Byte Shorts Showcase: Selkie by Sarah Tinsley

Posted by Justine Solomons on 17 November 2020, in News, Showcase, Writers

The honeymoon was a time to celebrate the sweetness of your connection.

Aunt Harriet’s card had a real clover stuck on the front, an extra leaf drawn on in pencil. There was a large pile of them, all slipped in the front of her suitcase, an elastic band popped round the lot. A treat she’d decided to save herself until they were in the air.

“Oh, look.” She passed the next one to James. A cloud of glitter fell out onto his knee.

“Thanks.” He flashed his teeth at her, then slid back into conversation with the chap next to them, “–and before you could say Babycham, there was a bridesmaid with a black eye.”

How the other man laughed. What a treat, to have such an entertaining person as your husband. Honestly, she probably didn’t need the dreary books that seemed so necessary when she was packing. All moors and mists. Important that your fiction contrasted with surroundings. Lovely to pore your way through a bleak tale when all around was sun and sparkling waters.

Sourin, Rousay. So exotic. Wanting a little mystery after the infinitesimal order of the wedding, all she’d asked for was the name, nothing else. And a whole cottage to themselves, owned by some distant relative. For a month. Fancy that. The nose of the plane was dipping already. Obviously a connecting flight in Edinburgh.

“Have a great trip.” The man leaned over. “Orkney’s beautiful this time of year.” Something of her despair must have registered. “You know, rugged.” He abandoned her to James.

“That’s torn it.” He squeezed her hand, pressing the bones together.

“I brought bikinis and dresses.” Her new hat took up half the case. Black with a white shadow.

“There are clothes there. Those can be for me.” He waggled his eyebrows in that darling way. So it was to be rugs and firesides and howling winds. If anyone could make them fun, he could.

Mother had traipsed a mithering set of men though their door. All brains and dullness. Certainly not the sort for her. Clapped between her magazines were foreign adventures and escapades. Those beige-tinted men wouldn’t understand her needs. They’d sat on the good sofa, fiddling with their fingers, unable to meet her eyes.

All the girls had their eye on James. The fount of fun at a party, dashing between engagements. The first time she’d seen him was at the Kiddlington’s Ruby Wedding. He’d been leading a conga through the conservatory. A flock of dark hair, one wing arching down, drawing a line along the cheekbone.

Oh, not the fantastic prospects that mother had hoped for, but who needed that if you were to be bored for eternity? Better to snap up an interesting one. Never mind the envy her advances rewarded. Such a catch, it seemed the other girls didn’t bother to try. She’d accosted him by the buffet, dropped a stuffed olive in his hand and tucked the flick of hair behind his ear.

He’d seemed relieved when she suggested marriage. That sigh, she mistook it for bliss. Perhaps that should have been her first warning.

The honeymoon was to mark the waning of affection.

Great Aunt Hilda’s cottage was a drab blot at the end of a scuffed driveway. Low grey brick, it clashed awfully with the smart going-away suit she’d had tailored. More shocking still was the fading of James.

Once they were shut behind the creaked wooden door, the dull interior claimed him, settling him down in a dark corner to ponder the paper while she was left to open the windows in a vain attempt to invite warmth into the house. By the end of the week, he was even worse.

It was as though his vigour went into hiding once out of the glare of attention. In company, the enthusiasm would return. At drinks with a group that holidayed there each year, his spark returned. They feasted on venison and spluttered into their wine when he told them the story of the mailman whose trousers were too small.

Back at the cottage, his skin sallowed. Most days he sat immobile, flicking through crackly encyclopaedias or screwing the nob on the wireless. Away from the proximity of others, he withered.

“I thought you could do your, you know.” He waved his hand, a fluid gesture that encapsulated all of the soft and feminine that did not interest him. “Swimming.”  She hadn’t wanted to go in the water on this trip. Her eyes were left pinched by those awful goggles.

“Oh god, James, don’t you ever just want to screw?” She savoured the filthy word. It had been something to tick off her list,  finding out what it felt like when they left it in.

He offered her hand a squeeze. As if those things were done with, now he’d stuck a hand up her skirt behind the dance hall. Not the beginnings of sordid pleasure, as she’d hoped, but a limp handshake at the end of a transaction.

It would at least have been exciting if he were gay. They would have Gatsby-esque parties, frivolous associations with musical types. But here, again, he was found wanting. At the weekends, out of the sight of crowds, lassitude reigned.

On the island, circled by emptiness, the advertised excitement revolved around rocks. Grey lumps, ancient reminders of hauling, carving and thumping. Nothing beautiful in solid stones that upset the curve of the hills. After the cursory tours, she too shunned the company of others and went to the sea.

How grey and turgid, how fresh and unexpected those waves were. The saltwater licked her ankles, darting up between her legs. Stepping in brought a gasp. The cold that clutched there. Each time she dared herself to become a little more submerged. Trapped by rocks and grass, she found the lilting water lifted her frustrations.

The month was almost over.

“Off for a swim?” Her husband intoned the words from his darkened corner.

“I need to get out.” She thought her words daring. Perhaps they would excite a response.

The only reaction was the turn of a curled page.

Down she went to find the coast. The familiar tang of seaweed-salt at the back of her throat. Nubs of rock digging into her bare feet. Lapping up to her knees, deeper this time. In defiance of misery, she refused to wear her swimming costume.

She trailed a finger in the water. It tingled up her skin. As each frothing wave turned, she weighed it against her imaginings of this month. Tripping through waves, her large hat shading her face with pleasure.

This jarring vision spilt tears on her cheeks. Their presence was undeniable failure. How dismal to prove your mother right.  She plunged her face in to wash away the shame. A splash and her head was submerged, the bitterness finding its way to her nose. Her mouth opened with a start as she pulled herself out.

Now drips chased down her cheeks, left lines on her dress. In one movement, she plunged her body beneath the surface. The shock of it jumped her breath out.

Listlessly, she raised her feet. Soon her weight was buoyed up, drifting her out over the depths. In places it found pockets of air and popped them, pressing fabric to her skin and lifting her petticoats away.

Fingers of moisture found their way inside. Hovering in the breakers, each wave pushed against her, legs splayed in the foam. Yet she didn’t move. A force held her there, pliant hands that pulled her in, claimed her. Eyes drooping, she caught flinches of fingers, a lip, in the white waters.

She was overcome.

James found her delirious on the bed, after following a trail of sodden footsteps through the stone-flagged house.

Her hair was a riot of seaweed and shell, a knowing curve to the shape of her smile.

The honeymoon is a time for initiations.

As she swelled, she took long baths in the clanking tub next to their bedroom. Poring over ads, looking for work, James didn’t notice the streams of salt she poured into the water as it bubbled out of the taps. Secreted beneath, she traced the line of her belly, letting the water hold her up, bathe her inside and out.

Playing on her pregnant influence, she cajoled James into buying seaweed crackers from the health shop, which she gorged on, topped with fish paste. When the months advanced she began to tire, taking herself to the swimming pool to wallow. The starched waters did little to ease her fatigue. She grew restless, wandering round the house, carrying glasses of water that tumbled drips in her wake.

“We need to go back to Sourin,” she announced, her belly clasped under her hands. The first chill of winter was tapping at the windows.

“There’s no hospital. Dreadful idea.” James had told all of their friends how proud he was to be a father. This information failed to reach his face.

“I must. There’s a train tomorrow.” She waved a timetable at him.

“Now, darling.”

“I need to get out.”

Perhaps something in the remembered phrase roused him. He submitted, packing a few items for himself as she gathered the tiny clothes and soft things given to her. A fluffy blue fish lay in her handbag, ready to greet the arrival.

She snuck to the sea over ice-crusted sand. It didn’t even seem cold. Perhaps she’d grown numb in the chill wind, but she imagined a pocket of water warmed, laid out for her visit. Despite her size, she still floated. The waves welcomed her, stretching her dress taught over the bump. How it rolled and swayed under her ribs, mimicking the movement of the shifting sea.

At the allotted time, a prim midwife appeared at their grey door. Greeting James, she walked through to where Ursula heaved on the bed. The door was shut firmly behind her patent leather shoes.

Pain rolled over her. Again and again, the tide of it increasing, pinching the deep places of her. At the peak, it crashed over, a gushing between her legs and a soft cry, gull-like, from a shell-red mouth.

“Ah.” The midwife clamped the child onto the breast, its skin a hushed blue. The cawing mouth settled. Such tiny grace in the wisps of hair on the crown.

A clattering. The woman lean towards this precious thing. In one hand were a large pair of iron scissors.

“No.” Ursula was unable to shoo her away.

The small fingers were splayed like fins. With one clean snip, the midwife pierced between thumb and forefinger. Between each digit on hand and foot, a silky webbing lay.

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Sarah is a writer who lives in London. She enjoys writing about gender issues and looking outside her window for inspiration. She has an MA in Creative Writing from City University and won the Spread The Word Novel competition in 2020. She was long listed for the Primadonna Prize 2020 and won the International Segora Short Story prize in 2015. Her short fiction, reviews and blogs have been published on a variety of platforms.

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