I have on my mind this woman in a thin grey tracksuit and these words I woke with: at night she goes back into the water.
At night we go back into the water and you do not see us. At night she goes back into the water. He used to wonder where she went, getting up in the middle of the night. He pretended not to know, as though it was just a visit to the bathroom to have a pee or a shower, but he heard the click of the door, soft, as though she didn't want him to know, and he spied her through the window, looked down on her in the small hours, dressed only in her metal-grey tracksuit, her favourite (it feels like my skin). It's good we live near the sea, she said. If we didn't I'd die.
Three a.m. in the dead of winter, barefoot under a full, freezing moon, she slips out of her tracksuit as though shedding an encumbrance, her shoulders shrug themselves free, her hands lift, fingers stretch, as though welcoming in the sky. Soft, bare feet on hard stones, she walks as though made of nothing, as though sticks and stones, sharp edges, make no impression. Live in the real world, you're always somewhere else, what do you do with yourself all day, you look a mess. She slips into the sea as a child slides under warm blankets when it is ready for sleep.
Next morning she is beside him in bed stinking of seaweed, hair stiff with salt water, still damp. I know where you've been, he says.
I am unwilling to take this any further, spend any more words - as though I've touched on a miserly streak: I can't aford it today, too expensive, I'd rather keep my money where it is - safe, buried in the ground, holed up in a bank, getting wrinkled in a drawer, but at least I know where it is. Sealskin. A woman who dresses in a grey tracksuit is missing it (you are wasting your time, before you know it you'll be talking about her periods, the menopause, how it feels when children fly the nest, telling the same old stories, hanging the sealskin on them).
She was just a bit of a freak, someone born without the right skin and it was always missing, like a person who feels they are born into the wrong body, a man who should have been woman, a girl who should have been a boy, a woman who should have been a seal - a trick of nature or something genetic, handed down, slipped out. One day she walks into the sea and never comes back. But that really happened.
She was a cook in the drugs rehab centre where I worked, It's all a game, she said, about having relationships with men and falling in love, you have to treat it as a game. But someone had just thrown her over for someone else and on a bank holiday weekend she took a whole tub full of sleeping pills with her to Eastbourne, walked into the sea and never came back. People said she drowned but I don't know how you would do that, even with all the sleeping pills.
In the same period, an erstwhile flatmate also slipped, but not into the sea. She took a quantity of pills and sat down with her knitting as she always did, her chickpeas soaking in water for tomorow's meal. She was missing her Kenyan lover, thinking he would never come back, feeling herself stranded, fish out of water, missing her skin. A woman who needs a man is like a seal without its skin. A woman who lives with a heartless man is like a seal without its skin. A woman who loses herself in a man is like a woman who walks into the sea.
It is all danger, whichever way you look at it.