The tide is in. The rhythmic beat of the waves lapping against the seawall calming and peaceful. I’ve always loved the sound of the sea. Mike finds that very funny. He enjoys telling our friends about his weird and wonderful wife.
“Terrified of water but loves to be beside the sea.”
And he shakes his head as if amazed at how weird I can be, but he looks at me with those grey eyes and gives me that smile he reserves solely for me. The smile that says, I love you and I return that smile, secure in the knowledge that he is my soulmate, my anchor in this world.
I wish I wasn’t so scared of the sea. We had great days at the seaside when the kids were young. I remember one summer day when the sun shimmered in a haze of blue sky, the faintest of breeze offering occasional relief and the hot sand burning the soles of our feet as we ran down the beach to the sea. That day Mike put our little girl on his back and told her to hold on tight. Then he swam through the waves with her arms wrapped around his neck, fearless and squealing in delight,
“Look Mammy, I’m a mermaid,” her face a picture of joy and exhilaration.
The older boys had clapped and laughed and begged for their turn. I smile as I remember the coolness of the water around my ankles as I paced along the shoreline and cheered encouragement at my mermaid. So many happy memories.
On that same holiday in the sunny south east, there was one day when the weather wasn’t great, and we went for a walk in the harbour. There was a play boat for the children to clamber over with a helm of polished wood and a steering wheel they could commandeer, each taking turns to shout ahoy there. A climbing net substituted the sails and the boys clambered and swung and put the fear of God in me. A siren alerted them to activity at the lifeboat house and they climbed down and stood by our side as we watched the arrival of the volunteers and the speedy launch of the lifeboat, racing out to sea to rescue fellow mariners.
“Watch boys, those are brave men. Always respect the sea,” Mike said to the upturned faces filled with awe as he explained the role of the RNLI. Each of them was given a coin to feed into the collection box shaped like a boat. Mike showed them the location of the lifebuoys and told how important they were. For years afterwards, every time we saw a lifebuoy, the kids recited, “A stolen lifebuoy is a stolen life,” and Mike smiled at them and patted them on the head.
I remember another day, when it was cloudy but still warm with bursts of burning sunshine intertwined with showers. The kids had been on their surfboards in the waves and when the rain started they all scrambled under the large umbrella.
“A cloudburst,” Mike said, “It will be over before it starts.”
I wrapped the kids in towels and we waited for the rain to stop, eating sandwiches out of the cool box I had packed the night before. Mike laughed as they huddled together,
“Sure, you’re wet anyway, lads, what harm is a bit of rain on a summer’s day.”
The sea air had given them all an appetite and they had devoured their food, sand sticking to their pudgy hands and sticky faces. They peered out from under the umbrella, waiting on the rain to stop, three pairs of eyes, like baby birds waiting on the signal to flee the nest. And flee they did, the minute the rain stopped, running, laughing into the waves, with Mike chasing them and urging them on. My fearless water babies taught and encouraged by their superhero Dad.
“Why couldn’t you teach me, Mike? Why couldn’t I lose that fear?”
Mike has no answer to that. I shake my head, suddenly disappointed and ashamed that I had never learned, that I had never gotten over my fear, no matter how hard Mike tried. I sigh as the breeze catches my hair and I grab tendrils and force them back behind my ears. I can taste the salt on my tongue, mingling with the warmth of the wine. The evening breeze is like a warning, a promise of the chill to follow with nightfall. I shiver and fold my arms through my shawl, wrapping it around my body. I become aware of the sound of muted conversation and laughter carried on the breeze from the pub terrace. I wonder if I should go there. Join in the conversation. There is bound to be someone I know there, someone who knows us. In the summer months, the terrace would be full of tourists until the small hours but it’s not yet summer. It’s still quiet in the village, the way we like it.
I sit sideways on the seawall looking down into the waves. All I need to do is lean sideways and slip over. I would disappear beneath the waves. No splash, no scream, just a gentle plop, and it would be over. No more voices. No more ache. No more wondering when or how I would feel hope again. No more waiting for joy. Only peace.
I wonder what it would feel like. I can imagine the quiet. How calming to feel the water lap over me, pulling me down into its depths and carrying me out to sea. I wonder would the gentle caress of the waves surround me and drown out all those other voices. I can imagine myself floating, my hair splaying out, my heart at rest. I reckon swimming must feel something like that. I can almost feel the water caressing me. I can almost feel the outstretched arms of past generations holding me, comforting me, bringing me to a better place.
Goosebumps chase up and down my arms as the thought strikes me. Would my fear make me scream? When I hit the water would I panic and shout and spoil the peace? Would I flail about, making splashes and disrupting the waves? Would I bring unwanted attention? Would I destroy the calmness with noise? I move closer to the edge and peer down into the waves, just a few feet below me.
I know my affairs are in order. I checked the insurance policy and I left it in the kitchen drawer along with our Solicitors business card. Don’t want to make it too obvious. If I slip off the seawall, it would be an accident. The kids would be set-up. They could have a better life, a chance to get ahead. I can’t help but smile as I think of them. Grown now, adults with lives of their own. They are good people, our children.
“We did a good job with them Mike. We can be proud of them.”
I don’t need to tell Mike that, he knows already.
I hear him laugh. Mike’s laugh is contagious. Hearty, loud, large, like him, a bear of a man. He always laughs at my comments. Sometimes they’re not that funny, but he always laughs. He loves me, I know that. He thinks I am witty and smart. But I’m not. I’m sad and stupid and lost.
I glance along the seawall to the lifebuoy casing. A shiny new lifebuoy, orange and glistening, hanging exactly where it was meant to be. It’s sole purpose to save a life.
I hear Mike’s voice in my ear.
“You’re amazing, my love.”
I smile. Mike could always make me smile. He puts me on a pedestal and it feels good. I can feel his arms around me, through the shawl, wrapping me in his love, protecting me, keeping me safe. A sudden breeze tugs at my shawl. The feel of his arms around me fizzles away and I am left standing there bereft with only my shawl wrapped around me.
I hold my breath as I wait for an answer.
“Mike,” I call out louder, but the only answer is the gentle slap of the waves hitting off the seawall three feet below me. Memories choke me of the last time I called out his name and I gasp, as fear clutches my chest. I can feel trickles of cold sweat running down the centre of my back. That night the waves were crashing over the seawall, driven by rain and wind and spring tides. It was noisy and fearsome as nature showed us its power. In my mind’s eye, I can see those young men, dancing along the path, dodging the waves as they crashed over the wall. I can hear Mike shouting.
“Get out of there lads.”
I can hear their laughter as they ignored him, or maybe they didn’t hear. It doesn’t really matter now, does it? Mike roared as a large wave crashed over the wall knocking them off their feet. Mike dashed forward as the waves pulled them back, rolling one young man over the wall as if giant watery fingers had grabbed him and were pulling him into its chest in the middle of the bay. He was tiny and screaming, like a sacrificial lamb on the altar of the Gods of the Sea.
I remember running to grab the lifebuoy, but it wasn’t there. The casing was empty. A gaping hole where the lifebuoy should be. I start to tremble as I remember the fear, the shock, the outrage. Did some fool remove it one drunken night and throw it into the waves to float out to sea, for a laugh, a joke, showing off, a cocky teenager to a group of his pock-marked peers? Did his or her friends laugh at the antics?
“Sure, Patsy you’re great craic.”
Did they fall around baying with laughter, like donkeys on the edge, pointing out to sea, as the giant ring bobbed along on the waves? Did those fools toss it out there, without thinking of its purpose, without caring that when it was needed it would not be there, in its position, waiting to save a life? I peered out into the waves but there was no sign of it. Was it still out there, floating, hopeless, trying desperately to get back, back to its destiny? It’s destiny and mine.
Why did Mike jump in after that young man? I told him to wait. Wait until I threw the lifebuoy. But it wasn’t there so Mike jumped. The angry black waves whipped them away along with my screams and my hopes and dreams.
I met the mother afterwards. She tried to thank me, tried to tell me that Mike was a hero. I couldn’t speak to her. I couldn’t find sympathy in my heart for her or her son. My heart was broken. It still is.
I take a large intake of breath then slowly exhale. I feel the beat of my heart returning to its normal rhythm and position. Darkness has fallen, and the air is calm. The gentle lapping of the waves fills me with comfort and peace. I lean forward and start to slip into the darkness.
A voice shrieks at me, “Mam, you nearly fell in,” as a hand jerks me back, off the wall and onto the footpath. My eldest son wraps his arms around me and I feel Mike in his embrace.
“Come home Mam, Dad’s not here. He’s gone Mam.”
My daughter links her arm through mine.
“I come here sometimes Mam. I feel close to Dad here.”
I clutch my daughter’s hand where it links my arm. I nod and smile, not because I want to but because that is what they expect from me. I am the mother. My role is to support my children in their loss. Who will support me? I allow them to lead me away, away from Mike, away from the sea that had taken him from me, from us. They said it was his time. It wasn’t. Is it my time?
About the writer:
Maria McDonald lives in county Kildare with her husband, adult children and two dogs. Her debut novel Charlie Mac is available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. Several of McDonald’s short stories have been published in Woman’s Way, Ireland’s Own and News and Views.