A polecat has come to stay. The ferrety foul-smelling thing is crouching below the settee. Looks like my mother no longer limits herself to strays – our door’s wide open to wild creatures now too. I was greeted by a war dance on arrival home from school, frizzy hops sideways around the living room. She wants to play, my mother cooed. The internet says it’s to confuse prey. I don’t know who to believe.
My father has taken to the shed, as expected. Last night there was lightning and he ran laps of the garden in his suit, whooping. His clients must be getting to him. It takes a lot to act normal all day. I checked on him an hour ago. Scrunched in a deckchair with the Echo and a tub of cockles, vinegared and white peppered. He seems extra chipper this evening.
At some point I’ll have to put my foot down. They set a bad example. I caught my little brother digging out the cat carrier earlier. He’d seen a one-year-old duck for sale, 15 quid on Gumtree, ready for pick-up in the Docks. Bargain, telling you, he yelled from the attic. I rerouted him with Dairy Milk. They keep me on my toes. A big walk usually does the trick, but we’ve skirted those since – what to call it? – since the episode. The episode at Pentrebyth.
I can feel them gearing up to something. My mother’s just begun emptying the dishwasher. Unasked, for God’s sake. I watch from the doorway while she dries the base of each mug with a grubby tea-towel. Even the polecat pauses, sensing the untoward. My father reappears with the moonlight, spilling coal dust and red wine, here to build a roaring fire. The four of us cwtch as the irreverent flames melt tension. I yawn and let myself doze.
We were traipsing through the dunes when it happened. The sky was bucketing down, the wind howling. We were the only fools out there. My father was scouring for treasure to add to his haul. Art, he calls it. A heap of wreckage, squirming and swelling in our hall. Deep beneath the surface is an ancient gnarl of wood he once pinched from a skip, hammering in a layer of netting to hang his collectibles. These include a sheep skull, a broken anchor, and a fast-fading tin of Fisherman’s Friend mints.
As I was saying, we were in the thick of the dunes when it happened. The sand was whirling and scrubbing our cheeks. My mother was idling in the Big Dipper, barefoot, doodling sand spirals and stars with a twig, her fringe plastered to her forehead. As a family we set no store by umbrellas. They’re for the weak of heart (oven gloves and slippers are likewise scorned.)
So, where was I, we were milling by the dunes when it happened. The tide was out and the beach lay bare, drowsing in dusk. I was photographing seaweed when my brother yelped. I dashed across, the other two in my wake. He pointed to a rockpool. We’re not alone, he said.
My father laughed, What's this song and dance about, eh? He strolled over to the crater then declared, Not so much as a common periwinkle. We pottered back to our pursuits. My brother stayed. I’ll admit his outburst unnerved me. I looked back and, from a distance, I could have sworn his lips were moving.
That polecat has it in for me. I’ve taken refuge in my bedroom. Besides, I need to revise for the Welsh oral. I clamp on headphones and open my book, queasy. There’s a contrite feeling I get around the mother tongue that was deprived of the means to raise me, like I’m to blame for the strain. Its fragile fluttering soundscapes, pilipala wings, tickle my belly when we meet. I wish it weren’t this way.
I’m underlining the poem I’ll recite when I feel a draught. My brother flops onto the bed. I lean back from the desk and let my biro fall to the floor. He studies the ceiling, writing in the air with one leg. His thoughts rattle most in these halfway hours when shadows are long, when we can’t be alone. He picks the skin around his thumbnail.
Can you not, I say, That’s my pillow.
Mum’s named the polecat. He rolls onto his side to see my reaction. Ida.
I grimace. Bet Ida already misses the woods.
He toys with the edge of the duvet. I twirl my ring, spinning its stone back and forth.
Talking of missing homes, he ventures, I looked it up, there was a village there. By the dunes.
Serious, the authorities decommissioned it. It was set to drown.
But where did everyone go?
He shrugs. God knows. Scattered, I suppose. But get this: not everyone left.
Shut up. I close my book and go to sit cross-legged on the bed.
An old guy refused to become a, he folds his fingers into quotes, “refugee”. No one knows what then.
How'd you learn all this?
Google. They tried to hush it up, but I found an interview.
That’s mad. I reach for my phone and scroll my seaweed photos. You’d never guess.
I know right.
I keep my eyes onscreen. So what was with your freak-out?
After a moment I look up. He’s inspecting his right thumb. I say nothing.
I saw the guy. His expression isn’t kidding. A reflection, he adds, in the water. Looked like his photo from the interview.
I place my phone face-down. You don’t seem all that worried.
Well, he wasn’t scary. But the weirdest thing is… He trails off.
Weirder than seeing an old guy’s face in a rockpool?
Thing is, he looked like Dad. Only… scragglier.
I return to my chair and swivel slowly. Questions swirl in my mind. The queasiness has gone up a notch, but he mustn’t see I’m flustered. It’s not my role. I’ve never made time to consider if I believe in ghosts, or visions, or whatever he’s sharing. I retrieve the pen and add this musing to my to-do list. He’s silent as I draw a box next to it, ready to be ticked.
My brother’s slipped out to get the duck. I thought it best to overlook this one. Albus, as he’s called, will sleep in the shed. My father is, well, upset. Blasting the Manics and ranting about the prospect of feathers in his socks. Yes, clothes are bound to return worse from the tumble-drier. The polecat’s keeping a low profile, nibbling an apple on the rug. Seen by no-one, seeing everyone. Smart.
I’ve been thinking. My verdict on the episode? Can’t rule out the supernatural – ignorant at best, arrogant at worst. My brother hasn’t mentioned it since, so I’ve drafted some queries for the old guy: why didn’t you go? what’s your goal? what can we do? Keep it broad. Let him say what he has to say.
My research has been taking me everywhere and nowhere. I learned Pentrebyth saw a thousand residents dispersed, homes and shops dismantled, a community expired. Eerier still, it wasn’t the first to disappear.
I’ve been indoors slightly more than usual. The quiet has revived some disused memories. Take this, a scene that’s come back to me: I’m sat with my paints while Auntie Eira deadheads plants and hums nonconformist hymns. Her porch always had a Babylonian look, knotty vines, dense hanging baskets, that sort of thing. Her white plait loops from one ear to the other, where a frail silver chain trickles from rim to lobe. She might have been sixty, eighty. I’m small.
A presenter breaks our reverie with a news report. Eira frowns and turns up the radio. Her grip loosens, tipping soil onto my sketchbook. Her eyes drip, I sit still. She goes to the bathroom. Four hymns pass before she returns and takes my arm. We walk the Taff’s banks, where magic cascades from the thermal spring. Shrouded in stone, this well has never run dry. She watches me splosh my wellies in the sacred rain, leaking from cracks in the bedrock. Millennia ago, it fell on the Beacons and coursed below our coalfields. Water’s not to blame, Eira whispers, but those who play God in their games with it.
Eira had grown up in another of the drowned towns, that one we do recall. Cofiwch Trerioed. I guess I was there when she heard her childhood home would be gone. Do we remember this loss so closely that we dismember from the present? We look back and, while our heads are turned, we miss what else is at stake. It wasn’t my teachers who taught me the way history coils, stubbornly recoiling from change. There’s a stubbornness that creeps down our DNA.
For instance: my father’s father’s table is an altar to routine. Over there, on their lulling island, they know tide times like they know their palms. The order of service is exact: same seats, same meals, same niceties. 7am biscuits with tea, 8am cornflakes, 12pm corned beef toasties, 6pm meat and boiled veg with mince pies. At the last mouthful, the men retreat to their crossword. Those who stay are subject to the smallest of talk over PG Tips in floral cups. It’s how it is, was, might always be.
I raise my mother’s low spirits as my father and I run by the lake. Out this early we’re dragons, breathing hot air against frost. Ah if she gets her daps on, comes out for a few jogs, he wheezes, she’ll be right as rain.
I nod. My father’s the kind of person who believes in waterfalls as a cure for all sorts, what with the negative ions. We break to look for avocets. They’re elsewhere, so we watch swans to get our breath back.
You know what the Romans wrote about them? he murmurs, sunrise in his eyes.
I shake my head, roll my ankles. Your laces, I sigh.
He kneels. Swans were thought to find their voice only at the brink of death. Sad thing to think, isn’t it?
I mull it over. Like how a bee dies after stinging, a swan dies after singing?
Doubt there’s much truth in it, he says, But the idea of a swan song lived on, eh?
One floats towards us, rippling the amber surface. He clears his throat. I jump. Here goes our last lap.
My father is frying kippers. Their tangy scent punctures the taut air. Match day. The city will tremble with the anthem, tra mor yn fur, while the sea’s a wall. How long is that, after all?
Match days are when he best performs his vanishing acts. There are ways that we three could pretend to spend the hours, but really we wait. Sometime in dawn’s half-light his key will scrape the lock. We won’t have slept, sheets soaked in toss-turned dread. He’ll stumble a while on the steps, spitfiring hot words. We’ll wonder where he’s been. It’ll go unsaid.
What I do want to know is who my brother thinks he saw. I get up from my desk and stretch. What am I waiting for? The mirror watches, forlorn, as I pull back my hair. I tear out my page of questions and march into his room. He looks up from his phone.
I’m driving to the dunes, coming?
His brow furrows. Right now?
Yup, no time like—
Give me two seconds.
I lean against his heater while he puts on a fleece. He turns. Should we tell—
I tilt my head. They won’t even notice.
The roads are deserted. We’re here in no time. A wet day, the kind of drizzle that soaks the skin. What might I say to him? I’m rehearsing wordlessly when suddenly the rockpools are there, looming, more cavernous than before. He nudges me. Wanna go ahead? he asks.
Okay, I say. It’s slippery underfoot. I take slow steps, a big breath, then lower my gaze.
A face slaps the water. Traces of my father, sure, but it’s not him. I wait a moment, two, three, then swallow what I feel. I just see me, I shrug, Your go.
I hand him the questions, Ask these.
His thumb smears blood on the page as he reads. I wander down to where the sand meets the sea. Those coastal headstones are no place for me. I wade in the shallows, videoing the gulls.
I pretend not to see him leave until he’s alongside me. Oh, all done? I ask.
My thoughts whirr, searching for what to say as we head back to the car. Our phones ping with the match score. We settle on that. Soon we’re at the peak of the dunes. Clammy, I roll up my sleeves. My clothes are bone-dry. I turn to the greying sea. So did you ask?
He didn’t answer any of them. We discussed the weather.
Yeah, you know. Like how wet it’s been. Nice weather for ducks, he said.
I glance at my brother’s damp cheeks and nudge him. Fair enough, I reply.
I can’t deny my father is fading faster and faster. At first, just the tail-end of quiet nights on our mangey settee. Later, across days, nights, weeks.
Somehow the two of us are due to meet for lunch in a members’ club. We don’t belong. It’s a strange game he’s begun. I forget how we’re supposed to win. I run my finger down the guestbook. His absence fills the lobby. The clock sneers as I pace the crimson corridors. I wonder what we can do but count down to the inevitable.
At some point he falls from a taxi, hastily noosing his polka-dot tie. We’re seated. He orders oysters, of all things. Slosh-bodied and bloodshot, he topples our world down his throat. Six times, to be precise. And with that final briny flourish I know there’s little time left to try.
His glazed eyes slip past me. He splutters and sinks into his chair. I know within half an hour he’ll be barely there. Perhaps it’s already too late. I couldn’t keep him safe. I go to the toilets, rinse my cheeks. I catch the waiter clearing the echoing why of a hurried wine glass. Still standing, I pour water from the jug, Here. I pat his hand and reach for my bag. In theory, he’s paying. In reality, it’s on me. Checkmate, he could’ve said. I never speak to him again.
Life becomes less melancholy. I decide to read more Welsh poetry. My teacher gives me a card when school ends. Ti wedi croesi’r bont, she writes, you’ve crossed the bridge.
I learn that estrangement can bring a curious kind of sadness. With death, it’s more sorrow by numbers – set occasions and conversations, you know. Not secret tears streaming as if by choice, in bathrooms or on pillows. Even so, I continue to build fires and fry kippers. Reliving it brings peace, eases the grief. Can I help that he remains in my habits, in my beliefs? He’s in the orders I place at cafés and the books I pick to read. Inheritance isn’t all or nothing.
I’m perched at the end of the pier. These days it’s legless, pressed tight by the tide. A clear dawn. Behind me the trees ashore sway, slender, surrendering to the breeze.
On my way I passed a man in the gutter, all crumpled collar and cufflinks. Scratching his beard, rootless and matted. Cargo pants torn at the knee, dried blood on the grimy fabric. I only knew it was him from the missing person appeal on my feed. All around him was treasure and wreckage.
And me, here with the lullaby sea. Salt that can burn and heal. In school they teach that water can’t hold memories. No, we float, the mourning weightless in the waves. If they erased all trace of human existence, as they say, why can I feel ghosts at my feet? Tonight I’ll wake to birdsong, by which I mean the brink.
Sophie Margretta is a Welsh writer living in the North of England. By day, she works on climate action. By night, she focuses on her longer fiction. She recently completed her goal to read writing by women from every country in the world.