Tell Me It Was Real. Tell Me It Happened

I went for a run down by the beach and saw crows on the sand. They shriek like a completely different animal, like a whale. It’s a sound I’m used to. It’s hard to forget.

One of the crows, a great black thing about the size of my head – I could almost smell it when it flew over me, a sweet smell like sugar – became its own silhouette against the white sky and the white sun. The only other colour was the tiny spark of its yellow beak.

I ran along the promenade. The tide was in, leaving only a small space for the sand. It was a cold morning. I was running to clear my head. Fran was at home, but she wouldn’t be there when I got back. She was going to Manchester where she’d 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’d thought about it, I knew I didn’t want to go. It was her life, not mine.

When I run, I lose my thoughts like dropping things out of my pockets. My chest ached, but it wasn’t my heart. It was difficult to breathe, and soon that ache shot through my thighs and calves. My feet were bits of rusting machinery coming undone.

The more I ran, the more I felt like I was doing something right, even though everything was wrong. Soon Fran would be gone. Five years gone. We’d met outside the pub in the middle of summer. I’d known her friend. That was the start of it. I still get images of her lying in bed, asleep, calm and displaced as though she were floating upstream. The water was green and grey; seaweed had collected at the edge like hair. Various flotsam – logs and small sticks – lay on the small patch of wet 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.

I stopped running and tried to catch my breath. When I looked up again, I 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 saw her. She waved her arms frantically for a few seconds before going back under. I realised she was about to drown, so I quickly took off my shoes and my hoodie and I ran into the sea until the sharp chill 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. I felt the strength of the current as it pulled her further out, and I didn’t want it to pull us both, 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, her voice louder and clearer.

When I was close enough, I grabbed hold of her. She yelled, ‘Help me! Please!’ through mouthfuls of water. I hooked my arm around her chest and swam backwards towards the shore. She didn’t say a word; she was either scared or in shock. My left arm ached as I swam backwards, sending painful cramps at my shoulder and neck. 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 her 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. I then realised she was wearing a red dress.

‘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 know it’s cold,’ she said.

‘What were you doing in the water?’

‘Swimming,’ she said.

We both sat on the hard, wet sand, freezing cold. She was shivering and her lips were blue. I gave her my hoodie, and she wrapped it around herself.

‘Do you normally go out in the water when it’s like this?’ I said. ‘You probably should have waited until it gets warm.’

‘Not often, no.’

‘You should just wait until it gets warm,’ I said. The red of her dress was black with water and looked very heavy like it was dragging her down. She looked incredibly out-of-place on the beach. But still, I couldn’t believe how much she looked like my sister. But then it made me think that, in turn, she must have looked like me.

A crow flew overhead. I smelled its sweet sugar smell as 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 shrieking.

‘Where have you been?’ I said. But she just looked at me. I said, ‘I mean because of the dress.’

‘A friend’s wedding,’ she said.

‘What happened?’

‘My friend got married,’ she said.

‘No, I mean because you were in the water.’

‘What do you think happened?’ she said. I didn’t know. I couldn’t think why she’d be in the sea in a red bridesmaid’s dress, almost drowning in the freezing water. I couldn’t think why she looked like my sister. I couldn’t think of anything in that moment, my mind had frozen solid. For a moment, I’d even forgot why I was out there running, but then I remembered Fran, packing her bags that very second. The girl held my hoodie tightly, the hooks of her fingers were blue like her lips and I was worried she’d get pneumonia.

‘It was last night,’ she said. ‘It didn’t end well.’

‘Why didn’t it end well?’ I said.

‘Because I ended up in the sea, why do you think?’ Between her shivers, she took quick, sharp breaths, staring downward at the sand or watching the crows fly overhead. ‘Why are you here?’

‘I was running,’ I said.

‘In this weather?’

‘I had to get out,’ I said. ‘My girlfriend is leaving. Things didn’t really work out and she’ll be gone by the time I get back.’

‘That’s a shame,’ she said. ‘What happened?’

‘It just didn’t work out.’

‘Yes, but why?’

‘I don’t know why,’ I said. ‘These things just happen.’

‘Nothing just happens,’ she said.

‘She’s going to start a new life over in Manchester,’ I said. ‘I’m not.’

I stood up and helped her to her feet. Her hands were small lumps of ice. I thought it best if she got out of the cold. Our clothes were soaking. 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’m sorry that happened to you,’ she said. ‘With you and your girlfriend.’ I didn’t thank her, but I looked at her to see if she would speak again. Her hair was black and straight as if made out of oil. Her hair was the same colour as the crows. She said, ‘I was once in love with this boy for some reason. I don’t know why. I was stupid enough to think he’d want to be with me, but he didn’t want to.’

We let the cold air dry us. I felt my fingers freezing in my pockets. I was colder now without my hoodie, which was keeping her warm. The water, distant now, boiled in the winter air, frustrated it didn’t get to take one of us. Fran was terrified of the sea. She was scared of drowning, so she never learnt to swim. When I look out at the sea, I imagine that is a place where she is not.

‘You look just like my sister,’ I said.

‘Do I?’ she said.

‘Yeah,’ I said.

‘What does your sister look like?’

‘A bit like me, I think.’

‘Oh right,’ she said. ‘Yeah, I suppose.’ The shiver was going from her voice, so I thought she was warming up. ‘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?’

‘No,’ she laughed. ‘I just work in an office.’

‘I’ve never seen anyone swimming here before,’ I said. ‘We don’t really have the climate for it.’

‘Oh really?’

‘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.

The sand banks turned to bramble and weeds as we moved away along the promenade. The weeds smelled of vinegar and urine. There was a sign saying Cycle Path, on which someone blacked out the word path. In the distance, the shrieking crows made dancing swoops beneath the low-hanging clouds. They were just crumbs of black pepper.

‘I have a cousin,’ she said. ‘But like you, I’ve not seen him in years.’

‘Why not?’

‘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 he had that he couldn’t get rid of. I felt bad for him. We were friends for a couple of years when we were younger. 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.

‘One day, he walked into a church. I don’t know why; my family isn’t religious or anything. He just sat there, facing the altar, then he broke down crying. A friend of my dad saw him there, 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. My guess is that he’s in prison somewhere.’

We reached the path that turned off from the promenade, which eventually led 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 knew people did that, broke down crying for no reason at all. I’d caught Fran doing that once. She’d 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.

‘Yeah,’ 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 now, 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