SHORT STORY: The Siren's Call by Sue Shipp
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub
The seafront is empty, save for a couple of dog walkers, and us.
They’re up on the
high ridge of pebbles that drops down towards the sea.
The black labrador makes a play bow, mouth open, it chases a thrown stick.
Its feet scattering pebbles, to then make paw-prints in the wet sand.
It plunges into the choppy grey sea.
Swimming strongly, head high, it grasps the stick.
The roll of the wave helps it swim to shore.
Shaking salty droplets from its coat, it bounds after the man in a red waterproof jacket, trousers tucked into the tops of his walking boots.
His stride, like the dog, is long and firm.
Further along, a white miniature poodle picks its way along the high ridge of pebbles, and I wonder how it manages not to slide on the looseness beneath its feet.
Unlike the labrador, the poodle, held by its leash, is wrapped in a tartan coat.
A waif-sized woman, dressed in skinny jeans, tight fitting leather jacket and high heels, walks as if the pebbles hurt her feet.
Their differences are as wide as those between us.
You love the sea, love to let it make you weightless, allowing it to take you far beyond the edge of the pier.
I always hold my breath, until I see you roll on your stomach, and with long strokes head back to shore.
I need the anchor of land beneath my feet.
When we first met, I drew you to a tiny thatched cottage at the end of a sleepy lane, its flower-filled garden edging the field bordering the wood.
At dawn and dusk, roe deer venture out, delicately sniffing the air before bending to the richness of the grass.
We walked the land, arms entwined, our breath fogging in the winter, sweat on our brow in the summer.
I thought, we were happy; I thought, we have finally come home.
That was until the night we sat watching the sun slowly dip behind the line of woodland trees and you spoke of the sea, your voice heavy with longing.
The night air brought goose bumps to my arms as you told me of generations of your family, pulled from the safety of the land by the siren’s call.
Tough fishermen, battling the ocean for her catch, until their hands were raw and faces salt-crusted.
Some found their resting place on the windblown earth of Tor’s Point, their landlocked souls in torment, for the siren still calls.
Some never coming back – like your father, who even before you could walk, taught you how to listen to her.
There’s no lying on Tor’s Point for him – no place to remember him by – save the sea.
My heart grew heavy as you told of 20ft waves crashing onto the tiny fishing vessel, trying to ride from the valley of the wave.
Men trying to anchor themselves as they slid across the foaming, tilting deck encumbered by sou’westers – dragged under the churning waves by the weight of Fair Isle jumpers, their cries stifled in the siren’s angry boiling hiss.
You were the only one who survived.
Floating, like a buoy attached to driftwood, when the coastguard found you, half-dead with exhaustion and cold.
I didn’t know then, your father died, saving you.
Today, on the anniversary of his death, we stand side-by- side near the water’s edge, alone now the dog walkers have gone.
The wreath you brought bobs away from the shore, it floats, lightly buffeted, on the swell where it will eventually lie, is no more known, than where your father lies.
I hear you sigh – a long windblown sigh.
I turn my face away from the need in you; I feel the brief warmth of your eyes on me and hope flickers deep inside; then the siren calls.
She rolls in a foaming gush, filling the moat of my hastily built sandcastle; tearing at the walls, forcing forwards until she bubbles up and over our bare feet.
As the walls fall, I begin to crumble.
Digging my toes into the cold, wet sand flecked with specks of stone that in a millennia will too become sand,
I feel her squelch against the puckered whiteness of my skin.
I try to anchor myself against the draw of her retreating, sucking hiss, and in that sound I hear your goodbye, whispering across the distance between us.
Far out, where the sky meets the sea, I watch her bump against the stern of a warship making her last journey to some foreign port, to be broken and torn, until there is nothing left.
The tugs held her steady on her course through the harbour, but now, like me, she has been cut adrift.
Sue Shipp holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Portsmouth and was among the winners of The London Magazine’s 2013 Southern
Universities Short-Story Competition.
She was involved in writing collaborations for the Much-AdoAbout-Portsmouth Festival, Voices at the Kings Theatre and the Ferry Tales Project.