How To Be

Photo by Luis Hernandez
Photo by Luis Hernandez

Abigail removed her headphones, propped herself up on her elbows and surveyed the beach. The sun, lapsing low in the sky, stretched the surfers’ shadows into leering shapes on the pitted sand and the smell of sunscreen, beer and vanilla ice-cream lay in the air. On this holiday, Abigail had adopted the habit of taking a last swim every evening, before going back up to the cottage. She thought, somehow, that a boy was more likely to speak to her at this time of day, his confidence swelled by a whole afternoon of heat. But, so far, that hadn’t happened.

They were leaving tomorrow. The days had arrived one after another and now the summer was ending and her sixteenth year with it. Abigail felt frightened that decades would flit past in this way, before she’d had a chance to think.

She stood and walked to the water, trying to look carefree and happy to be on her own. Resisting the urge to turn and see whether the boys were looking, Abigail strode in, anxious not to hesitate even at the shock of the cold water smacking against her flesh. When it reached her waist, she sunk in and scooped down below the surface, her long hair spreading around her head in fronds, taking on the sea’s motion.

She remembered what her friend Jason, troubled and probably gay, had told her about drowning one evening when they’d shared a joint up on the golf course. ‘It’s a beautiful death,’ he’d said. ‘The lack of oxygen to your brain makes you hallucinate mermaids.’

Abigail burst up through the surface and flipped onto her back, letting the sea rock her body. Something strange and beautiful happened then. There was a space between the waves and Abigail found herself lying in a murmuring stillness. The ocean muffled her ears, the fading sky pressed in on her eyes and the water held her. There, suspended, she had the sense that the world shifted physically, as though trying to show her what really lay beyond. Abigail held her breath, watching herself exist in that moment. And then it was as though the sun winked at the sea to resume its usual motion. A wave cracked on the shore and Abigail became aware of the distant tinny blast of music and the smell of a barbecue starting on the beach. She somersaulted down into the water and dived for the seabed, trying to find the feeling she’d just had.

When Abigail let herself into the holiday cottage, she had the sense that her mother and new stepfather had sprung into animation purely for her benefit.

‘You’re back late, Abs,’ said her mum, a playful lilt to her voice. She was sitting cross-legged on the sofa. ‘Getting chatted up by the surfers?’ She sloshed wine around her glass and grinned at her daughter.

‘I don’t think I’m their type,’ Abigail said, with a spite she didn’t understand.

‘Oh, Abs.’ Ian, her stepfather, walked through from the kitchen. ‘All teenagers think like that. I promise you it’s not true. One day you’ll look back and wonder what you were worried about.’

‘That’s right. A lovely tall girl like you. They should be so lucky.’ Abigail’s mum drained her glass.[private]

Abigail pulled her salt-stiffened hair forward over her shoulder in a rope. She began to claw her fingers through it. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘do people always feel free to comment on your height if you’re tall? Nobody would say, “Oh, what a nice short girl you are”, or, “Oh, aren’t you lovely and fat”.’

Ian settled next to her mother on the sofa and they both regarded her with the same tucked, amused expression, as though they were watching a puppy chase its tail. Abigail was convinced her mother had only looked at her this way since she had met Ian. It created a cosy barrier between her and them, she thought.

‘Being tall’s a great thing,’ her mother said. ‘I always wanted to be tall. You could be a model.’

‘Except I couldn’t, because I haven’t got a good enough face.’ Abigail snapped open a bottle of cola.

‘Should you be drinking that now?’ asked her mum. ‘It’s gone eight. You’ll never sleep.’ Abigail rolled her eyes.

‘Want a glass of wine instead, Abs?’ Ian tapped the bottle. ‘I think you’re allowed a little one.’ Abigail took a swig of cola, filled her cheeks with it and bulged her face at him. She headed for the bathroom.

‘Don’t be too long in there,’ she heard her mother call as she closed the door. ‘We want to talk to you.’

In the shower, Abigail let the water stream over her head, washing the remnants of salt from her hair, enjoying the way it gently stung her eyes and face. She went to the table in her pyjamas, a towel wrapped around her hair.

‘Dressed for dinner, I see,’ Ian said.

‘You know me. I always like to make an effort.’ Abigail didn’t want to disappoint him, but her head was heavy from too much sun and she couldn’t find the heart for banter tonight. Dinner was thick lentil soup and bread. She noticed that her mum hardly ate, instead picking her bread apart so that it fell back onto her plate in small white pieces, like a wet tissue.

Suddenly, she said, ‘Abs, Ian and I have some lovely news.’

Abigail put her spoon down carefully. This didn’t sound like the sort of conversation for which you should be holding cutlery. ‘Okay,’ she said.

‘Well, I’m pregnant.’ Keeping her eyes fixed on Abigail’s face, her mum felt for Ian’s hand. ‘We’re going to have a baby.’

‘Thank you. I didn’t know what pregnant meant.’ Abigail threw the words out, trying to give her mind a chance to catch up. For once, her mother didn’t rebuke her for sarcasm.

‘So, what do you think, Abs? A little brother or sister? God, they’re going to adore you,’ Ian said. Abigail didn’t know what she thought. She looked down, picked up her spoon and stirred her soup. She stole a glance at their clutched hands on the other side of the table, Ian’s scuffed and rough, her mother’s spattered with freckles. She swallowed some soup, not tasting anything.

‘Sweetie?’ her mum said. Abigail sighed and looked up.

‘How come, though, Mum?’ she said. ‘Aren’t you too old?

Her mother laughed. ‘Oh, darling. I am old, yes, you’re right. Not too old for a baby, as it turns out. Honestly, I’m as surprised as you.’

Really? Abigail thought. Her mother started talking to her. She said, ‘It’s a bit strange, I know, but I think we’ll all feel excited once we get used to it. Ian’s right, the little one will worship her big sister.’

‘Or his,’ Ian said.

Her mum threw her head back and laughed, a bright, clear sound that seemed to belong to a delicate piece of glass. Abigail had never heard her laugh like that before. ‘We don’t know yet,’ she told Abigail in a confiding tone. ‘Ian’s convinced it’s a boy, but I think it’s a little sister for you. He or she will be so lucky to have you.’

Outside, the day was ending in a savage, insistent sunset. Abigail thought about what might be happening down at the beach.

‘You’ll be off with boyfriends soon, anyway. My little girl.’ Her mum reached across the table to squeeze Abigail’s elbow and Abigail was horrified to see that her eyes were tear-rimmed. She gave her mother a quick, sharp smile, wanting everything to feel normal again. It seemed to work. Her mum sank back into her chair. ‘Anyway,’ she said, flicking a look at Ian. ‘There’s plenty of time for us all to get used to the idea. Don’t let your soup go cold, Abs.’

‘It’s still really hot,’ Abigail said. She couldn’t look for long at either of them.

‘So, no holiday flirtations?’ her mum asked in a new, sparkling voice.

‘No,’ Abigail said. ‘I told you.’

‘You know, sweetie, you have to relax a bit more around boys,’ her mum said. ‘They like girls to be cool and confident. Play a bit hard to get. Don’t you think, Ian?’

‘Yep,’ said Ian.

‘And flirt a bit, too,’ Abigail’s mum continued. ‘Let them know you might be interested.’

‘I think it’s best just to be yourself,’ said Ian.

Abigail’s skin felt suddenly too tight for her body. Sunburn roared on her shoulders. She wanted to be back in the ocean, lying on top of the water, with the world still and peaceful and paused around her, so that she could catch her breath and consider everything properly. This was it, she thought. From now on, everyone would expect her to know how to be, and she hadn’t had time to decide yet. [/private]

Charlotte Haigh MacNeil

About Charlotte Haigh MacNeil

Charlotte Haigh MacNeil is a writer and editor from London. Her non-fiction work specialises in health and psychology and she is drawn to character-based fictional narratives. She is currently completing a collection of interlinked short stories, some of which have appeared in magazines and on websites. Charlotte is married to the Scottish novelist and poet Kevin MacNeil.

Charlotte Haigh MacNeil is a writer and editor from London. Her non-fiction work specialises in health and psychology and she is drawn to character-based fictional narratives. She is currently completing a collection of interlinked short stories, some of which have appeared in magazines and on websites. Charlotte is married to the Scottish novelist and poet Kevin MacNeil.

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