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Flotsam and Jetsam
Joanna Garbutt

When Carl picks up their sons, she tries to look attractive, or at least as if she is not bothered by his presence or absence. It has been just under a year since he left, and Kat is still drip feeding the information to family and friends. It is crazy, she’d say to them, I didn’t see it coming. Though she thinks that perhaps she had.

‘I really appreciate how mature we can be about this,’ he says, lurking on the doorstep. Then he screws his face up slightly. ‘Sorry. I just mean. I don’t want it to be a slanging match every time I collect them.’

The boys are already in his car, their heads down, tablets out. Probably making the most of the Wi-Fi signal before it cuts out as Carl drives away. She feels a sudden burst of affection watching them, like how it was when they were young and all she had wanted to do was take naps with them, smell their hair, find fascination in her own ability not to be repulsed by their bad breath as they blew milky, sour air over her face while they slept.

‘When did we ever have a slanging match?’ Kat asks. She wonders now if they should have been having them.

He looks past her into the house. ‘True.’ And he takes a deep breath as if he is going to say something more. He often lingers. He always seems to want to say more or have her say something before he will finally give up and drive away. She always wonders if he wants her to lie prostrate on the floor and beg him to stay, grab his feet, weep.

 

The day is long and Kat uses it badly. It should be her time to focus on herself but instead she oscillates between half-hearted attempts at cleaning and eating junk food. She can’t seem to make a decision what is most profitable. Whatever the videos on her YouTube feed tell her, doing nothing does not feel like self-love, wellness or self-care or anything. It is when her anxieties seem to go on a feeding frenzy.

Eventually, when the overly sweet smell of the washing up gets too much, she puts on her dirty trainers that have fraying holes which always let in the rain, and leaves for a walk along the beach. The boys will be back in three hours and the washing up can wait.

It is not that busy at the beach. Apart from the usual dog walkers, there are a few parents who sit and watch bleary-eyed as toddlers eat sand and play with litter. She remembers doing something similar with the boys, breastfeeding on a rock while the eldest collected discarded fizzy drink bottles.

Then there are more scattered individuals, who walk slowly as they scowl down at the sand, scrutinising it, as if reading a book that they find annoying. Kat watches one who comes up to where she is sitting on the rocks. At first sight, Kat assumes the woman is much older but is surprised to see she is probably only a few years older than herself.

‘Have you lost something?’ Kat asks.

The woman looks up; slightly green hair Kat notices now. A keen swimmer, though obviously preferring her water heated and chlorinated. ‘No, no. I heard there’d been another wreck, that’s all. Only a couple of days ago, but something might have come up on the shore by now. You never know. The wind’s been strong.’

Kat thinks for a moment. ‘I remember. It was a container ship, wasn’t it? Delivering…’

The woman looks at her for a moment, as if she might have said too much but then she relaxes. ‘Lots of stuff. But the thing I remember is, you know those toys where the heads are much bigger than the body, and they kind of…’ And the woman sways her head from side to side as if it is on a spring. ‘Sometimes, they make limited editions with the designs of cartoon characters or superheroes. Shit like that. I think they would probably float, if no water got into them. I was hoping to find a few of them here. There’s usually something.’

Kat remembers those toys. The boys have a couple somewhere. She remembers a Buzz Lightyear one. Her eldest had received it as a present when her and Carl had taken him and his school friends to the bowling alley for a birthday party. She’d had to organise the party and sweated about it for a solid two weeks beforehand, being so out of practice with any social gathering because of Covid. Kat had felt strangely cheated when it had all gone to plan and angry that all her worry had been for nothing.

‘Have you found any?’ Kat asks.

The woman shakes her head. ‘I wonder if I’m a bit early but I wanted to look before everyone was down here.’

 

‘Shall I help you? I mean, I don’t know where to look.’

The woman assesses Kat for a moment. ‘It’s okay. You just look where other people don’t. Being observant is the key.’

Kat smiles briefly at the woman, and they start walking in parallel, roughly two or three metres apart, looking up and down. She notices now that the woman carries a stick and prods at the sand. They continue for a while, both silent, so eventually all Kat can hear are the waves and the gradually reducing volume of the people behind them, the hum of an ice cream van set up and ready for business. The sand is interesting enough to look at on its own. No single grain seems to be the same colour, and it shimmers in the sunlight, though there is a chill that day.

It is a while, Kat is unsure how long, till she spots something. Initially she thinks it is a muscle shell, the dark blue part battered off, leaving only the white and silver of the inner shell. But she looks closer and it is bigger than that she realises, so pulls at it and feels a deep burst inside her when she realises that she is right. As she pulls, she feels her heart hammering in her chest as the small plastic doll emerges. She raises her hand up to look at her treasure in the sun, and feels herself grinning.

‘I found one!’ she says, as if it is a golden ticket.

The woman runs over and looks. The doll is half recognisable, though Kat wouldn’t have been able to say exactly which character the doll is based on. Definitely Disney. Probably a new film. They will struggle to sell them all if the film tanks, or is forgettable, and maybe it is just Kat’s age but a lot of them seem forgettable to her. It is disappointing how quickly the initial excitement fades.

‘They’ll be all the same type and design, I guess,’ Kat says. She passes it over to the woman.

‘I don’t know,’ the woman replies looking at it in her own hand. ‘You can never be sure.’

‘Where will you put it?’ Kat asks.

‘You don’t want it?’

Kat shakes her head. The last thing she needs in her house is more cheap plastic toys.

‘Just on a shelf at home. My daughter used to come with me to look for stuff that washed up. Then she’d keep them in her room for a while. Now I just put everything I collect on a shelf.’

‘Is she too old for it now?’ Kat asks.

‘No,’ the woman says, looking down at the small plastic figure. ‘She died.’

‘Oh,’ Kat says, quickly. ‘I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.’

The woman shakes her head. ‘Leukaemia.’ She looks out over the shore. ‘I like doing this though. I pretend that I can talk to her about it when I get back home. I’m collecting stuff for her really.’

Kat feels the cold now and hugs herself.

The boys are ten minutes late that afternoon, and when Carl drops them off, they are all laughing at an ongoing joke between them. Kat feels downhearted for a moment, realising they had been happy enough without her, till her youngest comes in. He doesn’t rush forward to hug her but there is such a glowing love in the way he looks at her that she almost cries. As it is, she remembers it for years afterwards, holding on to the memory of his face at that moment. She clings to it as if it was a precious jewel.

 

Lying in bed that night, listening to the sea, she wonders how many of those plastic toys would wash up, face down in the sand and illuminated by the moonlight. How many of them would be found and taken away, and how many might sink without a trace, polluting the ocean floor, remaining there for decades, hundreds of years. All with large smiles and enormous eyes, bright and shiny.    

 

Joanna Garbutt is an author, editor and researcher. Recent publications include short stories broadcast on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and published in Literary Mama, Porridge, Aayo, Wensum and in anthologies. She was longlisted in the 2022 Bridport Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award. She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics where her area of research concerns the language of police interviews with suspects.

My personal website address is www.joannagarbutt.co.uk

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