The clouds thin and drift apart. Down by the water, Joe calls out. Nick barely listens. He buries and reburies an empty bottle of beer, looks into the sharp white sun.
Liv calls. It’s six in the morning so he knows something’s up, and she’s not making sense. He hugs the phone tighter to his ear. The wind bites his neck and he recoils further into his jacket.
‘Liv, Liv, slow down,’ he says. ‘Where are you?’
‘Outside the house,’ she says. ‘Where are you?’
‘On the beach. Wait, whose house?’
‘Yours! Why are you on the beach? Can you come and let me in? It’s cold.’
She sounds angry, maybe she’s just tired. He wants to know what’s going on. He hasn’t heard anything from Liv in weeks. Just try to get here soon, she tells him. He puts the phone down and bites his inner lip. He shouts to Joe. Time to go.
He takes the two remaining beers and puts a small white shell in his pocket as a memento. Joe’s got their empty glass in a carrier bag, including bottles of milk that they stole from a van earlier. Joe wonders aloud, ‘what the hell are people doing at this time in the morning?’ Nick steps out in front of a slow-moving bus; a bike scissors past, going the opposite direction down the road. He thinks this is just what it would be like to walk on the ocean floor, shuffling sideways under the shadow of rocks, shops, council buildings in the bitter cold.
‘What’s going on with Liv?’ Joe asks.
‘She’s outside the house.’ He doesn’t know.
Joe has to go through the park now anyway. ‘It was a good night though, yeah?’
‘Sure, it was,’ Nick says. And now Liv is outside his house. They say their see you tomorrows; yeah, maybe, Nick thinks.
As he approaches the house he imagines Liv running and wrapping her legs around him, as if they are lovers in an advert.
‘That was quick.’ She kisses him on the cheek.
‘Here, we have to go round the back,’ he says.
She picks up her bag. ‘What’s in your pocket?’
He realises he’s been squeezing the shell.
‘Why were you at the beach?’
‘We ended up there,’ he says.
Nick brings the keyhole into focus. The house is cold.
‘What’s going on? Do you want a drink?’ he says. Both questions come out at once.
‘I’ll explain tomorrow when we’re less tired.’
He nods. ‘Do you want to lie down?’
She falls asleep straight away. Nick wants to wake her up and talk, but already the words he would use feel paper-thin. Besides, he is warm next to the smooth skin of her limbs and the nape of her neck where her hair is drawn up.
He finds himself pressed against the wall. She has left him buried in the covers. How long has he been asleep for? Liv brings them back tea. He reaches for the biscuits by the side of the bed. Clammy orange peel meets his fingers.
‘Treated like royalty – breakfast in bed.’
‘I was going to make you breakfast,’ she says, ‘but I couldn’t find much.’
‘Good tea, anyway.’
‘Well,’ she shrugs, ‘thanks for letting me stay.’
‘You haven’t told me how long you’re staying yet.’
She ruffles his hair.
The biscuits leave him feeling hollow. ‘Tell me what’s going on,’ he says.
She squints and measures her words. ‘I just needed to see a friendly face.’
He waits for more. She flashes him a weak smile. No more is coming. He gives her a hand to pull him out of bed, and then goes limp.
‘Oh, no. You’re getting up today,’ she says.
‘I’m dead. How much day is left anyway?’
They stroll into town, swapping gossip from home and sit beneath an iron balcony. Nick picks at a sandwich and it gets lost between mouth and stomach.
‘So how’s it all going?’ she says.
‘Fine,’ he says. ‘What about you? Are you still doing the photocopying?’
‘You’re looking at me,’ she says.
‘I have to look at you to talk.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘You’re looking at me. Stop.’
They buy ingredients for dinner and take the wine upstairs when they get back. He lights the candle that he sometimes uses when he is writing or listening to music and finds the flame flickers each time he breathes. He dips his finger in the wax and it glazes over in a second.
She sips at her wine. ‘So who were you at the beach with?’
‘Joe.’ He taps at the table with his waxen fingertip. ‘It’s a good place to watch the sun come up.’
Candle flames dip in her eyes.
She shivers. He leans against her for warmth and her lips snag on his chin. She goes to say sorry but he presses the sibilant sound away from her mouth. It’s been so long since they’ve kissed; it is like a foreign greeting.
He switches sides, brushes past her nose. Soon they are on the bed. Soon there is a rhythm. She helps him by taking off her shirt.
They go on kissing, even more eagerly; then, silence. One of them had stopped. The newborn baby next door squeaks. She shivers again. The room is ten degrees colder.
Liv’s smile is assuring. She suggests they make food. This is crazy. He picks wax from his fingertip.
Much of their easy, coasting conversation over dinner is owed to the cheap wine. It puts his teeth on edge. The taste takes him back to a beach in Italy. They walked there late at night. They kept thinking they heard another couple talking, but if they existed, they were divided by darkness. Nick and Liv swigged wine from the bottle and echoed the other couple’s laughter. The sex they had on the way back was quick and animalistic. They tugged their jeans up and snaked out of the alleyway between the cramped walls, on which they’d bashed their elbows. Italian boys hung out of cars, whistled at Liv as they walked, fingers locked. A couple of bats flickered over vineyards.
Nick eats a lot of pasta though each mouthful is heavy. A fly buzzes behind the curtains. He feels slightly sick but suggests ice cream. She offers to get it. Her Blackberry vibrates on the table.
She has missed calls from ‘Mark’ (6) and from ‘Home’ (5).
When she comes back in, she asks, ‘Did you look at my phone?’
‘Just say you did.’
‘I did, then.’ He might as well admit it. She shrugs. He doesn’t pry; he only wants to lighten the mood.
‘I’m sorry I came. It was selfish of me.’
Not at all, he says to himself.
‘Do you want to watch a film?’ she suggests.
‘Is it weird if I go for a walk?’ he says.
‘It’s OK.’ She has work to do. She pulls her sleeves down over her thumbs and looks to the door: she doesn’t need to be mothered.
There is a thin mist of rain outside. Fireworks surprise him, rise up and burst, ulcerous rouge, above his head. He thinks back to yesterday; the clouds separating on the beach, how his heart raced, how he saw everything doubled. Back at the house party, bass rattled the windows of the conservatory. He walked past people crashed on a leather sofa blocking the front door. Laser-lights crackled on the kitchen walls. He saw globes moving behind the eyes of a girl he just met, who drooled ‘I love you’ at him. ‘No, you don’t,’ he said. She didn’t understand. ‘See, you don’t understand what I’m saying,’ he said. He found Joe and they left. Joe reassured him he was not an idiot. Lights merged into the mist; sentences rolled into the next. Before long they were at the beach.
Nick wipes the drizzle from his hair and makes his heart pump. As he walks, he finds the shell in his pocket and throws it over some houses. It tinkles down on a roof the other side. His shoulder throbs.
Liv is immersed in a heavy book when he gets back, the candle for company. He kisses her on the neck. She tells him he is extraordinarily distracting.
In the morning, she announces she’s leaving. She looks beautiful half-in, half-out of his bed trying to find her bra. ‘I was keeping it,’ he says, ‘for a memento.’
She slips out and brings back cheese on toast. ‘There’s an orange in the fruit bowl that’s gone green.’
‘I’m scared to touch it. It produces its own dust.’ He wraps his arms round her waist. She frowns and he pulls away. A piece of biscuit breaks off and falls in his tea. ‘Tragic,’ he says.
She is not in a rush but time seems to go by in snowdrifts. Nick spends ages in the shower. Liv is ready, as always, in minutes.
‘Here,’ he says. He has bought her a novel for the journey. She cringes.
He hesitates and she gives him a generous hug, arms around his neck. He squeezes her off the ground and eventually puts her down. The taxi pulls up outside his house. His reflection in the window is a translucent skin that he can peel off.
They wave at each other, pulling stupid faces. He wonders at what point she’ll settle down, perhaps buy a cup of tea, and start reading; and at what point she’ll find the piece of prose he’d slipped inside the novel he’d bought her; the one he’d called ‘Distance’. He feels as if he’s being dragged around under water. He wishes he could run after her and retrieve it.
He strips his sheets, breathing through his mouth. The baby next door squeals again. He pierces the orange with a fork. Dust unsettles. At arm’s length, he drops the grey fruit in the bin.
Sammi Gale has had poetry featured in New Linear Perspectives. A poem and a short story were also published in Lighthouse. In his spare time, he edits a short fiction magazine called EXIT.
Photo credit: Richard Leonard