Thicker Than Water
Illustration by Pollyanna Johnson
The last bus of the year drags me towards the empty rental cottage. I double check that my shopping bags are still next to me, crisp plastic handles still standing upright despite the shuddering of the bus. The road suddenly dips and my stomach leaps into my mouth.
I’m dreading the next few days. The house has no internet and no television. The walk into town without the bus would take me over six hours, and even then, the only open supermarket will have already switched off its stinging fluorescents for the day. When clicking through rental options, I was excited to unplug and shut myself off with a stack of paperback novels between Christmas and New Year. I couldn’t bear the idea of company. So many hands had reached out to me. Desperate and clutching, they became indistinguishable. All of them ended in black sleeves and good intentions I was not interested in.
I arrived a few days ago by ferry. The crossing was so rough the captain’s voice crackled over the tannoy telling us we had to get out of our chairs and lie down on the floor. As my head met the stale carpet, all I could hear was bottles of tonic water falling from the bar shelves and smashing on the ground. A woman lying next to me stuck out her hand, gesturing for me to give her some kind of anchor. I rolled away slowly enough to see her blush. The ferry shook and I shut my eyes, terrified we would be swallowed by the sea.
I step off the bus, reassuring myself with the feeling of solid ground beneath my feet. I breathe in, but I’m filled with the smell of washed-up fish and brine. I try to cough it out and swallow fresh air, but the sea forces its way in again. I run to the door of the cottage and open it as quickly as I can.
I make a cup of cocoa on the stove. I remember the exact way my mum used to hit the pan with the spoon three times to shake off the droplets of milk. I try and fail to direct the memory towards her face.
A few hours later, I wake to the sound of a wet smack against the bedroom window. Unable to see anything in the dark, I sleep fitfully.
Once it’s light enough, I investigate in my dressing gown. Under the bedroom window is a snapped tree branch and, hidden in the splintered wood, a bird’s nest pulled towards the ground by the wind and rain. The small eggs are crushed, blood and yolk leak across the grass.
I turn my back on the scene, deciding to draw a hot bath; it’s a more effective way to kill time than showering. Whilst the water heats, I spread two thick slices of white bread with peanut butter and inspect the fridge. Tomatoes. Spinach. Milk. Butter. Three eggs. Thick squirms of red mince in a plastic tray. I find that taking an inventory calms me down so I move on to the cupboards: A packet of biscuits. Pasta. Rice. Stock cubes.
I hear a gush and realise the bath has overrun.
That night I stare at the ceiling for what feels like hours, unable to drift off. Every time I get close to sleep the wind whips up the window and it vibrates off the seal around the glazing to produce a horrible, rumbling scream. It sounds so familiar, I start thinking it’s coming from my own mouth. I feel myself being dragged backwards to the last time I heard that scream. I force myself up.
I spread two slices of toast with peanut butter and wait for dawn. The sun rises at some point, but the clouds are too thick to see through.
I take another bath. Holding myself under the water for longer and longer periods of time. I push myself for a full minute until the panic overwhelms me and I resurface.
I spend the day chasing down plots of easily readable books. I bought them in the last large supermarket before the ferry terminal. I didn’t stop to read the blurbs, just grabbed an armful based on how bright the covers were. I wanted something that didn’t require a lot of thinking.
I shove all my clothes in the washing machine, desperate to rid them of the sea stench they’ve acquired. I add a liberal pour of sickly floral detergent and set the machine to spin as fast as possible. The water churns and slaps the window like a wet hand.
Around noon I head out into the garden: the rental has a huge patch of land with wild, untamed grass. There are no trees because the sea wind whips up and down the land too harshly for them to grow. As I start pegging up my clothes on the line, my nostrils fill with that fetid smell of decay. Of fish being broken down by the waves and eaten by other fish. I force my clothes back in the laundry basket and take them back inside.
I take extra care before going to bed that night. I slowly switch the lights off in the house one by one. I burn a lavender candle. I drop Olbas oil on my pillow, something that reminds me of being young and sweet and sleepy. I try to relax by starting a new book but the author introduces too many characters at once and I get confused and frustrated. I throw the duvet off and search the house, finding a radio in one of the other bedrooms. I turn it on, determined to let the chatter lull me.
When I drift off, I am trapped between sleep and waking. I can feel the cold pillow beneath my arm but I cannot move it. I become convinced there is someone in the room.
‘Mum? Is that you?’
My head snaps up. I see my damp clothes hung around the room. My dress is suspended on a hanger like a ghost. The shipping forecast has begun on the radio, the low voice rumbling ‘Viking…North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties…’ It’s a rough night. Ferry crossings have been canceled. I turn the radio off and lie back down, imagining churning water spanning the distance between me and my mother’s house.
The buses are back on so I take one into town for a change of scenery. The town still seems to be recovering from New Year’s festivities; paper streamers, crisp packets and crushed cans spot the pavements. Places are leisurely reopening, not dictated by the strict schedules of my usual city chains.
I duck into a tea room and order a strong black coffee. On the wall is a framed souvenir poster of the mainland ferry. It’s fairly unremarkable save the warped rainbow logo painted on the ship’s side.
‘It calls to you. Doesn’t it?’
I look up to see a bearded older man placing a mug in front of me. It occurs to me I haven’t spoken to another human in nearly three days.
‘The sea. It calls to you.’ he pushes on, gesturing at the poster.
‘Oh…No. Sorry…I was just looking.’ I look down into the swirling steam. The mug is chipped.
‘It’s okay. It appeals to many of us. That’s why we live so close to it.’
‘Oh, I don’t live here.’
‘Why else would you visit an island if you weren’t called?’ He gives me a wry smile as if we are bound together by some hidden secret and walks back behind the counter. He reminds me of a kind uncle with laugh lines around his eyes. I know if he stays he’ll try to talk more and ask why I came here and if he finds out, his head will do that sympathetic tilt that has followed me up and down hospital corridors and church aisles. It was all a performance of choreographed movements, I couldn’t bear it. I drink the coffee as fast as I can, scalding my tongue, and drop a five-pound note on the counter and walk out, not waiting for the change.
The next day I walk. I’m not sure how long for, but hours feel like minutes under my feet. Eventually I hit the coastline and scramble down the rocks to a hidden stretch of sand. I slip on a rock covered in slimy green seaweed and land on my hand. The pain makes me yell. There isn’t anyone around to hear me.
I keep walking along the sand to try and find a safer exit. I think of the game I used to play as a child: I would run right up to the sea, my toes a pink temptation to the cold water. When the next wave came in, at the last second, I would dash away from the surge. Occasionally a wave would surprise me and I’d feel the sting of foam and have to rub my raw feet with a sandy towel before getting back in the car.
I turn my gaze away from the sea and see a shape further down the sand. I’m too far away to make out any specific details but I see a humped curve, almost like a speed bump. It’s moving. I edge closer and see it’s a porpoise or dolphin. It has its back to me but as I edge around I see it’s clearly dead and has been for some time. Bits of its fleshy fin have disconnected and are being carried off by the incoming tide.
‘Hey!’ A voice rings out across the sand and I whip my head around to see a boy who can’t be older than eight or nine. I try to move on.
‘Hey!’ He shouts again, running towards me. ‘You have to help!’
‘With what?’ I say, looking around me for his parents.
‘With the porpoise, we’ve got to get her back in.’ He shoulders past me and puts two hands on the porpoise and tries to push it.
‘It’s dead.’ I say, looking between the boy and the porpoise.
‘We can’t give up, you have to help!’ he screams, and he strains against the dark body stuck in the sand.
I look closer at the heap of flesh. I think I see a patch of tangled hair, a hand, but I blink and it’s gone again.
‘Where are your parents?’ I ask tentatively, trying to reach out a hand to gently move him away.
‘HELP ME!’ He screams. Something takes over my body and I turn and run. I can still hear his screams all the way down the beach.
When I get back to the cottage my heels and soles are scraped bloody and blistering.
I sit in the bath. I’m so tired I struggle to lift my arms and soap myself down. I take my time scrubbing and washing until I am scraped pink and feel half asleep from the motion of the bathwater. I have nothing to change into, white spots of mildew have bloomed on my drying clothes. I find an unwashed t-shirt and leggings in the laundry basket and crawl into bed.
I wake up in the night when my whole body starts to shake. It takes a few moments to come around and realise I am not the one shaking, the house is. The wind races across the walls and roof, rushes down the chimney, and makes the windows scream and rattle. The damp clothes hanging around my room rattle on their hangers, spreading their smell of thick dampness.
I put my coat and boots on straight over my makeshift pyjamas. When I open the front door, the wind pulls it away, slamming it into the wall. The glass shatters and blows back at me. Small pieces of glass embed themselves in my hands and arms. I wrestle the door closed and start to walk to the sea.
I try to focus on counting my footsteps, but my head fills with the memory of the weight of a body in the water. Look at it one way, and it floats, but as soon as you blink the arms and legs seem heavy, dragging themselves through the spray.
Eventually, I hit the coast. The waves froth as they hit the sand, building into a seam of foam that lingers like dirty snow. I face the sea head on and walk towards the water. It’s so cold I feel a hollow burn when it hits my skin. The trick is to wade in so it’s above your heart, then your blood cools and it doesn’t hurt as much.
I push my head under. There is a moment of calm where, with ultimate focus, I can see the tangle of hair and the open hand, its palm passively facing up towards the sky. I remember realising she would never hold anything ever again. It doesn’t scare me. Doctors and therapists and friends and family were so ready to chalk this up as a state of shock, but I don’t know if I was shocked. It felt like my whole life, my whole mother’s life, was leading to the sea and her hand and her hair.
I imagine she was calm too, when she gathered the stones to take with her. She tested each one in her hand, to feel its size and shape before putting them in her pockets, her shoes, or tied them around her waist with kitchen string. When I was a child, I’d catch her assessing stones in her hands. I thought she was skimming them—throwing them away from her body instead of keeping them close.
I remember, days after it happened, taking a cup of coffee to drink in the morning sun and finding the small holes across the garden that she’d left behind from her methodical digging. We hadn’t noticed them whilst she was alive, she must have kept going back, kept gathering and collecting stones whilst still making sure there was dinner on the table. I wanted to be small enough to climb into those holes and sleep and wake up in a world where she was still here.
I remember pulling her out of the waves. I felt her back against my body and was breathless from the sheer weight of her. I staggered to the land, still holding her even though I already knew she was dead. She hadn’t been in there long, but her face was beginning to bloat.
When they propped up a photograph next to her coffin with her hair done, full face of make-up and best dress, I wanted to show them how I would always remember her. I wanted them to see her skin turning blue, her hand at an impossible angle, her face stretching with the sea salt and gas.
My head rockets up through the water. I am not like her, not able to hold myself under with any sort of conviction.
The only response is the crash of waves hitting rocks, a process that over time will smooth them out before wearing them down into nothing.