My father believed the sea to be covetous: a pleading dog that would lap at you adoringly, sidling up the beach to dawdle hungrily round your ankles. He said not to trust its sidelong ways, because when he was out in his fishing boat during a storm, the sea became a hound that could shake the whole world in its teeth. Out there, he had heard the entire ocean howl like the bereaved. He had seen waves bigger than a church standing atop a church and believed there is nothing you can do in the face of such demands.
Father believed the sea to be a jealous god, hungry for sacrifice, but I think it is something blanker and simpler than that. I would say that to meet the sea is to look into the face of God and find it faceless. But nobody talks to me anymore, so I keep such thoughts to myself.
From here at my place by the fire in our small house, I can hear the waves on the beach, and the rhythm of the sea is soothing to me. It comforts me like the rub of butter, like the click of my sister Margie’s knitting needles, as she huddles in her black dress making endless tiny clothes for the new baby, unspooling her threads unto infinity.
It used to be that when the wind roared and the sea boiled like a bubbling pot, snapping at sailing boats, threatening to swallow them whole, we would go to pull the lifeboat out. The women of our village would run to the shore and heave on ropes to drag the boat down the beach, hearing the rubble rubble of the wooden hull as we hauled it over pebbles, the men onboard holding up their oars and jeering down at us. And the rumbling roll and then the sweet perfect crash as it swung down the shingle and into the ocean blue green grey purple gold and sometimes black and sometimes silver.
Usually, when the men went out – my father and brother among them – we would head back for the things we had left at home, maybe a mug of tea or a book put down. But when the weather was at its wildest, we’d tramp up to the boat hut together for the stove, and wait there. It’s not that we ever thought they wouldn’t come back, it was just that sometimes there was a twitch of it and by being together and making light of it we could kill that right down.
That’s how it has always been here. The brass bell rings out from the harbour and it’s every man to the boat, every woman to the rope. Father said pulling the boat out was the hardest job, too hard for a woman, but there was no-one else to do it. I did it and my mother did it before she died. It was difficult work, but going to the rope was a way of staking a claim against the nights when the sea rages and the wind picks up the shingle from the beach and throws it at your windows like a thousand angry young men after your affection. Of course, stones from young men, angry or not, weren’t ever coming for me.
Nobody ever came for me, although perhaps that was just because nobody ever came here. Well, why would you? That’s what my sister Margie always said. Why would you come here when all life is happily occupied elsewhere?
Father would say: And what would they do without the fish we drag from the ocean to put on their fine wooden dining tables?
Anyone can catch fish, Margie would say, poking the fire in a style that meant she was thinking that somewhere a girl who could have been her was getting into a carriage and wearing a hat all the way from Paris.
Here’s what this place is: the sky, the sea, the boats. Sometimes Margie and I stand at the edge and throw stones at it but they just sink away, and I know Margie is thinking of all the finery and cities and engagements she is missing. I do not think of those things. Mother always said once you start looking outwards, you can miss what’s right under your nose.
Margie never went to the rope. Her heart you see, it murmurs. When I was a child I thought if I listened hard enough, I would hear it, a gentle mumble of complaint, but she would never let me press my head to her chest. She is too fragile to be touched. She tends the hearth, nurtures the kettle. Father said it was good to have a woman to come home to and Margie would smile, neat and closed as a button.
Our dear Mother, when she was alive, would argue with Father because she would always go to pull the boat with the other women, but he wanted her to stop. He wanted her to be a button-neat fireside woman, and she would say: How could I look myself in the eye? But now Mother is dead from a fever and Margie became that stay-at-home woman. Her soft hands, busy with teacups and biscuits, would flutter about us like attentive butterflies. My hands were always blistered and rough, with hard skin raised up in whorls across my palm, and when I touched them with my eyes closed they were little bumping waves.
This place wasn’t anywhere other than home, until one day I looked back from the rope and saw his face at the front of the boat.
Hey Margie’s sister, mind yourself on them pebbles.
I had seen him about. There’s no-one here who isn’t known. I’d seen him in church. I’d seen him in the pub with Father and the other fishermen, talking to that redhead from up the river thinks so much of herself. And once – in the very same week he spoke to me of dangerous pebbles – I saw him come from the sea.
Margie and I had been out picking flowers. She’d got from somewhere that pressing wild flowers was something proper ladies did and so we were out wandering the cliffs, selecting petals to be murdered between the pages of Margie’s bible, and down in the bay, the boys were splashing about in all the golden evening summer light.
Margie said we should go right on home because a lady should never see such common goings on and men in the undress, and I said –
You know what I said.
I said: You go on, Margie.
Up there on the cliffs, it’s sandy and gorsey with the dipped holes of rabbits just waiting for your feet, but I know those paths and, after she had gone, I found a place of perfect vantage and I watched them.
I have never been in the sea, and seeing them there, bucking and laughing in the spray from the waves, in all their brazen nakedness, I was envious. I didn’t see him at first. I saw the boys from the bakery larking about in the shallows, their skinny thighs like chicken gristle and the piece between their legs like a flap of something they forgot to tuck in. They waded out till just the top halves of their pale bodies were poking up from the very edge of the ocean, and they were leaping awkwardly into buffeting waves that knocked them down repeatedly, as if they were trapped and trying to get further out, like little struggling pilgrims at the start of a great distance.
But he had been out deeper. He had been swimming, which was curious as our fishermen never learnt to swim; they said if your boat goes down you are as good as dead, so why wait? But he had been swimming and then suddenly he came in and he was there, walking out of the swell of the water, looking down at nothing, the sea a liquid spread of calm pink and turquoise spilling out behind him, like the silk sheets Margie says they have in Paris. And it was something because he didn’t know I was looking, and it was something because his head was down, and it was something in the way his shoulders were set out broad in a straight line from that downward head, and the way it all sloped down in perfect lines to the rest of him. It was something like geometry. And I admit, I wanted to call out then, from my huddled hideout up in the rabbit burrows, with the scratchy grass and the tickling insects, and I admit, I suppose, that I wanted something of what he had with him, but to call out would have been to break what he held, and had he looked up, it would have all been gone, so I held it with my eyes, I held him like a ship on the horizon in my gaze, and I held it and I held it.
After that, I always waited to hear his voice from the boat saying something to me, Margie’s sister. You couldn’t look at the boat much, when you were pulling. Jane would know about it soon enough. Jane’s been on that rope for years and she’d bellow like a cow and you’d put your head down quick, heaving and straining, your feet slipping on the grinding pebbles, the wind whipping your coat, the weight of twelve men and a great wooden boat at your back.
Mostly he joked with me and his laughter was a sound I carried lightly at the base of my neck as I pulled him out to sea; keeping safe the look on my face. But when I saw him in the village, it seemed to pain me. The sight of him dragged all the breath from my lungs because his body was such that even when clothed it didn’t seem so. Not anymore. The span of his back and the heft of his arms and the sturdy full square strength of his legs were always present – and when he stripped to the waist working in the harbour, the thick richness of his flesh was so simply true, I knew I had been seeing it all along. I saw him come from the sea and now I wanted to see him so much I had to close my eyes.
He caught me looking once and the wink he gave me was as sudden and joyful as the yelping tug on the end of a fishing line. I was a caught fish when I was near him, landed and gasping, a hook snagged in my gaping mouth. But at night, I had dreams that took me diving fathoms down, till I was gliding weightless through the great cathedral of the sea, the sunlight slanting through the deep green, the sound of my breath in my ears, and when Margie woke me in the morning, I surfaced miles out.
I took great pleasure in those days in opening windows; in running down steep hills; in taking off my shoes, and in visiting my clifftop hideaway to bury the knots of daisies I kept finding myself making. I traced his name in the sand with a fingertip and swept it away, the grains sticking to my palm.
Margie, plumping a new cushion she had made, said I had become careless and slovenly. All my chores were left undone and wide open. But whenever my father and my brother and I went running down to the lifeboat, she would be stuck behind with her needles and threads, a princess in a tower, a pearl stewing in its oyster, and as the rain came up through the streets to hit us full in the face, I was the upfront figure on the prow of a ship, breaking the waves with a majestic crash.
I believed I was doing my strong and rightful part and the more I did, the more I would earn. I thought that to love someone meant you would willingly shoulder the rope and pull them into a covetous sea that might not give them back. I believed that what the priest told us in church about sacrifice was true. Had God himself not given us the body of his son? Take this, he’d said, and break it. I was willing to.
Instead, I should have lifted my head and listened hard when the men spoke of their boat as if it were a woman they loved. They said: she’s so forgiving, she’ll come off a wave smooth as satin, nothing’s too much for her. I should have noticed that it was effortless that they admired. Nobody there spoke in admiring tones about a hard-working woman with calloused hands and sea-salt gritted in her brows. It was the vision of someone doing nothing they were drawn to. Simpering fireside ways. I should have listened because there came one night in October when the bell rang out and we women went to the rope and he was smiling as he called to me.
Hey Margie’s sister, tell your Margie I didn’t see her in church.
I watched the boat as they rowed it out. I stood on the shore, keeping it in my gaze until it shrank to nothing, and then Jane shouted at me to come help wind the rope.
Yes, I remember that. I remember that I walk home, sodden and bedraggled, and I tell Margie what he has said. I remember her head lifts and her eyes are small pinpricks of interest, but her hands on her sewing are unceasing. Even if he spoke to her, her hands would never stop. She makes a precious little hum of nonchalance as her needle nips in and out: a fine silver humming bird intent only on collection, on gathering.
She likes to gather, my sister. Let’s pull this in here, she says, with a mouthful of pins, tweaking at a dress she has placed on her dressmaker’s dummy. She tightens, adjusts and straightens, always looking at the fabric above, not the being beneath; that is something to be disguised. Although once I saw her stepping bare from the bath, her dough pale body bending, breasts dipped pink, entirely unexpected. You wouldn’t think it of her, to be so real and swaying. Not Margie. She who is so fond of darts and pleats and tucks: things that sound like the pointless chatter of chickens; things that sound like enchanting methods of evasion.
The next time, he says: Tell your sister the pink dress she wears is pretty.
Pink? He must mean the peach, she says, and her needles keep tapping together like the patter of tiny white mice pulling a pumpkin carriage.
The next time, he says: Tell your sister I know some places that do the fancy cloths she likes.
I tell her that he believes she likes fancy things.
What can he mean by that?
People get funny ideas, I say. How delicate her face in the firelight; her small frown a single crease as she neatly cuts the cloth of her latest creation, her scissoring fast and precise.
Father coughs. Nobody should be getting any ideas, he says.
Margie gathers up the off-cuts of fabric to place carefully in her workbasket. He probably meant nothing by it, she says. But in the tender patting of her palms on the contents of her basket you can see she has found something in it worth keeping.
Tell your Margie there’s a dance in the church hall Saturday, he says, as I am watching his hands adjust the oar. They strike me as hands that would know their business without instruction; hands that could reach down and take you apart. I let the wind whip away his words and I pull out the damned boat.
But our brother has already told her there will be a dance. When I get home, her fireside nest is vacated and I find her in our bedroom. The peach dress is being modelled by the dressmaker’s dummy, which stands before her like a version of herself she has beheaded in order to remove unnecessary distractions. She is holding a white ribbon to its lopped throat. The contents of her workbasket are scattered across her bed and her hair has come loose, as if a window had blown open and a gale come through the room.
She steps back and looks at the dummy. How well he would look in a jacket that came to here, she says – her hands gesture towards her silent double’s waist – a good jacket that buttoned here – and she pulls the fabric of the dress into a bunch in front of her mannequin heart, both fists clenched tight.
Then she catches me watching and returns to smoothing, murmuring: Of course, he’d have to comb his hair – well, if any of them combed their hair it would be a start.
I can see him then, ironed neatly under her small hands: his head on the dummy; his flesh pulled in and corseted; his legs muffled beneath hours of tedious lace; trussed up as a turkey frilled for a fancy dinner.
I wait for him on the harbour wall.
Hey Margie’s sister, what did she say about the dance?
She wants to meet you on the cliff beforehand but it’s to be a secret, I say, thinking that if he knew her at all, he’d know that Margie would no more go to the cliff than she would to the rope.
Margie hears talk of the dance and waits to be asked. The ache of her politeness is crumbled into every cup of tea she stirs, the teaspoon clinking weakly in the sitting room as Father snores and outside, the rain hisses like the steam from a kettle.
Let’s hope the weather clears up, she says, and her eyes are baleful as a spaniel.
I smile at her because I know she will not reach out, she wants only to be offered, as if a man’s interest were a piece of dry cake you had to be invited to partake of. She sighs, picks up a book and bats rapidly through the pages, but that’s all she will raise her hand to do.
As it happens, I know something about offerings and partakings and a man’s interest. I know that a cold dark night and a swift run through spitting rain and a purloined bottle of brandy that heats the belly right through can make a man on a clifftop lose his head.
He says: She wanted me to come up here in the rain for nothing?
To make you look a fool, I say, she’s always been like that, but I came to tell you so you didn’t come for nothing.
As I say this, I feel the rain sinking into my dress and pulling it heavy; the fabric melting against me. Moonlight is spilling through the clouds and across the sea like spinning lights on a polished dance floor, just as I deserve.
I say: I know a place where we can shelter that has a view of the bay.
I say: Have some of the brandy.
I say: Have a little more.
The wind raddles my hair into rags and tendrils and the white ribbon at my throat flaps like the maddened flag on a masthead as we shelter in my hideaway. But the brandy is warm and willing, it softens and folds him closer, and it floods my mind until I drift away to many places at once: I am high on the cliff finding new ways beneath buttons, and I am climbing to the lookout on a galleon scudding and cresting across the highest of seas, and I am pulling myself up the rungs of a rope ladder, hand over hand, my bare feet strong and pushing me up from the swaying earth, heading skywards. The rain swathes across our faces like a baptism and to his salty skin, I mouth all the wordless ways I know him and I bury my hands in the loam and sea foam of him.
But after that night, he won’t look at me. Jane says he is lovesick for Margie; Jane says I remind him too much of my pretty sister. How the girls laugh. There are many days when he does not look at me. There are many more when he does not talk to me.
Weeks pass and then he gives me a note for her. His eyes flitter about me, never resting or coming back to mine. I dip my head to the ground to remember the real truth of him, the shape and weight beneath the skittering and the costumes.
Margie has taken to her bed; the cold weather is too harsh for her. Her dummy stands over her like a headless angel. Sometimes at night, it wears his face again, pleading and asking for her, and I must turn my face to the bedroom wall to summon the way he came from the sea that time, all of a piece, not looking at anything, wearing only my gaze.
Margie’s heart is bad, says Father, and I think of the unready apples that are shaken loose by strong winds and rot to mulch on the ground.
The note lies fallow in my deepest pocket. His meagre words: frilly language; prayers on bended knees before the block. How she reduces him; she shrinks and tidies him until he is a tea cloth, a side-table, something to rest your china on while you chatter about something else entirely.
It is the week after Christmas when the storms come in. We sit in our front room and the wind roars down the chimney, throwing the fire about the walls and rattling the cups. We wait for the bell to ring and when it does, we all stand, as if for the priest, even Margie, wrapped in her invalid’s blanket. Someone is lost at sea.
She says: Surely not on a night like this?
She is feverish, flushed red beneath her powder; it is the only sign of life I have ever seen in her – my doll of a sister.
You mustn’t go, she says. It is too wild. None of you must go.
You are speaking out of turn, says Father, pulling on his boots.
And she was always so punctual.
She says: I shall come with you then.
But you aren’t well, Margie. You must stay here. We’ll need the fire when we get back. Fire and a hot drink.
You see how doors usually held open for a lady such as she are now closed, one by one, so very politely.
As I tie my headscarf, she slips something into my coat pocket. Give it to him before he goes, she whispers. And if I wasn’t so used to her, I’d swear she was asking for something, not giving anything at all.
Father tells my brother he should stay with Margie, because the coxswain won’t take them both tonight. One from each family is all in a storm like this.
But I am going too, am I not? For it is Father and I who run, scrabbling like crabs down water-strewn streets to the harbour, and it is Jane and I and fifteen others who take up the rope and pull that boat out not once but three times, for each time it slides from the beach the sea takes it and tips it over, hurling men like stones into the water, and they drag themselves back and we drag them back out, and once I see his face through the rain, his hair soaked to his head, nothing in his eyes but blankness for now he is nothing but a body that pulls an oar, and there is nothing I can hear but the screaming of the wind and in that roaring chaos, we are matchsticks and splinters on the edge of the black crashing world.
It’s too rough, shouts the girl behind me, but I choose silence because this has been asked of me and he will know that I did not falter, that my heart did not burst at the time of asking, and he will know that honest love means effort and tar and rope and sacrifice and wet boots slipping on pebbles, and I will be there with him even as the rope tears the skin from my hands and I urge that shoddy godforsaken useless piece of driftwood they call a boat to get out to sea, to get out, to get out, because she has to go, she has to go, she has to be gone.
The boat crashes into the sea for the final time and is immediately hidden behind a wave. I see it once again, the prow tipping up, and I think I see my Father’s white head in the darkness. Then we run back to the hut, and I examine what Margie gave me: a small metal image of a saint on a chain to hang about the neck; a trinket.
We are up all night, gathered shivering about the stove, clasping our mugs with both hands, our few words of talk falling heavy as coins dropped in a well. And when the day finally comes, and we push open the door to step outside, it is fresh and blustery, the sky bright blue and scattered with torn white clouds, cushion stuffing ripped and tossed; the sea, rich and murky with churned sand, a musty green wine bottle hue. On the far side of the bay, a roll of fields rises calmly above the water as a piece of the boat washes up beneath it, but by then, we already know. We have always been waiting.
They find more wreckage on the beach where the boys bathe in summer. As I walk up to the clifftop, I see them down below me, carefully collecting it as if it were a giant wooden shell and carrying it home on their shoulders, three of the remaining men on either side.
I stayed on the cliff all that cold day, burying my feet in the sand, thinking of my Father who thought the morning after a storm was always beautiful, a world newly delivered. He was a man who believed that sand is what the sea leaves behind as a warning; a demonstration of its strength. I believe it is simply many small things, although I admit it has a quality of trickiness, being sheer enough to be drawn by a fingertip yet settling to hardness when pressed beneath the weight of two.
I dug a little hole there on the cliff and buried her saintly trinket. I dug another hole and buried the note he wrote to her. I sank all their useless curlicues and proffered prayerful hands, outstretched, requesting. What good would they do? With Father gone, she and I had a house to run.
Now I sit here by my fire as night creeps over the village – this cramped huddle of brick, fish and ropes, bracketed by clouds, where the women must pull their men to the sea, because there is nobody else to do it. I still go to the rope, even though seeing my brother go out in the new boat with those young boys and old men in place of the ones we’ve lost is a pitiful sight to see. And even though I have learnt the men in that fine wooden vessel would rather set their hats at the women who stay home, even though without the ones who pull, they’d be left sitting in a boat in a hut, and a fat lot of good that would do. That, I believe, is something to know.
Maybe they do think of us when the storms come and they fear they may go under, but it is my suspicion they don’t picture us heaving on ropes like oxen, they think of us shining and poised in the light from a fire, a small jewelled image, something light and easily lost. My mother, I know, would have seen me as I am and as she was and as my daughter will one day be: a woman who went.
Sometimes I wonder if, when the boat was wrecked, he was glad he had learnt how to swim. I imagine him the only one above water in a pitching sea, his strong legs kicking, the helpless bodies of the others falling far below. Left alone, as the ocean lifted and dropped him for all those long, last moments, I hope he could be grateful. It’s better to fight, I believe. Better to fight than sit and wait.
Sometimes when I go up to the cliffs now – leaving Margie to tend the fire and warm the milk and rock the cradle and all her other daily chores – I shape the sand to make a perfect pillow for my head. I make my bed there, and I lie, sandwiched between sea and sky, married to neither and none. Years from now, I could be resting on granules of his body, given back to me, because the sea does not care for hording, it grinds bones to sand only as a consequence of it being the sea. I dip my hands into the grains and let them fall from my palms, because what went before does not belong to the blank slate of the ocean. It runs through my hands and it is still mine.