A short story by Lynda Hewitt - a reflection on Seamus Heaney's 'Shore Woman'
Some evenings I worry that the beach won’t be here when I come for it. I imagine that low tide will have drunk the sea entirely, the marram grass will have unravelled and the threadbare beach will have blown away to leave nothing but dark, alien rock. These are the days that have howled through me like the northerlies rip apart this coastline, but then the well worn path through the dunes tops out to reveal that everything is exactly as I left it. We are all still here, dishevelled by winter and clinging to life.
I wrap my coat tighter around me. I will take my usual route to the end of the strand and back, picking out a path that is as close to the water’s edge as I can get, along the riparian that can’t make up its mind whether it is land or it is sea. I know the dishes are still on the table and I’ve to sort out everything for tomorrow - but it can all wait. I need this space and this time to simply pause and the waves agree, racing in towards me like a slobbering dog welcoming me home.
Along the beach, a surfer arrives to make the most of the incoming tide. All suited up for the cold water like an escaped shadow, she pauses at the edge then simply walks into the water and keeps on going.
A kittiwake runs over the sand, its little legs scurrying around in senseless circles. My mind follows suit, whirring with endless things to do such as remembering to buy milk on the way home and to transfer money tonight.
I pick up my pace and the rattling thoughts begin to settle like shaken dust. My footprints sink deep into the wet sand. No sooner do I pull them out than they fill up once again, all proof of me being here washed away.
Maybe I am not here. Maybe I have fallen over the edge into the gap between where the land stops and the sea starts - like being down the side of Ireland’s sofa with all the toast crumbs, hair bobbles and five cent pieces.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the surfer skimming along a left hander. I watch her racing down the wave. She flicks into turns that bring her back up the face again, squeezing even more of a ride out of its trundling roar than it is offering up. When she finally runs out of wave, she sinks slowly into the water, before turning towards the horizon and paddling out to do it all over again.
I tried paddleboarding once a few years ago. One of those big yellow ones that he’d hired from a surf van at the entrance to the beach. It had been a true summer’s day when the sky was an endless blue, the sea was as clear as gin and as flat as a taut cotton sheet pulled tightly across the seabed floor. A school of mackerel swam beneath us, then the kids spotted a crab moving along the bottom. It was hard to keep balanced with them hanging over the edge, but I did and soon I was paddling through the water with smooth, silent strokes. But just as I was beginning to enjoy myself, the sea began to wrinkle in the breeze. We were way out past the break point, no longer sheltered by the natural cove in which the bay lay.
Tom, I said.
He was playing captain at the back, and he just whooped and paddled faster. A knot formed in my stomach - neither of the kids could swim. I wasn’t bad in the pool, but not out here when you couldn’t reach the bottom and there were rips and currents that would carry you to Greenland if you weren’t careful.
He wouldn’t turn.
Not when I pleaded, not when the kids began to get nervous.
All a pile of jessies, he called us.
Then, finally, he took a long, wide arching swoop with his blade and turned us perfectly around 180 degrees. We were once more pointing back to the shore, where all the happy families played on the thin sliver of buttery gold sandwiched between blue.
The kids relaxed instantly and returned to their lookout positions to see who could spot the biggest fish. I tried to return too but the moment had sunk too deep to be recovered. I paddled mechanically with my jaw set firm, counting every stroke until I reckoned we were back in water shallow enough for us all to stand.
I didn’t see it coming.
Just felt the cold shock the air out of my lungs after my feet left the board and my head went under. By the time he dragged me back up, I was verging on an episode, but the kids were doubled over laughing at the state of me. For weeks after the bathroom was soaked as they acted out my involuntary dismount into the Atlantic Ocean at bathtime.
I never told them that I’d been pushed.
The surfer is far away now and she looks like a seal in the water, or perhaps a black guillemot bobbing on the surface. I am alone at the furthest end of the beach. The town where I live and the place where I work and Ireland and the world and everything in it is separated from me by the shadow of the dunes. This is what I came for.
I kick off my shoes and step even further away. The water stabs at my bare feet and drains them of warmth and feeling. I take another step. A wave foams around my ankles, and then the next one rises to my knees. My jeans stick to my skin and I shiver. I’ve crossed a line - on the beach, on the map and in my head, I know I should turn around and slurp uncomfortably home, but I am so tired of listening to the sensible voice inside me that refuses to be evicted.
One more step.
The sea lifts up my coat and it balloons around me. Water slips between
my legs and the sharp shock gives me more pleasure than Tom has in months. It wants me to go further. It is flirting with me. I close my eyes. The world becomes black and I adjust to the cold flow and the swaying rhythm. My legs are numb. It would be so easy to get sucked in. So easy, just to see what is was like to let that numbness wash over everything.
But nothing remains rooted on this beach for long and nor should I. The swell pulls in and out around me. I open my eyes, turn and wade out in time with the lap and lull of the sea.
Leaving fresh footprints on the scrubbed sand and in the half light of the rising moon, I make my way back along the wandering line of the riparian. I wonder if it drove the cartographers mad when they tried to commit its elusiveness to paper. I wonder if a map’s shorelines should really shimmer with the ebb and flow of the tide. I have found my own edge on this beach tonight, and it has been smoothed like a piece of jewelled seaglass.
I say good night to the ocean and head back through the marram grass that is quietly holding the beach and everything on it together; over the dunes and home to the dishes that are probably still waiting to be washed. The surfer is still in the ink black sea, diving headfirst into the chaos and dancing her way back to an ever moving shore.
This short story is inspired by Shore Woman, a favourite poem of mine by Seamus Heaney. It’s about a woman who escapes a trying relationship by walking on the beach, and in doing so she changes nothing more than reassuring herself that she exists, that she matters. It is unusual for Heaney to write women into central roles in his poetry, and despite its brilliance, to me his protagonist is from 1970s rural Ireland, when the poem was written. I wanted to write a short story based on Shore Woman - where the beach is still the same, the relationships are still as challenging - but with a more contemporary female voice. It has grown stronger and more assured, yet more pushed to the limits by the different roles she juggles as a woman. At its heart remains the truth that nature still offers itself up as the perfect antidote, if only we give ourselves permission to run wildly into its arms.
Lynda writes professionally as Fable & Font
Model - Jayne henning