by Justine Carbery

The fingernail of beach was filling slowly, the tide inching up the powdery sand. Katie kicked off her flip-flops and savoured the freedom, the cool morning sand between her toes, a laundry-fresh breeze. She spotted the others straight away, backs against the low stone wall, stripy towels lined up like beds in a seaside dormitory.

Like the old days Katie thought wistfully, but sure weren’t they here now, like returning swallows navigating their way back home to Dublin, back to the sea. 

A shower of sand staccatoed her legs and dragged Katie back to the beach. A young boy skittered around, his Superman towel a cape, kicking at hillocks of sand, swathes of tangled seaweed, the ruin of demolished sandcastles. It was as if his frantic movement disturbed the very molecules of air around him and sent them hurtling into each other.

Liz was waving. “Hey Katie, over here!” and Mel was smoothing out the towel on the damp sand between them.

“Where have you been? It’s been ages! Husbands aren’t allowed to keep their wives to themselves, not even if they’re new and gorgeous. Share and share alike as Mum used to say.”

Katie swallowed and let her gaze slide over the sea. It was still, so still, and enticing like a silk blanket, though she did read somewhere in one of the newspapers that the jellyfish were back – the lion’s mane and those horrible purple ones, the Portuguese-man-of-war. The dangerous kind. 

Liz patted the towel beside her

“Sit, sit, how are you? Tell us everything. How have you been?” Liz looked deeply at Katie – her slight frame, her pallid skin, the darkness under her eyes. “How’s married life treating you?”

“Yeah, no, good, good. Really, it’s been great.” Katie glanced out to sea again. A seal popped his whiskery face up and was looking around, as if checking the action. “I can’t stay long though. David will be home for lunch and I promised him we’d make the most of this lovely weather, have a picnic in the garden or something.” It wasn’t a lie. Not really. David would be home at lunch-time and she’d had to promise to be there. Nothing strange about that. And they probably would have a picnic in the garden, and it might even be nice, as long as she didn’t mess it up by saying the wrong thing, or giving him the wrong plate, or handing him a slightly tarnished fork.

“Oh, you two love-bunnies are impossible. You’re probably at it all the time,” Mel said, nudging Katie in the side.

“We’re not all sex-mad like you,” said Liz, batting away a non-existent fly. “What honey-pot have you in your clutches at the moment?”

“Ooh, yes, spill the beans. I want to hear all the gory details.” Katie was glad of the distraction. She hated being the centre of attention. David’s constant gaze was enough to contend with. And one of Mel’s juicy stories was just what she needed right now. Mel was so free, so unencumbered, as hard to pin down as clouds.

“Well,” she drew out the syllable as if she were blowing a chewing-gum bubble. “Let’s just say he goes down well with a bottle of Italian red.” Liz blushed at the inference. 

“Is this one a keeper?” she leveled an unconvincing smile at Mel. “Any chance you’ll give us an outing one of these days?”

“Now, why on earth would I want to put an end to all this delicious fun?” She threw her head back and laughed a deep throaty laugh, though it sounded more like she was trying to convince herself than the others.

Katie thought about the times she caught Mel watching Liz snuggled on the couch with her two little boys, their little faces wide and open with love and joy. It didn’t take a genius to see the longing radiating off her.

She too wondered about having kids. Only natural really. Sure, weren’t they in their early thirties now and that good ole biological clock ticking, as Mel’s Mum would say.  Katie loved kids. She was always the one spouting on about having a houseful. But now, she wasn’t that sure. If she let herself think about it, she got really scared, scared she’d do everything wrong, scared they’d hate her, scared she’d be useless at the whole parenting thing. David was right. She was forever doing something wrong. If only she tried harder, paid more attention, learnt from her mistakes. 

“So, Little Miss Coy, is the sex still as good as before you were married?” Mel flung her dark wavy hair over her shoulder, tying it up in a loose knot. Kate blushed again, and instinctively ran her hand down her thigh, down along the tender spots. 

“He’s very…enthusiastic. I’ll give him that,” she said, looking at her feet, wiggling her toes into the sand and imagining tiny little crabs puncturing her skin. “Anyway, how are you guys?” she asked quickly, attempting a smile that never really lit up. “It’s so good to see you.” She felt a lump forming in her throat but coughed it away. She meant it. It really was so good to see them, if only for a few minutes. She missed their chats, the all-nighters where they set the world to right. It had been a while since the three of them had done that. They’d promised to always be there for each other, solemnly looking into each other’s eyes and binding their fingers together in a three-way knot. 

And for a time they were. They’d circled the wagons around Liz when she’d had the miscarriage, letting her cry great big tears of grief and longing. 

They’d rallied when Mel’s Mum had suddenly passed away. That had been such a shock, dropped like a sack of potatoes in the kitchen. Stone dead. Mel had been the one to find her. The whole world was grey for a while, drained of colour. But over time, they’d managed to draw her back, and now? Sure now she partied like there was no tomorrow, the first one to leap up on a table to belt out  ‘It’s Raining Men’, the last one to give in to tiredness, stringing out the night with cigarettes and beer. She found her laugh again, like it was something she had left outside on the porch to dry off and now had great need of. Katie envied Mel her resilience, her ability to pick herself up and launch herself back into the world.  She made it look simple, the gusto with which she approached every day, though she knew it took more out of her than she let on. Still, her zest for life was admirable, her capacity for kindness and understanding limitless.  

So why couldn’t she tell them? Why couldn’t she just tell them what was going on with her. At home. When the doors were closed and the curtains drawn?

“Will we get in? I’m dying for a swim.” Liz was on her feet, kicking the brittle question-mark strands of seaweed off her towel. “Come on, the tide’s just right.”

And there it was, the panic pricking Katie’s skin, her mouth suddenly dry as a towel. 

“I’ll stay here and mind the stuff.” She dragged a smile onto her face, gathering her muscles into an upward curve, trying to dampen down that drum of fear thump-thumping in the hollow of her chest. “I’m just as happy to stay here and enjoy this lovely old view.” She waved her arms around, as if taking in the whole beach and the stretch of ocean beyond. The girls looked at her and then at each other. 

“Ah Katie? You? Not coming in? Sure isn’t that the whole point?” 

“I know but I forgot my togs. Silly me. Head like a sieve, David says.” 

Mel grabbed her sleeve. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve a spare pair here. You can use them, no problem.” She bent down to rummage in her enormous straw beach bag.

“No. No, seriously. It’s fine. It’s…” She leaned in. “I’ve the mother of all periods at the moment. Like Niagra bloody Falls.” The girls kept staring at her, like she’d suddenly turned into a purple-spotted octopus. Could they not just leave her alone?

“Honestly I’ll leave it this time. Go on, get in before the sun disappears.”

And they did, eventually, tramping down the drifty sand and squealing as they placed one foot after the other into the water. Katie’s skin felt cold and she shivered a little, wishing she could join them in the water. Remembering the aliveness and the freedom. But shame and fear sucked at her feet like quicksand.

She slumped on the low wall and wrapped her arms around herself, her fingers landing on the bruises on her upper arms where he’d grabbed her when she came home from the post office. She’d forgotten to log her little excursion in the book that he kept on the hall-table. 

“I just needed a stamp for Mum’s birthday card,” she’d said, but he’d clenched her arm in a vice-like grip, his nails digging through her thin cardigan.

“You know the rules Katie, love. In the book. It all goes in the book.” 

“I know. I’m sorry. I just…” She didn’t get any further. A thump landed on her ribs and she gasped, scrunching over in shock and pain. Words screamed inside her head, wild angry words, ugly words she knew she could never say. 

The blows rained down on her, as if he were punching out a rhythm on a drum. Thump. Thump. Thump. Carefully placed so no-one would see. 

And then he was picking her up and hugging her as if he wanted, no needed, to draw the life blood out of her, as if his caresses could dissolve the pain. 

“I’m sorry, Katie darling, I love you so much. Can’t you see that?” He held her and murmured into her neck, her hair, her ear, in a voice tiny and small. He planted butterfly kisses on her cheeks, his lips brushing away the tears. “Please forgive me, Katie. It’ll never happen again. I swear. I swear on my life.” That was a week ago, the bruises from the previous bout still mottling her skin, like jellyfish on wet sand.

She didn’t dare tell anyone. Shame lodged in her chest. Maybe, he’d learnt his lesson. Maybe she had. Her thoughts, tricky as glue, pricked at her like internal mosquitoes. Mel and Liz were further out now, the water rippling about their tanned bodies in the fragile sunlight. They turned and looked back at her, waving and yoohooing to her and there was something immense and wide-open about the water and the sky that tugged at something deep down in Katie, something sure and fearless and strong, like the current at high tide. She rummaged in Mel’s bag for the spare swimsuit and struggled into it quickly, dropping her clothes like fallen kites on the sand. 

She stood at the water’s edge, hesitating a moment. A skein of geese flew by, heading for the horizon. Sunlight glittered on the sea like salt. How could she have let it come to this? Why hadn’t she screamed stop, walked through the door and never come back? She breathed deeply, gulping in mouthfuls of the tangy air. Why didn’t she tell anyone the first time it happened, or the next, and the next? Why couldn’t she claw the words out of her mouth, throw them at her friends like grenades? Wasn’t that what friends were for? But Lizzie had her hands full with the little ones and Mel was still reeling after the death of her Mum. 

“Katie, you big scaredy cat, just jump in. Come on, it won’t kill you.” Mel was waving and calling to her. 

Now was her chance. She’d have to move quickly though, before she changed her mind, her precious moments of freedom  ticking away. It was now or never. She felt the weight of that moment land on her shoulders, her bruised and aching shoulders.

She took a tentative step, then plunged in, diving headlong into the water, holding her breath, until she felt her lungs might burst. She opened her eyes and found she could see and feel the fragile light bouncing off the waves, refracting and glancing through the water. Sunlight that was warm and shiny, encircling her and filling every cell, renewing, recharging, dissolving her shame in the briny soup. Mel and Liz watched her surface, jittery sunlight glancing off her blemished shoulders. And they saw, and swam towards her, strong and sleek, like mother seals circling their young.

Justine Carbery

Justine Carbery is a writer and Creative Writing lecturer in University College Dublin. She is also a freelance writer with the Sunday Independent, The Gloss and Image.