Whenever I go running down by the beach, I always see the crows on the sand. The noise they make is hard to forget, a shrieking sound almost like a different animal entirely, like a whale, and as I pass them, they scatter and fly away.
One of the crows, a great black thing that looked like it had some weight to it, about the size of my head, and I could almost smell it when it flew over me, a sweet smell like sugar, flew overhead. And as it flew it becomes its own silhouette against the white sky and the white sun, and the only other colour was its yellow beak like the tiny spark of a cigarette in its mouth.
I ran along the promenade with the beach on one side. It was a cold morning. I was running to clear my head. Things weren’t good at home and I just wanted to clear my head. I get the feeling that if I run, I lose unnecessary thoughts like dropping things out of my pockets.
Fran was at home, but she wouldn’t be there when I got back. She was going to Manchester where she would start a new job and a new life. I was not going to Manchester. She’d been excited about this for weeks, and over those weeks as I thought about it, I knew I didn’t want to go. It was her life, not mine.
My chest ached, but it wasn’t my heart. It was difficult to breathe, and soon that ache went through my thighs and my calves. My feet felt like they were bits of rusting machinery about to come undone.
The more I ran, the more I felt that I was doing something right. Like this was the direction I was supposed to go. The tide was in. The water was loud. It was green and grey and seaweed had collected at the edge like hair. Various flotsam – logs and small sticks – lay on the sand.
When I was near the far end of the promenade, where the railing turned away from the beach and a wall of rocks lined the coast towards a lighthouse further up, I saw a girl in the water. The wind threw her voice to me, but the wind made the waves too rough. She said something like ‘me.’ She was shouting the word ‘me.’
I stopped running, immediately tried to get my breath back. Because I looked away as I breathed, when I looked up again, couldn’t see her. I scanned the water, the green waves splashing white froth. The blank sky gave little light. I climbed over the railing and dropped down onto the sand to get a better look. I shouted, ‘Hello!’ It felt strange shouting this as though I was talking to the sea.
I saw her. Her arm went up as though she was waving, but I knew she was drowning. I quickly took off my shoes and my hoodie and I ran into the sea until it was up to my waist and I had to push hard against the current before I could begin to swim.
It was painfully cold like a shock of electricity. I swam for what felt like much longer than it was. The more I swung my arms and kicked my legs, the further away she seemed. The current pulled her and I didn’t want it to pull us both further out, so I swam harder, gasping for breath, tasting the sharp salt of the sea. I caught glimpses of her, getting closer, her arms up, still waving, and her voice became louder and clearer.
When I reached her I grabbed hold of her. She yelled, ‘Help me! Please!’ through mouthfuls of water. I hooked my arm around her chest and under her arm and swam backwards towards the shore. She didn’t say a word, she was either scared or in shock. My left arm aching, doing all the work, and soon the water calmed as it thinned near the beach, and I felt the sand beneath my feet.
She knelt on the sand coughing, trying to catch her breath. I asked her how she was feeling but she didn’t answer. So I waited. As I waited, though, and I got a good look at her, I thought she looked just like my sister. I waited some more, not wanting to ask again, and when she was calm, she looked at me and said, ‘Thank you.’
I thought of asking Are you my sister? But I didn’t. She wasn’t my sister. I could see that. But it was uncanny how much she looked like her.
‘You’re welcome,’ I said. ‘What were you doing out there? The water’s dangerous in this weather.’
‘I didn’t know it was dangerous.’
‘And it’s cold.’
‘I’m normally okay.’
‘You a swimmer?’
‘Yeah, I swim,’ she said.
I doubted she was a swimmer. She was wearing a dress. We both sat on the sand, freezing cold. She was shivering and her lips were turning blue. I gave her my hoodie. She wrapped it around herself.
‘You probably should just wait until it gets warmer,’ I said. ‘Do you normally go out in the water when it’s like this?’
‘Not often, no.’
‘You should just wait until it gets warmer,’ I said. Her dress was slick and thin against her. It made her look incredibly out-of-place on the beach. But still, it was weird how much she looked like my sister, which made me think, in turn, she must have looked like me.
A crow flew overhead. I smelled its sweet sugar smell, and it flew over the water before turning around. It landed next to several other crows on the sand a bit further up. I could hear them squawking.
‘You been to a party?’ I asked, meaning the dress.
‘A social gathering,’ she said.
That’s what they call them now. A gathering. ‘What happened on your gathering?’ I asked.
‘It was last night,’ she said. ‘It didn’t end well. I was in love with this boy for some reason, I don’t know, and I was stupid enough to think he’d want to be with me. Spend his life with me. But he didn’t want that. I think he saw me as just a thing.’
‘Is that why you were in the water?’
‘No,’ she said.
We let the cold air dry us for a couple of seconds and I felt my fingers freezing.
‘You look just like my sister,’ I said.
‘I do?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘What does your sister look like?’
‘A bit like me, I think.’
‘Oh right,’ she said. ‘Yeah I suppose.’ She sounded like she was warming up, the shiver was going from her voice. ‘Where’s your sister now?’
‘She moved away, not seen her in years.’
‘Where did she go?’
‘London, last time I heard.’
‘Last time you heard?’
‘She’s a musician. It’s hard to keep up, but she’s got her own life. She’s not a kid anymore.’
‘Wouldn’t it be strange if I told you I was a musician too,’ the girl said.
‘Are you a musician?’
She laughed. ‘No. I just work in an office. I go to college though. I want to be an actor.’
I stood up and helped her up. I thought it best if she got out of the cold. Our clothes were soaking and I began to feel the cold more than before. The adrenaline must have worn off. As we walked along the sand, the crows flew away.
‘I’ve never seen anyone swimming here,’ I said. ‘We don’t really have the climate for it.’
‘It’s hardly ever warm,’ I said. ‘It can get hot in the summer, but it’s not really Miami Beach or anything.’ We climbed back up onto the promenade. ‘I hope you don’t do it again.’
‘I won’t,’ she said. The wind blew cold and hard and the water rushed up the sand creating a huge dark patch where we’d just been sitting. ‘You should call your sister. The musician. I bet she’d like that, if you called her.’
‘Yeah probably,’ I said. ‘But it’s been a while. Don’t you have a sister? Or a brother?’
‘I don’t have any brothers or sisters,’ she said. ‘I always wondered what it would be like to have siblings. They always say, don’t they, only child’s are crazy.’ She laughed. ‘I do have a cousin, but like you, I’ve not seen him in years.’
‘There was something wrong with him,’ she said. ‘He had issues. Well, that’s what they called it. “Issues.” Sounds like something that was given to him. I don’t know, just this label that he had that he couldn’t get rid of. You could number them like instructions. One: he’s crazy. Two: don’t talk to him. Three: don’t leave your purse lying around. I felt bad for him. We were friends for a couple of years when we were kids and we always hung out. We used to go to the park with the other kids in the neighbourhood. He knew this girl who always smoked, you could smell it on her, a hot sour smell. She smoked from when she was twelve years old and her mum used to buy cigarettes for her. She and my cousin started dating when they were teenagers. Apparently he tried to force himself on her, but no one really believed her because of the smell, like she couldn’t be trusted, and neither could her mother. We stopped hanging out together after that. He started self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
‘I heard that one day he walked into a church. I don’t know why, my family isn’t religious or anything. He broke down and began to cry. He must have been taken aback with all the religious paintings. Some old guy, who knows my dad, asked him if he was okay, and my cousin just looked at him and then left. Never really heard from him after that.’
‘A religious experience?’
‘Maybe. He had issues. He liked to steal as well to fund his drug habit, so my guess is that he’s in prison somewhere. I never thought to ask.’
We reached the path that turned off from the promenade, which eventually lead to the road. The sand under our feet became sparse and dusty. Further ahead, I could see the shapes of buildings, and one was the spire of a disused church. I’d not been in a church since a friend got married several years ago. But I knew people did that, broke down crying for no reason at all. I caught Fran doing that once, she had been listening to some song and she stood in the middle of the living room crying. She became irritated that I’d seen her crying. Can’t for the life of me remember what the song was.
‘It’s probably the last time I’ll see my girlfriend, Fran,’ I said. ‘Things didn’t really work out and she’s leaving. She should be gone by the time I get back.’
‘That’s a shame,’ the girl said. ‘Sometimes you don’t even know your family, as much as you love them. That’s not to say they’re bad people. Life and love are two separate things.’
When we reached the road, the girl said she was going home and said she was fine, that she didn’t need any more help. I let her keep the hoodie.
When I got home, Fran was gone. All her things were gone too. I physically felt the emptiness there, like a swelling mass in my chest. That evening, I called my sister. She was happy to hear from me. We talked for some time, laughing about the things we got up to when we were younger, and she told me about her music career and the band. She then said this: ‘Do you remember when we were kids and Mum and Dad used to take us down to the beach in the summer? And it was really hot, sweltering, it was so hot that I can remember how hot it was. I can still feel it. We walked along the promenade and the four of us stood at the railings before the sand and we looked out at the water, and everyone else was looking out at the water too. We looked out at the water and we saw dozens of whales there. Humpback whales. So many of them, together. They were just there, in the sea, blowing water from their blowholes, and we all looked at them. I thought they were beautiful, and the sounds they made, like birds. But the thing is, I don’t know if it was a dream or a memory. We don’t get whales up there, do we? Tell me it was real. Tell me it happened.’
I lied and said, ‘Yeah, there are whales there,’ and she laughed down the phone from somewhere else in the country.
© Michael Holloway