Weak sunlight poured through the window of the coffee shop, illuminating the smudges on the glass top of the table. The woman at the table topped up her tea cup with tea from the pot, dark and starting to stew. She stared at the liquid in the cup, watching clouds bloom through it as she added a splash of milk. Her eyes flicked to the door, then flitted across the queue at the counter, then to the back of the store, as she tapped a pack of sugar nervously on the top of the table.
Calm down, she told herself. Women leave their husbands every day. Some of them even try to disappear. More than a few, probably. A grey Audi estate slid to a stop outside the plate glass windows of the coffee shop. She drew in a breath, and didn’t release it again until the car moved on as the lights changed.
She glanced at her watch. Not time yet. If he came home unexpectedly, and found her gone, surely the first place he would look would be the station. That was why she had tried to seem as… normal as possible, drifting through a few shops, trying on a few clothes here and there – light, summery things for their upcoming holiday – and picking up and discarding paperbacks with garish neon or sickly pastel covers. Then a brief stop in a chain coffee shop; bright, busy and impersonal. She had ordered a pot of tea and treated herself to a piece of millionaire’s shortbread. Pretending her stomach wasn’t knotted tight with fear, she ate the whole slice. She tucked her rucksack by her feet, and pulled a battered paperback from her handbag. Every so often, she turned the page, but hadn’t read a word.
The station was as quiet as it was likely to get – mid-week, before the start of the summer holidays. She resisted the urge to look around as orange-topped cards dropped one by one into the illuminated tray of the ticket machine. Her every muscle tensed for a hand on her shoulder. She made her way to the platform where the train already waited, early holiday makers and long-distance commuters climbing on board and looking for seats.
It was easy to find a seat once on board. She was careful to choose one without a reservation ticket. She slid her rucksack onto the overhead luggage rack. It was so light, it took no effort at all. Not much to be carrying with you, as you leave one life for another. She leaned her head against the window, watching people hurrying by on the platform, scanning for one familiar face. The moment when the train actually started to move was almost imperceptible. Slowly, painfully slowly, it slid from the station and then slid from the capital.
“Weekend away, dear?”
“Are you heading for a weekend away? You can practically see you relaxing with every mile!” The woman across the table from her smiled. She was probably in her late fifties, comfortably plump, with short red-brown hair that might just be artfully coloured to hide grey.
“Hopefully a longer trip. I used to live in Cornwall, and I’ve never really got used to living in London.”
“You can’t really get any two places that are more different! Your life in London must be very stressful I suppose. I’ve been up to visit my daughter and her husband for a few days. I think they were glad to see me head back home to Bath!”
“I’m sure that’s not the case.”
“What’s your name dear?”
“Maud.” It wasn’t, but she had adopted it many years before. Meraud, the old Cornish name her mother had chosen, was too difficult to remember, and also too difficult to forget.
“Lovely to meet you, Maud. Anyway, excuse me for gabbling on – I’ll leave you in peace to read your book.”
Meraud smiled, but didn’t demur. She leaned her head against the headrest and closed her eyes briefly. The motion of the train was soothing, and she found herself starting to relax. Opening her eyes, she stared out of the window, watching the countryside stream by in an endless march of green fields and electricity pylons. Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the window, she thought it no wonder that her table-mate thought she was stressed. Her dark eyes looked huge in her pinched face, the shadows underneath them even more prominent in the semi-translucent reflection. Even her dark hair, loosely braided and tucked into the collar of her sweatshirt, looked dull. No wonder – she had barely slept in days, convinced the plans she had put in place to escape would be discovered.
The summer sun was still high in the sky as the taxi swung its way through narrow country lanes, heading closer to the coast. The slate roof of the cottage was the first thing that came into view, tucked into a fold in the rolling hills. The whitewashed walls glowed golden in the sun. Meraud heaved a sigh and relaxed against the back seat now that she was finally here.
“Looks like there’s someone arrived already, love. That’s nice, they’ll have been able to open the place up and put the kettle on for you.”
“What?” Every muscle in her body tensed and she sat bolt upright. Her heart pounded, and her mouth was bone dry. A light glowed in the cottage window, and there was a car parked in the driveway. A gunmetal grey Audi estate.
The crunch of the taxi tyres on the gravel as it reversed out of the drive was still audible as she opened the door. No need for her key, of course, after all.
He didn’t greet her in the hallway. She walked through the silent cottage, into the kitchen. He was sitting at the table, a glass of wine at his elbow, drumming his fingers on the table. She glanced at the bottle, as if by reflex. It was still over three quarters full. He wasn’t drunk, then. She wasn’t sure whether or not to be relieved.
“You’re here.” Her voice was flat, toneless.
“I drove non-stop. Once I got home and realised you were gone.” They looked at each other in silence for a long moment.
“I don’t know what to say.” She bent slightly, carefully placing her rucksack under the table. Her handbag she placed on one of the empty chairs. Suddenly her bones felt as heavy as iron. She sank into the chair across from him.
“I don’t really see what you possibly could say.” His voice was dangerously quiet. Standing up, he collected another wine glass and filled it, pushing across the table to her. She took a swallow, feeling the spicy warmth rolling down her throat and into the pit of her stomach. “Did you think I wouldn’t know you had gone? That I wouldn’t know where you had gone? I’m not a fool. I know you never gave up the lease on this place when you moved in with me.”
“I’m sorry, I…”
“You’re not sorry.” He cut her off, his voice and eyes blazing with sudden anger. “Don’t lie”
“Alright, I’m not sorry.” Her own anger was quick to kindle. “Don’t you think I tried?”
“Tried? You tried? Maud, you’ve not been a part of this marriage for months.”
“I’m not sorry about this. I’m not sorry for coming here. I’m sorry that it didn’t work out. I’m sorry I couldn’t make you happy. I’m sorry,” She spat the word. “That you left me no choice.”
“No choice but to run away without any explanation? Couldn’t you have talked to me?”
Her mouth twisted, as if she was tasting something bitter as burnt coffee. She scooped up the rucksack, tugged open the zip, and pushed it across the table towards him. “Why did you hide it?”
He pulled open the top of the bag. The contents gleamed bright silver and deep grey, with hints of sandy gold. Unable to resist, he pushed his fingers between the folds. They felt strangely warm against his skin, like a woolen sweater that had just been removed.
“Why did you take it from me?” Her voice was raw with pain.
Surprised, he glanced up to see tears welling in her dark eyes. When he spoke, his own voice was rough with unshed tears. He reached across the table and laid his hand over hers.
“Because I didn’t want you to leave.” She leaned forward, and rested her forehead for a moment or two against his knuckles where their hands rested on the table. It was a gesture filled with vulnerability and yearning; his free hand came up by reflex and pushed into the satin weight of her dark hair. “Couldn’t I have been enough, Maud? Didn’t I try my best? After all, I never asked where you went every summer. I never asked for more than you can give. I was ok with the fact that you never loved me like I loved you. Don’t the last ten years mean anything?”
She looked up, pale cheeks streaked with tears. “They mean everything, Sean. We were practically kids when we met. My whole life here has been with you by my side.” She pulled a tissue from her handbag and blew her nose. “But I just can’t do it anymore. First it was Bristol, and I was fine with that. Then it was London. And I managed that, didn’t I? But now…the move overseas…I just can’t do it. It’s too far.”
“Won’t you even try?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the past ten years?”
His blue eyes met hers. He pushed both hands through his red-blonde hair. It was too long – he needed it cut. The tips of her fingers tingled with the desire to push it back behind his ear. He swallowed. “Was it really that hard?”
She smiled. “Oh, Sean. I love you. But yes, it really was that hard.” He looked at her. Their fingers locked together over the scarred wood of the table. And he felt how rough her hands were in his. How the nails were bitten down to the quick. Her skin was chapped and dry. He rubbed his thumb back and forth over hers. She had lost weight – her sculpted cheekbones were prominent than usual, and her eyes – so dark a brown they were almost black, the first thing he had ever noticed about her – looked huge in her pale face. She didn’t look a day older than when they had first met, when she was just sixteen.
“What will I tell everyone?”
She shrugged. “Tell them it didn’t work out. That’s what they all said in the beginning anyway. That it would never work out.” Her voice cracked and she started to sob.
Instinctively, he came around the table and folded her into his arms. For a moment, it felt just like it used to. As Maud wept in his arms, trying to catch her breath, the wind started to pick up, and for a moment, he thought he heard an eerie keening.
After a few moments, her trembling reduced, and she relaxed in his embrace. For a moment, she rested her head on his shoulder and sighed.
“They said it wouldn’t work out because we were too young.”
“They said it wouldn’t work out because we were too different.”
She gave him a long, level look, and he returned it as the weight of her words sank in. “Can you imagine if they knew the truth?” He raised one eyebrow, holding her gaze. The corner of her mouth twitched. And just like that, as if nothing had changed, they dissolved into laughter. They spluttered and giggled until fresh tears ran down their cheeks. Every time they managed to get themselves under control, they would catch each other’s eye and start all over again.
“How do I tell them,” whooped Sean, wiping his eyes. “How do I tell them my wife is actually a fairy-tale creature?” Meraud flinched, bent forwards as if his words were a physical blow. He reached forwards and brushed the tips of his fingers against her cheek. “Did you really think I didn’t know? That I would never find out?”
“I don’t know what I thought. I suppose I just planned to take it a day at a time.” She reached towards the rucksack and tugged free a fold of the sealskin coat. “When did you find this?”
“A few years ago. I didn’t think anything of it at first – just assumed it was a family heirloom of some soft. After all, who has fur coats nowadays? I certainly wouldn’t have expected you to. It took me a lot longer than that to be sure. A lot longer to convince myself I wasn’t going mad. In fact, I’m still not sure that I’m not.”
“You’re not going mad. Listen – can’t you hear them?” They fell silent a moment. The wind outside had picked up, and was rattling the windows and keening around the chimney pot. The longer he listened, the more it sounded like voices calling. There was something otherworldly about it, eerie and almost repellent. But as he looked at his wife he could see it had the opposite effect on her.
“Sean.” She wrapped both her hands around one of his. “I can’t stay. Can’t you see it’s destroying me?” For what felt like the first time in an age, he really looked at her.
Her hair was still ink dark and thick, but it had lost the crow’s-wing shine it used to have. Her lips were chapped and cracked. Her skin wasn’t the pale, opaque cream it used to be, but instead dull and translucent, blue-shadowed.
Her luminous dark eyes were sunken and shadowed. When they met, she had been ink and cream, and all the shifting beauty of the sea. She was still beautiful, but it was the fragile beauty of a winter dawn, that might melt away any moment.
“Maud, how can I just let you go?”
“Some things aren’t meant forever. I thought it would be – of course I did. But we can’t keep lying to ourselves.”
“Will you come back? Even occasionally? I could move back in here…even if it was just midsumer…” His voice trailed off as he saw the look on her face.
“And leave you waiting? You have to live your life, Sean. And I have to live mine. What we had – it has to be over.”
Sean was silent for a long moment. When he spoke, he sounded resigned. “Will you stay – for the evening at least?”
She smiled sadly at him. “Until you go to sleep.”
The cottage was dark and silent when he woke up. It was empty – he could feel that instantly. He stood up, stretching cramped legs from sleeping curled up on a too small sofa. Maud’s rucksack lay on the floor nearby, empty. Trying to move silently, he slipped out the back door and across the grass, moving carefully in the thin moonlight. In the darkness, he couldn’t immediately see the top of the cliff path. Frowning, he paced the edge of the garden – perhaps it was overgrown? The wind was still whistling, though it wasn’t cold.
For a moment, it carried distant laughter to him, and the same eerie singing as before. This time, instead of being filled with yearning, it sounded joyful, though still otherwordly and unsettling. He froze, and looked up, across the sea. The swell shattered the moonlight on the surface into white and black facets, so he couldn’t see anything clearly. But it looked like there were dark shapes in the swell, he was almost certain. Just for a second, he felt sure that one of them looked up and back towards the land. He wondered if she could see him.
The premise of this story grew from my love of celtic myths and fairytales. It is a modern-day ‘retelling’ of the ‘Selkie’ legends or fairytales – stories about beautiful women who transform into seals in the ocean. In many of the legends, a seal-woman would take a human husband, who often in an effort to prevent his beautiful wife returning to the sea, would hide away her sealskin coat she needed to return to her seal form. I started to wonder about what would happen if Selkie-folk were part of our lives today… and that’s how this story came about.