Stained with Salt Water
The North Sea is shaped like a funnel so
when a storm breaks from the north
and forces the water south
it is unable to
Norfolk Coast – 31st of January 1953
In summer, when the lavender’s in full bloom, a heady perfume scents the air and the rows of purple flowers thrum and quiver with bees. The pickers in the fields chatter and sing as they sweat under the searing sun.
Winter brings quiet, the pickers long gone. The bees have taken the pollen and the nectar and retreated to their hives. The oil has been extracted from the flowers, distilled in a giant vat. The sweet fragrance which suffuses the fields in June and July, disperses with the harvest; instead, the north wind bears the briny smell of the sea. The plants – stripped of their rich purple robes – have morphed into pale, woody, skeletons.
Isla too, is pale, in winter. She toils each day, in a hut on the lavender farm, pipetting oil from a copper still into tiny glass bottles until her thumb and forefinger cramp like a crab’s claw. Her head throbs and she retches at fumes which will linger in her nostrils long after she finishes work.
Today, when she retches, she knows that she will vomit. She goes outside into the cold, behind the hut where she can’t be seen, and casts a curdled liquid on to the frozen soil.
When Isla cycles the coast road home, she struggles for breath and her thighs burn as she pedals hard against the bitter wind. The tide is curiously high, waves hissing and foaming, and seagulls scream as they fly low over the sea. The sky turns the colour of mustard and throws a jaundiced light across the water. Clouds of spume, a sickly yellow, tumble across the beach.
Isla’s mother is bustling around the bungalow’s kitchen, wearing a red dress usually reserved for Christmas, a starched-white apron on top.
‘Hullo, Mum. You look nice.’
‘Hullo, Love. Good day?’
‘Tiring. You’re still going to the dance then?’
‘Aye, and back to the Websters after. We’re not afraid of a tempest. You’re very pale, Love. And shivering.’
‘I’ll have a bath. Turn in early.’
‘We could stay home.’
‘No! I’ll be fine.’ Isla hears the panic in her voice. ‘You can’t miss the dance,’ she adds, in a lighter tone.
‘Suit yourself. What’s it like out?’ Isla’s mother peers through the window at the sea.
‘A bit foul.’
‘In Lynn they’re saying the tides aren’t getting away as they should.’
‘It’ll be all right. Where’s Dad?’
‘Making himself respectable. Take your coat off, Love. A cup of tea will warm you up.’
The front door blows shut with a bang. Isla hovers for a few minutes, for fear her parents will change their minds. When she goes to the bathroom and switches on the light, the bulb flickers, fizzles, dies. Moonlight shines through the window and the white squares of the chequered linoleum gleam as bright as limestone in the sun. The ferocious roar of the wind and the waves unnerves her.
Isla crouches by the bath, puts in the plug and turns the hot tap. The water sputters as it trickles out and she waits for it warm up. Gusts rattle the window frame and the icy draft soothes her headache and queasy stomach. When steam rises from the tub, swirling in the moonlight like a sea fog, she sprinkles bath salts into the scalding water. A cloud scuds in front of the moon and the room falls dark; it’s too draughty to light a candle. Outside, halyards chime hauntingly against the fishing boats’ masts. She shivers and relishes the thought of the hot bath. It will take an age to fill so she goes to the living room and lies down.
The springs of the threadbare sofa dig into Isla’s aching back and she feels older than her seventeen years. She glances at the photograph of her mother who clutches her – a newborn swaddled in a white blanket – joy and disbelief on her face; married at twenty, pregnant at forty. When her periods stopped and her belly bulged, Isla’s mother confided in a friend. ‘Why, it’s the change,’ the friend whispered. ‘It can start around now.’ But when the fear of a tumour took her to the doctor, he pressed cold hands on her belly and smiled. ‘There’s a baby in there,’ he said. ‘Ten inches long and weighing half a pound I would think.’
Isla peels back her cardigan, sweater, blouse, and vest and stares at her bloated belly: mapped with veins – blue-grey like the sea under a leaden sky. She traces the faint, vertical line with her finger. Nobody knows. Not a soul. In winter she is bundled up against the cold, works alone; nobody has witnessed her vomiting or slumped over a table, head resting on the backs of her hands. Nonetheless, the baby cannot remain a secret and as it grows so does Isla’s dread of telling her parents; she prays that her mother will be relieved that she hasn’t struggled to conceive too, a buffer for the shock and the shame. But before she tells her parents, she has to tell Jack. The rain drums a loud, staccato beat on the corrugated roof; Isla’s heart beats loudly too.
Six months earlier the fields were awash with laughter. The pickers arrived at the farm not long after dawn, spirits high in the race to harvest the last of the lavender. As the sun crept across the sky, the flowers changed from grey to blue to purple. Throughout the day, the pickers handed buckets filled with stems to the supervisor in exchange for metal discs which they slipped into the pockets of their dungarees.
When a lorry full of American airmen pulled up next to the field, Isla stopped and straightened, shielded her eyes from the sun. One of the men whistled, smiled, gestured for her to join him. She blushed and hesitated but her friend, Lottie, strolled over; the man jumped off the lorry. Isla strained to hear the conversation as Lottie flirted and laughed, hands on hips.
‘What did he say?’ The pickers swarmed round Lottie when she came back to the field.
‘He asked what we were doing this evening. “Well,” I said. “Seeing you.”’
At the end of the afternoon, Isla swapped her hoard of discs for wages. She washed at the sink in the locker room, applied ointment to the callus on her hand where the sickle had chafed. She queued for the mirror, untied her sun-streaked hair and changed into her tea dress – sky-blue with a cherry print, a sixteenth birthday present from her parents.
Giddy, from the sun and the joy of the end of the harvest, the pickers’ high-pitched excitement filled the air like a flock of swallows chirping. They walked through the village to the beach, Isla arm in arm with Lottie, stopping off at the pub to buy beer. As Isla unfolded a tartan blanket on to the sand, she heard voices and turned to see the six airmen from earlier. The man Lottie had spoken to was called Jack and his tanned face was almost as brown as his eyes. The airmen sat down, opened beers, handed out cigarettes; they talked about missing home, Hershey’s versus Cadbury’s, GI brides, the Norfolk accent.
At first Jack sat next to one of the other girls but the third time he caught Isla’s eye he stood up, ambled over and asked if he could join her. He offered her a bottle of beer and looked across the sea towards Lincolnshire as he opened it; the Wash shimmered, glass-like, a swathe of silver-blue except for the shadows of the sandbanks. ‘It’s beautiful, huh?’
‘Yes, it is.’ Isla replied.
‘But you call that the ocean?’ Jack laughed. ‘It’s still as a mill pond.’
‘We do get waves. Now and again.’
‘At home we get waves fifteen feet high. Perhaps I can show you some day.’
‘I’ve never even been outside Norfolk.’
‘You got plenty of time. Hey, do you wanna take a stroll?’
‘I’d love to.
Isla swayed as she stood up. Jack took her hand amidst whoops and whistles. They meandered along the beach, marvelling at the sunset. When the orange orb slipped below the horizon, they stopped in the dunes, sat in a clearing, drank, smoked, kissed.
Isla opened her eyes. A light on a fishing boat sparkled in the blue-black water. When she sat up her head was spinning and her stomach churned. The light was not from a boat; it was the Dog Star, the brightest in the sky. She was cold and naked, her sunburnt skin grazed by the sand, marram grass pricking her limbs. She made out Jack’s dark form: asleep on his side, curled up in a ball.
He woke with a start, glanced around. ‘I guess we fell asleep. You OK?’
‘I have to get home. My parents will be worried sick.’ Isla grappled with her dress, fumbled with the buttons, shivered. Jack slipped his serge jacket around her shoulders; the fabric was heavy, its texture rough against her arms. ‘I’ll walk you back,’ he said.
It was only when Isla hurried from the beach on to the road that that she noticed that her feet were bare.
Isla returned to the dunes the next evening, struggled to remember where they’d stopped. When she spotted her bra and knickers – neither discreetly camouflaged under a sea campion, nor half-buried in the sand, but splayed in the clearing like bunting – shame rendered her face scarlet. The underwear glowed whiter than the feathers of the gull who stared at her through black, reproachful eyes. She grabbed the garments and sandals – still buckled – and stuffed everything into her bag. She wished there had been a violent storm, that the water had surged beyond the strandline, swept the evidence out to sea. She scuttled away, did not notice scuffs in the sand, a handprint, flattened grasses, a crushed razor shell, cigarette butts, a patch of reddish-brown beside a sea holly.
A month later, at five to five on a Friday, after a day of typing letters and filing invoices in the stuffy office under the eaves of the house at the lavender farm, Isla locked the cabinets, ran down the stairs and left the building. A figure, in blue uniform and a peaked cap, was standing at the end of the path by the field gate. When he turned, Isla’s heart thumped and she beamed.
‘Hey,’ Jack called. ‘I hoped I’d catch you. Would you like to get a drink?’
Isla never knew when Jack would be waiting at the gate, but each time he called for her, it was little sooner, and each time he said goodbye, it was a little harder. ‘You’ll cross the Atlantic for him,’ Lottie teased. ‘The Queen Elizabeth will take you away.’
Isla wakes up and runs to the bathroom. Water cascades over the side of the bath. She switches off the tap and rolls up her sleeve, plunging her arm into the water – which has run cold – and pulls out the plug. In her haste, she knocks over a bottle of lavender oil; the top falls off and pungent globules float in the pool on the floor. As the bath drains, she grabs a cloth and mops the lino. She curses as she wrings the cloth: why tonight? She has ten minutes. Her hands reek of lavender and she scrubs them and washes her face, applies mascara and lipstick, brushes her hair. She struggles into her tea dress, it’s tighter now; she puts a thick, woollen cardigan on top. The howling wind and incessant rattling and clanking frighten her.
Jack is late. Isla opens the front door to look for him and a gust wrenches the knob from her hand and blows the door against the wall. Rainwater forms puddles in the hallway and papers flit round the bungalow like trapped birds. Enormous waves arc the coast road and crash in the garden. Isla’s face stings – the spray is filled with shingle whipped up from the beach – and she rubs grit from her eyes. She can make out shrubs and bushes dancing to the roar of the waves. A crack makes her jump; the roof of the coal shed lifts into the air and the sides collapse. The roof somersaults across the garden into the low brick wall. She covers her belly with her hands; she doubts the wooden prefab is much stronger than the shed. Using all her weight, she forces the front door shut.
Isla makes some toast and dripping and a cup of tea; she doesn’t know what else to do. She huddles under a blanket on the sofa and worries about Jack and her parents; she switches on the radio: Harry Davidson and his Orchestra – an uplifting waltz. A round of applause echoes the rain on the roof. The baby kicks and reminds Isla that she is not alone. ‘We’ll be all right,’ she says. ‘Your daddy will be here soon. I’ll tell him about you tonight. I really will. I think he’ll look after us. And even if he doesn’t, we’ll be all right.’ The lights go out. The radio pops, crackles, dies. Isla’s breathing is hard and heavy. The curtains flap in the wind; she opens them wide to let in fleeting moonlight but a gust snatches them from her hands and the curtains twist and twirl like a kite as the wind breaches every crack in the house. She stares out of the window: the ground is churning, a watery swell; the garden has been engulfed by the sea. She feels her way into the kitchen and finds the torch in the dresser, returns to the living room, shuts the door.
Water laps and splashes: quiet, close. Isla shines the torch. The sea is encroaching, seeping, now spurting, through the gap underneath the door. She drags the dining table across the room to block the onslaught but the door bursts open. The sea is in the living room up to her calves. She clambers on to the sofa. The sofa is her ship. A tang of fish and sewage makes her retch. Saucepans clang and crockery and glasses smash in the kitchen. A wave soaks her legs, her crotch. She slides off the sofa and wades towards the door but the table overturns and hits her forehead. The force of the current knocks her under the water; when she comes up – coughing and spitting salted sludge – she is unable to fight the power of the sea. She pulls off her heavy, sodden cardigan and retreats with the flow to her bedroom. A chair sweeps into her path; she grabs it, holds it down on the floor. After two attempts she stands on it and manoeuvres herself into the space between the top of the built-in wardrobe and the ceiling. The bungalow shakes but the wardrobe stands firm, water sloshing in and out of its doors. Isla shivers uncontrollably and her feet and fingers throb and tingle but the baby is safe, she tells herself, in its warm, calm fluid. The water rises over the bed … over the bookcase … a bunch of dried lavender floats on the surface … a wastepaper bin bobs up and down, flips, disappears … The top of the bookcase re-emerges, and then the bedstead; the sea is retreating … An eight-foot wall of water smashes into the bungalow.
Jack works with the rescue team throughout the night. Wearing a rubber suit, he rows up and down the flooded coast road in a dinghy, fighting storm force winds, rain, sleet, snow. He navigates wreckage and bodies by torchlight, as squalls toy with his boat as though it is made of paper. He helps two dozen people from the roofs of their bungalows. He witnesses a dead woman hanging upside down in a bush, skirt billowing around her head. When the dinghy hits a cow – fifteen hundred pounds of muscle, eyes glazed, hooves pointing heavenwards – it capsizes and Jack is tossed into the ice cold torrent. He comes to the surface, water up to his neck. Rats, sheltering in a palm tree, scream as they drop to their deaths beside him. With immense effort, he rights the boat, clambers back in and collapses.
The current is calmer now and Jack drifts in and out of sleep. He wakes to the eerie, dissonant chords of a funeral toll. He switches on his torch: a piano – played by the force of the water – floats past the dinghy on its back, ivory keys luminescent.
When dawn breaks and the water abates, Jack returns to the shell of Isla’s prefab. He scrambles over the rubble that was the low brick wall of the garden. He stoops to avoid the sunken roof as he ventures through the open side of the bungalow; the interior walls have been flattened. He checks underneath the upturned bath, a legless bed; it takes only a few moments to confirm her absence. He searches the garden, steps over broken furniture, smashed crockery, clothes, blankets; everything is drenched, coated in slimy mud and sand. A pale pink starfish, glinting in the sunlight, lies on the grass. All is quiet, except for the odd shout, ‘Over here!’ from an exhausted rescuer and the thrum of an RAF plane which flies low over the lavender fields, surveying a deformed, deluged landscape.
Jack finds Isla’s body under a splintered plank of wood. Her face is bruised and her sallow cheeks smudged with the mascara she applied so quickly last night; a scarlet gash parts her forehead. Jack slumps to his knees, his breathing fast and shallow. He swallows as he untangles bladderwrack from her hair. The sky-blue dress with the cherry print is streaked white, stained with salt water.
Sophie Hampton is a short story writer whose fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in anthologies and magazines including The London Magazine, Southword, the Bristol and Bath short story anthologies and The View From Here. Competition success includes winning the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Prize, the London Magazine Short Story Prize and the HISSAC Prize. She has shortlisted for numerous competitions including Bridport, Bristol, Bath and Fish and longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia.
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Image credit: Stormy Sea, Bertus Dokter