Moving Messages by Charlotte Sherwin
"Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you."
T.S Eliot (1888-1965) We jump from rock to rock, cold-nosed, ruddy-cheeked, our eyes glistening like stars against the rheumy grey sea. It is 1978; a gallon of petrol is 78 pence, John Travolta is man of the moment, Farrah Fawcett Major is a goddess and we are 10 years old wrapped in kagools and leaping across the age-old Jurassic limestone at Ogmore by Sea. The tide unfurls into the grey murky canvas with a thundering pebbly roar like a prehistoric monster and we taunt it until it returns projecting flecks of spiteful spit on our hoods.
It is autumn half-term, we've had fish and chips for lunch wrapped expertly in The Daily Echo by Dai Jones, the pot-bellied chip shop owner, and we've rounded it off perfectly with a seven pence Dairymaid ice-lolly from the ice-cream van that lives in the car park beside the beach. We are going to be home by five and if I'm particularly lucky, my mother might let me stay up to watch Dallas. But now, on this ubiquitously grey afternoon, we are hopping manically across the rock pools, intoxicated by the rebellious sea, the roar and the danger. Sian is yelling as she runs, her kagool buffeting like a yacht sail in the wind, her hood slipping down, her head thrown back, her hair chaotic and Hydra like. I'm mesmerised and exhilarated as she leaps closer and closer to the edge, pushing the boundaries. We are no longer two 10-year-olds from the local primary school, we are Olympian gods battling the elements. I'm overjoyed. We were told not to do this, told not to come here, told to buy the sickly yellowy Walls ice cream cornets, told to fly our kites on the downy downs that ambled to the beach. Told that the sea was cruel, that children died here. Yet Sian had coaxed me down here after our kite flying exploits had become monotonous
"What ya supposed to do once it's just stuck up there," Sian had said, jabbing her finger in an accusing manner at the flying kite. "This is as bloody boring as fishing," she'd added patronisingly redirecting her finger to a huddle of men in chunky jumpers fishing on the rocks beyond us. I remind her that we were told not to go there, "Scaredy baby," she screeches as she skips around me singing the words repeatedly. "Scaredy baby- scaredy baby- scaredy baby." I'm tortured by it and angry and embarrassed by my inertia. Then as I begin to surrender I feel the contagious rush of rebellion, of independence. Before I know it, Sian, who is much more co-ordinated than me, is at the very edge of the rocks taming the violent sea and streaking like an electrical maelstrom across a synapse bridging two rocky crags. Beneath her the water churns malevolently.
"Look at me!" she screeches jumping to and fro, faster and faster across the rocky gulf. Each time she jumps more fluidly, until the red of her kagool looks like a vivid brushstroke against the monotone omnipresent greyness. This is absolutely fantastic and I can't believe she's pulling it off and now I'm beginning to feel a gratuitous swell of vicarious achievement. Then suddenly the tone of her yell changes, a strange eerie, anguished tone like an animal, and I see her floundering limbs and then she disappears downwards between the rocks into the chasm of water below.
I step closer to the edge but I am frightened, frozen. I can hear her distant yells buffeting around in the wind, then I see her hand outstretched waving frantically to me in the quagmire as she frantically bobs under, pops up again and plaintively calls my name. Then the tide retracts and I see her small, defenceless red form disappearing into the unforgiving greyness. It happens in slow motion, but I am even slower because I am suspended in utter disbelief and fear. I'm an impotent spectator. I stand quiet, numb and silent while the wind whips my greasy, salty face. I wait for her to come back up, to surface from the icy water, but she doesn't. I scream her name repeatedly until my voice is hoarse. I feel the burning bile rising in my throat, the shock and the sudden realisation. It takes me a moment but eventually I turn around abruptly and run, suddenly feeling cold, wet, miserable and lonely.
I race across the rocks, my body shaking, dry mouthed and choking back the nausea until I see the group of men fishing on the rocks. I stumble across the jagged crags towards them, grazing my palms and knees. The salt stings my grazes and my tears smart my eyes so much that I can hardly see ahead. Finally I reach them, but I can't speak. I have no words to describe the indescribable. But they know something is wrong; my dishevelled appearance, my wild eyes and that uncontrollable shaking. One of them crouches down, anchors me firmly on both shoulders with his calloused hands and looks directly into my glazed and dilated eyes. Somehow, slowly, I begin to regain composure and I deliver the message in a deliberate, emotionless, almost robotic tone.
Before I know it there are more people - I don't know how they came or where they came from. Then I remember somebody's prickly tartan picnic blanket being wrapped around me and hushed whispers, somebody giving me strong sweet tea from an old plastic thermos and suddenly I'm in the car park and I remember the appearance of the Ford Escort police car, and the crunch of gravel as it pulls up. Then I look beyond and see people shouting and running along the perimeter of the rocks, searching.
It seems like ages, then out of the interminable nothingness, somebody yells and the crowds slide rapidly en masse across the slimy charcoal rocks. Somebody has found Sian. She has been dredged up and is draped on a craggy ledge. I see the fisherman struggling to carry the lifeless bundle and I can see her grey pallor, which is almost like the sea has mainlined mercilessly into her veins. She doesn't really look like Sian, but at the same time it is undoubtedly her. The men and police lay her faded, crumpled body down in the car park next to the luridly coloured Mr Whippy ice cream van where earlier we had greedily eaten our ice-lollies. It's drizzling now and they are frenetically working on her heart and rhythmically doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. For a long time nothing happens and the silence of the crowds is paradoxically deafening, and the salty, icy sea air and drizzle merge with the warm tears that pour silently down my transfixed face. Suddenly there is a weird gurgling noise and then coughing and at first I see guarded surprise then slowly and more confidently relief begins to sweep across the frozen crowd like a warm weather front. The ambulance has now arrived and they administer oxygen quickly and efficiently, bundle her on to a stretcher, slam the doors and depart up the windy track to the coastal road.
The doctors were amazed by her recovery; she should have been dead. It was amazing that the sea washed her battered body onto a ledge where the fishermen caught her and hauled her up. The doctors kept her in hospital for a week after that and regaled us with the miracle story repeatedly. The local newspapers even came to the hospital once Sian could hold court and she was irrevocably declared a celebrity. What was strange to me was that nobody reprimanded us - we had been told not to do that, told not to go there, told to buy the sickly yellowy Walls ice-creams in a cornet, told to fly our kites. Told that the sea was cruel, that children died there. Instead, there I was, standing uncomfortably in the sweet sickly smelling warm ward with the apple-green walls and Sian's mother was praising me like a hero, throwing her arms around me spasmodically, declaring I had saved Sian's life. I felt embarrassed. Or in retrospect, perhaps it was shame.
That day there was no loss. Sian lived. After that day, we never discussed it again, moved on and drifted away and the decades flowed by and I went to university and moved overseas to places where the sea was turquoise, not grey. I'm told that Sian went on to divorce twice, have two children (before I had even finished university) and went on to live in a street that looked just like all the other streets in the local housing estate. Funnily enough, I even saw her five years ago on a visit home to the UK. She was getting out of an old Fiat in Tesco's car park. She didn't really look like Sian, but it was undoubtedly her. She was a bit rounded, weathered by time, and in her forties, but nonetheless her. I ducked back into my Hertz hire car, head down, fumbling around pretending that I had lost something, something terribly important. The problem was that I had lost something terribly important that day in 1978. Vote for this story at our online poll: www.thenational.ae