Shadow On The Water

A white sailing ship Pic: Rex/Shutterstock


The sea is in Gwyneth’s blood – but is the mysterious boat all in her mind?

“It’s the light playing tricks,” Sam said. “There’s nothing there, Nan. I’ve looked.”

Gwyneth stared at his face. As if she didn’t know this place like she knew the secrets of her own heart.

The way the sky met the sea in a blur of blue; the curve of the mountains embracing the cove. She knew exactly how many steps it took to reach the shore from the cottage gate, could name every flower that bloomed wild of its own accord on the path that snaked dizzily down the hill toward it.

“Aye,” she said, “the light.”

Yet she’d seen it. A boat, glistening white, beyond the old no-longer-used harbour wall, its mast whipped by the breeze, yet still – anchored.

You can’t stay here. Not with winter coming

“Come and stay with us for a while, Nan,” Sam said, his face softening into a smile. He paused, rubbed his jaw. “You can’t stay here. Not with winter coming.”

Gwyneth felt the snag of pain in her chest. So that’s what Sam’s sudden visit was about. He’d always been a worrier.

“I’m fine here, Sam,” she said. “Been here all my days, don’t see any point in changing things.” She sat up straighter, showing him how strong she was. “I’ll make us some more tea, shall I?” she suggested, levering herself up from the chair.

“I’ll do it.” Sam was already on his feet.

She lowered herself back, wishing she hadn’t mentioned the sailboat. Sam probably thought her mad as well as too old to take care of herself.

She’d seen it every day for a week. Majestic against the backdrop of unbroken blue – beautiful like a painting, it was. She’d stood on the headland trying to discern if there were people on deck. Wondering if it was part of some film-making venture, she longed to make her way down to the beach to wave, as she would as a child. She hadn’t felt too good, lately, though; had felt the ache of loneliness. She didn’t want Sam to know that.

He came back from the kitchen with the tea. He’d forgotten to take the cups to rinse but Gwyneth didn’t mind. She sat forward, busied herself with the job of pouring, focusing in case her hands betrayed her as they sometimes did; dropping things, spilling things.

She was doing it a lot lately. Maybe it was the over-concern about the boat.

It was unusual. The way it was there, shimmering in the morning light, then gone, then back again as the sun began to set. Maybe that’s why Sam couldn’t see it. He’d looked out at the wrong time.

Or maybe it was some trick of the light… her old eyes deceiving her.

“So about coming to stay with us for a while, Nan?” Sam said, returning to the same old subject he always returned to when he visited. “You wouldn’t have to stay forever if you didn’t want to.” He coughed.

Gwyneth glanced at the coals burning down in the grate. Forever was a strange word, one she associated with loss and heartache.

“Not got a view of the sea, Sam,” she said. “Or the curve and sweep of mountains, nor a path sprinkled with nature’s blessings that I’ve trod since I learned to toddle on my own two feet.”

“No. But you would be safer there.”

“You’d worry less?” asked Gwyneth.

“I would…” He glanced toward the window. “Especially now you’ve started seeing things that aren’t there, Nan.”

Gwyneth saw how much it pained him to say it. The furrowed brow, the way his eyes crinkled.

He’d been a good lad, Sam. She reckoned he’d have made for the big city and the better paying jobs if he hadn’t wanted to stay near.

I understand how much you love this place, Nan

“Leaving was hard for me, too. I understand how much you love this place, Nan,” he said.

Gwyneth watched the memory of him as a child as it danced across her mind. The boy was always running and climbing. He found a way to smile again, as did she. There’d been no chore in caring for him. He’d filled her days with unexpected light after the tragedy.

Later she’d seen him staring out to sea just as she always had. Wondering, she imagined, if loved ones lost could ever return; his mother, his father and grandad, gone in a flash storm. Everyone said he was too young to understand or remember but it wasn’t true.

There’d been no sailing since the accident. They’d put out the buoys as warnings. That’s why seeing the boat had surprised her. Why she’d told Sam.

She wished she hadn’t now. It had made him worry, made him ask her to go back with him to the town.

Gwyneth had never liked the town – always too much going on with everyone scurrying back and forth, petrol fumes and the constant buzz of noise.

She knew Sam and his wife and little family were happier here at the cottage, too. There wasn’t much space inside, but plenty outside. She’d seen to it that it would be all theirs. She’d planned to tell him when Christmas came, but there was never any time like the present.

“I’d like you to have a look at something for me, Sam,” she said. “Just to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”

She pulled herself up, went over to the bureau and collected a large envelope.

“Here,” she said. “I’d like to think that despite our heartaches, we’ve shared a lot of happiness here. I don’t want to find myself in some fancy home for old folk and having to sell this place to keep me there. So it’s all yours, Sam…” She saw the look on his face and faltered.

“But Nan,” he protested. “You don’t need to be thinking about things like that. You’re not that old. I –”

Gwyneth laughed. “I do, and I am, Sam. You know it. Why else would you be making the long trek over here so often when you’ve a job and a family?”

“Nan,” Sam said as he stood up and put his arms around her. “Thank you.”

Gwyneth felt his warmth, his strength just as she hoped he’d felt hers all those years ago when fate had snatched so much away from them forever.

“Will you read it for me?” she asked. “It’s all official, but just so you know what’s what.”

“I’ll do that, Nan,” he said.

The wave of grief would have taken me too, had it not been for you

She touched his cheek. “You saved my life all those years ago, Sam,” she said. “The wave of grief would have taken me too, had it not been for you.”

“Nan,” he said. “You saved mine, too.”

She saw his eyes shining, a mirror of the tears in her own.

“Well,” she said. “You have a look at the papers and I’ll just have my evening stroll. See if that imaginary boat is back.” She laughed as she slipped out of the door. Sam did too.

Once she saw it, she needed to know for sure. Her feet feeling strangely light, the way they used to as a girl, she made her way down the path to the sweep of sand and the soft, welcoming wind from the brushstroke of sea beyond.

With the sun dipping down towards the horizon, the boat looked illuminated by light – ablaze. The flow of sail as it moved towards her, making her move faster, excitement flooding her veins when she saw the faces of the loved ones she thought had gone, smiling and waving from the deck.

She kicked off her shoes, ready for the journey, but Sam was already beside her; his face flushed with the running.

“Nan.” He clasped her hand. “There’s no boat.” He slipped an arm around her.

She saw the swing of the sail in the distance as she leaned into the warmth of his shoulder, and felt suddenly stronger than she had for a long time.

“Maybe I will come and stay for a little while, Sam,” she said, knowing it wouldn’t be forever – while knowing in her heart that love always was.

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Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me