March 18, 2024 Short Story

The Small Horseshoe Bay

The Small Horseshoe Bay Artwork by Lucy Pook

She cried as they made their way down to the small horsehoe bay, on the stony path through the cypress. She could not have said if what welled was fear or nostalgia; so much seemed tied in that first glimpse of sea and rocks, turquoise and still and unchanged. She had thought so much of this day, of what it would change and what she would say, but her plans had been faded; now, colour and sound overwhelmed her, the other-worldliness of the bay. Sylvie, oblivious and surefooted, danced on ahead, her small body eager for water. Taking hold of herself, Felicity followed her down and wiped away her indulgence; when her daughter turned, she was smiling.

They found the beach deserted. A towel and sandals had been cast to one side, its owner now just the orange tip of a snorkel far out to sea. They walked across to the shadier side, where she had sat in that dizzying summer, and carefully set out their things. Then, there had been clean white loungers and umbrellas set in rows, the melodic English of the boy collecting euros. Now there were just a few rusting frames, padlocked together at the back of the beach. Sadness again rose inside her, for the unreachable nature of memory, the inconvenience of sitting on stones.

‘Perhaps a boy will come soon to unlock them,’ she said vaguely, but she knew no one would, and Sylvie was too focused on sea shoes to care. A week in the sun had darkened her skin and gilded the edge of her hair, accentuating how different she was from her mother.

‘Come on, Mummy!’ she said joyfully, wading in with the pelican ring they had bought earlier that week in Acharavi. ‘It’s so clear!’

She had meant to tell Sylvie before they went in, to give them both the day to recover. But she had not factored in her response to the bay, this visceral tug which was making her giddy. Sighing, she pulled off her dress, folded it, and walked down to the sea. The water was icy cold on her legs, which shone like ghosts as she eased herself in. Her breathing settled. We have all day, she reassured herself, I will tell her, later. Sylvie bobbed up and down, exclaiming at the fish which slipped beneath her, kicking her legs in the gentle waves. Beyond the bay, the turquoise became blue.

‘If I swim out a little, will you promise not to go out of your depth?’ she asked, thinking a good parent would stay. But Sylvie, content in her ring, seemed unfazed.

‘How long will you be?’ she enquired.

‘Oh not long,’ Felicity said, wishing already that it might be longer, lowering her goggles and turning away before guilt could stop her. Still, it felt good to swim out, to let muscle take over. She swam through a shoal of silver sand smelt, past an orange starfish. By the rocks, where the seaweed gave way, she saw rainbow wrasse and painted comber. Her body, clumsy on land, had always made sense in the sea, where expectation ebbed away. Vasilis had laughed at the way she forgot herself in the water, streaking ahead and diving below for the sheer joy of it, splashing and beaming like a wish set free. She had swum so far from his boat that it looked like a thin white line, a dash on the water. Even without shared words, she had understood that his laughter masked a dent in his pride, a regret that his stroke was not stronger; when she got back to the boat, she asked him for help, though she could have easily climbed. Breathless and dripping, she had wanted to tell him that what she loved most was the play of light through the water, the great sunken architectures of the sea floor, eternal and yet always out of reach. ‘I never do things like this,’ she had wanted to say as she clung to him, ‘this is too strange to explain.’ But even her name, for him, was too foreign – Feh-lee-shee-tee - so her words fell away, and all that was left was the rawness behind them.

Minutes dripped. Memory tugged her one way, duty another. When she turned her head to the shore, Sylvie was waving, so she waved back, submerging the desire to keep swimming away, to swim and swim until she was past the horizon. She had never dared ask other mothers if they also felt the urge, sometimes, to vanish. Not to look back. To just slip away. She was not even sure what caused her more shame: that she imagined going, or that she would never have the strength to. Motherhood, she thought as she headed back towards her daughter, is the antithesis of swimming: the better you do it, the quicker you drown. When she reached Sylvie, she found her annoyed.

‘You took so long,’ she complained. ‘You said this would be a special day, together.’

‘I’ll take you out really deep later,’ she promised, but Sylvie was not yet ready to forgive, and clung to her frown.

They sat on their towels. Sylvie rummaged for flat white stones and Felicity lay uncomfortably beside her, arranging a sarong across the stretch marks on her stomach. The vanity she had once enjoyed had loosened into a self-consciouness she seemed unable to shed, even as she admired the way other women carelessly exposed the chronicles of their bodies, the divots and the folds and the scars. Others joined them on the beach: a tanned young couple from France, a miserable woman from Wales whose pasty sons took refuge in the water. Felicity found herself anxiously watching the path, scanning the shapes that emerged from its shade as if now, like then, one of them might suddenly transform into Vasilis, chest and thighs appearing from the darkness as if sun had poured them, arms swinging, beautiful head tilted a little to the side, like Sylvie’s did when she was thinking. You are ridiculous, she told herself, why would he come? And you are changed! She closed her eyes and listened to the sea as the day slipped through it. She had forgotten how time here vanished, stretched between the spell of cicadas so that hours became shadowless. Even the clouds, drifting over the tiny islands, seemed unwilling to take shape when she reopened her eyes, teasing her, changing. She tried to focus, instead, on the simple lines of her daughter, the ease with which she sorted the stones and piled them. She is ten now, Felicity reminded herself. It is her right to know who she is. Soon, she would point to the bay. Soon she would say, with the positivity she had practised, that it was here they had met. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,’ she would say. ‘Life, for grown ups, is so complicated to explain.’

But doubt now rose in terrible waves: to say this aloud, to make it final? In England, in the home they had carefully built with its decorative shelves and accent lighting, the words she had chosen seemed solemn and wise, but in this miraculous bay the sun shone through them. She saw now, with a clarity that scared her, that the words she had for ten years curated – ‘complicated’ and ‘confused’ and ‘young’ and ‘stupid’ – were a lie, an insult to something that had actually been simple and wordless and elemental. That in fact it was here, on that molten day, that complexity had, finally, been shed like snakeskin, that she had discovered that desire could peel flesh and sun could melt words so that what was left was not body or thought, not tangle or meaning, but essence, simply, essence unashamedly and inexorably exposed to the sky!

But what, then, to say? For she must surely say something. Her body, shifting as she panicked, knocked over the tower which Sylvie had built, and tears sprung again to her eyes.

‘I’m so sorry!’ she cried, scrabbling to help, but Sylvie was more put out by her mother’s over-reaction, the unnerving emotions she was emitting that day; rolling her eyes, she stalked away, leaving Felicity alone with the ruins of tower and revelation. Stone by stone she began to rebuild, angry with herself, watching Sylvie. As her daughter picked a path across the shingle, Felicity marvelled at how long she had grown, how little was left of her chubby round baby. An hour became a day became a year became ten; and still, she had said nothing, and the secret still weighed.

Sylvie had reached the edge of the bay where a small crowd was gathered to watch an elderly man thrashing an octopus against the grey rocks. Moments earlier it had slid through the sea; now it was reduced, its flaccid tentacles flung like ribbons in a breeze. Felicity could read in her daughter’s thin back, in the angle of the shoulderblades and her step poised to flee, both curiosity and revulsion. Tenderness overwhelmed her, a desire to scoop Sylvie up and remove her from here, this liminal bay where anything could happen. She should never have brought her. She should never have brought her to this island where everything was raw and aflame: the sun, the shade, the incessant cicadas, all of it teetering on the borders of life. That morning, in the lavender bed which ran alongside their crazy-paved terrace, she had found a dead rat and quickly removed it before Sylvie could see. It swung when she picked it up by its long wiry tail, unexpectedly robust, its front legs frozen in its final attempt to flee. Yesterday, there had been a dead kitten on the side of the road. And a hornet, carrying a flailing grasshopper. An image popped into her mind, of the white plastic corners she had religiously stuck on furniture when Sylvie was born, to stop her from bumping her head. Some of the pieces were still there now, out of lingering worry.

‘But why would you bash it?’ cried Sylvie who had come running back. ‘If it was dead already?’

She clambered on to her mother’s lap and clung like seaweed, threatening to cry. Her weight staunched her mother’s unravelling.

‘It’s to tenderise the meat, but the octopus can’t feel it,’ Felicity soothed, breathing in the salty hair, the protective sun cream. The day was derailing. She must do something to restrain it. ‘How about we get away from this silly bay?’ she said rashly, hoping she might think straighter in a place more contained. ‘There used to be a taverna up on the road. We could have lunch there.’

Sylvie leaned back and eyed her suspiciously.

‘We usually eat at tavernas in the evenings,’ she reminded her. ‘And you said you made lunch.’

But her mother was already nudging her up.

‘Come on,’ she said, grabbing her dress to cover her bikini. ‘Like you said, today is special. And wouldn’t you rather eat pizza than a hot squashed sandwich?’

Sylvie, who would, gauged it best not to push for a why. So many rules seemed to be suspended on this island – ‘don’t drink fizzy drinks’ and ‘don’t stroke strays’ and ‘don’t stay up past bedtime’; she added ‘don’t waste food’ to the list. Her mother, she reflected as she pulled on her shorts, was so much harder to predict here than at home. She was not sure she liked it. She followed her now as she forged up the path, taking the steps two at a time. At the road they stopped to catch their breath. In a decade, the traffic had barely thickened, just the occasional car or scooter, a few tourists on quad bikes chugging down the road. But the taverna looked different – trees cut back, walls painted. Under the canopy laced with bougainvillea, Felicity stopped and stared at the space where the bar had been, where she had sat, afterwards, drinking Mythos and weaving the silence she had since worn for ten years.

‘Mummy, come on!’ exclaimed Sylvie, impatient now, tugging at her hand.

‘I’m sorry,’ Felicity replied.

The tables, upgraded from their old scratched plastic, were covered now by olive-print cloths, the walls with pictures of Poseidon. The waiter brought wine, salads, pizza. Sylvie, restored by food and attention, had forgotten the octopus; they coasted on her chatter. What clouds of cheese on Corfiot pizzas! Abigail’s family have gone to Center Parcs. Would you rather break your arm or step on a sea urchin? Mrs Trenton says boys are faster than girls, but she’s wrong because Callie beat Liam. If I keep my room tidy can we please get a kitten? Her voice was loud against the summer hum of the taverna; other diners, envying her easy happiness, smiled. Yet it would not drown out the scrap in Felicity’s mind, the voice that taunted. You are a fraud! it said. You are living a lie! Beyond the walls was the relentless pulse of the bay, calling. She must ignore it. She must speak, or the liquid day would be gone, like the wine.

‘We spent the summer here, the year before you were born,’ she said quickly, before the words could get away. ‘I was much younger then, and not used to the heat. I think it scrambled my mind.’

‘I know,’ chipped in Sylvie, smiling at her mother. ‘You’d just got married and it rained at your wedding, like cats and dogs, but then you flew here for your honeymoon and the sunshine came.’

She recited it like a song and the trust in her face was too much for her mother.

‘Just a moment,’ she said, standing hurriedly, putting a hand to her mouth for fear she would vomit. In the small peeling bathroom, she turned on the tap and watched herself shake. It is her right to know who she is, she tried to insist, but the self in the mirror refused to look certain, would not pretend to be certain, even, for it knew that certainty did not belong here. Certainty belonged to the prosaic, to school runs and meetings and mealtimes and bedtimes and music lessons and traffic jams and all of the things she longed to escape. Certainty did not allow time to bend, or feelings to bloom and vanish like shadow. She saw that she, like the island, was on a brink. For ten years she had been trying to find guilt and regret where there had only been beauty and joy. Her mind, that day, had not been scrambled by heat, but alive to magic. Alive to the small horseshoe bay! If she spoke, now, her words would be turned against her. If she spoke, everything would change. She did not want to be sorry. She wanted to be free. I do not want to tell Sylvie, she whispered to the voice in her head, and the voice, for once, was quiet. And then she said it aloud, and it felt like the sea.

When she got back to the table, Sylvie was worried. Her mother was smiling, but her eyes were red and wide; there was water splashed on her dress.

‘Are you OK?’ Sylvie asked, stretching her hand across the table.

Felicity took it like an anchor. The saltiness of her skin. The freckles on her fingers. The cells, which were made of her own. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, and meant it. ‘I’m just glad that we still have some time.’

‘For what?’ asked Sylvie, joining her mother in laughter though she did not know why.

‘Come on,’ said Felicity, ‘let’s go back to the bay.’

The shade had moved to the rim of the beach and most of the tourists had gone. Now the pebbles shone. They sat in the sun until their skin could no longer bear it and then they returned to the sea. Felicity swam out and let Sylvie come with her. Sylvie, never usually allowed so far, was contagiously excited. Kicking in her ring, she marvelled at the shoreline shrinking behind them, at the pink and orange houses on the hillside, at the shadows of fish far beneath. Felicity swam alongside her until she was tired and then climbed up on the ring; together they drifted, the sun on their backs. They laughed as a speedboat passed, spewing out waves which rocked them. Sylvie chattered - of her friends, and her school and the birthday party she hoped to have. For her, the bay was a bay. We are floating on a ring filled with my breath, Felicity thought lightly, and one day soon she will leave me. Further off, they could see the Albanian coast, the buildings, the roads, the clouds which drifted halfway up mountains. That day, too, had been miraculously clear; there, between coastlines, they had carved a new land of their own.

‘What shall we call it?’ she had asked Vasilis playfully, but he had not understood, had just held her, smiling.

The sun brought them close to the hour that was golden, knowing that soon it would fall in the sea. Goosebumps rose like verse on their skin. On the beach, the last of the families were packing up.

‘Shouldn’t we go back now?’ said Sylvie suddenly, feeling the change in the air. ‘Won’t Daddy be worried?’

Now, like then, Matthew would be in the car, driving back from the town after a day out with his friend. On the back seat, alongside the fishing gear, would be a white box of the cake which Felicity liked, leaking syrup.

Words, in the end, were unequal to the fracture of time. Felicity kissed Sylvie’s nose and slipped back into the sea.

‘Daddy never worries,’ she said, as she started to swim for the shore, and the cicadas, louder with every stroke, enfolded her in their song.