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The Sea Thief

An unexpected welcome

By Laura JeffreyPublished 3 years ago 7 min read
The Sea Thief
Photo by Kristaps Ungurs on Unsplash

She was 43 when she became a hardened criminal in the eyes of her two boys, on a hot, still night, in the middle of a Great British heatwave. It had been too hot since their holiday started, and she was sick of Derick telling her that soon it would break as if the weather were a glass tank and they were trapped inside of it. Perhaps, if they had been trapped there alone things would have turned out differently, but with Owen and Jake there too she felt that there was no air left to breathe. Mummy I want, Mummy I need… and then they would be running off to play with Daddy who was cooler and funnier and more interesting than she could ever hope to be.

Derick was snoring, one armed splayed dramatically across the top of her pillow, when she slipped out of bed. She glanced back at him just as a glob of saliva began to pool at the corner of his mouth. Part of her wanted to pull the boys out of bed and shout, ‘Look he’s human too: he dribbles and farts and worries about his excessive body hair. How can you worship him like some kind of god?’. Instead, she sighed and padded to the window. She opened a gap in the curtains. The bay was surprisingly bright, lit by the clear sky and a string of multicoloured lights which wrapped around the harbour like a cheap, glass bead necklace. Beyond, just visible at the edge of the sea and sky, there was a boat, its white sails hoisted; she tracked it as it moved across the mouth of the bay and wondered what it would feel like to still be going somewhere.

As she silently pulled on her clothes, she told herself that she was just going to step out and find somewhere for a drink to help her sleep, but looking back she had to admit that she knew that everywhere would be closed. They were staying in a drowsy Cornish village, filled with well-fed, well-rested pensioners and exhausted young families; the idea that a bar would be open at 3am was laughable.

She would later swear to Derick, that none of what happened was her plan, rather she walked, without thinking, down to the silent beach and along the line of small, yellow sailing school boats dragged up high on the shingle out of the reach of the tide. On a previous holiday, before kids and varicose veins and her creeping anxiety, she and Derick had taken a few sailing lessons together. This holiday though, Derick had hired an instructor for him and the boys, and she had stayed on the shore, clothed in sensible white linen like a giant landlocked sail.

‘Your hat,’ she had yelled at Owen, as he ran down the shingle, his sunhat falling, ignored, behind him.

He had turned and grinned. ‘I don’t need one. I’m a sea thief.’

‘Well little boys do need sun hats.’ Her voice had been unintentionally sharp. ‘And, it’s pirate, not sea thief.’

‘You’re so boring,’ Owen had said, sticking his tongue out for extra effect.

‘You’re boring, boring, boring,’ Jake had repeated from somewhere down by her knees where he was squatting in the sand.

If the boys’ words had stung; Derick’s silence had been worse. When the boys were distracted by the arrival of the instructor, she had pulled him to one side and hissed: ‘Why didn’t you say anything? Why do you always let them talk to me like that?’. She had hated how tired and worn out she had sounded. Derick had sighed. ‘It’s a holiday, OK? Just let us have our fun.’

Now, down on the beach in the hot, still night, she ran her hand along the end of one of the small sailing boats, and the idea, she would later say, came to her all at once. It was almost effortless to untie one of the boats and then pull it into the shallows on its metal trolley. Holding the string at the front of the boat, she pushed the yellow plastic hull away from the trolley and it bobbed gently in the shallows like an oversized bath toy. She unfurled the sail from the mast and clipped it onto the other end of the… was it the boot? the boom? the bot? Whatever it was, it was as easy as pegging out laundry. She moved her hands to the side of the boat and waded out with it, until the cold water lapped at the edge of her shorts.

She paused with one leg over the side of the boat, staring out at the calm harbour and the inky sea beyond. The air seemed fresher already, and, despite herself, she felt more alive than she had done for years. She made herself breathe in and acknowledge that what she was doing was madness. She even imagined hypothetical derogatory headlines in an attempt to dissuade herself: ‘Middle-aged woman cracks in the heat’; ‘Mother of two breaks before the weather does’. She tried to focus on what others would say, but all she could hear was Jake’s voice: boring, boring, boring…

*

For a while, she felt competent and vaguely smug at how much she had remembered from that holiday all those years ago when she was still tanned and young and exciting. There was a slight offshore wind, more of a breeze really, that took the boat easily but gently towards where she had seen the white sails earlier that night. There was no need to tac or jibe (she was proud of remembering these phrases for turning), rather she carried on in a straight line, the sail flung out wide like a bedsheet drying in the wind.

If the sea in the bay was calm, she was even calmer. Somehow, being out there reminded her of what it had felt like to have a job. It was hard at first to think what stealing a boat had in common with being a lawyer. Perhaps though, she thought, as the wind took her further out, it was the sense of deciding to do something and making it happen, of thinking fast and acting faster. It made her crave that old pace of life. Perhaps too, if she went back to work the boys would welcome her like they did Derick: the building excitement as soon as it turned five o'clock; the fanfare of whooping and cheering as soon as his keys turned in the lock.

All this she thought, while looking aimlessly ahead, not paying attention, so it seemed to her as if the sea changed, swiftly, decisively, like a toddler turning from smiles to tantrums. The wind seemed suddenly to come from all directions. The sail which had been still began to flap, and then swing wildly from port to starboard, threatening to capsize the small boat. The prow rose up on a wave and then crashed back on the other side. She crouched down on the deck, clinging to the slippery plastic, wondering why she hadn’t decided to prove her point in some other way.

She could feel her phone pressing into her upper thigh, but how could she ring Derick when only hours ago he had told her, lying in bed in just his boxers, that things weren't the same anymore. The excitement had gone. The -- he had paused, dredging his mind for the right word -- the 'va-va-voom' had disappeared from their relationship. Anger at the thought of this word gave her spirit. She struggled to grab the main sheet and control the sail. She pulled on the rope until it was taught. A gust of wind caught the sail, and she was shooting off again, skimming over the waves now, but skimming away from the string of harbour lights. Out ahead, she saw the white sailing boat, and she prayed that someone other than her husband might be there to help her.

For a second, poised at the top of a wave she thought that she would make it, but then the wind roared. The sail dipped towards the surface of the water; the side of the boat she was sat on seesawed up into the air. She lent backwards, trying to balance the weight. The rope strained to get away from her like a child pulling out of her hand. There was another gust, and the rope dragged through her palms, flaying the skin. For the second time she clung helplessly to the plastic deck, only this time she cried.

*

The coastguard, in an orange and white rescue boat, towed her and her stolen boat back to shore. She sat on the deck, her legs huddled to her chest. She wanted to cry on the shoulder of one of her rescuers and say I only did it because I felt so lost and so scared, and if everyone you loved thought you were dull and boring, wouldn't you want to do something to prove them wrong? Maybe, maybe would you go a little crazy?

As they approached the shore, she saw that the beach was even busier than it had been in the day: a police car, a few early morning joggers looking on; some more members of the coast guard; Derick and the boys, wrapped in their dressing gowns. As she got closer, she could hear Owen and Jake shouting, screaming, wailing even. They were panicked, frenzied. Derick, flustered, was trying to calm them down.

The sound of their screams cut through her. She chastised herself more strongly than before, what kind of mother could put her children through such a thing? They would be traumatised no doubt. Perhaps she would even have to speak to their school, preemptively explain why there might be a deterioration in their behaviour, or a worsening of their grades. God, she would rather bore them every day than cause them this pain.

It was only as she got closer and the sound of the waves quietened that she realised she had been wrong about something. She stood up, holding onto the mast and stepping forwards on the prow to hear more clearly. In response, the boys’ screams grew louder. Only they weren’t screaming; they were cheering and chanting and punching the air:

‘Sea thief, sea thief, sea thief, sea thief.’

immediate family

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    Laura JeffreyWritten by Laura Jeffrey

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