Hannah Tougher is currently working towards her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and occasionally screenplays.
She was a beach. That’s what she was.
Alison felt her jacket pocket for her cigarettes and then remembered she’d quit. She wondered how long that would last in this back of beyond seaside town. Already she was sick of the small, squashed streets and the smell of smoked fish that clogged the air. She closed her eyes and then opened them again to the faint glimpse of morning-pink light that curved around the dark, heavy clouds. Almost as dark as the sea below.
But she was the beach and not the sea. The sea did its own thing and the beach just waited for the next wave to hit. That’s what she was doing with this community engagement job she’d somehow managed to land, even though she had no idea how to promote public art to kids. And then there was Jay coming up from Glasgow to move into the flat. She couldn’t quite remember how that had been decided, but here she was, freezing her arse off among the seaweed and the sickening smell. Waiting.
She watched a dog scamper in and out of the frothing water with a figure she supposed was its owner: a man wrapped tightly in a black coat, hands in pockets and hat pulled down over his ears, allowing the sea air as little contact with his skin as possible. He walked with his head down, seeing nothing, his feet leaving the same trail of footprints they’d probably left countless mornings before.
An old woman sat down beside Alison. She’d walked right past an empty bench to settle with a few groans and sighs on this one. Alison shifted to the edge. How could she contemplate what an unfortunate life that man might have with this huddled woman sitting so close? How could she summon the guilt she should be feeling at the fact she was utterly unprepared for work on Monday or that she had been wandering around this town for two weeks now, had watched the sea and the changing colours of the sky, and hadn’t once picked up brush and paint? All she could focus on now was this old woman taking up more than her fair share of the bench.
There was someone on her bench. Aud had never had to share her bench before, not at this time in the morning anyway.
Well, never mind. She wasn’t about to change the workings of her day just because this bright-haired young thing was sitting where she wasn’t supposed to be.
It was a fine morning, really. Brisk, Robert would say. There was a chill knocking about in the wind. She rubbed her hands. She’d forgotten her gloves again but never mind. She watched the dark waves roll towards her, listened to the gulls and to the water break on the shore, and tried to breathe deeply, finding a rhythm in it, in the back and forth, in the cold that filled her lungs.
After a few moments, she reached for her handbag and felt inside for her sherbet strawberries. Oh, but bother! She’d forgotten to buy some more. She dug into the dark corners and crevices of her bag just in case. It wasn’t a proper morning on the beach without an intake of fresh sea air and the taste of a sherbet strawberry. But her stiff fingers discovered only a used hankie and a scattering of rough crumbs beneath her glasses and purse.
They were his thing, sherbet strawberries. And so naturally in these past five years they had become her thing. She’d never enjoyed the way they scraped along her throat. She made do with staring out at the restless water instead.
She liked looking at the sea. Even when she wasn’t sitting by it she could see it. It tugged back and forth in her head. Although it was not always this stretch of the North she saw, but the edge of the water that had lapped around Leirvik. She could place herself by the deep fjords or by the small bay their village hugged, at the wharf where her father’s boat, Silje-Therese, had sat snug amongst the rows of white masts, its green paint flaked and peeling. The water had been the darkest of blues, almost black in the dim-lit winters. These days she kept dreaming of that round patch of cold sea.
She wondered if it was time to step on a boat or plane and take off across the water back home. She wanted again the smells: her father’s leafy tobacco, her mother’s cooking. Or the sound of the bells that led them down to the small church on a crisp Sunday morning. She wanted to give in to the memories that were bobbing up inside her but how could she go back? Robert was here even if he wasn’t. How could she have forgotten those sherbet strawberries?
The bright red hair of the young woman beside her caught Aud’s eye. It was almost as red as a sherbet strawberry. Well, not quite. There was a flash of reflected light when the girl tucked those free-flowing locks behind a well-pierced ear. What a thing, all those studs curving from the lobe all the way around. And it was the way the girl sat, slouched with her legs stretched out, so casually, so certain, like she owned the bench or the whole town even. She certainly wasn’t troubled by ghosts and dreams and sands that shifted beneath the feet. What a thing.
She watched the wind nudge at dark piles of seaweed on the beach. It had to be the worst smell known to man, seaweed. Jay had dragged her out for sushi once and she’d simply spat it back out onto the plate, ignoring his look of disgust. She stood by that reaction, though. Never again.
The woman was shifting around and fidgeting. Alison watched her dig deep into her bag for a few minutes. She wasn’t trying to stare but it was hard not to notice the flash of the woman’s ring. An engagement ring. It was massive and swirled over most of her veiny finger, covering even the wedding band. It looked like the shell of a snail, curving in on itself in a trail of diamonds. It was clearly worth a few bob.
What a pitiful thing Steve had given her in comparison. It was still tucked away somewhere, that ring, that tiny, diamond-shaped diamond, in amongst the clutter and boxes she’d packed into her shitty Ford Escort. She hadn’t thought of Jay ever finding it. But what if he did? By now he’d be on his way up from Glasgow with his own stacks of secrets. She didn’t want to unpack those. She just wanted to hold onto her own and there wasn’t anything in it, although Jay would never believe that. She just liked to keep a hold of things was all. All her life, she’d been a collection of odds and ends.
Alison looked again at the old woman and wondered what it would be like to wear a ring so large, so heavy, so definite. It must hold you in place, a ring like that. The woman gave a sharp tut and stopped rummaging in her bag. Alison watched her fold her hands and cross her ankles. She sat still now and straight, a figurehead protruding from the bench, and the wind gathered up strands of her grey hair. She had eyes much bluer than the sky but not quite as dark as the sea. Rooted. That’s what she was.
The girl kept looking at her. It was disconcerting. She was pierced on the corner of her eyebrow as well and had very sharp features; she was like a bird that was trying to peek over and peck into her thoughts. Aud realised she was the one staring now, distracted by the girl tapping her red painted nails against her jacket pocket. She brought her gaze down to her hands and tried to keep her mind still.
Oh, but her hands were cold in this chill. She tucked them into her sleeves. How could this girl be sitting in such a thin jacket? She wasn’t dressed for the October weather at all, with rips and tears in her jeans and her neck and cleavage all exposed. Well.
Mind you, Robert had always teased her for her sensitivity to cold. You’re Norwegian, he’d exclaim, like it was an answer to everything: to why she should enjoy a dark, Scottish winter; to why she might not find his jokes funny; to why she could definitely manage another drink.
The first winter she’d ever spent with him had been her first in Scotland. It was 1963. They’d been snowed in, trapped in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh where they worked. He’d had no intention whatsoever of trying to escape as they all sat huddled amongst the Egyptian statues trying to imagine a warmer climate. He’d just produced an old, battered hip flask full of whisky and passed it around. Go on, he’d said to her when she’d shaken her head. You’re Norwegian.
She’d been twenty then, probably not much younger than the girl next to her. Aud didn’t think this girl was the kind to get swept up in a winter romance and marry after only six months. She seemed hard, independent at least. Maybe she didn’t even like men. She had the air of a wanderer about her and wouldn’t that be nice. Tied to no place and no one. Aud looked out at the water and tried to imagine herself in the midst of those tossing waves with nothing but the wind behind her pushing her farther out to sea.
She’d been sitting here for longer than she meant. Jay would be here soon and she had so much to do. There was no food and really she should cook. That was the thing to do, right? See in the new flat and the new life that was better put together. Had she ever cooked for him? It was getting cold, but still Alison stayed where she was. The guy with the dog had long since wandered off. It was just her and the old woman and the wide sea. The chatter of the waves was soothing in its way. There was even a happy clamour in the conversation of the gulls. Maybe if she came here every morning before work, before a sit-down breakfast with Jay, she could manage. If she inhaled that sea air and let her mind drift on the grey tides, she could find a way to get on with everything that came after.
Maybe that’s what this woman did. She probably had her whole day planned out. It would begin with a healthy breakfast. She’d read the People’s Friend and then she’d take a moment to herself on this beach to breathe away from her husband’s pipe and his rants at the television. She’d look after the grandchildren until tea time. She’d impart some long-held wisdom or some handed-down story before the parents came to collect them. Maybe she’d tell them about the heirloom she carried on her finger. Every move she made through the day would be so deeply ingrained–impossible to give up.
She should be getting on her way. She never ended up staying for long and her back was bothering her. She was silly for even contemplating travelling all the way back to Leirvik at her age. If only she had the ability to sit comfortably on a bench like she owned it and not fall victim to the cold.
She had been plucking carelessly at a thread on her jacket sleeve. It had been coming loose and Aud had thought to remove it entirely but now it was stuck. She pulled harder but nothing. She’d have to walk home now with this length of thread hanging from her. Maybe she should take a leaf out of this girl’s book and start ripping at her clothes willy-nilly. Expose her knees to the elements. Oh dear no. No. If she were this girl, with her bright red hair and youthful figure, she’d wear long swishing dresses. She used to have a midnight-blue one. She’d loved the feel of the satin against her skin. But it wouldn’t have been to this girl’s tastes. Too tame, perhaps. Too girly. Not enough tears.
She pulled harder on the thread and it tore from her sleeve, leaving a neat rip in the stitching.
She bit her nails knowing she should stop. It was the lack of cigarettes that had forced this habit on her. It was nerves and she was ridiculous. If Jay were here he’d tell her to stop. She’d buy some wine, a good bottle that cost more than a fiver.
She heard a slight jingle and a patter and turned to see a dog trotting towards her. It was a Lab: golden but the sea water had darkened and matted its coat. It looked like the dog that had wandered by with the black-coated guy from earlier. Alison twisted around but there was nobody in sight.
A dog padded up to the bench. It was soaked and bedraggled and it dropped a ball right on the ground between her and the girl. Where was its owner? Aud thought of the days when dogs roamed the streets freely but such things were no longer acceptable. She and Robert had always been shooing away strays from their garden when they first moved here. She’d never told him that she used to leave out scraps of meat and cheese to draw them in.
The dog wagged its tail and looked at her with its wet, brown eyes. It seemed confused by her lack of enthusiasm for the ball it had brought.
The girl reached down and picked it up.
She reached for the tennis ball the dog had placed at her feet. She’d always wanted a dog. She supposed the guy must be around somewhere but in the meantime, why not? She threw it back onto the stretch of grass behind her. It didn’t go as far as she’d envisioned. Had she just pulled a muscle in her arm? God, that was pathetic.
Her hands were dripping in slime and dog slebbers. She wiped them on her jacket, leaving a damp mark. The ball had been squidgy and sodden and she regretted the action entirely. She should leave other people’s dogs to themselves and stop interfering. Maybe she and Jay should get their own. But that was probably a step too far and she wouldn’t be the one to suggest it. Better to wait and see.
She watched the dog race after the ball, full speed, and focused on that thing alone. She wished she could’ve been the one to throw it, to just reach for the ball and take it without hesitation. She’d always wanted a dog but her father had refused, of course, in that decidedly quiet way he’d had that allowed for no discussion, and Robert had been allergic. So that was that.
Aud stood, feeling the stiffness in her legs and back. She clutched her handbag tight in her cold hands and made her way back along the path towards the High Street. She should go to the shops before heading home. She needed to buy sherbet strawberries for tomorrow.
She watched the dog bound along, ball in mouth, looking for someone else to play with. It ran in zigzags, towards the sea and then back again. It had forgotten her entirely.
Hannah can be reached via her Twitter, @hmtougher.