The Sea, the Sky

by Jason Jackson



When she went into the sea, I was looking at the sky. It was a solid grey, and I was wondering whether that colour was the sky itself, or just the clouds. So when the girl went into the sea, I wasn’t watching her at all. I was looking at the sky, the huge, grey sky, trying to work out what was what.

There was no one else around - people generally don’t go to the seafront so early in the morning - but there I was, and there she was, standing on the wall. At least, she must have been standing on the wall, to just go in like that.

Like I said, I wasn’t looking.

The sound she made wasn’t a scream like on a horror film, nothing like that. Just this noise, almost like a laugh, like when someone comes up behind you, grabs you, pushes you, shouts boo. That’s what I heard.

It’s a rough sea on this coast, and it’s killed hundreds over the years, but I’m a good swimmer. Or at least I used to be. When you get older, the things you used to be able to do, you can’t do any more. It’s sad, but that’s what happens.

I didn’t think about any of that, though. I heard the splashing, and there she was. She wasn’t making any sound. I think her mouth was closed because of the water. But she was splashing. It wasn’t like she was trying to swim. It was just panic. I caught a glimpse of her face - white, thin, frightened - then her head went under. Her hair splayed out on the surface like some strange water creature, and everything was still for a second. Then, up she comes, hair all wet, plastered over her face, arms splashing around. I almost laughed. But then she went under again.

Somehow I was already on top of the wall, pulling off my shoes. I can’t remember how I climbed up there. Man of my age. When I looked down again, her hair was all spread out on the dirty, grey surface. I knew she wouldn’t come up again.

It’s cold, the sea. The water hits you in the chest, stops your breath. It drags at your clothes, pulls at them. I was underwater for longer than I expected, and when I came up I couldn’t breathe properly. I was kicking my legs, not swimming, just trying to stay upright, and I was turning my head, looking for her, but I couldn’t see her. Then my foot kicked something. She was right behind me; I’d almost landed on top of her.   

Her head was back, eyes closed, and the water was lapping over her face. It looked like she was unconscious. I put a hand under her head, pushed her upright, and the other hand I put around her shoulder. I didn’t know what I was doing. She slipped forward, and I lost her for a second as she went under the surface, but I managed to grab her hair. I pulled, and up she came.

I turned her in the water, and managed to slip my arms under her armpits, dragging her towards me. We were facing each other. I was still kicking my legs, and we were just about floating, our chins above the surface. There was maybe an inch between my face and hers. She still had some lipstick on, and I saw how young she was, twenty at the most. Her eyes were closed, but I could feel her quick, warm breath on my face. The waves were pushing against us, and the movement of the water brought us together. Just for a second, our lips touched.

That was when the other man arrived. I heard him.

‘Hey! Christ! Hey!’

I looked up. He was a big man, bearded, already flinging his jacket off, getting ready to jump in.

‘She’s okay,’ I said, the sea in my mouth. ‘I got her.’ I looked at her. Eyes closed, beautiful, silent. ‘I got you,’ I said.

He was into the water quickly, smoothly, with hardly a splash, and when he came up he didn’t say anything, just grunted with the effort. I held onto her, tight, close. Her eyes were still closed, and her hair was stuck to her cheeks. We would’ve made it without him. It might’ve taken longer, but we would’ve been fine.

Then his arm was tight around my neck, and I could feel his knees in my back as he kicked his legs. I felt the water drag past me, and suddenly there was sand under my feet. I let go of her, he let go of me, and I tried to stand. It was no good; I fell headlong, tried to swim a little, and got a bit closer to the beach. He was up ahead now, carrying the girl in his arms, wading through the water. Her hair was hanging down, skimming the surface, and her head was bouncing. I tried to stand again, but my legs wouldn’t work and I fell, twisting into the water. The last thing I saw was the grey sky, and the clouds.


I’d been out of hospital for three days when she came to see me. I answered the door and there she was: skinny, drenched from the rain, wrapped in a too-big black coat. Her hair was just like it had been that day in the water: hanging lank and stuck to her hollow cheeks.

‘Mr Johnston?’ she said. Her voice was low, scratchy. It was the first time I’d heard her speak.

‘You’d better come in,’ I said.

We walked through to the front room, me leading the way. I offered to take her coat, but she shook her head.

‘Sit down, please, sit down. Would you like a drink? Tea?’

She shook her head again. She was looking around the room, not at me. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ 

‘Not at all,’ I said and I went to the cupboard, dug out an ashtray. I could smell her, the rain on her hair, the cold. I handed her the ashtray, and sat down in the chair opposite her. ‘How did you know where to find me?’

‘The hospital.’ Her eyes were on me now. ‘I told them I wanted to thank you.’

‘And how are you feeling?’

There was a pause. ‘I’m fine.’

‘The hospital, they were all right about you going home?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr Johnston,’ she said, looking away quickly. ‘I was in shock for a day or so, but physically, I’m very well.’

‘Good, good,’ I said. ‘It’s nice of you to come. I was hoping that we’d meet.’

She stubbed the half-finished cigarette. ‘Why did you do it, Mr Johnston?’

‘Oh, a person doesn’t think, in those situations.’ I stood up, walked over to the window. ‘I know you probably think I’m too old to be jumping into the sea. But age, you know, it’s all relative.’

‘That’s not what I mean.’ Her voice was quiet, but when I turned to her I could see the strain in the thin tendons of her neck. ‘Why did you push me?’

It was raining hard outside. ‘A push?’ I said.

She stood up. ‘The police think I tried to commit suicide. Young girl, on her own, no job, bit of a history. But that’s not what happened.’

I turned back to the window. ‘You jumped. Why else were you standing on that wall?’

She was close to me now, and I could smell the damp from her hair. ‘I was looking at the sea. I was just standing on the wall, looking at the sea.’ Her words were so quiet they were almost lost behind the sound of the rain on the window. ‘You ever looked at the sea, Mr Johnston. Really looked? It’s amazing.’

‘It is,’ I said. ‘It is.’

She shrugged, and there was the trace of a smile on her lips. ‘I didn’t tell the police about you, because I wasn’t sure at first. I mean, you jumped in. You tried to save me.’

I looked down at her rigid, outstretched fingers. ‘We would’ve been fine,’ I said. ‘We didn’t need anyone’s help.’

Her hand came up quickly, and the slap was loud, sharp, not painful. ‘You pushed me!’ At last, she was shouting.

‘Ridiculous,’ I said smiling, my hand to my cheek. ‘I saved you.’ The sting of the slap was already fading. ‘If it hadn’t been for me…’

‘If it’d hadn’t been for the other man, we’d both be dead!’ He hand came up again, another slap, harder this time. We were less than a foot apart, both breathing hard. She was almost my height, and our faces were close. I could have leant forward, kissed her. Bitten her.

I turned back to the window. ‘Do you ever wonder about the sky?’ I said. ‘It’s sometimes so grey, and you can’t tell one cloud from the other.’

She grabbed my shoulder, swung me around to face her. ‘Did you want to be a fucking hero, is that it? Or did you actually want to kill me?’ She laughed, a jagged sound. ‘That’s it, isn’t it? You wanted to kill me, but you just got scared!’

I turned to her. ‘Perhaps you should go.’ I tried to smile.

‘Coward!’ Her hand came up again, but I grabbed her by her thin wrist. She was cold, wet from the rain. I could feel her bones rub together under my grip.

‘Please,’ I said. ‘Go. Now.’

She looked at me, the muscles in her jaw, in her neck, working hard under the skin. ‘I just wanted to tell you that I know,’ she said, teeth clenched. ‘I wasn’t sure, even when I decided to come here, and I know no one would believe me, but I know what you did.’ She was shaking, and her eyes were black. Her lips had little flaps of skin where she’d been biting them. ‘I know, and I think it’s sick.’

I let go of her and walked to the door. ‘I hope, in time, you’ll realise how lucky you are.’

‘You don’t even remember,’ she said, quiet now. ‘You’ve totally convinced yourself.’

‘I think you should leave now.’

She walked towards me. ‘Each time I look at the sea now, I’m going to think of you. You’ve spoilt it for me.’

I smiled at her. ‘Then look at the sky.’

She just shook her head and walked out. I closed the door behind her.

In the front room, there was very little light coming from outside, but before I drew the curtains, I watched her walk down the street. Above her, the sky was huge, solid, grey. But if I looked close enough, I could just make out the individual shapes of the clouds.

©2007 Jason Jackson

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