were no moon or stars to be seen, no crack in the aluminium greyness of the merciless sky. Greg had felt the workdays eating into him. He had felt his life passing by and he felt guilty that he had let his life pass by without really living. His dreams seemed to have dissolved like mist. They seemed only delusions now. Like the American dream. Like the British dream – one of money and possessions and a happy family and two and half children. Watching TV alone was not enough. He would watch celebrities climbing mountains or visiting strange exotic places. He would watch the famous discover their family trees. He would watch ordinary people doing extraordinary things and sometimes he would wish it was him. When he received the news of his sister, his reaction was immediate and he had driven to the sea without even packing. And the storm grew closer.

Greg’s mid-life crisis was like a poppy flower with an intoxicating scent which he had carefully watered and fed. It was not a case of wanting to buy a motorbike or make love with beautiful women. His crisis was that he wanted to know the meaning to life and why he was put on this earth. He had accomplished so little. Neither his words nor his deeds had forked any lightning in the hearts of others. No thunder from his intentions had shaken the needy into a places of safety.

“I like you for that Gregory.”

Greg jumped at the voice. It had come from behind him. From a darker entrance deeper inside, further down into the throat of the cave. It was not an internal voice. There was even an echo which took place outside the cave of his own skull.

“It’s impossible not to like Gregory Williamson. Well… not quite impossible, but I like you anyway…” said the voice from a distance, the echo, rebounding from the cave walls and the inside of Greg’s head.

“The things that Gregory has been through… so very much. We should look out across the sea and watch the waves crashing and breaking in the coming storm and it would remind us of eternity. It would make us feel very small. We would be unable to look at the horizon then, and instead gaze down at our feet…”

After the word ‘feet’ there came an edgy laugh which sounded as hollow as the cave. As hollow as his head.

“Hello!” shouted Greg deeper into cave. “Who are you? How do you know me? Have you followed me?”

He felt safe though. A strange bliss seemed to envelope him, more intimate than the sea and the horizon which spoke of eternity. The storm and the darkness made him curious. There was no fear. A kind of peace caressed him in that moment, like the soft wing of an angel.

And the air was full of the smell of salt and seaweed and something else which he couldn’t put his finger on. He wanted to go further. He wanted to go further than anyone else. And the crashing and breaking of the waves as the tide came seemed to have an atmosphere of their own. ‘Curiosity killed the called.’


But there was silence still, apart from a strange ringing in his ear as if the pressure had changed or someone had clashed ancient swords at the side of his head.

Then there was singing. A hum, a childhood nursery rhyme. “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

Greg’s curiosity overtook him and he walked deeper into the cave and the last of the dusk light showed a fork ahead. The cave seemed impossibly deep. It seemed labyrinthine. He followed the singing and soon most of the light was gone. The voice of the sea became a whisper. He had to feel along the cold rock and soon he saw something sitting on a rock further inside. At first he thought the dark outline to be some kind of stalagmite. He gasped as the silhouette moved.

“What do you want to know Gregory?” said the voice.

“Hello,” replied Greg finally.

Greg wondered how the stranger could have known his name.

“Do you want to know how we know your name?” asked the voice. “We have been expecting you and we know the question you will ask and we know the answer to that question – the question which had been burning in your heart for years. Ask it and we shall answer.”

So Greg thought frantically of what that question might be, because doing so seemed to be his only escape. And then he remembered…

“What is the meaning of my life?”

Soft laughter.

“It is well that you have asked what the meaning of your life is and not what the meaning of life in general is. And now we shall tell you what the meaning of your life is… it is this. You were born to come here and you were born to be in this place at this time. There can be no meaning without a creator who created both you and us. And so the meaning of your life is quite simple: You are here to be our supper.”

Then bliss left and fear came. It was a horror for Greg and no kind of answer. It would have been no kind of answer for anyone.

“I’m sorry? What are you doing here? Who else is with you?” said Greg thinking he must have misheard.

He fumbled for his mobile. And clicked the torch app and suddenly the owner of the voice was lit up. It was a merman in reverse. It was a merman but it was not a merman. It had the legs and midriff of a man but it had the torso of a huge fish. It was wrapped in seaweed as if the seaweed were a clothing. There were no feet, simply a tail where the legs joined. The head seemed normal, apart from the mouth. Part of the back could be seen and barnacle ridges formed there. On the front there were mussel shells clasped to the creature’s scaly chest.

Greg was horrified and he would have raced from the spot if the strange merman in reverse had not spoken to him with a voice which sounded like the eternity of the sea.

“The meaning of life is like the sea. When you look at the sea from the place that the river and estuary flow, it seems only to be the sea, of no relevance to you, something to only be aware of. Hardly even important. But when you are in the sea itself, when you are no longer fearing it, when you have passed the boundary between land and water, when you flow into the sea you feel it all around you. You feel it all and you know that it is forever and that it is beautiful and it becomes a compensation for the sufferings of dry land and the saltless river which led you there. But you have to follow the river to the sea. We have been waiting for you.”

“I’m sorry,” said Greg. “What are you? That’s no answer. That answer sounds like bullsh…”

And then he suddenly realized that the mouth of the merman in reverse was not that of a merman but the mouth of a tiger shark. The teeth so sharp. A mouth which gaped open, its jawbone disconnecting to widen its maw like a snake. And then there was a lurch and suddenly the creature met the place where Greg stood frozen. He dropped his mobile and in the darkness the great sharp mouth opened and suddenly there were no questions left in Greg’s head to ask because he had no head.

And the others came to feed too.

And the vast ocean, outside the mouth of the cave, the body of this strange soul, welcomed its new guest with a whisper… ‘Curiosity kills the called.’

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