The pebbles hurt the soles of her feet. She doesn’t care. Hurting is good. Pain is what she deserves. She steps into the water. The sea is deceptive. The shallow, nibbling waves with their light froth of white are not the warm waters of the Aegean. They freeze her ankles, her shins. She shuffles forward and flinches as another patch of skin is iced. She can see a steep drop into deep water, only a few feet away now. If she steps off the sea cliff she will be submerged. She teeters, scared of submersion, scared of the shock of the water, scared to make the decision – then she plunges head first into a breaking wave. The shock makes her sob. She forces herself to open her eyes. The water is murky, churning with sand. The shafts of sunlight turn her skin corpse-white. Twisting, she breaks the surface and swims jerkily, powering the blood around her body, craving warmth, survival. It is long, stretched-out seconds before her body adapts. Until, with a deep breath, she relaxes. Her strokes slow and smooth. She starts to swim out, away from the beach, towards the horizon. The water comforts her, holds her, supports her. It feels warm, buoyant, womblike. Is this what it would be like, she wonders, if she dared? Agony. But a short agony. Followed by this, which is a form of bliss.
She flips onto her back and floats. The sun is hot on her face. It is hotter than is normal for Dorset, hotter than it should be. She closes her eyes and instead of black sees red with yellow lines and shapes that ooze and float. She opens her eyes and makes herself stare straight at the fierce white disc in the sky. Perhaps the sun will blind her. If she puts her thumb in front of her eyes she can blot it out. Make it disappear. She heard on the radio on the way to the beach that they have sent up a probe. They want to touch the sun. It will land on the surface. It won’t melt like the wings of Icarus and plunge to its destruction. They won’t allow it to do that. They are too clever. Too clever to be burnt.
She knows the heat of the sun. She felt it the first time she brushed past him. His skin touched her skin and the heat shot through her body as though she had plunged head first into a wave of fire.
She shivers. It is August, but the water is too cold for stillness. She turns over and starts to swim. Her arms cut through the water and her legs kick evenly, she turns her head every third stroke to take a deep breath, she can feel the pull of the water as she drives through it, she points her toes, reaches her arms, cups her hands, she is efficient, she is a fish, a seal, a shark. She is at one with the water. It is thick, salty, heavy. Like the liquor you cook fish in. Like the taste of a man. Like his skin, like his mouth, like her mouth, after. She licks her lips. They are as salt as water.
Her limbs are stretched and warm. She pauses, bobs, sleek as an otter. She is a long way out. She looks back to the beach. Her husband is crouching down beside Sarah. Their heads – one blonde, one brown – are the same height, though Sarah is only three. They are both staring at the barbecue. They look solemn and purposeful. Perhaps they are cooking the sausages. She sees Sarah reach out her hand. She wonders if Sarah will burn herself. She wonders if her husband has noticed. She waits for the stab of anxiety. It doesn’t come.
She looks around. The cliffs are burnt honey in the late afternoon sun. They curve round the beach like cupped hands. Beyond the cliffs, around the point, is the harbour of a small seaside town. It has fish and chip stalls around the dock and a winding cobbled street of colourful painted houses that climbs a hill to a small ruined castle. She knows this because she has been there many times. She knows that beyond the town, further along the coast, the cliffs become higher, more sheer. They cut straight into the sea without the gentleness of the pebbly sand where she has been sitting all afternoon. She has seen the waves crash against these cliffs, battering them even on the calmest of days. She has been told that this is because of the winds and the currents. She doesn’t know anything about wind and currents. But she does know that paths wind up from the rocks at the base of these cliffs. They are old paths, hard to find, secret and forbidden and perilous, doubly difficult with bare feet. But they are there.
She is a strong swimmer. For weeks, she has been watching the progress of the man who is swimming around the edge of the country, and she has wondered. She has seen him swim beyond beaches, alongside cliffs rising out of the waves, she has seen him being swept along by the currents and she has thought: maybe she could do the same. She swivels and starts to swim towards the headland. Towards the secret forbidden paths.
She must conserve her energy. She must alternate her strokes to stop herself from developing cramp. She sweeps her arms out into a circle and her legs, froglike, follow. She thinks of her life, of the safety, of the certainty. She thinks of her husband. He is tentative and gentle and kind. She thinks of the man whose skin is as hot as the sun and she thinks of how he will throw back his great head and laugh that booming laugh and sweep her into his arms when she comes to him wet as a mermaid from the sea. Naked and free and with nothing. She thinks of how she will leave wet footprints on his floor and cover his bed with salt and bring him no possessions or trappings or expectations and he won’t care. She is swimming to him. Her stroke grows jagged with excitement.
She is like the probe journeying through space to the sun. It has so far to go. It will penetrate the sun’s atmosphere in a quest to explore the solar storms that rip the surface with flares and bursts of fire. How much more thrilling than the fog and drizzle that blankets her life now, full of placid certainties and humdrum grey. She wants to fill her life with firestorms.
A wave hits her face and fills her mouth with water. She flounders, but rights herself. She is gaining on the headland, but not quickly, not given how hard and how long she has been swimming. The currents must be against her, the tide must be turning. She glances back at the beach. She sees her husband. He is standing now. He is staring out to sea, out at her. He sees her look back at him. He lifts his hand. He waves. Sarah is in his arms. She has buried her head in his shoulder. He is comforting her. He is comforting their child.
Sarah is crying. This time anxiety strikes. The steel thread lassoes her and reels her in. She turns. She must get back. Her limbs are heavy and tired. Her strokes are still efficient, but slower. Each pull is hard, every reach cracks her muscles. She is chilled now. Her skin is puckered and tight; she is shivering. The sun has lost its heat. It is no longer searing white. It is deepening to a homely orange as it dips down towards the horizon, it is benevolent, safe, invoking autumn leaves, clementines, pumpkins. Why did she go so far? What was she doing? Now she is swimming with the current. She is carried towards the shore. She is within reach, she is by the sea shelf. But the undertow tugs her back out, she feels his fingers on her legs, stroking, intimate. She has made her choice. With the last of her strength she struggles over the shelf and into the shallows. The waves whisper on her skin as they let her go.
In the past, her husband would call her Venus when he saw her rise from the waves. He would run to her and wrap her in a thick towel and hug her close and kiss her wet head. Today he does not even smile. Her legs are shaking and she is all goose pimples and bleached skin. Her teeth are clattering as he throws her a towel.
‘You were gone a long time,’ he says. ‘I wondered if you were coming back.’
She smiles a warm and forgiving smile. She strokes her tummy, where a new life is forming.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she says.
She meets his eyes.
They are as cold and dark and infinite as space.
‘Is it mine?’ he asks.
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