The sea sucked at the shingle so gently that the frenzy of the storm of the previous night seemed like a nightmare. Soft white clouds scudded along with the breeze, and a distant gull soared low over the waves breaking along the sandbar a hundred yards off shore.
This was to be the last of her yearly pilgrimages here, but she had told herself this many times before and every year she came back. It was as if she were waiting for a sign, to finally give up and turn her
back to the sea one last time, never to return. Since that wild night
so many years ago, she’d never set foot on a boat again, vowing that
the sea that had widowed her would never get the chance to touch her.
She’d walked up from the town, leaving behind the shabby shops as fast as her aching heart would carry her. The flowers were already withered after the stifling heat of the train, turned up full in anticipation of October frosts. Each year she’d tried to choose something different. Often it had been expensive flowers, as if she were trying to bribe the sea by her gifts. This year, she’d bought
chrysanthemums. She couldn’t remember whether she’d ever done so before but she thought not. Chrysanthemums were such classic funeral flowers that she’d refused to consider them. After all, there had never been a proper funeral, to her thinking. If there is no body
then it is merely a memorial.
Yet the churchyards on this coastline were surely full of gravestones of men whose bodies were long lost at sea, fish-devoured and vanished Sometimes the inscriptions reflected this. Sometimes they did not. Her husband’s did; she’d insisted on that. Lost at sea was a common enough fate of deep sea fishermen, but these days, the fleet was also gone. Just a few inshore boats now plied their trade along the coasts. It had become rarer and rarer for the kind of loss she’d grown up with as a child to trouble the town’s folk today; now a man lost at sea was deemed a tragedy and was given two minutes on the local TV news. In her young days, you shrugged; the sea gave, but she also took what she deemed her dues. It was an accepted fact of the life they led.
Her bungalow was a long way from the sea, but every year she came back, to make this offering and remember. The breeze played with her greying hair and tossed it this way and that as she stomped along the pebbles piled in huge drifts where the storm had flung it. The strand line was thick with debris, from man-made rubbish like flip flops, to frayed and faded tangles of rope and heaps of stinking sea weed. Feathers littered the beach, masses of them, and dead gulls too lay here and there to testify to the ferocity of the storm. The smell was powerful and rank, that mix of freshness and decay that characterises the seaside, but intensified by the sheer volume of the flotsam and jetsam.
As a child, she’d found amber washed up here, dredged up and transported countless miles, perhaps even from the distant Baltic. The power of the sea storms was incredible; mines and other ordnance from wars long forgotten sometimes washed up, creating days of havoc while the bomb squad came to deal with them. But bodies were seldom washed up; the North sea was too deep and a human body too fragile to withstand both the pummelling of waves and the voracious maws of fish. Many fishermen refused to eat mackerel, deeming them scavengers who’d surely dined on the odd unlucky soul. Sometimes the trawler nets dragged in a picked-over skeleton, still encased in oilskins and even sou’wester but the captains usually said a prayer or two and threw the body back. It unsettled families to get the body back, and the paperwork was unbelievable.
After this amount of time, she knew in her heart that nothing of him would ever be coming back, yet still she came, to be sure. A lone tear trickled down her face, and she brushed it away. Too late for that, and she’d shed too many tears already. Peeling away the wrapping of her bouquet, she took each individual spray and peeled away the stems of flowers. One by one, she threw each rust coloured flower onto the water, and as she did so, she said her own secret prayers. The flowers bobbed on the water, looking out of place. The rusty colour was so like old dried blood that she shivered and turned away as the last one fell into the waves with a tiny splash.
Done then, for another year. He was never coming back, never, never, never.
“The past is finished,” she said to the sea and turned to go, scrambling up the banked-up shingle.
The pebbles shifted under her shoes and made her slip, falling face first into the piles of rubbish on the strand-line and she recoiled in
horror at what she saw, poking out of a tangled mass of seaweed and feathers. Unmistakeable in shape and size, a human femur jutted above the greens and dull reds. The bone was bleached and pitted with years of salt water, an old thing surely.
She pulled herself together enough to reach out and touch it. All these years and she’d never seen a bone on the beach. Tentatively she pulled the femur out of the weeds and gazed at it. A man’s arm, for sure, she thought, comparing it to her own.
Wrapping the relic in the paper the flowers had come in, she tucked the bone under her arm and began the long walk back to the station. She didn’t know why she’d brought the bone; it would have been better to just leave it. But after all these years, surely this was a sign?
The train ride home seemed far longer and she walked home in the dark, the bone still tucked under her arm. The bright lights of her home were a welcome sight after the miserable journey and her renewed anxiety. Her husband was making tea when she came in, and she went to hang up her coat while he poured it, taking care to hide the bone in a drawer. He never liked her pilgrimage days, objected to them on principle.
“You gotta let the past go,” he’d say. “Joe died doing what he loved
doing; let him rest in peace.”
“He never came back,” she’d say. “I just need to check, once a year.
I know it seems silly to you, but for my peace of mind….”
Her second husband had the sea-blue eyes of the archetypal sailor but he’d never been a fisherman. He got sea-sick, in fact. It had been one of the things she’d loved about him, the fact that the sea held no draw, no glamour for him. He’d smelled of land, not sea, not that mixed aroma of fish, salt, seaweed and engine oil from the trawlers that made her feel sick whenever she caught a whiff of it now on a man.
That night she slept poorly, tossing like a rowing boat in a squall, and in the early hours, she woke, hearing the foghorn calling like an old cow in pain. Confused, she sat up, and gazed around. Her husband snored gently beside her, but she could hear the distant sound clearly and when she went to the window, the garden beyond was filled with dense fog.
Only along the coast did the fog-horn sound to warn ships they were too close to land.
Heart beginning to pound, she dragged on her dressing gown and left the room. The big patio door from the living room into the garden stood open and wisps of mist curled their way into the room. A smell of fish and rotting sea weed and of decaying gulls made her gag and she ran to the drawer where she’d hidden the bone.
Babbling half remembered prayers, Hail Mary Queen of Heaven, she rushed out into the fog, luminous with the vulgar orange of the street-lamps. At the end of the garden, there was an area her husband had been clearing to plant spring bulbs and the spade still stood where he’d planted it. Seizing it, she began to dig.
“I’ll put you in a proper grave,” she muttered. “I’ll make you stay
there. If you wouldn’t stay at the bottom of the sea after all these
years, I’ll make sure you stay at the bottom of a six foot grave.”
As she dug, her feet bare on the earth, she remembered his surprised eyes when she’d struck him with a boat-hook, and the stream of blood that had rushed down his face. His eyes had seemed to say, “What did you do that for?” before he keeled forward onto the deck, unconscious. She’d checked his pulse, strong and steady, and knew she only had moments before he woke and fought back. Getting him over the side of the boat had been hard, but the splash of water below told her he was gone. Then she’d battened down the hatches and let the boat go where it would, making sure that as the storm raged, she was safe inside the cabin. She’d not slept, for the fear that the storm would wreck their little fishing boat, bought with Lottery winnings without ever asking her what she wanted to spend the money on.
The boat was found when the storm had waned and she’d sent up a distress flare; a fisherman’s daughter as well as a wife, she knew her way round a boat from childhood. But she never wanted to set foot on it again and it had been sold, a chum of Joe’s buying it from her after the inquest. They’d believed her story; too many were lost at sea like that to doubt her tale of Joe being washed overboard by a
So she’d moved inland, bought her own little home and installed her
second husband as soon as seemed decent. But each year, on the
anniversary of that night, she went back, just to be sure.
The fog was making it hard to breathe and her chest was heaving as she dug in the damp soil. The stench of dead fish and seaweed was growing stronger and as she looked back at the house, she saw standing in the doorway a familiar figure, clad in waterproofs of livid yellow and she let out a shriek of such dread that it seemed to catch in her own throat and stick there.
I can’t breathe, she thought and dropped the spade and sank to her
knees, holding her chest with both hands. The paper containing the
bone fell next to her and as she lurched forward onto her face, she
saw both the shining white of the bone and the yellow clad figure
running to her before her heart stopped completely.
He did everything he could to revive her, bring her back from the dead but nothing worked. The paramedic stood beside him and they both looked at the dead woman.
“What on earth was she doing out her at this time of night?” asked the paramedic.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I woke and found her gone, and the house was cold. I saw the patio door was open when I went through and I saw her out there, digging. I didn’t know what to think.”
He pulled his dressing gown closer, the egg-yolk yellow terry towelling beading with moisture from the heavy mist that still filled the garden.
“She’s always a bit odd on this day; it’s the anniversary of her first
husband’s death,” he went on. “She’s always been a bit obsessed
by the fact they never found his body. They rarely do, but it
bothered her. He was a fisherman, just got his own little boat. The
offshore fleet had made so many cuts, he lost his job. Then they had
a windfall and he got his own boat.”
The paramedic nodded. It was often better to just let people talk but it worried him what the woman had been doing out here, digging a hole at that time in the morning. He spotted something on the grass.
“Have a look at this,” he said, holding it up to the bereaved man. “It’s a bone. What do you think?”
The other man took it and held it so he could squint at it.
“Seal,” he said after a moment of intense scrutiny. “Probably. But
certainly not human.”
“You sound very definite!” the paramedic remarked.
The bereaved man gave a short laugh without amusement.
“I was a marine biologist before I retired,” he said. “My wife
didn’t know what I did when we met. She was a bit horrified, she
thought she’d got away from the sea totally. After that awful night
when her first husband was swept away, she never wanted anything to do with the sea. Of course, by then I was mainly in a lab anyway so it was never much of a problem.”
“You’ll catch your death of cold, standing here in your night clothes,”
said the paramedic and started to usher him inside. “There’s
nothing you can do for her now.”
“I know,” he said, sadly. “What do you think killed her?”
“Oh, heart attack for sure, but there’ll have to be a post mortem,” said the paramedic. “You said she had a mild heart condition, I think.”
He took one last look at her contorted face.
“But you know, it looks to me as if she died of fright.”