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There are dead jellyfish on the beach this morning, shiny lumps just out of reach of the retracted tide. Cally runs to them and I call to her to stop, to stay close, though it’s not the stings I’m afraid of. Not the jellyfish at all.
Sometimes I catch sight of the two of us, reflected in cool, dark windows, and I don’t know who we are. It gladdens me and frightens me, equal measures. Cally doesn’t notice, or it doesn’t bother her, being a different girl. I see her frustration with the rest of it, though. My presence, my constant pressing presence, my hand on her shoulder, her baseball cap low over her eyes.
We arrived in June, early one morning with the sun glinting off the sea. I wanted to keep moving and when we pulled up outside the hotel – the taxi driver leaning an arm back over the seat and smiling at us, saying “holiday yes?” – I wanted to tell him to keep going, to get further away. To drive and drive until there was nothing but distance.
Cally smiled though, looked up at the blue sky and the hotel balconies. “Cool!”
We spent our early days on the beach. Bought novels and magazines from the small English language section in the newsagents and lay on the hotel’s sun loungers under wide blue umbrellas. Granulated sand, sparkling sea, cruise liners and container ships and fishing boats dotting a line on the horizon and behind them the shifting half-there shadow of another continent. I’d close my eyes and sometimes I’d forget for a moment, for a whole collection of seconds or even minutes I’d think we really were on holiday. I’d drift into a kind of calm half-sleep as the sea rushed and shushed, up and down the beach, small children screaming and laughing at the waves, sun dappling through the straw umbrella across my eyelids. It always came back though, with a start like an electric shock or a slap to the face, made more vicious by the surprise.
One afternoon I’d found myself dozing like this in the sun. Jerked awake by memories I sat upright and realised Cally wasn’t beside me. I scanned the sea for her small blonde head. No sign of her splashing in the shallows or swimming in the deep, digging holes in the sand or waiting in the shade of the ice cream kiosk. I stood and cast around, aware that I was drawing attention, people were looking at me. I pulled my hat lower on my head.
She was a few hundred metres down the beach, playing volleyball with a group of boys. Her still-pale body leaping amongst tanned skin. Bright hair flicking in the sunshine. I ran down the beach as fast as I could, my feet sinking and sliding like a bad dream. I grabbed her, pulled her wrist. She squealed and I realised I’d hurt her.
“Sorry, I’m sorry. Come on.”
More people were watching now; my attempts to hide us were drawing attention. I dragged her up the beach and into the dark of the hotel.
“Who were those boys?” I shook, my breath caught, my eyes straining to see her face in the sudden air-conditioned darkness.
“They were just boys, just local boys. What are you doing?”
“I’ve told you to keep to yourself. We have to–” I struggled, my heart hammering.
“You were sleeping and they just came and asked me to play,” Cally’s voice collapsed and she reached for me and we were both crying, her little arms tight around me. “We’re never going home, are we?” she asked, her voice muffled by my shoulder.
The next day I found us a small house to rent in a town a few miles down the coast.
We vary our mornings, my coffee and her melocotón – she picks up the language so quickly, takes to it, winds her tongue around it, rolls it against the back of her throat until she is hoarse and it is all hers. Today we are at the cafe with the wicker chairs, at the far end of the paseo. I saw a flicker of recognition in the waiter’s dark lashed eyes when we ordered and I know we will not come back here for some time.
The energy of the town has shifted downwards. On the beach there are more spaces between the parasols, the towels, the slick, tanned bodies. I can watch Cally, her limbs striding black against the silver-blue sea, feet picking carefully between the glinting jellyfish, dyed-brown hair caught in the wind. She’s grown here, in the last weeks, like a flower blooming in the sun. I have shrivelled instead, curled into myself with fear and tension. The hot sun dries me to a husk; a nervous, crackling shell.
Our house is on the edge of town, a one-storey darkened by the ornate iron bars snaking the windows. In the tiny garden we have grown tomatoes and terracotta pots of herbs, and last week we bought an avocado plant – a gesture of brief and unreasonable optimism since it will not produce fruit for a year. Cally tends to the plants as though they are her friends; whispering, stroking their glossy leaves.
I wake that night to raindrops on the roof, heavy and angry and like a memory of another place. I feel Cally’s warm arms circle me as she climbs into my bed.
“Rain,” she whispers in my ear. “How long since we heard it?”
I remember the night we left, the blackness and the streetlights sparking raindrops on the taxi windows. Cally clutched to me, her breath hot and rapid against my breast-bone. My eyes stuck to that dark upstairs window as the taxi pulled away. Was I hoping the light would come on or was I hoping it wouldn’t?
Cally’s voice brings me back to this bedroom; this night, this rain. “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” she says. I feel her elbow, the slight ridge where the bone has healed.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She says, “It wasn’t you,” and I wonder if that’s true.
The drumming on the roof is impatient fingertips.
The paint peels from the buildings nearer the sea, awnings torn by the last winter, winds that we are yet to feel. Today we take our morning drinks in the heladería with the orange chairs and the giant, smiling ice cream cone. The rain has washed the dust from the paseo and the nearest wooden beach bar is being disassembled by young men in sweat-soaked t-shirts, shouting in hoarse voices. Plastic chairs, tables, flower pots, sacks, unused packs of toilet paper and napkins pile into a waiting van. The waitress, the girl who has been the waitress, watches with her fingers fluttering nervously against her thigh.
“What does she do now?” Cally asks.
“I’m not sure. It’s the end of summer. Perhaps she goes back to school.”
“I won’t go to school, will I?”
I shake my head. We watch the bar disintegrate as more clouds roll from the mountains behind us and rain patters on our orange parasol.
We walk back through narrow streets. I hold her hand, although I know she’s too old for it. The dark beaded doorways here make me nervous. I imagine fingers reaching, arms pinning, her kicking legs pulled into waiting cars.
The beach is almost empty now. The early September days pull families from their hotel rooms and send them, trundling suitcases, into taxis and waiting buses. Their faces are slow and sad, staring at the sun, the sea, the almost-empty beach. I’d hoped we’d be brown enough by now. With our darkened hair I thought we might pass, but I’d forgotten how subtle, how indistinct and yet always there the difference is. I feel suddenly exposed, a jellyfish on the beach.
I keep her at home now. She’s allowed in the garden only during siesta time, when our neighbours are inside.
I’ve left the house every few days, to buy food and check the papers. The newsagent is at the bottom of our hill – a little shop with fading postcards on a stand at the front and English language papers piled in the back. Today it happens; Cally’s brown eyes stare at me from the cover of the Daily Mail. I crouch, breathing heavily in the sharpened-pencil-smell of the dark shop. It’s her school photograph from last year. A half-smile, blonde hair tied in a ponytail and shirt newly ironed. I remember the heat of the iron, held close to the side of my face, singeing the baby hairs by my ears, his voice whispering–
I drop the paper, Cally stares up from the floor. The shop owner is beside me, his arms folded. The iron is hot beside my cheek. My head spins and the dusty shop is airless. I topple.
“Lo siento.” A woman is stroking a cold cloth on my forehead. “¿Te sientes mejor? ¿Quieres un poco de agua?” She holds a glass to my mouth.
I sit up, confused. I’m in a small back room behind the till.
The shop owner smiles sadly. “I am sorry to startle you lady. But you must buy the papers, not only to read them. I must make money.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Lo siento.” I shake my head. The man’s face is kind, the woman’s thick eyebrows frown at me in concern. She hands me the water again and I drink. I take a breath.
“I need help,” I tell them.
The ships slide by, vast and slow, towering skyscrapers.
“Are we going on one of those?” Cally clutches her suitcase in one hand, she’s insisted on also bringing the avocado plant. We managed to put it in a smaller pot and it hangs over her arm in a blue plastic bag. The leaves tickle her ear and the pot bangs against her leg as we walk. I can tell it’s annoying but she’s insistent it must come with us.
“I think our boat will be smaller,” I tell her. To our left a smartly dressed woman is sitting on a bench reading El País. She turns a page and there are our faces, small, poorly rendered in black and white, but clearly us. The picture of Cally, from school, and a photo of me smiling into the sun in our back garden. I remember he was in it too, the original photo. I can see the light edge of a hand resting on my shoulder and the unusual way I was wearing my hair down over one temple, to hide the bruise throbbing there. I pull my hat lower over my eyes and feel in my bag for the hard little edges of our passports. I imagine launching them into the sea, watching as they sink into the foamy, black dock water. I wonder how long they would take to go under, whether they’d float on the surface for a time. I wonder how it would feel to let ourselves go with them.
A man shouts from a fishing boat further down the jetty; as we look he waves.
“That must be him,” Cally’s excited, like this is a day trip, though she knows it’s not.
We half-jog towards him and he smiles, “¿La inglesa?” He is very dark skinned, his smile wide and nervous. He gestures us on to the boat, where polystyrene boxes nestle amongst ropes and fishing nets.
“Thank you,” I tell him. Cally whispers it too, but quietly. She hugs her avocado plant tight and sits where the man points, on a plank rested across two boxes. I hand the man the thick envelope from my bag.
The man roars the boat to life with a belch of gasoline and the churn and spray of seawater. The ropes and nets smell like old fish. I can tell Cally is holding her breath and trying to pretend she’s not. I feel a sudden surge of love for her, there with her hair caught in the wind, trying to breathe quietly through her mouth, clutching her avocado plant. She smiles with tight lips, reassuring me that she’s okay, and I realise that I’d do anything for her. Blood doesn’t matter; she is my daughter now, not his.
We weave between the larger ships, clutching the sides of our little boat and looking back at the port and the city and behind the mountains towering and misty. I clasp Cally’s hand. Her face is small, tanned and determined. Her arm has healed. The bruises have gone from my face and my arms and the air seems to force itself into my lungs. Ahead the new continent grows darker and more solid. Behind us, in the past, the sound of traffic and horns and Euro pop fades and soon it is quiet but for the rumble of the engine and the slap of the sea against the bows, heading out with our boat against the current.
About the author: Jessica Ziebland is a graduate of the City University MA in Creative Writing – Novels. She has written two novels, set in East London and Cuba respectively, and is currently working on her third – a sort-of thriller in which a mother and toddler find a dead body on Walthamstow marshes. She lives in Walthamstow, London with her partner, 6 year old son and 1 year old cat. Her day job is as the Head of Marketing at Discover Children’s Story Centre.