Sea Change

A short story by Louise Kennedy

He led the way, the small boy. His feet in their bright blue wellingtons clopped over each bump and turn on the stony path, clumsy yet surefooted. He knew this place. He knew which rock to scramble over to reach the pool of twitching baby crabs. He knew a razorbill from a guillemot. He knew the path would soon wind gently left and then the boat house on the pier would be in sight.

Behind him his mother led a small girl and an old Labrador. He stopped from time to time. He bent over a long grike between the rocks to look for the shy buds of spring gentians. He watched seabirds mill about on the south sloping limestone. He looked out beyond the sea stack to the foaming madness that drew the big wave surfers.

Rain began to slake them in sidelong, salty lashes. The March storms had passed yet sooty clouds moved fast across an uneasy sky, the sea beneath it a tumult of mercury and froth. A wave bubbled over the path, crept across the toe of a blue wellington, then ebbed with an odd energy. The woman called the boy in a voice that didn’t sound like her own, his name tossed away by a sudden gust. The low, deep boom of dark water against bare rock rose around them, each blow followed by a greedy suck. Another wave then, high, too high, and as the woman held fast to the straining dog and the small girl she screaked the boy’s name again in the new voice he would never hear.

The rusty school bus rocks down the hill to the village, a small hand pressed to the window. The woman squashes a half smoked roll up into a scallop shell on the table. Poppy patterned oilcloth peeps from under toast crumbs and dusty angel cards. She dips under the chimes that shiver above her blue door, passes the squat sheelagh na gig that grimaces amongst tatty nasturtiums, the hollow charms of the life she tried to make here.

The graveyard is open but she doesn’t go in. Parched yellow chrysanthemums crackle in lace patterned cellophane on the plot the parish council gave her. She passes the high field, the velvety green acre crowned with a ring fort that she saw from the hostel window when she first arrived. She sidesteps columns of empty beer kegs, passes the thatched craft shop. She doesn’t hear the post office door close with a brisk click, the mortified I don’t know what to say to her whispered in her wake.

She rounds the back lane towards the rocks. She is on the path again. Her hands are free when she walks now, the dog destroyed, the girl at school. She pauses before the path winds left. She sidles across the rocks to look in the pool for crabs. The deep grike is empty, the tender alpines withered back into stone. Only kittiwakes flit overhead. Beyond the sea stack the water froths and foams still.

She passes the boat house, where they brought her that day, where she cried out his name in her strange new voice and refused the tea they offered her. Something happened to the sea, she told them, as the helicopter whirred towards the sandstone cliffs. Sometimes she doubts herself. She wonders if she imagined it, the sea change, or if it is just that nothing has been the same since.

She picks her way towards the water’s edge, and stands on a kite shaped slab, the farthest rock. Far beneath there are green holes, watery caves that wind for miles. Far beneath a small boy in bright blue wellingtons is tethered neatly by tendrils of kelp, his fine head tilted to the sky.

Louise Kennedy grew up in Holywood Co Down. She writes in a shed in her garden while her husband, son and daughter are sleeping. She has been published in The Incubator and Silver Apples and was shortlisted in Fish’s Memoir Prize and Short Story Prize 2015.

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