“That Mae has been out there all night,” George Bisnett says to anybody who will listen, his voice growing louder and louder each time he is ignored. He moves a little farther down the pier, idling near the biggest of groups who have yet to spot her.
“Damndest thing,” he barks in an octave higher than his usual. A few of them jump and turn around, eyebrows knitted like his drawers this morning. They don’t look at her though, they just look at him and increase the gap. Typical tourists. Someone, a youngster making a meal of their thumb, finally follows his gaze, and he latches onto the attention.
George takes a deep, well-practiced breath. “Out there all night like that? Not right. It’s a wonder she’s not caught her death.” This time, ears are pricked and piqued. Folks start to come over to the railing to look out at the beach.
Mae, still and naked as she’d been when George first arrived this morning, doesn’t notice. Or pretends she doesn’t.
“What’s she doing?”
“Should we do something?”
Leaning on the railing now, George shakes his head. “Nasty surf and all,” he adds, watching the foam gathering at Mae’s feet.
After an hour, there’s quite a crowd gathered. George had always fancied himself an actor.
Before long, the technologically inclined start pointing and lifting phone screens to capture the moment for posterity, for posting. George nods as if this is right, as if this is what he had been aiming for all along. A commotion is what his mother would have called what Mae was doing out there in nothing but her birthday suit. On a Sunday morning no less. George himself would never be so judgemental.
When someone does finally sidle up to him and asks what the hell is happening, he opens his mouth to say anarchy, chaos, something disturbing, but none of those words leave his mouth. Stumped and staring mouth agape at the fellow, George finds that he doesn’t really know.
The man walks away, bending the ear of that busy-body Deborah Tansworth. George lets him go, looks out towards Mae, and for the first time that day, keeps his mouth shut.
What is she doing?
Mae is up before him again, standing defiant against the ocean. Skin like porcelain, he wonders how long it’ll be until the salt and cold start to make her crack. Make her old. He joins a group of people at the railing.
“Still there then,” he notes, shaking his head.
“Do you know her?” a woman wrestling an over-bored child asks. “Is she okay?”
George nods. “Since she was little. Minded her once too. Who would have thought that little one would turn out like this.”
The woman’s expression hardens and, what George assumes to be the father, comes up beside her. She hands over the child. “What do you mean?”
George points to the beach. “What do you mean, what do I mean? Just look. That isn’t normal.”
“Maybe it’s a, you know, social-thing,” the father offers, shrugging his shoulders as if he didn’t really believe it either. “Ice-bucket challenge and all that.”
The woman rolls her eyes at him and turns back to George. “Are you telling me you haven’t been down there?” She looks around at the gathered faces. “Has anyone?”
George watches the woman surge through the bodies and slice a direct path towards Mae down on the shore. The man with the child sighs and offers him a what-can-you-do look.
Leaning out and over the railing as far as he dares, George shakes his head but doesn’t look away. “It must be four degrees out,” he says.
The man beside George moves the child to the other arm, imperceptibly rocking on the spot as his partner comes to a stop at Mae’s side. “They’re talking,” he says, smiling, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “They’re talking.”
“What did you expect?” retorts George.
The atmosphere on the pier sharpens, a unanimous intake of breath holding the moment on a knife’s edge. The gulls, so loud and daring before, fall silent or fall away. And children, sensing something in their parents, cage their cries, storing them up for their car journeys home.
A pained minute passes. Everybody on the pier is silent as the grave, craning ears against unforgiving breezes. “We should have gone with her,” a young woman says to her friend. “This waiting is killing me.”
George refrains from saying how her cutting voice was having a similar effect on him, and instead wills his eyes to see what the hell is going on.
A unanimous gasp unfurls amongst them, and the man next to him nearly drops his firstborn over the side of the pier. “Is she bleeding mad?!” He runs off, his child trailing him like a loose bit of thread caught up in the wind. George watches them go, clears his throat, steadies himself. “It’s catching now then.”
Four days later, Mae is joined by three more people. That makes the line of naked bodies a group, a following, and dare George say it aloud, a “Cult!”
The newswoman’s eyebrows rise in alarm and glee. There’s a lot of coverage to be found in a cult. She could see the viewing figures and opportunities coming thick and fast.
“Who is she?” she asks, looking down at the group of bare bodies. “Who are they?”
George can only shake his head. “Fools and idiots. They terrify the dogs, you know. Get them barking to high heaven.” He runs a hand over his forehead. “She’ll die soon.” He nods toward the group, meaning Mae. “I’ve not seen her eat or drink. Soon she’ll fall down and the water will run right up to her chin. Then what?” He throws his hands up. “Tourists will blacklist us. Cromer will suffer.” He pauses, thinking for a moment. “Maybe that’s it,” he offers, staring right down the lens. “They’re here to destabilise the economy!”
They let him ramble for ten minutes more, but he is sure he’d seen the newswoman signal cut at least halfway through his talk. Whatever, he thinks, walking away. Who watches Channel Five anyway?
He finds a bench and sits down. Today is a little warm for winter and the locals have made advantage of it; everywhere he looks he can see a double-scoop or a cone. George casts an eye back at the camera. It is still pointed where he’d stood moments ago, getting minute after minute of B roll. He had enjoyed talking just then, enamoured by the fact people would have to listen to him. Maybe he was like those on the beach in that regard, out there completely naked, gathering eyes with loudness because both had gone unheeded for so long. He hears the newswoman say, “Who are they?” again and finds himself echoing it.
Channel Five does not air George’s words. They air poxy Katie Lucre’s, a visiting student from UEA. Apparently, she knows Mae. Well, knows someone who knows her.
“It’s a message,” she articulates through teeth as big as windshields during her two-minute segment, “about the world. A performance.”
George changes the channel. Students, he thinks. Why, when he was that age, he was working his thumbs to the bone and doing it on five hours sleep no less. If it was a performance, as this Katie says, then where was the script? No, George could not get behind that. Abstract, was a word he refused to acknowledge.
“There’s Fifteen now,” a passerby informs him as George is leaving his house the next morning. The sea wind hits him full in the face and, for a second, he only stares. “Cockerels now too.”
Back up by his railing overlooking it all, George watches the Petrie kid run over to the “performance”, setting a box of food and a couple bottles of water down. Mae’s lips move and she smiles, but it may as well be foreign to him all the way up here. He half-expects her to join Mae, but she gets up and leaves, bisecting the half-ring of watchers that now surround Mae and the others on the beach side.
George’s eyes widen as he realises that one of them is Daniel Meeks. He runs a souvenir shop on High Street, smokes like a sailor, and has shared a drink with George in the Kings Head on many occasions. All the others looked to be in their 20s—just kids. Meeks, though, well, he was closer to George in age. Late 50s and then some. Not right, he thinks, catching sight of all that flesh. “Not right at all!”
Later, George overhears that Cromer is “trending”. Blowing up all over the internet. He doesn’t like the sound of that. He likes that Katie Lucre is now among the unclothed even less.
Mae’s body lights up screens the world over. Videos of her and the others’ bare skin being constantly sprayed by sea water are shown on every news channel in every country. Thousands of theories, explanations, and readings of the act stir conversation on e-forums. George, not in the least interested in e-anythings, pays none of them any mind. Instead, he does what he thought he never would.
“What is this?” he asks Mae’s goose-pimpled back. “Why are you doing this?”
It had been a hard decision, walking right out and up to them, but the alternative was to remain in a darkness that was driving him up the wall. Ever since Mae had gone out there and started all of this, Cromer had been nothing else. He couldn’t sleep for thinking what she was up to, why the little girl who was once afraid of the noise the counters made in Connect-4 was suddenly out there silently connecting millions.
When she and nobody else responds to George’s question, he moves around them, looking into their faces (refuting their nakedness altogether), trying to scry any meaning behind their glazed expressions. Seeing them, he can’t help but notice how each one looks so different. Young, old, black, white, rich, poor, thin, fat. George shakes his head; he doesn’t understand.
So close to the sea, the wind is ferocious; it rages against his legs, billows inside his jacket. What’s left of his hair is pulled seaward. In fact, so strong is the gust, that it feels as if it is trying to tug and turn him towards the ocean. Coming up beside Mae—stoic and silent—he does finally turn around. Sees what she sees. But there’s nothing there. Just sea.
George swivels his head, trying to find the speaker, but there is a wall of flesh. And too many mouths.
“Just see,” one of them repeats.
Then it is a chorus, piping up in unseen mouths from every direction. A whispering, a wave. The effect causes him to feel lightheaded.
The spray that suddenly douses his back is arctic cold. He feels it balloon outwards on his clothing, staining the dry with wet. On Mae and the others, it is a wipe-away sheen. Their chests, repeatedly lambasted with ocean, run with stories. Waterworks. Each drip and splash a tale all to itself. George watches the narratives rise and fall, not understanding any of them, really, but agreeing with them all the same. He makes to turn around again, to join them, but his hand is stilled at the wrist when he tries to pull up his shirt.
“No,” she says, not moving her lips.
George tries shaking her off.
George fights off her grip. “Why?! I want to damn it!”
Mae’s eyes align with his as she tells him why.
“It’s a performance,” George tells all the news outlets that flock to him the moment he steps free. That uncertain sensation of being in on something higher and larger, that took him so close to the surf ebbs with every second. What had he felt, really? It was all nonsense. Words, weather, and wills.
A journalist from the BBC rushes out to meet him.
“You spoke to them? What are they trying to say?”
George ignores the question, looks up into the sky. Part of him believes he can taste it in the spray, in the water. It really is everywhere. He looks back at the bodies lining the beach, the bold and bare canvases catching killer watercolour on breasts and thighs and torsos. He then looks back towards all the eager faces, clamouring to listen to him.
“What do you know about microplastics?”
Their microphones surge forward, battling for pride of place.
George likes that.
Mae finally falls to the sand. She is starving and dehydrated. For two days now she has forgone even the slightest of nutritional intake. She had to. The cameras have long gone and don’t capture the sea as it reclaims her.
“Just See,” she says at the last, the words muffled by the incoming tide, muffled by footsteps and barking, muffled by a planetary shrug and a whispered—No.
About the Author:
Ashley Bullen-Cutting is a writer whose work inhabits the liminal spaces between poetry and prose. His research and writing often concerns the climate crisis and its effects on planetary populations. Some of his previous work can be found at MIROnline, Cauldron, and Perhappened Magazine, where he was nominated for Best of the Net 2020.
Feature image by LwcyD / Pixabay