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On the Shore by the Sea

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"Come on," Kate says.

Her feet are sinking into the sludgy sand as Emma watches from the rock on which she’s perched. It has almost covered her toes completely, little bits of white skin flashing as she shifts her weight from foot to foot, waiting for Emma.

"It's not swimming," she says with a smile. "It's getting your feet wet in style," and when she stretches a hand, Emma takes it because she doesn't want to leave Kate hanging, strips off her shoes and socks and rolls up her jean legs.

The water's not so bad, but then it's not the water Emma has a problem with, not even when it's chilly water off the coast of Wales, in a month where no normal person would go outside without a jacket. She quite likes it, the way her skin goosepimples up, and how after a while the water feels warm compared to the air.

Kate even made the jump to a swimsuit this morning, went in for a dip like she was born with the ability to completely ignore the cold. "You'll get a cramp," Emma had pointed out from where she’d perched on the beach with a borrowed thermos and an ereader, when Kate came back to shore, hair plastered against her skin, frozen to the bone, teeth chattering.

"You'd save me," Kate said cheerfully from under a towel, trying to make it do three things at once in a vain attempt to try and cover herself on a rocky beach where only the two of them were mad enough to be. "I've seen you swim, when you want to you're like a fish."

"An elderly goldfish with one broken fin," Emma said. Her attempt at being a downer was thwarted by the fact that she was sort of smiling as Kate shimmied into her t-shirt and jacket and complained about the sand in her shoes.

Now she's rolled up her jeans as high as the knee, and the water is up to her mid-calf, wavering and clear, no seaweed or jellyfish - the bane of her childhood, just ice cold and salty and remorseless. She swallows back the thoughts and focuses instead on where the sky meets the horizon, and the vague warmth of Kate's hand in hers, fingers curling around each other. If she doesn't think about the current sweeping you out, losing you in the ocean forever, leaving you all alone in the endless sea, then it's not so bad at all.

Kate swings their hands idly back and forth between them and then peers to the side with an inquisitive glance that makes her a look a little bit like a curious bird.

"Why do you hate swimming so much?" she asks.

Emma looks away because she wants to tell Kate but the words stick stupid and shameful in her mouth, choke in her throat and she mumbles something. Kate doesn't press the point, squeezes her hand tighter and then whirls her round in the waves and kisses her, damp with sea-spray, hands clutching at her jacket and Emma can't see the sea in that moment, can't see or feel anything other than the salt on Kate's lips, the sweet press of her tongue and the wet whip of Kate's hair. When they break apart, she can't remember what they were talking about for a moment, but she's reminded about why they're spending a long weekend in Wales of all places.

"Let's get a drink," she says, close enough to Kate that she's probably felt rather than heard, and she feels Kate's lips curve against her own.

"You mean you don't want to have sex on the beach?" Kate asks, half teasing, half sincere. She has a thing about the outdoors that doesn't really get an outing in central London.

Emma laughs. "Sure," she says, "we can have sex on the beach if you want, but I'm delegating you to explain the embarrassing frostbite to the doctor."

"Coffee it is. Last one off the beach buys the Danish.”

The one place that they can find doing hot drinks in the tiny village nearest the beach - everywhere else closed up and windswept out of tourist season - is about ten feet square in total. The woman behind the counter looks them up and down and has them gauged in about thirty seconds flat as not being from around those parts. Emma, gauging the chances of a cappuccino as being somewhat less than zero, goes for coffee, hot and instant, and Kate goes for tea as usual. There are hot little griddle cakes though and the woman, who apparently doubles as what passes for a tourist bureau in this town, shows an inclination to stay and pass the time with them. It confirms what Emma already guessed, that there is literally nothing to do round here and that if there are any little treasures they are particularly well hidden.

Anywhere else they could have gone back to the hotel and passed the time as a weekend away from home should be passed, but in a misguided fit of enthusiasm for the small and local, Kate opted for a bed and breakfast that had retained its fondness for the decor of the ‘70s, and Emma is wondering what chain of events led them here for the weekend. They could be in Paris, she considers mournfully. Paris is romantic. Hell, Stoke on Trent is more romantic than here. But Kate remembered this place fondly and on paper it had sounded like a good idea, a couple of days together near the sea, just the two of them, no work allowed.

“Is there a Natwest near here?” she asks the tea shop owner without much hope. There are one-horse towns, and then there are villages like this.

“In the big town,” the woman replies, “though it’s closed on Saturdays.”

“They always are. So much for extended hours,” Emma says, finishing off her coffee and trying not to be grumpy about this. It is for a weekend and then they can get back to the city where she’ll tell everyone that they had an amazing time. As though sensing Emma’s bad mood, Kate nudges her foot under the table, and then stands and collects her bag.

In the open air again, doubly cold now they warmed up inside, Kate takes a breath. “This hasn’t gone quite as I planned you know,” she says, open and honest.

Emma feels her bad mood leaking away slowly. “Don’t be silly,” she says, “everyone knows how much I love the seaside.”

“You’re such a sarky cow sometimes you know,” Kate says, but there is only affection in her voice. “I thought it would be nice. Peaceful you know? Things have been so hectic recently, it’s nice to get away for a bit. We could do Scotland next time if you like.”

She is biting her lips like she’s holding back a smile.

“Now who’s being snide?” Emma elbows her in the side on the way back to the car. “Come on, we’re going to see the delights of what the ‘big town’ has to offer us.”

 

It isn’t until they’re having dinner that the sea come up again. Kate is chasing a piece of halloumi around her plate with a fork, and they’re most of the way through a bottle of wine, Emma responsible for most of that consumption since Kate is going to be driving. She’s just hit the point of feeling warm inside and considerably more in favour of the whole of Wales, when Kate asks again as though she’s been chewing it over for some unfathomable reason. “Why do you hate swimming?”

It is almost a reflex to say that she doesn’t hate swimming. It just isn’t something she does for fun, not anymore. Emma has tried a few times to get back into it, in preference to cardio at the gym, but being stuck shivering at the side made her feel both increasingly stupid each time she failed to take the plunge, and reminded her of being at school again arguing every swimming term with the teachers. No matter how many times she told herself that blue chlorinated water wasn’t the sea, wasn’t dangerous, it didn’t seem to sink in.

She tells a half truth instead. “Water up the nose, shivering when you come out, freezing cold. Not my idea of a fun time.”

“You swam that time we went to the gym together,” Kate points out.

Emma doesn’t want to say that she’d been desperately trying to impress Kate in any way possible, including throwing herself headlong into a pool she’d been avoiding for years, still caught in that limbo of does she like me, is going to the gym together something friends do, oh god what do I do. She remembers gauging the invisible line down the middle of the pool, the bit where the water would rise over her head and drag her under, the truncated point at which her strokes stopped and she’d turn.

“Yeah,” she mutters, and forks a bit of rocket into her mouth as an excuse to stop talking. Her skin is crawling with the memories, and the wine isn’t doing its job in relaxing her. She wonders how Kate knows there’s something there beyond Emma just not liking swimming, but she wishes she’d let it drop. And Kate does. She starts talking about something completely different, whether it’s worth stopping off at the site of one of the oldest extant castles in Britain on the way back up, never mind that that isn’t something either of them would do willingly.

So it’s a little bit of surprise to both of them when Emma breaks into the conversation with “we almost drowned when we were ten.”

Kate will know who she means by ‘we.’ Emma and Andy, twins, as different as they’re alike, closer to each other than to anyone else.

Emma takes a deep breath and continues because that sounds so dramatic, and the drag in her throat from earlier by the beach is back, even though she doesn’t know why. “We were at the beach and Andy got caught by a current, and I went after her. Mum and Dad were on the beach and by the time they looked up, we were both far out. I was a strong swimmer for my age, came second in the backstroke at the swimming gala that sort of thing. Andy wasn’t, not even a little bit. So she was crying and kicking and I thought we were both going to die.” She pushes a plate away, dinner not looking so appealing anymore, and feels Kate stroking her fingers lightly across the table. “She kept going under the water and I was trying to hold her up and we were getting further and further from shore.” She stops for a second and takes a sip of wine.

“Then?” Kate prompts her gently.

Emma shrugs. “My mother and father caught up to us. We weren’t even that far out. We probably weren’t ever even at risk of dying. It just felt like we were going to die you know? I was certain that Andy was going to die first, because I couldn’t hold her up, and then I was.” If dinner hadn’t been ruined before it probably was now. “The stupid thing is I’m the one who is afraid of swimming now, and Andy loves the water. She swims all the time now.”

“Not that stupid,” Kate says, “you were afraid for her as well as yourself,” and she’s squeezing Emma’s hand hard enough now that it hurts a little bit. Emma doesn’t say anything though because she doesn’t want Kate to let go, and it seems it was kind of worth coming to this shitty little town after it all. She doesn’t want to go jumping into any oceans anytime soon but the hard lump of fear that surrounds that particular memory seems to have dissipated a bit.

She goes for a smile and finds it. “My deadly secret’s out.”

“I now understand why you list Waterworld as your scariest horror film. I used to think it was Kevin Costner’s haircut that did it,” Kate says, letting go of Emma’s hand with a final squeeze. “It also explains why you get that thousand yard stare when you look at the Thames.”

Emma knows that Kate’s trying to rebalance them both and make her laugh, knowing as she does that Emma doesn’t like her feelings laid bare.

So she laughs and finishes off the dinner, and wonders if she can somehow persuade Kate to stick around forever.