The cinderblock toilets were painted a childish blue, a ribbon unfurling. The grey heads of whales and their tails, shaped like upturned anchors, broke the surface. Each head had a single black eye, drawn in a straight stroke. Every so often, a drooping m had been painted in white. I couldn’t tell if they were meant to be waves or seagulls. They travelled in pairs though, the whales, each large head orbited by a smaller, flatter one. Mothers and their calves, I supposed. There didn’t seem to be any fathers. Above the mural, The Swimming Place of Whales was painted in flowing script.
The empty beach was hidden by dunes, but still, a high wind spat sand at my ankles. It was mid-afternoon, and already as dark as dusk. It wasn’t cold, but the greyness sank into my bones. I rubbed my arms and stepped closer to the painted wall. Pools of stale water shivered on the concrete and rust stains radiated outwards. I pulled my coat tighter. Why was he taking so long?
‘Finally,’ I said when James walked out of the toilet block, towel slung over his bare shoulders. He was dressed neatly from the waist down making his pale stomach and hairless chest seem indecent. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Almost,’ he said. ‘Can you put this in the car?’ he stuffed a ball of wet clothes into his backpack and passed it to me. Then waved a hand at the dairy across the road, ‘I’m going to get a drink, do you want anything?’
‘No,’ I replied.
Past him, past the concrete toilet block and the rising dunes, spilt the sea. I walked towards the car, the backpack brittle with salt and heavy on my shoulder.
We didn’t speak on the way back. James drove one-handed, sipping the can of Coke as if it were whisky. I couldn’t tell if he was having trouble swallowing or if he was savouring it, as he did a beer after a long day. The radio was up loud. He sang in a whisper, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, getting most of the words wrong. Thick green fields unspooled behind us. Several times I opened my mouth to speak, but my throat was thick with sand.
Not far from home, it started to rain.
James and I were set up by our mutual friends, Serge and Clare. I had gone on the date to humour Clare, having split from my older boyfriend a few months prior. This boyfriend had taken me to meet his parents, an ageing couple who lived in a one bedroom flat in Point Chev. Their old brick and tile unit had overgrown grass and white paint flaking from the iron porch railing. We sat in the dim lounge sipping tepid tea. His mother served stale crumpets, scraped with butter and pink jam. The smallness of their lives curled like a fist. I broke up with him a few weeks later.
James was the opposite. Young and full of energy. When we met he was still studying architecture. He carried a black notebook full of lines. At the bar, he ordered an aged scotch for himself and a cocktail for me, something called a Bramble that came in a low glass with a wild blackberry balanced on top.
He had a shock of blonde hair that he kept slinging out of his eyes. Everything about him was faded, softened by the sun. I hadn’t wanted to like him, he was too assured; he told me he played the guitar and competed in ocean swims. But at the end of the night, when I stood to leave, he tore a page from his notebook and folded it in half, telling me to open it when I got home. I did, sitting on my bed, the gleam of the night still clinging to my shoulders. In a fine-tipped black pen he had drawn two stick figures; a girl and a boy, sitting on a dune, looking out on a roiling sea.
James was the same after the beach. Going to work, coming home. He still swam long distances, returning damp, with sand in his hair.
I didn’t go back. I couldn’t face it. I turned from the thought of that place. At night there was salt on the pillow. Rusty water and grey whales loomed behind my closed eyes.
One night James reached for me, as he had a thousand times before, only this time I flinched. It was too dark to see his face but I could tell by the way he said my name—a question, an apology—that he felt my retreat.
‘I can’t,’ I said, rolling towards the wall, feeling the space between us fill with ocean. He didn’t reply. I lay still, waiting for his breath to slow, to grow and shallow and even. When I was sure he was asleep, I got up.
I walked down the dark hallway and held my breath past the shadowy doors until I reached the kitchen. Filling a glass with water, the faucet echoing in the sibilant moonlight, I leant on the kitchen bench, turning my head on an awkward angle that let me see the stream of traffic crossing the bridge. I crossed to the window to be closer to the racing light. My bare feet padded on the wood, not unlike the cottony way the sand had sifted when I walked along the beach. The lights on the bridge streamed like fireflies. I stayed there a long while before I went back to bed.
James didn’t say anything in the morning, but he didn’t reach for me again. At night we lay like strangers, a wall of water, of mist, rising between us. During the day we talked about the shopping, the bills, dinner. We never talked about the beach.
‘Let’s have a dinner party,’ I said a few days later, desperate to do something, anything.
‘Serge and Clare?’ James replied, not looking up from the paper.
‘Sure. Ben and Anita too? Six is enough, including us, right? We probably can’t fit more than six around the table.’
‘Six is good.’ James still didn’t lift his head.
‘Right then, six.’ I cast about for something more to say. ‘Friday?’
He didn’t even speak this time. He nodded and kept reading the paper.
‘Friday,’ I said. ‘I’ll make fish.’
The fish was undercooked. Clare pushed it around the plate with the tip of her fork, but they were all too polite to mention it. I was onto my third—or was it my fourth?—glass of wine, stewed in a comfortable haze, warm and acidic. Clare kept looking from her watch to Serge, but he was too busy talking to notice. James stood at the window with a tumbler in his hand, one of our best, cut glass. He didn’t seem to be drinking the whisky, he was motionless at the black window. His guitar was propped in the corner of the lounge, out of tune. Once, he would have sat cross-legged on the floor, and plucked an old blues song, humming along, with a soft rasp in his voice.
Under the coffee table, the dog-eared corner of a brown drawing wallet poked out. James had been designing us a house. His parents were downsizing and offered to sub-divide their section for a favourable price. James had ideas about affordable housing—pre-fabrication and kit-set homes—that he wanted to test. He wanted to start his own practice. He had big dreams. But the plans had been folded into the brown envelope and stuffed under the coffee table months ago. I edged the corner back under with my toe.
Anita touched James on the elbow and he turned. I couldn’t hear what she said but he smiled and nodded. Anita said something else and he laughed. The sound was unfamiliar.
‘We have to go,’ Clare said to Serge.
I turned back to the conversation around me.
‘Right now?’ Serge asked.
Serge gave a slight nod. ‘We have to go,’ he repeated.
‘Need my rest, you know how it is,’ Clare said to me, patting her rounding belly. She dropped her hand, turning red. ‘Oh—I didn’t mean . . . I . . .’ She stopped talking, but her mouth remained open. They were all quiet. I couldn’t meet their eyes.
‘I’m tired, that’s all,’ Clare said again, to no one in particular. ‘We have to go.’
Ben and Anita took the cue and said their goodbyes, Ben shaking James’ hand gently as if it would fall off if he pulled too hard.
‘Lovely dinner, Bry,’ Anita said. ‘Lovely, just lovely.’ She seemed to want to say more. She placed her hands on my shoulders, and pressed her lips tight, rubbing them together. I rubbed my lips together too, trying to pull them into a smile.
The door shut behind them with a soft click.
James was piling dishes on the counter, stacking them like a flatware house of cards, when I walked back in.
‘How many times, James? You can’t balance them like that, you’re going to break something.’
‘I’m only trying to help,’ he said.
‘Well you aren’t helping, you’re making it worse.’
‘Don’t I know it.’ His voice was low. He picked up the whisky and began rocking the glass, smooth across his palm.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just . . .’ I turned the tap on. The water cascaded over the cutlery, furious. James turned it off.
‘You just what, Bry?’ He put the whisky down with a glassy clink and turned me by the shoulders to face him.
I shrugged off his hands.
‘How am I supposed to help? God knows I’ve tried, but how can I help when you won’t even say a word?’
He placed a hand against my cheek. His fingertips made my skin crawl—I wanted to swat him away, but I knew what that would mean. It took all my energy to not move.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘All I know is I’m drowning and you just seem to swim and swim. I can’t understand how you do it.’
‘For God’s sake, one of us has to stay afloat,’ he said. He dropped his hands to his sides where they hung like loose spaghetti. He didn’t try to touch me again. He turned and began rinsing the dishes and packing them in the dishwasher.
With a sudden clench, I became aware of the wine in my stomach. I lay down on the couch, I was too tired to do anything about any of it. I willed myself sober.
I woke early the next morning, dry-throated in the half-light before dawn. I went to the kitchen to get water and on the way back down the hallway my gaze was caught, as it always was, by the door I hadn’t opened in months. I turned away—then quickly, as if to avoid changing my mind, I turned back and opened it. The air was stale and tinged with paint; the new carpet plush underfoot.
I sat in the wide-backed chair, crossing my legs beneath me, tucking my chin into my knees. I was cold.
We named her Amelie.
The coffin was so small it could have been a shoebox.
It was more common than people realised, the doctor explained.
None of it was commonplace to me. Not the way she kicked and swam; not the moment I had seen her little hand moving, waving at me for the first time on the ultrasound screen; and definitely not a few months later, when the smile slipped from the technician’s face and she said softly, ‘Just a moment, I need the radiographer to take a look.’
Sitting in her room, it seemed so plausible—I would bring her home, sit in the chair, sing lullabies in those witchy, blue hours before morning. I stroked my belly. The emptiness was a sucking tide.
The last time I had been in her room I had stacked boxes of newborn nappies we’d bought on sale at the supermarket. They were still there, a castle in the corner, waiting to be packed into the change table that was never constructed. I picked up a pair of dusky pink slippers and stroked them. They were buttery lambskin, impossibly small: the first things I had purchased when I found out I was having a girl. I held them to my cheek. They were warm and velvety.
It had been difficult for both of us, but the physicality of the loss had been carved on me alone. I’d carried the weight of her still body for days; a stone at the bottom of my belly. Then after, I was hard and cold; a bowl poured out, an oyster stripped of its pearl. James held me and stroked my hair but it was abstract to him. Amelie hadn’t been real, not yet. Not in the swooping way she was to me.
She was real enough when he held her though, pale and still like a flower closed to frost. He examined her perfect face, stroked her downy eyebrows, measured his little finger to her closed fist. He balanced her tiny head in his cupped palms, like a fresh-laid egg.
James had tried, after, to comfort me. I did not know how to let him. At the hospital they gave us a shoebox with her things; wristbands, half-filled forms, a plaster cast of her feet, small and cool. I had left the box unopened on the bed, walking out of the room without a backwards glance. James walked me to the car where I sat, numb, while he paid for the parking. It wasn’t until much later, when I found the box, still unopened, laid on the end of our bed, that I realised he had gone back to fetch it. I slid it under the bed without looking, as if the sight would burn my eyes, leaving it with the dust bunnies and the lint. I should bring it in here, I thought, where it belongs.
The house was like a florist, for a time. White lilies, white roses, white gladioli. I barely registered these flowers but the smell was thick like a forgotten summer. After a while, they began to turn, growing fetid and slouchy. James dumped them in the back garden, their browning stems slick with slime. The scent hung in the air for weeks; a slight undertone of decay.
I was cold in her room and thought about going back to bed when a scrap of paper caught my eye. It was folded into the blanket, which was squared on the floor. I reached down and pulled it out, and something flared in my stomach when I recognised the gridded notebook page. In fine black felt, a stick baby was drawn, tucked into her cot. Her little stick arms reached for a mobile above her head. It was strung with a single heart, enclosing her name: Amelie.
Dawn threatened, but instead of going back to bed I dressed quietly, trying not to wake James, and went out into the morning. I drove towards the mouth of the day, the throat of the sun. When I arrived, I parked next to the blue toilet block and climbed the slipping dunes. I walked into the chill of the wind, towards the point. The tumble of rocks was slick with retreating tide and I picked my way carefully, slack-soled sandals slipping here and there on the seaweed underfoot. The cliff rose beside me. Pines leant into the wind like guardians. That was why I had chosen the place, trees arching like a cathedral, though I hadn’t said as much to James.
It was hard to tell the exact spot. It had been months; the sands had shifted and spilt. The rock with the crescent-shaped hole that James had been standing on when he was rushed by a wave rose from the water. It had been so windy, and James had been so worried about losing any of the ashes that he had almost fallen. But we had sent her, in a swirling flood, out to the yawning waves. To the swimming place of whales.
I searched for whales then, in the new light of morning. A grey crest of a back or the flick of a tail—a sign, a glimpse of an angel. But there was only the shimmering water, laced with morning sun, opening out towards the Pacific.
I went back to the car. It was still early; James wouldn’t be up yet. I’d get coffee, croissants maybe. Probably the paper, too. I drove slowly while the dawn turned to morning. The sun behind me gleamed like a halo.