Neil James Hudson

The People of the Sea

I go back there sometimes, leave the car on the road about a mile away and follow the overgrown track down the hill, usually picking up a scratch or two on the way. It’s always sudden when the sea comes into view, a small stretch of sand that quickly becomes overrun by stones to either side. It feels peaceful here, in a way I never appreciated when we first came. I never see anyone; it’s too far out of the way and the cottage never seems to be occupied any more. I’m glad of this. It will come to everyone soon, but for now, it just belongs to me. To us. We found a different type of healing here.

She’s here I think, hidden in the waves. I always think I can just make her out. I keep thinking she’ll be washed up on the shore but she never seems to come any nearer. I tell myself it’s just shadows in the water or maybe other sea creatures, despite knowing the truth.

Each time I wonder if it’s time to join her, to let my clothes fall to the sand and walk out into the water, and never return.

 

Elea was short for Eleanor and was pronounced the same as Ella but she wouldn’t change the spelling to suit. I suppose that was what had attracted me to her—this forthright refusal to compromise. Sometimes, as with her environmental beliefs, it made her seem passionate and strong. Sometimes, as with her name, I found it charming. Other times she was just hard work and I found her so tonight. It should have been idyllic. We were walking along the shore; the moon had just risen and we had watched it for a moment as it seemed balanced on the horizon, an orangey crescent that should have toppled over and landed on its side. Elea had taken her shoes off and was walking on the wet sand, letting the tides wash over her feet and then withdraw. I disliked the feel of the cold water and kept skipping away when the waves threatened to touch me, irritated that I’d been forced to put distance between us.

Stones and shells lay sparsely on the sand. I had found an ammonite, its white spiral etched into a dark grey rock. I had several better fossils but I had pocketed it anyway. It felt like a gift. The waters here were supposed to have healing properties—that was why Elea had wanted to come here—and there was an archaeological site a mile away where various votive offerings had been found. I’d been hoping that a coin or a figurine might have been washed up here; until now I’d been disappointed. The tide was on its way out and had left the usual detritus behind. I felt annoyed with it, as if it was the sea who had been littering rather than humans. Wrappers and drink cartons lay on the beach. I saw the arm of a doll, its other parts lost at sea as if it were the survivor of a toy shipwreck. A car tyre was half sunk into the sand, taking the place of the rocks as the sea slowly eroded them. I found a child’s plastic fish toy and a single flip-flop, its sole rotten at the edges but still identifiable as a left foot. I stopped and picked up a green plastic beer bottle. “Scruffy buggers,” I said.

“What do you want with that?” Elea glanced at me as I picked it up, then turned her attention back to the water.

“I’ll chuck it in the recycling.”

“Put it back.”

She spoke, as she so often did, as if she had ended the discussion and we were both in full agreement. Sometimes when we were arguing I found it was too tiring to contradict her when she used this tone and just let things slide. “Why? This is pollution.”

“It belongs to the sea now.”

“I hardly think the sea wants it.”

She turned to look at me properly. “Do you think one bottle makes a difference? The sea’s full of plastic now. Not just the large stuff, the bags and so on. The molecules. There are particles in every drop of water. It’s the new salt. Did you think you could save the world if you recycled a single bottle?”

“I’m not trying to save the world. I just think that one bottle is better than none.”

“It makes no difference and you know it. It will take a global shift to change what’s happening to the oceans. This is just about you feeling good. Put it down.”

I felt angry. A little with her, although I always tried to suppress it. Much more with the people who had dropped the bottle. Nature wasn’t beautiful enough for them unless they stuffed their veins with alcohol and, having polluted their bodies, they had to do the same with the world. Mostly, though, I was angry with myself for putting the bottle back on the sand. I understood what Elea had said although I still felt that my action, though infinitesimal, still counted.

We walked back to the cottage in silence.

It had been Elea’s idea to come here. She wasn’t a terminal case; at the moment, the cure was probably doing more damage than the disease. It could still go either way and this had focused our minds a bit. We didn’t want to waste the time we had together, whether months or a natural lifetime. I watched her as we sat in the living room, her face illuminated by her laptop. Her hair fell around the sides of her eyes in brown curls. It was convincing. She had never allowed me to see her without the hairpiece and I guessed that was why we had separate bedrooms even in this holiday home. I had hoped that this break would be a romantic one and I belatedly realised I had made a tactical error in sitting on the sofa opposite.

“Would you like some wine?” I said. Fixing the drinks would give me an excuse to change where I was sitting.

“No, I’m tired.” She put the laptop on the low table in front of her. “I think I’ll get an early night.”

I managed to give her a kiss on the lips, feeling foolish and unwanted as if it were an unsuccessful first date. Then she disappeared into her bedroom. I sat alone, looking at the light visible from beneath her bedroom door. It went off after about ten minutes.

I looked at her laptop, wondering if she’d been saying anything on Facebook. Instead I saw that she’d been reading about ocean pollution. I stood up and found myself pacing the length of the room. I couldn’t share her fatalism, even though she wouldn’t call it that. I was sure there were things we could do as individuals.

I found some bin bags in the kitchen and took two of them. Then I took the torch from the utility cupboard. I’d found it as soon as we got here, always wanting to know where the emergency equipment was. I let myself out of the cottage as quietly as possible. We were only a two-minute walk from the beach and I shone the torch on it, wondering how I’d explain my actions if anyone else was around. Waste for landfill went in one bag; recyclables in the other. There wasn’t much in the second bag but I found that beer bottle again and put it in with various broken glass containers which threatened to tear and split the bag. When I felt I’d gone far enough I turned back, surprised to find more rubbish that I’d missed on the way. At the cottage I emptied the bags into the relevant waste containers, then went to my own room and tried to sleep.

No, I hadn’t saved the world, although I was sure that I’d helped.

 

Elea didn’t know it but I had seen her without the hairpiece. I watched her every morning as she headed out for a swim. I think I was jealous. I felt as if the sea was her lover and I could catch them in flagrante. She had jokingly invited me to go with her on our first morning here, knowing I would refuse. I had too many bad memories of school swimming lessons: being knocked off the side of the pool, held under water for a few seconds, enough to convince me I was drowning. Being ridiculed for my lack of proficiency, a lack I had clung to as if it was a vital part of my identity. Only now did I feel foolish for keeping this habit. Those days were years behind me and I could have cast them off, gone swimming with my partner and spent precious moments in her company.

Instead I sneaked into her room and peeped through the curtains. She wore her wig when she left the house and placed it on the beach with her towel while she swam. I watched her emerge from the waves, clad in a green and yellow single-piece swimming costume. The sea seemed to cling to her as if it didn’t want her to leave. Without her hair she looked like a mannequin come to life or perhaps an alien. It took nothing away from how I felt. I had told her this and she had absorbed the information as if we’d been discussing the weather.

I watched her wrap herself in the towel and put the wig back on her head. I let myself out of her bedroom and was in the kitchen making coffee when she came through the door. I listened to her shower and wondered what she’d think if I just went in and joined her. I would have done, once, in the early days. Now I didn’t know what was stopping me.

She was dressed when she came into the kitchen to collect her coffee and nodded towards the discarded pod. “Single use. This is what we’re up against. What’s the point of saving a single bottle if we’re just going to throw more out?”

Plastic was everywhere. Microplastics had become so small they were in the air, settling into our lungs, filling the pores. We’d made plastic so small we couldn’t tell it apart from air. It was in the oceans, not just in the islands of plastic bags that destroyed the submarine life, but suspended in the water, the new sea salt. It washed up on the shore and sank into the sand. Children used their plastic buckets and plastic spades to build plastic sandcastles, which were washed back into the ocean when the tide changed. And it had got into us. Just as the children of the atomic age had become slightly radioactive, humanity had become slightly plasticised, tiny traces always present in our bloodstreams and our bodies. A small mollusc had been found with a semi-plastic shell; it had evolved to use the materials it found around it to provide extra protection. I looked up at Elea, imagining her with a hard plastic shell on her back, impervious to blows and feeling nothing.

“You’re the one who goes swimming in it,” I said, sounding stroppier than I intended.

“I can’t see it harming me. Anyway, I haven’t got long.”

I felt as if my insides had turned to plastic. “We said we wouldn’t talk like that.”

“I meant the sea, not me. There’ll come a day when we will transform it altogether. Turn it solid. Stop the tides, stop the fish and the creatures. We’ll go walking on top of it, looking down, looking at what got frozen beneath us. I don’t know if we’ll miss the old sea, the liquid restless ocean or if we’ll prefer our new changeless sea.”

“It won’t happen,” I said. “We’re cleaning up the big stuff already. And I read that there are enzymes that can digest the microplastic.”

“Then we’ll get plastic enzymes.”

I opened my mouth before I had a properly formulated response to this. Eventually I said, “No, we won’t,” which I thought was a perfectly cogent and well-argued refutation.

Elea picked up a biro from next to the laptop and studied it. “It shouldn’t be in our world. The universe is about change. We live, we die, we transform. This stuff doesn’t. It just sits there while everything moves around it. In three hundred years our children’s grandchildren will have perished, but this will still be here, just being. Never lived, never died, just sat there. We are of time; plastic is of eternity.”

“Men go and come, but plastic abides,” I said. “Maybe you should let me make some breakfast.” It was irrelevant but I was starving and I didn’t like it when she started getting deep like this.

Of course I saw it everywhere then. It wrapped the sausages tightly, as if it could give its immortal properties to the food inside. Too late; that had already lived and died, and it hadn’t finished its transformative journey yet. All that happened was that some of the molecules would find their way from the wrapper to the food and then into my stomach, where it would be perfectly welcome as long as it was accompanying some decent meat. The oil bottle, the magnets on the fridge (random letters presumably put there by the cottage’s owners), the bacon wrapper, the washing-up liquid bottle, the drying rack, some of the cups and plates in the cupboard, parts of the clock on the wall, the litter and recycling bins and the bin bags—I couldn’t help feeling that all of them were giving off a plastic vapour, which I duly inhaled. I found myself breathing less deeply and tried to think more rationally. I would dispose of it all responsibly.

The sea sounded normal. We had the window open and we could hear the slap of water on water, the whoosh of the waves making landfall and the swish as they receded again. There were a few cries of gulls. It sounded alive.

 

When the tide began to go out again, I went out with my sketchbook while Elea rested. Seascapes were always a challenge. How to capture something that was always moving and pin it down like a butterfly, how to keep the movement on the paper? I didn’t want to do what Elea had said and stop the tides; if I could have used mobile paper, a surface that undulated and rippled while I drew on it, I would have been happier. I wondered if there was an ink I could use that would float on water, keep its shape but move with every disturbance.

These were only studies I was making. I was trying to experiment with techniques, figure out which lines and curves looked like motion and which were frozen in time. Of course these techniques already existed; the art world wasn’t too desperate for the results of my experiments. I felt that I had to discover them for myself in order to make them mine. To do otherwise would be to paint with someone else’s hand.

I filled half a dozen sheets. At one point I saw a dark shape in the sea that I thought might be a seal and I tried to sketch the ocean around it, every movement of the water radiating from around it. I was dissatisfied with this. It seemed to me that the seal itself must have been part of the movement, not central to it. I had a vision of an Einsteinian sea in which every molecule moved only relative to the others, with no fixed point to measure from.

I was mostly pleased with what I had done though and I dated each sketch as if they were finished pieces for a gallery wall. I thought of them as visual diaries, locating me in this point in time and space before I hurtled away.

I had been trying to ignore the usual litter but a small bright orange object had been distracting me. When I had finished sketching I went over to look. At first I thought it was a crab but then I saw it was an imitation, a plastic plaything for children who weren’t satisfied with the real thing. I felt savagely disappointed that what I had thought was part of the life of the beach had proven to be exactly the opposite. Now I’d picked it up, I felt responsible for it and decided I’d better put it in the rubbish without telling Elea. I walked slowly back to the cottage, not wanting these moments to end.

The bins were empty or largely so. There were still cans in the metal recycling box but the bottles I had gathered last night had vanished and the ordinary bin contained only food waste. I tried to think what had happened. The collection was a few days off yet. Nothing should have moved.

I looked down at my plastic crab and knew what had happened. Elea had found what I had taken from the sea and returned it.

I felt a mixture of anger and pity. This wasn’t just a disagreement about tactics; her mental state had suffered, apparently since the beginning of our holiday. I wondered if the microscopic particles in the sea had got into her brain and had frozen her thoughts.

The crab was realistically designed and intricately put together. The legs moved when I flicked them. There were shades of colour in the shell that were surely not worth the bother. Nature was always more complicated than artifice. I tapped the shell. The molluscs we had read of were tiny, almost invisible. The effect couldn’t have spread to anything this large. This must have been manufactured, not evolved. I dropped it into the nearly empty bin and walked slowly into the living room. Elea was sitting on the sofa with a magazine, her feet up so that there was no room for me.

“Success?” she asked.

“I don’t think you should go swimming anymore.”

“And where does this injunction spring from?” She seemed amused rather than annoyed and I knew that she wasn’t going to listen.

“There’s too much pollution.”

“I’m not going to die of pollution.”

I sat on the edge of the sofa, hoping I wouldn’t tip it over. “Have you noticed anything odd since you started swimming? Any strange thoughts?”

She looked up at me for the first time since the conversation had started. “I’m not going to do myself in, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

I suddenly had a strange thought myself and couldn’t keep it in. “Can I sleep with you tonight?” She looked surprised and I immediately started backtracking. “We don’t have to do anything. Just be together like we used to.”

“Soon,” she said. “Although not tonight.” She kissed her finger, then put it up to my lips. I kissed it in turn. It was so little and yet I found it an intimate gesture. I felt as if we had made progress.

 

I went back on the beach after dinner. Elea had gone to her room to rest and I wanted to go alone.

I found a glass bottle with a screw top that I hoped would be watertight enough. A plastic one might contaminate the sample with its own molecules. The testing kit I had ordered would have its own containers but I was impatient and wanted to collect something now. I suspected there was some kind of algae or microbe that was affecting Elea’s brain and quite possibly mine, although there could be some kind of more direct pollution. Either way, I wanted it tested.

The moon was still a day or two off full, but it was enough to cast shadows and illuminate the beach. It was second-hand light that seemed to have been stripped of its animation through the act of reflection. It seemed to be an artificial light of a sort, created in a laboratory and sold in chemists for emergency use. I watched as it played on the sea, seemingly neither absorbed nor reflected but merely stopped by the water.

When I looked closer, I thought I could see something a little more clearly, a film or membrane over the water. For a second, I had visions of the ocean solidifying and was relieved when I saw a gentle wave motion, as if the sea was still breathing.

I bent down to get my sample. I couldn’t see the film close up and there was no resistance as I dipped the bottle in. The water was probably only a few molecules thick and was oily rather than solid. I was just glad that there was something here for the laboratory to analyse. Whatever had polluted this place, it needed identifying.

I had brought a towel and wiped my hand on it. In the moonlight I couldn’t see any deposit on the cloth but my fingers felt a little greasy. I wiped them on the sand, then experimentally dipped my thumb in the water. I took it out and studied it in the moonlight. I wasn’t sure of my own sensations; wasn’t sure if I could feel the film clinging to my skin or if I had seen it lift from the top of the water. Moonlight deceived; it was subjunctive light of possibility and doubt, unlike the sunlight that revealed the world with certainty and reason. I was paying too much attention to unconscious fantasies. The analysed contents of the bottle would provide the answers I needed.

I had not given any thought to where I would keep the sample. It seemed absurd to put it in the fridge. Eventually I hid it with the recycling. Another secret; I wondered why I had not told Elea that I was getting the water tested. The sea separated us; it was as if we were different continents and we were drifting.

 

I woke early in the morning and knew at once that I could not allow Elea to go swimming any more.

I had felt nothing, no pain, no tingling or itching but a small patch on my thumb had gone smooth and hard to the touch. Although I had not felt anything, it was clear that the film I had noticed had burnt me. A chemical burn, I supposed. Something had been released into the sea and it was harmful to health.

I jumped from the bed and ran to the hall in my pyjamas. I saw a light under Elea’s door and knocked. She didn’t say anything but after a minute she opened it in a dressing gown. Part of me wondered when we had become so modest with each other.

“Look,” I said, showing her my thumb. “I got a burn from the sea. You can’t go in there.”

“Not this again.”

“Look. You’ll hurt yourself. I know you think the water does you good, but it’ll burn you.”

She looked closer. “That’s not a burn.”

“I’m not letting you go.”

“That’s very dominant of you. Hang on.”

She went to her bedside cabinet and took something from underneath her notebooks. She came back and handed it to me.

“I was going to leave this for you. You may as well have it now.”

It was a brown envelope and had come from the hospital. “No,” I said, as if the horrors it contained would only be called into being when I opened it.

“We’ve stopped the treatment. It’s doing more harm than good and things have spread too much.”

I tried to control myself. “You need to have a positive attitude. We agreed that...”

“It’s too late for that. Everyone lives and dies. I’ve done the first.”

I threw the letter to the floor, feeling like a child. “Then why come here? You said the waters were healing.”

She turned away from me. Slowly she let the dressing gown fall from her shoulders. I remembered how I used to run my fingers down her spine. She stepped away from it and turned towards me. “What do you think?”

I was confused and thought she was still wearing something, some kind of breastplate. It covered most of her front but tapered off irregularly to the right. The softness of her body was absent; instead there was a shell.

“What have you done?”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

It had spread further than I had imagined. “We need to get you to a hospital.”

“To take my front off? No thanks.” She turned away, showing me her flesh again.

“You’re a fucking Barbie doll.”

I walked towards her, wanting to touch her, wondering if I’d catch the same condition.

“If this thing inside me won’t get me, something else will. Living, dying, it’s all the same. It’s just change. I don’t want to do either. I want to be eternal.”

“It’s done something to your brain.”

“Look.” She turned to me and tapped her chest. I heard a hollow knocking sound. “This will still be here in centuries to come. I’ll still be here. I’ll be out of time.”

“It won’t be you. Come back inside. We’ll make some calls, find out what’s going on.”

“And then what? I don’t have long. Come with me.”

“Where?”

“You know where.”

The sun had already risen and was low in the sky. It lay ahead of us so my shadow wasn’t thrown in Elea’s direction. I just had time enough to put a jacket on; it seemed too late for Elea to wear anything. The water was further away than it had been yesterday morning; it had always offended the more ordered part of my mind that the tides didn’t take place at the same times every day.

She began to walk towards the water. I could only follow.

“Is this going to happen to all of us now?” I felt ashamed of my own fear.

“I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. There’s something about this place. Something magical.” She stepped into the water, then turned back and held her hand out to me. “Come with me.”

I looked down at my bare feet. The water seemed to want to investigate them. “I can’t.”

She turned away from me and carried on walking. When the water came above her knees, she pushed herself forwards and began to swim. I wondered if her new front would be more buoyant.

I sat on the wet sand and covered my face. Every time I looked, she was further away. I began to repeat her name over and over again. When I could no longer see her, I began to weep as if my tears could purify the ocean and bring her back.

 

I go back there regularly, back to the beach. I stand on the shore and look out and wonder, is it today?

Today I found a starfish, solid and cheap looking, washed up on the shore. I tapped it with the plastic part of my thumb and heard the familiar knock of the two artificial surfaces. I left it where it was. It belonged to the sea. Otherwise it was a day like no other. It wasn’t as warm as I preferred it, but the sea was calm and the few clouds did nothing to spoil the sky.

Plastic filled the ocean in front of me. I could imagine the day when it was no longer a liquid and I knew we would prefer it. Perhaps most of us would be beneath it, on the other side from those who kept their flesh and blood.

And there, in the distance, I thought I could see her. A mannequin, floating in the waves. Unchanging. Somehow she always seemed to be here, as if she knew I was coming. Or perhaps she was always here, unable to move.

No, it wouldn’t be today. I wouldn’t be striding into the water today, leaving my clothes on the sand to be found by the authorities. I wouldn’t be diving down, welcoming the particles of microplastic into my pores, to fuse with my DNA and transform my body. I could already see blue veins through the skin of my hands, lines in my face that I could not relax away. I was living, changing and would die eventually.

I had brought offerings with me. A plastic bottle, a margarine tub, some used clingfilm. I threw them into the sea and saw them received gratefully, carried slowly away to be ingested. When I saw that they were safe I turned and walked back towards the car.

It wasn’t today. However, the day would come soon when I stepped into the ocean and swam with Elea in eternity.





Neil James Hudson

Neil James Hudson is a UK-based writer who has published around sixty stories and a novel On Wings of Pity. He lives in the middle of nowhere and works in York as a charity shop manager, where he one day hopes to sell unwanted copies of his own books.