The early 1950s. Greta Thorburn and her husband Jim are at the beach with
their children Barbara, Fergus and Tom. In the present day, an older Barbara
explains to her lover Philip that her mother died 30 years ago. The young
Barbara swims for the first time and Greta congratulates her.
1950s Edinburgh. Greta has been caught in a rainstorm. She meets her friend
Wendy who takes her to the studio of artist Andrew Cunningham. Andrew is very
pleased to see her and the two seem to have feelings for each other. Greta tells
Andrew about her dreams and her poetry. Jim arrives and takes Greta home, where
he confronts her about her occasionally erratic behaviour.
The present. Barbara and Philip discuss having children and argue over the
nature of their relationship. In the 1950s, Greta returns to Orkney to nurse her
father. He makes a quick recovery. Greta seems to enjoy being home, shares a
drink with old friends and visits old haunts. Talk turns to Greta's mother.
Barbara explains that her grandmother, Mary Kelday, also died young. In 1930s
Orkney, a young Greta accompanies Mary and her grandfather to the Mermaid pool.
She is terrified when water starts to flood into the cave. The adult Greta tells
Jim that a few years later, just before they met, Mary was swept off the same
stretch of coastline and drowned. It seems both women were drawn to the sea.
In the present, Philip and Barbara visit the seaside. She explains that she
is much more like her father than her mother. Later that night, she dreams of a
white cat and flying through the streets of Edinburgh in her childhood
Jim takes the younger Barbara to try on shoes. The older Barbara looks back
on the beach holiday the family took just before her mother died. They are
staying on Orkney, at an idyllic cottage by the sea. While her brothers play in
the shallows, Barbara and Greta listen to a seashell. Jim did not accompany the
family on their holiday, but he arrives later, in the middle of the night.
Waking from a nightmare, Barbara has a premonition that something terrible has
happened. Jim tells her that Greta has been found floating in the sea, still
wearing her nightdress.
The adult Barbara wonders whether Greta could have been sleepwalking when she
drowns. She explains to Philip that she and Jim have drifted apart since the
latter remarried. They discuss the story of her mother and grandmother, and
Barbara explains it is not a story yet because they are still a part of it. They
decide to research Greta's published poetry.
Barbara photographs Andrew Cunningham for his retrospective at the Gallery of
Modern Art. They reminisce about Greta. Andrew's retrospective proves to be a
success. Barbara and Philip visit a club which prompts memories of the day when
Greta's drowned. While Greta is being lifted out of the water, Jim and the
children visit her room and find the unfinished poem she had just begun to
write. Jim takes the poem and the family leaves.