The waves brushed at Helen’s bare toes, curled to better grip the rough shingle beach. Behind her, across the road, lay the empty cottage, backed by low, wild moors. Further down to Helen’s right along the coast lay the village of Blackgate, but they had liked the look of this quiet cottage, with the sea lapping almost at its door.
Helen pulled the edges of her swimming cap down and adjusted her goggles over her eyes. Grey clouds draped themselves over a sun struggling to break above the horizon and through the haze. The beach was empty, except for Helen; it was too early, and the cottage too far from Blackgate, for other beachgoers to scatter themselves on the shingle like bits of brightly-colored driftwood.
The first step into the waves was cold and sharp enough to pull a muted sound of distress out of her. When James had been around to swim with her, he’d laughed at the sounds of distress she made on first touching the water. It was one of their patterns, repeated like the wash of waves on shore; the cold water, the squeaks or squawks or shrieks, laughter.
She waded in up to her knees, her hips, her waist, letting her skin become accustomed to the water. It took a minute or two for her body to remember it had done this before, that the water’s chill would not overpower her. As she adjusted, her breathing slowed and her skin warmed up. The cold’s intensity faded from her awareness, until the water coiling around her legs was comfortably cool.
A wave crested and rushed towards her. She didn’t look to the right – where her husband would have been a year ago – as she dove underneath it. She emerged on the other side in a quick, short-armed front crawl, head up to watch for waves breaking. Once through the surf, her strokes lengthened and her body flattened into the water. She continued further out into the sea from the shore, trying to decide which way to turn. Swim along the shore towards Blackgate, or away, where the roadway turned back into the hills towards Dartmoor and only the long distance walker’s path kept you company? The wild way was her favorite with James, but it wasn’t safe alone. If she got a cramp, if something happened, there wouldn’t be much hope; they’d find her body on the rocks at the base of the cliffs.
For a while after James died, she’d continued her swims that way, as if by clinging to routine, she could deny that any change had occurred and ignore the sudden limits of being only one. At times, she had taken a savage joy in doing what was against her better judgment. Once, she had set out in near gale conditions. She rode up and down the rough waves for nearly an hour before coming into shore. When she cried later that night, wrapped in a warm blanket and holding a hot cup of tea, she wasn’t sure if it was for herself, left alone, for James, gone, or for her poor, sturdy body, which kept on when James had surrendered so easily.
She turned towards Blackgate. She set her body parallel to the shore and settled into a comfortable pace, breathing every three strokes. One-two-three, the sea on her left, dark beneath the wide, grey sky. Another three strokes, and a quick view of a farmer’s rust-streaked white truck winding its way along the coast road. Like a film reel played at slowly increasing speed, the strokes and breaths incrementally blended into a seamless stream of image and movement. One, two, three, one-two-three, onetwothree. The right arm lifted up and over the water. Its fall down the arc into the water, driving her right side down and the left up. The silky curl of water sliding along the side of her abdomen. James used to tickle her there to annoy her. He had a genius for catching her unaware, washing the dishes or reaching up to grab a book from the top shelf. She would slap his hand away in anger, and in return he would pin her arms to her sides and kiss the back of her neck until she began to laugh.
This memory hit Helen with such force that she half laughed, half sobbed into the water. The explosion of bubbles flashed and shimmered in front of her face for half a second before she swung her head to the right to fill her lungs again with air. She was at the edge of Blackgate now, where low cottages began clustering together. The sun must have surfaced from the sea by now, but it still hid behind the clouds; another dreadful British summer day. When she lifted her head on a stroke of her right arm to sight forward, she could see the town centre, a long row of Victorian townhouses encircling the main beach. One row back, hidden behind the Victorians and just off the main square, was the reason they’d come to Blackgate. It had been a long disused green grocer’s when they’d spotted it, during a coastal driving holiday. A few months later, they were ripping out plasterboard to reveal pitted red brick, standing leather armchairs next to bookcases, and installing a shiny chrome and glass espresso counter on the worn floorboards by the entrance. Parents would always, they hoped, need coffee to keep up with holiday-mad kids, and beachgoers books to lay across their chests, spine up, as they dozed in the sun.
The shop hadn’t exactly been a success; for a long time, James worked two jobs, helping her out in the café when he could while still running his software consultancy long-distance. Looking back, she wondered if the long days and worry had worn away at him until the cancer found a hold; would staying in London have kept him alive? Eventually, they managed to break even, though it was a precarious thing. Each cloud-covered weekend – days like this one, Helen noted, as she swam – brought late night sessions anxiously reworking their spreadsheets and a quiet breakfast table in the mornings. They had still managed to be happy some of the time, until the diagnosis two years ago made every moment blissful in retrospect.
Helen’s muscles had finally warmed up and she stretched out now, lengthening her stroke and pulling hard through the water. It felt, she thought, like climbing a ladder, her arms going up far above her head to grab the rungs, and pulling her body up, or the ladder down, as she climbed. She was heading now with increasing speed towards the headland north of the village. The little spit of land kept the worst of the sea wind from the village, so the beach, the centre of the village economy, was usually calm, safe for holidaymakers. But the two of them had learned that the wind whipping around the headland, when matched against the tides, often made for rougher water as you ventured out. She splashed over and slid down the mounting waves, which jostled and tossed her. She suddenly became aware of a thing half-unlearned, of glimmers of joy all through her, like light filtering down through thick sea water.
She gained speed until she seemed to skim across the water’s surface. James, the former competitive swimmer, had once told her that he knew he was swimming a good race when he felt as if he was sliding across an ice rink on his belly. A love of water had been one of the things they’d bonded over in the beginning. James swam long distance for the Durham team, and Helen had grown up in the Lake District, swimming in all the pockets of water harbored among the peaks. On one of their early dates, they’d taken a picnic to Northumberland park, an hour from Durham. Rock terraces in a steep little valley had allowed shady small pools to form. They had eaten strawberries and drunk wine out of solid china mugs, Helen’s set of wine glasses too prized, on a student budget, to leave her dorm. They had splashed and swum and kissed in the cool water under an afternoon sun that seemed reluctant to depart.
Helen took another breath to her left between the rollers. She lifted her head to sight for the beach beyond the tip of the headland, only for another wave to hit her hard in the face. Gasping, she pulled up, doing small breaststrokes over the waves to keep her head above water. Her throat cleared and her heart rate settled as she was able to breathe again. She realized, there doing head-up breaststroke, that she was near what James used to call the loading platform, a gap in the rocks at the tip of the headland, with one rock set just below water level between two taller rocks. With a bit of care to avoid the rough edges, you could pull yourself up onto the low rock, then up to others, until finally, high above, you could sit up with your back to the headland and stare out over Blackgate and the open sea.
Helen did this now. She placed her hands on the gritty ledge, the waves pressing her body against the rock, and waited for a space to quickly pull herself up and out. Then, taking a distant pleasure in matching her wet, bare feet to hollows in the rock, she climbed sure-footed as a mountain goat up the rockfall. With the cliff face behind her, and her wet swimsuit making a big, bum-shaped mark on the rock, she sighed and leaned back. Piles of rock sheltered her from the wind, forming a hard and unforgiving nest. To her left was Blackpool and in front, the sun groping through the clouds. She looked down at the vast curve of sea, churning and tussling against itself as if oblivious to every smaller thing traveling over and under and through its mass. She thought of opening the shop later, of smiling for the families on holiday, of orders of fresh milk and veg and bread that needed to be made, and then for a while she thought of none of these. Her seat was just wide enough for two. Helen lay down on her side, swinging her feet up on the other end. She felt the cold of the rock pressed against her, listened to the beat of the waves below, and was still.