An Invisible Tide’, Jo Thomas

Illustrations © 2015 Christina Cartwright



Po-Ka

 [ Attempting to play Rugby, © 2015 Christina Cartwright ] Once upon a time, there was a little Welsh boy who was whole of heart and sound of wind. Then the Invisible Tide came and the only thing that remained true about that sentence was the existence of a boy.

Once upon a time, I had a best friend who was my other self and we spent our days in school or attempting to play rugby on the old Morfa Cove quay, sure we’d both grow up to play for Wales. Then the Invisible Tide came and poisoned my lungs, and my friend left to become a Knight, and I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I’d never be good enough.


Lewis

Tall, thin and lined from the elements, Lewis strides into the Ship Inn. Ifor looks up from his newspaper.

“Pint,” Lewis growls in Welsh.

Ifor looks at Lewis and then the handful of others in the bar. He shrugs. Lewis’ money is as good as any other local’s if the man can keep his attitude problem to himself.

“Sure,” says Ifor, also in Welsh.

He handpulls the pint. It’s the sort of thing he used to take pride in before he realised that the pub only had handpull because it couldn’t and never would afford new fittings.

“He’s here,” mutters Lewis and coughs over the bad air on his lungs, “He shouldn’t be here. He’s dead.”

The other patrons look over at mad old Lewis and their hands edge towards their gas masks. They’re thinking of leaving and Ifor’s income will probably leave with them unless Lewis is planning on getting stinking drunk. Or Ifor manages to get the bitter, twisted old man out of there.

Ifor puts the pint carefully in front of Lewis, still trying to decide what to do.

“Four quid,” he says.

Lewis doesn’t bother to argue, pushing a worn five pound note across the bar with one hand as he picks up the glass with the other. He drains half the pint with hurried gulps before pausing, foam moustache on his top lip, to raise the drink.

“A toast! A drink to my son, the greatest Knight that ever lived!”

Ifor raises his eyebrows but says nothing. His other guests fall silent.

“Raise your glasses, you bastards,” Lewis spits.

Ifor has only vague memories of Alan Lewis, a child ten years behind him in primary school who went away to the rugby academy and never came back. The boy never played for the team that put him through school.

Lewis is insistent. “To the greatest rugby player that ever lived! The Lion King! The most capped Welshman! The best Knight!”

The others half-heartedly raise their glasses and Lewis downs the rest of his pint, thumping the empty glass down on the bar so hard it’s a wonder it doesn’t break.

“Another.”


Anna

Even with the breathing apparatus on, Lainey is beautiful. The youthful face, the long, graceful limbs on a long, smoothly muscled body. Her hair is just so, even with being outdoors, her balance unaffected by the sea’s swell, possibly even improved. She is a goddess, even as she stands in the airlock that serves as our laboratory. Every time I look at my wife, I’m surprised by her—and that she stays with mousey little me.

“Okay, Anna?” she asks and the Welsh lilt gives me a pleasant shiver.

She must feel me watching her but she doesn’t turn to look, focussed on the drip, drip, drip as she refines or waters down whatever sample she’s dealing with, preparing it for heating and then, later, testing.

“Fine,” I reply.

I turn back to filling bottles from the Celtic Sea. It’s cloudier than it ought to be, just as it must have been for years. I’d never seen it in person before but, after our first week out sailing on it, I’m almost an old hand at recognising that aerated tap-water look. After a week, I’m still not an old hand at seeing Lainey and thinking “my wife”. But, then, it took me years to grasp that this amazing woman was actually on the same degree course as me so, you know. We’ve been friends since Freshers’ Week, together since our Masters’, and married since we both got our Doctorates.

“The algal bloom is pretty dense here,” I say, not even sure I’m loud enough to be heard. I’m not a big fan of being quiet and away from settlements. I guess I’m a city mouse.

“We’re near where it was first observed,” Lainey says.

“Oh.” I should have realised. I’ve been studying the maps for over a decade now. “Of course. I keep forgetting the spread hasn’t been even north and south of origin.”

“We should probably get south of St David’s to see if it’s getting near to the exclusion boundary.”

“Hmm,” I reply. “At some point.”


Po-Ka

Summer is the time of year when I think of Alan. School exams over, the rugby boys about to go on tour to some far flung corner of the globe, and possibilities around every corner. Except that summer has meant the Invisible Tide, with its creeping gassy death since we were eleven.

“Just think of it, Po-Ka,” he said the year everything broke, “The whole summer ahead of us.”

“I’ll have to help in the shop. Ma says I’m old enough to start doing some of the little chores in the afternoon,” I said.

He shrugged. “Da ’spects me to help on the boat. But we’ll have time. Not legal to work us all day.”

“Really?” I asked. “How do we tell them that?”

Alan laughed. He threw the ball at my face but I was fast enough to catch it and throw it back. We always trusted each other to catch whatever we threw, to be there and be aware.

That’s how I like to think of him, laughing and full of potential—both his and the summer holiday’s.


Lewis

The second pint goes down slower, Lewis lamenting the loss of his son between steady sips.

“He could have been the greatest.”

“He had such skill with the ball.”

“He had everything ahead of him.”

“He could have escaped this life.”

Ifor refrains from pointing out that suicide was an effective escape from life, too.

“Cheap bastard should have shelled out for a memorial service,” another customer mutters as Ifor serves her. “Would at least have given him closure.”

Ifor raises his eyebrows again, this time at the use of pop-psychology in his run-down, sinking Ship.


Anna

Lainey’s still in the lab, the air-lock, and she’s opened the sea-side door again. At least she’s remembered to put on her breathing apparatus. I’ve been in the wheelhouse, plotting out destinations and where we ought to sample over the next few days to get the best spread of results for both my experiment and the fulfilment of the Government contract. I tap on the door between the control room and the air-lock to attract her attention.

She grins at me through the plastiglass. There’s a hand motion, “OK”, and I tap instructions into the control pad.

The air-lock closes and the air is cycled, making sure that all the harmful algal exhaust gasses are cleared from our lab. It’s a full five minutes until the cycle finishes but Lainey takes her breather off, letting the mask hang around her neck, before it’s complete.

“You shouldn’t do that,” are the first words I say, even though I’d told myself I shouldn’t.

She grins at me again. “Thanks for worrying, babe.”

“We’re going back in to the coast after this round of results,” I tell her.

She nods, returning the bulk of her attention to the field analyser. The samples she made up about an hour ago should be about to ding and she’s ready to log the results before starting the next set, the last bottles I filled.

“Anywhere in particular in mind?” she asks.

I feel bad about this busman’s holiday of a honeymoon I’ve dragged her on, although she seems quite happy to be my lab assistant and first mate for the summer.

“I was thinking we’d try Morfa Cove,” I say, stumbling over the Welsh pronunciation. “We can pretend we’re having one of those old style holidays at the beach.”

Lainey looks up and I wonder if I hit too close to home by chance. I’ve read that some people who go through gender reassignment find they have to leave their past behind because their family and old friends can’t accept them. Lainey never speaks about what happened before University, so I assume it was that way for her. I’d never do anything to make her uncomfortable and she didn’t complain about taking this West Wales assignment—

“There used to be a fish and chip shop there, before the Invisible Tide. Might still be there,” she says eventually and I realise that I’ve hit closer to home than I ever could have dreamed. It was the kind of coincidence our new marriage could have done without.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Let’s go somewhere else. Maybe back down to Cardigan?”

She shrugs. “Aberteifi. Morfa Cove. Any of the berths in between. Makes no difference to me. The Invisible Tide has shut so much down, it’s not going to be the way it was.”

I stand silent for a while, wondering if I should have said things differently, before using the hatch to get below deck to the cabin. As soon as the air tight hatch has closed behind me, I look up through the window to see Lainey using the control panel to open the airlock again. My wife is a sea goddess, even when the sea is dying under an algal bloom.


Po-Ka

We—me and Alan and Mr Lewis—first sailed into the Invisible Tide on a grey day when no tourists wanted to be out. This was back when he was still taking tourists to see dolphins and porpoises.

“What’s that?” I asked and pointed at a sliver of silver in grey-green-brown.

Mr Lewis squinted, probably from habit rather than necessity. The sliver was quite near, there was barely any movement and the cloudy day made the shine almost as dull as the sea water.

“Fish belly up,” he said. “You should be able to reach it with the net.”

So I did, or tried, holding on to the landing net handle with both hands. Alan came to hold my legs as I stretched out, without me asking because we always knew these things without asking. I stretched out further, my face above the water.

I coughed, a hacking I-have-something-in-my-throat-cough, and almost dropped the landing net.

“Careful,” Mr Lewis said, as if he were watching and as if the net was precious.

I reached out as far as I could stretch and just barely netted the fish. I couldn’t find enough breath to tell Alan to pull me in. I let go of the net and hurriedly caught at it, grabbing it in my left hand. My right hand came up to my head, almost without me realising, covering the side of my face.

“Po-Ka?” Alan asked.

I was pulled in with panic-roughened hands that grabbed in places that would ordinarily have me laughing at his clumsiness and hitting back.

“Po-Ka?” Alan asked again as I curled over the deck, gasping for breath and coughing as if I’d got the sea caught in my throat.

His father was still watching his fishing rod, staring out at almost nothing.

“Da?” Alan called, “Da, something’s wrong with Po-Ka.”

Mr Lewis humphed. “Poker’s fine. He’s just not man enough to be out on the Bay.” He began to reel his line in. “Calmest day we’ve had this summer and he can’t handle it. Bloody useless.”

My breathing cleared over five or ten minutes but Mr Lewis didn’t seem to notice. It wasn’t mentioned to the authorities and I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents. If they’d been there when it happened, they would have dragged me off to the nearest A&E. As it was, I thought they’d probably ban me from ever seeing Alan again and I couldn’t live with that.

At the time, I didn’t know what it was. A few days later, I thought I’d been the first to suffer the Invisible Tide. In retrospect, almost everyone who went out into the Bay probably ran into it at some point before it was reported to the authorities. It was only reported to the authorities because some tourist made a fuss when out with another boat.


Lewis

“Why?” Lewis asks over his third pint.

Ifor doesn’t know how to answer. He isn’t sure what the question is and he’s just a pub landlord, not a psychiatrist.

“Why?” Lewis asks again. “Why would he throw it all away?”

“Because he didn’t want the life you planned” went unsaid. Mainly because no-one in the bar could think of a better life than being miles away from a dying coastal village waiting for the Invisible Tide and its bad air to strangle the last of them. Even if Alan Lewis had only ever become an amateur player in some fourth division team, he would have been away from here. Perhaps he just couldn’t get far enough away from his father.


Anna

“I think the water’s cloudy right up to the shore,” I say.

Although it isn’t obvious unless you’ve spent years staring at samples and slides that make the fine suspension of almost invisible particles obvious.

I play with my breathing apparatus. Depending on the weather conditions—and today is bright and clear—the gasses from the algal bloom could reach a few miles in land.

“Been that way for years,” Lainey says.

She stares out of the airlock door, currently closed, and her mask hangs against her neck.

I wonder what that meant for child-Lainey, whoever she’d been. The effects of the algal bloom on humans were first identified twenty six years ago, seen in a handful of fisherman and a significant number of tourists who’d come to Cardigan bay to enjoy water sports. Short-term breathing problems with long-term lung scarring and brain damage meant going out in questionable waters had been banned and both industries had totally collapsed—at least around the Celtic Sea.

“We better keep our breathers on,” I say.

Lainey catches my eye as she ties the boat off and smiles. “As you wish.”

She’s humouring me. She must have spent plenty of summers breathing bad air. I want to hug child-Lainey and tell her things get better, even if it isn’t true. On the other hand, now I understand why we found each other on the same marine biology course in the first place and why she works the projects she does.


Po-Ka

Summer holidays in West Wales have never been full of sunshine and outdoor adventure. When rain got too heavy for hanging around in or being on Mr Lewis’s boat, we’d be in the fish and chip shop or in the flat above it. Our favourite was being in the shop when it was closed and before my parents came down to start opening up.

I’d always open with “So what are we playing today?”

“Tag?” asked Alan.

“Not in here,” Ma might snap, if there were customers around.

I’d shake my head. “Nah. How about cops and robbers or knights and outlaws?”

Alan always got me too quickly. No matter how fast my feet moved, he had the reach on me. He was always big for his age and I was always small.

“Only if we’re on the same side,” Alan would say as gravely as an eleven year old can manage.

Sometimes we had to put up with my little sister. “You could be the prince and rescue me.”

She was too young to have a real crush but almost-brother Alan was too big and brave for her to not to favour him.

“I don’t want to be a prince.” Alan never wanted to be a hero. He was happier being a sidekick. “Po-Ka can rescue you.”

“I don’t want to be rescued by Po-Ka. He’s my brother, not my prince,” my sister said every time, and usually that would be the end of it.

But there was one time she stood there looking so close to tears that her fairy wings almost drooped.

“Then Po-Ka can rescue me and you can help,” said Alan.

She giggled. “Princes can’t rescue boys. They can’t marry boys.”

Alan shrugged. “So we won’t get married.”

Alan spent the afternoon wearing my sister’s wings, a tutu and a tiara because “that’s what princesses wear” and my sister became my willing sidekick. We stayed that way until my parents came down to open up the shop.

Ma covered her smile but couldn’t hide her dancing eyes. My father shrugged and ignored us as long as we stayed out of the kitchen.

It was Alan’s old man that ruined it.

Mr Lewis came from a long line of fishermen but they’d long ago given up the trawler work for the cushier job of taking tourists out on the sea in fair weather, with a few rods to pass as entertainment. I guess there was enough money it to keep the business ticking over and make sure the two of them didn’t starve to death. Now the Invisible Tide had come to the attention of the authorities and sailing was banned without breathing apparatus and a permit. It stopped my parents’ supply of fish and Mr Lewis’ supply of tourists so…

Well, let’s just say we had to forge the health certificates.

“Here,” Mr Lewis said, dropping two actual buckets of fish on the kitchen step.

Alan and me and my sister were playing in the shop, out of sight unless when ran past the kitchen door.

“Thank you, Mr Lewis,” my father said in his English accent.

Money must have exchanged hands as it always did.

“Fucking chinks,” said Mr Lewis.

Ma, in the front with us, gave a small gasp.

Alan, flushing red with anger and embarrassment ran for the kitchen door. I ran after him and my sister ran after us both.

“What the fuck is this?” Mr Lewis exploded. “My son in a dress? You and your fucking gay-boy son. Turning my boy into a girl. The sooner he gets away from that little queer, the better.”

I stopped, frozen in horror. “Gets away? Gets away where?”

“You’re not staying here. Get that fucking rubbish off, now.”

Alan stopped and slowly took the wings and the tiara and the tutu off. He folded the clothes neatly and held the pile out to my tearful sister.

“Acting like a girl,” Mr Lewis muttered.

He was already turning away and I wasn’t sure who he was talking about, me or Alan.


Lewis

 [ ‘I damn near killed myself!’ © 2015 Christina Cartwright ] The fourth pint brings anger, gives voice to the bitterness that is obvious as soon as Lewis is sighted.

“I did everything for him,” he rages. “I damn near killed myself going out on the Invisible Tide to bring in fish.”

The pub digests the fact quietly. It wasn’t exactly unknown that Lewis, among others, had broken the ban on fishing in the early days—and continued to ignore the requirement for breathing apparatus, as evidenced by the rasp in his voice—but no-one had ever heard him admit it. Not even when he was so drunk he could barely move. Something unusual is going on.

“I went out every fucking day,” Lewis grinds, banging his fist against the bar. “I went so deep into the Tide I started seeing and hearing things. I almost passed out. I coughed until I bled. How could the ungrateful shit do this to me?”


Anna

The fish and chip shop Lainey mentioned still exists. I’m tempted to ask where they source their fish from but fish caught in the algal bloom aren’t actually a health risk provided they’re cooked. It’s not great living conditions for them, de-oxygenated and cloudy, and they tend to floating belly up but it does the meat no lasting harm.

“How do they survive?” I ask aloud instead.

Lainey shrugs. “Wandering marine biologists, no doubt.”

“I didn’t arrange this,” I say more quietly.

Lainey looks at me.

“Well, you know, not that you’d be here and this would be—”

“It’s okay,” she says and she smiles in a way that wrinkles the skin around her brown eyes and makes my stomach flip. She takes my hand and we walk up to the shop. “I have no idea if it’s any good any more.”

“What did it used to be like?”

She smiles. “Terrible. But it was better than my da’s cooking.”

I laugh, more than I ought but I feel the need to show that I’m relaxed and okay, after my apology. The laugh, though, has unfortunate timing because it makes the man behind the counter look up just as we enter.

“Hello,” he says and then he looks at Lainey.

He really looks, with widening eyes, but we’re used to that because Lainey is the kind of striking Amazon who draws attention, a goddess.

“Hello,” says Lainey and he flinches.

“Sorry,” he says, when he realises we’ve seen it. “You look like someone I used to know.”

There’s a rasp on his voice that makes me wonder if he’s been on the sea too often, or whether the algal gasses come to shore very often. But medicine isn’t my field.

Lainey leans against the counter. “I get that a lot.”

I stifle a laugh. No-one looks like Lainey. Aside from the snoring, she’s damn near perfect and everyone reacts to her accordingly. Well, aside from those who assume that the height and her well-developed muscle are unfeminine but they’re not worth worrying over. They find it physically threatening and the threat they see is usually enough to keep them from bullying.

“What can I get the two of you lovely ladies,” the man behind the counter asks.

“Two fish and chips, please,” Lainey answers.

The door opens again, though, as he’s serving up the fish. He looks up and then his eyes narrow as he looks at Lainey again. He’s wiping his hands on his apron and saying “I’ll just deal with this,” as he walks past me before I can work out what’s going on. “Hello, Mr Lewis.”

“Poker,” a voice says behind me. “I got your fish.”

It rasps with age and drink and smoke, and probably the algal bloom if he’s offering fish, but the medium pitch and accent are reminiscent of Lainey, who stiffens beside me. One of those things that makes you question whether there really is such a thing as coincidence in the world.

“His name is Po-Ka,” Lainey says, “Not ‘Poker’.”


Po-Ka

I can remember the day I actually lost Alan, although I didn’t realise it at the time. Our last game of rugby before the end of the school year, our last game at Infant School. Our school was so small, we could only field a team of boys and girls—just as our opponents did. We were only ever supposed to play touch rugby but that never stopped us leaping into tackle like a pack of eager hounds.

Alan on the rugby pitch was a thing of beauty, even at age eleven. Light on his feet for a big lad, big enough to take a hit that a traditional small winger couldn’t. I hadn’t learned to hate the game, yet, as only someone who’s routinely told they’re not Welsh enough can. That came after our last summer.

There’d been strangers on the side lines and I’d been near enough to hear them talking, once or twice.

“He’s fast and looks like he’ll grow to be a big one,” said one.

“He’s raw,” said another. “Brute strength and ignorance.”

Yet another said, “He could be the best.”

“Not if he throws himself around like that,” from the fourth.

The fifth stayed silent.

Five regions, five representatives. The Knights were our region, their school was an hour away. If a boy was selected by them, they might still come home after school or at weekends. Or so I thought before Alan was sent away as a boarder.

“Da’s sending me to the Knight’s academy,” Alan whispered one afternoon several weeks later. “He’s made enough money to get me in as a boarder. He got a scholarship, too.”

There was nothing I could say to that. Part of me wanted to know why I wasn’t going with him. The other part wanted to demand he stay here. He was my friend, not someone who left.

“I’ll not go,” Alan said.

“Good,” I said. The part that wanted to go with him, that knew I played as well as he did was soothed.

“I’ll not leave you,” he said repeatedly over the remaining weeks of our holiday as summer ticked away.

“Please don’t,” I begged. Not when I should be going, too.

When he stood at the bus stop, clutching a satchel and a battered old suitcase, he told me, “I’ll write. Or call. Or something.”

“Please,” was all I had left to say.


Lewis

“He’s come back,” Lewis says, whispers in a husky voice that holds the wear and tear of countless days and nights fishing on the Invisible Tide.

Ifor watches him through narrowed eyes. Five pints is a bit soon for the old man to be this drunk.

“Like a ghost?” another customer asks.

Lewis looks at them, eyes unfocussed but not, Ifor finally decides, because the old man is drunk. It looks more like shock.

“He’s here,” says Lewis, simply.

He takes a gulping mouthful of beer.

“That sodding abomination has come home when I told him to stay away.”

Another gulp.

“He’d be better off dead.”


Anna

“You!” the man with Po-Ka’s fish spits.

I turn and feel a weird combination of deja vu and dread. The man, twenty or thirty years our senior, looks very like Lainey. Or Lainey looks very like him. But Lainey doesn’t have the lines of bitterness and the narrowed gaze of someone who spent their life staring into a wind. My sea goddess seems to shrink and fade from him.

“I thought I told you never to come back here!” The man adds, getting louder.

He’s not quite shouting, not quite gesturing angrily but the energy is there, ready to be unleashed. I’ve seen the same storm inside when people try to engage her in conversations she doesn’t want, like “why become a woman?” and “so what about that six nations game?”

Lainey shrugs the man’s anger off but I can see she’s closing herself in, trying to get away.

“One of those chance things,” she says lightly.

“This isn’t a good time, Mr Lewis,” Po-Ka says and puts himself between the man and us, “How about you come back in half an hour when I’ve dealt with these customers?”

“This freak and… what? His girlfriend?”

“My wife,” says Lainey.

“Yeah? And how do you keep a wife since you had your balls cut off? What woman is satisfied by a perversion?”

“We’re called lesbians, Mr Lewis,” I say, also stepping between him and Lainey. I have and always will be the more physically aggressive, the one who’s ready to fight if needs must.

Mr Lewis sneers. Lesbians are either also perversions or just need a good dicking. I’ve met his type before. It’s heartbreaking that Lainey comes from someone who could think like that. No wonder she never came back.

“To think I nearly died so you could go away to the Academy,” he spits. “All so you could throw it away and let your woman fight for you. You should be a man, out playing rugby, not… whatever this fucking thing is.”

“Please, Mr Lewis, this isn’t a good time. Come back in half an hour or so,” says Po-Ka and he walks forward, perhaps hoping his slight frame will intimidate the older man.

It clearly doesn’t because the old man sneers and spits over Po-Ka’s shoulder. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of Morfa Cove and never come back.”

I want to shout and scream and threaten like this man is doing but I know it won’t make my point. His mind is too closed for us to win an argument. Lainey and I can leave and never come back, he can think he’s won but we will never have to think of him again.

“We’re just getting our fish and chips and then we’re leaving,” I say evenly.

“Leave and never come back,” he says to the air, as if he daren’t acknowledge either of us. Maybe girl cooties are catching. “And you, Poker Lee, you can forget buying fish off me ever again!”

The old man walked out the door, pausing before the dramatic slam to add, “I always knew you were a queer, Poker, but this… this is fucked up.”

I let out the breath I hadn’t even realised I was holding.

“Are you okay, Lainey?” I ask.

And then I hear her quiet sobs. She’s collapsing against the counter, almost curling up into a foetal position. I hug her and tell her things will be better, even if it isn’t true.

“Lainey?” Po-Ka asks as if he’s tasting the name. He crouches beside us and smiles. “It suits you. Welcome home.”


© 2015, Jo Thomas

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