In our first short story of February, Clare Holloway delivers a chilling story exploring death…
It is almost Christmas; the festive lights glint from the lone shop on the side of the beach, the bright inflatables that hang out of the front window visible for miles. The tide pushes in an icy gust that runs chills along the man’s back; they are exposed, on the cliff top. He is considering a visit to his family, though he knows they might not want to see him after so many years. The wind blows again and he tugs his glove further up his wrist. He still thinks about how he hadn’t even popped his head round to say goodnight to his boy, so little, that one last time, hadn’t played him a final lullaby. It had been many Christmases since he had walked away from his growing family and he doesn’t mean to let another go by. He picks up the pickets, half coated in mud, and walks back to the site. But, perhaps they are better without him. Perhaps nobody needs him. As he sets the pickets down on the coarse earth there is a shift in the ground; he catches himself with a stumble and looks dumbly at the other men in high vis jackets. After a baffled silence, the cliff gives way and they drop with it, tumbling with the earth, down towards the sea
Adrian looks at the newspaper on Boxing Day and his whole body tenses in excitement at the front-page story.
“Mum, there was an avalanche round the cliffs and six people died!”
“What Adrian? See, this piece goes here, by the seagull…”
“An avalanche! People got crushed under the rocks. D’you reckon anybody survived?”
“Adrian!” She indicates Adrian’s young sister, engrossed in the puzzle.
Adrian sighs. His mum is annoyed because she hasn’t told Elsa about death yet.
“Adey, do you love my puzzle?”
All of Elsa’s sentences start with “do you love”. Adrian finds it maddening. But he is too distracted by the story to be bothered today, it is so rare to hear of any death in Lowestoft that isn’t from sickness or old age. Sure, people must die in London all the time, it being full of smoke and action and danger, but Lowestoft! He spends his life planning how he will one day leave, perhaps by going into the city and getting a money job and then, when he has enough he can move his Mum and Elsa there too. If he stays here for too much longer he might turn to dust and blow away down the grey beach. The feeling takes over him suddenly, the stifling feeling of being stuck in a dead end, lost in a plugged up maze. The colours of the Christmas decorations are too much, they make the room hotter, lights reflecting off foils everywhere, they press in on his head. He needs to get out of the house, now.
“I’m going to the shop, get some more coke.”
His mum’s face, looking very young in the yellow light of the tree, moulds into wrinkles of concern.
“Why don’t we all go, get some fresh air?”
“I can go to the shop by myself mum, god’s sake, you can see it from the house!”
He gets to the door before she can put up too much of a fuss, hoping that she isn’t actually going to watch him walking from the house. Although, there isn’t anybody on this road worth being embarrassed for so it wouldn’t really matter at all.
There are only so many days of enclosed conversation and amber lighting and coloured cellophane on naked, sticky feet that a teenager can endure. Adrian can’t shake the clogged up feeling that has settled around his ears, under his new buzz cut. His mother had sadly shorn it a days ago, after weeks of begging. He still had more hair than the average citizen in Lowestoft.
The front door closes and the wind blasts Adrian’s body, a roar of ice forcing his muscles to contract, hunching against the cold. It’s refreshing at first, before the chill settles in. He should have grabbed a coat, like he’s always told to; he feels the air tugging his arms, trying to blow them away, leave them scattered down the street with the plastic cups. After the many colours of his bloated living room, the hues of the street are almost soothingly bland. Stony buildings, smooth concrete, grey sky, pallid people. He cannot stop thinking about the story, the speed and the sound of the shifting rock that claimed six people, at least six people, already. It said that it happened sometime over the last few days. Was it while his little sister Elsa clung to him with her strawberry cream fingers, dribbling chocolate into her yellow pigtails? While the clatter of plates and weak laughter had clawed around the inside of his head and he’d stared out at the gulls in the distance, imagining an ungrounded life? He sees himself there, a witness to the low rumble of sound and the panic and the speed and the roar of the men and mountain screaming. He shivers, transported. The drop of the cliff intoxicates him with its callous, unbridled force.
Adrian reaches the corner shop and hesitates for a moment before turning right, heading down towards the beach. His mum will notice, of course; she had been concerned to even let him out to the corner shop, worried about the danger of minutes alone. He needs more time to himself; there is none in the tiny house. The wind is a relentless force, finding its way through every open loop in his jumper. The jumper is new, a gift from his mother but not a surprise; she had been adding a line or two every night since September, after dinner was finished and Elsa in bed. The last few nights she had dedicated hours to completing it, her fingers crooked and misshapen by the end. It isn’t the right colour and he would never wear it to school but in the tormenting gale he is grateful to have it defending him from the cold.
It hasn’t had a moments rest since the tide pulled it out into the ocean. Buffeted around by currents, it has been rolled over and over and scraped against rocks by the cliff, flipped and dragged down, against the sand. It is now as cold as the sea itself.
Adrian strides down the narrow path to the seafront, noting how the smooth, poured concrete would have been perfect for skating, had he been given a board for it like John Roberts from round the corner. John Roberts is a show off but the only one in Lowestoft who isn’t a skeleton so they have to be friends. Adrian’s jaw tightens, thinking of the gift he did receive for Christmas. Who wants a guitar, anyway? Especially one that belongs to the ghost of somebody who should have been there, carving the chicken and helping his mum leave this silent town and find a place where people really laughed and sang and had the mobility to dance. His mum had looked so hopeful as he opened it that he had to smile but in truth he had wanted to smash it against the lamppost outside his window and see if the sound was enough to wake anything up on their barren street. A skateboard would have been perfect! The houses would still have been grey at speed, but at least they’d be so blurred that he’d have been able to imagine himself somewhere else, somewhere things happen.
He slips down the stones of the beach, keeping an eye out for the delicate pieces of sea glass that Elsa thinks are jewels. She treasures so many things; it’s her fault that no wrapper of Quality
Street can be thrown away because she always wants them kept, so she can stick the bright cellophane all over her windows. He turns to look at the cliffs that stretch around the bay; a murky blue smudge, clear against the powdery grey that lingers above and below. Gulls drift in the heavy sky, dirty specks in the white. He thinks of the glorious racket that would come from the peaks of the cliffs all collapsing, one by one, dragging people over the edge, he yearns for the moment he can’t stop replaying in his head. Imagine how jealous John Roberts would have been! Even the waves seem to break quietly in Lowestoft, a tempered crack then a lowly hush, before retreating back to the lull of the ocean. Peering from the cliffs to the sand that goes on and on, curving into the distance, it occurs to him that he is utterly alone on the beach. There are no dogs bounding around the sparse plants, no children pecking among the rocks. The sea is as wide as the sky and he is laid out in the middle. He picks out some wide, flat pebbles to try to skip into the sea, like John Roberts does, ignoring the growing unease in his stomach from the empty beach and the slow, rolling tide.
It has been tugged around by the undercurrents, rubbed against the dark, slimy groynes that have stained parts of it brown. The waves have finally brought it close to the beach and it is rocked by the gentleness of the low tide, so close to land again.
The stones get smaller the closer Adrian gets to the water; soon they are little more than grainy, wet specks, studded in the sand and froth. He looks out, far into the distance, yearning for a place where things move and people aren’t afraid to make noise and be alive. There are boats, way out there, but so far that even they appear motionless, painted on the horizon like giant postcard pictures. Adrian starts spinning the pebbles into the sea, frustrated at each dull plop. He tries flicking his wrists in the way that John Robert said his dad had showed him but he can’t seem to do it right and, one by one, they all sink. Out of rocks, he stares listlessly at the water. With each muted rush of the waves, he can make out the shape of something bobbing, in and out, cradled by the sea. The sky is spread out; white, a cloth above him, the shade taking up so much of his eyes that it seems to bore into his temples. The sun hangs pale and cold in the sky, unwinking. The grainy rock shifts beneath him, scraping his shoes and soaking through the canvas. There is a pang in his throat, a dryness that won’t go away. Everything is louder than he wants and it sounds blurry, like radio noise at top volume. The wind and the waves compete with crackling fury, gusts of rough, salty air beat into his face, through his shorn hair, spreading a chill over the thin skin of his skull. The waves rush at him again, settling around his feet, bubbling as they present their grisly offering.
Adrian runs into the sea. The cold water is instantly around him, clinging, skin tight, colder with each movement, coldest above his hips and up around his shoulders as he sinks down and wraps his arms around the corpse in the water, the man who is there and not there, the man who does not look back at him when the tide bows back and his face is revealed. The weight of the body is more than Adrian expected, he cannot carry it so he has to drag it up towards the beach. Against the grey, pulseless skin of the man, the beach is warm, the sky a faded blue. Adrian is gasping with cold, his heart beating fast, double speed, to make up for the still dead heart in the corpses’ chest, pressed against his as he hugs the man and rolls them further from the lapping water. There is no warmth in the embrace. His skin is thin and pliant; it slips over the spongy flesh like the wrinkled skin of an old peach. He smells like the sea and something worse, a rotten something that crawls in the hairs of Adrian’s nostrils. Adrian’s hands smell like this too, there is something thick and grey beneath his nails. The sea groans.
“Are you alright?”
The call sees to come from nowhere. Adrian is still wrapped around the body; he raises his neck and squints up the beach. There is a tall man, made taller by the blonde child on his shoulders, high up by the road. They are looking at him.
“Do you need any help?”
The voice is muffled by the wind but he can see that they are moving towards him. Adrian drags himself up and lurches forward, tripping on the moving stones. From his place on the ground, he shouts, surprised at the rasp of his voice,
“Go back, take her back, don’t look! Call the police!”
The man glances down at the body by the sea and his body stiffens. He shudders and takes the girl from his shoulders, pulling her, firmly, up the beach. He turns and beckons Adrian, who leaves the corpse and runs after the living man.
When all is over at the police station and Adrian is home, he washes his hair thoroughly, lathering the soap again and again. He scrapes at his body and stares at the red rakings his hands make all over his pale, supple skin. He stays in the shower for a long time, turning, so all of his body becomes red with heat. When he is dry and has worked his way through all of the medicine and hot drinks plied into him by his mum, he heads upstairs and is grateful, for once, that he shares his room. He finds the guitar and plays to Elsa, gentle sounds made from the way he holds down the chords with his soft, pink fingers.
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