Wild Swimming - PART TWO

Wild Swimming: The final part of a short story by Kate Glanville

'Emma, is that you?' the voice on her phone asked, but Emma couldn't speak. She had turned to stone, as cold and immobile as the ancient jetty she was standing on. Only her Burberry trench coat moved, flapping urgently around her in the wind as though trying to fly away. When Emma had found the telephone number on the back of the notepad she had never expected it would belong to her sister.

'Em?' She could hear panic in her sister's voice. 'Wait a minute, will you?'

In the remote village on the Scottish coast Emma imagined her sister tip-toeing down the oak staircase in her beautiful home hundreds of miles south. She thought of her sister's husband Dan, asleep in their king-sized bed, and their two girls in their perfect-princess bedrooms.

As waves crashed at Emma's feet she heard her sister close a door, then the slide of what she knew were the French windows that led into the garden. Her sister obviously didn't want anyone to hear their call.

In front of Emma the women were still bobbing around in the sea. All of them were laughing. One of them dived under a wave, and the others cheered.

'Where did you get this number?' Her sister's voice was breathless. Emma knew she had run down to the summer house at the end of the long lawn. Dan had built it for her as a studio when she had been going through her 'artistic phase', but it was more used for smoking secret cigarettes than painting pictures or making sculptures.

'I found it.' Emma's tone was flat. 'Where?'

'Andrew wrote it down before he died.' There was a pause.

'Oh yes, I remember now. I gave Andrew the number in case of an emergency. This is a spare mobile I keep in case I lose my iPhone.'

Emma always knew when her sister was lying. 'You didn't think to give the number to me?'

Another pause. Emma heard the strike of a match, followed by a deep inhale.

'I thought I had.' A nervous laugh. 'Maybe I asked Andrew to pass it on to you. Maybe that was why he wrote it down?'

'It was written beside the name of a motel. Lake View, that really crumby place beside the bypass.'

Another laugh.

'I can't think why Andrew would have written my number next to the name of that awful dump. Anyway, tell me, how are you doing up there in your Caledonian hideaway?'

Emma didn't answer. She watched the women wading towards the shore, stepping over the ropes of the fishing boats moored in the tiny harbour, holding each other's hands to stop themselves from falling over in the waves.

'Look, Emma, I've been thinking of driving up to see you. Why don't you tell me where you're staying? You don't sound like you're in a good place, mentally I mean.'

Emma squeezed her eyes tight shut. Her sister had done this to her all her life: turned things round so they became her problems, her fault.

She opened her eyes and heard her sister take another drag. Emma remembered how Andrew had liked to join her sister in the summer house for an illicit smoke on their visits to the luxurious house he envied so much. Like teenagers, she and Andrew would creep down the garden after dinner, hoping no one would see them. They came back smelling of smoke, exchanging mischievous glances over coffee.

Of course, Emma and Dan knew what they were doing, but they never said anything, never complained that they had been left to wash up or put the girls to bed.

The women were running up the beach now, heading towards a pile of clothes on the sand. They shrugged their dryrobes on, looking like witches engulfed in long cloaks, the large hoods hiding their bright bobble hats and obscuring their faces. Standing in a close circle they passed around steaming cups. Emma wondered if they were casting spells.

'I've found the name of a really good grief counsellor. Don't you think it's time you got some help?' Her sister's voice sounded confident. The panic had passed and she was back in control.

A flock of seagulls shrieked overhead, Emma watched them flying towards the thin red line of dawn on the horizon.

'How long?' Emma asked. 'How long what?'

'How long were you and Andrew having an affair?'

'Oh Em, darling, you really are in a bad way.' Her sister's nervous laugh had returned.

'Did it start on that holiday we had in Montenegro?'

'Emma, please. He was your boyfriend, you were going to get married. I'm married, I'm a mother, I'm...'

'Those early morning runs up into the hills together,' Emma interrupted, suddenly remembering waking up alone in the little blue and white room overlooking Lake Skadar and Andrew returning, too hot and sweaty to get back into bed with her, or even give her a kiss.

'We just wanted to keep fit, all those big meals we were having...'

'It was after that holiday that Andrew joined the gym,' Emma interrupted again. 'And you told me you had been going to an early morning Pilates class. Is that when you got together? Not for the gym or Pilates but to see each other. Did you meet in your car? You always said the back of your Volvo was big enough for sex, though I actually think you used the word "shag".'

'Oh, Emma! You're being ridiculous.'

For a brief second Emma thought maybe she was, but then she remembered the time she had noticed Andrew's hand lingering on her sister's back a moment longer than seemed appropriate, and the time he had come home with dark red lipstick on his cheek. 'Those girls at work,' he'd joked, 'I can't keep them off me!' Emma had briefly thought the lipstick shade was her sister's trademark Rouge Allure, but had pushed the thought away.

'Andrew was coming to meet you the night he died, wasn't he?' Emma felt like the pieces of a jigsaw were rapidly slotting into place. 'He wasn't coming home to look after me at all. I never understood why he was driving on the bypass - at that time of night it would have been quicker to drive through town.'

'Emma, stop this nonsense right now.'

'You had arranged to meet at the Lake View Motel after he'd been to the party. You were going to spend the night together in one of its sordid little rooms.'

'I know you fancy yourself as a writer, Em, but your imagination is going into overdrive.'

'You were on your own that weekend,' Emma continued, undaunted. 'The girls and Dan were at his parents for half term. That's why you could stay with me for the whole week after the accident. You sorted everything out, cancelled the wedding plans, held me while I cried.'

She watched a black dog running into the waves and recognised the man in the Fair Isle jumper who had spoken to her the day before. He was striding along the tideline, hands in his jacket pockets, thick dark hair blowing back from his face as he stepped over piles of the tangled debris and seaweed that had come in with the high tide.

'When I think of all the support I gave you Emma, and now you're accusing me of this, this...' Her sister sounded incredulous. 'I can't even say the word!'

'Betrayal?' Emma suggested.

'I held you day after day while you cried your eyes out on your sofa. I was there for you one hundred per cent when Andrew died.'

'But I remember hearing you crying at night in the spare room,' Emma said quietly. 'It was almost as though your grief was as painful as mine.'

There was silence on the other end of the line.

The women were still in their circle, passing round a chocolate bar as their laughing voices carried like birdsong on the blustery air. The man in the jumper stopped to talk to them. They offered him a drink and then a piece of chocolate.

'I'm right, aren't I?' said Emma.

'I'm so sorry.' Her sister sounded suddenly defeated.

'Just tell me why.'

'I don't know,' her sister sighed. 'I suppose I was jealous.'

'Jealous? Of what?'

'Jealous that my little sister had found someone so gorgeous.'

'So you thought you'd take him from me?'

There was a pause. Emma saw the man and his dog walking away from the women, heading her way.

'We never meant to hurt you.' Her sister's voice was a knife in Emma's heart. 'It started as a bit of fun, but then it became something else, something more serious.'

A wave crashed against the jetty. Spray speckled Emma's cheeks with icy water.

'Were you going to leave Dan?' she asked, trying to keep her voice from cracking. 'Was Andrew going to call our wedding off?'

'Yes,' her sister whispered. 'That was the plan.'

Emma took a breath and hurled her phone into the sea as hard as she could.

She stood very still while the wind whistled around her, buffeting the trench coat, blowing the fabric out behind her like a sail. She heard a moaning sound. At first she thought it was the wind. But the moaning turned into a wail, and then a terrible roar that filled the air. Emma put her hands over her ears to block it out. She saw the women look around to see where the noise was coming from. The man was hurrying towards the jetty, his expression full of concern.

It took several seconds for Emma to realise the dreadful sound was coming from her own mouth - she couldn't stop it. She started to run, the roaring getting louder as she ran faster down onto the sand. She pushed past the man.

'Hey!' he called to her. The black dog barked.

Emma ran across the beach towards the sea, her heart hammering. All the while the noise was following her. Her feet splashed through the foam of a receding wave, shells crunching, seaweed sticking to her boots. Another wave surged forward and suddenly the water was knee-deep. Emma kept moving. She stumbled and fell face down, tasting salt, her eyes stinging. The cold was almost unbearable, but she got up again, wading further into the waves.

She could hear shouting behind her, but she didn't turn around. The trench coat billowed out around her as she launched herself forward into the churning water, her long hair trailing behind. There was nothing beneath her and she was briefly submerged by the swell, but then her legs lifted and she began to swim. Her arms sliced through the water, her legs kicked out, again and again.

The coat felt heavy, dragging her back, almost pulling her under, but Emma was filled with a strength she didn't know she had and a powerful determination to keep going. Her limbs were machines cutting through the water and she didn't feel the cold - she didn't feel anything.

Ahead of her the horizon was a blaze of red and pink, the rising sun a glimmering ball that Emma aimed for. The coat was floating from her shoulders, hindering her strokes. She disentangled her arms from it and felt the fabric drifting away from her body like a discarded skin.

She could swim faster in her thin pyjamas and felt like nothing could hold her back. She was new, reborn, she belonged to the sea.

Something pushed against her shoulder, and Emma saw the sleek black head of the dog, then bright woolly balls of colour all around. The women were in the water, swimming beside her, smiling encouragingly.

'That's the way,' one said. 'Doesn't it feel wonderful?'

'Yes.' Emma found that she was smiling too.

'Makes you feel invigorated,' said another woman.

'Makes you feel alive.' Another older woman's words were full of joy. 'Maybe next time wear your cossie, not that nice designer mac,' a woman almost as round as the bobble on her hat said cheerily. 'I think you've lost it by the way, the tide has taken it out too far to reach.'

'Good riddance,' said Emma. 'The tide is welcome to it.' She accidentally swallowed a mouthful of seawater and began to splutter.

Her spluttering turned into laughter, and all the women started chuckling too. The dog let out an excited bark.

'Best come back in now,' the older woman said. 'You don't want to get too cold your first time.'

'We've got hot toddies in our flasks,' said the round woman, pointing towards the sand dunes. 'And more bars of chocolate than Willy Wonka.'

The women surrounded Emma, guiding her back towards the shore like a school of friendly dolphins.

'Here comes Rory with a dryrobe.' One of them pointed towards the man with the jumper coming towards them on the shore. 'You can borrow it until he can get to your house to fetch dry clothes.'

'I'll have to tell him the key code,' said Emma. Her teeth were starting to chatter as they reached shallow water.

'Ach, he knows it.' The women were all laughing again. 'It's his wee cottage after all.'

'His cottage?' Emma said.

'He owns the one you're staying in.'

Emma put her feet down and felt firm sand.

Together, Emma and the women walked up the beach, the dog running ahead of them towards his master. Water squelched in Emma's boots and her hair dripped down her face, but she didn't care. It was true what the women had said: she did feel invigorated, more alive than she had felt for years.

'Well, you certainly surprised me,' the man said as he draped the robe around her shoulders. 'I hadn't had you down as the wild swimming type.'

Someone handed Emma a warm enamel mug of sweetened whisky, and someone else gave her a chunk of chocolate.

'You're one of us now,' the older woman said. 'A Bonnie Bather.'

'That's what we call ourselves.' said another. 'We meet up every day to swim.'

'Dot will have to knit you your own hat. A bright green bobble would look lovely with all that gorgeous red hair of yours.'

Emma looked back down the beach as she sipped the whisky. The tide was going out now, revealing smooth clean sand that shone golden in the rising sun. The sea had taken the tangled debris and the piles of seaweed away in the same way it had taken her Burberry trench coat.

Emma closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. She felt as clean as the sand, her guilt and grief had gone, all washed away. Happiness bubbled up inside her. Something else was bubbling up too: names, characters, a plot that didn't involve the past.

'Will you be staying long?' the man asked. 'The cottage is free all summer.' Emma turned to him.

'I'll stay as long as you will have me,' she smiled. 'I have a novel to write.'

This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of The Lady magazine. Pictures: Adobe Stock