By Dianne Bown-Wilson
Bittersweet Symphony (A gin and Aperol cocktail)
Rose awoke with a sense of confusion. Her ears heard drumming rain, but when she opened her eyes, bright sunlight streamed through a gap in the curtains. As it was their first morning in the holiday cottage, she'd yet to come to terms with the rhythms of the old place or the tricksy Cornish weather. Odd, nevertheless.
As she swung her legs over the side of the bed, the rain abruptly stopped. Of course! She'd assumed Matt was still asleep beside her, but now she saw the space was empty. It was the shower she'd heard.
According to her phone, it was only just after eight - why was he up so early? Yesterday, driving down, they'd spoken greedily about a lie-in today. Coffee in bed, snuggling; the restorative stuff that makes time-off special. That was what they'd come here for, what they'd promised themselves for weeks when work commitments had only allowed them snatched moments together, even at weekends.
Fully awake now, the previous evening's events flooded her brain like foul water, and inwardly she swore. Their plans for a week of autumn downtime may have been swept down the drain.
Minutes later, proving her right, he appeared in the doorway, hair still wet but fully-clothed.
'Yes.' Without so much as a glance her way, he strode over to the wardrobe and yanked open the door.
'It's very early…'
'Mmm. I've decided to go back.'
It was the news she'd dreaded. 'Why?'
'I'm surprised you have to ask. I thought our conversation last night was pretty conclusive.'
'I suppose so. Do you want me to come with you?'
'That's up to you.'
She continued to perch on the edge of the bed, watching him throw his belongings into his bag. Surely he wouldn't leave without some acknowledgement? A peck on the cheek, at least?
He didn't even ask if she wanted to go with him. Or how, eventually, she'd get home.
Rose let her mind travel back, a journey as painful as crawling over broken glass.
It had started innocuously. Following hours of challenging driving, only partly mitigated by a quick walk on the beach, calm conversation spiralled into peevish complaint and silly allegations. As he worked his way through a couple of beers, she, abstaining, became irritated then judgemental as he segued to a bottle of wine. Then another.
At first, their jibes were tongue-in-cheek, snarky, rescindable, but then… His words had stung, her accusations were merciless, their retorts were intended to wound. Things were said on both sides that were uncalled for, over the top. Unforgivable, she thought, even as they spoke them. Trouble was it didn't stop her, and he retaliated with equal brutality.
She'd never intended it to come to this.
Even as it happened she'd recognised the inevitability: two people pitched together in a perfect storm of stress and exhaustion. Both fatigued from months of work, they faced one of the most significant decisions anyone could make with neither of them knowing what they wanted or what was right.
How could it not have happened?
She supposed, out of the two of them, that she'd been victorious, although she felt no triumph. And at what cost?
Her final words as she stormed off to bed: My body, my choice. Nothing to do with you.
Clearly, he'd taken her at her word.
By the time she heard the door close downstairs- at least he didn't slam it - the weather had turned. Deep slate clouds had banished the sun while a stout breeze wheezed its way up from the bay marking its presence by ruffling grasses and shaking stunted trees. Unsurprisingly, considering the time of year, the beach far below was deserted apart from one person, age and gender indistinguishable, near the water's edge.
Rose wondered where they’d come from; there were no other dwellings nearby.
Quickly, she pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt, not even pausing to brush her hair. She wasn't going to cry; there was simply no point. The wind sighed in agreement, rattling the windows to show her what mattered around here.
As she opened the door, boots laced, coat on, the first raindrops fell, and she was glad of them, happy-ever-after bright sunshine would have finished her off. A brisk walk, challenging her body to beat the weather, was what she needed now and she gulped down the cold air greedily hoping it might be enough to banish her nausea and the vast, pounding pain of his departure. They'd only been together a year, but at thirty-four she'd dared to hope he might be The One. Now she was alone again.
She kept her head down on the steep path leading down to the beach. One wrong step and she'd be bouncing off rocks – not great in a cove like this. As she neared the bottom, she finally looked up and found the beach empty, whoever had been here earlier had gone. It was only when she shifted her gaze toward the horizon that she saw the lone swimmer, one arm in the air, waving.
She hesitated, unsure of whether or not to wave back, and just for a moment, the wind dropped as if taking a breath before its next great exhalation. It was then she heard the cry, indistinct, but unambiguous: a heart-stopping plea spawned from desperation.
Immediately, the other side of her, her professional, focused, highly-determined self, took control. Abandoning all caution, she half-tumbled the final yards down to the beach and raced along the wet sand. As she ran, she pulled off her boots and outer clothing, shedding it with no thought for later or even whether later would ever come.
No time. No sound of a cry now either. Nothing but the cacophony of the wind and the waves. Was it already too late?
The water, when she hit it, took her breath away but didn't slow her down.
She swam strongly, intent only on rescue, her target destination a spot where her eyes were locked onto a barely buoyant shape. Time and distance played games with her, but nothing dented her resolve. Closer, closer, until the shape became a body and a face - no longer a thing.
No longer waving, but hopefully not drowned.
Later, she was unable to say how much time passed before she was back on the beach, checking the woman's vital signs and pumping her chest. Come on, come on, you can do it. Stay with me. You can do it. Breathe!
Seconds became minutes became what seemed a lifetime. Then, hallelujah! A gurgling cough and a spurt of water confirmed that the woman was still alive.
By the time Rose was back in the bedroom, showered but still shivering, hours had passed, the wind had long-since risen to gale-force driving rain against the windows like a cascade of nails. It'd taken forever for the paramedics and coastguard to arrive while she'd focused on keeping the woman conscious and warm, having realised she'd never be able to drag her up the hill.
Now she was beyond exhaustion.
She lay back on the pillows, not caring about her wet hair, too tired to want anything except peace. But it was not to be. Above the clamour, her phone trilled, but she let it ring. She suspected who it would be and had no strength to deal with him now.
But try as she might, he was an itch that refused to be disregarded. After a few minutes, a tiny flicker of residual hope drove her to check for a message.
His voice sounded sorry though he didn't actually say the words. Would she call him? He'd got back to Bristol, heard about the storm and wanted to check she was okay.
Physically yes. No long-lasting damage, the paramedics had said, although she'd have a few aches and pains. She'd refused their suggestion of a check-up at the hospital but had accepted the offer of a strong arm to help her back up the hill. By then her legs were as limp as cheese-strings and flouting her every effort to remain dispassionate, her face was wet with tears.
She didn't tell him any of this. The text she sent simply said that the cottage seemed solid and she was fine.
Without waiting for a response, Rose crawled under the bedcovers and closed her eyes. She lay on her back, hands clasped protectively over her belly, hoping against hope to feel some small kick, some acknowledgement that the life within her had survived. Come on, come on, you can do it. Stay with me.
She played his message again. Remembered the drowning woman. Thought of the child. Hers. His. Theirs. When it had come to it and instinct had kicked in, all that had mattered was saving a life.
She sent him another message: You'll make a great Dad x.
Switched off her phone.
About the author
Dianne Bown-Wilson is a Dartmoor-based short-story writer. 2020
successes include winning first prize in the Exeter Literary Festival,
and Writers’ Forum competitions, a third-equal placing in the Yeovil
Prize, and publication in Ellipsis 7, and the Dahlia Press anthology, In
the Kitchen. She enjoys writing character-led stories.
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