Kelp

A short story from the collection “Strange Neighbours

***

Aletta peered through the train window. The passing coastline was just visible through the scratched and milky plastic—rocks, sea and lines of kelp. She fumbled a tissue out of her pocket and blew her nose. Mind over matter. She was not going to let a cold interfere with her grand day out.

This was her first Saturday in Cape Town, and she did not want to spend it hanging around the commune. So far, it had been easy to avoid the other tenants without giving offense. She was always the first one out the door, rushing to attend the training sessions at her new job, and she only returned after dark. But the weekend had been a problem—two whole days with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

She had hit upon the idea of a train trip to Kalk Bay. It was cheap—she could afford a return ticket—and easy; all she had to do was count the stations and make sure she got off at the right one. Maybe the sunshine and sea breeze would tease away the dull ache of homesickness.

Homesick! She had not realised it would be like this, a useless pain, like a stubbed toe, that could only be endured or ignored.

The train rattled to a halt and the doors hissed open. Aletta spotted the Kalk Bay station sign, gathered her things and stepped out onto the platform. It had been a good idea to come. There was the sea, so close, just on the other side of the parapet wall. She turned into the sun, trying to ignore the cold breeze nipping and nagging.

She found her way out of the station through an echoing passage that led her under the railway line and up to Main Road and Kalk Bay village. There was so much to look at. The shops invaded the sidewalks with displays of clothing and second-hand furniture. Couples strolled and argued. Children licked ice creams. A knot of bergies—ragged, homeless men and women—straggled across the road, intent on a private dispute. They erupted, loud and indignant, untangling into a show of slurred threats. One of them, weathered and twisted as driftwood, bumped past Aletta, who stepped back well out of his way.

Aletta huddled herself into her jacket and blew her nose. She really should have dressed warmer, but the blue sky had tricked her. It was too early to think of food, and for a while the shop displays absorbed her attention.

On a sidewalk near the far end of the village was a trestle table covered in second-hand books and knitting. At first, Aletta kept her distance. The woman looked almost as ragged as one of the bergies, all wrapped up in layers of scarves and bits of old blanket. She caught Aletta looking at her and nodded a quiet greeting, which somehow made it easy to approach.

The books were an odd mix of detective novels, history books and fairy tales, as well as a large pile of ancient National Geographics. Aletta picked up one of these, intrigued by the sea horse on its cover. It was filled with images of a magical underwater world, and it was with regret that she put it back on the pile. The bookseller held out her hand.

“You can have that one for two rand. I’ve got another one here you might like too.”

The woman shuffled through the pile, pulled out a copy and flipped to a page that displayed a treasury of sea urchins. Aletta hesitated. Two rand was cheap. Maybe she could afford it.

“Two rand for that one and I’ll give you this one pasella. Look. It has no cover. Come—take it. I can see you like to read about the little ones.”

She touched the magazine Aletta was holding, tracing the curling line of a sea horse’s tail. Her hand was brown as kelp and twisted with arthritis.

“I’ll take these two then. Thank you.” She paid and picked up her magazines. Then she had to clutch them under one arm so she could drag a tissue from her pocket to muffle a sneeze.

“I’ve got no plastic bags,” said the woman. “They all get into the sea in the end, you know, and the seals get tangled up in them.”

Aletta sniffed. “Bags? No, it’s okay. I can carry them like this.” She hesitated, not sure how to bring the conversation to a close. Finally she nodded, smiled an awkward goodbye, then walked away.

Farther down the road she found an underpass that led to the small beach of Kalk Bay harbour. The beach was backed by the arches of the railway line and the harbour sheltered from the sea by two concrete piers.

This was what she had pictured when she planned this trip: the vivid fishing boats rising and falling in the swell, families picnicking on the beach below the railway arches. There were even some swimmers, though the water looked cold and uninviting. She thought about getting lunch, but her headache had grown into a steady throb and her nose was starting to drip. She hoped she had enough tissues to last the day. Maybe she could find a sunny place to sit.

Aletta picked her way among the families camping out with their cooler boxes and umbrellas and found a spot right up against the foot of one of the arches. It was exposed to the nipping breeze, but the more sheltered places were dank and shady. She settled down to read her magazines, mopping her nose with a disintegrating tissue.


A train woke her, thundering by on the tracks above. Wind-whipped sand stung her face. It was almost dark. Aletta’s throat ached and she felt uncomfortably hot. Her cold seemed to have blossomed into a fever while she slept.

The magazines flapped under her hands, and the beach was empty. Water pricked her skin. Rain, or spray from the sea? It was time to leave but she felt too weak to get up.

Aletta closed her eyes. Just a little bit longer. Hopefully that had not been the last train of the day.

She woke again when somebody knelt beside her. Scarves and fringes. A hand reached for her face and Aletta flinched back, but the touch was gentle and cool on her skin.

“Burning up.” A woman’s scratchy voice. “You need to be inside. Come on.”

Aletta recognised her now, the woman from the book stall. She resisted weakly, but the woman took her arm and helped her to her feet. One arm was tucked firmly around Aletta’s waist, the other held her bags.

“Come.”

They set off across the beach.

To Aletta’s vague surprise, they turned right at the underpass, away from the village. The concrete strip of pier lay before them, dark water on either side. Rain was misting down, glinting in halos around the pier lights. To the left, on the seaward side, the waves rushed and sloshed among the dollosse.

Aletta wondered vaguely where they were going. She let herself be led all the way out to the end of the pier. The woman released Aletta’s arm and put down her many bags. She knelt at the rim of a manhole cover, opening it with a practised twist.

“You first.”

A ladder led down into the hole. Aletta could not summon the energy to be surprised. She edged herself down the ladder, which was mercifully short, then stepped off into a dark, crowded space below. She felt a rustle near her face and put up her hands to take the bag. More bags followed and she heard the woman’s feet on the ladder. The scrape and clang of the cover falling back into place followed. Then soft hands moved her aside. Aletta stood, waiting in the dark. There was a scraping clink and an oil lamp bloomed. She blinked.

The space under the pier was larger than she’d expected. The lamplight revealed shelves crammed with books and objects. A small table covered with patterned vinyl cloth, a chair draped with scarves, a little fishbowl filled with shells. The woman turned away from her and cleared a tiny bed set into the wall like an open cupboard.

“Here.”

The woman guided her to the bed.

Aletta sat, and had to hold on to the edge of the bed as a wave of dizziness swept over her. Someone took the shoes from her feet and detached her bag from her shoulder with gentle persistence. Someone leaned over to tuck a blanket round her then hunched down next to the bed to peer into her face. There was a smell of sea-weed, iodine and wet wool. A gentle hand touched her forehead.

Aletta drifted in and out of consciousness. A small paraffin stove glowed in a corner. The sea made deep sounds beyond the walls. Then she had to sit up and clutch at a glass and swallow bitter liquid. She felt a thump and something pressed down the blankets on her knees. She strained to look. A large cat was kneading out a nest for itself among the blankets. She closed her eyes and slept.


Aletta woke, or dreamed she woke, in the dark.

Sea air breathed over her, cold and wet. A gap had opened in the wall opposite her bed. Something moved there. A figure, barely visible in glints of dim light. Something like a scarf was wrapped around its neck. Long fringes stirred against its shoulders. Then it ducked and stepped through into the night beyond. The dream darkened and sucked Aletta back into sleep.


Daylight streamed in through chinks in the walls. Her headache was gone and she felt weak and as limp as an eel. There was no sign of her hostess. A ginger cat stretched on her knees. She sat up and looked curiously around the space. Wooden panelling lined the walls behind the bookshelves, the grooves dark with tar. Books shared space with rolled-up nets, balls of wool, tins and jars. A ledge held a display of sea urchins, beach glass and a rainbow of sand-scoured hair curlers.

The pressure of her bladder prompted her to get up and explore further. She found a hatch in the far wall which opened into a small room—cold and very clean. A pit latrine let in a strong smell of the sea that ran beneath it. She peed, shivering in the blast of rain-scented air that blew in through the vents in the wall behind her.

As she sat there, Aletta wondered why she wasn’t afraid to be alone in this strange place. After all, she was far from anywhere she knew, and in the home of a total stranger who might— Yet somehow she could not summon the anxious fears that usually crowded so close.

Maybe it was just the relief at feeling so much better. Her head felt clear, and her body no longer ached. She was safe, comfortable, and too sleepy to worry about what it all meant.

Aletta made her way back into the nest of blankets in the cupboard bed and slept again.


The next time she woke to the thump and clang of the manhole cover. The bookseller was shaking water off her clothes.

“Getting old,” she said. “Don’t like the wet when it’s cold.” She took off her headscarf. Her kroesies hair stood out in a small dark cloud, sprinkled with raindrops.

“Feeling better, are you? No—don’t sit up. I’ll soon have some food for you. You just lie there and entertain Mr Tom while I finish the soup.”

The old woman crouched over the bed and caressed the cat’s head.

“Got a new friend, Mr Tom? A lady friend too!” She laughed and hobbled back to light the stove, clattering the pots at the far end of the room.

Aletta lay listening to the cooking sounds, looking around her with interest. A lamp hung from the ceiling, surrounded by dangling fishing nets filled with plastic packets and balls of wool. Photographs were thumbtacked to the panelling next to her. They were old, sun-bleached and wrinkled as though they had been soaked. Her gaze moved from a torn picture of a girl in her matric dance dress to a photograph of a baby sitting in a pile of toys and gift-wrap. A row of boys squinted into the sun on a sports field. The head and shoulders of a little girl in her school uniform posed in front of a swirly blue backdrop. A dog with flash-green eyes.

A savoury smell scent filled the room, and Mr Tom opened an eye. He uncurled, stretched and jumped off the bed to investigate. Aletta tried to get up.

“No, stay there. I’ll come to you.” The bookseller made her way slowly to the bedside, supporting herself by leaning first on the little table, then on the back of a chair. She gave a bowl to Aletta then shuffled painfully back to fetch the other one.

“Thank you very much for taking me in, ma’m.”

The old woman snorted. “Ma’m!” She glared at Aletta, then winked and settled back into her chair, fumbling a spoon with her twisted hand. “You call me Susanna.”

Aletta nodded. “I’m Aletta. I’m sorry to be in the way. I’ve been taking up your bed.”

The bookseller frowned at her. “Don’t worry about it. Not in the way. I don’t sleep much anymore. Bed is for storing things these days. Eat your soup.”

It was a spicy mix of fish and vegetables. Aletta was hungrier than she’d realised, and her bowl was soon empty. She watched as Susanna leaned down to let Mr Tom clean her bowl. “This is such an amazing place to live. It feels so secret. Does anybody know you’re living here?”

Susanna sat back in her chair. “Know I’m here? I don’t think so. Some do, maybe.”

“But you must have been living here for years. Don’t people notice?”

“I’ve been here longer than most. I’m careful. Don’t have a fire anymore.” She pointed at a small wood-burning stove in one corner. “I can’t risk lighting that these days. Smoke’s too visible. Only very late at night, in winter, maybe. But I can stand the cold. It’s more to keep the books dry. Books and cats don’t like the damp.”

“And the books. Where do they all come from? You buy them?”

“Buy them, sell them. Trade for them too. Old people like my knitting. Got some beautiful books from the grannies and the grandpas in return for a scarf or two.”

She took Aletta’s bowl and leaned over to place it on the floor. “Might as well get some work done.”

She reached beneath her chair, brought out a bundle of knitting, and set to, tucking and winding, the needles clicking softly. Aletta saw that the twine was not made of wool, but strips of knotted plastic, torn from shopping bags. The small effort at conversation had exhausted her. She lay listening to the wind outside and the thump and splash of the waves. Susanna hummed and buzzed to herself as she knitted. Then she started to sing:

Die see is lief vir die strand

Die see is lief vir die strand

“Jy sif jou sandjies, jy sê jou sê

Jy speel met jou skulpe, jy bly net lê”

die see is lief vir die strand.

Die strand is lief vir die see

Die strand is lief vir die see

“Jy sleep my, jy slaan my, jy maak my sug

Jy kom en jy gaan en jy kom weer trug”

Die strand is lief vir die see.

Aletta closed her eyes. The sounds of sea and the song tugged her once more into the dark current of dreams.


The next time she woke, she felt clear-headed and alert. The room was dark, but some chinks of early morning light showed through the air vents and an opening at the other side of the room. A chilly breeze nipped at her face. She wrapped a blanket around herself and went to investigate.

There was a gap between two shelves and beyond it was a short length of damp cement. It was still quite dark outside, although dawn touched the sky. She tucked the blanket around her and crawled through. The sea slapped and sucked at the spaces between the dollosse. Mr Tom was sitting on an angle of cement. She picked her way over to him. From here she could look out over the tops of the dollosse to the dark water beyond.

Was that a movement out there? Mr. Tom stood, stretched then sat down again, looking expectantly at the water at their feet.

She heard a sighing breath and a thing rose out of the water. Hands grasped at the concrete, a head turning to look up at her. The thing in the water was clearly visible, lit by the light on the pier behind her.

A tight black frizz of wet hair. Pale fronds of gills curved from the tiny ears to the throat. Bright eyes considered her. Then Mr Tom was there, purring and butting his head against a wet forehead. Susanna heaved herself onto the wet concrete. She turned half around so that she was sitting with her legs dangling in the water.

Aletta, gasped and crouched down. Her heart hammered, and she felt light-headed again.

“Susanna,” Her voice was harsh with shock. “You’re—”

She stared at Susanna. An old woman—but was she a woman? What was she, then? Aletta’s mind slipped on the impossible, unable to fix it in words.

Susanna blinked and tensed, ducking her head as though she was about to slip back into the sea.

“Oh—” Aletta held out a hand. “Don’t go.” She felt suddenly ashamed of the shake in her voice. She swallowed, and tried again. “Please, don’t go. I’m sorry. I was just startled.”

Susanna relaxed. Startled, hey?” Her lips curved into a smile, but her eyes were still wary. “You’re wondering what I am.”

Aletta nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“Mermaid, selkie, watermeid, you can call me all of those.” Susanna reached down into the water, snagged a bundle of kelp and shells drifting there and hauled it up onto her lap.

The familiar calm of Susanna’s voice took away the last of Aletta’s fear.

“But you live here,” she said. “Under the pier. Why? Shouldn’t you be living out there somewhere in the sea?”

Crouching was uncomfortable, so Aletta sat down next to Susanna, bundling the blanket out of the way. She let her feet dangle in the water, too, though it was bitterly cold.

“You know the story, I’m sure.” Susanna tipped her head back and closed her eyes, her voice taking on the lilting tone of a story teller.

“She fell in love with a mortal man and, choosing love, forsook the sea for the land. But forever after, she walked as if on knives.”

Susanna’s legs were dark and muscular and subtly wrong. She could make out the place where her feet should be, half hidden under the water. Each leg ended in a graceful sweep of dark skin ridged with long bones, like a seal’s flipper. Higher up her body, a spiny ridge of fin stretched from her waist down to her ankles and from her nape down her spine and along each arm to her elbows. She caught Susanna’s eye and looked hastily away.

“You fell in love with a prince?”

Susanna snorted. “Not quite a prince, and it was very long ago. Before the railway line. Before the harbour, even.”

She plucked at the kelp tangled on her lap. “I had to choose. Land or sea. And once you leave, you cannot go back.” She darted a bright glance at Aletta.

“That is what they said. You have the choice, and you can never go back. I tried, you know. After he…was gone, I went back and looked for them.”

She brushed a hand over the bundled kelp and it unfolded partway. It was made of strands of kelp knotted into intricate patterns. Here and there a shell or pebble caught the light.

“I never found them. My people. I don’t know if they were hiding, or gone. So I stayed here between the land and the sea.”

“You’ve been living here all this time? All by yourself?”

“Oh, I do have my friends. And books. And Mr Tom.”

She seemed about to say something more but became absorbed in teasing loose a tangle of kelp, tucking a shell firmly into place. Then she sighed and looked up again. She spoke softly, as if to herself.

“Sometimes at night I go looking. Out there under the water. I leave them messages.” She stroked the pattern of shells knotted into the kelp web. “But there’s never a reply.”

You cannot go back.”

Susanna’s words had struck a chord in Aletta, and they were still reverberating. It was a truth she’d been afraid to face, the knowledge that her choice to leave home and come to this strange city could never be undone.

Susanna broke the silence with a sigh. “And your people? Will they worry about you?”

Aletta pulled herself out of her thoughts, shook her head. “My parents are up in Pretoria, and I don’t have any friends in Cape Town yet.”

A train wailed on the tracks and the slow rattle and whine of its progress echoed over the harbour. Susanna sighed and rolled up her kelp web. She reached down and stored it in an angle between two dollosse.

“Well, however that may be, you must be thinking of getting back to where you belong. You don’t seem to need my medicine any longer, sitting here on the damp cement. Hand me those things over there. There’s a towel you can use.”

Aletta found a bundle tucked into a space near the opening in the pier. Some clothes, an old scratchy towel and a neat roll of bandages. She dried her cold feet quickly and passed the towel and bandages to Susanna. The old mermaid drew her legs out of the water and dried them carefully. Then she bent one leg and took hold of the graceful bones of the flipper.

Now that the skin was dry Aletta saw that it was ridged with calluses and seamed with old scars. Susanna tucked the end of a bandage into a folded flipper and wound it round into a tight bundle. Then she shifted her weight, drew her other foot into her hands and wrapped it too.

“Hand up.”

Aletta helped her up. Susanna balanced for a moment, clutching her arm. She allowed Aletta to help her with her dress which clung to her damp skin and snagged on her fins. Susanna pulled the fabric into place.

“Come, out of this wind. It’s too cold for you.”

Inside, Susanna soon had a kettle boiling on her little stove.

“Must get you home now. Some tea to get you warm and then you can catch the next train. Cups are in that cupboard down there.”


Soon enough she was standing up on the pier again, watching as Susanna dropped the manhole cover back into place. The wind was tugging at her hair and flipping and riffling through Susanna’s scarves and layers. The old woman waved her on towards the underpass.

“Don’t wait for me. Too slow. Go ahead.”

Aletta turned to face her. “Thank you so much for all your help. I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Susanna nodded. “Come visit me again some time. Just one thing, though.” She hitched a bag into a more comfortable position and looked at Aletta. “Don’t tell.”

Then she was making her slow shuffling way down the steps to the beach. Aletta stood for a moment, watching her. Then she turned and walked quickly towards underpass. If she hurried, she might be in time to catch the next train.


Susanna’s song is in Afrikaans. Here is the English translation:

The sea loves the beach

The sea loves the beach

“You sift your sand, you say your say

You play with your shells and you just stay.”

The sea loves the beach

The beach loves the sea

The beach loves the sea

“You drag me, you beat me, you make me sigh

You come and you go and you come back again.”

The beach loves the sea

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