“Death By Water” by Sarah Singleton

Sarah Singleton has had several novels published, and a considerable number of short stories including one in The Third Alternative back in the day. So far this story from #15 marks her only appearance in Black Static.

The story opens with protagonist Ian in a Chinese takeaway, and though nothing is ever stated it soon becomes apparent that his mood is as downbeat as his lacklustre surroundings. And then his eyes alight on an advertisement for a medium in a discarded newspaper, and we have the first real clue to what ails him – ‘Surreptitious, hands shaking, he tore out the page and crammed it into his coat pocket.’

There follow a series of meetings with various spirit mediums. The first of these is what I imagine most of us visualise when the term ‘medium’ is used, an elderly woman in the dimly lit parlour of a house in some suburban backwater. Ian wants to make contact with his wife Jeanette, who died by drowning, but there is something more on his mind, something that is making him uneasy quite apart from what the woman may tell him. In the end she can tell him nothing, and sends him on his way with the contact details for another medium who may be able to help.

The second medium is more the Derek Acorah type, his success apparent in the trappings with which he surrounds himself – ‘a spacious living room with two leather sofas and views over the city, unadorned red-brick walls, a polished wooden floor, a glimpse through a doorway to a stainless steel kitchen’ – all clean lines and designer aesthetic. But this medium cannot contact Jeanette either. All he can do is give Ian the name of another medium further up the food chain, the elusive Spark.

Knowing only the medium’s name Ian searches for three months, seeking signs of the man’s existence like a soothsayer reading the omens, and eventually he finds Spark in the ruins of an old multi-storey car park where the man is squatting. In all of this there are echoes of Clive Barker’s oeuvre, the paths that lead to Jacqueline Ess, the candle lit sanctuary of the Candyman. And yes, Spark is the real deal, summoning up a vision of Jeanette and enabling Ian to make peace with her, though not in the manner either he or the reader may have anticipated. The story ends – ‘He looked back, once, thrust his hands into his pocket and walked away.’

But I’m only giving you a part of the story. Intercut with Ian’s search for a medium are scenes from his life with Jeanette. Their first meeting on a beach, Jeanette wearing a black coat and standing at the edge of the shore, and what led from that. Her miscarriage and the aftermath, in which she is cast adrift, wandering round the town searching for her old coat, and then a final scene in which Ian gives her what she is looking for.

On the surface it is a moving tale of love and what grief can do to two people – Ian trying to make contact with his wife and set things right, Jeanette seeking her coat as a form of displacement activity – and the terrible things a traumatic event like the loss of a child can inflict on a couple.

But beneath the surface there is another story, a retelling of an older narrative ripped from the realm of folklore and fairy tale. The clues are in the text – Jeanette is found standing by the sea; she eats baked fish on their first date; the silver necklace Ian carries as a reminder of her, is a fish on a chain; the miscarriage blamed on a congenital abnormality; the recurring imagery of water, in dreams, nightmares.

And, above all else, there is that black coat. Jeanette is said to hesitate before removing it when she goes home with Ian for the first time. Her post-miscarriage turmoil arises from the fact that the coat is missing, and with hindsight this is something more significant than a form of grief induced OCD. When Ian finally gives her the coat and admits that he has been hiding it all this time because ‘I don’t want you to leave me’, it fits Jeanette like ‘a true skin hugging her body, returning her to herself.’

I’ve given you Ian’s ending. This is how the story ends for Jeanette – ‘She leaves the house, runs, away from the man and the unreal life, towards the water.’

The unreal life…

Jeanette and Ian, each in their own way, has to let go of a relationship that has run its course, but it’s only now that we can truly grasp the nature of that relationship. The true story is revealed as the love affair between a human and a creature from the sea, be it a mermaid or selkie, something other, and unlike most fairy tales it did not end happily, with one partner trying to hold back the other, to force the relationship to outlive its useful.

The narrative obliquely addresses the problems of a relationship between people from different backgrounds, depicting how we return to what we know and understand best when things go wrong, or try desperately to drag the relationship beyond the moment of breakdown, and it’s all wrapped up in a framework that mimics the tropes of horror fiction while putting them to different use. The ‘death by water’ of the title is not Jeanette’s – water has restored her to life – but that of the relationship itself.

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4 Responses to “Death By Water” by Sarah Singleton

  1. I think Sarah’s first published story was in our short-lived mid-nineties fanzine New Words – one of the best stories I’ve had a hand in publishing.

    • petertennant says:

      You’re right, “The Dove” in #4, July/August 1995 according to the bibliography on her website. And as far as I can see, despite a distinguished list of short story credits, nobody has ever published a collection of her work.

      But I didn’t realise you were involved in the small/indie press as far back as 1995. I thought you were one of these young whippersnappers who’ve come along in the last few years, but you’re almost as long in the saddle as me 🙂

  2. We had stories by Bob Neilson and Trevor Denyer too, and looking through the subs folder for issue 5 – which is still in my office 16 years later, as if one of those days I’ll get around to finishing it! – a while back I found a story by the gentleman who’s been doing so much to promote the TQF blog this past month. 😉

    It was kind of sad how it stopped – left us feeling glum for years – but none of us had PCs and everything had to be retyped (John did all of that). But I learnt a lot from it; it helped get me my first job in publishing, and made sure I had realistic expectations when I started TQF.

    • petertennant says:

      You should send the gentleman a rejection note 😉

      And you know you really need to clear out your office more often. I thought I was bad – well, actually I am bad, but it appears you’re worse 🙂

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