by Elsa Fiott
Illustration by Thomas Cuschieri
‘Are you coming up yet, Claire?’
Claire looked at her cousin distractedly. Without her glasses, wincing in the late morning sun and with salt water in her eyes, she explained that she was going to swim out for the last time and then come back and join the rest of the family on the rocks. It was so hot that the sky looked like grey gauze over the sea. There wasn’t a hint of the breeze that had swept the bay the night before. On her way to the beach with her family, Claire had heard some fishermen talking about the weather. They were expecting the south-east wind to blow in soon, which was good news for fishing, but bad news for anyone else. The water would get murky as seaweed surfaced, and the spilt trash from the opposite bay would start drifting inwards. Dirty froth would gather around the rocks. The air would become oppressive, heavy on the skin and too thick to breathe in. The whole place would stink of fish guts and ripped-open garbage bags, their innards dragged out and scattered about by the stray cats.
Last year, during a long spell of similar weather, a decapitated dog had floated into the bay. Its white body had somehow got wedged in amongst the rocks. It got so bloated that people on the pier mistook it for a big plastic bag that just bobbed on the surface. Someone did eventually do something about it, but most of the locals just hung around the pier looking at it. Nobody wanted to get close.
Claire’s father was still in the water, but further out. Though he was not particularly given to solitude, John would always keep to himself in the water. Claire’s mother often looked out for him from the rocks, because he would normally dive and resurface some metres away from the rest of his family, and then float on his back for a long time. It was sometimes hard to spot him, and he had occasionally drifted along with the current so that he had to swim back when he woke up, startled but amused. Claire furrowed her brow and tried to look out for the slight disturbance in the sea surface where her father was floating. She imagined him, his arms spread loosely at his sides, his feet sticking out of the water, his head half immersed in water so that only the mask of his face showed, calm and wet. Claire did not like the thought of his lightness carrying him away like that. Her mother wasn’t on the lookout this time, and Claire could hear her talking to an aunt in a hushed voice.
‘It was exactly three years ago, remember? We were here when his other brother came running and told us the news.’
‘Yes, of course I remember. I remember cousin Iris was here from the States too.’
‘Yes, exactly. This day three years ago, 1976. A couple of days before Claire’s twelfth birthday. It was almost noon when Paul came running, and John had just come out of the water to dry himself, and they both got into the car and went straight to the asylum.’
‘Four months after, right?’
‘Yes, just four months after he was taken away. We all thought he was doing well, but then that happened. With the bed sheets…’
‘Jesus. You can never know what’s going on in someone’s head, especially when they’re like that.’
‘Tell me about it. I can’t even get a word out of John about it’
Now that her cousin had left her alone, Claire swam out towards her father. The water was still clear, and she could see the seabed below. Her father was still floating on his back, and though he must have realised she was there, he didn’t move. She looked back at her mother on the rocks, and then back at her father’s calm face. She couldn’t really bring herself to let go and float like that in the first place. The sea propped you up like cork, true, but things did sink irretrievably, as well.
‘I can’t understand why you like doing that so much.’
Her father gently sank his legs and opened his eyes, straightening himself up in the water.
‘It’s great. You’re just weightless. You let go and you float. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You don’t drown just like that you know.’
John was about to tilt his head back again, but Claire swam closer and said, softly, ‘Hey dad, I just wanted to let you know that I’d listen if you ever wanted to talk.’
‘What do you mean, sweetheart?’
‘Well, you know, about what happened. Maybe you want to talk about it.’
She tried to get him to look at her, and show him that he could trust her, but he winced and looked around.
‘Talk about what, Claire?’
She looked away, rubbing her stinging eyes and making it worse. She forced another soft tone out of her.
‘About your brother.’
Her father turned around and gave her his back. She traced the ripples that her moving arms were setting in the water. She looked back at the rest of her family again. Maybe it was time to climb out of the water after all. Although it was hot, she had been in the water long enough to start feeling cold and too heavy to keep herself afloat. The skin on her fingers was getting wrinkly and she could feel the dried salt on her face itching.
‘Hey dad, I just wanted to tell you that it’s not your fault.’
He didn’t look at her.
‘I mean, I know you’re upset because he was your brother, after all, but there was nothing you could do dad. And I think you ought to talk about it, let it out. You don’t have to tell mum. I know that you don’t like talking that much, but I’d understand you dad. I want to be here for you. You never tell me anything, and I think I’m ready to know –‘
He threw a grimace back at her.
‘What do you want me to tell you, Claire? Why do you want to know this?’
His voice broke and his face contorted. She could feel the hot words surging upwards before he even said them.
‘Do you know what he told me? He said, “Not you too, Johnny”, just before they got hold of him. That’s the last thing he said, and then they dragged him into the ambulance while he kicked and squealed. He tried digging his nails into the ground and his fingers bled. I was the one who called the police, Claire. I made them take him away. I turned him in. I saw him being taken away, and he knew it. Is this why you’ve been asking me? Is this what you wanted to know?’
He turned around again and swam out. Claire looked down at her wrinkled hands. The sun was really burning now. She rubbed her sore eyes and cursed under her breath. She felt she ought to get out of the water and leave the sea to her father. The boats had turned around to face the other direction by now. The south-east wind was already lapping the surface of the sea. She started swimming back to the shore, slowly and heavily. She trudged through the shallow water and dragged her weight back to the rocks, lifting herself up with some difficulty as the water clung on to her. She made her way up the mossy slope, holding onto the rusty rail as best she could. Dirty flakes of paint came off and got stuck to her hands. When summer started, some local or other would always scrub this slipway with a stone to make it safer to use, but the moss must have grown back too quickly this time around. The creaky rail didn’t help either. You could easily crack a skull this way.
She threw a towel around her and sat next to her mother, burying her sore eyes in a corner of the towel. Her mother looked at her.
‘Sea’s getting ugly, isn’t it?’
Claire put on her glasses and looked out to the sea, not really expecting to see her father. He hadn’t come any closer but he wasn’t floating on his back anymore, and she could see him moving his arms around to keep afloat while he looked away from her and faced the bay opposite. Greasy bubbles were already gathering around the rocks at her feet.
Claire looked back at her mother.
‘Yeah. The shit’s coming in.’
Elsa Fiott is a post-graduate student who occasionally tries to make some aspects of life more bearable by distilling them into what she hopes are memorable moments in fiction.
Thomas Cuschieri is a mathematician who draws comics. He’s sorry about that thing with the cake and the trampoline and promises it’ll never happen again.