Believing in Magic31 October 2012
There is some magic in this world: not wanting to be solved but savoured. It’s in the soft curve of a lover’s back where a little morning light pools and ripples. It’s in the faces of summer’s children with vanilla ice cream on their noses and pink sugar in their hair. In the smell of waxy orange peel on your fingertips and sea salt on your skin.
It is in this last day of summer, or the first of autumn. The pebble beach is cool now; the stones smoothed by feet half-running-half-walking trying not to burn their soles, forgetting shoes in the novelty of holiday. The sky and the sea meet and blur in subtle gradients, the foam of the changing tide licking the horizon and smearing a low cloud onto its canvas.
This is Tilly’s favourite time to be at the beach – when the hut is in need of a coat of paint, its wooden beams grainy and flaking; and seaweed lays in forlorn tangles like lost mermaid’s hair. The chill has chased away tourists in their oily sunscreen skins. Tilly sits on the step of the beach hut with her knees drawn under her chin. She wears a thick woollen jumper the colour of pale jade, hand-knitted by her grandmother. She used to like sitting at her grandmother’s feet as a child, listening to the rhythmic click click click of the needles and eating buttery toast by the fire. Grandfather smelt of leather and shoe-polish. Every evening after work he would bring a gift home for her grandmother: a small bunch of flowers tied with satin ribbon, a single chocolate truffle in its own extravagant box, porcelain teddy bears or tiny glass perfume bottles that stood on the windowsill and made rainbows with the daylight.
“When you find one like Grandfather, you never let him go.” Grandmother would say as she caressed the new gift in her palm.
Tilly turned up on her grandmother’s doorstep swaddled in a shearling blanket with a note pinned to her chest. Grandmother said she’d never cared for the note and had thrown it away with the Wednesday morning rubbish; but teenage Tilly had once found it in a shoebox under grandmother’s bed and read it expecting a forlorn tale of sorrow and regret-instead she found the words ‘please take her’. She put it back and never told her grandmother of the discovery.
Tilly remembered the first time she had brought Michael home. Grandmother beamed as Michael presented her with a tin trinket box full of expensive tea leaves. Grandfather had passed away two years before and Grandmother’s eyes had been milky wet ever since. Michael seemed to lift this glaze from her. He made flirty jokes in the kitchen as he peeled potatoes and Tilly smiled at the youthful blush it brought to her grandmother’s face. Tilly loved the space between Michael’s shoulder blades where she rested her forehead as they slept in her childhood room, and she loved that he awoke so quietly and made breakfast for her and Grandmother in his checked pyjama pants and plain white t-shirt.
When Grandmother died Michael packed up her knick-knacks into boxes while Tilly sat frozen by the fire. He made her the thick white toast of her childhood and stroked her hair with his heavy palms. Michael made the fisherman’s nets and sanded their small wooden boats, and his nails were stained with the smell of the sea and the lingering nutmeg perfume of tobacco.
When Michael first got sick Tilly blamed the tobacco. When he started getting thin she blamed the long beach runs he took at dusk. When his hair fell out she blamed the brown foods he loved to eat; potato and pastry and bread-cased bacon. When he lay in bed hacking up blood onto the white sheets she blamed herself for not keeping him warm enough at night. When they came for his body she’d run out of energy for blaming. She imprisoned herself in Michael’s fading scent barely moving for days, afraid to disturb the air.
Michael’s mother showed up one evening with bitter reluctance. “I wish it was you instead,.” she whispered through gritted teeth. Michael’s mother took the souvenirs of her son, and Tilly was left amongst the spectral echoes of laughter and the crackling of a fire that could not warm her. She sold the house to a couple just-married and moved to a small apartment overlooking the beach. The apartment was stale and damp and very small, but the little balcony caught the sun and the sea breeze, and the wallpaper was engrained with patterns rather than memories.
She cherished the beach hut because Michael had built it. Before he worked for the fishermen he studied carpentry in college and the beach hut was his final project. They carved simple dreams into the driftwood steps she sat on now, and picked sand from each other’s hair as the tide came in.
One morning Michael was lying in bed as Tilly drew back the lace curtains to let the sunlight see him. She saw him reel at the brightness and narrow his eyes. He opened them slowly like a hatchling. He began to cough, and blood spattered into the air like the ink of a fountain pen. She rushed to his side and dabbed at his grey skin with a soft cloud of cotton wool.
“Let’s go to the beach hut Tils,” he croaked. She continued cleaning his face.
“Not today Michael.”
“Tilly, take me to the fucking beach hut.” Michael had never sworn at her before. She looked into the deep brown lakes of his eyes and saw a pleading determination.
She pushed Michael in his wheelchair along the promenade, his wheezing made her wince. He’d been sickeningly light as she lifted him from the bed. Her hands slipped between his ribs and shoulder blades, bones and cold skin. They reached the point where the promenade became stairs that led to the sand. Tilly bit her tongue until it bled trying to stop herself crying as she watched Michael struggle to his feet. He hung a limp arm over her shoulder and she supported him as they walked down the stairs like toddlers, one step at a time, pausing before taking the next.
By the time they reached the beach hut the afternoon sun was slipping towards the horizon. Tilly looked at Michael in this soft light that seemed to eradicate his sickness. He sat on the edge of the crude wooden bed frame he’d carved at nineteen, and beckoned to her with a hand outstretched. She stood before him and stroked his cheek with her thumb as he looped his arms around her waist. She felt a familiar heat rise in her spine. He pulled her gently on top of him and she slipped into a time where Michael’s arms were strong and the taste of his skin was sweet.
In two days he was dead. Tilly runs her thumb over their flint-carved names in the step beside her. The sandy wind is slowly erasing them, making the wood smooth.
Four months after Michael’s death Tilly’s felt a soft warmth in her belly. It grew large like a full blue moon. Her breasts and cheeks were plump and pillowy and she was hungry for apricots and treacle. The doctor said it was a miracle that a man in Michael’s condition could have conceived and Tilly told him that grandmother always told her that if you believe in magic it will believe in you. The doctor patted her knee and said her grandmother was a wise woman.
The baby gurgled now in its pram, happily clutching at the breeze with great curls of dark brown hair tumbling about its face. She named the baby after his father although the similarities needed not naming. Their child had skin the colour of creamy coffee and wide eyes. There was a gentleness to its presence and its movements were considered and kind. It looked as though Tilly had a womb of honey, and warm resin in her veins.
“Do you hear Daddy?” Tilly asked with her eyes closed, raising her head into the whispering air.
The baby waved its hands and blew a bubble. Tilly unfolded onto her feet and went over to the baby; she unfastened the strap that held him in his pram and lifted Michael onto her hip. He fit perfectly into the dent of her waist, two pieces of the same puzzle.
“And can you hear grandmother? Click click click. Can you hear her?” She bounced the baby gently and he stared at her with the familiar eyes of his father. Tilly began walking towards the shoreline; needing to be closer to her grandmother’s magic. As she walked she felt as though she stepped into Michael’s remains – the footprints he’d left behind as he ran steadily over the sand. The baby was mewing with quiet pain, his new skin not ready for the pin-pricks of icy air. Tilly was crying too, tears trickling in the tributaries of her face, mapped out by rivers before them.
“I know baby, its magic. Daddy’s here, he’s here. When you find one like daddy you never let him go.” The baby started writhing, screaming with the power of brand new lungs.
“Hush baby hush.” Tilly felt the sea stroke the tips of her toes. She started singing a song of the fishermen Michael had taught her. The baby pursed its cherub lips and the crying became a choked gargle. They were waist deep now, the half-light of sundown illuminating and shadowing them: pastel silhouettes fading like exposed film. Deeper and deeper, Tilly strolled with the content of a sleepwalker, the steady rhythm of the tide a metronome for her shanty.
She put her hand onto the baby’s downy head and gently pushed. She kept singing, changing pitch as the muscles in her arm tensed. Tilly kept heading towards the horizon, now almost indistinguishable from the grey sea that supported the limp weight in the crook of her arm. As if by magic she began to vanish, slowly and purposefully, into the black swirling water. The only trace of the trick was a trail of breathy bubbles, each one a perishing vessel for the last notes of her song.