Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   g a y e   j e e   ~   c r o w b o r o u g h ,   e a s t   s u s s e x ,   e n g l a n d

I TAKE a deep breath and dive. The water plugs my ears, then fizzes and sings in the tiny interlocking spaces in my skull as I approach the sea bed.

On the bottom lies a corpse of a young woman, her long hair drifting and swaying. I dive down and brush the sand and small nibbling fishes away from her face. She looks familiar. Something about the sensual mouth and strong jaw. Her eyes are gone; ragged holes give her face an expression of incredulity.

Something familiar about her.

The air in my lungs is fighting to get free and in a great surge of bubbles I break the surface. I wonder why I don't feel terrified at what I have just discovered. As I wade from the sea, all the buoyancy leaves my body and once more my sixty-year-old flesh drags at the fabric of my black bathing costume.

Claire is shading her eyes with her hand.

"Mum! Where did you get to? You've been gone ages!"

I find I am not ready to tell her.

"Where are the children?" I say. She looks at me angrily.

"Mum, we thought you'd drowned, I've sent them to find help."

She fusses around me, this woman who was my child. She thinks I am too old to be allowed out on my own. The children run back across the sand, accompanied by the worried-looking manager of our hotel.

"It's okay," I say to him. "I was just away for a bit longer than they expected.

He looks relieved. The last thing he needs is to arrange a search party for someone who's old enough to know better. I lay my hand on Claire's arm.

"Come on, I'll buy us all an ice cream."

Why don't I say anything about the body? The empty face haunts me, yet I don't know why it should seem familiar. I decide not to think about it yet, to relax as I have been told I must.

The holiday, a retirement gift from my daughter, takes me back to the island I visited with James. The cove is encircled with cheap hotels now. When we first came, there were a few villas and a single small café.

Later, as I lie on my narrow white bed, the shutters open to admit moonlight and mosquitoes alike, I think of James. In a room like this we explored each other's burning skin. There was just such a moon as this lapping silver over our pushed-together beds.

And maybe you aren't supposed to remember things like that when you become a grandmother. Maybe you should expunge from your mind all which is not grandmotherly, deny to yourself that there was ever a life in which you were the central player, not some bit-part actor brought on to help with the children or sit around grey-haired, smiling and grateful at Christmas.

I think of James, the silky pelt of black hair on his slim belly. And my own golden body drowsy with love.

Early the next morning the children pile into my room, and throw themselves on the bed laughing and punching each other. Julia and Thomas. How I love them. And how they consume me.

"Gran, Mum said you came here with our Grandad in the olden days," says nine-year-old Julia.

"They didn't seem like the olden days to us," I say. "We were only about ten years older than you. And very much in love."

This is a mistake. Both children start whooping derisively. They know the very idea of Gran ever being young and physically attractive is ridiculous.

"Gran loved Grandad!" they chant as they spring from the bed to the chair. Just then, Claire comes in.

"Come on you two, let Gran get dressed in peace."

There's a tense little inverted vee between her eyes. It's strange watching your own child grow older. You remember her rounded and plum smooth. Then one day you take a closer look and see the early wrinkles, the beginnings of slackness in muscle tone around the square jaw that is so like your own when you were young.

"Anything wrong, sweetheart?" I say, trying to sound casual. I realise I'm doing what I did when she was a teenager, wanting to help but frightened to pry. Her face hardens as it used to all those years ago. I think she is going to brush me aside, but suddenly there are tears in her eyes and she is fighting hard to keep the sobs down. After a few minutes she collects herself as we mothers do.

"It's Matthew. He's having an affair!"

She doesn't add "again," but we’re both thinking it.

She says that this time she's decided to leave him once and for all. The holiday was a convenient break away from home and she's told him to be out of the house by the time she gets back. The trouble is, although she doesn't say this, she still loves him in spite of his faithlessness and unreliability. She loves him for his charm and his way of making her believe things will be better.

I hold her in my arms until her breathing is light and even once more. She tells me he says he regrets his actions and this time seems genuine in his remorse. Well, trust is like a piece of fine porcelain -- it can never be invisibly repaired. The best you can hope for is that the cracks will not collect the dirt.

James would be grey and probably balding now, perhaps needing spectacles for reading. Or starting to expand round the waist. Would he still stand out from the crowd? Older people, like babies, have no need to differentiate themselves physically, since they’re not in the running to attract a mate any more. Nature’s not interested once you’re too old to breed. So, as we began, we all grow to resemble each other. Only the brain becomes more individual, more quirky or specialised, until it too begins to atrophy.

I am being Granny today. I sit at the edge of the pool and watch the children jump in forwards, backwards, swim underwater, duck each other. Claire is phoning Matthew from the reception desk of the hotel. The line keeps breaking up and there is no privacy but she feels she must make contact. She joins me by the pool, shaking her head.

"He wasn't there. It took about three goes to get through to the number and then I got the answerphone. I didn't leave a message. I couldn't think what to say."

I want to say, end it now, before he does you more harm. In my opinion Matthew has always seemed far too pleased with himself to be truly interested in his family. But Claire has been besotted from the moment she met him. She had always been a self-contained child and young woman and Matthew was her first real love. I suppose the effect he had on her was so great that she simply did not see his smugness and mannered over-fastidiousness with his clothes and other possessions.

Later, we walk along the beach. The children circle us like gulls, their shrill voices calling and yelping to one another. As they run on the margin between beach and water, sharp impressions of toe and heel quickly fill with liquid sand.

Here is the rock formation I swam out to yesterday. I realise it would be quite easy to find the place again. Swim towards the left edge of the cove, through a gully formed by two vast rocks rearing out of the sea, around another rock and into an underwater garden, sponges and brightly coloured weed waving gently in the warm, shallow water. It's strange that no one else has discovered her; there are snorkellers and swimmers heading that way all the time.

"Mum, does it make you sad to come back here?" Claire's voice breaks into my thoughts.

"Well, it's a bit odd, you know. As though it is -- and isn't -- the same place."

Like I am and am not the same person.

"Only when I booked it, I thought it might help you to get over Father."

"It all happened such a long time ago. You were conceived here, you know."

She is silent for a few moments. I know she is counting months in her head.

"Yes, I suppose I must have been."

We walk back to the hotel. I realise that James' long black shadow has laid over the whole of Claire's life. This laughing, slim young man who seemed so wise. I have made her feel that we have never been complete as a family because he has not been with us. And yet we have been happy. Or so I thought.

It was the night before we were due to travel home. We had walked along the shoreline hand in hand, James' footsteps rapidly obscured by the gently seething waves, so it would have seemed to anyone following a few minutes later that only one person had walked there. The moon pouring into our bedroom had made it impossible for us to sleep, so we had climbed through the window, giggling like children, and run through the scrubby garden down to the beach where we rolled together in the warm waves. Then he made me cover my eyes and slowly count to 100. When I lowered my hands, I couldn't see him at first. Then a distant cry made me raise my eyes to the great rocks on the edge of the bay. There, silhouetted against the moon, as he knew he would be, James stood with his arms outstretched. I remember thinking that this was the wrong rock -- the one we had been diving off all week was further around the bay -- but in the split second before I shouted to warn him, he swallow-dived into the sea.

As I waited for him to surface, the transparent ripples continued to ride smoothly up the beach and over my feet. It was not until the moon slid below the horizon that I turned and ran up the beach to find help.

They never found his body. In those days they only had the most primitive equipment and lighting, so no real search could begin until daylight. By then, his body had been taken by the sea, sucked greedily by the undertow into some secret cave or jammed into a hidden crevice deep inside the rock.

I went home alone and nine months later gave birth to Claire, receiving very little of the sympathy that would have been accorded to me if James and I had been married. In those days you stepped outside convention at your peril.

And because I never saw him dead, I could never quite believe he was gone. Somehow I was always waiting for him to return to me and as the years went on tried to adjust my mental picture of what he would be like now.

When we get back to the hotel, a set of expensive initialled suitcases stand in the foyer. Claire is just going over to confirm our suspicions when Matthew himself appears smiling broadly and carrying an enormous sheaf of cream lilies. Only Matthew could appear with a perfectly fresh bouquet after having travelled for five hours.

The children run to him -- Daddy! Daddy! -- and I can tell Claire is already lost. Matthew and I exchange a single deadly glance, like generals drawn up on opposite sides of the battle lines.

And so I decide to cut short my holiday, to give Claire and Matthew some time together. But the first flight I can arrange is for the following day, so I decide to go for a swim.

I had meant to go in the hotel pool, but find myself walking past the laughing families and lines of sunbathers and going back down to the beach. And yes, I swim towards the rock where I found the body of the young girl. As I round the rock just before the underwater garden, I can already see the feathery tips of her long hair as they sway in the current. But this time she is not alone. Lying next to her, holding her hand is the body of a man, his skin deadly white under the black hair on his belly. His face is still, but his eyes are open and he seems to be looking at the girl as though this was not what he expected at all. And I suddenly realise both why the girl seemed so familiar and what it was that stopped me from telling anyone about her.

The time has come to bury them both. I cannot tell whether they begin to sink into the sea bed of their own accord or whether it is my treading water and stirring up the sand that covers them so quickly and completely.

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