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In the sunlight of the boat he is a sepia photograph, a ghost from another century with vanished eyebrows and blue eyes like clean cuts that blink just once when you speak. He surveys the riverbank with a gradually moving head, as though he could never think much of it, the way the grass turns lime in the sun and the river curls against the slope of the bank, taking it by grain, by pebble, down to its bed.
I’ve waited for him all morning, and I’m full from the chewy call of blackbirds, the zizz of insects rising. But I take in the banks, the hills, and all the sky above it on his behalf. He mentions the time, and after a while of my looking, and mentioning, he peels his impeccable lips away from his teeth and whispers the words “contract” and “verbal agreement.”
Water muscles the boat from beneath, snaps the frayed mooring rope tight, lets it sag and snaps it up again. From a house somewhere far away comes a sound so unexpected that it can’t fail to spark something between strangers, so I say, “I haven’t heard a flute since I was a girl,” and smile, and he hurls an apple past my head and tells me to get the fuck moving. So now I know what’s what.
Once I would have had slept with a man who treats women this way. But I can only imagine this one in a bed and there are no beds for me unless he decides to take me with him. I stray into a dream of new clothes and baths and a shaft of light through a split in a curtain and a breeze you can’t feel chasing dust down onto carpets. He leaves through a door and the house cracks apart like a knifed birthday cake. I stare at him and twist my hair down my shoulder. He lifts a hand to brush an insect off, but his fingertips flutter away from the direction he wants them to go, and I feel the relief of understanding and drop my hair.
“Do you actually want to get out?” I say.
“It’s the bobbing,” he says, and looks sick.
“Please move the boat,” he says.
“Let’s get out for a bit,” I say, and he relents.
The bank is steep and the ridge bursts with long grass. I climb steadily on all fours while he stumbles ahead of me. At the top of the bank he looks at me from a head reined back in sharp assessment, as though I’m a menu he’s reluctant to choose from.
“That way,” he says, pointing to a clearing that leads to a path running along the river.
“We need the boat,” I say.
His shirt is crumpled and he pinches his nose. He puts a hand on his hip and lets it drop by his side.
“We can’t reach it on foot,” I say.
“I’m sure we can,” he says.
He walks five paces away from me and turns and bends to pull his trouser leg up. He took the bank upright, hammering his feet into the compacted ground as though they were simple tools. His ankle is swollen and has a grey sheen.
“The boat would be better for that,” I say.
“Not again,” he says.
“Are you afraid?” I ask.
He glances at the river, then holds his eyes on mine for the first time. He must read a sensitivity in me that can be usefully called to weakness, because I say it for him: “you can’t swim.”
The clouds snuff the warmth of the falling sun and it begins to rain. He takes my hand when I offer it. His breath sucks at his dry throat. It seems a moment for niceness so I tell him it will be all right, even though I don’t know how to rescue him if he falls in. He is five inches taller than me with a dense frame. He groans in the boat as I take the oars and push away from the riverbank. He seems like he has one of those scrubbed minds that believes in nothing at all, except for oblivion, or luck. I rest the oars and take a friendship bracelet made from multi-colored cotton threads off my wrist, tell him it’s good luck and give it to him. I tell him it’s the last thing I own and he throws it back at me.
Night arrives and with it the door of imagined dangers creeps open in my mind, on this English river, with not a sign of destruction in sight, that some ancient part of my brain nonetheless insists it can detect. I row to the riverbank and reassure him in controlled ways with certainties and outcomes that I have no faith in. Lying face to face on the bank I can see the pockets beneath his eyes dip into two distended bulges above his cheeks. His sculpted body looks frail out here, the raindrops feel their way along the brittle plasticity of his skin, stopping to note its caving tension and rolling away with their news to be embraced by the ground.
I manage to drag him under a tree, where he curls up in pain. The branches fan above to meet others to form a billowing canopy. The wind rises at first through the treetops, then breaks through to the ground, freewheeling through sand and soil, scooping it up and sieving it down. He has just enough strength to push me off him and turn on his back. His mouth opens and his jaw falls back and the forest embalms in him sleep. I run the palms of my hands over his arms and with my thumbs I try to rub warmth into his cheeks, I feel the rain over my neck and all over him, indifferent, insistent, you can never wipe it away. Perhaps his dreams will absorb my show of kindness, and tomorrow he’ll take me with him. With this comforting thought I fall asleep to the symphony of a gale, with its resting base moan, as the wind lapses and pledges more in the same moment.
By dawn our bodies have melted into the mud and our faces are speckled with broken leaves. He sits up automatically with the first light, and I notice the crease of pain between his eyes has vanished and his face is smooth with clear urgency. I place a hand on his back and he lunges at me, but I wave my arm at the river and he removes his hand from my neck, remembering that he needs me. He crawls towards the river and I follow.
The boat carries us along rapid currents to the point where the river opens its mouth to the ocean and the woodland retreats. We reach a wide beach and I see a pause in the storm in a pocket of sky ahead. But beyond that, crouched deep on the horizon of the sea are a line of clouds, fat from themselves, impatient with one another. A silent wink of lightening slips ahead and its luminous twin cracks into a patch of sea a mile from the shore. I tell him to look up, but he is staring at the reflection of a blue patch of sky on a film of light over a puddle. He leans over it and finds himself there. I try to squeeze my face next to his in the reflection, but he lifts me up and slams me on the sand.
On my back I look all around. To the east is more clear sky, but to the west the clouds convene to an unbending hurricane that is moving to play with a plane and its passengers on a concrete runway. I turn my head to the side. Crabs prick and fish gasp at a naked seabed left uncovered by the tide the storm has pulled away. I look at him, but he is looking in another place. He catches sight of the plane and his ghost eyes marble.
I get to my feet and brush the sand from my legs, and while he looks at the plane I am able to look at my reflection in the puddle. There I find a face looking back at me, with a bruise on its forehead and gash on its lip and a soft, dissociated look in it’s eyes, and I feel heat in my fingertips.
“It’s a good day for flying,” I shout at the top of my lungs.
He turns to me with an expression I haven’t seen before, with full, suspicious eyes.
“I’m not bringing you with,” he says, through barely moving lips.
“I wouldn’t touch you,” he adds.
I grin at him and lift my tongue.
He turns and runs, and I know that all he can think of in that moment are the three missing teeth at the top of my mouth.
The feeling hand of the storm’s shadow spreads ahead and runs its fingers through the sea, bleeds its white veins into the punches it lends to waves the height of oaks that beckon the body of the storm on towards the runway. The wind pulls forward and drops a ripped quilt of clouds, sending sea creatures deep and birds flocking to land.
A group scramble away from the runway and sprint across the beach towards me, but he isn’t among them. As the plane takes off the hurricane breaks across the last remaining stretch of ocean, tearing at the shoreline, lifting cars and slapping them down. I make myself watch the plane stop, flicker in the first gusts, then dive. The sea catches it and flips it on its back. Its belly rises, a hapless aluminium whale splaying itself in the dishevelling sea. One wing tears off and the other hangs by a cable and tugs the plane in a circular motion. It cracks apart, revealing missing windows and a hole where an engine would have been, until all the people pour out of it, and I have to look away.
Everything else is left for me to wonder. I imagine he breaks the seal of his own impatience in those last moments. He sinks and looks up with amazement at a glassy sky and lapsing waves. A quietening epiphany follows a struggle. The ocean with a hush in his ears tells him, “perhaps now, maybe in a moment.” He has to wait to know, but soon to know will be nothing at all.
I feel the sun lick my back towards it. The group from the plane gather around me, fresh from failure, newly terrified. My voice strays out of me.
“Excuse me, I’m lost,” I say, and I twist my hair in my finger. But then I let it drop, because then comes the strangeness of eyes moving kindly over my faded tricks, and what follows is the shock of connection, the stepping of heartbeats on my ribs and eyes dilating close to mine. I step back, but it’s enough. I know after this I will walk through hard beads of rain, stay in mirrored mist and in the startle of dusk, through the discordant calls of comfort.
It is in the way they reach to see me, the way the edge of their fear touches mine that tells me I will leap off from here. I might never dream of dust in homes that were never mine, of being searched by eyes in bodies in empty rooms, something I could never do.
Bethan is an emerging writer living in London with her husband and children. Before she started writing she studied anthropology, and worked for BBC Radio. She now spends her time reading, writing, running, and eavesdropping in cafés for material for her stories.