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Chapter 1 : Headland
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That Saturday’s haul was the best in a long time. For the last ten minutes of the trip it was quite hard to walk with pockets full of stones, so he was glad when Mum suggested they stop by the edge of the sands to let Roxanne sift for fresh spoils. In his left pocket was a flat piece of slate that he’d found underneath dried bladderwrack and then washed in the sea. His fingers tasted like salt, with sand lodged beneath the nails.
He had a fine collection in the other pocket; small white pebbles, softened by the sea, and a pinch of tiny, pearlescent shells that rattled about with every step. In with the stones was a short, smooth stick of driftwood and ten pieces of sea glass; seven green, two white, and one blue. He’d been picking flotsam and jetsam off the beach all his life. They all did; Dad mixed shards of beach china in with the gravel outside the porch, and Roxanne often planted succulents in coarse sand and wave-smoothed pebbles. But Freddie had never found purpose for the finds past ornament. Sea glass lived in a glass vase on his windowsill. Driftwood and the best shells trailed from his ceiling in mobiles, or went on display in his bookshelf. Interesting stones and pebbles went to the garden, to sink into soil and be forgotten.
They moved on after a few minutes, Roxanne having found nothing new in the fine, pale sand that lapped against the sea walls. Freddie stretched, relishing the press of sunlight on his shoulders. The final reward of a day’s scavenging. Roxanne, rising to her feet, pointed to the exposed flesh of his stomach. Her fingernail touched a smudge of peach-pink above his hip-bone with a slight, echoing pain.
‘How did you get that scar, Freddie?’ she said.
She didn’t quite know what she was asking, he could tell - her voice was as light as one of the razor shells she had tucked in the top pocket of her shirt. She stared at the spot with genuine interest, as if trying to work out for herself what would equate to the shape of it. Mum and Dad were looking over. Freddie dropped his arms to his sides and smiled, the shells rattling in his pockets.
‘Just a scrape,’ he said.
She eyed him suspiciously all the way home. Later that night he was stirring tea when she sneaked up and touched a pale line on the back of his wrist.
‘How did you get that scar, Freddie?’ she said.
‘Potions,’ he said, feeling as if he was underwater, bearing the weight and pressure of depth. ‘Cutting up valerian roots.’
‘Uh-huh,’ she said. ‘You’d think it might have faded by now.’
He shrugged. ‘I scar pretty easy.’ This was true - he still had the evidence of a fall a decade old on his knees, and bruised like a peach.
‘Uh-huh,’ Roxanne repeated. ‘There are salves you can get for that. Dad’s good at them.’
‘I’m alright,’ he said.
‘Have a chat with him, will you?’ she said, and breezed out of the kitchen as quickly as she’d come in, not even pretending she’d visited for any reason other than finding that scar.
Freddie tossed the teaspoon in the sink and breathed out. He’d never really given much thought to the scar before. Now he looked, he could see the incongruity of it; it scored the dark skin like a jet stream in empty sky.
Outside the wind picked up and the seagulls wailed, and he thought that there had been no real catalyst, not as such. Nothing provoked him. Nobody died. It had crept up on him like the tide. Like the gurgling waves at the sea’s seams, the kind that ebbed to-and-fro with the pull of the moon. It came in like the tide, and it crested and caught and crashed and before his head broke the surface - he’d been swept out to sea.
He’d long ago come to the conclusion that there had been no catalyst, not as such. It had been born with him, for all he knew. It had crept up on him. He found his past increasingly muddled, his future even more so.
Freddie gripped his wrist, digging his fingernails into the soft, unblemished flesh on the inside. The present came to him with a startling clarity, like a faceful of cold water. The tea had cooled fast, and was almost at optimum drinking temperature. He raised the mug to his lips and took a tentative sip. He was learning how to take his tea without sugar, just milk; Mum was of the opinion that adding sugar to tea was an offence tantamount to murder.
On his way upstairs, he stopped for a moment by the sitting room door. The three of them were sat there, slumped against the sofas, scrubbing sand from shells onto layers and layers of newspaper that blanketed the floor. They’d always called him Freddie.
It had always been Freddie, never Fred. Fred was the dead one, his father’s irreplaceable twin. Freddie was a portmanteau, a childish nickname that suited the living namesake better.
His mood deflated in a matter of hours. He’d sunk and surfaced and sunk and surfaced so often that he’d got the bends, and it had numbed him so completely he was certain he’d forever lost the ability to feel things. All week he’d been in a funk, but on Sunday he wasn’t hungry for breakfast, not for lunch, wouldn’t come down to listen to the match on the wireless, couldn’t be persuaded to walk on the beach. He heard himself tell his mother that he wasn’t hungry for dinner either, and felt his stomach growl in complaint, but decided that these things were happening to someone else. He was adrift.
His legs had ceased to work. Imagining the exertion of sitting up was enough for him. It wouldn’t be worth it, he concluded. He’d get a head rush, for sure - he hadn’t eaten since the previous day’s dinner, and had only drank a cup of tea in the interim - and his bones felt a little brittle anyway. Perhaps he should just rest on the floor. And what was there to sit up for? After sitting, he’d just be expected to stand, and to walk, and that seemed to require a degree of mental and physical strength far beyond his reach.
He knew, of course, that this was feckless and lazy and rude. He knew that he should care about this. But nothing stirred. The same thoughts chased round and round his drifting head - You’re a lazy sod, Freddie, your poor dad’s been talking about that match all week - you’re a selfish bastard, Freddie, your mum loves a walk on the beach - you’re a sick narcissist, Freddie, do you expect your younger sister to aspire to this? - how and when had this been allowed to happen?
The answer came to him when the sun had gone down properly, when Mum and Dad and Roxanne had gone to bed and dismissed him as a hopeless case. This inability to feel things - those things were only emotional, and there was another capacity for feeling left, there were always physical things, there were sharp things, there were things that scratched and bit and burnt. Here was a sharp thing he would sit up for, here was a bit of skin that wasn’t waxy scar tissue, here was the ability to feel things restored, with glossy pinheads of red budding. In a minute or two they’d be in bloom. Here was the wave, and here it broke: here was where he washed up on the shore with salt on his lips and his pockets full of stones.
A cut, he believed, was little like a whale’s blowhole. He could survive for a while below the surface, but he had to emerge from time to time to breathe. The longer he spent below the waves, the more painful it became to hold breath, the more inviting the thought of swallowing saltwater and silt and sinking.
This, to him, was a beautiful thought - although drowning is, even in metaphor, a profoundly painful way to go - that in reality was little more than a distraction from the ugly act; there is no beauty in metal. No beauty in keeping tally marks on your skin like a captive marking days on the walls of a cell.
There had been no real catalyst. The beautiful thing was that it was all in his head.
By all accounts it had been a good summer. The sea consistently matched the colour of his favourite denim jacket (an endless navy, white-speckled). The air was balmy with just the slightest sharp hint of brine to it. A week or so ago he had picked a peach-pink shell the size of his palm from a rockpool and gifted it to Mum; she kept it on the bathroom windowsill as a soapdish.
That summer, tally marks appeared in multiples of five on his arms, and an abrasion appeared on the back of his knee, and these things took some time to heal, but it had been a good summer nonetheless. He had the seagulls for company; they wailed with him.
The problem, as he saw it, was him. Increasingly, his peripheral vision seemed to fall in on him like enclosing walls. Pressure built in his skull, his joints, the hollows of his eyes. Decompression sickness. They kept calling him Freddie, and it reminded him, each time, what a hideous portmanteau it was; Freddie, and never Fred, the dead one. Fred died. They said his father's smile had never quite been the same since, and he had always been acutely aware of the spectre of grief that lived quietly in their seaside home. He had retreated into himself because it felt as though there was no room for him elsewhere.
In the last week of the holidays there was an intervention. Dad’s eyes leaking saltwater and Mum calm, demanding the truth. Roxanne at the window, attentively watching the tide go out, and in, and out again, having seen the scars and noted the absences and put two and two together. Roxanne, who had only said two words since the three of them had entered the room - stay strong.
Stay strong: that implied he had the strength to begin with, and that what he was doing was strong anyway - moreover, it was enough to be the cure, and what a shock to find out he’d had the cure inside him all along. If only it would take effect; maybe you had to get up every morning for it to take hold.
Mum had more pragmatic advice: see a Healer. ‘When things are broken, Freddie, you get them fixed.’
Roxanne had removed every sharp object from the room a few hours earlier. He’d hardly noticed her come in. She’d slipped by as he was dozing in his bed, the pillows flattened beneath his head and then bunched up by the headboard - it hadn’t been made for weeks. Somehow, she’d known all his hiding places, all the little nails and needles that could be kept beneath shells and stones. She had been talking to Mum and Dad all morning in the little kitchen downstairs; Freddie had heard her voice drift up the stairs from time to time. She had called it a coping mechanism. He had never had the chance to express it in words.
According to Mum, the lack of appetite and the fatigue had been a dead giveaway. But nothing changed the fact that it was still all in his head.
Mum had the final say on that. If you boil it down to the bare minimum - this is what she told him for comfort - it is, after all, just a chemical imbalance in the brain, and that can be medicated for. Nothing had really gone wrong. Nobody died. Recovery is a constant and this was just the first step of so, so many. He clutched to each word like a lifebelt, learning how to float.
By all accounts it has been a good summer. Roxanne has planted a sansevieria for him and it is sprouting new shoots. It is harder to think about death when you know that life can, and will, continue, and that the carbon dioxide of your breath may be enough to sustain a living thing. He often finds he cannot leave his room, but it doesn’t matter; she can come to him, and with the shadow of their parents in the doorway she can take him in her arms, as if he was the younger sibling, and point out mark after mark with the fine point of a fingernail, all the while saying ‘How brave you must be, how strong, to have fought so many wars and kept your life so whole.’
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