Janita had brought Oscar up to this clifftop before. He had just about come to her hips then, and he clung to the hem of her parka like a barnacle stuck to a rock.
“Mummy I’m hungry,” he said over and over. They’d left the house in a hurry and she’d forgotten to bring a snack. So, they sat there, empty bellies and legs dangling off the edge. He wrapped his arms around her waist as they watched a distant storm roll across the horizon.
Now it was Janita clinging to him. She clutched his coat a little closer, limp sleeves flapping in the breeze. The sky was broad and black, inky as a panther. The cold brushed through and shivered the gorse under the light of the full moon.
“Are you and daddy fighting because of me?”
No, Oscar, she’d sighed. That’s not it at all. She must have said something more. All she could remember was how the clouds spread over the sky and draped the sea in solemn purple, and that the whole world looked as sunken as the eyelids of an old woman.
Tonight, the thin slither of beach at the base of the cliff glowed like a sneering smile. Janita hadn’t climbed this far down before. She’d never needed to. Lately, the whispers followed her wherever she went. They had driven her to it. She pulled at the prickly branches of a bush growing from the sand. It reminded her of the stranger with wiry black hair in the supermarket who had approached her that day. I took Bernie’s gardening boots down to be washed, the woman whispered to her like a conspirator. The things that came out of that, you wouldn’t believe! He said he missed talking to the potted plants more than me.
At least yours hadn’t wanted to die, Janita replied before realising it wasn’t supposed to come out like that. Sorry, no, I didn’t mean … she trailed off as she always did. The stranger looked at her with droopy eyes and clucked sympathetically. Just be sure to take some crackers with you, honey – or she won’t give you the time of day. With that she turned away from Janita, crossing the aisle to load her basket up with ready meals for one.
Luckily the whispers were quiet tonight, or maybe they were simply drowned out by the sound of the sea rattling over the rocks, gushing and gurgling. Janita ran her fingers over a shock of limestone wall that stretched back into a cave. She could hear steady scrubbing below the mournful breath of the waves. The smell of gutters hung in the air as she followed the wall round, holding on to Oscar’s coat as close to herself as she could.
The moonlight cast an eerie blue glow on the floor of the cave; a patchwork of pale sand and darkly veined pebbles. And there – in the middle – crouched a shrunken woman with hair that hung in clumps like bleached seaweed and limbs as thin and curled as a shrimp in a rock pool. She wore no clothes. The wrinkles and pits of her body writhed as she rubbed her hands up and down a rough mat laid out in front of her.
Excuse me? Sorry to bother you but I need your help, please. The cave walls glistened in the dim light. The woman turned to fix Janita with pale quivering eyes. You won’t find the quiet here. Her voice sounded like froth and the flips of soft fish caught in a fisherman’s net. Even in the darkest water, the krill chatter. Would they stop just because no one cares to listen?
I’m not sure I … I think you can help me. His name was Oscar and … She pulled a block of stale Weetabix from her coat pocket and held it out as if she were trying to entice a creature from the deep. In the end, she hadn’t bought the crackers that morning. She couldn’t stomach the thought of more whispers following her down the high street, knowing her plans. The Weetabix would have to do.
The old woman crept forward. Still crouching, she sniffed one of the limp coat sleeves hanging from Janita’s arms. There’s not much in here but I’ll do it for the bird’s nest. She took the Weetabix and gnawed into it with her dark gums. She gestured for Janita to lay Oscar’s coat over a rough patch of rock that bulged from the floor. Her body stank of rot and trapped moisture. She bent over Oscar’s coat and began to yank at it, her long hair and shrivelled breasts flinging out droplets of seawater.
Janita wanted to tell her to stop because it was going to rip, but her mouth had dried up. Maybe, maybe there really was a bit of him trapped inside those metal eyelets and in between the tartan lining stitched to khaki green, waterproofed and smudged with stains. She tried to focus but her mind kept wandering back to that day, how the rain had battered the windows and turned his room into a nest of brooding shadows.
Then she heard him loud and clear.
“So cold … Mum, it’s so cold and dark here…”
Oscar? Where are you? The rubbing stopped. No, keep going! Didn’t you hear? He’s here! Keep going! Janita stepped forward to grab the coat but the old woman pulled back, the coat spilling out from underneath her like a discarded skin.
No touching when the wash has been done, she said. But this is no good, no good at all. Before Janita could say anything, she had gathered the coat up in her frail arms. She crawled closer to the cave entrance and flung the coat out to sea. The night engulfed it. This is no good at all. If you want to break the quiet, you must bring me a thing which death clings to.
Of course, the old woman was right. Oscar didn’t have his coat the day he came to the clifftop alone. He’d left it behind. He’d also left Janita behind.
She rested one hand on the damp cave wall as the whispers began to wash over her once again.
This story was awarded a merit as part of the Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition 2019.