Short story written over the past three days in a bout of illness, in-between working Christmas shifts that veered between the hectic and dead, drinking quantities of whisky and waking up to sunlight and ice-beams.
The waves here are not like other waves, on other shores. They seem to billow backwards, suck lines of bright froth back into themselves. This town is bordered by a self-consuming ocean, so there’s no other way to go. A bulimic rhythm of prolonged fulfilment; nourishment interrupted. You try to look out but the horizon devours what darkness might lie beyond as within. Everything is overcast. Even in summer, people lick pastel ice-creams to a backdrop of failed, VHS-flicker grey. The sky shivers and glitches with rain. I was on a train once and a drunk man had slept through the changeover and there were no more trains to the city till morning. He asked how to get back from the port, what time the last bus was, was there still time to get a cab from my town, and I said there was no time here. No time at all.
People have been stringing up lights for weeks, but now we are used to the change it’s as if they’ve been here forever. Blue and red, mostly, like sirens; like morse code blinking in darkness. When I was a kid, I used to lean against the harbour wall and watch the lights, spotting a pattern that made sense. I’d write out words with sticks in the sand, trying to parse the lights. Now I see the decorations, the decorative function, and it’s more or less fully tasteless. I have seen how the city looks at this time of year, the city where silver and gold are everywhere. Then there is the town, the red and blue; the spent fire and the melancholy.
Mother washes dishes until her skin blisters. I have bought her gloves for Christmas, year after year, but she refuses to use them. She enjoys some sort of searing, primitive contact with soap and water. They say she is the best kitchen porter the hotel has ever known, and even when there was a corporate takeover, they let her keep her job. She sings festive carols to piss off the chefs, who love her so much they say nothing. Every year, a bottle of ginger wine for a bonus. She hates ginger wine, but accepts graciously. I’ll admit, I inherited little from my mother.
I am guilty of staring at the sign on the church: CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS. One time the minister caught me and he tried to hold my wrist and look up with me, like we were having A Moment of Glory. I remember his stories from school, trite morality tales about betrayal and friendship. Blood trumps all. My mother once had him for tea, and I mean this pretty much literally. She ate him up with her eyes while my father supped lentil soup in silence. She wanted him to say, I suppose, you are all good people. But the minister merely thanked her, politely, letting breadcrumbs sift through his fingers into the soup, like this was a perfectly normal thing to do. I don’t suppose it’s right to crave forgiveness or bliss from a minister. At least my sins are pure, like the sharp silver of restaurant cutlery.
When people pass each other on the street, they nod. Sometimes, a thrusting remark about the weather, a painful stab at some petulant vegetable. The chat doesn’t stick. But still in its smallness I polish it.
The grocery store is selling handmade Christmas wreaths, which smell of true pine. I don’t know what truck brought them in from the forest, came west with the logs and the spindling needles, the twigs of fir and gauze of twine. It’s maybe a job I’d want when I’m older. The driven coastline, the smell of the pine. For now, I gather up trash from the beach, all the stuff people forget about. I glue it together, leave sculptures in the community arts centre for the children to prise apart with sticky fingers. Father once mumbled something about college but never mentioned it again. Sometimes I can sell them, in tourist season. You lay down a blanket and drunk people will come talk to you, like you’re some sort of guru. I imagine my tacky statuettes in homes across the district, mournful little symbols of emotional debris. Luke used to walk along with me, picking up odd bits. We shared a vision, which is more than you can say about most brothers and sisters. I hope people smash them, my sculptures, in the middle of arguments; I hope they instate a sort of catharsis.
Sin. Waves. Sky. Signs. I used to work in a café serving Battenberg cake to gossiping pensioners, whose tongues would loll out like soft bits of dough, even when they were catatonic and staring at the lashing waves, crumbling onto their laps the pink and yellow. The town devours itself, sloshed and watered by endless tea. Scandal is rare and thin, mostly a case of mystery fire, a missing dog or crooked insurers. Once, two men moved in together as lovers but that was diffused by the presence of their pekinese, who used to come snuffling into the café so even the old folks were won over, nursing their social phobias for other occasions. All these dogs kept coming from nowhere.
I feel the presence of others as generally tepid, unwanted. I went to school a couple towns away, got that bus every morning or walked out before it had even reached my door. I’ve never needed eduction to remind me of a world beyond. I only had to look in the weathered face of my father as he returned each time from fishing, the crinkles in his eyes like a tiny clam had nestled in each pupil and was sucking the skin in for energy. Anemone. The way he plodded in the door with such reluctance, trailing sand and silt in his wake, interrupting my mother’s ordered domesticity with the thick, ineluctable lore of the sea.
“Heavy waves out west,” he’d say mysteriously, chewing a lump of bread as if in each crusted pore was the bloom of an oracle. Mother would shuffle a deck of cards, clink the dishes. Oh baby don’t make me cry. She attended bridge nights on Wednesdays at the Schooner, she kept herself busy. Our tiny bungalow was always polished to a sparkle, as if she was afraid the deceased grandparents could tell whether there was tarnish to the silverware. Father doesn’t talk much, doesn’t touch our lives. He helped assemble the tree with usual obligatory gruffness, then retired to his almanack and chewing tobacco. When Luke died, he didn’t say a word for months. He disappeared on trips that got longer and longer, as if trying to make his reckoning with the sea. If I drain you, will revenge be complete? Do fishermen respect the sea? Great shivering nets of metallic shoals looped in and deported up north, a great operation exchanged between strangers with a fetish for the slivery, salty heaps of lamé. He used to keep a logbook of all the good stuff he’d caught, would bring home glistering samples of mussels and carp for tea, but now he throws it all back, unless it’s for work. Does the minimum necessary, but still brushes with death. Don’t we all…
I sometimes think, god if I went away would I miss this place? I picture myself stepping off the train with the arrogant smile of the rest that leave for places east, for the city. Coming home in summer wearing neat tight suits and smart-person glasses. How small the town would seem, a dolls house of trivial troubles compared to the vast expanse of the city, where I’d make my fortune studying law or medicine or working in some department store where all the women wear Chanel and talk as if talk were merely unfettering. The delicate unravelling of a silken scarf, the spritz of expensive everything. In contrast to such gauzy dreams, the town, I fear, is inscribed with too much of me; I need to keep an eye on it. The sedimentary deposits of my human existence, time made language. All the rocks with my name scratched deep by shards of flint and granite. If I came back, this would all seem impossibly empty. The cave where I gave my first handjob, to a boy who smelt of liquor and mint. I still remember how slowly his breath synchronised with the rhythmic lisp of the sea, quickening with the gulls that squawked and circled ever closer, concealing each blood-warming grunt.
I stopped eating meat after Luke died. The smell of fish near enough killed me, so I slept in deliberately each day to avoid the hour when the men came onto the docks with their morning haul. I burned so much incense in my room that Mother was concerned I was having a religious awakening. I grew what they call lithe and thin; I honed my time to a solitary point. Luke used to run along the beach at dusk, but he’d always bang the sand out of his trainers before stepping in the house. He shared Mother’s sense of boundaries, territory. He used to talk about the nesting patterns of gulls. Recursion, he said, was the order of birds. They knew to come home, and when. There was something magnetic, a tiny program inside their skulls.
We still don’t have his body. It never washed up; the sea hasn’t returned it, the police packed in the case a year ago now. The other boys talk solemnly and seriously about moving away: getting out of it all, the mess and the memories. I’ve drank with them down the Schooner many a time, matching them pint for pint as we flick peanuts across the table and wish we were children again, reminiscing our games on the lips of the bay. When Adam kissed me in the freezing sea mist of six in the morning, clutching me like a piece of driftwood that had wound up on his porch, I felt as though I were pressing into the deepest history, its secret flesh. I felt that final capsize, that upsurge of tide. I was glimpsing what I had missed, the darkest moment of shock and extinction. He pinned back my hair, deftly, when I vomited onto his mother’s petunias. He said ‘good girl’ after we slept together, and I was a waif in his tangle of sheets, hardly the siren I supposed myself to be. He said ‘good girl’ but he was only two years older. It was like none of us knew what to do anymore. When I asked him what the last thing Luke said was, Adam couldn’t tell me. He said they were quiet, they were fishing—that was all. They didn’t talk much at sea, like that was unlucky. The focus was always upon the catch. I stopped visiting that house on the border of town, stopped going anywhere beyond my room. I was folding myself inward, like the waves that brushed the skin of the shore. I pictured twenty black pills like black bits of bladderwrack and swallowing my mother’s precious tonic. Every day felt like a new kind of bruising. I’m not there yet.
I still remember my first lobster. How I had slipped apart the lock of the cage, the lobster pot, to see this gangrenous thing with terrible black eyes that twitched erratically from side to side. Mother used to tell me the chef at her work would go around clacking lobster pincers near all the waitresses’ bums, until one day a woman called Meggie, the old restaurant manager, thumped him in the face and he had to finish service with his nose bleeding into the sauce. “Be more like Meggie,” she’d say sometimes, scrubbing a wine stain out of Father’s trousers, like that was lust itself. You have to twist off the legs, the claws, break at the joints, scoop out the meat from each fat claw. Iron-rich. I watched the blood-red thing die a death in boiling water, could hear a sharp hiss that sounded like more than steam. What else you had to scoop out: the long dark intestinal tract, its tangled, bedraggled remains of a life. An Escheresque recursion, a spiralling fold into self. I wonder what lobster hunger feels like, the in-suck of clams and asterisk starfish. How it feels to enter that deep, freezer sleep, among the ice cubes and packets of plastic-wrapped, soldered meat? Father clapped me on the back when I held out the shell; when later, tactfully, I stuck my fork in, needling around for the richest flesh. My body knew appetite, knew what to look for. It tasted good and strong. Now I see those orange buoys and I wonder what starving thing is perishing underneath, ready for consumption. I reset my computer because the internet never works. We are out at sea here, lost in our mutual devouring. Nobody comes to fix the signal. Nobody questions my diet at all.
My breath still sours on the windowpanes of strangers. There is no time in this town, not even at Christmas where the hours bleed together like the masses of plastic that gather along the shore. I pass the minister, who quips about the weather. Overcast as the darkness that meets us all. He doesn’t understand the patterns, the names of the clouds.
Sometimes I still see Adam. He stripped me till I was thin as cirrus, in smoky entrails of evening light. Boxing Day and I looked out with the blankets scratching my shoulders, the horizon grey and wasted. I could see Father’s boat trailing in at the dock, the shape of his cap against the grey. My skin looked grey. Something a teacher explained once, glassels: those stones that look shiny and lovely under the water, but dry a dull, disappointing matte on land. I was back in the house on the border of town. I left a little ornament, a piece with old speakers, all copper wires twanged into ersatz smiles. It’s the creepiest thing I ever made, maybe. Luke would’ve hated it; would’ve snapped it apart, made food for the waves. Sometimes we go backwards, return to the place. I think of him most when splitting vegetables, drinking Mother’s ginger wine, scrolling through Facebook on delayed connections. It’s different, now that you’re not around. I grow fragile with anaemia, spend time trying to name your fate. There’s a toast to be made to the absent, a manner of feedback; but all of that pain was already in the weather. You just had to notice.