There was an old man who lived on a beach in a shack that he’d built with his own hands, using driftwood that had washed up on the shore. It had a crooked metal chimney and no door, only a large window that you climbed in and out of – only you never did as the old man had no real friends and never invited anyone in.
For him, the sea was company enough. Every day at low tide he’d walk along the shore to see what gifts the tides might have brought him – it might be that he’d find a crate of oranges, washed in from Africa, or perhaps a badminton racquet that he’d use to… swat flies! Or perhaps he’d find only a piece of old rope that would serve him as a washing line.
The people in the village thought that the old man was crazy and warned their children to never go near his shack. But of course they did. When the old man awoke from his afternoon nap and opened up the shutters of his window he frequently found 8 or 9 children sat patiently on the sand outside, gone silent at the appearance of his red nose and white beard.
“Go on, be off with you!” he’d growl but the children would just gulp and sit right where they were. “Hmm, I suppose there’s no getting rid of you until you’ve had a story?” the children would nod eagerly and the old man would light his pipe and say, “Well, now, yesterday we had the tale of the Dream Gypsies, and the day before that what was it? Oh yes, the Bad Breath Pirates.. But did I ever tell you the story of the Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon?”
And of course he never had and that was the amazing thing – the old man had never been heard to tell the same story twice. He came up with a new tale each time and so they always came back, running down the path from the cliff as soon as school was out.
The adults in the village had once been children, too, but they’d long forgotten the days of listening to stories on the sand. There was clearly something wrong with someone who had no friends or even a job and they preferred to ignore the old man altogether until one day, a surprise event made that quite impossible.
On a bright autumn morning an expensive car pulled up in the main square and a man with tidy hair and a shiny suit stepped out and walked straight into the mayor’s office like he owned it. Shortly afterwards the word was passed around for everyone to meet in the church for an emergency council. It was a small village and soon they all were gathered on the wooden pews, wondering what on earth could be so important to be called together like this.
The mayor took the pulpit and with a smile that seemed to leap off his face he announced: “Today will be a day you’ll remember forever. Mt Farrell, here,” nodding to the man in the shiny suit sat in the front row, “Belongs to a very powerful oil company and they want to buy our entire village! From the fields where our cows graze to the houses we live in to the beach down below!”
“But, if we sell our houses,” the librarian asked, adjusting her glasses nervously, “Where will we live?”
“Anywhere we want to – we’ll be filthy rich!” the mayor cried, rubbing his hands together with glee and when he told them how much they’d be getting there was spontaneous applause. People jumped to their feet and began to slap each other on the backs and even dance in the aisles.
“But do you suppose the old man will sell?” the butcher asked and everyone froze in mid-celebration.
That afternoon the old man woke from his nap and, when he opened his window shutters, instead of a small group of children, he found a crowd of 50 or so stern-looking adults. The mayor cleared his throat and stepped forwards.
“I’ll come straight to the point – how much would you sell your shack for?”
“What? This old thing? It can’t be worth more than a hundred pounds,” the old man chuckled, “It’s just a bunch of driftwood and rusty nails.” Everyone heaved a sigh of relief but then the old man added, “Still, it is home and I don’t suppose any price can be put on that.”
“But if you sell your shack you’ll be able to live anywhere in the world!” the mayor pointed out anxiously, “And you’ll be able to have all you want!”
“That’s a very interesting offer,” the old man agreed, “But you see, I’m actually quite happy where I am and as for having all you want, well now, I don’t think anyone has that.”
Another emergency meeting was held in the church that night and tempers were running high. To be so close to getting rich and to be held back by the infuriating obstinacy of a stubborn old man. The oil company would only buy if they could have the whole village and the beach down below but there was clearly no point in negotiating any further. The old man just didn’t understand the value of money.
So they decided to starve him out. The baker and the grocer stopped their deliveries and a blockade was placed on the path leading down to the beach. The plumber cut the water pipe leading to the old man’s shack and they reckoned they’d soon see him change his mind.
But as the days passed, they saw from where they spied on top of the cliff that the old man had just taken to fishing more and gathering mussels from the rock pools at the end of the beach. When his gas ran out he used driftwood for his fire and to collect rain water he used a couple of old umbrellas that had washed up on the shore.
Things came to a head one night when someone crept down to the beach and poured petrol over the old man’s roof. A match was lit and the shack went up in flames with a roar that burnt it to the ground in no time. The next morning the villagers gathered on the shore and stared in silence at the pile of charred wood and ashes before them. No one could find the courage to step forwards and poke through the remains for the old man’s bones.
Although no one knew who could have done such a thing, the truth was that the thought had occurred to them all and now, as the waves crashed on the shore behind them, a part of their minds was unlocked, releasing memories of when they had come here as children to hear the old man’s stories. Images of Indian emperors, whales that sang love songs in the deep, kissing tribes and flying carpets flooded through their minds, and tears streamed down their cheeks as they remembered just how much they had forgotten.
“I’ve been meaning to rebuild the old thing any way – do you think I should put a door in this time?”
One and all turned, astonished, to see the old man walking towards them along the shore, a wooden crate under his arm, “A box of grapefruit washed up this morning. They’re quite good if you cut off the bottom half – can I tempt anyone?”
And all at once they understood what the old man had been trying to tell them all along. Some things just could not be sold. Listening to the waves arrive on the beach and the old man’s stories belonged to their childhood and was part of the story of their lives. And no price could ever be put on that.
When Mr Farrell of the oil company drove up to the village the next day he found the place deserted. He walked over to the cliff and shook his head to see everyone down on the beach, helping repair the old man’s shack.
“Set the roof straight there!” called the mayor – not getting his hands too dirty.
While to the side the old man sat talking with the children and not a few of the adults, too.
“You’ll be wondering where my stories come from – have you not already guessed? After all, I won’t be around to tell them forever. The answer is that just like everything else here, they wash up on the shore. The sea is the greatest storyteller of them all.”