Freya watched as the tiny crab’s serrated claw combed the scarlet shock of spiny straggle weed which it wore like a panache. It reminded her of a peacock punk’s Mohican. Freya had been a beautiful punk once, quite notorious in the seaside town where she grew up. She imagined her fifteen year old self outside Woolworths on Felixstowe High Street, her platform boots buckled and almost high enough to meet her tight, black, slashed skirt. Her hair had been the colour of new blood and had stood nearly eight inches above her shaved temples.
This was not a true memory, just the image from a photograph taken by a friend whose name she had forgotten – a Polaroid she kept in her bedside drawer .It was all that she had of what she had once been. The image is vivid: the teenage Freya, resplendent in a cinched red tartan shirt in front of the store’s plate glass, backlit by the traffic’s reflection. Either side of her, two relatively drab mates – rivals for her affection – wore green tartan with safety pins and chains, they formed a setting for the jewel they both coveted. Freya smiled and imagined the scowl she might have aimed at a passer-by, mesmerized by Freya’s Egyptian eye make-up, ‘You gotta problem?’
Oh she was badass! Once upon a time.
The crab’s own headdress swayed jauntily as it skittered across the pool-bed. Freya held the green seaweed from the rock – its colour shimmering as the sun’s heat shook the water’s surface. She thumbed her wedding ring, spinning it on her tanned finger, looser now, she should take it off or risk losing it forever amongst the vibrant foliage of the pool.
The hermit crab, apparently uncomfortable with the attention, scuttled coyly back to its crevice. A starfish with 14 legs, deep red with orange stripes, lay waiting for the tide, content to be still. Or it could just be dead. Sometimes it is difficult to tell. Inaction might be as good as dead. Her knees ached and she shifted her rip-off crocs and pulled her head from the pool. She contemplated the oxymoronic phrase, ‘as good as dead’ as she looked over to Bryn twenty feet away, his back to her, arse in the air as if praying in the shallows, wearing those ridiculously inadequate trunks. His head was totally submerged – in ‘his own little world’. As always.
Freya got up and surveyed the beach, deliberately twisting her shoulders and shifting her feet in the hard sand. A panorama of almost total isolation. Earlier there had been others on the beach. Families out for the day, couples old and new and the odd singleton beach-comber head down, carrying their treasure in a bucket. Freya kept her head level as she slowly completed her revolution, periscope like, until again she focused on Bryn. How can he keep so still? He’d been in exactly the same position since they had first selected their pools, head submerged, his snorkel’s orange tip just above the surface, knees on the sand. Where does he go?
The sun’s searing light or Bryn’s trunks threatened a migraine and so she reset her goggles, bit down on her mouth piece and surrendered her head to the relative cool of her pool.
A beadlet anemone, the colour of new passion, was filtering the water between two large limpets. Beautiful, their translucent flesh seemingly vulnerable yet Freya knew that they were quite deadly. Covered in stinging nematocysts, they inject their prey with neurotoxic venom. Simple, perfect and ruby precious. This one had been hiding and was only revealed when the tiny tsunami Freya’s head had brought to the pool had pushed aside a swathe of enteromorpha from the bedrock. The anemone stood gorgeous between the two limpets like an alien red oasis at the foot of the pyramids, standing aloof from the desert of sand that carpeted the rock pool. Freya moved her face closer. A puddle of water was collecting at the bottom of her mask; she ignored it but the added refraction seemed to magnify the anemone and she could see the tiny stinging hairs that lined the tentacles. She reached out and stroked the tentacles gently. The cells within exploded and the microscopic harpoons laced with poison buried themselves in her finger. She traced little circles with her thumb over her middle and forefinger savouring the stickiness of the attack. Freya knew the beadlet could not harm her; perhaps a slight numbness that’s all, but the ferocity of the attack always fascinated her. The angry red tendrils and sensuous body were no false warnings. She knew that the tacky sheen on her fingers would last for hours.
As she rubbed her thumb over her fingers, heightening the tingling of the toxins, she regarded the anemone, pushing her face even closer so that the tendrils retracted again, leaving a perfect orb of glistening beauty. Freya waited. Immobile. Slowly, like a flower opening in time lapse, the anemone once again spread her arms, and Kali like the tentacles danced again, swishing the tiny hair like felli, beckoning her prey to her embrace.
Freya saw her hermit crab skulk behind an empty whelk shell not far from the anemone. Mindful of the anemone’s sticky toxins, Freya used her left hand to lift the crab and inspected it as its legs disappeared into the shell’s dark centre. The red crest defiantly declared that his majesty was at home – just not receiving visitors. She put the shell down away from the anemone. Safe now. After a second or two the crab re-emerged and scurried to hide in a barnacle lined crack in the rock but not before waving its claw furiously at Freya. She laughed through her snorkel; a hollow alien sound in her ears.
She slithered further into her pool feeling the warm water caress her skin and gently invade her swimming costume. Warmer now and lying suspended in the water Freya watched the drama unfold around her. She felt as if she was slowly disappearing into the rock pool. First dissolving into transparency and then molecule by molecule vanishing, becoming one with pool and leaving the other world behind. The pool lulled her into a stupor and she was only partially aware of the star fish’s salutation: a kaleidoscopic ripple of its legs to welcome her into its world. All life was here. Including death. All had their place. She watched a swarm of sand fleas progress across the bottom of the pool. A blue sail jellyfish drifted on an invisible current and a salt water crayfish, armoured like a lichen green scorpion, peered from its fortress. She found herself escaping into this world worthy of storytelling and at its heart was the anemone, its Queen. Freya merely an invisible, mute spectator to all this life.
A thought occurred to her but dimly through her reverie as she sought again the anemone from behind its screen of verdant foliage. She had read that anemones can reproduce asexually. Their beauty’s function is not to attract mates.
She thought of the Polaroid again. She couldn’t remember the names of either of the boys she was with. She remembered that she had gone out with one of them but not even his name. She wondered whether if it was not for that picture, would she have forgotten them totally?
When she surfaced the other world had changed. The sun had gone and a greying patchy cloud had obscured the blue and its reflection had dappled the surface of the sea. And the sea was closer. Freya’s wet skin cooled and her head cleared. She shivered. The pool was now much warmer than the air and she contemplated giving in to the lure of her pool once again.
She looked towards Bryn. He had moved slightly, leaning out over the pool, clearly intent on touching something just out of his reach. His attitude was almost predatory, poised over the lip of the pool, quite dynamically – in a most unlike Bryn gesture of eagerness.
What was wrong with him?
She waited, hoping for the inevitable slip and splutter as the tip of his snorkel disappeared below the surface. Instead his head and shoulders submerged slowly much like whale’s back. Then he disappeared. Completely. The pool must have been far deeper than her own. She waited. Nothing. Not a ripple on the surface of the pool whose surface reflected the clouded sky.
She started to count.
This morning in the B&B, the loud man from Bristol had told the breakfast room that he’d seen a conger eel in a rock pool on this beach. Was that what Bryn had seen; had reached for? She stared fascinated by his absence from the pool’s edge. Congers could be big, especially the females. They were, according to Bristol Man, the biggest eels in the world with rows and rows of sharp teeth. Bryn wouldn’t have tried to touch one, would he? Probably.
From the shore with the sea behind her and the water about her feet, Freya mused that she would have looked tiny, isolated and floating above a devouring void between earth and sky. She remembered another photograph, from a tabloid newspaper, of a mother running towards a Tsunami. A mother whose child’s back was towards the sea, unaware of the wall of water racing towards him. There was no one to see Freya. No one to photograph her. She was now completely alone. She stood poised like a caryatid, rapt by the grey, green puddle of salt water, not thirty feet from where she stood, and by its emptiness.
Freya could have walked across the tide sculpted sand in seconds and seen for herself how Bryn was. She could have picked her way through torn kelp, fields of razor shells and necklaces of smaller pools to see if he was alright. She did not want to know. The vacuum his absence had occasioned was too compelling. She stared, counting the seconds, weighing the possibilities. She stood frozen, a statue of some aquatic demi-goddess, her once lost empire advancing like the tide as she waited.
Several lifetimes she had lived before he emerged calmly from the pool’s depths, standing on the bottom, the water to his chest. No splutter just a practiced blow to clear his snorkel.
He saw her watching him. He waved and tried to smile round his mouthpiece. He looked happy. She was thankful that her true emotions were hidden by the cyclops lens and rictus grin of her mask and snorkel. She waved back and pointed to the sky behind him and the advancing tide. He turned and looked, shrugged sadly and held up five fingers and descended once again into his pool.
He’ll probably tell her later what he’d found.
Five more minutes. Freya shivered again and returned to her pool. The anemone was feeding. It held in its arms a tiny naked crab. The shell had been flung to the side and lay empty at the base of the rock. She recognised the shell – its panache ripped apart. The little crab, vulnerable as a baby, cradled aloft like a sacrifice. Its struggles were visibly weakening as the toxins did their job.
To either side of the anemone the limpets stood impassive and immobile; their tortoise shell exterior a testament to their resilience, their devotion. Freya gently picked up the hermit crab’s shell. For an instant she hated the unctuous, scarlet mass of the anemone and her fingers longed to rip its coldness from the rock.
A tiny claw waved one last time before disappearing through the arms into the anemone’s maul.
As she watched, a microscopic cloud like a fungal spore was ejected from the centre of the anemone. A cloud of life through death surrounded the three figures. Freya’s anger dissolved as myriad forms including shrimps, sand fleas, shell fish, tiny green diving beetles and all she could not see come to dine.
Freya broke the surface for the last time that day and pushed her mask up to her forehead allowing the trapped salt water to escape and run down her face.
She looked for her husband. He had just surfaced and their eyes found each other at the same time.
The tide had turned and was rushing towards them. Had they waited too long?
She watched him launch himself from the pool. He seemed unconcerned by the time or tide. As he peeled off his mask he grinned at her, all white teeth in a tanned face. ‘I found something wonderful, Freya!’
They headed off towards the dunes and he tells her of his discovery. She takes his hand in hers, his fingers sticky from anemones.