In this powerful short story, an artist walks on the marshes near her home, treading a dangerous line between sea and land, haunted by her own demons and her memories of a drowned friend.
Content warning: references to past alcoholism and death by drowning.
Low tide. Sky vaults to the East. Stack of nimbus receding. The land is scored with shallow trenches, dry as old horsehair. Sudden pockets in the wind carry the smell of rotted, salted life. Fists plunged into my cotton jacket, I trudge, following the wooden footbridges. Well above the floodline now, but I take them anyway, chasing the pattern they make across the marshland, the satisfaction of a bridge crossed, the catch of a different view. My morning yielded nothing, nothing but a rummaging between paper and clay, a scurrying after order, slapping together a scheme that wouldn’t come. Coffee didn’t wake me up, milk made my stomach turn. A slump in energy, and a thirst, a craving wedged on my shoulders, in my hands, that even now tricks me as to what it really wants. I know to try and keep steady, feel the fragile cylinder of charcoal in my palm, the smooth of paper, the grit of my wheel. Push into the task and know the shapes will come. But a beast hunkered on my back and I couldn’t shift it. Better to leave my studio, consign the morning’s work to nil, than wish for my young and nimble self, dancing with the drink, outrunning the ruin, an ox sprung new into each day.
You can’t hear the roar of the waves here or the throaty pitch of gulls. Here the seabirds are secret, feeding in low clusters, until a great shoal rises and kites as one across the sky. Where the breeze finds exposed flesh, clay tautens and teases the pads of my fingertips. With my thumb, I circle the bulbous knuckle of my left index where my tools rest, stroke the scar of dried clay across the belly of my hipflask, deep and empty in my pocket. Its surface is warm as blood and the brandy I used to swig from it. A talisman I don’t need, but can’t throw away. I look to the far spit, where the square-towered church squats, and a fat windmill laughs at the cobwebs in my mind. A few nod at me as I go. I’m an old bag in want of a dog. I walk with the living as much as the dead.
Perverse trying to shake off the slouching memories of South coast beaches up here, where the sea is everywhere though you often neither see nor hear it. I came here looking for distance, but it’s only brought me full circle back. Teenage nights spent staring at the black mass of waves, too close, too loud, feeling the stones beneath my feet that slipped when you climbed them and resisted you when you sat on them. It made me laugh sometimes, back then, made us all laugh, swinging cider tins, bombers billowing, joints burning down too fast. When the boats came in, we unloaded them for the price of the crumbs from the packs we laid into, fist over penknife, as a motorboat engulfed in shadow roared back out to sea.
I was desperate to leave home as soon as I could, we both were, but I didn’t wish for an end like that. Gawain’s face was too clean and pale on the rock, turned from the damage on its other side, turned too far to hold his neck.
The footbridges lie behind me now. I am near marooned in the sprawling tract of samphire, purslane and mud where water runs and dries and runs. But in these shifting flats, the church tower to the east looks no nearer. What they call the shore beckons near and far, winks, biding its time, enclosed in still pools, the long tongues of white horses breaking in the distance. Once I cross this last pool, then will be the point of no return. I had questioned reaching the final edge between land and sea today. But now I have it wetting my boots. I’ve let the afternoon slip, dredging up the past while trying to walk it off. The horizon glints at me, the promise of the sea calling. I’m compelled to look and listen for anything, for it to stop or tell me where to go next.
Somewhere in the open behind me, across a wide, shallow pool, a dog barks. I glance back and the animal thrusts a foxy nose at me, standing on the wrong side of the sand. Interfering sod. The last few walkers gaze at my horizon, not sure whether they are reduced or expanded by it. I might be too far out. Just to see. Just testing. Water trickles faster at my feet. It gathers in a long stream between me and them, trails into the network of miniature dunes hardened on the sand bed, narrowing the strip that was hardly a beach, but joins one vast body of water with all the others. I could wade across this stream, still only a large puddle, to join the walkers and the dogs fixed on the other side, the tide licking the toes of my boots as it reverses. Mid stream, it might submerge me to my shins. Instead, I gaze at the sea beyond me, and don’t move. Steal a longer glance at the water on the horizon and the water at my feet. The fox dog calls again.
Like pulling treacle, I bend away from the sea and walk, following the uncertain division of shoreline and marshland. Water floods in as I go, the tide turning in, the afternoon stretching with new purpose towards evening. The late walkers on the other side of the sand bed disperse, heading back to the footbridges that rise from the flood plain, to the path and village, the pub and hearthside. The last dog is silent, reduced to a lone speck disappearing into the tufts on the other side of a trench of water, chasing a bird or imagined rabbit through tunnels of leaf and roots. Alongside me, the puddle I did not cross is now a long and continuously trickling rivulet that is not letting up. Shrubs no longer fence it in nor give me a way back on to proper land. Mud has turned to sand and the sand has sunk beneath the opacity of water, running fast now, with the force of growing volume, chasing the shoreline with no clear end.
‘Dare ya, dare ya,’ Gawain’s voice comes, his laughter pitching higher. I remember the flecks of spittle and sea spray landing near my mouth. Now I see his games, the way he switched on and off, the cruel flair of his youth, but then I took them only for scintillating shadows and a match for mine.
‘Dare yourself, Gaz,’ said the Chief. Gallant to me, on occasion, if there weren’t many others about, but he was fatherly to Gawain. I knew he ruffled up the hair on Gav’s head, fond and territorial. Gawain’s hair, thick and chestnut.
The trench deepens alongside me, swallowing purple and green scrub. Beneath my boots, the land plunges me thigh high into ancient plant systems. I understand they are capable of withstanding storms and waves bigger than me. This is where space and volume and matter meet. As I wrestle with the knot of panic for being in too deep, in again too deep, I laugh at how I’ve courted the trap. It is not enough to walk now. I use my hands to navigate, looking for purchase to pull me through. The trench narrows and is lost in vegetation. I stagger to reorient myself towards the path on the other side of the marsh, to the village and Old Woman’s Lane beyond. I cross it by stumbling and wading, taking one flowing deep grey slash in the land after another, pulling my boots from sucking jaws of mud.
They were talking about diving again, as if there were point to diving the Channel where there was nothing to see except murky shingle and rusted pipeline.
‘Did you wear a suit?’ the number two was asking, always a support act on hand for the Chief.
‘A suit? Who needs a suit when you’re built like I am? Just took my tank down there for a look round.’
‘See any wrecks?’
‘There’s a wreck round past the head. But that’s too dangerous for the boats. Visibility’s poor though. Mind you, there’s a lot of shit floating down by the pier. Shit of all stripes, mate. If there were any sharks or fish or proper sea life down there, they’d be sick as dogs.’
‘And high as kites,’ said the sidekick.
‘We’re not careless anymore. This stuff coming in’s priceless.’
‘Tipped off by El Capitano himself.’
‘Yeah, by carrier pigeon.’
Gawain and the Chief giggled through their teeth, sucking plumes of smoke in and out. It was hard to know when the Chief was having us on. Without looking at him, I sought Gawain’s beam on me, compelled it, as we were in it together, the two of us, younger, quicker, smarter than the rest. We knew we’d leave together or stay and die.
‘Spain by way of Greece by way of Morocco.’
‘By air and sea.’
Headlights from above the promenade and the strike of a match lit up Gawain’s cheekbones, the arc of his eyebrows and hollows of his eyes. The Chief was talking again, rolling a fat one up as we waited. Again a match lit up their outline, fragments of the scene. The Chief’s face stooped to the flame. Quick sight of his dirty fingernails, the clogged pores of his nose, his ear erupted by some infection, from diving the Channel too long, someone said. The contrast with Gawain was almost laughable, if it was not so fascinating, and grotesque. The hard angelic intensity of that face, I still carry it with me, mould it into my every piece of clay.
‘Dare ya, dare ya.’
Dare me now, Gaz.
The only way out now is to swim it. Everybody knows you’re not supposed to be out this far when the tide comes in. And back in it comes, violently, relentlessly. It turns gently and then with nothing in between it turns fast, and it swells high, and everyone knows the case of the cockle pickers, and the locals round here over the years, washed up, washed out, faces barely on them anymore. In the churchyard, a whole family lies under the motto, ‘Loved by the sea, lost to the sea, but in God’s arms.’
Not going in for any of that, but I’ve no choice but to kick my boots off, lob them over the rushing gulley into the shrubs the other side. I strip off my jacket, wish I’d stuffed it in my boots, but throw it in a loose bundle in the direction where they landed. Roll my trousers up tight lest they balloon and drag me down. With any luck the water won’t have a chance to seep in before I reach the scrap of bank. Worse fates though, than the shame of walking back to the village dipped in the high tide. My trousers are too bulky, need to come off too. I fold them small, roll them round my keys, my bare legs shivering. One arm holding the lot above my head, I might keep them from a drenching. I swim with my left arm, strong from my labours at the easel and the wheel, pushing the tide away only enough to keep me moving fractionally against the heave of current. The distance is not wide but the water ups a gear, vengeful against my struggles. After this there will be more channels to cross as the marshland reconquers subterranean mud.
I scramble onto the slick of the trenchside, grabbing at tussocks, ‘Dare ya, dare ya,’ taunting me from faraway nights on the dark shingle, waiting for action. For now I am shamed, haunted, exhilarated by my dallying on the edge, flirting with not being able to save myself. I’ve kept going all these years, kept my muscles pumping, liver churning, brain connecting.
I’d been a fool to follow Gawain that night, a fool to give an audience to his tricks, but who could resist it. I was the only one he let in. We should have left the rest of the gang to it. But Gawain knew our rival’s boat was on the nearest mooring, the abandoned one where the tide smacked on the crags, for their meeting had gone wrong. He overheard them talking about it, how they would head out and unbind it as soon as they could. Gawain was proud of his undercover knowledge, wanted to show his worth. I stopped before going in after him. A rough night, unlucky. No way I could swim it, the shoreline already soaking my feet in their flimsy shoes, as wet as the shirt stuck to me now. The suck of the sea loud on the shingle, my cries whipped into the maw of the wind as soon as they escaped my lips. He was wading out beneath the pier where the boat was tethered. His shoulders curled under, rose again, waves rolled him, surf swallowed his head. If he wasn’t steady and strong, the bounty would be snatched and lost. I had an idea of that, and that his mission to scoop the cargo before the others got to it was way dangerous, way reckless, was risking his neck from our rivals, if the water didn’t get him first. He didn’t care to sell it anyway, and you couldn’t sell it alone, not someone else’s gear. It wasn’t just about getting one up though. He was wading for the hell of it, pushing the odds, I knew it then as clearly as I do now.
Hidden by the night that hid my terror, I crouched in the bus shelter, paralyzed until first light came over the shining lip of sea, a morning calm mocking my dishevelment. Down on the beach, a seagull stood on his back, my only witness. Nobody to notice when I walked away, climbed back through my bedroom window, packed a bag, walked seven miles to the station, slipped the scene. I didn’t look over my shoulder for years.
The marshland shortens at last and I shake out my bundle, dance a mad dance to the wind, pull on my clothes. Find my boots tucked in a bush, offered back to me dry. Ambush of the elements dodged, the lane towards home unchanged ahead. I’ve kept alive, but I walked away from Gawain laid up on the shingle. It took me years to hear the echo with his end in how I lived, years before I finally gave up my poisons. But it takes longer to stop myself being toxic. Years again, and that feeling sneaks up that the drink was only an excuse to indulge my vile nature. Drying out was only stumbling in the right direction, the body righting itself but the rest dragging after in shreds. The path is flat beneath my feet. My limbs are light. The clay has washed from my skin, and when I put my hands in my pocket, my hipflask is gone.
Feature image: Marshes at low tide by Elodie Barnes