When the doctor tells her, she doesn’t hear. She’s still thinking about the text she got in the waiting room, from her now ex-boyfriend.
The diagnosis has to be repeated to her and even then, she’s confused more than anything else. She thinks of clawed hands and walking sticks. Her grandma sucking air in between her teeth.
She is dispatched from the surgery with a referral to a specialist, and a leaflet for a support group. At the bus stop she Googles the condition. Google is a terrible pessimist. When she reads the word “wheelchair”, she begins to feel afraid.
Back at the flat, her running trainers are still by the door, flaking dried mud. She kicks them across the room.
For weeks, while her trainers gather dust under the sofa, she learns about her condition. What time of day to take her medication, the daily exercises she needs to do. She meets the specialist, who turns her into a series of measurements. Spinal flexion and rotation. Pain scale.
She feels her body growing softer, forgetting the miles it’s run. The shame finally drives her into the local swimming pool. She has to stop for a break after every few lengths, her breathing and her limbs all out of sync with each other. But slowly, slowly, with every micro-tear in her muscles, she reshapes herself.
The water’s surface becomes the skin of another world. At the moment of breaking it, she leaves gravity and friction behind. It makes her think of the folk stories her Orcadian father told her, about the selkies. Seals who shed their skin to walk as humans on land. She likes to imagine herself doing the reverse, in this pool, though she can’t imagine a seal tolerating the chlorine, the breast-strokers clogging up the lanes.
Fed up, she goes back to Google, who is more helpful this time. It sends her on a 6am bus to the beach, to a group of strangers in wetsuits doing important-looking stretches. An older woman scolds her for not coming with a wetsuit too; it’s not like the south coast, up here.
But she hears the waves hissing on the pebbles, and she is resolute. She’ll see how long she can last this first time. When she says as much, and limps after the others, a man about her age catches her eye and winks.
Like the public pool, the sea below the surface is another world – but this one is merciless, hostile to human flesh. Her skin is bathed in cold fire.
Point taken. Next time, she comes with a wetsuit. She joins the others for post-swim coffee and gets talking to the man who’d winked at her before. His name’s Sam, and she likes the way his eyes crinkle at the edges when he smiles. He nods his head slowly in understanding when she explains what’s brought her here, the reason she can’t walk right. He gives her one more reason to keep coming back to the sea at dawn.
The sea cannot break her heart. The sea can only make her stronger. When she finds out Sam already has a girlfriend, she feels a cold stone of disappointment, but the waves and the cold scour it away, as they do the pain. The wetsuit fuses with her skin, her fingers spread as they drive the water behind her. Only her need for breath reminds her she is human.
Every time she has to step back out onto the beach, gravity and pain reclaim her body. She can slow time down but she can’t stop it. She sees people at the clinic twisted over by their treacherous spines, or glued to wheelchairs.
She throws herself into the sea again and again. The swimming group sticks too close to the beach. She wants, needs, to go further. Stay out longer. The deeps call out in a silent voice.
After one too many disapproving comments from other members of the group about her repeated straying, she starts going on her own instead, as many days a week as she can, more than once turning up at the office late with damp salty hair. The unreliable bus journeys grind her down. She calls up Sam, who has his own car. She’s relieved at how keen he sounds to join her for an extra swim or two a week. She doesn’t feel a spark of hope that he might want more than just friendship. She’s stopped caring. She smiles at his stories in the car, but she already feels the sea around her, muffling his voice.
A storm rolls in one Sunday morning. They get to the car park by the beach and Sam shakes his head at the white-capped waves. Looks too dangerous out there. Coffee instead? he asks. Sure, she replies. He ambles off to the roadside café.
She moves faster than she can think. She goes onto the beach, strips off her coat and trousers, her wetsuit ready underneath. The waves claw at the shore, but she isn’t scared. She’s hungry. She plunges in.
As she’s front-crawling away towards the horizon, she hears a distant yell. Sam. She swims on.
The waves grow bigger. They want to push her under. So she dives.
Her held breath lasts, and lasts. The white of her hands turns dark grey, merges into the sleeves of her wetsuit, which is no longer a suit but skin. The webbing of her fingers broadens. Her body becomes sinuous. Underwater light fills her eyes, showing her rock and kelp and fish.
And other creatures like her.
She hears a thrashing in the water somewhere behind her. A person, flailing. She has forgotten his name. But she remembers something. He can’t swim as well as her, never has. And he’s scared, he’s panicking.
She hangs in the in-between, feeling the beating of the waves above, and the deep dark stillness below.
She spins around. She surges towards the surface with a tearing agony.
When her head breaks the surface, the human freezes for a moment as he beholds her. Then she feels her hair swirling around her neck, and he blinks.
Rose! He cries.
She takes hold of him, and pulls them back towards the shore.