The Sea’s Keeper

Carrie comes back to her childhood home by the sea after  long absence, looking for inspiration. She finds more than she expects.

It was late when she drove into town, and the sky showed only a ribbon of paler blue where a gap in the clouds let through the thinnest sliver of the dusky summer sky. Out there somewhere was the inky blackness of the sea, but she couldn’t make it out. She wound the window down though, chilly as it was even at this time of year, so she could at least smell it. It hit her like a wave: salt water, seaweed, the pebble-blasted shore, all in one instantaneous rush of air through the open window. She breathed it in. Even over the engine, she could hear the rhythmic crash of the waves as she meandered through the narrow, winding streets of the place she’d grown up in. Some things had changed, but as long as the sea was there, it would still be the same place.

Her mother welcomed her at the door to her childhood home with open arms. “Carrie…Carrie…” The hug seemed to go on for a long time. She’d seen her mother back in London just a few months ago, but this seemed different somehow.

“Mum.” She buried her face against her shoulder and felt like she was ten-years-old again.

In the cramped little kitchen with the high wooden table that was always too big for it, they caught up over a cup of tea. It was a windy night and the windows were rattling. But then, it was always like that here. There was only a field between this side of the house and a sheer drop of about sixty feet down to the churning sea. It was a precarious spot, and Carrie always harboured a private fear about coastal erosion. But she didn’t fear the wind coming in off the water, the way it shook the house, because that had always been there, as familiar as the kitchen, the table, Mum. “It’s good to be home,” she said.

The morning came bright and clear. Not completely clear. In London, and in other places she’d lived, days were cloudy or sunny, but not here. Here, there was sunshine almost every day, and most likely a spot of rain too, but it didn’t often last long. Always there were clouds scudding across the pale sky, like ships sailing in from faraway lands, coming home at last laden with exotic treasures. Or just the fishermen, coming back safe, which was even better. Back at the kitchen table while Mum cooked the kind of breakfast she never allowed herself to eat in London for fear of having to replace her wardrobe or not looking her best if the editor decided it was time to update her photo on the masthead that day, she looked out of the window again at the shifting sky. “Nothing much changes around here, does it, Mum?” It was a silly thing to say while watching those clouds, but this view was unaltered since she’d stared out of this same window with her feet dangling a foot off the tiled floor.

“Oh I don’t know,” Mum said, placing thick, greasy bacon on a white roll. It still spat even as it rested there on the bread, the fat soaking into the dough, turning it oily brown. The smell brought back almost as many memories as the sea. “Johnson’s has closed now.”

Carrie drew herself up. “Johnson’s? Closed? I refuse to believe it.”

“Well believe it, my girl, because it’s true.” She sliced the thick sandwich in two with the same bread knife that had lived in the same drawer for as long as Carrie could remember. The same blue plates with their swirling patterns painted on their glazed surface, the same smoky bacon from the butcher’s in town. She took the plate gratefully and set it down. She refused to feel guilty about eating this. “It was a Woolworth’s for a bit,” Mum went on as she cut her own sandwich, “but then they went out of business. Now I think it’s one of those places where everything’s a pound.”

“Shame,” Carrie said. She bit into the sandwich and had to catch the bacon grease as it dribbled down her chin. She chewed contentedly as she watched her mother make the tea, eventually bringing the pot over on a tray with two mugs and setting it down in the middle of the table. Carrie’s mug wasn’t there – the only thing wrong with the scene – because she had that back home in her little flat in London. It was a chipped, worn thing, not unlike her hometown, and she always thought the tea tasted a little salty when she drank from it.

“So, what’s the article about?” Mum took a bite of her sandwich and looked at her as she chewed. Carrie smiled, but couldn’t hide the slight blush.

“How did you know there was an article?”

“Oh, I keep up, you know. What’s that internet site? You’re always writing things on it.”

“Twitter?”

She nodded. “That’s the one. Doesn’t make much sense to me, I’m afraid, but I see what you’re up to. It’s nice.”

“I didn’t even know you had a computer, mum…”

“Got your cousin David to set it up.” She pointed through the door towards the utility room that had only ever been used for storage as far as Carrie knew. “In there.”

“Thinking of trying some online dating, are you?”

“Oh as if I would!” She took another bite of sandwich but couldn’t help laughing so crumbs sprayed across the table. She swallowed and then wiped them up demurely, still chuckling to herself.

Carrie looked out of the window again. “I came home because it’s been years, mum. But yes, there’s an article. It’s make or break.” For the first time since she’d arrived home, she allowed some of the tension from back there to seep back into her mind. She wanted this to be a haven, the image of a perfect little world set hard against the endless ocean, impervious to the storms of her modern, confusing life, but now she’d brought it with her, hadn’t she? She still didn’t know if this was wise. But she couldn’t be sentimental. It was just a place, even if it was home.

“Is everything all right, Carrie?”

She looked back, into her mum’s pale blue eyes, so like the sky outside, and felt real fear for the first time in years. She was scared for her. Scared because now she wasn’t a little girl running on the pebble beach with a tattered kite in her hand, or paddling through the rock pools looking for limpets with a little net, or even a young tearaway getting into Johnny Bramwell’s Fiesta for an ill-advised jaunt up to the bright lights of the next town that would end in a passionate kiss in a leaky bus shelter and a stern lecture from dad when she came back at god-knows-what o’clock stinking of cheap cider and cigarettes. She wasn’t a child, and Mum wasn’t an adult who could keep a harsh world locked outside the door of this house now. They were two grown women, scared for each other, worrying about an unknowable future.

“It’s fine…just…time’s are tough. That website you talked about? It’s changing things. The whole internet is. Newspapers aren’t as important to people now. Everyone’s got cameras on their phones and Twitter accounts and we don’t need reporters on the scene now, not hours after the exciting stuff has happened and all the live footage has already been posted all over the web by the people who actually live the stories we just write about.”

“You’re not a reporter though,” her mother pointed out. She started to pour the tea.

“No. I’m a journalist. I comment. But so do millions of other people. Oh, we might get more visitors than all those little blogs, but it only takes one smart kid on the other end of a broadband connection to tap into some fucki…uh…some bloody zeitgeist with his article and he blows up, goes viral, and who cares what some stuffy journo in a Fleet Street office thinks, eh?”

“I won’t pretend I understood all that,” Mum said as she stirred Carrie’s tea and passed it over to her, “but it sounds serious.”

“It is. Sort of.” She’d left the crusts of her sandwich like she always did. Always did here, anyway. Back in London she didn’t care, but here she fell back into her old habits. She cradled the warm mug in her hands and looked down at the table, worn too smooth by years or decades of use, but still with its knotty faces peering out at her like strange little old men. It was funny the things you knew without even thinking about them. Those faces belonged to people she’d known since she was tiny. She’d eaten hundreds of meals while looking down at them, unconsciously giving them names and stories, and she’d never knowingly even thought about them before. They were just there, another thing from the past, looking back at her from a long time ago. “The world’s changing,” Carrie said slowly, “we’re all having to run as fast as we can just to stay in place, like the Queen of Hearts.”

“The Red Queen,” Mum corrected. “Everyone gets them confused.”

Carrie smiled. Lewis Carroll had been her favourite author growing up, mostly because the same was true of Mum and she’d read the books to her since she was a baby. “Sorry. You know what I mean though. Profits are down, and we’re all fighting for smaller and smaller pieces of the pie. No one’s used the r-word yet, but it can’t be too long until we’re all competing to keep our columns. There’s a whole world of clever people with a lot to say and any one of them can Tweet the editor a link to their blog…and they’d all work for a fraction of what we get paid.”

“So you need an article that makes them think you’re worth it,” Mum surmised.

“Pretty much. I need something that hits a nerve. Something people will share online. The comment piece heard around the world.”

“So you came here? To the edge of it?”

“Seemed like the best place to start,” she shrugged.

“What are you going to write about?”

Carrie looked out of the window again, watching the clouds roll by, dappling the kitchen surfaces with patches of shade as they moved across the sun. In the silence she could hear the whoosh-whoosh of the waves beyond the field and, underneath the familiar smell of the grease congealing on her plate, the aroma of the mug in front of her, the warm scent of a crusty white loaf; the salt in the air, the sun-bleached wood, the tang of seaweed wafting through it all. “The sea,” she said, “I’m going to write about the sea.”

*

She walked down into town about ten o’clock. She’d meant to get up earlier, but even though her bed was much smaller than the one in her flat in London, it seemed a lot more comfortable. It wasn’t the bed she’d slept in as a child. Her room had been refurnished and redecorated years ago, her old possessions, the ones she hadn’t reclaimed for her new life, packed away in the loft. Mum was as sentimental as any old woman, but she wasn’t going to leave a shrine for her little girl upstairs. That would be ridiculous. Even so, it had been tempting to luxuriate in bed all morning, even with the smell of that bacon drifting up the stairs, but she knew she had to make stab at doing some work. The lane led crookedly down the hill from the old house, past drystone walls marking the boundaries of fields where cows grazed lazily and stared at her with blank curiosity as she waved a little crazily at them. Cows! When had she last seen cows? That smell was familiar too, if not quite as welcome.

Her house had been built by her father and grandfather, up on the hill above town. Her family weren’t rich, but Dad had been a builder who knew his trade and had a good reputation. He was good with his hands and everyone trusted him. He’d done well for his wife and daughter and burying him had been the hardest day of her life. But they still had the house so he wasn’t really gone. He’d set every timber and laid every brick. It sheltered his family just as he had.

It was less than a mile to town down the little lane, but Carrie was out of breath by the time she arrived. It was probably the heat. When the wind dropped and the sun came out it was warmer than she expected and she regretted wearing her fleece. Walking back into her hometown was a strange experience. There were changes, like Mum said, but the bones were the same. Every corner, every shop and pub, had some memory attached to it. She walked back through her childhood and adolescence as she circled her way towards the seafront.

This place would never be a tourist trap. It was too far away from anywhere and, besides, the beach was all smooth round pebbles tucked away in a curving bay. The land was grey, treeless and wild, and there was no room to build a fairground or even an amusement arcade. It was just narrow, grey houses, piled up on one another where they marched up the hills towards the cliffs, little pubs with names like The Anchor, The Ship’s Mate, The Wheel. And fishermen. Where else in the country did they still fish like this? The marina was cut off from the rest of the bay by a concrete jetty that almost fully enclosed it, leaving only a narrow gap on the side facing out to sea for the boats to get out. A flotilla bobbed up and down in the choppy waters. Ancient paint peeled from the hulls, stained by the rusty fittings. The buoys were bleached pale pink by the sun and frayed ropes choked with rotting seaweed tethered them to their gently bucking charges. A crowd of ambitious seagulls picked at a pile of lobster cages, left so long in place that wildflowers were starting to grow through the gaps. They scattered as she walked past, caw-cawing off into the distance as they sailed on the gusts that tousled her hair and filled her nose with a thousand half-forgotten smells again. There was a stark, faded beauty to it all that had nothing to do with her youthful associations. People still made a living from these decaying hulks. Life went on, heedless of the world of London and its newspapers.

The only fisherman on the marina just then was an old man who was tying up a small boat, not much more than a dinghy, laden with cages of his own. He looked familiar somehow, a brown, monolithic figure, tall and broad, with worn, gnarled fingers that moved expertly on the rope as he worked. He turned slightly, noticing her as she came close and tipped his cap at her. His eyes were as blue as the sea and he had a wide, white smile. She stopped and waited for him to finish what he was doing. He reminded her of her father, though he hadn’t been a fisherman and had looked nothing like this man.

“Help me, won’t you?” the fisherman asked. He nodded towards the cages.

She was surprised to be asked, but it never occurred to her to refuse. “Of course.”

He hopped down into the boat, moving with surprising agility and lifted up the nearest cage with a grunt. He heaved it over to the side of the boat and held it to her. She reached for it and then hauled it onto the concrete wharf. It was very heavy. “Bend your knees, girl. Don’t you know anything?”

“Hey!” He hadn’t said it in an unpleasant way though and she smiled at him. He brought over another laden cage and they carried on like that for a few minutes, him lifting them from the boat and her depositing them on the dock where it was tied up. There were seven of them altogether.

“There,” the fisherman said, wiping his hands on his thick, stained trousers and letting her help him back up onto shore. “Thanks. I owe you.”

“It’s fine.” Her own hands were wet and briny now, rubbed raw in a few places. She wasn’t used to heavy lifting. She did as he did, wiping herself off on her jeans.

“No, fair’s fair.” He opened up one of the cages and pulled something out.

“What are they?”

“Scallops.”

Carrie eyed the cages carefully. Her natural politeness made her want to hold back, but she couldn’t just let it lie. She was supposed to be a journalist. It was her job to challenge people. “I thought dredging was bad for the environment. Doesn’t it harm the seabed?”

“Only if you’re an idiot,” the fisherman shrugged. He held a scallop out to her.

“No, I read an article…”

“You think people who fish these waters want to destroy the seabed? Ask yourself: who knows more about it, the ones who are here, every day, or a poncy chef from the telly?”

She laughed. “Okay, fair point.” She took the scallop from him.

“There’s two ways of doing things: the right way and the wrong way,” he continued as he took out another scallop. “Trick is spotting which is which. Catching them brings me no joy and maybe there’s better ways, in the end, but we all have our lives to live.”

“I suppose so.” She looked down at the scallop. “I think Mum knows how to cook this.”

“Cook it? Where’s the fun in that?” He straightened and cracked open the shell of his own scallop with one thick, brown thumb and produced a knife from his pocket with which he expertly prised it apart the rest of the way and scooped away the roe with almost a single jerk of his wrist. He threw that back in the sea and then levered off the white, jiggling lump of flesh that remained, popping it straight in his mouth from the blade.

“Can you eat them raw?” she asked stupidly.

He grinned toothily at her and then took her scallop from her. He repeated his expert motion and held out the trembling muscle – the bit they called they usually called the scallop, confusingly – and she took it politely with her fingers and dropped it into her mouth. It felt slimy and rubbery, but it tasted of the sea. She swallowed it whole and smiled with satisfaction. “Delicious.”

He nodded as if he’d told her so and then motioned for her to help him with the cage. They carried it across the width of the jetty to the other side and put it down between them as they sat down, legs dangling over the side, looking out to sea. The sky was starting to cloud over a little now, grey towers billowing up across the horizon, patches of sunlight drifting across the sea, the calling gulls fighting crosswinds as they swooped and dived. She could see a few boats out there, bigger than the fisherman’s, braving the weather, as they must. They took it in turns with the knife, grabbing a scallop each and eating it raw, live even, by the sea, Carrie learning quickly how to take them apart and cut free the bit that was good to eat, before passing the knife back across the cage. Neither of them said a word, they just watched the waves. There was a narrow belt of pebbles and scree at the base of the jetty, and the surf broke gently across it. There were piles of seaweed towards the end where the currents caused it to pile up, but the smell didn’t repulse her at all. It was natural and, despite the rational part of her brain telling her she should react with nausea, it was hard to feel disgust at the ordinary rhythms of the world. Just like the slimy scallops and sharing a knife with a stranger like this. She’d be repulsed if this was happening in a restaurant back in London, but here it was perfectly fine.

“You came back,” the fisherman said after they’d each had their fill of scallops.

“How did you know I’d been away?”

“You can tell. You can always see it in the eyes of those as come back. The way they look around, the way they smell the air.”

“I’m just happy to be home for a little while.”

He wiped his knife off on his trousers and slid it invisibly back wherever it came from. “London is it?”

“Hm?”

“London. Where you live now.”

“How did you know that?”

“You got that look in your eye too.”

That made her laugh again. “Yes, I suppose so. You’re right, London.”

“Why a place like that?” He seemed genuinely curious and she found it strange anyone would ask that question.

“Well…it’s London. Everything’s in London. Work. Nightlife. You know.”

“No sea though.”

“No…”

“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t want to live by the sea. How can you be human if your heart doesn’t sing this song, eh?”

Looking out, she found it hard to argue. “You’re from here though, like me. It’s not the same for everyone.”

“Don’t be so sure,” the fisherman said, working at his teeth with a finger, trying to dislodge some portion of the shellfish that was caught there. “I’ve been around, more than you might think, and most everyone’s the same in my experience. We all want to come back here, in the end.”

“Maybe.” She remembered something she’d read once. “It’s the aquatic ape theory.”

“Oh?”

She was worried she’d confused him. “Sorry, just a thing about human evolution. About how maybe we evolved by the sea. You know, when we were more like apes.”

“I know what it is. I’m just not sure I believe it.”

“Well, I mean…it’s just an idea…” She thought she might have broken the spell and felt sad.

“It’s older than that,” the fisherman said, getting a wistful look in his deep blue eyes. “You came from the sea, walked out on legs, but you still remember fins. You remember what it was to be free, not bound in the narrow place between the ocean and the sky.”

She thought about it. “I suppose so.”

“So you come here, to the edges of the world, and you dream. You remember.”

He was right. A part of her felt it inside. It just made sense. “We’re real here,” she said, thinking aloud. “This is where we feel most alive, most connected to the world.”

“Exactly. Cities are no good. Never liked cities, even when you first started building them. It seemed a good idea, but you went too far, made them too big. How can you even hear yourselves think, jammed up together like that? And they just spread out, eating up all the land around, swallowing up hills and rivers and valleys.”

“I don’t like London,” she felt the need to clarify. “I just have to live there.”

“Why?”

“For work.”

“You can’t write here?”

“I…how did you know I was a writer?”

“You have that look too,” he said gently.

She looked at the fisherman. He really did look familiar. She was certain he’d been around when she was little, here at the marina, bringing in his cages. But that was years ago. He’d have looked different, but somehow she knew he was exactly the same, unchanged by the ages. “Who are you?” she asked.

“Who do you think I am?”

She turned off her brain and looked out at the waves, picking up in the wind now, cresting as ragged rows of little white specks off in the distance. “You’re…the sea.”

“No.”

“You’re the sky?”

He shook his head. “No.”

She frowned at the horizon. “You’re…the place where the sky meets the sea. That line that separates the world from infinity.”

“Ah, getting close now. And very poetic.”

“Well I am a writer.” She looked at him; really looked at him. Then turned slightly so she could only see him out of the corner of her eye. When she wasn’t looking at him directly, it all became clear. Don’t think: just see, like the faces in the table. “Ohhh. You’re him. Or you, I mean.”

“That’s right,” he said with a satisfied smile playing on his craggy face.

“You’re the last person I expected to find here,” she admitted.

“Really? A lot of people start looking for me in places like this. Or up mountains. Usually one or the other.”

“Are you there too? I mean, that’s how it works, right?”

“No, I’m just here.”

“In this town?”

He tugged at his overalls. “In this body.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

She looked out. “Aren’t you supposed to be everywhere? Watching over us?”

“‘Supposed’ is a very strong word,” he said, sounding sad. “There’s two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way…”

“The trick is spotting which is which,” she finished.

Exactly. Exactly.” He dug in the cage between them and pulled out another scallop. The shell was white and shiny, washed clean by the sea. “I used to watch it all. Now I just watch the sea.”

“Why?”

“It got too hard,” he sighed.”I came here about the same time your grandfather did. Seventy years ago, give or take.” He pointed out across the sea, where other lands lurked invisibly beyond the horizon. “But after what happened over there back then, I didn’t feel right showing my face any more. It was a cruel joke.”

“I think I understand.”

“The secret,” he said quietly, “is to set a few free. Learned that early on after I got it wrong the first time and tried to wash it all away. You give a few a fighting chance, let them build a boat. It keeps the seabed healthy, so to speak.” He tossed the scallop back into the water from where he sat. It disappeared with a tiny, distant plop.

“Why here?”

“Where else? You love it don’t you?”

“I was born here. It’s where I belong.”

“Well then. Isn’t that a good enough reason for anyone?”

She drew her knees up to her chest. It was getting distinctly cold now and the sky was completely grey. It was still beautiful though. It was always beautiful. “I wish I could stay.”

“Why can’t you?”

“London’s calling.” She smiled faintly at her own small joke.

“So tell it you aren’t home. Or, rather, tell it you are.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Ah, your story.”

“My article, yes.”

“Just a fancy word for a story,” the fisherman sniffed.

“Whatever it is, I have to do it. I might lose my job.”

“So?”

“So…I don’t want to lose my job. I love my job.”

“More than this place?”

“It’s not as simple as that. I can love both things. They aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“Are you sure about that? Think of what I gave up to be here. What’s a job writing for a newspaper in London compared to that, eh?”

“You can go back though, can’t you?”

“I’m not sure.”

She couldn’t think about this conversation too hard. She just had to keep looking out to sea, speaking from the bit of her brain that still accepted the world as a child. The bit of her brain that had come back to life with the sounds, tastes and smells of this place, her home. “So we’re alone now? Who’s looking out for us?”

“You’ve not had much use for me for a long time. You’ll all do fine.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Nothing’s sure, Carrie. You just have to see what happens. That’s the trick, remember?”

“It’s not a trick. It’s life. It’s the world.”

“No, it’s that bit there.” He pointed across the rolling grey waves to the seam that divided the whole universe in two. “Where the sky meets the sea. The…what was it? The line that separates the world from infinity? Yes. I like that. That’s life. That’s the world, where you all live.”

“It doesn’t seem much.”

“It isn’t. You’re gone in the blink of an eye. But think of all the things you can do and be in that blink. There’s no time to waste, you know.” He stood up slowly, stretching out his long legs with a wince and a crack of old bones, tipped his cap one more time and was gone.

Carrie went back to London and she tried to write her article. It didn’t come though. Lost in the grey towers of the big city, she couldn’t recapture what she’d felt sitting on the wharf. A month later, she lost her job. After the initial panic faded, she knew exactly what she had to do. She went back home, to her old house by the sea, and she never left again. Small as that place seemed from outside, it was where she belonged, in that place between the ocean and the sky.

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