After you leave, I sit and stare out of my rain-dotted window, that used to be our window. I stare out at the red-brick buildings. I watch the raindrops drip from the telephone wires like the tears of jilted lovers.
I stare into the windows of the apartments opposite, at the contemporary kitchenware and wine racks. Things I thought we might own one day. Grown-up stuff. Earthenware dishes. A juicer.
The couple opposite, the ones we used to make fun of together, sit at a granite-topped breakfast bar, eating something grainy. Muesli. She still wears workout gear; Lycra pink leggings tighter than a snake’s skin, and a black hoodie. No inch of her arse hangs over the sides of the black and chrome stool she perches on, like a delicate bird ready for flight. She brings her loaded silver spoon to pink lips.
As I sit on the floor eating leftover pizza, I try to imagine transmuting myself into her skin and wonder whether you would have stayed if I’d worn skin-tight Lycra and eaten muesli from a spoon.
If my arse had fitted neatly onto a stool.
The man gets up now. He’s wearing a brown wool suit and ironic tie. He puts on his jacket. It’s one of those suits that make him look slightly creative – definitely not a banker’s suit – and I remember how we used to make up jobs and names for them.
He leans across and kisses her on the forehead. She smiles up at him showing perfect white teeth. Her blonde ponytail bobs lightly. (How does it stay so perfect when she’s been exercising?)
He picks up a soft, brown leather briefcase from the floor and leaves the room. She sits on, reading the newspaper and sipping her orange juice. I watch her wait there for a few minutes, until she’s sure he’s gone. Then, she pulls a pink mobile from her pocket and taps a message into it.
I watch for a few more minutes, biting my nails, a habit you hate, until I see her jump from the stool. She’s running out of the door, which I know leads to the hallway where the outside door is. I know this because it’s the same set-out as my apartment – the one that used to be ours.
I can’t see her now. But still I know what she’s doing.
I know that she’s kissing you and tasting that unique taste you have, of mint and a hint of garlic, even when you haven’t eaten it.
I know that you’ll be tasting muesli on her tongue.
And I know that you’ll be wrapping your thick arms around her slim waist, as I let my tears splash onto the glass, mirroring the raindrops on the other side.
He Buys Me Flowers
He buys me flowers.
Once, when we first met, I told him I liked being bought flowers. I liked the huge white daisies, I said. The ones with the round orange eyes, like bright egg yolks. I liked their simplicity, their nakedness.
He buys me bright orange dahlias, fat blooms, exotic. Expensive. I know by now these flowers represent transgressions. Guilt flowers. The bigger, more expensive the fauna, the larger the transgression.
We both pretend not to know this.
My friend Marcie told me she saw him touch a woman’s bare shoulder at a party three month’s back. She, the woman, was wearing a strapless dress. Marcie said she didn’t see him take her home.
He bought me a large bunch of flaccid pink carnations from the petrol station the next morning.
I arranged the carnations in an old milk bottle and placed them by the bed. They festered there for weeks until I emptied out the brackish water, brown and congealed at the bottom of the bottle.
Two months ago, he confessed to dancing with a girl he met in Tramps nightclub in town. Said she felt him up. Said he’d drunk too much. Said it went no further.
He bought me a fancy looking purple orchid in its own square box. It had a tiny glass vase inside to feed it water. I liberated it from the box, it resembled a cage, and placed it on the hot windowsill of the apartment. Its leaves turned brown and shed onto the floor.
I never told him orchids remind me of death.
He’s been on a business trip to Slough for three days. All expenses paid, free mini-bar. I’ve bought new underwear from M&S. Cooked red snapper (his favourite) for dinner. I’m soaking in a bath of orange blossom salts when I hear him let himself in.
When I emerge from the bathroom, my hair piled high in a soggy towel like a Geisha, he’s standing in the doorway surrounded by a bouquet of red roses. His smile is sheepish, hopeful. His eyes like the glass marbles of a stuffed toy. His face makes my chest hurt.
I don’t know if we can get past the roses. The edge of the velveteen petals are already starting to wilt.
He pushes the heavy metal wheelchair up the steep, cobbled hill of the coastal town. Why she had to choose this place for a day out, he doesn’t know.
He wonders if she did it on purpose; she must have remembered this punishing hill from their visits in their youth.
He stops to take a breath. She tries to swivel her head around, “Why are we stopping?” She asks, her voice abrasive, brittle as glass against glass. The way she always speaks to him these days.
“Just taking a breather, this hill’s a killer,” he says.
She folds her arms in her lap and stares stonily ahead. The collar of his waterproof jacket tickles his neck where sweat has begun to trickle down into it. It had been spotting with rain down on the beach, where they’d sheltered to eat bags of sharp vinegary chips with tiny wooden forks. Now the sun was beating on his back as he resumed pushing.
“Put your back into it a bit”, she shouts, without turning round, “my cheeks are getting sunburned”.
He pushes on, allowing the delicious edge of a thought to dance across his mind: What if I let go? He sees himself standing on the hill, watching the chair gather speed, bumping and careening over the wet cobbles. He wonders whether the bumps would cause it to tip over before it reached the bottom, or if it would continue to gather speed, crashing into the sad accordion player at the edge of the slipway.
Maybe she’d carry on down the slipway and end up in the sea, carried away to France.
As he pushes, he remembers other summers, when they would come here and swim in the sea. When she would laugh as he tossed her around on a bright yellow dinghy, bobbing up and down in her bathing suit, tossing chestnut curls into the wind.
He remembers seeing other men look at the way her nipples stood out under the wet, clingy material, and felt proud she was his. Images of the two of them walking hand in hand along the coastline, talking of the children they would bring back here to build sandcastles and eat ice creams.
Disappointing, barren years followed, as their dreams faded and tarnished.
He forces his mind away from his memories; they are more painful than the daydream of letting her slide back down the cobbles, a pile of crumpled metal and his wife on top. The saddest thing is, he thinks, she probably doesn’t remember any of that. He wonders if it’s better for her that way.
He feels a tug in his chest, regrets his earlier uncharitable thoughts.
“We’ll get a nice ’99 when we get to the top, shall we?” He says now to the back of his wife’s thinning grey, wiry curls.
She doesn’t answer; hasn’t heard him. She’s thinking of a hot summer, and a yellow dinghy. And a beautiful girl in a red swimsuit from a long lost dream. And she’s wishing he would just let her slide down the hill, to be carried away by the waves.
I stand among the groups of middle-aged parents lining the pavement beside the bus that contains their beloved offspring. Excited faces scattered with acne and over-zealous make-up press against glass, or turn away, sharp haircuts bobbing as they talk fast and laugh with friends.
I pick out your window. You sit politely, neatly, long curls hanging round your shoulders. Your father’s nose side-on to my view. You do that thing you do with your glasses, where you push them up your face with the back of your hand. I have never seen anyone else do this, apart from my mother.
I tell myself that you are not leaving forever. You are not my mother. You are just going off to adventures, and experiences. You will come back. Yet, my insides feel the same way as they did when I lost her.
Your long lashes loll like fronds as you bend down to retrieve a paperback from your holdall. I wonder if you have packed the bunny that has sat on your bed since I brought you home from the hospital, the yellow blanket wrapped tightly around you. My grasp onto your perfect form even tighter.
Your friend taps you on the shoulder and you stretch your arms to hug her. She bounces down beside you. Your face is hidden from me now as you turn to talk to her.
Other parents are milling around in groups, talking to one another, shouting to their offspring if they have their this, their that. I don’t shout messages to you. I just watch, this last, lingering, private moment.
The engine starts, rumbling loudly and spitting out cancerous fumes from its large exhaust. You face back toward the front and pop a red sweet into your mouth, making your cheek plump. A faint cheer goes up from inside the bus, and some of the still malingering parents’ cheer, too.
You turn your head at last. Look surprised that I am still standing there, alone and apart from the crowd.
And you smile. Genuine, happy, relaxed. You raise your slender arm to wave.
I raise mine too, mechanically, try to smile back as honestly as I can.
And then the bus pulls away from the curb and you turn back to your friend. You have already dropped your hand. You are already miles away.
And though I tell myself you will return, you are not gone forever, I walk back towards my car knowing that my home will be quiet, and things will be as I left them. I know that there will be no smell of body spray clogging the bathroom; no dirty underwear on the floor; nobody playing loud pop-songs into the night.
And I know that the world – my world – has shifted slightly, into the unknown.
The winding lane stretches down toward the strip of beach. There are no holidaymakers left now; just fading footprints in the wet sand. A fish and chip wrapper blows up in the growing wind. The hem of my thin skirt blows out imitating the flapping seagulls.
The sea is inching its way inland; ten more minutes and the small stretch of remaining beach will be washed away.
Moving along the shoreline a little, I dip a reluctant toe into the foamy ripples. The water is shockingly cold. I move to lean on a rock – it feels slightly damp. Two children’s lolly sticks point out of the crack between the rocks.
The wind is really picking up now, and the tide is almost in. Each time it reaches its foamy claw toward my rock, it just misses and flows back to become part of the mass of ink. Like watching a child trying to reach a toy and getting thwarted again and again.
There’s a sound of scratching on the stone steps above me, and I turn to see a dog. I sit perfectly still, hoping it will walk off. But the dog, reaching the bottom of the steps, pads towards me. It sniffs at my legs and rubs its soft ears against my reluctant hand, forcing me to stroke it. It looks like a young red setter. ‘Hello there, are you out all alone?’ I say. The dog wags its tail erratically and pants, dropping its bottom onto the sand.
I look all around the wet beach and up towards the headland. But I can’t see an owner for the dog. ‘You need to go,’ I say, but it just wags its tail again, lolling its tongue out of the side of its mouth. It looks like it’s smiling.
I check for a name-tag, but it doesn’t have one. It doesn’t look like a stray – it’s too well fed. I look around me for a stick or even a stone to throw. But everywhere is covered with sea-water now. I reach into my cardigan pockets, which are filled to the top with rocks. I pluck out a flat, grey pebble amongst them and fling it across the sand as far as possible, in the direction of the slipway. The dog just stares after it. Then it stares back at me.
I sigh. This is all I need. I try not to feel responsible for the animal. It’s just an animal, I tell myself, over and over. This is what’s got me into problems in the past -taking responsibility for others, putting their needs over my own, I think.
I take a last look at the wide, vast sea in front of me. There is no beach left now and the water is pooling around my ankles, reaching upwards, as though inviting me in. The dog climbs up onto a rock to escape getting wet.
I walk forwards, foam and splashes kicking off my bare feet. I don’t look back, just keep my eyes focused on the horizon. I don’t want to see the dog watching me; I don’t want to see the houses of the town stretching off towards fields and sheep and people’s lives beyond the cliffs.
I don’t want to think about the people left behind.
This is about me. It is just me and the sea, I think.
I hear a bark and a man’s voice carry on the wind as I get further in, as the water whirls around my shoulders. I can no longer walk, but am pulled in like a donkey on a rope. Not reluctantly, but needing to be coerced. The water is freezing and my summer skirt has wound itself around my legs, clinging like arms, pulling at me. The rocks in my pockets drag me and as I stumble, I am pulled beneath the waves and my long hair fans out around my head like a halo.
As my breath leaves my body, I feel a pair of hands pulling me backwards. I’m not sure if I’m floating across the sea on my back or if I’m floating into the next place.
I hear a man’s voice swear as the power of the waves pull against his strength. I hear the dog barking, worried for its owner.
I feel hardness behind my back and shoulders as I’m roughly dropped onto a dry rock. A man’s lips are over mine, the taste of salt and of his breath, hot and smoky. Large hands painfully pound my chest.
I cough, my head raises and sea-water spews out of my mouth over the side of the rock. The dog sits beside me vigilantly.
‘Thank God – I thought you were a gonner’, the man says, pushing back onto his knees.
I don’t answer. I shiver, and he takes off his jacket and places it around my shoulders.
‘Are you okay? What were you thinking? If Rory hadn’t found you and I hadn’t found him…well. I guess I saved you,’ he says. He can’t help saying it without the edge of manly pride to his voice.
I look at him. He’s just like every man I ever met. Rushing in to save me, thinking he knew what I needed.
I want to scream at him – I didn’t want fucking saving.
But I don’t answer. I don’t say anything.
I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
I just stare out at the wide sea, with its blurred horizon, and I know it is leaving without me.
She dresses carefully – ever so carefully – for the meeting with him. She wants –needs – for him to see her as the woman he thinks she is.
She feels, as she dresses, that she is impersonating the woman he wants her to be. The woman she wants to be.
She thinks that maybe they are both the same person: the same woman.
But she’s not sure. She’s not sure because it’s been so long since she was the person she’s impersonating now that she doubts herself. She doubts whether she was ever actually that woman.
Could she ever really have been that woman she sees in her mind when she closes her eyes, the one who used to walk into rooms and feel comfortable- confident even – with who she was; with how she looked?
Could she really have dressed in such a way before that men had turned their heads to look her way; that they held her in their thoughts even long after she had left?
She sprays a little mist across her chest now, between her breasts, her décolletage. She hopes she remembers which musky notes best react with her own individual scent. She hopes he likes the rose-scented fragrance of her soap.
She hopes…she just hopes. That’s all. For him to like her; for him to not be disappointed.
She sounded so self-assured, so experienced on her profile. Yet, still youthful enough to remember how to flirt with him. How to dress right. How to stay cool and casual.
When really, she feels nothing of the sort.
She dreads the moment of walking into the bar and seeing the disappointment register on his face. The deadening fake smile that says I was expecting someone younger, prettier, smarter.
Sticking the red carnation into the button-hole of her blouse, re-applying red lipstick, she hopes, desperately, that this time she will be the woman he is expecting to meet.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the UK. A regular writer for Skirt Collective, she also writes features and reviews for The State of the Arts. She has also published flash fiction and poetry in various literary magazines, including Sick Lit Magazine, Gold Dust, and 101words. She has been long-listed for Flash 500, and won the weekly AdHoc Fiction contest, as well as being nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Kelly Coody of Sick Lit Magazine for 2017.
Find her on Twitter: @katejonespp
She also blogs at: writerinresidenceblog.wordpress.com
Featured image: Brian Michael Barbeito