High Tide Copyright © 2010 Ann Summerville
Outside Lowenna Antiques, water rushed through the street like an angry dragon pummeling shop fronts and searching for places to conquer. Inside, two gray-haired ladies stood side by side peering over a window display of lavender chintz tea pots and rose-colored quilts. They watched the tide as it continued to rise, cascading over the harbor wall and forming a river that gushed through the village.
From behind the shop counter, Giovanna Matthews (known as Gia to her friends) observed the two older ladies, their gesticulations no different from children with new toys. Along with the storm came dampness and oppression as if the rain filled clouds that blocked the afternoon sun were pushing down, trapping them between the waters swirling outside and the storm above. Across the street she could see a wall of sandbags stacked waist high in front of the shops. If the sandbags held, thought Gia, if the tide receded quickly, if the river didn’t overflow, their shop would be spared. But regardless of the outcome, the responsibility would be on her shoulders, not those of her two childlike friends.
Gia removed the phone receiver from its cradle, and reassured there was still a dial tone, placed it back. Her hand hovered over the telephone, puzzled that it was working. She lifted it again slowly, shook her head, docked it and opened the cash register drawer.
Rose Lanner, the taller lady clothed in a blue floral-print dress, flinched when sea spray slammed the window. She turned toward the counter, her bright blue eyes contrasting dull unruly hair.
“Gia,” Rose said, crossing her arms in front of an ample waist. “I don’t know why you’re standing at the till. It’s not as if anyone can even get in the shop.”
Gia closed the drawer and straightened a squeaky rack of anchor-shaped key rings. She looked over at the two ladies then glanced at three mops by the door - their shaggy heads not unlike Rose’s hair.
Suddenly, wind whistled through ill fitting window frames. Although Lowenna Antiques would soon celebrate its first anniversary, only the shelves and paint were new. In inclement weather, the old shop, which had stood by the harbor for years, showed its age.
Rose shivered. “Should we leave do you think?” Her smile waned, her eyes darted toward the back door.
“We need to be here in case the water gets over those sandbags and seeps in.” Gia inspected the floor for puddles. “If this weather keeps up, we won’t be taking much money this week,” said Gia, her sharp London accent contrasting the soft extended consonants of her west country friends.
She blinked. Her hazel eyes lit an otherwise pale face interrupted by a smattering of freckles across a small nose. Auburn shoulder length hair was pulled behind her ears, but they did little to anchor the waves and curls. She rolled up the sleeves of her denim shirt and glanced around the room as if seeing it for the first time. Except for the glass display case under a cash register, the shop was not unlike many parlors found in local cottages. A pine Welsh dresser displayed blue and white plates, cups, saucers and bowls. Lace tablecloths spilled from open drawers, bric-a-brac filled wall shelves. A small round oak table sat in the middle for entertaining customers with cups of tea and homemade cakes. Along with Rose’s husband, Paul Lanner, they had filled sandbags and stacked them outside the shop, but if water seeped in it could ruin everything. She gasped when another wave crested in the temporary river. There wasn’t much they could do now, but watch and hope.
Susan Brea, a petite woman in her sixties, stepped down from a stool and limited her view through the shop window. Her graying bun bounced when her tiny feet hit the wooden floor. They made little sound in white Reebok tennis shoes.
“The customers can get in through the back door, same as we did. Thank goodness this side of the street is higher. It’s exciting.” As her head bobbed, part of the knot teetering on top unraveled and a wispy tendril escaped. “We only get high tides every hundred years or so. Probably won’t see another in our lifetime.”
Rose shook her head and sighed. “We had one back in ’75.” She straightened her floral print dress with the palm of her hand. “Didn’t do much, but leave a soggy mess behind. The tide will be going out soon.” She looked at her watch. “Must have crested by now.”
Susan frowned. “Was it this high in ’75? It’s the full moon that causes it - gravitational pull. Spring tides are produced by the sun and moon being in alignment you know.”
Gia nodded. “The moon was bright last night. At least it was before the storm hit.”
Susan continued. “When the moon is full it causes a magnetic—”
“You’ve been on that internet again, haven’t you?” Rose placed her hands squarely on her hips causing the hem of her full dress to rise. “www nonsense.” She mumbled and turned toward Gia.
“Did you leave your dogs inside?” Rose asked.
Gia nodded. “They’re probably huddled up in front of the fireplace.” She turned back toward the window. “Look, there’s a lifeboat!”
“In the street?” Susan stepped back onto the stool. “Who would have thought it was deep enough for that?”
“Another hour or so and the tide will be going out.” Gia’s body slumped, not unlike the soggy flag blowing across the street. “I expect the road will be a sorry mess when the water subsides.” She straightened a slightly skewed saucer.
It wasn’t so much the storm that was concerning her, but the mess it would leave behind. Rose and Susan treated everything like a game, but it was Gia who shouldered the anvil of responsibility for their shop. Sometimes she shouldered that responsibility reluctantly. Her hand hovered over the phone momentarily, then she leaned her forearms on the counter and twisted her hands together. “There’ll probably be seaweed everywhere, and driftwood and—”
“We’ll soon get it sorted, Gia. This mood of yours isn’t only because of the weather is it?” Rose moved away from the window. “Susan, why don’t you put the kettle on? We could all do with a nice cup of tea.”
Without a word, Susan hopped off the stool.
Rose watched her disappear into the kitchen and turned to Gia. “He’s only been gone a day. He’ll be back you know.”
Gia blinked, suddenly realizing that Rose was standing by the counter not two feet away from her. “What?”
Rose raised her graying full eyebrows and slightly jerked her head. An expression that Gia had come to recognize as Rose’s way of showing irritation at a single word response. “David. He’ll be back. He’s only in Germany because of his job.”
“I know that,” snapped Gia. “But he said he’d call.” She glanced at the phone again.
Could it have been only a year since she arrived in Lowenna and David had become more than a childhood friend? Much more.
“You’ve got to trust him, Gia. I know my son. He’s not like Alan.”
Gia growled low in her throat. She wanted to respond, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, she watched Rose’s expression soften. Without the counter between them, she knew Rose would hold out her arms and she would rest her head on Rose’s shoulder feeling comfort in her ample body. But she couldn’t break down now and Gia remained behind the counter. With the water surging against the sandbags, she needed to be vigilant, strong. Pinching the bridge of her nose, Gia looked down and closed her eyes.
From the kitchen a kettle screeched and hissed. Cups and saucers chinked followed by Susan humming a high pitched and unrecognizable tune.
Gia sniffed and pulled out a handkerchief. “This place smells like damp wood.” Her voice faltered. She wiped her eye.
Susan returned and slid a plate of sugar covered pastries on to the round table. “Smells more like lemon oil to me. I polished just yesterday. I found some Eccles cakes.” She pulled out a wooden armless chair and smoothed the black checkered table cloth. “Tea’s brewing. Do you want to be mum, Rose?”
Rose nodded, turning from the glass counter.
Susan picked up the jug. “That’s what Queen Victoria used to say. Does everyone want . . .” The overhead light flickered and went out. “. . . Milk?”
“Damn it. What next?” Gia slammed her open palm on the table. I suppose I’ll have to look at the fuse box.”
Rose shook her head. “Don’t worry now, dear. Sit down. It’s not that dark in here, yet.”
Placing her elbow on the table none too gently, Gia rested her forehead in her palm and took a deep breath. The duo continued fussing over mundane details and soon lightened Gia’s mood. Susan’s high pitched humming echoed in her ears.
“I don’t know what to do about dinner,” Rose said. “Paul and I usually have fish and chips Saturday night, but I expect the chip shop is closed.”
“If they leave their door open, the fish will probably swim right in,” Gia chuckled.
Rose smiled and pulled off the red paisley quilted tea cozy and poured steaming liquid into each cup.
Susan put down the milk jug and walked over to the candle display. “We can light one of these.” She brought the lilac colored candle to her nose and breathed in deeply. “I love hydrangeas.” She placed it on a saucer and struck a match, watching a golden flame flicker.
In the soft glow of candlelight Rose smiled. “Isn’t this nice.”
Gia bit into a cake and chewed, listening to the ticking clock fighting to be heard above rain driving hard against the window.
“We used to call these squashed fly cakes,” Susan said cutting hers in half. Black currants spilled onto the plate mingled with flakes of pastry.
Looking at the cake in her hand, Gia grimaced, put it down and pushed the plate away. Rain stopped pummeling the window and in a sudden lull, a cuckoo clock ticked louder. Ticking, ticking, ticking.
“So,” said Susan. “When’s David coming back?”
Rose glared at Susan.
Breathing out in a whoosh, Gia brushed sugar from her upper lip. “I don’t know. He said he has to finish an audit, but he’s run into problems.”
“He’ll be home before you know it.” Rose smiled. “More tea?”
Another spray hit the window and caught their attention.
“What’s going on out there?” Susan shouted as she scurried to the window and climbed once again onto the stool. “Rose. It’s someone in . . . somebody . . . in . . . in the water.”
“What?” Gia put down her cup and stood. Tea sloshed into the saucer. “Is it a man or a woman?” She gripped Rose’s hand.
They stared at the inflated lifeboat and watched the volunteer team battling the waves. Something was bouncing around like an untethered buoy.
“It looks like a man’s coat,” Susan said. “They’re too far away. They’ll never reach him.”
The small vessel rocked to and fro and lifeboat volunteers were pounded by rain above and waves below.
“I can’t look.” Susan covered her eyes with her hand. “Have they got him?” she asked, peering through her fingers.
“No,” said Rose.
One volunteer wearing a fluorescent orange life jacket leaned over the bow and extended a pole.
“How’s he going to get hold of him with an oar?” Rose was clearly puzzled.
“It’s not an oar. It’s got a hook on the end,” said Susan. “Like the fishermen use for big fish.”
“Why don’t they just jump in and get him,” Gia whispered. A cold shiver ran down her spine, her hands balled into tight fists.
Rose rested an arm around Gia’s shoulder. “I don’t think they could swim in this current.”
“Look! He’s closer to the boat,” Susan bounced up and down, her shoes squeaking.
“Is he swimming?” Gia leaned her body over the window display flexing her numb fingers. “His face is in the water.”
“It’s hard to tell,” said Rose.
Another wave jostled the boat away from the man.
“Maybe it’s a woman,” Susan offered.
“No. The coat looks brown, bulky. More like a man’s coat.” Rose leaned closer to the window, knocking over a chintz vase. “Could be tweed.” She straightened the vase.
Gia bit her lip. “The water’s a bit calmer. They better grab him quick before another wave comes.”
The lifeguard made one more desperate attempt, extending his body over the boat side. His teammate gripped his fluorescent orange jacket.
“They’ve got him.” Rose clapped as they dragged the man over the side and into the lifeboat. “That looks like the coat Mr. Newlyn wears.”
“Surely it’s not Mary’s husband. Mary makes lovely squares at the knitting circle. They are always . . .” Susan paused and teetered on the stool. “Is he moving?”
“I don’t know.” Gia clasped Rose’s hand again.
“They don’t seem to be doing anything.” Rose frowned. “Should they be . . .don’t they usually . . . what about CPR?”
Silence filled the room as if the rain was no longer falling, as if the wind had dropped, as if the water had stopped churning.
Susan voiced what each of them was thinking. “He must be . . . dead.”
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