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Summer stories: The Lion’s Mane

A middle-aged writer on holiday with his younger wife has more than the threat of jellyfish troubling him

The horizon was a line of serious writing, from the outcrop over on the left to the righthand headland where the breakers were pouring intermittent pails of whitewash on the rocks. Where he lay was too far away to hear the tear and impact of the breakers on the rocks. It was the last day of August, already replete with feelings of things coming to an ending. Fewer families on the beach. The lifeguards packing up their gear.

Over the summer, Ray Church had been venturing out further and further into and beyond the surf line; through the breakers. Such temerity was not just due to the lifeguards being on duty should he find himself severely out of his depth and them there to save him. When he eventually got back on shore, his legs and arms would judder from the exertion. He had stumbled once in the shallows, like an old-fashioned farceur caught with his pants down.

Linda Church shaded her eyes with her hand and observed him coming up the beach.

-You went out very far, she remarked, having warned him not to kick sand onto the blanket.


He had done so because of the lifeguards.

Ray spread a towel. He lowered himself, in his fifties now and careful not to strain or pull something by just plumping down as he would have done in more carefree and athletic times.

-Might be the last swim of the season, he gave as a reason.

-And, she checked, - Jellyfish?

Recent blooms of Lion’s Mane jellyfish had been appearing in the local press and on local beaches. As a result, people could be seen wading warily in the shallows.

-Some, he allowed. – But you could swim around them, though.

She considered this proposition a moment. Then she said:

-You don’t normally go out so far.

-I do sometimes, he insisted.

He had done so because he had seen the lifeguards looking. He wanted to flex his muscles; demonstrate to them how well he could brave the waves.

– Anyway, as I said: it felt like a final swim.

-No need to sound so dramatic, she retorted.

Ray Church looked off down the beach. Less crowded. Fewer and fewer sunbathers, merrymakers, windbreakers, hurlers, picnickers, screaming children, admonishing mothers. Abandoned sandcastles. A season’s end. More room for the sanderlings, little ball-bearing birds, to skate in and out of the surf. The tide pulling away, leaving the sand flat and blank and mirrorlike.

-I was just worried, she decided to add.

He had done so because he had seen the lifeguards - young and vigorous, GAA players no doubt, male and female - looking. At her. With their sparkling, bright eyes, and hi-tech binoculars. His younger wife.

-No need to worry about me, he assured her.

He had said much the same thing to his editor that very morning. She had phoned and wanted to know when he would be back in the city. And how the screenplay was going.

-I’m unwriting, he had informed her.

The moment’s silence sounded like a deep sigh from the other end.

-’Unwriting’, Angela tried the term on for size. – Is that a doing word?

-Most certainly it’s a doing word, he insisted.

Another pause. Cogs meshing. Thoughts rotating. Then:

-Is everything alright? How’s Linda?

-Everything’s fine, he replied. -Linda’s fine.

-Remember: the production company really liked the pitch.

-I remember, he assured her.

-Well then. Just write it. What did you tell them? ‘It’s about capturing the miracle of the mundane.’

-The ‘everyday’, he corrected her, - ‘the miracle of the everyday’; though ‘mundane’ is actually better.

-Why, thank you, she replied.

Ray knew she was trying to be supportive. A motivator. An agent. Sometimes he even considered her a friend. So, he gave her an ounce of assurance.

-Don’t worry. Unwriting’s good. It’s definitely a doing word.

For a while, after the conversation, he had sat on at the kitchen table in the rented cottage and mused. He thought of Angela and reflected how she often figured among the women he could sometimes find himself wondering about.

The shore roar brought Ray back to where he was on the sunny beach, beside his wife. The sun was still strong, for the last day of August, and he would have to apply some suncream shortly. For the moment, he sat and let the heat dry him off.

-Aren’t you going in? He thought to ask.


He looked around. Linda had replaced her headphones, had resumed listening to her audiobook. Only, he corrected himself, it was more probably a podcast. He hadn’t spoken very loudly so she would not have heard him. Anyway, with the prospect of jellyfish, he judged, she was unlikely to go swimming today.

And why shouldn’t the lifeguards look at her? And all those others as well, the surfer dudes in the local bars, the young women too? His wife was an actress after all. That past month alone, she had been back in Belfast for two auditions. He had stayed on in the cottage trying to write a part for her in his screenplay.

Some days it seemed that all the fools were winning.

Although, when Ray Church would first wake, it was the morning that fooled him once more with hope, and the sense that the writing sap was rising within him again. He got up and with an instant coffee went and fired up the laptop. He clicked open the latest version of the screenplay and looked eagerly at the most recent pages. He poised his fingers over the keyboard, breathed deeply and just as he was about to pick up the thread of narrative, the screenplay rebelled and refused to be written. It assailed him again with its obvious artifice. On another day, he would have been flooded with the felicity of invention.

But not on days like these.

He looked up again at the beach screech of some seabird further along the strand and shaded his eyes to see better in the sun’s glare. After a while, he returned his gaze to his wife, lying on the blanket beside him. He thought that she had fallen asleep although he could not see her eyes hidden behind those designer sunglasses she had persuaded him to buy for her in St Jean de Luz, the previous year. He remembered the Jai Alai game they had attended there. Linda had never heard of the sport; but he remembered her enjoying turning heads as they took their seats above the cancha. Had he not enjoyed the attention too?

He leaned over and placed the back of his hand on her thigh, exposed as it was by the one-piece bathing suit. Linda flinched at the sudden contact of his hand and lifted her head.

-You’re burning, he explained.

She propped herself up on an elbow, removed one of the padded earcups and said:


-Have you sun lotion on? he apologised.

Taking the headphones off completely, she reached around for her voluminous beach bag.

-Probably could do with some more on, she admitted, rummaging.

-Here, he offered his hand. -I’ll put it on for you.

She was easing globs of factor 30 into the palm of her hand.

-You can do my back in a minute, she told him, smearing vigorously face, forearms and thighs.

In the meantime, Ray reached for his own factor 50. He had a solar lentigo on his forehead and, according to the dermatologist, needed it removed. A slight incision, the consultant had assured him; almost like a little nip and tuck to your forehead, he had joked. At home, Ray had googled the term and was not well pleased to learn the condition was also know as ‘old age spot’ or, worse again, ‘senile freckle’. The dermatologist had obviously not used such terms. And Ray Church certainly didn’t reveal them to Linda.

Looking out to sea, a sudden paparazzi of sunlight flashed off the waves and quite dazzled him, and he thought of going in again. This prompted him to repeat his earlier question.

-Aren’t you going in?

She looked up and frowned out to sea.

-There wasn’t that many, he said, reading her mind.

-Yes, but you can see them with your goggles, she countered. I’d just blunder into one and get stung.

Linda was a good swimmer, but she did not like getting her hair wet.

-I’ll go in with you, he offered, - and guide you.

Linda looked at him. And for what seemed like the first time for a very long time, the couple smiled at one another.

-My hero, she said and patted him on the arm.

This left a smear of factor 30 there and he rubbed it in.

-Maybe in a wee while, she relented. -Plus, I’ve just put this stuff on.

She rolled then onto her stomach and requested that he do the backs of her legs and thighs.

-And, she warned, - no messing about when you’re doing it. I know what you’re like.

-Spoilsport, he complained. -You’re no fun anymore.

And for a moment, there it was: that inlet along the coast between Colliourre and Port-Vendres.

Then, he added:

-Remember. The tide’s going out.

-Give me another half-hour and I’ll decide then, she replied.

There were times that summer when Ray could simply slide into the sea with the ease of slipping on some loose and free flowing garment. Then there were times when it was akin to shucking on something tight and resistant, as with the under armour he wore in the winter when running in the city. Over the course of the summer, he came to realise this variability was not all connected to the temperature of the water. Some other circumstance ruled the ease or otherwise with which he entered the sea.

And so, with their suncream applied, they lay side by side on the sand, within touching distance, late summer; all the time, quietly, almost imperceptibly, unseaming.

-Know what I read the other day? In the paper. He remarked.

Linda had not donned again the headphones.


-That reading increases your longevity.

Linda took no time at all with a comeback.

-Well then. You’ll live forever.

He looked around as if to gauge the tone of this comment and decided that it was soft. There was no jutting, cutting shard or sliver lodged in the middle of her remark. And then he thought: when did you become so delicate? Since when had reading become a crime? But she hadn’t suggested it was. Not this time, lying in the sun on the warm beach.

Loosened veils of sand blew across his legs and he sat up. The apparition of a ship appeared on and then passed lazily along the horizon. That line of urgent writing he tried to read. He watched a large cloud course across the sand in a cooling, rising wind. There was a full gamut of greens in the sea, running into blue it seemed and then turquoise further out. He removed his sunglasses to be sure of these colours. And green too the hilly headlands on either side; great, grassy biceps of land, embracing the strand. There were ball stone walls drizzled up and down the green slopes; men attempting to tame the land. He suddenly thought of Linda’s green eyes, the minuscule golden flecks inlaid there.

The waves below them were hushing now, not pushing, losing their force. They lulled in ever lazier rolls of water, finally fraying, white and lacelike, on the sand. But his gaze returned to Linda, lying there.

A penny for your thoughts, he thought. That was a phrase from the earliest stages of their relationship, that heady beginning of courtship. Now, suddenly, he was rather fearful of what thoughts she might be having.

The wind ruffled the grey-green Mohican haircuts of marram grass that were attempting to bind and stabilise the otherwise eroding dunescape at their backs. Far out, a sea fret was beginning to smudge the perspective, the ink beginning to run in that urgent, bottom line of writing. The sea becoming mixed up with the sky.

And Ray Church was suddenly given quite the start, for, out of the blue, as if on some impulse or other, Linda had leapt to her feet. Snapping fabric at thighs and buttocks, she kicked off her Birkenstock beach sandals, fixed the sunglasses on her head like a hairband and set off down the beach. She did not ask him to accompany her. So that he almost stood up himself.

-Don’t go!

He had actually raised his voice. What with the wind and all.

And it stopped Linda in her tracks. She turned around and stared at him.

-What are you saying? She at length asked him. She even came back up the beach a little.

He stared back at her. Wide-eyed. But his words were ringing now in his own ears like a plea; an appeal, and after a moment he said:

-The jellyfish. A Lion’s Mane sting can really hurt.

-I’ll see them, she informed him. -And I’ll swim around them.

Then she turned away and went off into the sea. And he sat there and saw how absolutely empty the beach was now and how too the lifeguards had already shuttered up and left their station.

How it wasn’t even August anymore.

Peter Hollywood lives and works in Belfast. His most recent collection of short stories, The Welcome Centre, was published in January by Arlen House.