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époque press
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Mike Harmer
Short Story

There is Sea and See

There is a cry. Is it a gull? It is not a gull.

 

I stand beneath the giant white knees of a chalk cliff. I am ready to leave. There is salt on my lips. My towel lies on the stones. My wetsuit is half unzipped.

 

But I hear the cry again. The sun is setting. The wind is rising. The clouds are purple red. A baby is afloat upon the moving mirror of water.

 

‘Just here.’ I shout calmly, firmly. ‘I am here, baby, it will be alright.’ No-one else is in sight. I re-zip the black and yellow wetsuit and begin to wade into the sea.

 

Baby is waving tiny fingers. Clutching. Unclutching. Specks of sea salt on a podgy face.

 

‘I am here, Baby, nearly with you.’ But I can no longer wade, I am floating, making gentle strokes, the blue sky is fading, the clouds are threatening war. The cliffs have moved away. The tide is going out.

 

Now Baby is babbling, gurgling, splashing. Ripples of water cover the face. There is dribbling, spitting, crying and swallowing. Splashing too, but less than before.  I make stronger strokes. My face is cold. A few more strokes. At last we are close.

 

‘I am here, Baby, everything is fine.’ Baby is crying and spewing. If only I can reach the trailing shawl. Baby looks at me, water over its face. I am not the one expected. I do not understand Baby’s words.

 

There were some boats in the bay. I can no longer see them. No green or red light. The waves grow firmer and higher with a huge swell and no froth. The cliffs look like a nightmare, far away. A single white light squints from the top of the hill.

 

But we rise and fall together. We are within reach. I stop my strokes. I reach out with one arm. Baby screams, swallows salt water, blubbers it out.

 

I turn onto my back, pull Baby onto my chest and we look deep into each other’s eyes. There is a moment of stillness between us. Baby pauses, utters a cry, looks deeply at me, into me, silently.

 

‘It will be all right’ I say softly ‘It will be alright’ I say ‘Just stay with me’ I say. ‘A boat will come. They know we are here. Everything will be alright.’ I know it will not be alright.

 

Baby babbles some words. I do not understand. I hold Baby on my chest. Again, we stare deep into each other’s eyes and, for a few seconds, we understand everything about each other.

 

Is there no rescue? Are we invisible? ‘I will pluck you from this sea and always take you with me’. Baby is now silent, shivering. I cannot paddle more. Baby splashes with a tiny hand. I float into coldness.

 

Lights. Lights. Noise. Noise We are seen! We need to swim towards them. They will get us. They will take us away. I have no more power in my legs. Baby cries.

 

‘Over there, pick ’em up from starboard.’ ‘Get the spot on them, full beam.’ ‘Get the Grab.’ ‘Keep the light on them.’ ‘Coming up on starboard.’ ‘Good God!’ ‘Cut the engine.’ ‘That’s it.’ ‘Swing out.’ ‘Pull ’em up.’

                                                                       

*                    *

 

Radio Local Coast News 12/03/2022: 7pm GMT

 

‘Police reports say a boat carrying 24 -35 illegal migrants capsized yesterday in the Channel. The lifeguard rescued five people including a baby girl. The mayor is demanding an end to illegal immigration. Meanwhile, Sir John Harbinger MP has called for a withdrawal of public funds for migrants and new legislation to return queue jumpers to their country of origin.’

 

‘A local man who swam out to help illegal immigrants on the south coast is in hospital suffering from hypothermia. He cannot be named for legal reasons. Police have called his actions misguided as they endangered the safety of lifeguard volunteers. The public prosecutor will consider whether he should face prosecution for abetting illegal entry to this country.’

 

‘Catch up with local news, win competition prizes, and be the first to benefit from special offers on Radio Local Coast. Like us on Facebook, Amazon Prime and all trusted platforms.’

 

*                    *

 

I am in the hospital talking to the woman who is the mother of Baby. She looks at me with a calm kindness and says: ‘You and your family – always very welcome in our house. Our house is your home.’

Baby gurgles. My hand strokes Baby’s head.

 

She pauses and wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. ‘But I always will hate your people.’

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Mike lives in Sussex and has been writing short fiction for over 10 years. He has published in peer-reviewed magazines (including époque press), completed over 60 reviews of local theatre (for Source Magazine), and has written regular blogs and articles on social themes. During this period, he has taken part in workshops with Curtis Brown, Writing Mill, New Writing South, Night Writers and Arvon.  His passion is for creative writing that is rooted in the voice of contemporary life. Mike remains actively engaged in social justice issues in the UK and abroad and has published widely in academic and practitioner journals.

 

Of the short story featured here, Mike states:

 

‘The story 'There is Sea and See' is about compassion, solidarity and risk. This is played out by an encounter, towards dusk, between a strong swimmer about to go home and a refugee baby bobbing in the sea. A curious bond forms between the two before they are rescued. But this is perceived very differently by the authorities. The end of the story sidesteps sentimentality by contrasting collective venom with individual solidarity. In an era where displaced people are fleeing across borders – or hiding in cellars – our small (or large) actions of support may be critical. The inspiration behind this short tale was to explore how, on the one hand, a single incident of kindness at sea might provoke joy and connection. On the other hand it might also reveal an ugly chasm inside which we do not always see.’