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The Grey Sea

Eluned Gramich


Twelve fictions about the future of Europe
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Pau Badia (@nomdenoia)
27 May 2019

She was waiting for me by the village clock-tower, wearing a hat and a long blue coat buttoned up to the chin. A soft bag lay on the ground at her feet. When I got closer, she waved at me and said:

“Hello, I’m Frena.”

Her voice was cheerful, which was surprising. The foreigners were usually irritable from travelling all day in Big Ianto’s van. “You’re Iestyn, right?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah.”

“It’s from the Latin for justice. Iustitia. I looked it up online,” she explained, smiling.

No one had ever looked up my name online before. I didn’t know what to say, so I picked up her bag and started walking down the street. The girl followed me, holding her hat against the late summer breeze. It was decorated with golden flowers made of cloth.

It was a long walk from Dwynod to the house, but the girl didn’t complain. She asked questions about the village: population, industry, language issues. I just smiled and shrugged; I didn’t know the answers. I was sixteen back then and didn’t go to school as often as I should have. A wave of tiredness came over me as she talked, wishing I could be left alone during my school-free weeks for once. Instead, I’d have to spend my holiday playing tour guide again. At least this one was beautiful.

Mam was in the kitchen when we arrived. She was leaning against the counter, smoking over the sink with the window open. Her housecoat, once lilac, was now a washed-out grey. Frank Sinatra drifted into the room from the radio she kept by the stove.

Mam looked up, stubbed her cigarette out on a saucer.

“Welcome.” Her English always sounded awkward. “I’ll boil the kettle, is it? What do you drink?”

The girl insisted she would have whatever we had, exactly the way we prepared it. “With milk if I must!”

“Tea it is then,” said Mam, taking the good cups down. The table had been covered in a thick white tablecloth, with lace runners, dainty forks, and a pair of sugar tongs we never used.

Frena offered to the help but Mam waved her away. No need, she said, so the girl turned her attention to the family photograph by the door. It showed all three of us sitting on what’s left of Dwynod castle: Mam on the right, Dad on the left, me in the middle, a podgy kid with a stupid grin on my face. That was before the separation and the trouble with the farm, and long before the accident down by Lôntywod cove. The girl stared at the picture more than I’d have liked. At least she didn’t ask about Dad. Perhaps someone from the agency had briefed her.

“You have a beautiful home,” she said. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have a something for you.”

As she took her bag from my shoulder, her hands brushed my chest causing an unexpected tingling sensation to spread across my skin. I stepped back, a little disturbed by her touch.

“It’s nothing special,” Frena said, producing the gift. Mam unwrapped it, taking care not to rip the coloured paper, revealing a wood carving of a squat, long-haired dog. She peered at it, turning it in her hands.

“Why that’s lovely, thank you,” she said blankly, before slipping it into the pocket of her housecoat.

“I was told about this farm. I thought, ah! They’ll like dogs.”

Mam poured the hot water; three teabags in one pot. This wasn’t the first time one of the visitors had talked about ‘the farm’. The truth was we lived in a farm house. Mam had sold the land years ago after Dad died, along with the animals. It went cheap since half the land couldn’t be worked because of the floods.

Frena took off her coat, revealing a dress that no one in the village would ever wear, a bright patchwork smock. She caught Mam and I exchanging glances:

“I stitched it myself,” she explained.

“Very nice.” Mam made all our clothes with the Singer machine in the front room. She handed over the paned. “There’s biscuits in the tin.”

“Delicious, thank you.”

The agency sent us boys because I was a boy. They usually put boys with boys, girls with girls, and I don’t know why it was different this time. I was ten when Mam started the business. We were the only ‘host family’ in that part of the world. Other families in Dwynod didn’t like the idea of strangers in their home whereas Mam didn’t mind. Also, we needed the money. We were in demand because there were so few of us. Wealthy parents from the Continent wanted their children shipped off somewhere isolated, quaint. I know they were wealthy because the visa was expensive, so were the flights, and there were extra costs levied by the local council that came in after the separation. Taxes and things. The visitors came from big cities on the Continent, used to another kind of life. They brought laptops and phones and special devices on their wrists that measured their heart-rate. When they came down to dinner and saw bread, butter, and tinned ham on the table, they snapped photos secretly and sent them to their families. They’d probably wanted to go to the USA. But it didn’t matter: they learned some English, Mam got paid, and I knew we’d never see them again.

“They’re young. They don’t know any better,” Mam said.

Once a boy complained about our food so much he had his parents send a parcel. It got stopped at the border, of course, and he threw a tantrum when Mam refused to drive to town to get it. He said we lived off fat and bread like in the dark ages and it was a miracle we didn’t have rickets. Mam didn’t say anything to that: she turned her head coolly to the side and didn’t speak to him until the day he left.

After tea, I showed the girl to her room. “Is this really all you’ve got?” I asked when she dropped her bag on the bed. “Most people who come here bring, like, three or four suitcases. You know you can’t buy much around here.”

“That’s great! What you buy doesn’t make you who you are, right?”

I didn’t know what to say to that either.

Her room used to belong to my parents. That’s why it had a double-bed, a wardrobe, and a view over the front garden. Mam had taken to sleeping downstairs on the sofa bed, a fact which she hid from the visitors.

The girl seemed to like it. “Everything’s so old and precious.”

“If you say so,” I said.

*

A few days later, Mam arranged for Big Ianto to take us to the coast. We were to join a community walk with some of the retired folk of Dwynod that Mam had read about in the local paper. I could tell Mam hadn’t been sleeping; she wanted us out of the house.

Frena was excited about the plan. There was no sea where she came from, she explained, as she wrapped our egg sandwiches in newspaper. It was one of the reasons she’d chosen Dwynod for her English ‘immersion’, because she loved swimming in the wild. Actually, she said, she’d had to fight for a place here. It seemed the agency had been fussy about the girls-with-girls rule.

My jaw tightened, hearing about her desire to swim out there, in the Irish Sea.

“It’s bloody freezing,” I warned.

She turned to me, grinning.

“I’m serious, it’s dangerous. It’s so cold your heart might stop.”

I looked to Mam for support, but she was staring out of the kitchen window, waiting for a sign of the van, an unlit cigarette in hand.

*

“It must be nice for you, having a friend stay over the summer, like. Gets a bit lonely I imagine,” said Ianto, glancing at the rear-view mirror.

I shrugged. It never felt lonely to me. I had Mam, and every week or so I’d hitch a lift to the Young Farmer’s club where I spent my pocket money on pints with the others.

“Is your mother okay?” Frena asked. I bristled, knowing Big Ianto could hear.

“Course she is.”

She was silent for a moment. “Did I say something wrong?”

I shook my head.

“Is she always like that?” she said after another pause. “Quiet, I mean.”

“Well, what is there to talk about?”

Ianto laughed. “Yn union, gyfaill! Yn union.” Exactly.

A prickly silence took shape and grew between us. Frena could be so difficult. With the previous visitors, I’d been happy to ignore them, and they’d been only too happy to ignore me, playing on their phones all day and their laptops at night. But Frena didn’t come with any of that. God, she seemed to run on endless questions. And she was always throwing herself into some activity or other, running up and down the stairs, making the whole house shake; forcing me to go on walks, or sew, or paint with this stupid watercolour set she had. One morning, she’d greeted me in my first language —Bore da!— and it disturbed me so much that I climbed back up to my bedroom. She didn’t seem to understand that it was different here: Dwynod wasn’t a place you came to marvel at. Dwynod was a place where you got on with things as best you could, and tried not to think about anything too much. Frena’s delight struck me as a kind of wilful blindness to shitty reality. I thought I hated her.

“Iestyn, please don’t be annoyed.”

Her face was angled towards me, her dark eyes, the long mouth. The dappled light moved down her body as we drove.

My lips went dry. I said, “I’m not annoyed.”

She touched the back of my hand in a friendly way. “There’s so much I want to know about you and the farm. Like, what was it like before the separation?”

“We don’t talk about that,” said Big Ianto, turning the volume up on the radio. “Don’t want to hear that fucking word in my vehicle.”

“I’m sorry...” Frena squeezed her eyes shut and for one frightening moment I thought Ianto had made her cry, so I returned her friendly gesture, touched her hand where it lay on her thigh, and instead of ignoring it, she took it in hers and held it for the rest of the journey.

*

The place where the Ramblers met —that’s what the walkers called themselves— was a layby several miles west of Dwynod. Here they parked their Range Rovers and consulted laminated maps spread out on the bonnets. The Ramblers were retired or, at least, non-working people from the area. I knew them as grandparents of people at school.

“Who’s this, then, Iestyn?”

They were curious about Frena; she was so open and eager, blossoming under their inquiries. Also, she was wearing a pair of corduroy trousers that everyone agreed was the worst possible thing to wear for a long walk. “And how are you liking it here?”

“It’s wonderful, really, I’ve been learning so much, all this nature, you know, and meeting interesting people. Iestyn showed me pigs yesterday. I’d never seen a real one before. They’re so big!”

The Ramblers laughed but I burned with embarrassment. I thought they could see inside me, work out my real motive for showing Frena Dafydd Llangrest’s Tamworths; for taking her down the flower-dusted track to Dafydd’s farm. Hopeful, stupid.

At least, today would be different. The ramblers entertained her while I finally enjoyed my own company again, like Mam back home. I wondered, as we picked our way through the brambles, what she was doing while we were gone? I imagined her putting a record on, sitting on the armchair, legs crossed, eyes closed, content. I imagined Padi there too, lying on her stockinged feet, warming them, and I realised that this was an impossible scene, because our dog Padi had fallen ill two years ago and Dafydd Llangerch had had to put her down.

Don’t think, I said to myself, just walk. It was strenuous, the coastal path, because of how it rose and fell. The path was itself badly eroded; in some places swept away completely, so we had to shimmy down on our backsides. The Ramblers were experts at it, even though some were in their seventies; wiry and strong, with an experienced eye on the rocks and tide. The sea was a deep grey, hardly distinguishable from the sky. But I didn’t look too carefully at the water, only I heard Frena talking about it again, asking if there was a place where she could go in.

“There’s a little cove by Lôntywod,” one of the women said. I knew her as Efa Dynbych. “It’s where we’re heading. After that, the going gets tough. The sea’s swallowed up most of the coast south of there. When the tide’s low, you can see the roofs and streetlamps of Lôntywod as it used to be.”

I didn’t like this talk of the sunken village. I slowed my pace, dropping back. Don’t think of Mam, I told myself. Don’t think of Lôntywod or the separation. Don’t think of the sea. There were simply too many things not to think about. At least there was Frena in her odd, affecting clothes, striding ahead. The yellow-flowered hat hid her face. When she’d held my hand, her skin had been soft and a little cold until it became as warm as mine.

Don’t think of Frena, I thought. She’s going to leave soon.

It was better, in fact, to think of nothing in particular; better to disassociate, let myself be carried off alone, safe, on still waters.

“Oh my god!” someone exclaimed in English. Then I saw Frena running down to where there was a cleft in the side of the cliff. She disappeared into the rock, then reappeared again a second later.

“A cave!”

“That’s not just any cave,” said Efa Dynbych. “It’s where a hermit used to live a thousand years ago. You can see the carvings in the rock. That cross, there, see?”

If I had known we were coming here, I would have stayed at home. I wasn’t sure this was the place —I had been so young when it happened— but I sensed we weren’t far off. The sun was breaking through the cloud, blinding. The Ramblers took off their backpacks and settled down to eat their lunch. I joined them while trying not to think about Dad.

“What a horrible life,” Frena was saying. “Imagine sitting in this hole all day, alone, cold and hungry.”

“People would have visited, asking for miracles.”

“But look how small it is! Iestyn, look!” She dragged me into the hermit’s den by the arm. The air was crisp with limestone. It was bigger than it looked from the outside, but still her hip pressed against mine. Her hair smelt of honey. I wouldn’t mind, I thought, living here. Either alone, or with company.

“Urgh. Horrible,” Frena declared, shuffling back out. “It has this awful atmosphere, don’t you think?”

“It’s okay.”

Once outside, she breathed in the salty air deeply, almost longingly, while gazing at the shore. “I’ll go for a swim. Don’t eat all the sandwiches, will you?” She laughed, turning to go.

I grabbed her arm. “Don’t.”

“Why not?” She laughed again, as if I were playing.

“It’s not safe.”

The Ramblers looked at each other; I knew what they were thinking. Efa Dynbych laid a hand on my shoulder.

“She’s only going for a dip, Iestyn.” This was said with pity.

“The sea’s unpredictable,” I said. It was a word I’d often heard after the accident.

“She’ll be alright.”

“Why don’t you come with me?” Frena suggested. “We can look out for each other.”

“No thanks.”

Still, I followed her down to the beach, looked away as she took off her clothes, watched her again as she advanced into the sea in nothing but a pair of white pants. The water lapped over her feet and she squealed. “You were right. Freezing!” I couldn’t ignore her breasts, how her nipples turned slightly upwards, or her stomach which was round and soft-looking. “Iestyn?”

I crossed my arms; shouted: “Don’t go too far.”

“Alright Dad!”

I groaned. The sea seemed wilder now that she was in the water, the waves rolling in fiercely in a blaze of white foam. Her dark skin stood out against the pale, grubby-looking water. But then, when she plunged into the sea, she no longer stood out. As she swam out towards the ocean, her arms were the only part of her visible above the waves. “That’s too far,” I murmured. I couldn’t help but think about the day Big Ianto had come to take us to the coroner’s office in town to identify the body. And that other day, earlier on, when I was a kid and the separation was new, and the problems with the farm were just beginning, when Dad took me to see the hermit’s cave. It was on that walk that he told me how the brain released endorphins when you could no longer breathe, and if he were to take his own life, he would choose drowning. I remembered how I’d decided to say nothing.

“Frena! That’s enough now! Frena!”

Her arms were no longer visible above the spray. Only the dark crown of her head, moving further and further out. “Frena!”

Don’t think, I told myself. Disassociate.

But it was difficult, impossible to ignore what was unfolding in front of me. My heart was beating wildly in my chest. “Frena!”

I looked back. The Ramblers had moved to a patch of grass high up on the cliff. I waved my arms, but they didn’t react. I shouted at them. I screamed. Nothing. I was on my own. My fists were clenched, nails digging into flesh. Shit, oh god, shit. I turned to face the sea again, the rough, heaving current, dragging the girl away. “Please not again. Come back, come back.” An arm shot up into the air, a hand, then was gone.

Don’t think.

I kicked off my shoes.

Don’t think.

And got ready for the freezing water.