Adrift, a short story by Julie London at
Unreal Airtist



written by: Julie London


Sally has come alone to the sleepy shore. She knows it is against the rules, but something in the air is whispering her name. She imagines the Sirens of the ancient mariners have her in their sights, enticing her, drawing her to the mere. The lake is calling to her.

In the early light, the charcoal sky reminds her of slate, brittle and harsh. In the cool of the morning, the breeze carries with it the first chill of autumn. Soon the season will be changing, the daytime is growing shorter as each night steals back the minutes.

The lake has always been here. Some say it is prehistoric, that dinosaurs came to the water’s edge to drink. Sally thinks this is a bit far-fetched, although on a haunting dawn like this, it is easy enough to imagine it being true. The scene is always atmospheric, occasionally bright and ethereal, often sombre, but constantly unpredictable.

The mere is nestled in the bleak and rugged hills of the Dark Peak. The light can vary from glowering to glowing, it can change the colour of the clouds from pewter grey to stormy yellow. The distant moors can be a summer green or an autumn gold. In the early part of the year, they can even be winter white with ice and snow. The view is never the same twice.

Sally had lain in bed, alone, tossing and turning, unable to find peace. Sleep eluded her bursting brain. The missing chaos of a teenager, is painful. The absence of noise is deafening. An empty house is difficult. Often, she wanders the rooms looking for clothes to wash and ways to keep busy. It is too still in the family home. Sally crept from her bed looking for relief. She wanted the silence of the waterhole and the call of the wild. It made her leave the house and do something she knew was wrong.

Sally usually comes with mermaids. When her best friend Deirdre suggested starting an open water swimming group, Sally was very keen. They were so naïve on their inaugural swim. Sally often thinks back to driving home after, hardly able to feel her hands and barely able to talk. They have grown comfortable with being cold. Weather doesn’t stop them coming; they will swim in the sun, the rain and even the snow.

They jokingly call themselves “The Mermaids of the High Peak.” For over a year they had been coming here regularly to swim. Their numbers had swelled through the summer months. Sometimes only two would swim, other times there could be six or seven, but the rule was you never went in unaccompanied.

Alone in the first hours of the autumn equinox, Sally is breaking the protocol. The other Mermaids are all home asleep, unaware of Sally’s movements; she is secretive. As she sheds her outdoor clothes she leaves behind the stress and constraints of daily life. The air on her skin feels spiritual and heavenly, if a little fresh.

So, she finds herself wading out into the mere. Her senses are heightened, and she feels incredibly alert. Everything at this moment is about her sense of touch. The iciness, the wet, and the prickle of the moisture on her skin. Every inch of her body has the sensation of being stabbed by a thousand needles. The chill seeps into her very being. It is extinguishing the heat from her very core. Sally acknowledges this impression; soon it will pass, and she will become accustomed to the cold.

The ripples surge around her calves, over her hips and up to her tummy. She leans into the surface and sweeps her limbs out and round, below the skin of the waves. As Sally watches her arms, the stroke is almost like praying. It is hypnotic. Sally is very composed and calm. Sally rolls over onto her back, the weight of the water lifts and cocoons her, letting her float. Sally embraces this feeling. Tranquility envelops her. In this instant, she reaches a very peaceful breath. Solace is erasing her troubled thoughts. Her breathing is deep and relaxed. The waters are healing her pain.


In the still of this late summer morning, the lake is unusually quiet. She is alone with nature. Weightless on her back she studies the patterns of the constellations. Stars are like humans, they too are born, they live and then they die. In the lightening sky, they are beginning to fade from the darkness. Her beloved Archie is somewhere above, he is watching over her. Archie whispers through the heavenly sky, “Somewhere between the stars I am waiting here for you.” It is mysterious and magical.

She swims because of loss. When she is floating in the frigid lake, the icy pain replaces the ache which fills her everyday life. When her grief is most intense, or when she is having a ‘bad day,’ being in the lake becomes her remedy. She believes if she can do this, she can do anything. It gives her a chance to re-set. It brings her inner peace. Water is her healing place. It soothes and restores her. She loves its caress; it calms her and cures her. Water is her sanctuary.

No mother should lose a child. Sally always believed the one thing which would be impossible to survive, is the loss of a child. She is right. The person she was is gone; a shadow takes her place. Today Sally is an illusion, only those who study her very closely, will see the truth.

Her husband has found solace elsewhere. He doesn’t turn to her for comfort. This has cut her deeply. Every morning he dresses in his uniform of a business suit, puts on his mask and goes into the office. He is pretending to be normal, and that life is good, but inside he is screaming. As soon as is socially acceptable he pours himself the first drink of the day. This is how he copes. He thinks nobody has noticed, but they have. He comes home late, not always from the office. He too is finding a quiet house daunting.

Sally doesn’t know how to help him, she is too busy drowning in her own distress, her own guilt. They have become like two boats, each lost from its own mooring, adrift in an ocean of sorrow and unable to find their way back to shore.

Sally’s grief is like water, it ebbs, and flows in a tide of heartache and pain. Her sorrow is deep like a loch or a bottomless abyss. Her misery tastes lonely and cold. A second of joy is bitter-sweet; after the sensation of delight guilt leaves an intense stabbing, like the icy depths. With no warning, some days her pain will feel sharp. The expression ‘time heals’ is a myth; the ache may become softer over time, and gentler, but bereavement will last as long as love does, forever.

At the beginning, when Archie died, everyone shared her suffering. But now their lives have moved on, whilst Sally is still stuck in this place of darkness. Her pain is still so fresh. Soon it will be two years since Archie passed. Two empty years filled with heartache and pain. Sometimes the world is moving so fast and all she wants is to stop the clocks and silence the phones.

The toughest hurt is that Sally never had the chance to say goodbye. It was all so sudden and unexpected; one minute Archie was there, and then he was gone. There was no warning illness, no call to his hospital bedside. Just an abrupt, sharp ending. She wishes she could have one more day, one more hour to hug him, to say goodbye and to tell him just how much she loves him, before he leaves her.

Sally sleeps more than she used to. Whilst she naps, she is free from the pain every minute brings. She can dream of Archie. In her visions he is alive and well. He is full of colour and life, laughing and playing. When she wakes, just for a moment she believes she imagined the passing of Archie, that he is studying in the bedroom next door. Then the stark reality hits her, and this nightmare is genuine. Then she rolls over and tries to close the world out.

To deal with her grief, it is simpler for her to shut away her emotions into a chest, to box it up and seal it tight. Some days when Sally is feeling brave, she pries it open, scarcely a crack, to inspect the fragments inside. This is no treasure chest; it is a Pandora’s box containing all manner of misery and emotional curses.

Sally is buckling under the weight of this suffering. It would be so easy to simply let go, to stop. To close her eyes, here and now. To find the relief which eluded her at home.

What is the point?

Sally is not by character selfish; she is more concerned for the needs of others than herself. That is what wives and mothers do, look after the family before themselves. They are selfless, often to the detriment of their own well-being.

But Sally isn’t only a mother. She is a wife. She slows and thinks about what she is doing. What would this do to Mike? She is a grandmother to Esme. I want to see her grow into a young woman. A stepmother to Racheal, who as a teenager experienced so much loss. I can’t put her through that again. An auntie to Freya, her brother’s individual and quirky daughter. A cousin to Robert and Sophie. Her father’s cousins actually, her oldest living blood relatives. So, as she lies on her back, drifting aimlessly, she thinks of all the people in her life whom she has loved and who love her. She opens her eyes and looks up into the heavens. Sorry Archie, not yet!

She rolls over onto her tummy. There lying on the surface, just in arms reach is a white feather. She reaches out and grasps it with all her strength. ‘Thank you.’ She sighs.

The numbing cold, seeps into her bones, and she clasps the warmth of the feather desperately in her fist. She strikes out towards the bank in her strong confident front crawl, knowing she is tough enough for what lies ahead. She is not alone.

Latest posts by Julie London (see all)