Short Story: The Turning Tide
Eleanor cradles Thomas in her arms again while he weeps. She reminds him, her eyes closed against the darkness that threatens to engulf them both, of the long hot days in Egypt.
“Remember,” she whispers, feeling the salt of his tears trickle down over her neck and into the hollow of her shoulder. “Remember the feel of the water as you stepped off the back of the boat , how it raced up to meet you, to embrace you. Remember bobbing up to the surface, slipping your mask over your face and the snorkel into your mouth. Remember the coral? Oh, Thomas, remember the first time, like a garden stretching away into the darkness, the thousands of fishes, their colours shimmering in the sunlight.”
He is still weeping but the sobbing has reduced and, apart from the occasional sigh, she can feel the memory soothing.
“On the first day at Nakari, when we were warned about the lionfish… remember how we waded out at dawn, crossing the beach where the hermit crabs scurried away from our feet? Remember stepping into the waves, kicking off, leaving the shore? Remember the young barracuda who shimmered in the morning light, his eyes glinting, just on the edge of the reef? Remember how he drifted with the current, his long thin body ramrod straight, his savage mouth open. Remember the turtle feeding on the coral where we swam over the dark reef hand in hand, excited as children.”
Eleanor feels her heart quicken at the memory, so fresh even though the day she recalls was over ten years ago. Recounting into the dark like this has become their ritual. The present has become too remote for Thomas.
As his breathing slows into the softer rhythm of sleep, wakefulness holds her, beached and lonely in the bed they no longer share except for times like this. Her mind drifts back to when this horror began.
She remembers occasions only, like jellyfish drifting by. The questions:
“Where are my glasses? My wallet? My shoes? Turning over time into accusations. “What have you done with my car keys? Why can’t you leave things where I put them? What is the matter with you?” And more recently, “Who are you?”
She can barely pinpoint when the odd lapses of memory began to drift over them with their savage promise of deeper darker times to come.
At first they had laughed, but over months and then years the laughter had begun to turn to frustration, irritation and finally, after the incidents in Wales, to fear and dread.
Eleanor lies as still as she can, hoping to prolong this gentle intimacy, Thomas’s head heavy on her shoulder, her arm already succumbing to numbness.
The DAY… THAT day four years ago. That day when the problem took on another more sinister form, when it came out of the shadows and slunk into the family so everyone could see it, rose up and brought a shiver with it. Now she wonders how she could have been so foolish not to see what their son, Ed, and his wife, Maria, brought fully into the light.
It had been a glorious day. The family all together at the cottage in Pembrokeshire. A beach day, a day for kayaking with the older grandchildren and for building sandcastles with little Emily, pink and sunkissed under her bonnet.
They had not noticed at first that Grandpa was missing but by three o’clock, Eleanor’s assertions that he must have gone for a walk were not enough. It was Ed who went in search of his father and Ed who brought him back to them.
Later that night, when order seemed to have been restored, when supper was eaten, Thomas was excused from his storytelling duties, complaining of tiredness, and laughed to bed with good-natured teasing for his advanced age and inability to keep up. It was only after he had gone and the dishes had been cleared away that Maria, always the sensible daughter-in-law, her detachment by blood allowing her clear sight, spoke the dread into full form
Eleanor had protested. Don’t be silly, she had insisted, Thomas was tired, he had lost track of time. The sun had made him forgetful.
Ed had taken her hand. Her beautiful child, the tender golden-haired boy of her heart, now a man with lines about his eyes and more hair upon his chin than upon his head, had folded his great paw around her small fingers as she recalled having done to him so many times, and so long ago.
How could there be such reversal, she wondered, even now wanting distraction and denial and the sweet spare moments before facing the encroaching truth that would break everything and everyone.
Ed had found his father wandering vague and confused on the cliff path less than half a mile away. “He didn’t know me, Mum,” he had told Eleanor gently and then: “You know something is wrong. We all know something is wrong. We have to get him to see a doctor.”
But the days that followed seemed to make a lie of all that. The mornings saw Thomas embrace the day with laughter and energy. He was his old funny self. They even made love again, as they had used to do. Leisurely, tenderly, laughingly, as people who knew each other’s bodies as well as their own. So sweet the memory now of the fading blue of his eyes, the smiling curve of his lips, her name spoken with love into the shell of her ear to lie there forever like a pearl.
Looking back, Eleanor saw that she had known it would not last, had worked hard to ensure nothing was lost, that nothing challenged the sweetness. Now, now that she could feel the tension that consumed her body in every waking moment and invaded the dark rare hours of exhausted sleep, she recalled setting her will against the encroaching darkness. Her strength would make everything well again.
On the last day, when the tide laid siege to the battlements of sand that the children had raised to make the day last forever, when the bags were almost packed and the special shells stowed into pockets, she felt a cold one-fingered touch, a breath of a breeze through intolerable heat and she looked up to full recognition that her will was not enough.
There he was, fully dressed in preparation for the car drive home, laden with backpacks and children’s buckets and spades. There he was her love, her dear one. He was up to his hips in the soft swell of the ocean and stepping heavily deeply onward his head held high.
It was Sarah, angry eldest granddaughter, stepping herself into furious adolescence, who shouted for him. Eleanor wondered now how long she might have remained watching, frozen, aware that others on the beach were commenting, pointing, looking about for an explanation.
Sometimes she allows herself the half-acknowledged feeling from that time wanted him to keep going, to walk slowly ever onwards attired and burdened by the accoutrements of life, until his head disappeared from view, until the water had utterly taken him.
She imagines that by now the sea would have divested him of all that he had carried, gently turning all that had held him to life into tatters and finally to nothing.
She sees him walking, this beloved companion, upon the jewel littered floor of the ocean. She watches him He is unperturbed by tides and storms, straight-backed and peaceful slowly circling the undersea globe, his bare feet dispersing the sand in soft clouds, his head crowned with the wild and the beautiful shoals of jewel-bright fishes who have their habitual home deep beneath the waves.
Shifting slowly now in the hospital bed that is all the world that Thomas now knows, she tries to ease the numbness in her arm without waking him. She rises reluctantly kissing his slack mouth and rearranging the blanket about his shoulders.
She wraps the day about herself imagining the beach towel drying softness upon her skin from those gone days even as she raises the bars that will save him from falling from the bed. She slips on her confining shoes and she goes out into the hallway without looking back.
Squaring her shoulders, straightening her back, she is relinquishing him to the less tender care of Dorothy and Helen and the patronising but kindly Anna, to the routines of the nursing home that are the tides that define their lives now. She nods to the irritable girl who works the night shifts and whose name she cannot ever remember and steps out into the dry, unyielding solidity of the night, alone.