I wrote this short story in early 2015, and it became the final piece I submitted for my creative writing degree at UEA. ‘Low Tide’ concerns itself with the stagnation of romantic love, the nostalgia for a childhood long gone, and the strangeness of a seaside town buried in the depths of winter.
In late December Alex offered to drive me back to Weston. The last time I’d been I took the train by myself, hauling a suitcase full of baby-gros and non-alcoholic champagne through London Paddington. I spent the three-hour journey taking photos of lush green fields out of the window and imagining Cathy’s face when I turned up on her doorstep, ready and waiting to be an auntie. But that was the summer, when the trains were more frequent, when the biggest snowstorm for the last thirty years hadn’t swallowed up the West Country and covered most of the tracks, and when I wasn’t so afraid of being alone.
‘As long as I don’t have to witness the actual birth,’ Alex half-joked, going through his diary and cancelling plans for the next few days. He packed his warmest jumpers, including the old university one that I liked to wear, and his smart Italian leather shoes. No matter what, he always liked to make a good impression.
We drove under thick white sky and on slushy black roads. The radio signal went as we started to see signs for Bristol, so we changed over to Steve Wright on Radio 2, although his music choices reminded me of my parents. I watched hills grow larger and craggier through the windscreen, knowing them from sight as being distinctively west, but not knowing their names or if I had climbed any of them in my childhood. When Purple Rain came on I looked over at Alex, wondering if he remembered that moment on the dance floor at my dad’s sixtieth birthday party. He reached across to rest his fingers at the back of my neck, and began to gently massage circles.
Our hotel was near the seafront. It was one of those large Victorian ones with single-glazed windows, one that probably did well and charged a fortune in the summer months but stood empty and alien when we arrived. It took three pushes of an electronic bell to call a tired receptionist to the desk, and the whole building smelt like cigarettes. Growing up, I must have applied for a hundred part-time jobs in the kitchens and restaurants of places like that, but the managers always said I was too young, or too eager. I saw now how people could get lost in the pattern of pulling pints and changing bed sheets, in answering bells and handing over keys. The cigarette odour had already seeped into my hair. Our room was on the ground floor, looked out over the road, and had two single beds. Alex carried my suitcase in and set it down by the TV stand.
‘Shall we push the beds together?’ He directed the question at a painting of Weston pier. I couldn’t look at him either.
‘No, it’s alright. I’ll take this one.’ I sat down, picked up the remote, and began to aimlessly flick through channels. I was aware of him moving in the corner, unpacking his jumpers one-by-one and folding them into drawers. He moved methodically, not pausing until he was left with an empty bag. He was like that; once he’d set his mind to a task it was all he could do, and he put everything he could into doing it right. The wind howled outside and shook the window in its frame. My phone buzzed on the bedside table.
‘Hey,’ I said, pulling myself away from Homes Under The Hammer. ‘Cathy just texted. She says it’s going to snow again tonight, so we should probably wait until tomorrow to drive over to hers.’
‘OK. So we have a few hours to kill this evening.’
‘I guess. Do you want to get something to eat?’
The seafront was lit with black lampposts, each one casting a rectangle of white light on grey snow. I could just make out the tangled shape of the pier to my right, stretching out into shallow water. We walked on a gritty and shadowed path the other side of the road; I had to pay attention to my feet, so I wouldn’t slip on black ice and have to ask Alex to help me up. As we went past the hotels and pubs and the hotels that doubled as pubs after 7 o’clock, wrapped up in our coats for warmth and being careful not to even brush our gloves against each other, it felt like we were already walking in a memory.
I wanted to go to the beach, just for a minute, but Alex was too hungry. I turned my face towards the coast. There’s something so odd about the crunch of ice on sand, the sharpness of freezing sea air, the stillness of a seaside town buried in winter. When we were children Cathy and I loved to play under the pier. Even in the colder months, our parents would walk us down to the beach from our little house up on the hill, then settle down on a bench with a thermos and leave us to run circles around each other. As Cathy was older she was in charge. If she told me to eat a piece of frozen seaweed or dig a hole in the muddy sand with my bare hands I would. Likewise, if a dog came bounding out from nowhere and knocked me over, she would pick me up and kiss the tears off my face. Looking out at the tangled shapes on the water, I imagined Cathy in a few years, kissing her own children.
Alex disappeared into The Royale Hotel Restaurant. I left the beach waiting across the road, promised it I would be back, and followed him inside.
Cathy and Jon lived in a village just outside Weston, but it took us almost an hour to navigate the winding country roads without phone signal the next morning. When we finally arrived Cathy was on her side on the sofa, and greeted us with a grimace.
‘I woke up early so we could have breakfast together,’ she complained. ‘And I got Jon to buy that posh cereal you like especially. It’s rude to turn up late.’
‘Cath, it was half an hour, we’re not that late. Not as late as this one.’ I knelt on the floor in front of her and put my hands either side of her stomach. ‘Hello, little boy or girl. Are you going to come out and meet your Auntie Isobel anytime soon?’ Cathy was huge. I hadn’t seen her since the summer, when all she’d had to show for her impending state of parenthood was a small, dainty bump protruding out the top of her jeans. Now, two days after her due date, she was a planet. ‘God, you look so uncomfortable.’
Cathy slapped my hands away. ‘Thanks, you’re looking hideous too.’ Then she smiled. ‘Seriously though, I’m glad you’re here. Mum and Dad drove me crazy, I can’t believe you left me alone with them.’
‘I know, I’m sorry I couldn’t be here earlier. Christmas with Alex’s family was the worst.’ I’d felt I owed it to his mum to be there, to keep the months-long arrangement. We’d agreed not to tell his parents what was going on, but I couldn’t stop thinking that it could be the last time I’d see them all. ‘I kept excusing myself so I could hide in his dad’s study and cry. It was horrible.’
As if on cue, Alex came through the living room door with Jon. He bent down and gave Cathy a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek, then handed her the card from his mum. I noticed he’d worn his Italian shoes, and they made a clicking noise on the hardwood floor as he walked over to an armchair. He looked so smart with his immaculate black jeans, his freshly washed hair, his glasses that were never crooked or covered in greasy smudges. No wonder everyone loved him.
I thought I saw Cathy’s eyes well up, but a moment later convinced myself it must have been a trick of the light. ‘That’s very sweet, Alex,’ she said. ‘Give our love to your parents, won’t you?’
Back at the hotel Alex and I lay on separate beds, backs turned to each other, bodies less than a metre apart. I could hear from his breathing that he was awake, and he could probably tell I was faking it, too. When you’ve been with someone for so long, you pick up on the smallest things. The way their voice goes a whole octave higher when they’re on the phone, the way their bottom lip trembles just when they’re about to orgasm, the way their breathing sounds like echoes in a cave when they are in the middle of deep, dreamless sleep. The wind had stopped howling for the first time in two days, and everything was still.
‘Isobel?’ His voice broke through the room. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Yeah,’ I lied. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Because you’re here, and not at Cathy’s. Because this is a shit hotel and not your home.’ I heard his bed creak as he rolled over to face my back. He was so damn perceptive. ‘You can still talk to me about it. We’re not … whatever’s happening, I’m here.’
‘OK, yeah, it’s weird,’ I said to the wall. ‘Being a tourist in my own town is weird. But I’m fine.’ I focused on a patch of black mould in the corner near the ceiling, counted each tiny dot the way children are told to count sheep, noticed how the spots grew closer and closer together before merging into one thick mass. There was so much of it. It looked like it had been growing for a long time, months, or even years, and no one could be bothered to do anything.
I waited to hear Alex’s bed creak again as he rolled back over and gave up, but nothing happened, and the quiet crept on.
‘Wait, Al? You still awake?’
‘Talk to me.’
On New Year’s Eve the baby still hadn’t arrived, and Cathy was too uncomfortable to go anywhere. She and Jon popped open a bottle of sparkling pear juice and settled in front of the TV, a tub of body butter lying next to the remote in case she needed him to massage her stomach. Her belly seemed to get so much larger by the day, and now even her maternity leggings were straining against it, the waistband leaving pink welts if she stayed in one position too long. Every so often she would hold out her hand to Jon, and he would get her up from the sofa and take her to the bathroom, making sure she was alright on the stairs and that it wasn’t anything more serious than the feeling of pressure on her bladder. She didn’t have to ask him for help once: he just knew.
Alex looked his usual smart self, even though we would only be watching Graham Norton. I suppose I’d made an effort too; I was wearing make up for the first time in months, lipstick that was such a dark shade of purple it almost looked black. When we counted down with the BBC and the fireworks started over Big Ben, I gave Alex the briefest of kisses on the lips, barely touching him, but just enough to leave a purple bruise-like stain. As he and Jon began to dutifully clear the glasses and crisp bowls in the kitchen, Cathy motioned for me to come and snuggle down next to her.
‘What are you doing, hmm?’ She murmured, tucking my hair behind my ear. ‘Why are you making things so difficult for yourself?’
If she hadn’t been so fat and delicate I would have started an argument, but instead I told her the truth. ‘I’m not like you,’ I sighed. ‘I don’t want to be a mum, not anytime soon, anyway. And you know it, everyone knows it, that if I stay with Alex much longer that’s what’s going to happen.’
‘Yes, necessarily. That’s what he wants, it’s what everyone seems to want. Look at mum and dad. They settled down and ended up so stuck under their responsibilities that they had to wait until retirement to actually live their lives. I don’t want to be in my sixties before I can travel the world.’
‘Is that what you think of me? That I’m stuck, that I’m settling? Jesus, Isobel-’ But she didn’t get it. It was easy for her and Jon. They knew they were as happy as they were ever going to be, building a home and a family together the way their parents had done before them. They had put their roots firmly in one place. There was nothing wrong with that. I just couldn’t see myself doing the same thing, with Alex, or with anyone.
‘Do you want my honest opinion?’ Cathy asked.
‘I think I know what it is, but go on.’
‘The world is not as big as you think it is. What matters is what’s close to home. Alex is part of you, and part of the family.’ She cupped my face in her hands as the boys came back into the room. ‘You’d be mad to throw it all away.’
It happened an hour later. One minute we were driving along, enjoying the emptiness of the country roads, heading back towards Weston and the hotel. Then, out of nowhere, we hit it.
The brakes screeched and slid on the ice, my seatbelt tugging me back as the force of the stop threw me forward.
‘Stay in the car,’ Alex said. I ignored him and opened the passenger door, holding onto the bonnet for support as I moved over to his side.
The fawn lay a few feet away from us, slapped in the middle of the road where she had ricocheted off the bumper. Snow was coming down thick and fast, and a white dust was starting to cover her like icing sugar, or like the dust that you see covering people on the news after a building collapses somewhere. I saw her back legs twitching; although Alex later said it was an involuntary muscle spasm, a result of the nervous system still sending signals to the spine, I thought for a moment we hadn’t killed her. There was no dent in the car, or on the road, and the only sign that she had been hit at all was the small pool of blood that collected on the tarmac underneath her stomach.
‘I’ll pick it up and move it. Get back in the car.’ Alex rolled up his immaculate shirt sleeves and bent down. I didn’t want to watch, but couldn’t help myself. He lifted the animal with ease, as if she were just a toy thrown out of a pram, or one of his perfectly folded jumpers gone astray between a bag and a set of hotel drawers. Blood soaked from her skin into his, running down his arm and staining him within seconds. He walked out of view of the headlights, over to the snow-logged hedgerow.
‘No, you can’t put it there.’ I didn’t know if it was the cold that shook me or something else. ‘You can’t just leave it, please-’
‘What else am I supposed to do? It’s dead, Belle.’
‘We could lie it down on the backseat, keep it warm, find a vet somewhere-’
‘There’s nothing they can do. It’s gone, I killed it-’ His voice cracked, and I saw him lean over in the darkness, then stay crouched down for a while, moving his arms back and forth. When he stood up his arms were both empty and clean, his rolled sleeves wet with melted snow. We both climbed back in the car, and sat still for a moment listening to the bad music on Radio 2.
‘But it was an accident,’ I said.
I reached over to where his wet hand rested on the wheel, noticed how there was still deer blood trapped under his fingernails, and curled my warm fingers over his cold ones. ‘You called me Belle,’ I said. And I began to cry.
That night we had sex without taking our shirts off. It was slow and quiet, each movement thought out carefully and deliberately, as if we had been told how to do it and couldn’t stray from the instruction guide. I let him stay on my bed afterwards, his body moulded to the shape of my back, his rolled down shirtsleeves creased and resting just over my stomach. I faced the black mould and wondered when I had stopped crying. I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t upset, or sad. I’d already accepted it. I listened to him breathe in and out, heavy and low, echoes in a cave.
He found me on the beach the next morning. I was standing under the pier, watching the waves creep further away with each ebb and flow of the tide. Weston has one of the lowest tides in the country, and as the water washes back into the Bristol Channel the sand gradually turns to mud. When Cathy and I were younger we would terrify our parents by running out to meet the sea. We just wanted it to kiss our toes, but one of us would always end up stuck in the sand, feet cemented by an invisible force, arms flailing to try and keep our balance.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. The sand was solid and peppered with frost. I was only at the edge of the town but felt like I was at the edge of the world. I could see new shadows and reflections on the water that I hadn’t seen before, dancing in ripples of green, blue and grey, and there was a new current, stronger than the one I already followed, ready to pick me up and pull me away.
I thought of Cathy and Jon waiting for the baby, of my parents waiting their whole life to travel and enjoy themselves, of the tired receptionist back at the hotel waiting for her coffee break, and, finally, I thought of Alex, waiting for me to make a decision.
‘Are we leaving?’ He called out.
‘Yeah,’ I replied. I turned to face him. ‘Yeah, I’m leaving.’