Appeared in Noted Magazine, 2017
It started with an Anadin. Two of them. She sat L-shaped like a mantis. Soon it faded, the pain. It went away. Jane sat staring, drained. I asked her why she always thought she was in pain but she just sat, tired-looking, tapping her fingers as if this were her response so I asked her again. I said, ‘Who do you think you are being in so much pain?’ Her eyes were pale. Her skin was pale too and I guessed she was sick but I didn’t believe she was sick because she always lied. The hem of her skirt, a thin fabric hooked at something, revealing the black tights of her thighs and I looked away.
I apologised and looked into her eyes and held my expression until she believed I was telling the truth. It wasn’t raining anymore. The window held a monotonous colour as though the world outside had become completely anaemic. I asked her to come to the beach with me and we could make fun of the people walking their dogs. She said, ‘Okay’.
It was cold outside and the air tasted of metal and Jane’s misery was getting me down so I said, ‘Why don’t you stop being so miserable, it’s annoying me.’
‘You don’t know what it’s like,’ she said.
‘What what’s like?’
‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘Well you don’t know what it’s like being me. You ever think about that?’
‘I have thought about that. A lot,’ she said. ‘I often wonder what it’s like being you. At first I imagined living your life and then I began to wonder what it would be like to be a man. I suppose it is difficult. You have a lot to deal with. So much testosterone. It must feel pointless. You have so much to complain about. I’m glad I’m not you.’
‘And I’m glad I’m not you,’ I said.
She took another Anadin as we walked. I thought she shouldn’t have taken any more but I didn’t want to sound like her dad so I let her. She was nineteen years old. Her parents didn’t even know I existed.
‘I don’t like coming up here,’ Jane said. ‘My dad used to take me up here when I was little. I never liked it because it was always too cold and I didn’t like the water.’
‘Don’t worry, we won’t go onto the beach.’
‘But these places seem like places you can get lost. I know it sounds stupid, but I don’t know, it’s easy for things to go wrong.’
‘There won’t be many people down there. You’re completely safe.’
‘How do you suppose some people get away with it?’
‘Suppose you were walking around in the dark at home and someone comes up behind you and you panic and kill them. The lights come on and it’s your own father.’
‘Why would that even happen?’
‘I’m just supposing,’ she said. ‘Suppose that happened. Suppose you killed your own father. You’d become the man of the house. Like a Hamlet of your home. I think that’s what happened to these dead bodies the joggers find. An ironic punishment for someone lashing out in the dark. Killing their own fathers. Now there’s someone out there sorry for killing their own father because it was an accident since they thought someone was coming to kill them. Ironic, isn’t it?’
We got to the beach. The morning hung heavy. There was a strange dull greyness, a peculiar inwardness suppressed by our silence with Jane’s mood suppressed with an Anadin and bottled water. I was curious what was the cause of her pain. ‘You,’ she said.
‘Me?’ I said.
‘You’re causing my pain,’ she said. She didn’t say anything after that although I questioned her over and over to be replied with silence. Her eyes followed the swans and the crows. The wind pushed apart her black hair and she smiled and I asked what was she smiling at but she didn’t say anything. I thought maybe she was mad at me for some reason and I tried to think back to whatever I had done or said but couldn’t think of anything. It was even colder on the beach. The sky seemed asleep somehow, the colour purple pushed like a birth through the clouds after the rain so the sand was a dark gold and the people were few and the dogs were just lively creatures jumping about with black or red collars and the white, non-shining sun like a moon cast dingy, morose shadows like people’s moods long over the sand which doubled them and doubled the dogs so the dogs now ran in pairs.
She took an Anadin. I said, ‘You shouldn’t take any more of those.’
‘You’re not my dad,’ she said.
‘I know I’m not,’ I said. ‘And I don’t want to be.’
‘If you were my dad I’d probably have to kill you. I’d leave you in a ditch for the joggers to find. And when they’d find you I’d see you on TV and I’d wonder “what does that make me?”’
I watched her take the pill, swallow the water, gulp. I watched her breathe and shiver. I watched her breasts move outwards and in, the curious way her shoulders slouched forward while she thought no one was looking, the sad way she didn’t smile when she didn’t feel the need. To her, I was a liar as much as she was, so I’m very biased of her appearance. She looked at me and smiled and I was glad.
Two people walked on the beach. ‘Look at them,’ she said. ‘You think they’re married?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Divorced. He’s trailing behind her, see? He’s desperate for her to sign the divorce papers.’ She laughed.
‘How desperate can you be to want someone to leave you?’
‘I think some people are that bad.’
‘If someone wanted to leave me I’d let them.’
After a while it began to rain and I suggested we head back but Jane didn’t want to go. We decided to go onto the beach, walking along the hard, wet sand. She walked ahead of me and said something about the dogs.
‘What did you say?’ I said. ‘About the dogs.’
‘I said, Why do people feel the need to bring their dogs to the beach?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t think the dogs belong to them.’
‘I don’t think the dogs belong to anyone.’
‘You mean like stray dogs?’
‘No, I mean like look at them.’ I pointed at the dogs on the beach. They were wandering like free things. They were happy and obedient with a sense of curiosity and fear. And the people with them. They too were generally happy. They were obedient and they too had a sense of curiosity and fear. They all poked around the sand like dogs. Every single one of them.
We walked further in the rain and in the sand by the cliff wall there was a body in the sand. We both stood there watching. It was a dead girl. Her skin was pale blue and her eyes were closed and she looked quite young. It seemed she was sleeping. It seemed like her face was just a mask half-buried in the sand. Jane held my hand. ‘What should we do?’ she said.
‘Just leave it,’ I said.
‘Shouldn’t we tell someone?’
‘But someone’s probably missing her. We should tell someone.’
There was an old couple on the beach. They were walking a dog which ran ahead of them. I didn’t like them; they were everything we weren’t. The dog saw us and ran over to us. It seemed incredibly happy to see us as if it was an old friend. Jane stroked it in a childish way and she looked happy. ‘I wish I had a dog,’ she said. She held it tightly around the neck until it whimpered but still wagged its tail. ‘I love it so much I could just kill it,’ she said. The dog turned and sniffed at the dead girl and nosed at the clump of seaweed tangled in her hair. The dog seemed to say something but didn’t do much after that. I wondered who the girl was, but to us it didn’t matter. We just hovered on the verge of moving and not moving.
‘I’m going to pull her out of the sand,’ Jane said, but she didn’t. I waited for her to do it but she didn’t. She just took another Anadin and stared at the girl as small grains of sand blew across her dead face. I thought maybe Jane was jealous of the dead girl but I don’t know why. I guess she thought she was like her. Like we were all unidentified like dead bodies. Or nameless and ignorant like dogs on the beach. The old couple stood in the distance watching us. The dog ran back to them.
© Michael Holloway
Cover photo by Paul Buffington on Unsplash