The opening of Annie Kirby’s debut novel, The Hollow Sea, published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 18 August 2022
The Woman and the Girl: Monsters
I think of them often, the woman and the girl in the dilapidated fishing boat with a mermaid painted on the deck, fleeing monsters of some kind or another. They would have left at first light, travelling south from Bride Island across the Hollow Sea, a stretch of water treacherous in more ways than one, then east towards the mainland, the greens and greys of the archipelago fading into mist behind them. Ahead, an endless barren sea and the hope of refuge beyond.
They almost made it.
Sometimes, in my imagination, the monster that catches them is a storm, conjured from the early-evening stillness. The woman remains a calm space, a breath-note of silence in the screaming tempest, bone-white knuckles on the wheel, her face lashed by sodden ropes of her own pale hair. Carried up, the fishing boat cresting on the peak of a wave, the woman a statue, focused only on sanctuary, keeping the girl safe. Then, plummeting, her stomach left behind, the boat hurled into a space existing between two monster waves, shattering her last illusions of control. Waves arch together overhead, a temporary shelter.
The girl crouches motionless in the cramped cockpit, dark curls poking out from beneath her rain hat, hands linked around a red satchel slung across her torso. Beneath her raincoat, she is still in her pyjamas. She was supposed to have a cake today, with buttercream and eight candles. She wants to ask the woman if there will be cake when they get to wherever they’re going, but she doesn’t dare. The woman wipes her face with her sleeve, mouths a few jumbled words of comfort to the girl, and the waves crash down on them.
There is an alternative version of their last few moments. It comes to me more and more, in those early sleepless hours. In this imagining, the sea is calm, the air around them quivering with silence, stirred only by the faint chug of the engine and the lapping of waves against the hull, the mainland in the near distance sinking into a twinkling spring dusk. The woman thrums her fingers on the wheel and dances from one foot to the other. She glances at the empty swathe of ocean behind them, squints into the setting sun, shoves a loose strand of hair behind her ear. In this imagining, she has no tender words for the girl, no tender emotions. She is consumed by thoughts of safety, the mainland.
Whatever it is that lurks in the calm – an uncharted rock, a ship, a monster – finds them.
Which of my imagined scenarios is true? Perhaps neither, but in both the woman and the girl go into the water. And when they do, my imaginings merge into one. The sea is freezing. The shock of it forces the air from the woman’s lungs, water closes over her head, rushes in to fill the empty spaces. The islanders had called her witch, but she has no magic to save herself. There is a slow heartbeat of a moment when the woman is bitter and angry and grateful, hollowed out with loss and love. The girl is sinking beside her, their fingertips brushing, and the woman makes one last supreme effort to grab the girl’s wrist and propel her upwards in a flurry of bubbles.
Now the woman is alone beneath the water, and the water is in her. Colours, all the colours. White noise fading into beautiful silence.
Scottie: The Haunted Room
We had a haunted room in our house, pale apple green with stencilled stars and a creaking sash window. We’d never decorated, the green paint and stars left behind by the previous owners when they moved their brood to a larger place. We renovated the rest of the house, steaming off wallpaper, sanding floorboards, smoothing plaster over Artex, but this room we left untouched, even though paint was peeling off the skirting boards and occasionally we would find moth eggs the shape of rice grains in the carpet. Our lack of attention to the room wasn’t a conscious decision, nothing we discussed. Perhaps we were superstitious, worried about jinxing things. Over time, the air in the room had thickened with not-quite-ghosts, will-o’-the-wisps haunting us not from the past but from the future. Our childish superstition started to feel like a bad joke.
I woke in the early hours, a few days before we were due to start preparing for our next frozen embryo transfer, clawing myself up from the mud of a half-remembered dream. Jasminder was lying on his side, facing away from me, a thin strip of space between us, his breaths rattling on the cusp of a snore. I slid out from under the duvet, careful not to wake him, creeping along the stripped-wood floors to our little haunted bedroom across the landing. The blind was up, the room suffused with the amber glow of light pollution from the city and suburbs fanning out around our house. It smelt fusty, with a faint undertone of moth spray. Outside, urban foxes yelped, and the drone of a moped came and went and came again.
I wanted to return to my dream. I had the faint sense, in the few lingering strands I could still grasp, that the not-quite-ghosts who inhabited this room had been in the dream and I’d been able to touch them. I craved that touch, wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything, so I closed the door behind me, curled up on the sofa-bed beneath a dusty throw and closed my eyes. I slowed my breathing, allowed it to deepen, as if I were still asleep, and willed myself to slide back down into the dream. For a moment, I thought I would succeed, sinking down, down, in slow-motion through dark, viscous liquid. There were faces all around me, faces I would have given anything to see clearly, to cup in my hands, to kiss, but then I was snapping awake as dawn glimmered through the open blinds.
‘Bad night?’ Jasminder was standing in the doorway, yawning and sleep-rumpled in his pyjamas.
‘I’m sorry if I woke you.’
He rubbed his fingers across his stubble. ‘I’m on earlies anyway.’ He came and sat beside me, taking my hands. ‘This is going to be the one, Scottie. The one that sticks.’
I shook my head at him, tried to retrieve my hands, but he held on tight.
‘I know,’ he said. He linked his fingers through mine briefly and let go. ‘You look sad.’ He glanced up at the stars on the wall. ‘This bloody room, eh? Try to look forward, not back.’ He touched his index and middle fingers to his lips, then to my forehead, a gesture he had made thousands of times before but never had it made me feel so sad. ‘Try to go out today if you feel up to it. It’s not good for you sitting inside all the time. And can you finish sorting out the house insurance? It runs out soon.’
‘You don’t need to task me. I’m not one of your constables.’
He looked hurt. ‘I’m not tasking you. But this stuff needs to get done so we can focus on the FET.’
I thought about pointing out that his use of the word we wasn’t entirely accurate. It wouldn’t be him having injections and mood swings and hot flushes. It wouldn’t be him having the endometrial lining of his uterus scratched to try to give the embryo a better chance of grabbing on. It wouldn’t be him having transvaginal ultrasounds or inserting progesterone pessaries. But I swallowed my words, knowing they were unfair.
‘I’m perfectly capable of organizing my own day.’
He retreated, knowing he couldn’t win this battle no matter what he said. Moments later, I heard him in the bathroom, humming a little tune as he shaved, and I felt a simultaneous rush of affection and irritation for his knack of moving on from an argument when I would be fuming for hours.
Try to look forward, not back, he had said. But looking forward, conceiving of a future, was exactly what I couldn’t do. I put my hands on my stomach, pressing against the hollow space there, wondering how on earth I could tell him I wasn’t sure if I could face any more fertility treatment.