The sea, like the sky, was bleak and grey. Nerys was on the verge of turning back when she saw a woman with a dog stopping to watch her. Well, she'd show them. She dropped her fleecy dressing gown, kicked off her flip-flops, and ran into the waves.
The water was icy. Nerys's heart pounded and she gasped for air, felt a sudden gush of warmth on the insides of her thighs. She’d wet herself at the shock of cold on her fleshy, Lycra-clad stomach. Launching into a determined breast stroke, she felt her limbs warming in unaccustomed exertion. It wasn’t really wetting yourself, was it, not when you were in the sea?
After a while, Nerys struggled out of the water, her body leaden, the gloopy sand sucking at her feet. At closer range, the woman appeared as sturdy and windbitten as her terrier.
‘I weighed it down with a stone,’ she said, indicating Nerys’s dressing gown.
‘Thank you.’ Nerys managed to force the words through her chittering teeth.
‘Living yonder in the Fin House, are you?’
‘Yes, that’s right. It was my aunt’s.’
‘Aye. How long will it last though?’
Nerys pulled her dressing gown tighter round her body.
‘Then we'll see.’
She turned, as though Nerys had already kept her far too long. The terrier looked at Nerys for a moment, then followed.
As she scrambled up onto the grass at the edge of the dunes, Nerys noticed a carrier bag hanging from her gatepost, its colours lurid against the stone of the dyke, the concrete of the sky. With some trepidation, she untangled the handles and removed it. The weight was sinister, dead. Too cold to hesitate, Nerys peered inside.
An hour later, the salt washed out her hair and cradling a hot mug of coffee, she sat on the window seat, watching the sun tickling the edges of the clouds and talking to her friend Sam on the phone.
‘They weren’t off, Sam. They were delicious.’
‘If you like stinky kippers.’
‘Which I do. And I was so pissed off at that grumpy old bitch on the beach that I appreciated a sign that somebody wanted to welcome me to Finvoe.’
There was a pause, then Sam said, ‘I saw Bryony. At Weon Tae’s show.’
Nerys gulped down the last mouthful of her coffee. ‘Oh right. Was she speaking?’
‘Well hell mend her.’
Braced by her swim and the fact that she hadn’t started crying at the mention of Bryony, Nerys cleaned the stove and set a fire which, after a trip to the shop for firelighters, she managed to get going. The woman who’d served her was almost as chilly as the sea had been that morning, but Nerys fixed a smile on her face and refused to be chastened. Looking back at the small village clinging to the edge of the bay, the tumbles of stones that were all that was left of crofts and fishermen’s cottages, she supposed it was fair enough. You couldn’t just roll up, the reek of the city fresh in your clothes and hair, and expect to fit in.
The sitting room opened out once the fire was crackling behind the thick glass of the stove door, as if the space had expanded in the heat. Hilda had been moved to sheltered housing before she died, but scraps of her remained. Nerys collected these on the sideboard, creating a small shrine to the auntie she’d met only a couple of times in her life: Rain-Mates, lavender talc, a brooch with a stone missing. An old bottle of whisky, its label smeared and illegible. In the blanket box on the landing she discovered a bright crocheted throw which she slung over the back of the couch, and something unsavoury that seemed to be made of very fine, old leather. Nerys considered throwing this out, but as it was bundled inside a lace-edged pillowslip and didn’t smell, she placed it on the sideboard too.
Catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, she turned this way and that to look at her reflection. Well-insulated, Bryony had called her with a cheeky smile, pinching Nerys’s cosy layer of subcutaneous fat. She remembered the news items she’d seen on television as a child, strong asexual women in resilient black swimsuits and tight caps, rubbing their arms and legs with white grease. Not a bad idea, and surely it’d help her psoriasis as much as the salt water.
The next morning she took a deep breath and burst out into the garden, inelegantly flip-flopping through the gate and down onto the sand. The sky was clear but dull, and the water hadn’t yet taken on the blue allure of late morning or afternoon. As she swam, Nerys pretended she was crossing the Channel, no, the ocean. As if the water could carry her anywhere; the Faroes, Norway, Newfoundland. She somersaulted down and up again, but the chill of the deeper water sunk into her bones, and she was soon driven back to shore. Shivering, the cold slicing through her wet hair, she saw the terrier woman in the distance, diligently stooping to clean up after her dog. Nerys waved, then ran back to the house, half-expecting to see another carrier bag dangling from the gatepost. There was nothing there.
Over the next couple of days, Nerys embraced her loneliness. Settling in well, she wrote to her mum. Ceilidh in the village hall tonight, party time! But rather than ironing her dress and looking out her make up, she changed her mind and stayed in, listening to the radio. Before she went to bed she twisted the dial back to the shipping forecast – Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire – and slid a hot water bottle between the heavy linen sheets. As she wiggled her toes against its warmth, she listened hard for the sound of the seals singing and thought of the night-fishermen in their small boats. Showers. Good, occasionally poor.
‘I’ve started working again,’ she told Sam when next she phoned.
‘Oh yeah? That was quick.’
‘It’s early days. I’m just getting used to seeing clearly again.’
‘Good. Any more mystery fish?’
‘Em . . . not really a mystery. My neighbour dropped in with some mussels. He’d gathered too many.’ Nerys wasn’t sure why she hadn’t told Sam the truth, that she’d found a Tupperware box full of mussels on her doorstep.
As well as swimming, Nerys pottered around on the skerry that jutted into the bay. She photographed the textures of rocks and mosses; collected grasses, feathers, fragments of seashell to paste in her ideas book. Sometimes she just sat, watching the waves nuzzling the rocks while the seabirds skrecked and swooped overhead. One day she was nestled in a grassy hollow between the rocks when she heard a noise behind her. A scrambling, sliding noise followed by a thud and what sounded distinctly like the word ‘fuck’. Nerys struggled to her feet to meet the intruder. A woman with dark messy hair and a bright red cagoule was laying a white square frame on the ground. She yelped in fright when she saw Nerys then said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise there was anyone else here.’
‘I’m sorry I startled you.’ Nerys looked at the frame. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Oh, I’m a botanist. Postdoc in the effect of climate change on the flora of . . .’ She grinned, ‘Well, I get excited about it anyway. Finvoe is one of my sample areas.’
‘Nice choice,’ Nerys said.
‘Yeah, and my gran’s from here, so I can stay with her. What about you, you’re not local?’
Nerys bit her tongue. ‘No. I’m living in the Fin House. It was my auntie’s. Hilda?’
The girl frowned. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I know the house but . . .’ She nodded at the sketch book under Nerys’s arm, ‘So are you an artist then?’
‘Oh well,’ the botanist met her eye, ‘If inspiration is thin on the ground and you feel like a coffee, I’ll be here another few weeks.’
Nerys nodded, her thoughts returning to Bryony, to the slow disintegration of their relationship from something she’d thought perfect and whole into so many fragments, each one sharp and cutting. As she picked her way back across the rocks to the harbour she saw the botanist crawling round her frame, counting the lichen, sedge and thrift, recording the numbers in her book.
The next day the post brought a letter from her mum, her first telephone bill, and a hefty fillet of salmon wrapped in the local newspaper. Nerys pressed her finger against the firm pink flesh. Lovely, she thought, I’ll steam that on a bed of spinach. Then: what the fuck? A few wee welcome gifts were fine, but this was getting ridiculous. She ripped a sheet from her sketch pad, grabbed a stick of charcoal and wrote:
I have appreciated the fish very much but you really don’t need to keep leaving it. I would much rather buy it for myself.
As she was pinning the note to the gate, she heard a yap behind her and turned to see the terrier woman’s dog worrying an old yellow tennis ball.
‘Well,’ the woman said, her breath wheezing as she came close enough to read Nerys’s note. ‘There’s ingratitude for you.’
‘I’m not ungrateful,’ Nerys said. ‘It just seems too generous.’
‘Hmmph,’ the woman said. ‘No one’s going short. Why not accept it wi good grace and be getting on wi it?’
Nerys sighed and scrunched up the note.
And so the gifts kept coming. Scallops, pollack, a slippery wing of skate. Tight pearly oysters, to test her knives. A monstrous-looking monkfish, so big that Nerys had to dismember it and freeze portions. She leafed through Hilda’s cookbooks, where scraps of paper marked recipes for steaming, sautéing, grilling. Nerys’s nails stopped breaking and her hair glistened. The scales of her psoriasis disappeared under the onslaught of fatty acids and her skin fitted sleekly over her flesh. She felt sharper, more alert. She could swim for an hour or more, surrendering her body to the water, ducking under the waves and letting them carry her in to the shore.
This infusion of confidence didn’t protect Nerys from the unexpected squall that swept in with Sam’s Thursday night phone call.
‘Are you ok, Ner?’ Sam said. ‘Come on, speak to me.’
Nerys felt her eyes prickling. ‘I’m sorry,’ she sniffed. ‘It’s just . . . oh, I thought I was doing so well.’
‘You are doing well. You’ve moved house, you’re working. You’ve changed your life.’
But I’m all alone, Nerys wanted to wail, and Bryony isn’t. ‘So what’s she like then?’
‘Dunno,’ Sam said. ‘Just kind of normal. Blonde.’
‘Blonde? When the fuck did Bryony go for blondes?’
‘Hmm,’ Sam said, as if unwilling to steer the conversation into treacherous waters.
‘Well, I suppose I just have to accept it and move on. So, is she nice?’
‘Yeah, she seems nice enough.’
‘You’re meant to be my fucking friend,’ Nerys said, ‘Not hers.’ She slammed the phone down, then yanked the socket out the wall.
Thinking she’d have a glass of wine, she stormed through to the kitchen, but then she remembered Hilda’s whisky, the unopened bottle. She retrieved it from the sideboard and used her paring knife to slit the seal. It had a cork rather than a screw top, and the stopper sprang out with a clean pop, filling the room with a richly alcoholic bouquet. She sloshed a generous measure into one of Hilda’s cut crystal tumblers and gulped it down. Honey gave way to smoke, heather to peat, and underlying it all a whiff of ozone, none of which Nerys cared about as she refilled her glass and downed that as well. Her throat burned but the warmth hit her stomach just fine.
That night, Nerys tossed and turned in thirsty, drunken dreams. Dreams of swimming in the dark sea, underneath the surface, tendrils of seaweed slithering past her flanks. Not breaststroke, more sinuous diving, twisting through the water, which felt as safe and warm as her bed. At one point she thought she was awake. She remembered quite clearly banging against the sideboard on her way to bed, dislodging the pillowslip and its contents. But it had been part of the dream, of course, because the leather thing had unfolded, larger than she’d expected, into a strange kind of cape, and a note had drifted to the floor, written in neat capitals that dared Nerys to: TRY THIS FOR SIZE. You didn’t need a dream interpreter to know what that meant, she thought. The house. And then she was plunging down again, through the salt water, scattering luminous-eyed fish as she swam deep enough to let her nose rub against the silky sand of the seabed.
The light poured between the curtains Nerys had failed to close the night before. Parched and ravenous, she stretched her legs and then rubbed her feet against the sheet. It felt gritty, as though she’d had a midnight feast of toast. When in fact she’d gulped down a supper of leftover salmon, raw salmon straight from the fridge. Nerys ran her tongue over her teeth in panic, but no, that must have been part of the dream. Her toes quested towards something else, something flaccid and damp. Nerys flung the sheet back and found a frond of bladderwrack, its air sacs slimy like olives. All around it were grains of sand.
She leapt up and put on her dressing gown, hurried downstairs where she saw a scrap of paper lying on the floor next to the lace-edged pillowslip. TRY THIS FOR SIZE. In the kitchen she found sandy footprints, her own footprints. The door was ajar, and she ran outside, down onto the beach. The terrier woman was there, her dog sniffing at a dark shape on the sand. Nerys walked towards her, stubbing her toe on something hard as she went. She looked down and saw a bottle of whisky half-buried in the sand. Not the one she’d opened the night before, a full one, though again the label was smudged by the sea. Nerys spun round, saw that there were perhaps a dozen more bottles scattered across the beach, glinting in the sunlight.
‘Aye,’ the terrier woman called. ‘Came in on this morn’s tide.’
‘Aye. Whisky washed up once before I recall, round about when Hilda came to bide in the Fin House.’
As she got closer, Nerys saw that the shape on the beach was the hide of an animal, dark grey and sleek. Her dream flooded back to her, shifting into focus. She’d wrapped herself in the leather thing to come down to the beach, except it hadn’t been leather at all but sealskin. And here it was, lying where she had shed it in the early hours of the morning.
‘It’s not like the stories,’ the woman said, reaching down to clip the terrier’s tartan lead to his collar. ‘Nobody round here’d steal it. Too feart. But best keep it somewhere safe all the same.’
Nerys nodded, and the woman said a cheery goodbye and turned on her heels, pulling the dog after her. He watched, head cocked, as Nerys sat down on the sand and pulled the heavy skin over her lap, then his lead tugged and he trotted in his mistress’s wake. The skin had plumped in the sea water, grown thicker and softer, its follicles distinct again. She ran her palms over it, smoothing the dappled hair.
She could see a scatter of people on the beach, scavenging for the whisky bottles. One of them had dark messy hair, a familiar red cagoule. Their paths converged as Nerys neared her house. The botanist waved the bottle she’d picked up in the air, jogged over to say hello. Her eyes were the colour of the sea, Nerys noticed, deep grey blue.