This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
During the summer of our shared thirteenth birthday something changed between us, and the easy way in which we had done everything together began to stifle me.
One afternoon, near the end of our beach holiday, Beth and I got into a heated argument over a game of cards. I remember feeling an intense need to escape the confines of the cottage but when I said I would go for a swim, Beth wanted to come too. At home, we would've just wandered down to the dam, but here on the coast our parents wouldn't let us go swimming on our own and so we had to appeal to our older sister to come with us. Four years our senior, Sarah was settled in the shade of a bottle brush, reading her latest novel. We wheedled and nagged as only younger siblings can and at last she gave in.
The bay was a haven for inexperienced ocean swimmers like us. We floated and bobbed just beyond the gently breaking waves, careful not to go out too far. Sarah hated being cold and was soon back on the shore but Beth and I lingered, luxuriating in the gentle swell that moved our bodies with it. Our finger tips were wrinkled by the time we returned to the sand and our argument was almost forgotten.
A waterfall streamed from Beth's head as she leant forward and wrung the sea from her long golden ropes of hair. Looking up at her from where I sat, putting on my shoes, I saw how different she was from Sarah and me.
As Sarah pulled on the heavy coat she had brought with her, her dark frizzy hair was already springing back into its usual unflattering shape and I recognised that mine would soon be doing the same. In appearance, it was my older sister who was my twin.
The north easterly breeze had strengthened. Sarah put her back to it and hurried us along, clearly keen to get back to the cottage and return to her novel. The sodden fabric of my bathing suit was making me shiver but I wasn't ready to go.
"I'm going to look in the rock pools," I declared and strode off, ignoring Sarah's protests while conscious of Beth following at a distance.
High tide had filled the rock pools and a zest for discovery sated my restlessness as I crouched to examine each one for its offering of sea creatures. I kept my head down, determined to find something interesting. We'd be going back to our red dust home in two days' time and it would be another year at least before we saw the sea again. An unusual orange starfish caught my eye and despite myself I found that I wanted to share it with my sisters.
Neither of them responded to my call. Sarah was sitting in the lee of a large rock with her coat pulled tightly around her, glaring at me. Further down, Beth appeared to be talking with a young man who was fishing off the rocks. His shirt was unbuttoned.
It flapped in the wind as he leant forward to show Beth something he had in his bucket. She inclined towards him, their heads almost touching. The wind carried away any sound but when they stood I could see that they were both laughing. I began to call out again but something hot and hard had risen up in my throat. I turned my back on them and headed further out onto the point.
My sandshoes provided a thin barrier against the sharp rock edges as I climbed onto the ledge directly above the crashing surf. Here, there was no protection from the bay and the full nature of the sea was revealed. The raw power of the water enthralled me. I felt the spray speckle my lips and licked its saltiness.
Even when I saw the huge swell rise up in the distance I made no move. I think it was fascination rather than fear that held me frozen. The wave rose higher and higher in front of me until all before me was a wall of water.
I remember the shocking force of it as it struck me; as if liquid had become solid, the tremendous pain as my head hit the rocks and then, nothing.
Even when I saw the huge swell rise up in the distance I made no move. I think it was fascination rather than fear that held me frozen.
Beth and the fisherman saw Sarah leap from the ledge after me, covered limbs outstretched like a sugar glider, not even waiting to take off her coat. By the time they got there she had hold of one of my legs and was madly flapping her entangled arms in an effort to stay afloat.
The fisherman was a strong swimmer and didn't hesitate to dive into the swirling water but the task of bringing in two bodies was impossible for one rescuer. Beth helped to pull the dripping bundle of flesh he had managed to salvage up onto the rocks. The other was gone. It wasn't until two days later that the sea returned Sarah to us.
It was perhaps perverse of me to choose to come back to this place, or so Beth has told me many times, but it's where I feel closest to the sister we lost.
From my home perched on the hill I can watch the waves crash against the concrete walls of the baths and see how the protected water within remains tranquil. It was this reassurance that allowed me to finally return to the ocean. Its silken touch was as familiar as that of a long lost lover.
My body is older now and vanity has almost given way to the contentment found in still being able to do the things I want to do. Each morning I slide into the tamed sea water and let it hold me up. I float along with an occasional kick or two and that is enough.