By Bonnie Radcliffe

‘Cup of tea, darling?’

A man stands near the room with the cooker. There is something – a feeling, no words – it is inside, all everywhere inside and I don’t know what and he turns to me and smiles, but there is something in his eyes – kind eyes, lined edges, handsome – something more or less than the smile, something that I think has to do with the feeling in my stomach that I don’t have words for and he’s asking me, louder now, ‘Cup of tea, darling?’

Darling, what is that? Tea – do I like that? Is it time for tea? Will he have one? Will he sit and will I have to talk, to try to hide the holes?

‘Do you want tea or coffee? Or herbal? Green, lemon and ginger, peppermint? Or cocoa?’

He is staring. Next to me something sits in water. A vase. Yellow stars. I look at them. There is a soft thing in my hands, long, yellow. It is not solid anymore. Smushed. It is messy on my skin and it smells sweet and I wrinkle my nose. I want a different smell. Something salty. The thing in my hands falls to the floor. He sees, closes his eyes, then comes forward and wipes my hands. Turns. He asks again, saying lots of words loud. The something in his eyes, the feeling without name, is there in his voice, and I realise I am meant to answer. He is waiting for an answer and I say, ‘Ginger.’ As he moves away, I wonder if that is right.

He puts something hot in front of me, steps back holding one of his own. Opens his mouth but doesn’t say anything. I copy, mouth fish-gapey. He closes his eyes. I don’t know what the shape of his face means. His face is beautiful, strong at the top, hair greying, skin I want to touch. Though I don’t think that is possible. It is a good face. But then he shakes
himself and turns and he is gone and I am alone. I touch what he gave me. The steam hurts. I pull my hand away. It smells all wrong. I want salt. Sun catches metal and I stand. I walk, lifting feet a little. I reach the door. I think I have done this before, but door always stops me. But I turn the shiny thing and it swings opens. I step out.

Lifting feet a little, I follow the scent. The scent of something I can’t name. A colour everywhere. Something growing. I pass a tree bursting with – something. Beneath my feet – pink, like confetti. As I walk the smell is sharper. My feet lift higher. I am faster. Blossom. Cherry. A bird above. Calling. Crying. A gull and salt, salt on the wind. Not just a gull; a

There before me the path dips down, and there before me is the sea. My steps have purpose now. My thoughts grow fuller. Brine in the air, bladderwrack strewn across shingle. Slipper limpets beneath my slippers, periwinkles and whorls and scallops speckled green. Birds scattered across the promenade; fulmars and sanderlings, curlews and guillemots and
black backed gulls. Chalk towers in the cliffs. Water – ice and liquid, soft and urging and grasping and saline – at my toes. Slippers left on the sand.

And I walk. And I keep walking and the wetness rises. I pause as it reaches my chin. The waves are small, gentle, and they rock me as I hold myself suspended, feet on the seabed and face to the sky. My lined face staring to that great, expansive blue sky. Not just blue. Cerulean. Royal shading to lapis at the horizon. Pewter where the light meets liquid. I duck
down and let the water take me.

It is both dark and light at first, thicker than air but filtered by sunlight. Fists of spume wash overhead as I drift. I look down and I understand; the bottom never was beneath my feet. And then I am dropping, through it all. Sunlit, moonlit, abyssal, hadal. Right down, through them all. And as I drop further away from bold searing sunshine, it comes back. It all
comes flooding back. Magnolia blossoms, pink and white petals thick as flesh. I painted them once, magnolia framing that enduring ocean. Oil staining my fingers, turps stinging my nostrils, canvases sprayed with colour, the lines of my hands etched with rainbows. Green shoots of spring dotting the land, the colour that so painted the world above, a symbol of renewal, nestled beside the all engulfing blue. The curve of kelp, the endless ocean that I painted, again and again, trying to capture its whims and rages in pigment. Those long yellow things that smush – bananas, of course, they’re bananas.

I like bananas, the soft sweet bite of them, eaten before an easel in the rising wind of a south-westerly. I like daffodils, yellow stars stacked in a vase or scattered over springtime cliffs that crumble down to a cascading current. I like Merlot and the impressionists and listening to the washing of the water through my open bedroom window at night. I like
running the coast path and playing chess and I dream in twirling colour. I like waking in the morning before the birds peep, watching the day break from my studio while he sleeps on in our big bed. I like coffee from a cafetière with a gardening magazine at breakfast, I like tea in the afternoon, cocoa after a long blustery hike across the downs, the wind and the rain tightening our smiles. I am a painter, I am a gardener. I am a mother, a woman, a wife. Here in the water, I know all these things again.

My feet hit the ocean floor and I see him, that handsome man with the strong forehead and full eyes. I see him, the man I have loved every day since I was sixteen, even when I screamed at him for breaking my favourite plate, the one with the elephant on. He is waiting for me there, with all the words and all the things I once knew, he is waiting there, as complete as he ever was. I can see him holding open a door for me, his hand resting on my lower back. Falling asleep at the theatre and waking with a noisy jolt, chasing our tiny, beautiful girl down a wide beach, determined to protect her from crashing waves twice her toddler height. I can see him dancing with me in the kitchen, toast in his hand, chin on the
crown of my head. I can see him topping up my wineglass before a big exhibition, pushing me on a swing in the woods when I was far too old for such shenanigans. I can see him telling me something is wrong, see him beside me in the doctor’s office, squeezing my fingers till the knuckles crack. I can see him looking away, can see the tears he tried so hard
to hide. It’s all there, all the shades of him, and us, and who I used to be. The water holds me, will not let me fall. I open my mouth and drink in the bittersweet salt of it all.

There is no light down here, only endless undulating sand and shifting blue. Prussian, indigo, phthalo, azure. A thousand ever shifting shades pass over the face of the man I loved, the man I still love, for as long as I am down here to remember it.

I know now, the name of the feeling that so fills me, the feeling so deep and painful in his eyes. If I go back, I will feel it all still.

But without the support of the salty sea, I will not be able to name it. I will not be able to name him.

I will know nothing.

Bonnie Radcliffe

Bonnie Radcliffe is a writer based in the southeast. She is a keen wild swimmer and has previously written features for The Outdoor Swimming Society. She has recently completed The Mawddach Residency for emerging artists and writers. Her work explores storytelling and the sea, women and water, nature, daughterhood and folklore. She is currently working on a gothic novel set in the 1920s.

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