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Nouk runs. Her calves pull tight and her trainers fill up. This is not the way it’s meant to feel, she thinks as her feet sink deeper into the pavement. And yet this is how it always is now.
Four weeks, six days have gone by since the storm hit. Its impact is still being felt. Mounds of sand stretch across Swanpool Road. It drifts and clings. The path around the lake is flooded because sand has clogged the drains. The banks are suffocated and the emptiness it creates bows under its own weight. No ducks flapping. No seagulls fighting over breadcrumbs left for swans by walkers. No moorhens cackling or water rats shooting into the arching roots that a month ago freely tiptoed across the water’s edge.
Nouk cranks her music louder and tries to pick up pace but the sand saps her energy. Just press on, she tells herself, use it, work harder. As the road takes her closer to the sea, the wind throws up clouds of sand. It stings her skin, makes her eyes itch. With every breath, a gritty layer coats her teeth. She sweeps her tongue around her mouth trying to force it out. It crunches and grinds. She has to stop to spit. By the time she reaches the beach, her legs buckle and her rib cage can’t keep up. She bends double and pushes her fists into her waist. Her hot breath is whipped away into the brackish air.
Back at the house all she can see is sand. When she shuts her eyes, holds a glass under the tap, listens to the water running, it’s there. Stubborn mountains claiming everything from the café terrace to the mini golf course to the new builds that skirt the back of the lake. She pictures the plants beneath it, bare branches not yet woken up by spring, lost buds dead on the stem. All snuffed out by the choking sand.
‘Jesus Christ Nouk, you’re so bleak.’
Jonathan’s frying bacon. He’s got the heat too low. The sizzle is pathetic.
‘But isn’t it weird though? How no one’s doing anything?’
‘Not really. What does it matter? It’s just sand.’
‘They haven’t even tried to move it.’ Nouk sips her water and lifts herself up onto the counter. She puts her phone down, Gordon Lightfoot still tinny in her earbuds.
‘How can you run to that?’ he says, shaking his head.
She shrugs and flicks it off.
‘You’re reading too much into it, anyway,’ he prods the rashers in the pan. ‘It’ll sort itself out eventually. Two or three bits?’
She doesn’t answer, watches as he flips the bacon over. It slithers off his spatula with a flaccid wriggle.
‘This bloody hob.’
‘Have you turned it right up?’
‘I know how to fry bacon, Nouk. Get the ketchup, would you?’
He pokes the rashers with a finger and wipes it on his chest. He’s still wearing the T-shirt he slept in. His boxers droop around his legs. Nouk taps her socked foot against the cupboard. Under her fingernails, grains have gathered. She picks up a fork and runs a tine along each of them in turn, hooking out the sand and letting it fall onto the side. The pile builds, taking her mind back to the beach.
The storm has reshaped the tideline. Seaweed sits belligerent in fly-ridden heaps, reef newly exposed where the sand has been dragged away. She reaches out to touch the fresh rock, slides her fingers past the razor-like edges and finds purchase between the strata. Her breath rises and falls with the waves. Running the same route back down the sand road, her lungs thicken.
Jonathan clears his throat sharply, returning her to the kitchen’s steamed up windows, the barely spitting pan. He wraps a tea towel around its handle and carries it to the table, where white bread lies buttered. He shakes the pan so some of the bacon stutters onto the thickly cut slices, then squeezes out ketchup in a wheezing gust. ‘Help yourself,’ he shouts back through to her as he walks into the lounge.
She used to love their weekend mornings. The laziness of not unfolding the day until the afternoon. Lying with her head in Jonathan’s lap, both still in their pyjamas, both smelling a little of each other and neither minding. The coffee endlessly brewing, the grease stains on the corners of the paper, his fingers idly curling through her hair. Now he makes bacon sandwiches she can’t bring herself to eat. The thought clags and sticks to the roof of her mouth. She wants to say something. To explain why she’s running so much or why the sand bothers her or why it would be better if he could just get dressed, rather than loafing around in his boxers pushing ten o’clock in the morning. She wants to tell him why she listens to Gordon Lightfoot. Or Nick Drake. How you can hear them hurting in every word and what better thing is there to run from than that? But she knows he’ll just roll his eyes again and maybe call her ‘silly girl’ then talk about putting dishwasher salt on the shopping list, or that he needs to swing by the office later, okay? He’ll pull her to him and she’ll smell his sour sleep smell and taste the sticky, sweet grease and ketchup on his breath. She picks up her trainers and goes upstairs.
They’re in the car working around the sequence of roundabouts that takes traffic out of town and onto the ring road. Nouk winds down the window. The cold air feels good. Jonathan mimes a shiver, presses the button in his door handle and winds her window back up.
The homecoming lunch had been in their calendar for nearly a month. Nouk forgot about it until Wednesday when her mother phoned to remind her.
‘Alice is going to be woozy of course,’ she’d said, her voice lifting to overpower the noisy churn of a mixer. Nouk pictured her, phone squeezed between ear and her shoulder, cake batter whipping in the bowl. ‘It’s not lunchtime for her body. I’m just saying you’ll need to take care around her, that’s all.’
‘Jetlag isn’t a disease, Mum. She can suck it up,’ Nouk said back.
‘I hope you’re not going to be in one of your moods, Anoushka,’ her mother sighed. ‘Please don’t ruin it for everyone.’ Then she was silent. Then she hung up.
Nouk knows her sister won’t be woozy and won’t need anyone taking care around her. Instead she’ll be puffed up and proud, telling stories about her internship buddies at the gallery in Upper East Side. How one time after work they sat on bleachers in Sheep’s Meadow eating warm pretzels while they watched a rom-com being shot. How after that they hit a dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen where she got in on a fake ID and ordered a cocktail called the Lemon Drop that popped in her mouth as she drank. Nouk has heard the stories a hundred times already, pulling on her pyjamas and nodding and smiling while Alice slicked on mascara in the webcam, drooling over the prospect of eggs-over-easy and biscuits at Bubby’s – Tribeca not Highline – where she was meeting ‘the gang’ for a late brunch.
They pick up speed on the main road as it carries them into open countryside. Jonathan taps his fingers on the wheel, switches presets on the radio, bites the edge of his thumb. She couldn’t stop him coming. She tried. The more she protested that she was fine to go alone, the more he’d rubbed his hands on her arms as if warming her up after a cold swim, bending down in a squat-lunge so he could look under his eyebrows at her. ‘I’ll be there,’ he said in a hushed, low voice. ‘I’ll be there.’ And now he’s winding up her window and turning the radio from Four to Two because it’s hard to get into the afternoon plays and Steve Wright is pretty funny.
Nouk sits on her hands and clenches her thighs together. She concentrates on what’s happening outside the window, searching for the edge of town, where suburbia bleeds out into countryside and the world goes fully wild again. The last of the roofs rushes past the window. The lanes drop from three to two, to one, concrete giving way to granite, bracken. Occasionally they pass a ruined engine house, collapsing walls and chimneys stark against the sky. She winds the window down again and breathes deeply. Jonathan sighs.
‘What?’ Nouk asks, though she doesn’t want to know.
‘Nothing I suppose.’ He indicates, sighs again, turns the wheel, checks the mirror, sighs louder.
‘You didn’t have to come,’ she says.
‘It’s not that.’
He makes a croaking noise in the back of his throat, like the words can’t find the shape to take. ‘I don’t know why we’re even going,’ he mutters eventually.
‘They’re my family.’
‘All the more reason not to go. You don’t even like them – so why waste your weekend? Just tell them the truth, tell them you’d rather not spend your Sunday with them.’
‘Because that’s what you’d do?’
He clicks his tongue against his teeth. ‘My family is not your family.’ Jonathan reaches over and squeezes Nouk’s thigh. ‘Everyone deserves the truth, Nouk.’ He says it like he’s offering her the advice she’s been seeking, a soft lilt to his words.
She punches her consonants back at him, staccato. ‘Do you deserve the truth then?’
‘What do you mean?’
Across the bay, gulls crowd the back of a fishing trawler, white flecks against a skillet sky. In the distance, strands of darkness fall from the clouds to the sea, sweeping in fast. The boat doesn’t stand a chance. He’s waiting for Nouk to speak. She stares at the horizon. She knows that to make the lunch bearable she should take it back, but she can’t because she has nothing to give him to replace it.
A minute later hail attacks the windscreen. Golf ball sized chunks pummel the bonnet and roof, echoing through the hollow shell of the car.
‘Bloody brilliant,’ Jonathan shouts, as they pull up outside the house. He flips down the mirror and furiously tousles his hair. Nouk turns away from him, unclicks her seatbelt and leans her forehead against the window. She feels the vibrations of the downpour ripple through her as her breath covers then fades away from the glass.
‘It is brilliant,’ she says into the thundering hail, so only the storm can hear her.
Nouk’s father smiles as he strokes her mother’s arm. Long slow brushes back and forth. He’s listening to Alice talk, absorbing it all to retell at their next dinner party, how his youngest came good and found herself in New York. He joins in occasionally too, recollecting his own youth and the times they had, every now and then throwing a conspiratorial grin towards his wife.
‘–it’s so full of life, don’t you think?’ Alice says about a block sale she stumbled on in Caroll Gardens after visiting the soda fountain where they invented egg cream. She’s wearing a charm bracelet she picked up there for a dollar. It jangles as she talks.
‘You should have been there in the ‘90s, Ali’ Nouk’s father replies. ‘Now that was living on the wild side!’
In the past, Nouk and Jonathan might have joked about her father after a lunch like this. How he was a bit pathetic, trying to impress everyone. How the only time he went to New York was with the family and they all stayed with his brother near Larchmont and only drove into the city twice. They might have done impressions of him, making up increasingly ludicrous places and events he claimed to be a part of. Nouk might have ended up burying her face in the bedsheets to smother out the hilarity of it, noticing Jonathan’s touch getting more urgent as he massaged her side, his face suddenly serious and purposeful. She looks at Jonathan forking potatoes into his mouth, nodding and smiling at her father, at Alice. It’s like they’re in a different world now.
Alice is talking about the rom-com in Central Park again. Nouk’s father is still brushing her mother’s forearm, as if he’s charging a balloon up for a static shock. Nouk’s mother half smiles through tight lips, her eyes locked on the cutlery neatly pushed together on her plate. She doesn’t lift his hand away, or stroke his arm back, or cup her fingers over his in affection. There’s no indication she can feel it at all.
Nouk thinks back to the car and Jonathan’s broken face when she jabbed her question at him. Each little word daring him to respond, ready to bite back if he did, so they could get it all out in the open. Although she knew he wouldn’t. She trusted in it. A safety net, baggy and worn, but with just enough tension left in it to hold. He talks about telling the truth like it’s so simple to untangle, she thinks. Like anyone can. That’s when she feels it. In the middle of one of her father’s anecdotes about a kid spitting off the Empire State Building. Jonathan’s hand, on her arm. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
Nouk clocks off work at midnight. She weaves a path between the drunks outside the kebab shop. Someone shouts something leery at her, so she cuts down a snicket onto the waterfront, where it’s quieter. The sky is clear after another day of heavy rain and the quayside is slick with milk-white light. When she reaches the pier, she sits, taking a breather before climbing the steep high street home. Reflections on the water make the world dance. Moored boats sway, the wind spinning their masts into a song of wire against metal. With no trawlers to chase, the gulls wheel above the bins, swoop to yank out wrappers and hiss over whatever they find.
She pulls her coat tight around her, thinks about her shift. About the pint she pulled for the lecturer whose name she doesn’t know but whose face she recognises. He drinks there a lot. Often, he smiles at her. Tonight he said something funny and she laughed. He laughed too. It made her skin prickle. It’s prickling again now and she focuses on it, lets it warm her against the chill of the midnight air. She slouches down on the bench, closes her eyes and embraces the glimmer of possibility – how a look, a movement, could fill her so entirely for a moment, making everything else slide away. And it’s not about something happening. It’s not about him, or the way his hand brushed the edge of hers as she passed him his pint. The curiosity of what if and the excitement it carries would quickly die if it went any further, replaced by guilt and confusion and the crippling normality of it all. It’s just the potential she finds herself clinging to, more powerful than reality and more hopeful than truth. It pops like she imagines a Lemon Drop might. It makes her feel alive.
Her teeth chatter. There’s a pressure in her chest pushing the air from her body. Her temples throb. Her ears throb. Her heart throbs. Behind her closed eyelids she sees the moon blazing.
Nouk wakes up just before six, frozen. The sun is beginning to turn everything grey. She pulls her collar up and ducks her mouth inside her coat to warm her body with her breath. Two seagulls peck at a crisp packet in front of her. Across the estuary, more gulls murmur skyward as boats silently ghost their way out to sea.
Jonathan will want an explanation. To know where she was and why she didn’t call. She could pretend she was with someone. That all this time her distraction, her spikiness has been because she is cheating on him. He would nod, tight-lipped as he turned the last few weeks over, seeing how her behaviour slotted neatly into that reality. He would look hurt and sad and lost, but wouldn’t feel the need to say sorry, or that he’ll try harder. They wouldn’t have to hold hands or talk in circles and fail to find a way out. A simple lie, over a complicated truth. It would make things much easier, for both of them.
Swanpool Lake is in the opposite direction to home. By the time Nouk gets there the morning is bright and full. Her cheeks warm in the light. There’s no wind and where the road curves along the front she can see lazy waves licking the shore. She sits on the storm drain that joins the lake to the sea and watches the fresh water surge down the grill, through salty rocks then into the open ocean. She pictures the fish beneath the surface, swimming frantically against the suck and pull, attempting to stay where they are but up against forces far more powerful. Through the rusty grate, down the pipe, spat into the sea – what happens next? Do they celebrate the surprise of their new found freedom, a whole ocean to explore? Or do the drown in the salt water because it’s too much for their fresh water gills to take?
Either side of the drain, the displaced storm sand rears up in heaps, covering what used to be nettles, blackberry bushes, hawthorn and birch. She digs her fingers in deep, feels the wet, dense resistance of the sand under her nails. She keeps her hands there for a moment, in the cool, still smother, leans into it, lets it take her weight. Her eyes close and her head starts to drop as sleep threatens to take her again. She startles back upright with a jerk. Hears the water rushing. She begins to dig.
She works slowly at first then faster, harder, scooping great handfuls away and piling it at her feet. The deeper she burrows, the more difficult the sand is to move. Compacted, wet, resistant. She speeds up, gouges with her nails, leans over, reaches in. Something in her demands it, compels her to get to the bottom, to get rid. The hole she’s making gapes and yawns, a dark mouth swallowing her body with every pull and claw. Her breath thunders with the effort. Her shoulders ache. Sweat beads up along her hairline, cold kisses on the back of her neck.
Then it’s there. A survivor. The tiniest tip of a pencil-thin branch sticks out where she’s digging, then another, then another. She holds her breath, her fervour tempered by the tree’s delicacy, its dependence on what she does next. She teases her fingers under the branches to work them loose, cups her hands around each one like they are flame in a breeze, protecting them from the crumbling walls of the hole as she gently lifts and goads more of the tree free. As soon as they’re released, the branches spring up, bendy new green against the blue sky. Life, Nouk thinks. Even under the weight of all that. Even in the darkness and uncertainty, not knowing if it would ever break through. She smiles.
She falls back onto the sand and wipes the sweat from her forehead in a gritty sweep. The tree stands proud in the daylight. Above her, clouds drift. She hears shingle clack as the tide drags over the shore. The call of gulls. Birdsong. There’s the fast thump of a dog’s feet pounding across the beach after a ball. An early, eager family playing by the water. Nouk gets up, dusts the sand off her hands and turns towards the road that leads back home. On the very edge of her vision, the little tree dances in the breeze.
Clare Howdle lives in Cornwall, UK, where she works as a copywriter, editor and brand strategist. Through her day job she’s written travel guides, interviewed Hollywood directors, got under the skin of supercomputers and explored the worlds of everything from mythical beasts to burlesque. But at dawn and dusk she turns to fiction. Her short stories have been published in The Sunday Times, The Masters Review and Popshot magazine among others. She's been longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Mslexia Short Story Competition, won the Word Factory apprenticeship and been shortlisted for the Grindstone Literary Short Story Prize. Her first novel – a study of freedom, control and the power dynamics of relationships, set in Cornwall and the shadows of colonial Zimbabwe – is currently out on submission.