‘Once upon a Tide’ is a variable, restless, shifting narrative. Turns of phrase, stage directions, and lines of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) are randomly, repeatedly, and somewhat enigmatically recombined within a close, tense, ship-bound setting reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1910), or The Shadow–Line (1916). On the deck of a ship off the shore of an island, two interlocutors are closely observed by a narrator who remains hidden from view.
Not quite a short story, not quite a stage play, ‘Once upon a Tide’ is just one of those moments in literature when time … stands … still. When plot advances by simply refusing to budge. One of those waiting times, slack tides, great hollows within which heat intensifies, cold deepens, night thickens, fevers rage, or the sun continues its relentless blaze. Tension builds, and still nothing happens; neither the sight of a sail on the horizon nor the slightest breath of wind. It is within these long stillnesses that sailors’ yarns unravel. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the entirety of Marlow’s tale is recounted in one evening whilst sitting utterly still on the deck of a ship moored on the Thames. In the pitch dark and the heavy night air of the river, the narrator strains to discern meaning: ‘I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips…’.
In fiction, these long feverish pauses eventually break. In a variable text, however, we may hover forever within the tense and nuanced relation between reading, listening, watching, and waiting for the sentence, the word, the clue…
What tide is this – spring, slack, or neap? And what of this ship – charmed, safely in harbour, or bound sadly home? Are the interlocutors slight, strong, or old? Are they mariners, travellers, or strangers? Where are they from exactly? And what on earth – or sea – are they talking about?
To each of these questions there are endless answers.
There is no logical reason to cause Conrad-esque characters to speak Shakespearian dialogue. The compulsion to do so is born of reading and re-reading sea stories across genres and across centuries. The reader of ‘Once Upon a Tide’ is encouraged to do the same – read and re-read, aloud if possible.
The controls at the bottom of the narrative allow the reader to read the text more quickly, more slowly, to stop the text from shifting, or to move on to a new permutation of this sea-sorrow, to suffer a sea change into something rich and strange.