Pantry Prose: Flotsam by Ali Hepburn


Flotsam (n.) 1. Floating or washed-up wreckage

  1. Discarded people or things

I am the sea. My limbs meld seamlessly into briny waves which lick about my ankles. Within me, ships are wrecked and fall wordlessly to the floor to be colonised by brittle-shelled creatures. From me, seaweed grows, lank and rubbery, in fronds tossed carelessly by my churning motion. I crash against cliffs, and sweep away the unsuspecting to a cold and lonely death, filling their lungs and taking them for my own.

My father disagrees. He is a fisherman on rocky island fragment surrounded by inky waters, and yet he fears the ocean. There’s a reason for it, of course. He never speaks of it, but shortly after my birth, my mother was out collecting cockles on a stony reach of shoreline not far from our weathered cottage. The low tide revealed an expanse of shining black pebbles and amongst them a plentiful bounty of shellfish. She was a stranger to those on the island, so I imagine her to be unlike myself and my father; like most islanders, we have sallow skin and dark hair, but in my mind, my mother was gold-spun and delicate, flitting around like a sky-creature, buffeted by the wind that blows low-slung across the sea, casting foam in subdued off-white globs onto the beach. There are no pictures of her, of course. Returning from his boat that evening, my father found me swaddled and bawling where the tufty sea-grass meets the high tide line. Beside me, a basket lay full to the brim with yellow-white molluscs, still damp from the sea. My mother was nowhere to be seen, but she wouldn’t have been the first person caught unaware by the incoming tide, cut off and swept out by the waves.

I dream of her trying to get back to me, pale hair flying starkly against a backdrop of murky seaweed, wading through ever-deepening surf, pulled back by the forceful currents and disappearing from sight. Knowing this, I should be terribly afraid of the ocean – but I am not. I can’t bear to be away from it, and in its closeness, I also feel closer to her, even though I know she is gone.

On an island there is no escaping the sea, but my father tries to warn me off. He tells me, when I was very young, I was playing outside the cottage; one moment, I was settled with a toy in the bright, brisk weather, the next, I’d toddled down to the rock pools which dotted the shoreline. He looked up and saw me squatting by a salty puddle as a towering wave crashed over me. Pulled spluttering from the icy water, I’d been unaffected by the experience, but from then on he had been exceptionally careful to keep me from the sea, to prevent the same ill fate from befalling me as befell my mother.

He is a taciturn man, curling his tongue around his few words with a sailor’s burr. His placid grey eyes contrast with mine, which are dark green and quite unlike any I know – the colour of the oyster-weed which thrives on salty air, or of the ocean itself when winter sunlight penetrates it at the right angle. My childhood was solitary, with my father so often away on fishing trips. I’d watch his tiny sailboat skitter across the waves before bobbing away out of sight. Once he was gone, I would start doing the things he wouldn’t allow me to do, which I had promised that I wouldn’t. I started to swim.

The very first time, I was eleven years old and tall for my age. The yearning I’d felt all my life for the sea was stronger than ever – enough to cast aside niggling doubts and warnings. The late spring air was still sharp, flicking the wave tops into peaks. Ocean westerlies permeated my nostrils, fresh and slightly fishy, lingering on my lips in grains of salt which mingled with the slight tang of blood where they cracked in the sea-drenched air. But the tide was ebbing and I knew that there would be enough time before it turned and crept back up the beach, leaving me out of my depth. Barefoot and shivering, I faced the water and edged towards it, tiny stabs of anxiety jolting through my stomach. Lapping around my ankles, for a moment the cold water sent steely jolts right through me – but then the sensation began to change. A warmth was spreading from the tops of my toes and upwards, and it was my skin exposed to the fresh air that felt shivery. My instinct was to wade deeper, letting it envelop me. It didn’t feel like a threat or a danger. It felt like a homecoming.

Waves tugged at me, but I didn’t strain against them, I let them pull me to and fro in a gentle rhythmic motion. Emboldened, I pushed my feet off from the stony sea bed. Instinctively I knew to kick my legs and pull myself through the water with my hands, swimming further and further out, until the beach disappeared beyond the swell of the waves. I dived below, keeping my eyes open wide as the murky green water filtered past my cheeks, taking in the strange sea plants flapping in the dingy water.

Then something changed. I could sense it, shifting and churning in whirling eddies, the current suddenly stronger – much stronger than me. I pushed towards the surface, but the sea gripped onto me as if clawed hands had seized me and were dragging me deeper. Straining against it, I eventually broke free, breaching my head and gasping for oxygen. Seething storm clouds had all but blocked out the sun, and in the struggle, I had lost any sense of the direction of land. My eyes began to close involuntarily. Adrift, a lethargic weakness soaked into my limbs, and I imagined a new feeling of being gently carried along through the water. When I opened my eyes, I was almost at the beach and able to drag myself through the last stretch until I could pull myself onto the pebbles. I thought I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar shape moving in the sea, but the last light was seeping below the horizon, and I put it down to a trick of the shadows playing through the rain on the water’s surface.

Knowing that I had limited time to dry off before my father arrived home, I hurried back to the cottage and lit the fire. I was strangely unshaken, but more than that, it was like missing pieces of myself were slotting into place. I felt a little guilty then; I’d always assumed that those were gaps that only my dead mother could fill. Nevertheless, although I knew little about swimming, I suspected that my ability had been above average for a first attempt by an eleven-year-old child. Also, I was intrigued to know how I had returned to the beach; the sea was my guardian and incredibly, I couldn’t wait to return to her.

And so this has continued over the last few years.

Tonight, my father and I sit by the fire, clouds curdling beyond the glass. We’re about to go to bed when a noise pierces through the darkness, a howling scream, differentiated from the wailing wind, almost human. I go to the window and look out. It’s dark, but a bright moon reflects sharply off the rough tips of the waves, dashed about by the rising wind. Straining my eyes, I see something black bobbing beyond the shoreline. I squint, and as the shape comes into focus, I realise it’s a person. Unthinking, I rush outside. My father’s voice echoes, ‘Stop, it’s not safe!’ from somewhere behind me, before the sound is cut off by the merciless wind. I carry on.

The water is cold as I wade in. They aren’t at all far from the shore, and it doesn’t take long to paddle out. Closer now, I see that it’s a woman. I wonder if she’s dead, her long hair slick and black like sealskin, her skin completely pallid. Her eyes are closed, but she doesn’t have that vacant, absent look of a corpse. I haul her unconscious form back to the beach, the sea silently relinquishing its grasp on us. By moonlight, I notice a red stain blossoming from her side, and suspect that this is more the issue than the water, though I can’t begin to imagine what has happened to her.

My father has reached the beach, and he stares wordlessly down at us lying on the pebbles, his face as white as death.

‘We need to get her inside,’ I shout against the cruel song of the wind.

This seems to shock him into action – he bends down and lifts her up, carrying her back to the cottage, laying her on his bed without saying a word. I examine her wound; the cause of the injury quickly becomes apparent – I gingerly extract the long metal tip of a harpoon, the kind used for killing whales. Fortunately, it looks relatively superficial. I pack it with bandages to stem the bleeding

‘You could have died,’ my father says, monosyllabic as ever, while I towel dry the sleeping form on his bed. He says it factually, but mentally I defy him, as I’ve done for years.

He resumes his silence without mentioning my swimming ability, and I wonder if he suspects that this wasn’t my first time in the water. Glancing at him, I see that he isn’t looking at me; he’s staring at the woman, her sodden hair fanned out across the pillow, shiny like wet samphire. With a haunted look, he turns and leaves the room. The front door clunks as it shuts. I expect he’s angry with my risk-taking, in his quiet way, and has gone out to sleep on the boat.

I sit by the bed in a creaking wooden chair, and at some point, I doze. When I awaken, light is filtering gently through the curtains, betraying the weather’s lightening mood. My patient is sitting up in bed, sipping from a steaming mug, with my father sitting nearby, silently. Her eyes, now open, are the deepest green, like rock pools. We ask her nothing, allowing her to regain her strength. We give her fish stew, which she loves. I know she won’t be with us for long.

The days meld. Then, one morning, there she is, standing on the beach. I pull on my boots and make my way down to her, leaving my father sleeping. She’s looking out to sea, which reaches her toes on the outbreath and dissolves into her like she is fabricated from some submarine element.

‘Aren’t you going to say goodbye to him?’ I ask upon reaching her.

She shakes her head.

‘But why?’ I say. She doesn’t reply, staring at the waves. I know her, then. I’ve known her for a while, but it hovers tacitly between us, that unspoken understanding.

At length, she asks, ‘Don’t you feel it – the pull of the ocean?’

I do, I’d always known that yearning, and now, more than ever, I can feel it drawing me in. It’s part of me, of what I am, just as it’s part of her. But I think I knew that too, somewhere amongst all the stories.

But before I reply, she nods, understanding. The sea is only half of me, and the other half is stronger now, pulling me in the opposite direction, towards the cottage.

I turn and walk away from her, from the sea, and I know that behind me, she is also walking away, towards the sea; again, away from us.

My father is sitting inside, his eyes dull. ‘I thought you’d gone,’ he says upon seeing me.

‘Where would I go?’ I ask and light the stove, hang the kettle to boil. Outside the sea yawns and laps the beach in ceaseless motion.

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