I wrote this short story a while ago and for some reason never quite got round to posting it.
“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”
“It’s close, Margaret. An hour or two at most.”
If he wasn’t on the phone, he’d be holding my hand and wobbling his head in medical empathy.
It starts from the pit of my stomach. An apocalyptic fireball.
The Consultant pauses. He’s already done this several times tonight.
He head-wobbles gently.
“We can bend the rules. If you want to say goodbye. You’ll need to wear full PPE. Gown, gloves, mask, hair and shoe coverings. Even with that, there’s still a risk of virus transmission.”
Virus transmission? My brain is on fire. My mother already has the bloody virus. Contracted within the hospital. A supposed safe, disinfected, healing haven.
The penny drops. He means transmission to me, doesn’t he?
“Tell her I’m on my way.”
I say the words, knowing words are pointless. My mother has been unresponsive for days.
But maybe… I have to believe.
I wrap and tie myself so I can barely waddle. Every bit of me double-clad in blue polythene, including my hands. If mum has any consciousness, I’ll look like another blue-monster Custodian of Death.
I hold a tiny, wizened, paper-thin hand in a blue, double-gloved monster-hand. The tears roll down my face, soaking the surgical mask.
Between the gulps, the lump in my throat, the feeling of impending doom and the multiple coverings, I sound like the monster I am.
“I’m here mum. I’m here.” It’s not enough. I squeeze the tiny, lifeless hand gently.
I want to remove the mask for a final kiss. A nurse stands guard.
I want to say the things I’m going to torture myself for not saying.
My mother should be surrounded by family, flowers, hugs, tears, cards. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. This god-awful room should be bursting with love. This virus has taken everything.
“I love you.”
Grief manifests in an infinite number of ways.
One of the universals is its ability to stop time moving in a straight line. It used to be that night followed day. Dinner followed lunch. Childhood to adulthood. Being cared for to caring for. Death followed a life lived.
It’s been a year since my mother died.
Restrictions are easing.
People are gathering. Lunches, health walks, football, funerals.
Daytime is hard. It’s easier to stay in bed and ignore the phone. Eventually people get bored of trying.
When the small hours beckon, I walk.
Long walks along the beach. Miles of wind, rolling waves, salt air, solitude and shame. Midnight. 1am. 2am.
Saltcoats to Irvine. The crashing expanse of sea on one side. A bleak, post-industrial wasteland on the other. Rocks, driftwood, seaweed, the occasional washed-up milk carton.
Sad detritus washed down the Rivers Garnock and Irvine. Deflated footballs, a plastic garden chair, a grotesque shrunken head which turns out to be an old cabbage nobody wants.
The big haphazard spill of rocks loom black in the distance.
Hang on. Is that?
It looks like a group of women on the rocks. Naked.
At this time of night?
I stare incredulous. I’ve done this walk a million times.
I crouch behind a rock, terrified I’ll be seen.
Crazy, it’s freezing.
I look grimly at the bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in my hand.
Drinking from the open bottle has become a nightly habit.
A Swimming Club! A gathering of women, laughing, shrieking and cavorting stark naked in the moonlight. It is. It’s a Swimming Club. They’re bracing themselves for the sea. Defy the virus. Freeze the arse off it. Multiple arses. Wonderful arses.
Hello, what’s this? A new pain?
It’s envy. ENVY. I almost laugh.
I want to bare my arse to the sea too.
They seem so carefree. Naked arse happy. I can’t help but smile and imagine my own cheeks in the wind.
I take a swig of the half empty bottle. No harm in watching. Vicarious arse freezing. Who would know?
A few words drift on the breeze. Gleeful words. Shrieks. Giggles. A return to childhood. Nothing that makes any sense.
A few of the women are dancing, bathed in moonlight. Another two join them. Long hair fanning out.
I want to strip off. Run shrieking with joy down the beach, arse wobbling, boobs swaying. The need for connection and liberation is a pain in my core running parallel to the grief.
Mostly pert young women. One or two older. A few even older than me with pendulous droop and wrinkle. They seem oblivious to the cold.
By silent signal, they sprint to the shore.
In little groups of three or four, they dance into the surf, squealing at the cold, and dive in. Holding hands, throwing heads back, laughing.
They’re swimming out. Sometimes they dive beneath the surf. The moonlight bounces off emerging, slick bodies.
It combines with the sea in way that fills every atom and submerges me beneath the waves. A heavenly drowning.
How does one become a member of the Irvine Ladies Swimming Club? Ayrshire Sea Swimmers, perhaps? The Barassie Mermaids? Saltcoats Sinners and Swimmers? There must be a social media page. A website or email address at least.
Would I be brave enough? This old body? There’s not a swimsuit amongst them. An ice-cold portal between life and…. well who knows?
I drain the last of my bottle.
Naked joy is addictive but unless I escape now, I won’t be able to. Soon, they’ll be scrabbling for clothes and warmth.
I fade back into the emptiness, carrying a little piece of wanton joy.
The following day is just a portal to the night. I sleep to pass the time.
Will they be there tonight?
My heart leaps as I approach the tumbled heap of boulders.
Maybe a dozen women.
I freeze. My heart stops.
One of the older ladies, sitting on a rock, looking northwards.
“Come for a swim,” she calls.
I’ve been living in the shadows. Now twelve faces are beckoning to me.
“Come on,” another shouts. “There’s nothing like the sea at night.”
“Join us,” sings another. “It’s glorious.”
I can’t remember how to speak.
“I don’t have a costume,” I burble. A couple of women laugh.
“Neither do we.” They jiggle to prove a point. “It’s best experienced in the buff.”
Before I have time to think, I’m disrobing on a rock.
“If my mother could see me now,” I laugh. I think of her, in her twinset, watching endless episodes of TV quiz shows. This is teen rebellion.
What can happen? I’m swimming with the Ladies Swimming Club. Open water swimming doesn’t get any safer than this.
I gasp as the icy water hits my skin. It rips the breath from me.
“Best go quick,” a woman behind me whispers. “Run and dive. Gets the initial shock over.”
Every part submerged.
The cold shock is intense. I’m struggling for air. My heart is racing, my head pounding.
At the same time, the intensity is delicious.
I feel euphoric.
“Embrace it,” shouts a woman to my left as she swims alongside. “Open yourself to the cold. Become one with the sea.”
I bob and dive and swim and roll with the others.
This is like nothing I have ever experienced before.
Everyone is swimming out.
I swim too.
I flip onto my back and float, staring at the starry sky, relishing the feeling of being at one with the expanse above and around me. I have no boundaries, no body. I am everywhere and everywhere is me.
“I’m glad you made it. My brave girl can do anything.”
I recognise the voice. She’s floating next to me.
She’s younger. A lot younger. Younger than me, by maybe 20 years.
The mother of my childhood. Beautiful, graceful, agile, strong.
I feel the surge of love within and around. Soft, happy, beautiful. Like being in a warm, pulsing womb.
The mother who carried me on her capable hips. Came to every parent’s night. Picked up every piece. Cried at my graduation, my wedding, the birth of her grandchild. Was there when my marriage broke. Didn’t judge, just soothed the deep wounds he left.
It is all that needs said.
“I’m sorry, mum.”
“Shhhh….. child. There’s no need for that.”
“I let you down. We’d been so careful. We’d protected you throughout. I never thought….. They said it was your heart. Then the virus…..”
“It was my time, lass. Simple as that.”
As they bob around, buffeted and carried by waves, it looks anything like her time. My mother looks young, as strong and healthy as an ox. Radiant.
“I miss you, mum.” I feel the darkness circling. The weight of grief.
“Shhhh…. Hush now. I miss you too, sweetheart. I was a good age. I had a good life. I have the perfect daughter. Now you are the mother and the grandmother. As it should be.”
“The Swimming Club?” I motion my head to the other swimmers, suddenly thinking the whole thing must look mad. My conversation with a dead woman. Cold shock? My brain misfiring? Death? I see no bright light. No tunnel. Only a moon.
“Swimming Club?” my mother laughs. It tinkles over the water and makes my heart soar. I love her laugh. “You mean The Bob? A Swimming Club of sorts, I suppose. The Selkies are as old as time itself. Maybe older.”
Mum interprets the silence as confusion. Rightly so.
“You know a Bob is the word for a gathering of seals? Once a year the women gather. Dance, swim, sing. Fairy folk. Shapeshifters with human and seal skins. One limb in the human world, the other the underworld. Sometimes they take human folk back with them – if they like them and there’s a use, changelings and all. But if someone hides their skin, they get trapped on land.”
The wind is picking up, the sea is getting choppy. I feel my body being buffeted and the waves breaking on my skin.
“All kinds of magic happens at the Bob. The doorway opens a crack. Enough for a little moonlight and magic. A chance. Life and death become one.”
I struggle to hear my mother as a wave crashes over me, causing a cough, splutter and a need to right myself.
“The stories die and the people forget. The Selkies are always here. They never forget us.”
A wave breaks and the water pulls me under. Quietly and calmly, I surrender. I surrender to my mother’s embrace. I love you, mum.
“I always knew you loved me, Margaret. I couldn’t feel it any stronger. I am loved. And to love is to live. You, my sweet, sweet darling are the strongest person I know. I raised you to it. Forgiving yourself is your greatest power. Go and live.
“Over there, I see something.”
Jess has been a volunteer at Ayrshire RNLI for two months.
“Resting on the rock. She’s not moving.”
Within moments they’re pulling a body aboard.
“There’s a pulse. It’s faint, but it’s there.”
This is what Jess trained for. She gets to work.
I come to suddenly, surprising everyone amidst a torrent of sea water and violent expulsion. Coughing and spluttering and shaking.
“Poor woman. Just walked out to sea.”
“Happening more and more,” her companion gets the foil blankets. “She’s ice cold. I think you’ve saved this one, Jess. Pulse is stronger already.”
Me? Am I dead?
I have no idea what they’re talking about.
How did I get here?
I’m naked for Christ’s Sake. How the Hell…?
I rack my brain. Nothing. Had I fallen off a rock and been washed out?
From a distance, some smooth, grey heads bob. Deep black seal eyes watch on, satisfied that all is well. A Bob of Seals. They looked after their charge.
Already a new era of optimism.
Life is for living. Stories are for telling.