By Emily McPhillips
She wasn’t expecting to hear from him. She’d lived in this town by the sea for nearly two years now. From her bedroom window she can see the long abandoned pier that stretches out into the grey sea, a sea that was meant to be blue, but nothing was how she had expected it to be here. Here was meant to be her new home, but in all the time she has been here it has never felt like home to her; it has felt as unwelcoming as the boarded up chalets that once sold candyfloss and rock to sticky fingered children. She misses the sound of children playing in the street. Children aren’t brought here to play and build sandcastles; they are driven through and they are brought to the next town over. The next town over is feeding and entertaining and housing people. The next town over is being useful. This town is a place where people come to grow old, and to grow lonely, and to become accustomed to the quiet, where each day another voice diminishes and even the seagulls seem to become mute.
“Why is it so quiet here?”
She whispers this sometimes, and her whisper feels like an intrusion that could be carried away by the waves of the sea, to be passed judgement upon, as though she had said something out of turn; and so she muffles it into her pillow, saying it again and again, and hoping that she will fall asleep soon.
Her suitcases rest at the end of her bed. Her suitcases have never been fully unpacked; there is a zipped compartment along the side of one of her suitcases that has been completely forgotten about, in there she has packed a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, some hair clips and a small black comb. There is a feeling that nothing needs to be done. These items haven’t been missed, but each of them have been easily replaced, some have been replaced and then replaced again, but they always look the same as the ones still kept in her suitcase. Her room is kept orderly and nothing makes it feel like it is her room; she likes it this way. She likes the impermanence of it, that she is bound here by nothing but her choice to be here. There are no memories in this room that couldn’t be imagined in a different time and a different place. This room, and her time here, are intentionally forgettable.
The flat is small. It is on the top floor of a narrow three storey house, and it faces out towards the sea. When she arrived in this town she had made a list of things to do, on the list there was one thing that she had underlined – she had to have a room that looked out towards the sea; a view that no houses interfered with, but a view that framed a wash of sea, on this she would not compromise.
“I want to look out and look at the sea and to see it stretch out and connect with countries I have never been to, that I will never see. I want to watch it and imagine the stories it could tell, and watch it journey on until sea touches sky and sky touches sea, and I cannot distinguish the two; their beginnings and their ends just a smudge, like my thumb blotting several pastel shades of blue together until they become but one shade of blue again. I want to watch this every morning and never tire of it, and I want to feel small and adventurous, and know that at any time, if I wanted to, I could let this sea wash over me and be gone forever.”
The sea is a romantic conjecture that has been with her since her youth. Back then she lived miles inland, and the sea was something that she knew about from the movies and television she watched, and the glorious conversations that she would crane to overhear. She made her own sea in the bottles her mother left by the sink for recycling, their labels had been peeled off and a sticky rim was left across their middle. She would fill these glass bottles with water, and then she would add a pinch of salt to each, chanting, “Now let this water become seawater” as she stirred the salt in. She said this to each bottle as she added the salt, and then swirled it round with a stick she’d picked up from the yard, out back. She would collect dirt and strip leaves into a tangle of mini seaweed, and she’d add these new ingredients to the bottles after the chanting was done. Sometimes she would enjoy to perch on the end of her bed and gaze at her bottled seas; she had them lined them up across her mantelpiece, standing proudly in an organised row, next to her mirror, and teamed with their reflections.
Her first lover, being aware of her love for the sea took her to the beach for one of their first nights together. She was seventeen then, and she had still never seen the sea, she hadn’t ventured much further than the outer districts of her home town. They kissed whilst lying on the sand, and they kissed by the sea. Then they floated in the cold seawater and she fondly told stories of her youth to him. He dived underwater and pulled her under and they kissed until they drew short of breath. She fell in love with him. She kept his photograph inside the covers of each of her diaries; she had filled twelve of these by the time they broke up. She documented everything, keeping all their cinema stubs and restaurant receipts, and she had pinned in the name badge he wore to his old job. They had broken up suddenly; there had been no hint that he had not been happy. He had been happy, incredibly so; their love was something that needn’t be explained to understand, it was obvious in everything they did.
He left town three days after breaking up with her. She waited by the steps to his house, first she stood up and tried to look casual, then she sat down and bit frantically at her hair. She did not know how to act, so she tried to act in many ways at once, and then finally gave in and broke into tears. He walked right by her, not offering any comfort or any lasting terms of affection; he didn’t even offer her a parting glance. She looked at the blue of the sky and she didn’t understand colour anymore, to her it all looked limp, and she saw the dust in the crevices, and the spiders, and all the things that should have been swept away from her view. She felt like she wasn’t even herself anymore, because he had taken parts of her with him when he had left; he had taken all the good parts that she had so selflessly given to him.
“I was well and your mother was sick, and I was jealous of her crumbling mortality. My deathly pallor was something that you loved about me, and now look how vividly she should display it. Do you know how your absence makes me ill?”
She knew nothing of his mother’s illness; she only found this out through hanging about his old apartment and speaking to his landlord. His mother had been ill for months. He had never spoken about her; in all the time she had known him, his parents and his childhood were a subject that was best forgotten about, and she respected his privacy, and let it be. His mother died the day he left town, he had been on his way to the hospital to see her, but he had been too late. The doctors were comforting to him, they arranged for him to see her. His mother was laid out in the emergency room, in a hospital gown, sapped of energy and aging with each second he stared at her. He had missed eight years of her life, and how it showed. She had changed but what changes had she made; and he laughed at how death had finally brought them back together, a quiet and sombre reunion. He didn’t cry here, but waited until he was outside. He smoked in the car park and turned to the wall as he sucked in the tears as they fell. Then he dropped his cigarette to the ground and didn’t stub it out, he walked across the car park in a sure and steady way, walking towards his car. He climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off with nowhere in mind. Driving distracted him because he found it hard to think of more than one thing at a time. He has been distracting himself for a long time now.
Looking out at the pier, she holds a postcard in her hands, holding it as though she is holding a hymn book. She holds it away from herself, processing it like an eye test; it’s hard to read at this distance. The sea looks static. She feels tense and strange, and she feels lonely in this lonely town and lonely room, but even lonelier holding this postcard. She folds the postcard and places it in her cardigan pocket, and she walks with a strong sense of purpose until her clothes hang heavy with the weight of seawater, and it becomes too hard to walk any further. She stops still until she cannot feel anything anymore and everything is calm. The sea remains grey and static, and nothing changes, nothing moves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily McPhillips was born in 1985. She lives in Manchester where she studies Journalism at Salford University. Her short stories have appeared in various zines.