‘You and you crazy ideas.’ Marianne struggles out of the car, as she swings her body round, the chaos of the wild weather pushing against the door.
Dom comes rushing round to her side of the car. ‘Let me help you.’
Marianne rolls her eyes. ‘Dom, it’s blowing a gale, and I’m seven months pregnant.’
‘Meaning?’ He helps her out of the car and shoves the door closed against the wind.
‘Meaning, it may not be the best idea in the world dragging me out into the wilds of Cornwall for the traditional English Bank Holiday blizzard,’ Marianne says.
‘You’re such a spoilsport sometimes.’
‘Ha, ha,’ Marianne grins.
She looks in front of her, at the small, white-washed cottage with its lumpy walls, and at the sign - Hope Cottage. She chews at her lip and frowns.
‘Are you okay?’ Dom says.
‘This place – it just looks familiar, that’s all.’
Dom opens the door, and they walk in.
‘Tell me you’re joking.’ Dom points at the black mottled walls; sniffs the air. ‘It’s got rising damp.’
He looks around. ‘It looked so cosy in the brochure.’
‘Never mind,’ Marianne says. ‘We’re here now. It’s only for a few nights. Let’s just make the best of it.’
‘Okay. Why don’t you go and have a sit down? I’ll bring the bags in.’
‘You’re an angel.’
Marianne goes into the bedroom, easing her way onto the saggy mattress. She looks around; at the small, tiled fireplace, the ditsy floral wallpaper, the green eiderdown slung across the bottom of the bed. Familiar. All of it. But she can’t have been here before. She’s never even been to Cornwall.
She feels the baby kicking and smiles, touching her hand to her belly. ‘Not long now, Big Bump,’ she whispers. She tries to imagine what it will be like meeting it for the first time. Dom wants to know what sex it is but Marianne likes surprises, just not of the tumbledown-cottage-in-a-hailstorm kind. It’s going to be Jamie if it’s a boy, Erin if it’s a girl – Dom chose the name Jamie, she chose Erin.
She gazes out of the window, at the thrashing sea, the wind in the trees and the hailstones that start to pepper the window with tiny bullets of ice. There’s that eerie whistling sound that you get with gales and the window is rattling.
Dom is back with the bags.
‘Everything okay?’ he shouts from the hall.
‘Baby just kicked again!’ she shouts. He runs in and puts his hand on her belly, excitedly.
‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘Going to play for West Ham this little guy.’
The hailstorm passes by early evening, giving way to a strange ethereal light in the sky above the distant cliffs. The gale, though, seems here to stay and continues to rampage through the trees like an angry toddler wanting its favourite toy.
Marianne is still in the bedroom, resting and sipping an alcohol-free cocktail she has brought with her. Dom is in the lounge watching some action movie with lots of shouting and gunfire, when Marianne feels herself drifting off.
A moment later, she is awakened by a noise. She turns and looks at the window. There’s a small pale face, and a heavy black mass of oily-looking hair.
She stares in disbelief. The face stares back like it’s staring right into her with its big dark eyes. Déjà vu sweeps through her in a shiver. She knows that face, but where from?
‘Dom!’ she shouts.
He comes rushing in. ‘What is it, Mari?’
She points to the window.
‘There was...there was a face, I saw it.’
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘So someone was having a nosey. What did they look like?’
‘It was a child.’
‘Do you think they’re lost?’
‘I don’t know. But it didn’t look right. It looked...odd.’ Marianne gets off the bed. ‘I’m going to see if I can find it.’
‘Don’t go alone. I’ll come with you.’
But she walks past him, out of the cottage, into a gust of icy air. She steps into the porch and out onto the forecourt and looks around. She can see for miles. Where did it go?
She hears footsteps and turns around. Dom is walking towards her.
‘Nothing.’ She turns to him. ‘Look. You can see for miles over the fields and cliffs. If there had been someone there, I would have seen them running away.’
‘Isn’t it just?’ She pictures the fragile pale face with the weird oily hair that looked too heavy for a child. And then she realises: it wasn’t hair. It was seaweed.
To Marianne’s relief Dom has managed to heat the place up so it feels more welcoming.
‘Dom,’ she says slowly, to his turned back as he pokes at the dying embers in the fire grate with the irons.
‘Do you fancy checking out the local pub?’
He looks at her like she’s mad. ‘You want to go out? In this?’ He gestures to the window.
‘What? The rain’s stopped now. Anyway, we could drive couldn’t we? What’s it called again? The Fisherman?’
‘The Fisherman’s Rest.’
‘I’d just like to see if anyone knows anything, that’s all.’
‘Wait a minute. Are you still thinking about that kid you saw earlier?’
Marianne nods. ‘It’s just that – look I know this is going to sound mad but please hear me out. It didn’t look...human. I mean, it looked – well, I don’t know. But where did it come from? And we looked outside didn’t we, but it had vanished, just like that.’ She clicks her fingers.
‘It was probably just some kid messing about.’
‘I know what I saw, Dom.’
‘Hmm. I read up about hormones, how they can make you a bit-’
‘A bit what? Dom, I’m pregnant, not crazy.’
‘Is there a difference?’
She throws a cushion at him.
As Marianne gets ready to go to The Fisherman’s Rest she thinks about the child; the seaweed-hair – it was so real, thick oily fronds glistening in the waxy evening light, as if the child had swum up from the bottom of the ocean. Someone must know something. She doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions; maybe it was the light that had made it look so strange? Light can play tricks, and the dramatic weather, and her hormones...maybe Dom is right?
When they arrive at The Fisherman’s Rest Marianne discovers that it’s everything she would expect of a quaint country pub in a remote part of Cornwall. Oak beams, log fire, old men with long beards playing a noisy game of skittles while drinking yards of ale and a landlord with a weathered face who looks as if he’s going to say, ‘you’re not from round ‘ere, are you?’ like a character from some corny horror movie.
As it turns out, he says ‘what can I get you both?’ in an accent that tells her he’s from one of the more salubrious parts of London.
She orders an elderflower tonic, Dom, a pint of, ‘the very best ale’ and they take a seat at a carved wooden settle with plush red cushions. It has started to rain again. Marianne stares intently at the window but outside, it’s twilight and all she can see is the silhouettes of trees, ragged against the pewter sky. She looks around her, at the deep red Lincrusta walls. There are no missing child posters here. She frowns.
‘You okay?’ Dom says, glancing towards the other side of the pub. Marianne realises he has spotted the darts board in the corner, where some men are playing.
‘If you want to go and join them, I’m okay here,’ she says. ‘I’m just chilling.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m cool.’
Dom kisses her on the cheek, then gets up and goes over to the men, who look to be a little bit older than him, perhaps touching forty. Dom is personable and outgoing so it’s not long before they are chatting away and playing a match.
She pulls her bag onto her shoulder and goes to the bar. The landlord, who’s just finished pouring a pint and taking a card payment, looks at her.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘I was wondering if you knew anything about a lost child?’ she asks.
He steps back. ‘Oh, not one of yours I hope.’
She holds a hand protectively over her belly. ‘No, just one I saw, at the cottage – Hope Cottage.’
He raises a brow interestedly.
‘I thought maybe there was a local child who’d gone missing.’ She lowers her voice self-consciously. ‘But I – do you know if Hope Cottage is haunted?’
‘Ah, that’s the lady you need to talk to about all that,’ he says, indicating with a nod, a small grey-haired woman sat in the corner nursing a whisky glass. ‘Old Molly,’ he says. ‘There’s not a lot she doesn’t know about the history of this area.’
‘Thanks,’ Marianne says, and wanders over to a woman with cropped grey hair and slightly sallow skin, whose blue eyes are bright and lively.
‘Excuse me,’ she says.
Old Molly looks up.
‘My husband and I are renting Hope Cottage for a few days.’
Old Molly gives her a knowing look.
‘I was wondering what you knew about...well, about its history? You know...if it’s possible it might be haunted.’
In the you’re-not-from-round-‘ere accent more regular in this part of the world, she says, ‘sit down. Take the weight off them tired feet.’ She looks at Marianne, her gaze on her rounded belly. ‘You’re expecting a little ‘un then?’
‘How many months are you?’
‘Seven,’ Marianne replies.
‘Lucky number, seven.’
She smiles. ‘Best feeling in the world, being a mum. I’ve got two, not little ‘uns now though, all grown and fled.’
‘Ah, empty nest syndrome,’ Marianne says.
She smiles and Marianne warms to this kind woman with the lively eyes.
‘You’ll have a fine one,’ she says. ‘She’s going to be special, so you cherish her.’
‘We intend to. But - we don’t know the sex yet,’ Marianne says.
‘Have some lucky heather.’ She holds out a little piece of the purple flower and Marianne takes it.
‘Now you can tell me all what you saw.’
Marianne explains about the child with the seaweed hair, about how she thought there may be a local child missing.
‘That’s as not a living child, that’s the sea child. You don’t know about the legend of the sea child I suppose?’
‘No,’ Marianne says nervously.
‘Some folks as say they don’t come to shore often. They swim in the skin of a seal, and they live under the sea but every seven years they come to shore, every seven years, and always in the seventh month of a woman’s term.’ She looks at Marianne. ‘Don’t be feared of her. She’ll not drown, she’ll dance on the shore but swim in the sea.’
Perturbed, Marianne tries to think what to say but Old Molly waves a wrinkled hand at her. ‘Your girl is going to be just fine, just fine she’ll be.’
Marianne lies back on the NHS issue pillows, sweaty and exhausted while the midwife checks over her new-born and she waits for Dom to get here from work.
‘You have a lovely healthy baby girl,’ the midwife says, handing her the tiny bundle.
‘All ten fingers and toes present and correct?’ Marianne cradles her child, stroking the dark hair and looking into the small pale face with the big dark eyes that stare into hers, the face she feels she has always known.
‘It’s nothing to worry about.’ The midwife shows her the baby’s feet and between the big and the adjacent toes on each foot, there’s a small web of skin. She goes onto explain that it’s a rare but not serious medical condition, then she says, ‘some people say it’s lucky.’
‘Do you have a name?’
‘I’m going to call her Neptune.’
About the author
Julia Wood is a published author of non-fiction and short fiction. She is currently working on her novel, The Adventures of Jenny Bean, Aged 49 and an Awful Lot.
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