Photograph by Phil Fisk, Story by Lydia Ruffles
It’s not shingle; it’s honeycomb. The sea can’t stop licking it. Delicious. Each time the tide recedes it takes a trace of honey on its greedy tongue. That’s how it gets its creamy yellow tint.
That’s what he tells his girls anyway.
He stares at the water and tells himself that today is the day he’ll be brave. It never is.
The fish are sugar-drunk, crashed out on the seabed, bundled up in bubbly seaweed. That’s why you can’t see them, why there’s no more fishing here.
The girls like that one.
“Very funny, Daddy.”
The name on his work pass says Tomo but they call him Daddy. Jen is older now, almost seven, so sometimes she says Dad. Nessie has picked up ‘Papa’ from the French TV stations that reach them here.
Daddy. Dad. Papa.
He shares these names with many other men but that doesn’t make them any less special. They’re the first words he hears when he gets home each evening.
Jen knows Daddy works at the power plant, “just like Homer Simpson.” The babysitter let slip. He’s explained the spent fuel isn’t radioactive snot like in the cartoons but she doesn’t much care.
Nessie thinks Daddy is a beekeeper or, sometimes, an astronaut, depending on what tale he tells at bedtime and how much of his uniform he describes.
“Storytime, Daddy,” whispers Jen. She always calls him Daddy when she’s sleepy.
“How are the bees, papa?” asks Nessie.
They all like the one about how he and the bees trust each other now. How Daddy wears his protective suit because it’s familiar to the bees but doesn’t really need to. They aren’t dangerous. They’re light-footed and furry and would talk to you if your ears were small enough to listen. He shows the girls how he keeps his hands still so the bees can explore his nails, his ragged cuticles.
“What about your gloves?”
“Don’t need ‘em.”
Tonight, his veins are raised by the heat - vasodilation, he remembers that from school. He explains that the bees use them like bridges, trotting along them up to his sealed cuffs.
He pads his fingers over Jen and Nessie’s shoulders, tickling and tapping behind their ears, buzzing his face right up against theirs.
“Then what?’ they shriek.
He’s supposed to be winding them down for sleep so he can heat up his dinner.
“Then they get back to their honey.”
He moves to the window. A routine police patrol sweeps past.
“Check the beach, Daddy.”
Sometimes the girls hear gossip at school. It translates into shapes and shadows outside the bungalow at night. Once they saw a film crew setting up at dawn but had to go to school before any excitement kicked off.
If something actually was to go wrong at the plant, it wouldn’t make much difference that they’re on its doorstep. But Tomo understands fear; he’s scared of the sea. A dread planted by his own father, which the girls are starting to sense in him.
Tonight, past the decaying boats and the garden with the rare flowers, the girls imagine a silver scribble glowing up and down the coast. A leak from Daddy’s work, spilling out under the empty sky.
There’s nothing to see.
“It’s just the ocean having a party.”
“Drunk fish,” they remember.
When the plant is decommissioned, Jen will be old enough to drive. Too old for stories. The law will say Nessie can have sex if she wants to. Tomo hopes she won’t.
Their beds look too big for them. He can tell from the way their dark hair is tangled across the pillows that it’ll be knotty tomorrow.
He’s tired, always tired. All his energy is spent showing the girls not to be afraid, not to let the world get in their way. Sometimes when he lets go in dreams, he’s visited by insects. They disappear into the walls and whisper like the sea.
Tomorrow is the day.
When he makes his daughters’ beds in the morning, he watches through the window as they wait for the school bus. One brave and small, the other braver, smaller still.
Today is the day.
After work, Tomo leaves his boots at the top of the beach. The tide is going out but he doesn’t trust it. He rolls up the legs of his butter-coloured suit, yanking the Teflon so his knees are exposed. It’s been a long time since they’ve seen the light of day.
It’s not shingle; it’s honeycomb. It’s not the sea; it’s something else. That’s what he tells the girls, that’s what he tells himself.
In a million moons, all that nectar will be sucked away. The beach will taste of salt and nothing. Tomo breathes right down to the bottom of his lungs and steps over the syrup-filled lattice into the swirl.
The current pulls his ankles, small stones tumble over his feet. He wades through his fear, his father’s fear. The sea wraps itself around his thighs. There are no witnesses except the birds, who don’t know how famous they are or that people travel from miles around to look for them.
Eyes closed, Tomo listens to the lapping and sloshing and his clamoring heart.
“I’m waterproof,” he tells the wind, letting the sea welcome him in up to his waist.
All that matters is that the water is soft and sweet and safe. Warm honey and milk splashing on his face.
He walks home barefoot. Suit sopping all over the beach and the road; next time he’ll swim without it.
One lighthouse glows, the other is dark.
Today was the day. He can’t wait to tell his girls.
They’re already in bed when he drip, drip, drips into their room.
“Papa. Eww, you’re getting me all wet.”
Giggles. A kiss on the cheek for them both. Dry salt on his lips.
Their voices sound the same in the dark.
“You smell like chips and sushi, daddy.”
“And drunk fish.”
Lydia Ruffles’ second book, Colour Me In, was published this summer by Hodder. Reviews compared it with The Catcher in the Rye and the film Lost in Translation. Her debut novel, The Taste of Blue Light, was called ‘a gripping Bell Jar-type narrative’ by the FT and ‘dark and affecting … truly unforgettable’ by Heat magazine. A reformed corporate PR, Lydia also writes and speaks on creativity, mental health, synaesthesia, and migraine for media ranging from the Sunday Times to the Guardianand Wellcome Collection to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @lydiaruffles
Phil Fisk is a portrait photographer and film maker represented by Flock @weareflock @philfisk