The sea calls to her, but she doesn’t know if she has the strength to answer.
She has never failed to answer before, but now most days her legs feel too heavy to lift, and her ancient body won’t bear the strain of trying to stand. At least the career they sent today has helped her prop herself up on pillows, briskly plumping them up and smoothing down the blankets so that Cordelia can look out at the rolling waves far below. The tide is coming in now, and the call grows louder.
The first time she answered the sea’s call she was six years old. Her parents drove them up the cliff road, that final summer before the end of the second millennium. Thorns scratched at her legs as they scrambled through undergrowth to see the last cracked gravestone from a church long lost to the sea.
Her father told her how a whole city had once stood there until it had crumbled bit by bit into the sea, how people claimed to hear the church bells ringing from beneath the brine, how the living had left but the sea took the dead. Her older sister had been repulsed by the thought of disarticulated bones dropping onto the beach below, but Cordelia found it strangely comforting. Better to rest in the soothing rhythm of the tide than the cold dark stillness of the earth.
That afternoon they played on the beach nearby, until Cordelia’s mother swam out and pulled her roughly from the sea, where she had waded in so far her chin floated on the water.
“How could you be so reckless?” Her mother’s arm wrapped the child’s waist and dragged her back to shore.
“I heard the bells.” Cordelia turned her head back towards the horizon.
Her mother shook even after she had finished shivering, but Cordelia had always felt safe with the sea. It wouldn’t take her until it was time.
Bridget and Nasima have come to visit her today, and they have both brought their grandchildren. A flurry of small bodies moves through the house like a minnows rippling through the water. Bridget won’t let them go outside.
“The cliff edge is far too dangerous,” she says. “I do wish you’d move in with us, Mum. We could set you up in Harry’s old bedroom. ” Cordelia bats her away with a shrunken hand.
“All dried up like a smoked haddock? I don’t think so. Won’t be long now anyway.”
The house wasn’t always so close to the cliff. It had been two miles inland when she and Tom first moved in, when Dylan was two and Bridget was still in the womb. Somehow Cordelia had known that was just the right distance.
The sea had grown stronger, year on year, as it took more and more of the land. As it grew stronger its call grew louder. No longer the distant tinkling of bells, it became the swelling of a thousand voices, insistent and alluring.
When Bridget was thirteen, it had called so loudly one night that Cordelia had walked to the shore barefoot, the wind and rain whipping at her thin nightgown. She tiptoed across the wet sand under a full moon and gave the sea her answer.
The wind and rain dropped away then, the clouds retreated, and Cordelia stood looking out to sea as the storm swept in the challenge she had accepted. Nasima was the first one she found, her long black hair spread out like strands of seaweed on the beach and her brown eyes looking up at the newly-revealed stars. Cordelia had scooped her up and carried her beyond the tide line, then returned for her brother Ahmed. There were five more children and three adults, all exhausted but alive.
When the sun rose over the sea that morning Tom came, somehow knowing where Cordelia must have gone. They took the refugees back to the house and called for medical assistance. A few weeks later, Nasima and Ahmed moved in, the first of many refugee children who started the long process of healing in the salt air with Cordelia and Tom as their foster parents. The house was rarely quiet; it rang with the sound of children playing, of seagulls hooting, of Dylan practising guitar and Nasima singing lullabies to Ahmed. But sometimes, when the children were at school and the wind was blowing inland, Cordelia still heard the call of the sea.
Nasima makes sure Cordelia takes her pills before she leaves, and checks that the pillow nest is still secure. She is still working as a GP, one of many who trained in those first few years of rebuilding after the country had split itself apart and then come back together, like a shoal of fish splintered by the approach of a predator. The shoal became one again and as it mourned its losses Nasima learned to heal the very people who had once hated her.
“Goodnight, mama,” Nasima says, as she plants a kiss on Cordelia’s papery cheek. Bridget does the same, and the children — all six of them — waving goodbye as they traipse out the door into the watercolour evening.
Harry’s youngest looks so like her Tom: fitting then that he’s named after him. He has his great-granddad’s dimples and his dark brown curls. He likes to run along with his arms out as if he’s hoping to take off, just the way Tom used to do when they came up here together as teenagers. The cliff top had always been the perfect spot for a marriage of air and water.
Tom always was a creature of the air rather than the sea. They never had the money for him to get his pilot’s license, so he made do by watching the sea birds from a hidden nook in the cliffs. He used to take the kids too. Cordelia remembers them all piling in one day in late summer, excited that they had seen a storm petrel on its way south. It had always been his favourite bird.
“It’s like you love,” he’d say. “So small, so rare and yet so strong.”
They hid in the nook on the night when the country hit its lowest ebb and angry men had attacked their house for taking in the refugee children. The sea protected them then. A squall blew in and sent the men running home with rods of horizontal rain. Cordelia and Tom wrapped their arms round small frightened bundles and calmly held them until the danger had passed. The little cave escaped the worst of it: the sea wanted to be a thoroughfare, not a border.
Now Cordelia can see dark clouds once more, looming on the horizon as the sun sets. The seagulls were loud earlier, but now they are gone, fleeing further inland in search of shelter from the coming storm. The wind picks up and the solar panels on the roof begin to rattle. Cordelia remains propped on her pillow throne, letting the voices of the sea rush in through her ears. She can see the waves below as they change from a landscape of rolling foothills to mountainous terrain, their white caps like the snow on treacherous peaks. They pound the cliffs below her like the voices pound now in her head.
“I have come for you, Cordelia. It is time.”
Ahmed calls her, his smiling face flickering in the air in front of her, projected by one of these new-fangled watches Dylan gave her.
“Are you alright, Mum?” he asks, hearing the howling of the wind at both ends of the call. “I can come and get you if you like?”
He is a politician now, one of the many who voted to divert resources to health and housing rather than sea defences. Cordelia doesn’t blame him. He lives in the seaside town on the sheltered side of the bay with his husband and two labradors. The smell of wet dog and the aroma of curry cooking linger in the air as she speaks to him, another feature she’s never quite got used to. She supposes he can smell the stench of seaweed and salt that the storm is bringing in. A deep breath pulls it further into her nostrils.
“Storms make me feel alive,” she says. “I shall enjoy that while it lasts.”
“Love you, Mum,” he says, before he vanishes.
As the night falls a full moon rises, but it only shows its face in glimpses between the skittering clouds. Rain slaps the window. There is thunder in the distance. Above all this, the call of the sea roars yet louder, taking full control of Cordelia’s consciousness. She shuffles to the edge of the bed, and miraculously finds that her legs take her weight with little trouble. She walks outside, answering one more time.
Up above a tiny bird flies in the haze of raindrops. A storm petrel? But it can’t be, not at this time of year. It is not fighting the wind as it should be but rather seems unmoved by it, as if on another plane entirely.
Cordelia is the storm. The wind wraps the rain around her like a cloak. It cleanses her, sloughing off the marks and folds of age, sweeping the decay from her bones with a tide of youthful joy. Crinkled white skin is replaced with something sparkling, moving, rolling in waves from teal to violet to the deepest navy blue. Whether it is made of light or water she can’t tell, but she knows she is no longer solid.
When the wind retreats, she finds she is submerged beneath the breakers. Above, a beam of light from the moon cuts through the water. A city lies below. Bells chime. Shimmering shoals of fish, recently returned to these waters, spin around her in the deep. She does not breath and yet she foams with life.
Her head breaks water at the top of a wave and she watches there, the storm petrel fluttering above her head, as the old house creaks on the cliff top. With one final sigh the cliff crumbles and the house plummets readily into the open arms of the waiting sea.
The sea sings a welcome and Cordelia sings with it; no longer call-and-answer but a harmony.
* * *