©Emma J Myatt 2016
‘Leucothea’ By Emma J Myatt – Published in Earlyworks Press ‘Journeys Beyond’ 2016
“The sea is biting cold. I am cumbersome with all the equipment; using a dry suit requires more of everything, especially strength. I’m thigh deep in the sea, tiny tears in the neoprene allowing arctic water to creep into my bubble. I shiver, wishing I’d checked the suit more carefully before remembering that it doesn’t matter.
I wade out in my fins until I’m waist deep. My mask is still around my neck and I fit it over my eyes and nose. I put the regulator in my mouth and breathe the cool air, feeling my lungs fill in a way they don’t on land. I wade deeper, the rocks becoming slippery with seaweed. As the water is about to close over my head, I notice a boat on the horizon. People out fishing? Have they seen me? Nobody is supposed to dive alone. I have a very good reason for doing it but I’m not about to explain it to anyone.
I duck quickly and the cold closing over my head makes me gasp for breath. My chest tightens and I can’t breathe properly. I begin a count in my head to slow things down, until I’ve got myself under control. I let some air out of my jacket and feel myself sink more heavily onto the seabed with each step.
I check my air and depth gauges: everything’s in order. I’ve enough air for about forty-five minutes, which is plenty. I let myself fall forwards, clear my ears and swim horizontally. I imagine myself Leucothea, feeling my body moving the way a sea spirit would. I clear my ears again and tune into the underwater clicks and whooshes, disconnecting myself from the world above.
This is my element. Always has been.
I’m gliding above the rocks, letting the current carry me along. Seaweed sways below me. I hear myself singing my diving tune; a song I always find in my mind when underwater. I am suddenly so grateful for this last experience of life that my eyes sting and fill. I blink rapidly to push the tears back because I can’t lose it now. I concentrate instead on keeping the pressure in my ears equalised.
At twenty metres the water is clearer and a deep solid blue. A final checklist runs through my head: notes, all addressed and ready; car, left open with notes inside; house, everything in order; will, written. The relief I feel, combined with the weightlessness ignites a happiness within me and I stretch out my arms and soar, turn on my back and see the sun shimmering on the surface of the water way above. A few sunbeams break through and flicker towards me until they dissipate to nothing. The boat is long gone and I’m all alone again.
I turn back to face the seabed once more and begin searching for the wreck. Once past that, I know there’s a deep trench. I check my depth and air and see that I’m close to the halfway mark, the point at which I could still turn back, have time for a decompression stop and surface with air still in my tank, as all good divers do. I let go of the gauge and promise myself it’s the last time I shall look at it, until the deep blue of the trench is all around me and above me and I am safe.
The wreck looms before me like a live thing, seeming to drift closer as if it is me that’s still. My breath catches. I swim close to it and lay a gloved hand on the rotting hull, seeing how it is becoming part of the sea. Eventually it’ll relax down to nothing, sigh itself into the seabed. I pull myself up to the deck, lop-sided and broken. Fish glimmer everywhere, bringing the dead boat to life. I see an eel peer out at me from a rusty hole in the deck.
Something catches my eye in the old wheelhouse. I look up but whatever caught my eye has gone, all I see is the flick of a large greenish tail, disappearing behind the boat. A seal? Porpoise? Usually they’re more curious than afraid.
I swim on, kicking and pushing myself over the wreck and down the other side, towards the trench. I see it immediately, a jagged hole in the rocks, which widens and stretches until it looks as if the seabed is trying to tear itself in half. I kick harder and let myself glide over it until the edges are too far apart for me to see, all is blue and dark. That beautiful depth. My ears hurt and I have to kick upwards slightly to clear them, before going down once more.
I stretch out my arms and legs again and allow myself to float down, taking nothing but the desire to be free. I can feel the heaviness inside me lifting. The guilt is ebbing away after months. I’m paying back what it was I took. I give in to the feeling of freedom, dimly aware that my air is getting harder to suck. My ears are sore again, but it doesn’t matter. I have a go at clearing them and they pop a little.
I am letting go.
Something darts across my field of vision. A large animal – dolphin? The seal again? It briefly rouses me from the warm contentment which is spreading as I descend.
‘Go back,’ sings a voice. Is it in my head? It’s in my head. It’s my life force (never my soul) urging me one last time not to give up. I expected this, I expected a bit of fight from something deep down within me. ‘You don’t belong here, Laura, go back,’ the voice is insistent, no longer singing. And it knows my name.
And suddenly there is a face in front of me. Part of me knows I must be looking at a seal; they are curious and she’ll be wondering what I’m doing in her world, but it’s such a human face that for a second I am angry. I wanted to be alone. I reach out and push it away and I see sorrow cross the curiosity in the eyes. Then the face is gone with a silky flick of movement.
My air is nearly gone. I can still manage little sips, but soon there will be none. Then suddenly, it’s gone. I let the regulator fall from my lips and close my eyes, seeing red against blue, a flower of death bursting out into the water. I open my mouth and in rushes the cold heavy water. I feel it going down my throat. I welcome it.
And then there is a mouth on mine. A soft, cool mouth. I open my eyes and see green irises before me, hair flowing around us. And I feel myself being pulled and pushed upwards.”
I finish reading. I can never tell the man in front of me how I long to be back there. “You were very lucky that those fishermen found you. Incredibly lucky there was a
decompression chamber close by,” Dr Collins says.
“Yes,” I say, still unable to forget the green eyes.
“You wrote this in the present tense,” the doctor says, indicating my statement. He calls it a Cleansing Piece, all the suicidal ones had to write them about how we didn’t die. And we have to keep reading them aloud. It doesn’t help, but he thinks it does. I suppose he wants to see my reaction to it one last time before he decides my fate.
I’m not sure how to respond to this so I say nothing. But I think, it’s because I’ve never surfaced.
“Laura? You understand why I’m asking?” He’s said all of this before.
“Yes, I did. It felt very real. But I know it wasn’t. It was just hallucinations brought on by the narcs. I mean nitrogen narcosis.”
“How do you feel about it now?”
“It wasn’t real, and I’m aware of that now. I no longer feel suicidal and I look forwards very much to going home and starting again. I can’t believe how stupid I was. Guilt makes you do funny things.” He has to believe me; I can’t stay within these pale yellow walls another day.
“So you don’t feel guilty now?”
“Yes, I do, but I will make amends in other ways. I no longer feel I have to pay the world back with my own life.”
“Strictly speaking Laura, it wasn’t your fault, as we’ve discussed many times. You are in the clear.” Dr Collins leans back in his chair.
In the clear. Strange words. Of course, the man in front of me can’t see the mess of bodies in the shallows; the crimson blood as it blooms out into the clear blue; he can’t hear the screaming; see the shocked faces; the broken deck chairs, the speedboat forced way out of its element onto the sand. He didn’t find himself waking up in the cockpit to all that, the creeping horror of realising it was All. My. Fault. I see it all, every day. I know how it ends, every time.
“And I’m feeling good about that. Like I said, I look forward to starting again,” I say, looking at him, unblinking.
There’s a silence which stretches and I’m worried, before he leans forward and tells me I’ll be under observation and that there are conditions but all I really listen to is ‘leaving us’ so inside I’m rejoicing.
There are awkward goodbyes then I exit the building and walk to the bus stop. I’ve made sure nobody is there to meet me. They kept telling me it wasn’t my fault but I saw the way nobody could look me in the eye afterwards; felt the way I could silence a room just by entering it. My job was the only blessing, sitting alone in my office, writing reports about the state of the sea, diving whenever I could, before I realised I didn’t deserve a place in the world any more.
I scan the bus timetable. There’s only one place I can go and I notice with satisfaction that the right bus will be here in just a few minutes. What I’m doing is right, then. It’s a sign. I let my bag fall to the pavement next to me and turn so my face is in the sun. I close my eyes.
Which is a mistake because immediately I see red against blue, life bleeding out into the water. Horror-stricken faces, a twisted deckchair flung up the beach.
I open my eyes again. It’ll never go away. And if it ever does, then I have no right to be alive. I should not even have been in the boat that day due to my back injury but I hadn’t wanted to miss the beach party, our end of project celebration.
The bus arrives and I get on, pay the driver some money, feel my breath hitch in my throat as he looks at me and smiles, in case he can see my thoughts. He lets me on. There are only a few people on the bus and I’m sure nobody has noticed me. Life outside glides past, wobbling slightly through the dirty glass as if we are all underwater.
I think about the green eyes staring into mine. The eyes that knew everything but were still wrong. That was exactly where I belonged. I wish that thing had let me stay. What awaits me now is a dead life, if that is possible. A life of deadness. Deathlife. A living death? I’ve never agreed with myself how to describe what it’s going to be.
Cranmore House, the place they’ve told me I’ll stay for a while ‘until I get back on my feet’ will by now have been informed I’m coming and if I’m late they’ll come out looking for me. I will the lumbering bus to go faster.
I watch other people’s lives drift past: dog-walkers shoppers street cleaners toddlers toddling cats jumping garden walls containing flowers women chatting drunk men staggering from the pub smoking pushchairs casually held in one hand, rolling people eating man running a policeman talking to an old woman girl cycling. All of it, all going on all of the time. The minutiae of life. A million tiny events every second. In any moment, all of it could be taken away. The bus driver could have a heart attack and crash through those school gates; that red car could have a blowout and pin the cyclist against the wall; the mother who’s chatting on her mobile could let go of her child’s hand for an instant and the child could run in front of the bus.
I suddenly feel sick. When my thoughts start spinning like this I find it hard to hold on to what’s real. As if any of it is!
I will the bus to move faster and miraculously it does, everything speeds up and it’s my stop and I get off leaving my bag exactly where it is and bolt for the doors and ignore the shout behind me and make for the right street and run up the hill and see the sign saying ‘Fosse Cliff’ and feel the pull of the sea tugging me ever forwards, drawing me in until I can hear the gulls and see the massive blue stretching out before me and I’m at the top and I don’t know exactly how I got here but here I am and here is the only place I was ever really headed.
I breathe. I stretch out my arms and just like I do when I’m underwater, I gently let myself fall forwards.
Ray gets a couple of extra minutes this morning before it hits him with a nauseating flip in his abdomen, the little reminder that it isn’t all a dream. Usually it gets him right away, but this morning he lies half-asleep listening to Win humming in the shower, thinks about her soft warm body and rolls onto her side of the bed, to lie on her pillow and smell her night cream. As he does every day, he thanks whatever it was that brought her to him and filled up his aloneness and made him laugh. Then he remembers It, all over again, and it’s all spoiled.
He checks his left leg; it’s the same as it has been all week since it got a little worse – perhaps slightly stiffer. It’s hard to tell. He makes a fist with his right and smiles slightly; it feels a bit better. Maybe. He does struggle to decide sometimes – if he’s feeling rough in his head his whole body feels wrong. If he feels good, if he’s having one of those random days full of joy like he did yesterday, he feels better all over and can kid himself he’s going to beat It.
Win’s still humming and splashing so he opens his bedside drawer, reaches right to the back, to the old cigar box he’s had since he was a child, pulls it out and lifts the lid. There they are, next to the leaflets full of support group numbers and information about It, the little pills that the doctor says will help, will delay the onset of symptoms. He pushes two out and dry-swallows them. The shower stops so he shuts the box and shoves it back in, closing the drawer. He tries to remember when his next appointment is. It’s perhaps sometime this week. He’ll have to phone and check, which he always has to do seeing as he can’t write it down on the calendar. Win would keep him right, of course, which is probably a good reason to tell her, just as good as the reason that if he doesn’t, she’ll probably leave him. I’ll never lie to you, he’d said, when she’d told him about John, her ex. She’d fixed him with her deep blue eyes and said, No, Ray, I don’t believe you would. It took him less than two years to begin hiding stuff from her and he knows, just as he knows that you don’t get a gift in life without getting an equal amount of good stuff taken away, that she will not forgive him when she finds out. If she finds out.
“Morning Raymond,” says Win as she emerges from the bathroom in a cloud of steam.
“Morning Winifred,” he replies, winking and placing onto his face a bright smile. “Sleep well?”
“Til you snored. And you must’ve been dreaming because you kept twitching. Your left leg kept kicking me. Were you dreaming about footie?”
Ray looks at her and frowns, feeling a cold ball settle into his stomach. “No, no I wasn’t. I’ll get up,” he says.
But Win’s already bustling out of the room, still in her towel, calling over her shoulder, “Stay and relax, you’re not working til eleven today. I’ll get you the paper and a coffee.”
“Win-” he starts, but she’s gone. He stares at the space where she just was. “I don’t deserve you,” he whispers. He lifts back the covers and looks at his leg. Twitching isn’t good. Twitching at night, when he doesn’t even know – that’s worse than not good. He feels sick. He holds out both his hands. Are they shaking? His right hand looks like it is. He makes two fists and slams them down on the bed, either side of him. If the shakes start, it’s bye bye bus, bye bye life and probably, bye bye Win. And losing Win would be the end. If they’d not been married when he got diagnosed, he’d have told her. The fact that it came a month after his wedding – one month! – had just thrown him. He shakes his head and is still shaking it when Win walks in, his coffee in one hand and the other holding the paper close up to her face. She’s saying something about it being a terrible shame.
“What’s that, love?” he asks, mostly to divert his thoughts. He doesn’t really want to know at all – no more bad news – but she’s reading it.
“I’ve not got my specs on but looks like someone’s thrown themselves off the cliffs. A girl.”
“Oh my god, says here she got off the Number 43 bus – isn’t that yours? – and they’re looking for people who might’ve seen her before… Wait til I get my specs.”
Ray grabs the paper and stares at the photograph on the front page. He recognises her straight away. She looks younger in the photograph, wild black curly hair down to her shoulders, a big open smile on her face and her eyes, wide and full of life, smiling as much as her mouth. Ray remembers faces. Yesterday she hadn’t looked like that. He’d noticed her because she hadn’t looked right and he remembers thinking, man trouble? She hadn’t looked directly at him but he’d seen her eyes – they were dull and the whites were red. And the way she’d got off-
“Oh, God,” he says. The way she got off, she’d left her bags and run and with a thud in his middle he remembers the stop they were at when she ran. He puts his hand to his forehead. “She got off by Fosse Road, the nearest place to Fosse Cliff. Jesus. She got off, running, left her bags and ignored me when I shouted after her and ran in front of the bus and across the road. I was angry. I looked round and saw her stuff there and thought about how she’d ignored me and I felt angry. I let her go. I closed the doors because I was late and I drove off. And I didn’t think about her much, even when I had to take her bags in at the end of the route and get them booked. Shit. Shit, shit shit.” He puts his hand over his mouth.
The bed creaks as Win sits next to him and looks over his shoulder. They both read:
By Tamsin Brown
Yesterday morning a young woman – who has been named locally as Laura Jones – fell to her death from the top of Fosse Cliff. Miss Jones, 31, had been under observation at Hallmead Hospital after a suicide attempt last year. She left the hospital yesterday morning on the (Number 43) bus after being discharged to travel to a nearby supported living environment. It is understood that on the way there Miss Jones walked to the top of Fosse Cliff where she then fell to her death. There are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances. The police have asked anyone – especially those on the same bus – who may have seen Laura Jones yesterday to contact them as soon as possible on 0865 5500 500. Miss Jones’ family have been informed. More on page 4.
Ray doesn’t speak but finds the right page.
Continued from front page
Last year the Echo reported that Laura Jones had been involved in an accident which claimed the lives of four people, including one child. Miss Jones was taking strong painkillers for back pain and was driving a speedboat just off Fosse Sands when she fell asleep and the boat collided with two families on the beach. Miss Jones reportedly had not been informed she should not operate any machinery while taking the medication and she did not know what the side-effects could be.
According to one of her friends whom the Echo interviewed at the time, Miss Jones tried to end her life because she could not live with the sense of guilt she felt. According to one source the doctor who prescribed the medication has been under investigation about the incident.
“I’ll have to call them,” Ray says.
Win takes his hand. “If it was suicide, she probably made her mind up a long time before.” Her voice is gentle, careful.
Ray says nothing. He is remembering a time when he sat in his car, at the top of a hill on the way to Portsmouth and wondered how much hosepipe he’d need. He’d just left the doctor’s where he’d gone for a follow up appointment after being told the stiffness was probably repetitive strain injury after driving for so many years, but they’d give him these tests just in case so in he walked expecting to be told he’d need a bit of time off work, perhaps some physio and then Wham, in a few seconds everything was different. He’d sat in his car for six hours, thought about ways it could be done, wondered if he had the guts and decided he had, if not for Win. They still had leftover wedding cake at home. Hadn’t even got all the honeymoon pictures printed. So he drove to the pub, ditched the car and got drunk and when he got home, Win was angry for a while but he hadn’t had to tell her and after that first day it got easier not to.
He looks at her now. “I’m going to get a shower then I’ll call them. I don’t think I’ll go to work today. I’ll call Mike and get cover. I don’t think I’d be safe.” He looks at the time. “Don’t be late for work, I know you’ve got that day trip today.”
“It’s okay, I can stay a bit longer. The oldies can wait a little while.”
“Honest, Win, I’m fine. You go. They’ve probably been looking forward to it all week.” He manages a smile.
“If you’re sure you’re all right…”
“I’m all right. It’s a shock, to be sure. I should have… I wish… Oh hell, I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t kill herself.” But he remembers the sadness he’d thought was man trouble in her and thought, she did mean to. I just didn’t realise it. He’d been happy yesterday, he remembers that. All around were folk getting on with their lives as he drove; he’d felt as if he was driving through a beautiful picture, with tiny important details of life being played out all around him and he was in the middle of it with all these people’s lives literally in his hands and he’d felt strong and safe and happy. It had been a gift day, a truly happy day when he usually had It hanging over him too much to do anything except pretend.
He’d had all those people’s lives in his hands including Laura Jones’. He shrugs off this thought so Win doesn’t see it and kisses her. “Go, I’ll see you tonight. Fancy an Indian?”
He holds it together until he hears the front door close and then he holds his face in his hands and sobs.
After his shower he feels able to call work and the police, with whom he arranges an interview in the afternoon.
He thinks of Win, pushing wheelchairs around the garden centre, holding papery hands and helping old ladies choose plants. He tries to imagine her pushing him around in a chair, or walking next to him as he rides a mobility scooter. Shame makes him close his eyes. It could be years before you lose your mobility, could be years before it gets really bad, the doctors had said. But he knows different. Those little pills that hide under the leaflets are not helping. The symptoms are only getting worse and this is not a good sign, he knows it. He tries to push away the truth because if he thinks about it too much, and stops telling the doctor, No, no worse at all! then he might as well have bought the hosepipe after all because it’s all going to end really soon anyway. Those pills are his religion. If he stops believing in them, he has nothing.
He opens the bedside drawer again and takes out the cigar box. He opens it and pulls out the leaflets that have been folded up in there for the last fourteen months. The first one he opens is numbers for support groups. Apparently there are lots, all, if he believes the pictures, attended by happy hand-holding couples smiling into the camera as if to say, Yeah, I’ve got Parkinson’s but it’s great! Look at us! Look how happy we are!
He knows what Win would have done by now, called every single one and taken him there and met people and got him involved and he would have gone, to please her, because he’d do anything to please her. All he wants is to make her happy and all she says she wants is to be with him. But now? As if she is right there in the room, he hears her voice in his head. Raymond Baillie, do you honestly think that would make any difference to me? Don’t you remember our wedding vows? I love you, and I’m here for you whatever happens. Do you really think I’d leave you? Be ashamed of you? Think you less of a man?
And suddenly something in him shifts. He feels on the brink of an understanding. He breathes, and lets it come. First comes the knowledge that he has to tell her because she deserves to know and she is the best friend he’s been waiting for his whole life, all fifty-two years of it. When he’s not with her it’s like half of him is missing. How has he thought it was all right not to tell her? How has he even considered it was okay to try and cope with this on his own?
“What have I been doing?” he says. He looks again at the picture of the girl from the bus, and then he knows all of a sudden he knows what he has to do. He thinks about her eyes and imagines what she was holding inside her – the lives of four other people.
He imagines himself driving his bus, pushing the truth deep down inside him until even he doubts it’s there, hiding it and hiding it until one day his body literally stops working and he suddenly cannot steer and there is a car coming the other way around a corner, a car full of a family and the bus goes straight into them.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” he whispers, and he picks up the phone.
Ray? It’s me.
I’m going to be late home.
No, go ahead and eat, I can warm mine.
I can’t explain now, but I need to be here.
About what? Can it wait until later?
All right. Yes, I love you too. See you later tonight.
This isn’t heaven. I know that voice, it’s Winnie, one of the volunteers. She’s standing by the edge of my bed. This is not my bed! This is the bloody hospital. They’ve brought me back, again! It’s in my notes, DO NOT RESUSCITATE, clear as day. Why won’t they just let me go? I’m ready – more than ready. I’ve had my life and it’s been good and now I’m just taking up space. Let me go and see Maud.
“Why won’t they just let me go?” My voice doesn’t sound right.
“Frank? Welcome back.”
Winnie’s bending over me, smiling. “I said, why-”
“Don’t try to speak, let me get a nurse.” And she’s gone.
I look around me. My head’s awful stiff and it feels like it’s stuffed with sawdust. I know what’s happened though, I remember it all. No memory loss, like last time when I woke up and had no idea of anything. We was at the garden centre. Winnie was helping me choose something for David for his birthday and then I felt it coming on me and Winnie helped me sit down and I thought, this is it, Franky-boy, this is where you leave the world. And I smiled at Winnie, I remember that, and then here I am. So I guess it’s me heart again, and they’ve zapped me back to life with those paddle things and I’m back. Again.
Winnie reappears with the nurse.
“Yes, just after you left, I heard him saying something.”
“Mr Willis? Can you hear me?” The nurse is loud.
“I’m not bloody deaf,” I tell her and see Winnie smothering a smile behind her hand. I give her a wink. She’s all right, is Winnie.
“You’re in A and E. You collapsed at the garden centre. Do you remember?” Winnie speaks around the nurse, who looks a little annoyed.
“Yep. Me heart, I’m guessing?”
“Actually, they don’t think so. Not this time. You collapsed and we called an ambulance, but you were all right – I mean your heart was working fine, you were breathing, just unconscious. They said your blood pressure is really low and-”
“Thank you, would you mind waiting outside for a moment? I just need to check a few things with Mr Willis.” And before Winnie can object, the nurse is shutting the curtains around me right in front of Winnie so she has to step back.
“Oh,” she says. “I’ll be just outside, Frank.”
The nurse speaks to me as if I’m seven, prods and pokes and shines stuff in my eyes all efficient like but then gives me a kindly smile. Maybe she’s okay. “A doctor will be along to see you soon. You’re probably going to have to spend the night here,” she says.
“Thanks,” I say. I’m not feeling all that thankful though to tell the truth. Body hurts, I’m so old people most don’t see me anymore, my family don’t visit. It’s time for me to go, like I said. The nurse squeaks off across the shiny floor and a few moments later Winnie reappears. Winnie’s one of the folk who still sees me. She often tells me I’m her favourite at the Inverluthe Daycare. Daycare. Makes us sound like children.
“You don’t need to stay,” I tell Winnie.
“I’ll stay til you get a proper bed, or they chuck me out. It’s fine. I’ve rung Ray and he’s fine. We didn’t really have plans tonight and even if we did, I’m not passing up an opportunity to spend an evening with my favourite man.”
“If I knew you wasn’t joking I’d tell that man of yours,” I say.
“Oh he’s fine. He doesn’t mind sharing me,” she says and winks. “Now. If you’re here for the night I can ring one of the others at the centre and get them to pop home for you? Doesn’t your neighbour have a key?”
“Mrs Sharman. Yes, she does.”
“How do you feel?” Winnie takes my hand in hers.
I consider for a moment. “I’m tired, my body’s worn out, I think my time should be up. Let someone else have a go. I don’t think the end’s too far away.”
Winnie looks upset again. “But you’re still young, mentally, and compared to some at Inverluthe, you’re a spring chicken!”
“Sprung chicken, maybe. What’s that saying – had a hard paper round?”
Winnie laughs. “Yeah, that’s the saying. You were a fisherman weren’t you?”
“Yes. Just up the coast. Used to fish these waters too, sometimes. Loads more fish back in the day. All gone now and all these bloody quotas – so much gets wasted! It’s a crime. We knew, us folk back then knew how to keep the oceans happy. We cared for them. We threw back tiddlers, we didn’t use those dragging nets they use now… It was a different world.”
“You’re not wrong there,” says Winnie.
I’ve got a story inside me I’ve never told anyone. And if I’d died today, it would’ve die too. I think it should be told. Winnie’s a good listener. But would she believe me?
“While we’re on the subject… Would you mind if I told you a story?”
Winnie looks around the bits of the ward we can see. It’s busy. “Don’t think anyone’s going to come anytime soon,” she says. “I’d love to hear a story.”
“It’s a true story,” I say. I wonder where to start. I’ve never told a soul. Don’t know why. Just never found the right time. And, just like I had that thought a second ago, another thought pops into my head like someone else has put it there. I have to tell her, right now.
“Would you pass me my jacket?” I say.
Winnie turns to the pile of folded clothes with my jacket placed neatly on top. She puts it in front of me. I reach to the inside pocket and take out a small drawstring bag, made of green velvet. I hold it in my right hand and close my fist over it. Although I’ve held it every day for the last fifty years, it always gives me a slight sort of jolt. Like it’s alive a little bit. This is probably why I’ve never told anyone the story.
“Maybe I shouldn’t, after all,” I say and Winnie nods.
“Okay. Whatever you want. But some things just have to be told. I need to tell my Ray that, he’s holding back a story from me, I know it. He’ll tell me when he’s ready, I know that as well. Telling things makes them real.”
It’s this that decides me. She’s right, nothing is real if it’s stored in your head. Telling it gives it life I suppose.
“Right,” I begin. “This story is fifty years old and I never even told Maud. I wish I had. Still hope to be able to if we end up in the same place. You religious, Winnie?”
She shrugs. “Some days I am. Others not. I think if there was a god he’d not let half the stuff that happens, happen. But there’s too much stuff out there for there not to be something. So, not sure. What about you?”
“I think there’s a god. But not like any god we talk about. This god’s a dangerous, dark bloke who is as much about war as he is about peace. See, you can’t have one without the other, can you? But I believe in heaven, and hell. Hope I go wherever Maud’s gone.” I pause. Been thinking about her an awful lot, lately. She’s been gone nearly seven years. I’m fed up of being alone.
“I was a fisherman up the coast. Like I told you. Fished for whatever we could get and sold it at the market. Maud was a teacher at the local school and we did well. She used to come out and help me during the holidays. Sometimes I’d take other blokes out to help, sometimes it was just me. There’s a small island off the coast about five miles north of Fosse Bay near where we used to drop our lobster and crab pots. If I had time I’d pull the boat onto the beach and walk a little. The island’s still there but it’s got buildings on it now; they’ve made a bird watching research thing out there. Back then though, it was deserted. Got real peace out there. I loved the family but with four young kids it was pretty noisy. Fishermen get used to solitude, you know? So sometimes I’d stay a bit longer than I should and just sit, and watch the waves.” Those were fine days. I felt glad to be alive, glad to be a fisherman. Glad of God, whatever he was, for making all of it. I smile at the memory of myself, young and strong, resting on that beach.
I reach for a sip of water but Winnie’s there already, passing me the glass. I see my hand shaking a bit as I tip it towards me. Winnie’s kind hand closes over my own and helps guide it to my lips. I have a long drink and lay back for a moment.
“You’re a good un,” I tell her. “Ray’s lucky.”
“So I keep telling him. Only if he behaves, though! Fancy, all this love at our age.”
“Shush woman. You’ve got thirty years on me. Plenty life left.”
“I hope so. Me and Ray have a lot of plans.”
“It goes quick, but you can fill it up and make it slow down,” I say.
“So, you’re on the island…?” Winnie prompts me.
“I’m on the island. That island. Was my own bit of paradise. Never took anyone there and only a few folk used it for fishing so usually just me alone there. So, this day I’m lying on the beach watching the shags and the terns and the gulls. Thinking about jobs I needed to do to the boat, and the fact that Maud wanted me to take a holiday but it was the best season for fishing. I remember. I was looking at the rocks and suddenly it seemed like one moved. Rocks always look different – the light, the tides, the waves – you think you recognise them but they seem to change every day. I could’ve seen this one before. Wasn’t sure. But it moved. I swear it. I watched harder. Nothing happened and I decided it was a trick of the light. But just as I moved my head, I saw it move again. This time I wasn’t wrong, I was sure of it. So I gets up, and goes to have a look.” I can’t help but chuckle, remembering.
“What?” asks Winnie.
“Telling this, it’s strange. It’s never been told but it’s like the story wants to come out. You’re going to think I’m nuts, though. Send me off up to Hallmead.”
“Frank, not much surprises me. Trust me, you’re sane. That’s not going to change.”
“Well, we’ll see,” I say, flexing my hand around the green velvet bag. “I walked over to the rock. It was like a normal rock every time I looked at it and I knew the beach pretty well and was sure it was a rock I’d seen before. Maybe. But every time I looked somewhere else, it kind’ve flickered. Shimmered. And then I looked back and it was just a rock. Thought I was seeing things.”
I could still stop, save Winnie’s view of me as a nice sane old man. But she’s listening so hard and anyway this story wants to be told. I can feel it. In my hand, the green velvet bag is warm.
“I walked right up to it and bent down. And I saw a face. Honest to God, I jumped back about five feet. I think I shouted something. From where I was, it was just a rock again but then I went closer and looked and looked and there it was again, a face. And it was in pain. How can I describe it? It looked a bit like a seal, and that’s what I thought it was, a hurt seal stranded. But it had green eyes, bright green eyes and long hair which could be seaweed at first glance but I could now see was hair. And it was all curled up so the face was sort of tucked down below this, this tail, a shimmery, silvery-green dolphin tail. But not a dolphin tail, cause I’ve seen plenty of them. Well, I just stood there and stared. And these green eyes stared back. I dunno what possessed me then but I reached out and touched it. And this mouth appeared from nowhere and hissed at me! Like an angry snake. No words, just a hiss. And something snapped at me and I turned and ran.”
Winnie’s looking at me like she’s really interested.
“What happened next?” She’s whispering.
“Well, I thought I was ill, seeing things, like. I turned towards my boat and started running. But then, I heard this call. This singing lonely call. It sounded like it was in pain. Sort of like a cat and a dog and a seal. Peculiar. I stopped dead and looked back at the rock thing, certain it’d come from there. There were no words but it was calling me back. Like I imagined a siren to sound. Singing to my soul.” I can’t help it, the memory makes me shiver.
“So I went back. I was scared. Really scared. And aware I was all alone out there. But when I got back the thing had gone less rock-like. It was now a soft wet shiny thing like a seal, like a fish, like a – mermaid. No other word for it. But not a pretty mermaid like you see in kids’ books. No, this was a frightening creature. It had green eyes and skin of all shades of blue, green and red. It seemed to change colour. It held my gaze with terrifying eyes then looked down at its tail and then I saw the nets. It was all tangled up with nets and wire. It was stuck.”
We stare at each other for a moment. Winnie looks like a wide-eyed child. She believes me, I see that right away and I’m relieved. We both turn at the squeaky sound of someone walking up the ward. A tall young man in greens is looking at me, the nurse by his side.
“We’ve found you a bed, Mr Willis,” the nurse says to me. “Doctor Baldwin here just wants to do some tests before you leave this ward. Thanks for staying, but you can go home now,” she says to Winnie.
Winnie looks at me, and I say to the nurse, “Please, could I have five more minutes? I’m giving Winnie here some directions to my house so she can bring me clothes.”
Winnie smiles brightly. The doctor is frowning. “We’ll be really quick,” says Winnie.
“All right. I have another patient to see here, which I can do first. But when I come back I really will have to ask you to-”
“It’s okay, I’ll be gone,” Winnie says. They both nod and walk away.
“What happened next?” Winnie leans forwards. “Are you all right to continue?”
“I’m nearly at the end,” I say, and know it’s true. “Well. I squatted down – a bit nervous cause I’d seen this thing hiss and knew it had teeth but it needed help. And there was intelligence in the eyes. Like human intelligence but cold, so so cold. I reached out my hands toward the net and nothing happened, no hissing. So I reached out both hands and tugged at the net a little. The creature gave a growl of pain and I knew this was going to be difficult. The net was all twisted around and cutting into its skin. To make it short, in case that doctor comes back, I got out my knife and cut away all the net and stuff. The tide was coming in so I got wet but I didn’t care. The creature didn’t make a sound except these odd hisses when I hurt it accidentally. Eventually, I got all the net off. By this time I was kneeling in the water up to my neck. It tried to move its tail and although it must’ve hurt, it could move okay. It swam right up to me and put its face very close to mine, then it put a hand – I didn’t even see its hands before – behind my neck and pulled me forwards, right under the water. Well, I thought I was a goner. I tried to push myself up but this thing was strong, much stronger than me. I could do nothing but be pulled forwards. We ended up in the water and I thought I was going to drown. But it put its face right up to mine again and I heard words in my head, Thank you, and something was pressed into my hand and I felt a slither next to me and then I was alone, face down in cold water, wondering what the hell had just happened.”
The telling of this has worn me out. I open my hand and hold out the green velvet bag to Winnie, who takes it. I see she’s got tears in her eyes. I see she believes me. I smile. “That’s it.”
“Is this what it gave you?”
“That’s what it gave me. Look inside.”
Winnie opens the bag and slides the stone into her palm. “It’s beautiful!”
“Isn’t it,” I say. It’s the colour of the creature’s tail – all colours, flowing in and out of each other. It shimmers and shines and seems to glow, somehow. Winnie gazes at it.
“Take it,” I tell her.
“I can’t, it’s-”
“Soon after this happened, we had a tough time in the family. That’s probably why I didn’t tell Maud about what happened on the island. Long story, I’ll not go there now. But this stone – this stone seemed to help me. It’s got this kind of energy. Hold it. You’ll see what I mean. It helped me. I don’t need it anymore. It’s right I should pass it on, and as nobody else knows the story, I feel you should have it. In case you ever need some help with anything. I used to sit and hold this and sort of feel recharged.”
She’s trying to protest when the doctor comes back. I hand her the bag and she slips the stone in. “I’ll come and see you tomorrow,” she says. “We can talk about it then.”
“Thank you,” I tell her. “For listening to a mad old man.”
She leans over me and whispers in my ear, “You’re not mad. Thank you for the story,” and she gives me a soft kiss on my cheek. She turns, and she’s gone. And so’s the stone. I feel light. Like the water vapour that rises from the waves.