Read the 2022 Devon Prize Winner - The Fisherman's Wife by Marta Emmitt

 The Fisherman's Wife 
Marta Emmitt

First time they lay together he cried.  He never did again, but that first time, he cried into the crook of her neck, like a little boy.  “What is it?” she asked him.
“It’s me,” he said.   “I’m all wrong.”
She stroked his hair.   He looked up at her with his big wide eyes.   “Do you think,” he said, “we’ll have sons?”
She laughed then.   “Not too soon, I hope,” she said, “and you can’t choose what you get.”
“I never knew my father,” he said, curling back down so his head rested on her belly.   “He was a fisherman, like me.   Left when I was a baby.   All’s I remember is a whiskery face, and a smell of fish.”   He stroked the soft round shape of her, until she shivered.  “I want my sons to know me,” he said.
She knew when she got the phone call.   Shouldn’t have let him out on the boat, at his age.   There had never been any stopping him, though.   Fishing was his life, he said, and nothing would change that.   It was work, and even if the boys did most of it now, it was his life, he said.    She knew it was more than the fishing.   More than hauling up those wet, flapping bundles of live flesh.    More than the slap of waves on the sides of the boat, the fling of rain, the soggy smell of fish guts on his fingers.    She had seen him standing in the prow, with the wind in his face, looking out at the vast expanse of sea.    There was a look on his face at those times, that she couldn’t quite name.    She’d seen it when he held the boys first time, cradled them in his big arms, and looked down into their tiny faces.   Like he was longing for something, bigger than her, bigger than their life together.
They’d had kippers for breakfast that morning.   “Man needs something strong in his stomach on a day like this,” he said, buttering a second round of toast.    The wind was already rattling at the windows of the cottage.    “Looks like the sea might be rough,” she said.   There was a little rush of fear, like a spurt of heat, up her spine.   She knew that fear and willed it back down.   Never came up on quiet days, but days when the sea was rough, like today, she had to talk it back, like a frightened child.    Tell it everything would be all right.    Tell it he knew what he was doing, after years out on the sea, after years of fishing, of good and bad weather, heavy catches, and slim ones.    And she soothed her fear, put it to one side, made another pot of strong tea, packed him a good lunch, gave him a kiss and sent him off.   
The kitchen still smelt of kippers when they brought her the news.    She sat on the couch, with the boys on either side of her.    “He didn’t feel a thing, Mum,” said Col.   “One minute he was stood there, looking out.    Next, he was hitting the deck, flat.    Hell of a crash.   He was a big man.”    Col wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.   Bert was quieter, always had been.   But she could see he’d been crying.    They held her hands.    “It was how he’d have wanted to go, Mum,” said Col.   “Quick.   And on the boat, on the sea.   Working.    He never wanted to retire, Mum.   It was his life.”
Col did all the arrangements.    “Do you want me to stay with you, Mum?” asked Bert, shy of her.   She thought they were waiting somehow, for a big outpouring of grief from her.    “No, Bert, I’ll be fine.   I got Maisie next door, and the neighbors will be in and out, I’m sure.”   She held each of them for a moment, close to her, smelling their familiar smell of damp wool and brine.   For a moment her heart opened, remembering all the times she’d held him that way – saying good-bye in the morning, greeting him again at night.    She breathed in their fishermen’s scent.  Then she let them go and closed the door behind them.
She pulled her chair up close to the range.    The cat leapt up and curled in her lap.   Outside the wind was picking up, and rain was flinging against the windows.   The kettle hummed.   The clock ticked.   She looked around the warm kitchen.    Something was missing.    And then she realized the coat hooks were empty.    He would never again hang his wet waterproof on those hooks, or his blue woolen hat.    Never again the sound of water dripping onto the tile floor.   Never again the sodden sweater hung over the range, making it steam.   It hit her like a great wave, chill and powerful.    She bent over the sleeping cat, her fists clenched to her mouth, and the enormity of it crashed over her.   He was gone.   He would never come back.    
The sounds that came from her were guttural and animal, a wounded creature.   She felt the grief twisting in her belly, now hot, now cold, as if it had a life of its own.    She staggered to the sink and was sick into it.    She sank to the floor and curled on the old rag rug.   She remembered somewhere back into the space when she was whole, people talking of sobs shaking you.    Her body shook with the crying, like a sock on the line, buffeted by the wind.    This was endless, bottomless, deep as the sea.   
When she came to, the kitchen was dark and cold.    The cat had gone to find somewhere warmer.    She crawled to the table and pulled herself up and onto the chair again.   She felt sick and dizzy and terribly frightened.   There was a ringing in her ears, a high, metallic hum.   She could call Maisie; she’d come over and sit with her.   But somehow, she didn’t want that.   Maisie all solicitous, pouring cups of hot sweet tea, and handing out the kind of stupid statements people say at such times, things she herself had said, hadn’t she?   He was a good man.   At least he didn’t suffer.   It was how he’d have wanted to go:  on the boat, on the sea.   
She made her way to the kitchen window, holding onto the chairs and the wall as she went.   The storm had calmed, and outside the full moon shone on the wide rocky beach, lighting the tips of the waves.   The tide was in.  
Without really knowing why she went to the front hallway and took down her waterproof.   She slipped her arms into the chilly sleeves.   Then from the shoe rack she picked up a pair of his shoes, the smart ones he wore for best.    She slid her hands into the insides of the shoes and felt the places where his feet had made hollows in the bed of the shoe, where his toes had rested and his heels.   She remembered his feet, broad and flat, and his thick toenails.   Not beautiful feet, no, but solid, comfortable.    And the enormity of it.    He had walked on this earth, he had been alive and breathing, now, he was not.    He was not.
She tucked the shoes under her arm and stepped out into the night.    She could hear the sea, slapping up against the rocky beach, and smell the salt in the night air.   She walked down to the edge of the sea and stood there, feeling the wind on her face, the last bits of rain on her cheeks.
She wrapped her arms around the shoes, holding them to her heart.    How long had it been since they had loved each other like they had when they were young?   How many years since he had touched her, lain next to her, come into her?   Nothing beyond his quick kiss in the morning, or an arm around her shoulder, or the hug before he set off for the day.   She had thought her body didn’t miss it, but now standing at the edge of this wild sea, she remembered what it was like.    The slick heat of their bodies, pressed against each other in the dark.   No words, they never talked about it.   But in those first days they had been drawn to each other, so fiercely that she felt she might disappear into him.    The first time she had touched him, there, and his quick intake of breath, the sound in the back of his throat, and then guiding him into her, into her slickness and heat, and knowing somehow how to move, how to hold, how to pull him closer to her until she melted around him.    Now she held the shoes as she had once held him, close to her breasts, close to her beating heart.   
I could go, she thought.   I could go out and join him.   I could let the sea take me.    She called out his name, over and over.   The sea flung it back to her.   The tears came again, this time harder and more painful, like some great hand were wringing her, twisting her, until she fell on the sand, writhing in pain, crying for all the nights spent alone, for the loss of what they had once had, and now could never have.    She threw the shoes onto the sand, and ripped off her waterproof, and then her jumper and blouse, her woolen skirt, her shoes and heavy tights, and stood naked on the beach, her face wet with tears and sea spray.    She knelt by the edge of the sea and wept into the grey water.
Suddenly from behind her someone flung a blanket over her.   Arms wrapped around her, wrapped her in the blanket.   She turned and looked into the face of a young man.   “It’s all right,” he said, “you’re all right.”    
“Who are you?  Where have you come from?”
“Never mind,” he said.   “You’re cold.”  He opened the blanket and pulled her against him, and her wet skin met his.   The whole front of his body was bare, and warm and his flat belly pressed against her softer one.  She felt his penis uncurl and rise up, hard and hot.   Quickly she wondered if she might be in danger, and just as quickly she let that thought go.    There was something so sweet about the tender way he held her, that she put her arms around him and drew him even closer to her.   Her mouth found his and she tasted his lips and his tongue.   A longing broke inside her, an old ache.   She pressed her whole body against his.   He lifted her up and slid himself easily into her.    
She forgot everything then.    She forgot her age, her loss, her sons, her home.   She was the rhythm of their movements, she was the pulse of the waves, the pounding of the surf on the shore.   She was the call of the sea birds, the scent of salt and brine, the rushing wind.     She felt herself gathering, like water coursing from a narrow rivulet towards the sea, faster and faster, until she called out, and he flowed into her, in a beating liquid rush.
He held her then for a moment, then slipped out of her and set her back on her feet and trembling legs.   She clung to him, waiting for her breath and heartbeat to settle.    He stepped back from her and picked up the shoes from the beach.   He held them in his hands.   In the moonlight she could see how his hands were thick and strong, and nicked with cuts, a fisherman’s hands.    He smiled at her.   His teeth were small and white, and there was a gap between the two big ones.   “You won’t be needing these,” he said.    He pulled back his arm and threw them into the sea.   
Then he turned from her and ran, through the shallow waves and into the sea itself.    She watched him go, until the movement of his head above the waves was the movement of a sleek sea animal, then he dived and was gone.
She picked up her wet clothes and shoes and wrapped the blanket around her.    She made her way up the beach to the house.   Once there she filled the kettle and set it on the range.   She dried her hair and body.    She piled her clothes in the scullery and ran up to the bedroom to find her dressing gown.    She folded the blanket carefully and laid it over the back of her chair.  She made a fire and sat in front of it, with a cup of sweet tea and the cat on her lap.   

Col and Bert came in around teatime.    Bert was pale and tight lipped, Col held her for quite a bit longer than he would have.    “Where did this come from?” asked Bert, picking up the old blanket.
She touched the rough fabric and held it to her face, breathed in the scent of fishy brine.   “I found in, on the beach,” she said.
Col and Bert looked at each other.   “Don’t know how it came to be there,” said Col.   He took a breath.   “It’s Dad’s, you see.”
“Ah,” she whispered.   “Of course.”
“Last I saw it, were on the boat,” said Bert.   “Dad kept it with him all the time, case any of us fell in, he used to say.    Sometimes he’d wrap it round us when the wind got squalling.”    He laid his hand on the blanket and stroked it softly.   “Can’t understand how it come to be on the beach though.   Don’t make sense.”
She looked from one son to the other.  “You take that blanket back, then, put it back on the boat.   You never know when the two of you might need it.”  
Col turned and looked out the window.   Bert wiped one hand across his eyes.   
“Come here then, you two.”   She put her arms out and drew them to her.    And they sobbed in her arms, and into the crook of her neck, like babies.

 The End