Thomas Penrose is a village doctor in rural Cornwall. Popular with patients and friends alike, and handsome into the bargain, he lives in a romantic clifftop tower by the sea. It’s a wonderful life – if only Dr Tom could enjoy it. He’s a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, fighting a lonely battle against alcoholism and PTSD.
Determined not to inflict his troubles on anyone else, Tom keeps himself to himself. But fate has other ideas, and brings a handsome surfer crashing to his feet after a dreadful wipe-out on Porth Beach. Just another crazy surf bunny? Not a bit of it – Flynn Summers is one of Cornwall’s heroes, a fearless search-and-rescue helicopter man. Why is he risking his beautiful neck in the stormy off-season waves?
Despite the rocky beginning, Tom and Flynn become friends. Both are concealing sorrows behind a tough facade, and for once in his life Tom thinks he’s met someone who can handle him, shadow-side and all. But Flynn isn’t a free man. He’s unhappily locked into a bond of obligations and bad memories with formidable pilot Rob Tremaine – and Rob has no intention of letting Flynn go.
As Tom and Flynn begin their high-risk, high-reward romance, will the tides of the past sweep in to destroy their new love?
Thomas walked slowly on the edge of the world, to discover what the sea would bring him.
He seldom took anything home, unless it was a stone or piece of driftwood Belle had particularly set her heart on. There was no space for clutter in his spartan rooms, and his tastes did not incline towards collecting. But sometimes there were things to look at and put back—fantastic conch shells, pieces of the green rock called serpentine that washed in from the Kynance cliffs to the southeast. If he found a piece of round white quartz, he might take that, and later add it to the pile outside his door that he tried hard not to think of as a cairn.
The morning was cold, the bay wreathed in sea fret. Fairly typical for late April on this lonely Cornish coast, and Thomas found the chill perversely comforting. He didn’t mind the tourist season, but would miss his solitary walks out here along the sea’s edge. In a couple of weeks’ time there would be vehicles other than his own battered Land Rover pulled up in the little beach car park, the first hopeful surfers of the season piling out onto the tarmac in a welter of boards, wetsuits and towels. They were mostly peaceful souls, pilgrims seeking out the magic of this wild coast, and God knew their tourist spending kept the local economy afloat.
Thomas blinked and came to a halt on the wet sand. There was one of them out there already. He pushed his mist-dampened fringe out of his eyes and looked again. The sharp onshore wind was heaping the surf into short-lived grey mountains, surely too turbulent for even the craziest of riders. He frowned and sensed Belle coming to stand beside him, the top of her elegant wolfhound head pressing lightly to his elbow. No. He couldn’t see anyone now. It had been a momentary impression, of a lean silver shape poised between one wave crest and the next. A shudder rolled through him. It wouldn’t be his first hallucination, but he’d hoped very much that he had seen his last. His fingers sought the rough silk of Belle’s scruff, unconsciously reaching for solidity, warmth. “Come on, dog. Let’s go home.”
He turned to leave, but Belle remained fixed to the spot. When he called to her again, she whined. Thomas turned in surprise. It was a lonely sound, poignant in the mist, and he had seldom heard it. The people at the shelter had said she scarcely ever vocalised, which had been one of his reasons for choosing her as a companion, despite her vast size and matching appetite. He went back to her, and the sound came again, like a foghorn heard from far out at sea. She was rigid, poised, looking back towards the waves.
Thomas followed the direction of her gaze and saw it too. Not a hallucination, then, unless the dog was sharing it. A ghost, maybe. This haunted coast had plenty of stories. A Flying Dutchman surfer, plying the Atlantic storm in endless solitude. Probably enough of them had died out there by now to spawn a few ghosts.
As Thomas watched, the graceful figure, still little more than a shadow in the mist, caught a perfect wave and began his ride. He was a long way out, but seemed to spot the watchers on the shore and lifted one hand in an insouciant salute.
No ghost would be so bloody stupid. Thomas turned away in disgust. Since returning from his third and final tour of duty as an army medical officer, he had struggled to hold together the bodies and souls that fell under his care as village doctor in his native Sankerris. Usually it was nothing worse than sprained muscles and arthritis, but even in peaceful West Cornwall, drug-addiction cases came his way, cancers, sick children. And as for the years before that, Thomas kept his thoughts about the sand and bloodstained dust, his efforts to mend shattered soldiers in the Camp Bastion field hospital, in a well-sealed box. He had no time for lunatics who took their lives in their hands for no better reason than to chase a thrill.
The mystique and beauty of the surfing community’s ideals were not lost on him, but most were content to wait for decent weather and the seasonal lifeguards who would start work a couple of weeks into May. They did not go out alone, in waves big enough to swallow a house, doubtlessly expecting coastguards and air-sea rescue men to risk their lives in turn to fish them out when the inevitable happened. Realising that the dull, slow swell of rage inside him was little to do with this one dumb kid on a board and a lot to do with the post-traumatic stress disorder he could simultaneously diagnose in himself and utterly deny, that it was eight o’clock in the morning and he had patients who deserved a better doctor than the one he would turn into if he didn’t get a grip on himself, Thomas lowered his head and began to stride back up the beach.
Belle howled. It was once only, but Thomas’s blood ran cold. The sound bounced off the granite cliffs behind him, seemed to blend itself with the roar of the surf, as if the sea had found a voice. Insofar as Thomas was still capable of affection, he loved the dog. Seized by a fear he couldn’t name, he ran back to her. “Belle, you silly bitch. What’s the matter?” Belle ignored him, and Thomas once more followed the cue of her unfathomable amber-eyed stare.
Just in time to see the surfer execute a sublime passage through the barrel of a breaker, hit the deadly Porth Bay rip, and take the most devastating wipeout Thomas had seen in thirty years of watching riders fly and crash along this coast. For a moment he was lost in admiration. The move had been so beautiful, its termination so complete, that it was almost satisfying, answered some marrow-deep impulse to destruction inside him. He waited, calculating the speed and direction of the rip, adding in a few yards for the undertow. He could work out, more or less, where this talented lunatic should surface.
It didn’t happen. Thomas swallowed hard. This was none of his business. He had come out to walk his dog, just as he did every morning, same time, same place, part of a rigid routine whose component parts could be fitted together, end to end, to form a normal day. The lunatic would be fine. Anyone who could surf like that could surely swim with equal power. He would survive, even if the wave whose belly he had threaded was still in the process of breaking, a mountain of water thundering down, rolling and roiling into its own roots. Thomas knew how that felt. No surfer himself, he had once loved the sea, and you didn’t grow up around here without learning the force of those green-grey Atlantic monsters that swelled in, heaped themselves up on the continental shelf, and expended their momentum with bruising, crushing vigour on human limbs. It was seldom fatal. There was an exhilaration in being caught up in them, like surviving a benign rockfall. If you could swim, if you knew the rip pattern, you generally lived.
Thomas shielded his eyes with one hand. The board would pop up first, dragging its owner to surface by the ankle. None of his business at all.
First, do no harm. Thomas, about to walk away, shivered to a halt. Eight bitter years since he had taken his Hippocratic oath, and he was certain he had violated it in a dozen ways. The war his nation was waging in the far-off desert he had left behind to come home and fit himself into the shape of the man he once had been—that formless, limitless, probably endless fucking war—it hadn’t been conducive to good and dignified medical practice. Hippocrates probably had not foreseen the necessity of punching a wounded soldier unconscious to silence his raging objection to the failed Afghani suicide bomber being treated in the next bed. Of taking a rifle from a corpse and sniping off a bunch of gun-toting local kids across a wall of sandbags to defend the bleeding and helpless survivors at his feet. First, do no harm… It made Thomas want to laugh, or throw up, but he knew that to turn his back on the ocean now would be a harm his own fragmented soul might not survive. He felt inside his jacket for his mobile.
Which, for once, was not safely tucked inside its purpose-tailored pocket. Thomas swore. He always carried it. Joggers came out here, overdid it and keeled over with heart attacks all the time. Kids wandered; old ladies fell down steps. Something might happen to Belle. Unforgivably, this morning he had left it in the Rover, down between the seats where it had landed when he’d swerved to avoid a badger. It seemed this morning no one was taking care. By the time he ran up the half mile or so to the car park…
Frantically he scanned the beach, but he’d chosen his wilderness well, and there was no one to be seen in either direction.
He undid the jacket and let it drop onto the sand. He hadn’t been in the ocean for years, but his army service had left him fit and hard. He could feel the neglected strength inside himself, waiting. He kicked off his shoes. That would have to do. He swam, as routinely and rigidly as he did everything else, three times a week at the pool in Penzance. Taking one last guess at where that stupendous, still-breaking wave might have deposited the surfer—or, by now, his corpse—Thomas ran into the sea.
The stinging cold hit him instantly, emptying his lungs. You forgot, between visits. Forgot the riptide, tearing at your legs even knee-high, forgot the high pure chill, like a cry, a long, beautiful, unbearable note of music that would not end. The Gulf Stream was slowing, Thomas had heard. He could believe it. The water surged up his thighs, forcing a yelp from him as it engulfed his cock and testicles, none of which equipment, he imagined, would ever be seen again. He took a few more strides and got ready for the plunge.
Something knocked his legs from under him. The impact was hard, warm, human-sized. Crashing down into the surf, Thomas grabbed instinctively at the object—surfer, dolphin, at very worst juvenile shark—which had mown him down. Held it, anchoring it and himself against the immediate seize of the undertow. An unequal battle—the monster wave, having spent itself, was now sucking back down the steeply pitching shore, creating a drag like steel cables. Thomas had to get his feet beneath him or he and whatever piece of flotsam he was clutching would be hauled straight back out. But the sand beneath his scrabbling fingers was shaly and lacking cohesion, grains and pebbles sliding off each other in the salty churn.
A tug at the back of his neck, then a sharp, tearing pain. Thomas cried out in atavistic fear. The body he was clutching to him in one arm was encased in rubber, not the astounding natural vinyl of shark skin, but nonetheless something had just closed its teeth in his shoulder. The pull it exerted and the panic it sent through his limbs enabled him to get his head above the crashing surf, find his centre of gravity and lurch upright.
Belle stood planted a yard or so behind him, soaked and mute. She looked as if she would have liked to speak to him, but the three-inch scrap of his shirt fabric hanging from her mouth was eloquent enough. Thomas coughed, shook water from his eyes. “Jesus, Belle.”
The deadweight he was holding by its armpits suddenly came to life. Staggering, fighting not to go down in the thigh-high rip, Thomas aided its struggle to flip over and get to its feet. For a long moment they stared at one another. Thomas had time to be surprised. He had been expecting some kid, a salt-bleached surf freak with a shark’s-tooth necklace who’d seen Point Break one too many times. The man in front of him, grazed and blue-lipped but now propping Thomas against the current in his turn, looked only a couple of years younger than himself. He was lean and dynamically built, radiating heat through the pro-quality wetsuit under Thomas’s hands. His hair was plastered down, its colour indeterminate, but there was no doubt about his eyes, green as the sea which had just thrown him back out of her maw, fixed on Thomas’s, full of laughter and contrition. He said, “Christ, I’m sorry. Thank you.”
Then he glanced over his shoulder, back towards the water, out of which a rushing sound was coming, a wild roar that somehow neither of them had noticed. “Run!”
The only thing bigger than the seventh wave is the ninth wave that follows it—another piece of ocean lore Thomas had absorbed during his boyhood and for some reason briefly forgotten. The surfer gave him only an instant to look back, long enough to see that the overcast morning sky had turned to foam-streaked glass. A ninth one, gathering half the deep…and all the wave was in a flame, soared up from Thomas’s memory, lines learned and loved long ago, forgotten also, and then the surfer’s hand closed on his own, a hot, tight grip he would remember.