My sister is pregnant and young. I saw her walking across the beach we’ve been going to since I was born, carrying an ice cream, licking it carefully the way she did when she was three and it made me feel like my heart was going to split in two right down the middle, like a well cleaved piece of firewood.
The town by the sea where I was born is unrecognisable now. At night, my mother, my sister and I, walk down the esplanade. It is early June and the other holiday makers haven’t arrived yet.
My mother comments on how sad the road looks, all the houses shut up and none of the lights on. She tuts at the tarted up facade of the Victorian hotel where I was christened and my father’s funeral was held. We went there for tea last year and she was outraged by the palm tree pattern on the lounge curtains. My sister and I murmur sympathetically. But then we see the wall where my parents used to lift us up to look at the ocean and we start running. The evening is soft and purple, it falls over itself to get closer to the sea which licks the base of the cliffs with a gentle white tongue.
I run after her, she is faster than me. It feels right that she is taller. My older sister. From the back, you can’t tell that my sister is pregnant. ‘Wait for me!’ I shout. And then, a panicked afterthought: ‘Be careful!’
My mother tells stories. She tells us how when they first moved here, it was winter and a bad one too. Ice all over the roads. A bitter wind, screaming up off the sea. My sister was almost two and I hadn’t been born yet. And I fell, my mother says. She leans back on the red leather pub bench. I fell coming up the hill, right on my stomach. I glance at my sister, expecting her hands to circle protectively around her belly. She reaches over and takes a chip from my plate. She screws up her nose and sticks out her tongue when I glare at her.
‘Were you okay?’ I ask Mum.
‘Totally fine,’ she says. ‘No harm done.’
‘Well,’ my sister says, looking at me. ‘That we know of.’
My mother tells another story, about my sister and I. ‘When you were little,’ she says, ‘if you were two steps ahead, Lizzie would be beside herself with worry. She’d catch up with you and hold your hand. She’d beg me to make you slow down.’
My sister and I are sharing a room. We negotiate cuddling on day one.
‘Fine,’ I say. ‘But I want to be the small spoon.’
‘You can’t be,’ she says, triumphantly. ‘My belly will get in the way.’
So we sleep with me clinging to her back like we always have. In the morning, she groans, rolls over and complains that my feet were so cold that they woke her up. I remind her that as a child, I used to sleep on her bedroom floor. She wouldn’t let me sleep in bed with her, so I slept curled up by the side of the bed, like a poodle. She laughs. Covers her eyes with her hand. We are still laughing about it when we go down to breakfast. We all order dippy eggs and tea and when my mother’s arrives hard boiled, we argue about the perfect amount of time needed to boil an egg. My sister, who is clearly insane, says that she boils her eggs for 3 minutes.
The pub where we are staying, The Ship, is so old and so rickety that to walk across the floorboards is to make yourself sea sick. Everything shifts as you move.
We are walking down the dark, shuttered road on the way to a beach we played on as children. My mother complains. She hates being cold. Why can’t she just watch? She’ll cheer us on, she’ll dry us off when we get out.
‘No!’ we cry.
My sister says, ‘Mum, we’re making memories,’ and I inwardly cringe. Clichéd, I think. I make a mental note to phrase it differently when I write it down.
My mother doesn’t say the real reason why she doesn’t want to go swimming which is that she is afraid of deep water. She has nightmares about jumping off my father’s boat and screaming as he sails away. It’s the fact that you can’t see the bottom. Can’t see what’s down there. That’s why she hates it.
My sister wears a tankini that is barely capable of stretching over her stomach. She has a tattoo on her thigh. I made her get it, one summer in Vietnam. I promised her I would get one too, we booked appointments one after the other. When we got there, I wouldn’t go through with it. I waited till she’d got hers. She squeezed my hand. She was brave. And then when it got to my turn I backed out and she didn’t make a fuss at all. I have a Polaroid of her, pulling up her skirt, the tattoo artist doing a thumbs up. She looks like a totally different person. The tattoo, shadowed by the cloud thrown by her belly, looks like a transfer, the kind we did when we were kids.
I have gotten loads of tattoos since then, some of them matching, with friends. I am wearing a hand me down from my sister. The suit is olive green, cut with a deep V. She passed it to me and said, ‘My boobs don’t fit into it anymore.’
‘Thanks’, I said. I tried it on immediately. On me, it gapes. I look like a little girl, wearing her big sister’s swimming costume.
‘Girls,’ my mum says when we are down by the water, ‘do I have to?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Don’t be a baby.’ I turn away and put my bag down.
She pulls her hoody over her head. ‘Well, come on then,’ she says.
The cove where we are swimming is called Ready Money Cove, named for the smugglers who hauled themselves onto the shore. As a child, I imagined orange lanterns in the dark. Urgent whispers. Chests full of gold. This whole coastline was overrun by pirates and what amazes me now is how there isn’t any trace of them, really. The beach acts as if it had never seen a pirate at all. The only things left behind are the names. This used to be different.
When my father was still alive and Lizzie and I were small enough to fit, at a push, into one sleeping bag together, he would tell our school friends that he had been a pirate, but he was retired now. We flew a skull and crossbones on our sailboat and shouted AHOY THERE at boats we passed. No trace of any of that, either. Not even the word ‘Dad,’ a name I haven’t called anyone in over half my life. There’s just this, I guess. Me, saying that it happened. I remember. I was there.
My sister has always been taller and more beautiful than me. It makes sense. The heir and the spare. She is willowy. An ancient kind of beauty. Pale pink rose petals that smell like very cold water. Soft hands. Long, long hair. It used to pain me, the way older boys’ eyes would slide from me to her. A boy would come to pick me up and she’d lean her long, thin body in the doorway like a greyhound and I would blush with the shame of it. Now, people smile at her belly. Old women rub it, ask how she is feeling. Eyes sliding from me to her.
‘When are you going to have a baby?’ my mother asks.
There is a pontoon floating on the water. From the shore, in the cornflower blue half dusk, it is hard to tell how far away it is, but when my sister asks me I don’t hesitate before I say 100 metres. It is hovering in the mouth of the cove, smack bang between the two teeth of land that stretch towards each other gingerly. It is the last thing between me, my sister, and the open ocean. Ahoy there. I am not close enough to hear the metallic clunk of the fold down ladder as the waves knock the pontoon from side to side but I know that it’s there. I know there is kelp, caught in the chain that binds it to the seabed. Fish skittering in the shifting shadow beneath it.
My mother is in first. She enters the ocean as she always does, lifting her feet up like a dressage pony, wincing at the cold and then she leans her body forward until the water just gathers her up. She hates getting her face wet and so she lifts her drooping neck as she doggy paddles.
My sister is next. I expect the noise to be louder, imagining her swollen middle slapping against the sea but she is still graceful and slips into the water, one long limb at a time.
‘Slow poke!’ my mother calls. Her hands make tiny slices in the water. The sight of her pale, death like legs scissoring in the water gives her momentary spurts of horror. She is swimming though, all the same, my brave mother.
When I go in I go in head first, screaming.
I used to slide notes under her bedroom door when my sister locked me out.
I LUV U, U R THE BEST SISTER EVER.
She treads water waiting for me to catch up. Even with the resistance her new body makes, she is still faster than me.
‘Remember your swim meets?’ I say, coming up beside her in the water. My body sends a tsunami out to sea.
She rolls her eyes. ‘I remember dad screaming from the bleachers.’
I laugh. She smiles, rolls onto her back. I watch her watch the moon. Her belly pokes out of the sea. A white half crescent.
‘Do you remember those hot fudge sundaes?’
‘Yeah,’ she sighs. ‘McDonalds have stopped doing them now.’
‘Bastards,’ I say.
‘Katie,’ she says, ‘you don’t need to swear.’
I have been having dreams. In them, I am pregnant. I call my sister. I say ‘I’m pregnant,’ triumphantly down the phone. And she is happy for me.
Her, floating in the black water, her belly white and full and her silly new belly button pointing up at the full moon. My mother, clapping her hands in delight as she watches us standing on the pontoon in the dark.
We scream, ‘Mama! Watch! Watch! We’re going to jump!’
And she claps again with relief, the way she has done since I was three, when our heads burst back out of the water with the lilac light washing over everything and people watching us from the high wall and thinking gosh, don’t that family love each other, don’t those sisters look so alike.
My sister, in her stripy blue bikini, hauling me up the cheap white plastic ladder that goes down into nothing. Muscle memory, my smaller hand in hers. Muscle memory, the way I dare her to jump and she counts down
I miss everything already and I am so ungrateful because here I am, alive, with a beautiful sister and a mother who towels me off even though I am twenty five and can make porridge well every time.
I don’t want to miss anything my chest keeps saying I don’t want to ever again have to miss them.
The water is still there. Evening light hand dusted on the surface of it. Sand displaced on the benches where my mother sat last night. It’s waiting for us.
I put my hand out and feel the baby swimming inside and when my sister jumps off the pontoon into the black that we couldn’t see the bottom of and came back up spitting I ask, ‘You okay bub?’
In a way I never have before. Thinking of the baby that swims all the time.
She laughs and says, ‘Of course’.
And I remember that it is her who always worries about me.
Young girls in anklets playing catch on the beach. Isn’t that me? Isn’t that us?
We talk about Mum’s sore back, her recent fall on the stairs. We squabble over who gets what side of the bed, who kicked the other in the night. We plunge, feet first, into the cold night water.
Katie Buckley is a London based writer, who was recently selected for the 2021/2022 London Library Emerging Writers Programme. She held a Principal’s Scholarship during her Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway, and has been published in Litro Magazine amongst others.
© 2022, Katie Buckley