He watched from an upstairs window as she entered the water. It was one of the few not boarded up, this side beyond reach of even the most competent stone-thrower. The room itself was empty these days, save the rocking chair, where on occasion he’d observe the cycle of the Atlantic as it pitched and tossed, the wading birds prospecting the strandline. He’d vowed last year to make something of it, return it to the handful of habitable rooms, but there was comfort found in its sparsity. He supposed it would have been one of the more expensive guest rooms, and he imagined their mother proudly opening the door for visitors, letting the panorama announce itself.
He was not beyond prospecting the line of wrack himself, a source of endless flotsam: wood for fuel or furniture; a pair of sunglasses he wore to this day. He’d found shoes, dolls, hot water bottles, skulls of various mammals – all curated by the waves after their immense journeys. Twice a day the sea bestowed him with gifts. Once a dead seal lay across the seaweed, half its head missing, flank torn open – a propeller most likely – and for days he watched the gulls pick it clean.
The light was receding fast and he had to adjust his position at the window to follow the woman, could see that she was up to her knees now. She might still turn back, he said to himself. There was no need to do anything yet.
He didn’t recognise her as someone from the village, reckoned on her being mid-twenties or so, a holidaymaker perhaps, though it wasn’t the season. She would presume the house empty, its tumbledown façade and weather-worn roof, its proximity to the cliff that suggested the sea would one day claim it, which it would. He’d always regarded land as unassailable, the changes it endured too small to witness, giving an illusion of permanence. But he knew the sea’s furious power now, which he’d listen to at night as it dragged away a little more of the rock beneath him.
To live on the edge of things, he thought. The meeting of two worlds, a liminal porthole from known to unknown, as land gave way to leagues of nothing but ocean. Their mother liked to say the sea was answerable to no one, that even god was made impotent by its will.
The woman was deeper now. Almost to her waist. He looked to see if anyone else was present, a dog walker or a lover for whom this spectacle was intended, but if there was the dark had displaced them. There would be someone fishing further along, but their focus would be narrow, outward looking.
It was a test then, as everything these days was.
After surveying the horizon for an hour, she had climbed down a less sheer spot on the cliff, mislaying her footing a few times. At one point she seemed to lose her nerve, but climbing back up must have felt equally perilous, and a few minutes later she was on the beach. He’d watched as she crossed the shingle, limping a little, the gloaming shape of her less distinct by the second, and had he not known of her presence she might have been just another shadow. She’d paused at the water’s edge and for a moment he thought the reality of the thing would dissuade her.
When she went in her stride had been purposeful and every few yards she fell, recovered and continued.
And then she was gone.
The house was to be a fresh start. A relocation half a country away and he’d cried when their mother told them.
– You’ll make new friends, darling, but of course he hadn’t. Not true ones. Even his brother, normally the sun other kids orbited, never made the adjustment.
The move, he later learned, was to dismantle their father’s temptation. A woman at work he’d found impossible to give up, even after their mother’s first attempt, pills that had her vomiting for days.
They sold up a few months later, exchanging mid-terrace comfort for a crumbling guesthouse that battled daily the Atlantic’s barrage. Her logic, he supposed, was to give their father so much to do that there was room for little else.
He tried to open the window, to get a better look at the woman, but it had long since sealed shut. Whether the undertow had taken her, or one of the small ridges that fell away, she was no longer there.
There was anger in him now. This was what happened in the world, people forced their business on you, drew you into their lives whether you wanted it or not. Even here, where he’d cocooned himself from the world, fashioned a life of sorts for his middle years.
He took the stairs three at a time, the dog getting under his feet, excited at the prospect of some event or other. He was halfway across the garden when he thought of the torch, but that would take another minute, which could be the difference. The dog was barking now, playing some game, trying to herd him, and he shouted it down.
There was enough light to see the shape of things if not the detail, and he kept a good pace, knowing by heart the path’s course to the clifftop. He tried to remember today’s high tide time, calculate what force he would be up against.
His route to the beach was more plummet than calculated descent, the gorse slowing his fall a little. He stood, sensed that any injuries were superficial. The sea was a hundred yards or so away, distinguished from the beach only by its fluctuating, by a thousand ever-shifting contours. There had been moonlight on previous evenings, but the cloud was dense tonight.
For a long time it seemed the move would be their salvation. Their mother discovered a talent for hosting, perhaps born of the security distance from the other woman brought. She sourced ingredients, handled promotion, while their father secured a teaching post at a nearby comprehensive, in between which they’d renovate the least dilapidated rooms. Locals, for the most part, thought them foolish – the latest in a succession of abortive owners – but wished them well nonetheless.
They opened one sweltering Easter with just two guest rooms complete, but as bookings became dependable, there were two more by mid-summer, the final two ready the following season. There was contentment, or at least the illusion of it.
The water was cold, even to him, each stride less productive than the last. His boots were soon small anchors, his jeans already twice their weight as he lunged forwards. Once up to his midriff he stopped, tried to becalm his breathing, knew this to be important. He realised he had no idea where she was, that she could be fifty feet or more away.
He could hear the dog barking on the shore, and he called it to quieten, so he could listen for splashes. Less than two minutes, he reckoned he’d been. Even if she’d been under all that time, the low temperature might save her, force the blood to vital organs.
The cold was deep in him now, his body slowing as it tried to preserve itself. He removed his boots, thinking he should have taken everything off on the beach, that the extra time would have been worth it.
He called out several times, felt the immense scale of the water around him. A small wave broke on his back, enough to unbalance him and he took in some water, lost the direction of things for a moment. He had tried, he said to himself. You couldn’t stop someone if there were determined.
She burst through the surface a few yards from him, arms flaying, taking big gulps of air before going under again. He pushed through the water in pathetic slow motion until the seabed fell away and he had to swim. There was nothing when he got to the spot, and he felt with his hands and legs for something solid, his muscles claggy like they were in mud, and he knew he’d be of no help soon.
His leg was stuck now, caught on something, his instinct to kick out, to release himself, but he realised she’d grabbed his ankle, and so he reached down. He held his breath and allowed himself to submerge a little, trying to find something of substance, but she was pulling him further down, further out.
He managed to surface again, could hear the yelp of the dog and he took some big gulps before plunging again, this time forcing his upper body over itself so that he could swim down to her. He found what he thought must be hair and looped an arm under hers, knowing it was a final effort, that there would be only one go.
He’d read about drowning, of those caught in riptides, the swell and heave of the sea underestimated, the cold sapping all strength from even the strongest. Of waves that pounded down on you like a ton of gravel until you had nothing left. Sometimes fighting it was a mistake, the battering and winding all the worse for it. Soon you couldn’t tell up from down. Panic became resignation, the breath held as long as possible but eventually the body disobeyed the mind and breathed for you, the lungs flooding. Some spoke of euphoria, a painless passing to unconsciousness, but he wondered if this was always the case. Once reconciled to your fate, it was better to inhale deeply, to hasten it all.
Perhaps their father wanted her to find the letters – certainly they could have been better hidden – as it gave him the confrontation he needed. They returned from school one day that week, he and his brother, to find their mother wailing into the letter he’d left. He was sorry, it said, his love for the other woman of a different order to what he felt for them. They comforted her, said things they didn’t believe.
She tried on her own for a summer, buoyed by tranquilisers and gin, before walking into the sea that autumn.
It was anger that leavened the woman, anger that she was drowning them both, and he pulled her up until they were both afloat, their heads almost touching, undulating on the surface like buoys. He turned her a little, coiled a forearm around her neck and began the swim to shore. When he could stand he moved behind her, held her in both arms, collapsing on the shingle as the dog yelped and harried.
Even in the half-light he could see her skin was grey, that the water had claimed its colour. He opened her mouth, pushed two fingers in, but it felt clear. He placed an ear to her mouth but could hear nothing beyond the waves or the dog. Pinching her nose shut he cupped his mouth to hers and blew hard, waited two seconds, then blew again. He tried to see if her chest rose, and when he couldn’t he felt her wrist for a pulse.
He knew to press hard on her chest, a hundred compressions a minute, stopping at thirty to blow into her again, and this time he sensed her chest rise. When she convulsed it wasn’t to bring water up but to vomit. Turning her on her side he again forced his fingers into her mouth, scooping the remaining sick out. The dog, he realised, had ceased barking, the game something sinister now, something to fear, and he turned her on her back once again. The cloud had parted a little and, her face burnished in moonlight, he got a first real sense of what she looked like. Serenely beautiful were the words that came, a waterlogged beauty.
He was angry again, but different to in the water. Hers was an age when it was all felt so keenly and there seemed no way to go on. An age of absolutes. Pain you think impossible to live with.
He forced more of his air into her, hoping some of the oxygen found a way, and then sat back, exhausted.
Life was there still, he felt, vaporous and fragile but apparent. He went to continue the resuscitation when the water came, burbling out of her like a blocked drain. She choked and he eased her on her side again, smoothed her back, and the dog resumed its barking.
– It’s OK, he said. I am here this time.