On Doctor's Orders

Entry by: tinyfeet&bluebirds

27th January 2017
She had found her way here on her doctor’s orders.

“The sea air will do you good.” he’d said, “Shift whatever it is you’re feeling.” He was a stout man in his fifties and it was clear to Grace that he didn’t think women her age, ‘young women in the prime of their lives’ was how he’d put it, should have anything to worry or be sad about. At least not for such a long time. Even death and loss were things you were supposed to get over eventually, put aside with your rosary or buddha or whatever else you turned to for comfort and get on with the living of life.

Even Sam had seemed to think so too. As he rubbed her back, slow circles across her lumbar, his brow tensed with worry, he’d implied perhaps the doctor was right,

“It’s true a change of scene might do you good.” he’d said, “I don’t know, give you something else to think about for a while.” He’d meant well, she knew he meant well, he loved her after all, but for god’s sake what a platitude. And though she could take it from the doctor, a middle aged, pot-bellied man who for all she knew had never felt anything in his entire middling life, she couldn’t take it from Sam. Not from him. He ought to have known better. He ought to care too.

So she’d given in. Nodded her assent. Packed her bags and washed up here. Somewhere sur mer. An empty out of season holiday town. At least it wasn’t ugly or gaudy. In fact it was very tasteful, beautiful even. Just the kind of place Sam would love. She supposed it was something. Though she still couldn’t see how being here, all alone, was going to help. She felt lonelier or rather, more alone, than ever.

The first few days she’d kept to the house. Spent her days sleeping or sitting motionless on the deck listening to records through an open window. The third day she’d ventured into the town, bought an ice cream in the only place open, walked along the promenade while she ate it. It had been windy that day and her hair blew across her face, caught in her ice cream, while the ocean, grey-green and angry, lashed itself at the sea wall.

During the night, she’d woken startled awake by a noisy storm. Thunder was rumbling across the town and every now and then her white washed bedroom was illuminated by lightning. It took her hours to fall asleep, as she fretted the sheets to threads, turning from one side to the other, to her back, onto her front, nothing right. Finally she lay still as stone, her hand lightly on her stomach, staring at the mirror on the dressing table across from the bed. The storm had broken and the early morning sunlight was beginning to peek through the crack in the curtains.

She had draped a necklace over the corner of the mirror, turquoise, jade, garnet stones hung on a long thread of pale blue ribbon. It glinted in the light. She wondered if all her sadness would slip away if she went to the sea, waded in, bathed herself clean. She fell asleep certain she could hear the sound of the waves breaking on the sand even though the shore was far too far away for that.

When she woke again, it was unseasonably warm for October and without really thinking about it she ate quickly and made for the beach. It was deserted. She made herself a spot and settled in. The sand was hot beneath her crossed legs. She lifted grains idly with her hand letting them slip through the gaps between her fingers. The sea, glinting and bobbing, a shifting opaque mirror, ran lazily back and forth, back and forth like the creaking strings of a well strung hamac. It was peaceful and the air was fresh, salty and clean, but somehow it wasn’t shifting anything.

Rather Grace felt the memories flood her. The tug of the waves, the hiss as they pulled out and the crash as they came in reminded her of her midwife, Rosemarie. A thin woman who smiled a lot. She said never to think of contractions but of waves instead.

“Like this” she would smile as if sharing a secret, “with your breathing and your body you can, just like a surfer, ride the waves.”

Grace smiled as she remembered how they’d both put their arms in the air, their hips tilted and pretended to surf before bursting into laughter. Those had been the good times, full of expectation, ripe to burst. That had been before. Now she remembered another Rosemarie, her thin face taut, her eyes full of a sadness Grace hadn’t wanted to believe, her hand gripping too tight.

A shell caught her eye, a cowrie shell, small and white like a tiny curled up hand and she was back in the hospital holding a small bundle to her chest, watching how her sleeping daughter’s fingers folded themselves in on themselves. That something so small and yet so perfectly formed could exist had seemed a wonder to her, just like the cowrie shell did now. She found herself rubbing her thumb over it’s surface gently, wondering who she was comforting - herself or the washed up snail’s husk?

These shells had been used for money once. Fastened together in strings, passed form hand to hand throughout Africa and Asia, even immortalised in Chinese pictograms. They had travelled and felt the caress of more hands than any human could ever hope to. Perhaps even this shell she was holding now had once been currency. Perhaps it had passed from the henna painted hand of a Sultan’s daughter to a silk merchant selling his wares. He gave it to his wife when he paid her the housekeeping and she gave it to the cook to go to the market. And from there it was handed to a fishmonger who paid it to a fisherman who lost it through a hole in the corner of his pocket.

Her shell had sat in the bottom of the fisherman’s boat for years, in a tiny hole in a crack between lats, through good weather and bad, good hauls and bad. Even the time when the sea had risen up higher than a mountain and flung the boat and everyone in it to pieces, obliterating whole villages until it's pent up rage was done. The shell, washed up on the shore had simply waited for the tide to come in, sweep her away, back to the sea, to freedom.

Grace’s hand closed around the shell holding it tight, as if she could keep it forever, here in her palm, never let go. Just as she’d wanted to hold onto her baby forever, never let her go. She remembered how her head had smelt the first time she’d bent her neck to smell it, a hint of freshly baked bread and something indescribably sweet. She remembered, how her mouth had stayed open, it’s perfect o still shaped to the breast. And how the wrinkle of skin between her eyes made it look as though she were thinking in her sleep. How she fitted perfectly into the curl of your arm and lay there so still and perfectly content. How warm she had been and how soft her skin, like an untouched pristine peach. Oh how beautiful you are, she had thought, and how much I already love you. I will never let you go. Never. And she hadn’t. Not even when the doctors had told her,

“Her heart has stopped. We’re so sorry.”

There were no words for after that.

Grace sat holding her cowrie shell for a long time, her hand curled around it’s white curves. Her limbs seized up. Her skin dried and browned under the sun. Her lips grew dry with salt. And still she didn’t move. From a distance she might have passed for a statue she remained so still, her eyes focussed on something out of sight, over the water.

It wasn’t until the sun was dipping into the ocean that her hand uncurled. Plovers were dancing in and out of the foam, a lone heron stood watch on a nearby rock. In the beach grasses, clusters of tiny white snails clung to the stems. Slowly, Grace held the cowrie shell out to the lacy edge of the water as if it were an offering to some deity.

What happened next it’s hard to be sure. There was no one there to see. But perhaps, if someone had been there, they would have seen a woman stiff as if with old age, her cheeks tear-stained, her hair unruly, rise on unsteady feet. They would have seen a woman, in a beautiful, long, pale, cotton dress billowing in the wind, step forwards her hand still held out before her. The cowrie shell still cradled in her palm, it’s perfect whiteness standing out against her flesh. They would have seen a woman, her mind determined, walk forwards and into the sea.