The first light of dawn was creeping over the horizon when Conrad was roused from his slumber by Rollo’s hollering. Conrad only ever slumbered, he never slept, not the sleep of a child, dead to the world, its oversized surroundings. One small part of his brain kept constant vigil, snatching at the slightest noise or shift in smell. It no longer bothered him. He accepted it for what it was: a part of him now, like the scar in his side and the remorseless throb of his damaged knee.
The boards groaned under his feet as he shuffled from his shack on to the narrow deck that ringed it. The sharp salt air stabbed his lungs, raw from too many cigarettes the previous evening. As if in reprimand, an overflowing ashtray still sat on the arm of the slatted wooden chair out front. A book lay face down on an upturned fish crate beside the molten remains of a candle and an all-but-empty bottle of cheap Imperial whiskey.
He had read deep into the night, the bugs dancing dangerously close to the candle flame until it had finally sputtered and died. The waxing moon, so high and prominent at dusk, had long departed, having run her early course; and for a further hour he had sat in the deep darkness, breathing in time to the beat of the waves beyond the high beachbank, sleep rising up around him like the unseen tide, his mind numbed by the liquor, his body by the blanket of night-dew settling over him.
Conrad stared at the chair, unable to recall the short stroll he must surely have made from the abandoned perch to his bed.
The cries were closer now, carried on the breeze, but Rollo was nowhere to be seen among the tumbling dunes. Conrad guessed that when he finally appeared he’d be flailing his arms like a windmill. He always did when he was excited or running. Right now, it sounded like he was doing both.
A few moments later Rollo hove in sight. Sure enough, his arms were slicing the air. He bounded down the face of the dune, hurdling a large clump of beach grass, stumbling momentarily but recovering his footing. He was panting, sucking in air, when he finally drew to a halt by the shack. Conrad waited for him to catch his breath.
Rollo’s lank dark hair was streaked by the sun and the salt air as it always was at this time of year. When he finally looked up and smiled, his teeth stood out like bleached bone against the deep amber of his skin.
‘You’re not wearin’ no clothes.’
‘Well, what do you know?’ Conrad allowed a note of mild irritation to creep into his voice.
‘Go get togged up.’
‘This better be good.’
‘Oh, it’s good, it’s good.’
They paused as they reached the top of the high dune that separated Conrad’s isolated home from the ocean. Overhead, a handful of stars winked their final farewells in the brightening sky. Beneath them, the broad beach stretched off to the western horizon, one hundred miles of almost unbroken sand, straight as a yard-arm, reaching into the heart of New York City.
A few miles to the east, beyond the sandy lowlands of Napeague where they now stood, rose the high ground of Montauk—a noble upthrust of ridged and pitted glacial moraine at the very tip of the South Fork: Long Island’s last defiant cry before it tumbled into the oblivion of the Atlantic. Beyond lay nothing but water…and the lost dreams of the Old World.
The ocean was suspiciously calm and limpid, the towering breakers the only indication of