First love

Evie Wyld's first novel, After the Fire a Still, Small Voice, published by Jonathan Cape, won her the 2009 John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young authors.

With a giant ghost crab hatching in your chest

While visiting your loved one, we encourage you to remain calm and supportive to the patient. Make eye contact and provide encouragement. Don't be afraid to touch the patient.

Coming out of the anaesthetic was like coming out of the sea. I bobbed to the surface and wanted a drink. I could have slept a whole lot more but my parents were there and they wanted me to float. My mother was the colour of salt fish. My father's lips stuck together when he talked, like he hadn't opened his mouth in a while. I closed my eyes but I could feel them still there, leaning towards me like stalking herons. When I opened my eyes again my mother put her hand on my wrist.

At home I unpeeled myself and looked at the incision in the mirror. Horsehair stitches from the base of my throat to the dip under my ribs, like one long black sea urchin.

"You mustn't go taking your dressing off," warned my mother, as she brought up a tray of out-of-season melon. She popped a thermometer in my mouth.

"You let the doctor worry about it. Don't go touching it, will you?" she said, like she'd been watching.

She looked at me and I shook my head a little.

"I'm tired," I said.

"Well then, darling, you must go to sleep."

I nodded, like the idea hadn't occurred to me. My room was cold, but I kept the window open. From not that far away I could hear the sea, rustling like leaves.

In a traditional type of incision, strong sternal wires are used to close the breastbone. The chest is then closed with special internal or traditional external stitches.

From my window I could see the beach stretching away around the northernmost point of the island. I pulled my blankets around me and sat up in bed, to learn to draw. I tried drawing the sea first, but there was no way of starting. I couldn't fit it all in, and when I looked hard, there seemed to be nothing there to draw. I filled a page with grey, and it looked like a grey page.

I drew my own fingers for a while, and then my feet – tried to do a drawing of my feet a day, but I got bored. My incision grew tight if I thought too hard about other parts of my body. I swallowed the pills my mother brought me and sometimes dozed with my eyes half open. A few weeks passed and I got out of bed and then walked up and down the stairs. Soon enough I was back in school: first half a day then a whole one. On what was supposed to be my first full week back, I put my head on the desk and held my shirt front, as if I was holding my skin together. The teacher sent me home in case my heart exploded out of me. I went to the beach and looked for cowrie shells, giving up after a thimble's worth. I left them in a small mound by the water's edge and took my shoes off. I stood in my blue woollen school tights that lumped over my pressure bandages. Standing in the wet sand, my feet and then my legs felt like nothing, just a trunk that attached me to the ground. One seagull flew above me, against the wind, not moving forward or backward, or making any noise. The seagull pointed out to sea and I looked too. The horizon was a flat, endless line, and the ribbons on my school hat flapped in the wind. I felt a thing in my chest throb like it wanted to come out.

If your sternum feels like it moves, pops or cracks when you move around, call your doctor.

On an afternoon when the sky was thick with brown clouds, I left school again and went to the beach. There was no one else there, no birds, just the muffle of snow falling on sand. The wind skimmed pale yellow scum onto the new white of the shore. I wrote my name with a stick, punctuated it with a dead gannet that was frozen into the shape of a zigzag. I could feel the pinch on my chest where my skin was tight from the stitches. I moved my shoulders from side to side just to feel everything pull.

When I saw him for the first time I thought Roderick was a seal. The dark shine of his wetsuit tumbling in the white horses. He stopped at the shoreline and unhooked his flippers, doing a little dance to show how cold it was. It made me smile. I stood by my oily gannet and watched him approach. He came towards me, drawing his mask up so it sat on top of his head and showed a small pink face and the top of a large beard. He spat and then wiped his mouth neatly with the back of his wrist.

"Afternoon," he called, still approaching.

I nodded and waited until he was close enough that I didn't have to raise my voice.

"What were you doing? It must be freezing in there."

"Having a little swim," he said. He pulled the beard free of his suit.

He looked at my name and gannet.

"Is that your gannet?" he asked.

"Not particularly," I said.

"Mind if I...?" He pointed at it and I shrugged my shoulders, not sure what he meant. He picked up the bird and shook the new snow off it.

"Great," he said.

I said, "Aren't your feet cold?"

He said, "Yes. How about you? Funny weather to be out in a shirt."

It became my routine: sitting through registration and then leaving to go and breathe in the sea wind. Often I would see Roderick and we would talk for a while about what had washed up that day. I looked forward to seeing him. He never mentioned that I should have been at school.

I was pawing through the lunch my mother had packed me, a mixture of millet, grated carrot and leaf greens, and Roderick was collecting things out on the rocks, putting smelly urchins and bleached-out plastic bottles into a string bag. I left the food in the sand and used my lunchbox to help him. He held out a hand with a small white crab shell on it. It nearly blew away, and he shut his hand suddenly to keep it there.

"Ghost crab," he said. "Every time you think you see something out the corner of your eye, it turns out to be a ghost crab." He opened his palm and this time let the shell be carried away on the wind.

I emptied my box of ring pulls and fishing line into his bag.

"Excellent." He shook them to the bottom of the sack. He bent down to wiggle an old glove free from where it was lodged in a crack, and as he came back up he made a noise like the glove was heavy, a breathy hack in his throat.

"How long have you lived here?" I asked him.

"A while." Sea spray dampened the hem of my skirt. An oystercatcher landed not far from us and watched beadily.

"I never saw you before."

"I only tend to come out in winter or after dark – beachgoers."

"I don't often come to the beach. I'm not much of a one for it."

"I'd say you were a one for it."

I pressed my lips together, picked up a blue plastic bottle and handed it to him.

"Beauty," he said.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



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