Skip to main content

Swimming Away

She is sitting on the beach, alone. Her legs are curled under her, and her hands are feeling the pebbles at her side. They are smooth, like ducks' eggs. They fit snugly into her palm. The kind of pebble David used to kill Goliath, she thinks. She looks out over the sea. It is pewter, it is lead. The waves are bloated and sullen. They clutch at the shore and rasp as they retreat, surly as a kicked cur. The wet shore shines with the slug trail residue of the waves. The cliffs, honey and butter in sunshine, are the grey of gravestones and loneliness.

She turns the pebbles over and over, rhythmically, rocking. The wind has turned her long hair into whips which lash her cheeks red and raw. She does not tuck it behind her ears. She does not look at the bag that squats beside her. She thinks back, to the time before. She can't help it. Then, the sun was shining and the beach was innocent.


"Mum!" The child's voice is high and excited. "Look!"

Rosie is holding up a strand of bladder wrack as long as her whole body. It is wrapping itself around her legs and slapping against her plump little tummy encased in its white, poppy-splattered costume.

"Great!" says Rosie's Mum. "The mermaid's tail." She is busy fashioning the stones into a face and body: dried seaweed for hair, razor bills for earrings, limbs a line of carefully chosen white pebbles. Together they place the bladder wrack under the limpet-shell belt and curve the tip towards the sea.

"She's taller than me," says Rosie, and she lies flat on her back, arms outstretched, to demonstrate the exceptional height of the mermaid with her weedy tail.

"When the waves come in, will she swim away?"

"Maybe," says her Mum. "Maybe she will."


She starts to dig. At first, she is careful. She lifts the pebbles out, one by one, and piles them to one side. They form a cairn. As she gets down below the first layer, the stones are smaller, spikier, wetter, with more sand in the mixture. She scrabbles at them but, as she scrapes, the sides cave in on top of her hands. The hole remains shallow. The fingernail on the middle finger of her left hand jangles with pain as a flint drives under the nail. Pleased, she presses down on the stone. A drop of blood falls into the mix. It is deep enough. She begins to widen, lengthen and shape the trench.

*Hand in hand they skip down the beach. The waves are big today, topped by white horses whipped up by a summer breeze, but they are clear and clean as they slap on the shingle. The sea has left a sandy strip which snakes the length of the pebbly beach. Rosie and her Mum want to see their footprints: two big, two small. The sand sucks at their feet as they leap.

"Look how far I can jump, Mum!" cries Rosie, and leaps so high and so far that her Mum thinks she will reach the sun.

"Look how far Mum can jump!" cries Mum, and it is not so very far, really, but she laughs and hugs Rosie and the sun catches her daughter's hair and turns it into mermaid gold.


She has finished. There is a shape gouged out of the pebbles. A human figure. A head, two arms, a torso, legs, no tail. Recognisable. Carefully she selects a pebble, white, round, a duck's egg, and places it on the edge of the shoulder. She finds a second, pure white, and lays it next to the first, not quite touching. She is drawing an outline. Like a murder victim at an American crime scene, she thinks, but the bubble of laughter does not rise in her throat. She does not know why she glances up, at that moment. A man is standing on the edge of the cliff. To her, he is the size of the middle finger of her left hand. Panic sweeps over her like sweat. He is too far away to hear her when she screams, to far to feel the stone she throws, David at Goliath.


"When's Daddy coming back?" says Rosie.

"In a while," says her Mum, but she's been wondering too. He's gone for ice-creams and a stroll. He doesn't like the beach. He says the cliffs make him claustrophobic. That the stones dig into his feet.

"I want to paddle," says Rosie and she grabs at her beach shoes. They are at the bottom of the basket, under the picnic. As she pulls the shoes out, the Tupperware box with the sandwiches in it breaks open and the ham and the cheese and the wholemeal bread slices fall into the sand, butter side down.

"Rosie! Watch what you're doing!" Her Mum is sharp, harsh. Rosie shrinks, crouching to pull on her shoes, head bowed, face concealed. Her Mum sighs.

"Never mind. We'll be mermaids when we eat it. I bet they're used to sand in their sandwiches." Rosie lifts her head and grins.

"D'you think mermaids' bread gets soggy underwater, Mum? D'you think they have Weetabix for breakfast? Can I stick seaweed on my legs to make a tail?" Rosie chatters as her Mum picks up the food, carefully brushing the sand from each piece to make it clean.


The man has gone. She is alone again. Alone with her shape, white-rimmed, bleached. She smoothes the body, strokes the face. Arms and legs splayed, it is like the sand angel a child makes when she throws herself spread-eagled on to the first beach of the summer. She wonders whether it is a comfortable shape. Should she have formed a curled figure, foetal, protected, warm? Is the sand angel too exposed? Or does it feel wild and free?


The mobile trills. Rosie's Mum scrabbles through the beach bag. I can c u, the text reads. Her heart thuds as if they were still new lovers and she looks up and around, smiling. There are families on the beach, throwing balls, eating, lying in the sun. She can't see him. She looks further up. She shades her eyes against the sun with her hand. There is a man, the size of the middle finger of her left hand, standing on the top of the cliff. He is waving. She laughs, and stands up, waving back. He is still waving. Now, he is waving with both arms. She waves back, with both arms, amused. His arms are flailing, urgent. She is puzzled. Is he pointing? She turns around.

On the top of the nearest wave bobs a white swimming costume splattered with poppies. It disappears from sight.


She reaches into her bag, lifts out the tin canister and stands it on the pebbles. She hesitates before she unscrews the lid and her hand trembles as she reaches inside. There is not much in there, considering. She takes a handful of ash. The flakes are large and sticky. She starts with the head. She trickles the cinders into her outline, filling it in, turning it pale grey.

*Running in slow motion. She must go faster, her legs are rocks, she is dragging them and then she is in the water, diving, gasping, down, under, eyes open, arms out stretching, searching, empty, up for air, screaming 'Help!', swallowing and choking, then under again, into the swirl of the waves, the water thick, roaring in her ears, blocking her but clear and clean and she sees floating down a flash of white and thrusts towards it, grabbing and pulling, bubbles coming from a tiny mouth, hair weed flowing from a tiny head and out of the water bursting, gasping, holding her daughter in her arms and crying and hugging and struggling to the shore, she puts the little body flat on the sand and wipes the hair from the face.

Rosie's eyes open and she smiles.

"I was a mermaid, Mum, swimming like a mermaid!"

She is laughing and crying and hugging and kissing the beloved cheeks, still shiny salty wet. Rosie has held her breath. No water in her mouth, no water in her lungs, no damage, the smile wide and warm. Alive.

Her breathing slows and her heart calms. She remembers. She looks up, expectant, to the cliff edge, a wave and a smile hovering. There is no-one there. At the bottom of the cliff there is a huddle of people, their backs to the sea, bending over something, staring. A woman is running away from the group, towards the café at the end of the beach. All the families on the beach are staring at the group at the bottom of the cliff.

As if it belongs to someone else, she hears her heart begin to pound and the blood rush into her ears.


The shape is coloured in. The ash covers the body in a thin layer from the top of its head to the tips of its fingers and down to the heel, instep and toes. She pats it down into a thin paste layer. She had wanted to lie down beside the body, to close her eyes and feel the length once more, but her creation chills her. It is lifeless, flat, colourless. No muscles, no skin, no sinews. No blood. She takes a step back.

*Holding her child clasped close to her body, Rosie's Mum runs up the beach. She screams, demanding to know what has happened, has someone fallen, but she doesn't need to ask. As they turn towards her, their faces greyed by shock, she knows. They part to let her through. They try to take her child but she clings on even as she falls to her knees beside a body, limbs awkward and misshapen, head broken like a duck's egg.


She sits at the base of the cliff, watching the waves. They are coming closer now. Licking and biting at the shore, they have almost reached the body. It lies, a grey, cold smudge. The waves are nibbling at the fingers. Soon they will swallow the whole shape, and the ash will be absorbed by the water and swept out into the ocean, a thousand particles floating apart and away, dissolved. All that will be left tomorrow will be some of the outline in white stones. A mother will come to the beach and show her daughter. They will copy, laughing as they lie like angels and draw their outlines in the sand. Next week, next month the white stones will have gone, scattered back into the thousands already on the beach.

Her mobile rings.

"Mummy? When will you be back?"

"Not long now, Rosie. I'll be home soon." And she stretches her legs, stiff with cold, as she waits for the waves to take away her love.