Flat calm at dawn, and the sea runs out like mercury from the dark legs of the jetty to the vast pearlescent stretch of the horizon. Mid-way across the bay, a thick column of black smoke rises straight up about a hundred feet, then curves and gradually thins to the east. A small yacht is on fire at the root of it; you can just about make out the last licks of fire around a lump in the water. It’s a shock to see it – as if someone had taken a violent, oily rag to a seascape by Turner.
As we swing down towards the pontoon, a coastguard waves and points to where he wants us: a collection of emergency vehicles on the road end of the jetty, and a couple of teenagers sitting on a wooden parapet, shivering under blankets. A lifeboat man stands next to them, as bulked out with Ripstop competence as the boys are reduced and spindly beneath their blankets.
‘Okay. What we’ve got here – two lads who’ve been in the water max of ten minutes. No smoke inhalation, no swallowing of water, no drowning, shark attack, no mugging by crabs as far as we can make out. Just need to warm up a bit, probably, but we’ll let you be the judge. That one’s Scott, that one’s Billy.’
‘Other way r-r-r-ound,’ says Billy, chattering the words out of his mouth.
‘Anyways,’ says the Lifeboat man, ‘Over to you.’
He smiles and carries on writing out his form.
‘No, I’m Billy.’
‘Okay. Scott. Billy. Let’s get you on the ambulance, throw a few logs on the fire then we’ll get the story. Okay?’
‘We’re a bit wet, so you might want to put something on the chairs.’
We lead them onto the truck and pile them with more blankets.
The lifeboat man was right – all their observations are normal, no sign of anything untoward, except for mild hypothermia. Despite being dunked in the ocean, alcohol fumes hang over them both in a visible haze.
‘How much have you had to drink?’ I ask them.
‘Oh, loads. Anyway – it was his idea.’
‘Well it was my Dad’s boat, but he said he wanted to take it out.’
‘You said you knew what to do.’
‘I do know what to do.’
‘Obviously mate. Obviously. That’s why the boat blew up and I had to rescue you.’
‘F-f-f-uck off. You didn’t rescue me.’
‘I did!’ he shouts. ‘The boat was in flames! It was going down! So I dived into the sea.’
‘I couldn’t get my laces undone.’
‘Yeah – and you were crying like a bitch so I had to swim back and save you.’
‘I was not.’
‘I saved you, man! I saved you!’
Frank yawns and takes a seat opposite them on the trolley.
‘So it was your Dad’s boat?’ he says.
‘Yeah. God – what am I going to tell him? You won’t tell him, will you?’
‘I won’t say a word,’ says Frank. ‘But he’ll have to know sooner or later. Unless you can think of something really amazing. Which I doubt.’
‘Yeah – I know. He’s going to k-k-kill me. But just don’t tell him yet. I’ve got to get the story straight.’
A violent shudder passes through Scott, shaking up from his white nubby toes, up through the layers of blanket, to rattle out of his body via his jaw. After it passes, he laughs out loud.
‘God! Look at us! We nearly drowned, man! We nearly burned up and drowned!’
Billy laughs too, their shivers accentuating their craziness, until they both almost vibrate out of the chairs, through the door and back out onto the jetty.
Eventually, Scott calms down and flaps his arms out right and left like a giant, sorry bird.
‘I lost my iPhone, man,’ he says, miserably. ‘It’s on the seabed now. That cost four hundred quid.’
‘You should’ve got yourself one of those wreck apps,’ says Frank.
‘Yeah,’ says Billy, sitting up and hugging himself. ‘Yeah. Maybe you’ll get some sex texts from a lobster.’
‘Shut up. Don’t forget – I saved your life. You owe me.’
But he seems happy about it.
‘So – tell me again what happened?’ I ask them.
‘Billy said he wanted to be out on the sea for when the sun came up. So we took his old man’s boat. I put the sails up but they didn’t work, so we stuck the engine on. After a bit it started making a funny noise…’
‘… all this black smoke coming out.’
‘… we tipped loads of water over it.’
‘… and then it blew up.’
‘Yeah, and I stripped down to my boxers and legged it over the side. And I’d swum miles before I realised Baby Billy was still on board. I could see him screaming and crying.’
‘Fuck off was I.’
‘So I swam back and I saved his life! I dragged you from the jaws of death, my friend. And you can never, ever re-pay me.’
Meanwhile, Billy has pulled out his mobile phone and is shakily trying to take the back off.
‘Hey! Where d’ya get that?’
‘I had it with me the whole time, man. I s-s-stuffed it down my shorts.’
As he pulls off the back, a trickle of sea water runs over his hands. He taps it a couple of times on his knee, then nails-out the SIM card, holding it up for us all to see.
‘There!’ he says, turning it round and round in the light. ‘A little salt water never hurt no-one.’