This short story was awarded third place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.
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It began with water and weeds.
Water. Murky, turquoise-grey Northern water that rushed over the weir like a hundred galloping horses, streaming tails and glinting hooves all thundering down, cacophonous. I hadn’t really considered water like that before, but it must have been the morning sunlight that drew my eye. The whipped surface was fleetingly, feverishly gold-polished as it went, before slipping over the edge into a dark, silky, swirling sea-bound mass. I knew that it was headed to Sunderland, then out to the North Sea, out to holy Lindisfarne and beyond, to join the deepest depths.
The second incident was only a few days later. It came in the form of a little cluster of weeds, delicately anchored in the angle between wall and pavement, sharing the narrow space with decaying sycamore seeds and a sweet wrapper. I was walking to catch the train when I saw them, quivering, lace-like and fragile in the shadow of the Cathedral. Somehow, they spoke to me. I crouched down to get a better look, to feel them, to smell them, to memorise and account for their existence. There were no flowers to smell, but instead, fresh organic earth and soft, zesty, greenery all scattered with perfect mercury morning rain drops. People must have wondered what I was doing, huddled on the pavement like that, but I couldn’t see myself explaining to them that I was smelling life, and, although I only realised this later, the first few hints of the future. I also missed my train.
I read some books, thought about the water and the weeds, met Harry and left my job.
I suppose I’d been waiting for those moments, this series of events, without realising for a long time. I can’t explain it properly because it was so extraordinary, but since then I haven’t looked back. I’ve kept on walking, alive to the world.
I spoke to Clara a couple of weeks ago, I think it was. Or was it months? I don’t know, time isn’t really an issue for me now. She was adamant, though, really quite angry, even, and her dark, outlined eyes flashed at me across the café table.
‘This writing, this tramping around the countryside, talking to strangers and whatever else you get up to, it does no good’, she said. ‘The money can’t be great. How often do you get paid, anyway? How will you cope? It’s not normal… In a few years, I bet… You know, you can’t do this forever; you need something more reliable to live on. Do you understand?’
Well, I was surprised. I thought she might be happy to see me after so long, but it turns out I’m just a vagrant in her eyes; a second class citizen. I pulled at my sleeve and twisted my hair as I tried to find the words and the hand shapes to explain it all to her, but whatever I ended up saying just didn’t seem to get through. We parted again.
I don’t mind though, because I don’t want what she has and I daresay I never will. I’ve known her for long enough to realise that nothing she ever says can really touch me. I don’t envy her sharp click-clack heels or her sleek, smart hairstyle, or the days she spends in the office, or her cocktails or her fancy micro-green salads. I certainly don’t envy her city, her hustle-and-bustle, her smog-choked streets or her red tail lights, stretching ahead as far as the eye can see. These could be interesting I suppose, thrilling perhaps for a day or two, but I know that she never notices things, and that’s where I have the upper hand.
So, living in a dream as I do, or as she says I do (‘You’re probably more on the ball when you’re asleep, ha, ha, ha!’), I have more or less forgotten about her again and woken up to my own, vibrant world.
How I was oblivious to this world for so many years I don’t quite understand. Or maybe I do, and perhaps the reality of what happened is shameful to me. You could say I’m embarrassed that I fell into the trap. I studied, got a job and somewhere to live, like people usually do. It was ok for a while, but work started getting tedious. No one knew, because I always met the deadlines and I always produced to order. I was always smiling, and never put a foot wrong. But inspiration was lacking and the monochrome days began to blur into one, a constant stream of boxes to be ticked, numbers to be dialled and people to be pleased. The water and the weeds changed all that.
Now that we’re back on the topic, there are lovely weeds on the coast. And lovely water, too, of course. I went there yesterday to get some ideas. As I looked out across that vast sea, oystercatchers streaked across the grey sky, their wild, trilling whistles drawing piped trails behind each black and white bird. A handful of seagulls cast wheeling shapes at my feet. From where I stood, rough, serrated vegetation in muted greens and blues gradually gave way to tumbled rocks and sand. I took some photographs of the marram grass and sea cabbage and smiled, bittersweet, as I was reminded of Ellen. I knew that she would have recognised my newfound happiness in the pictures; in the way that I focussed on the edge of a curled leaf and on the stiff blue fishing rope twined around a stem. I remember that the last time I spoke to her, she sounded glad that I was stepping forward. Maybe she had recognised in me all along the things that I had been blind to.
Ellen and I were always close – some people said we fitted like a jigsaw. She was the calm, quiet voice to my fiery, impassioned one. She saw things the way that I did, we had the same views, but she found her way earlier on in life. That was lucky for her. Never overambitious, she took things at her own pace, did what she loved doing and had an extraordinary effect on a handful of people, myself included. Now was my chance to do the same, in my own way.
So, yesterday, I began walking along the beach, following the ragged line between dry and damp, where the North Sea had washed up some time before, smoothing and pressing the sand into a rough, rust-coloured, flecked firmness. It was reassuring to walk here – my feet did not sink in like they did into the sand higher up, and the soles of my shoes were wiped clean by the salty wetness of the sea, new grains of crystalline sand replacing the old ones with every step. Shallow footprints trailed behind me, marking out the way I had come. There was some driftwood about thirty steps along the line, tossed down by the hands of a wave. It was lightweight, bleached and weathered like an old piece of bone, fashioned into something new and mysterious. I wondered where it had come from. Scandinavia? Or perhaps just up the river? I put a small piece in my pocket, where it joined the handful of sea-glass that I had already collected.
I want to examine my little hoard of sea-glass for a moment, because the stuff fascinates me. It was created by man in a furnace, probably in a factory, for human use. No doubt about that. But go beyond that, and you can start imagining, writing a story. Usually, because the glass has been in the sea for so long, buffeted and shaped by the currents and surges, it is almost impossible to trace the exact metamorphosis that it has been through. However, I take pleasure in guessing. Let’s say it was a bottle once. Where was that bottle first opened? Who drank the liquid that flowed from the bottle? Did they share it? Did they get drunk? Perhaps it was just lemonade, or ginger beer. But if it was a dark green bottle then I think it might have been wine. I know it was wine. Then, maybe, sometime around six years ago, somewhere a little south of here, perhaps bad things happened, and then the bottle was dropped, broken, smashed into a thousand tense little pieces and scattered spinning across the pavement. Voices were raised, dark eyes became bitter. The shards glinted angrily on the double yellow lines. Then, when it was quieter and there was only one soft light left glowing out from the house, some of the glass fragments were swept up, made their way into a drain, were channelled beneath pavements, cities, fields and hedges and out into the sea. So began a new chapter. But if it wasn’t a wine bottle, what then? Simply a different story. Every single pebble-like morsel of glass has seen a transformation, its cutting angularity caressed and made beautiful by the waves. Stories like this are the fabric of our world, and it matters to be aware of these beginnings (in my tales there are never any endings).
The glass pieces I found on the beach chimed in my pocket in their multitude of colours: indigo, bottle green, soapy blue, mint. Harry would see them along with the driftwood soon. I could already imagine his toothy, weathered face crinkling up in a smile as we worked together to create stories around the collection.
Later on, after my walk on the beach, a calm swell saw me making the short trip to Inner Farne. Stirring this way and that, the water was like an endless billowing blanket of grey above the hidden depths across which the little boat made its laboured way. I watched the surface, mesmerised by the gentle movement. The seals were down there, I knew, twisting and curving through the undulating aquamarine. Through the ribbon-like translucent kelp forests, effortless and graceful they went, turning, spinning and curving up towards the surface, before dipping back down again in a secret and playful dance. I spotted them occasionally, bobbing and peering about across the water, dark liquid eyes and rounded heads, dog-like and inquisitive. I tried to take some photographs but they were too far away. That didn’t matter: sometimes it is better to record things by memory alone, and Harry is constantly asking me not only what I have found, or what I have taken photographs of, but what I can remember and what I have imagined. Nevertheless, my camera was insistent in my hands this time, so I captured the distant horizon, the edge of the ocean a deep slate grey against the ashy tint of the sky. The nearing islands appeared dark, low and rocky against the water. They were dusted with the hovering white specks – birds. It started to rain very lightly and a haze developed, tinkling ever so slightly on the water and blurring the boundary between land, sea and sky. I sensed a softening of the atmosphere. My hands became chilly and I had to get my gloves out. Rather this than a day back in that office, though, I thought.
I know I said I’ve forgotten about her, but Clara briefly appeared in my mind again. After so long you can’t simply let go of someone forever, even if you wish you could. As I was putting on my gloves I wondered what she would make of this boat trip. Most probably she would be silent, grim and moody because of the cold and the bleakness. She wouldn’t be wearing suitable clothes so she’d probably be wet through, mascara smudged. I would point things out to her – the seals, the shapes of the islands and the kittiwakes flying above, and I know that she would nod, maybe even offering a half-hearted smile before finally giving in and saying something sarcastic. I’d reply sharply, digging my nails into my hand, wishing she’d change her tone, longing for kind, gentle Ellen to be there instead. For the rest of the day we would probably exchange few words. I sigh. She can stay where she is – she’ll never let herself enjoy it up here.
I’ve read at length about the monks and the Saints who used to live in the North East, long ago. St Cuthbert himself came to Inner Farne, where he lived in austerity and isolation, seeing few other people. I’ve heard that he gave protection to the seabirds which nest on the open ground of the island, their camouflaged bodies lying low in the rough grass, as well as on its crags and cliffs where they lodge precariously in their hundreds, shrieks and cries rising up in waves. The Saint recognised their importance, their right to the world which they share with humans. St Cuthbert died at Inner Farne, and I walked to his small chapel when I got off the boat along with the others, all of whom were birdwatchers weighed down with equipment. The old unassuming building stood firm and solid on the high ground, its uneven walls looking like a natural extension of the rock it was built on. Terns swooped and dived at me, noisy chattering darts, relentless until I entered the solace of the chapel alone. The air was still and heavy with dusty burnished light, and the stained glass window painted the space with muted hues of red, purple and blue which reflected on the rich oak panelling. As I stood there, I could sense forgotten words and ancient faces echoing around me, enveloping me in a rare moment of communication. The birds continued to call.
Back outside, I breathed in the fresh, vital air and smiled. Those people of long ago knew how to be content, how to notice things, how to remember and how to imagine.
In the evening, on my return journey in the boat, I thought about the salty water rushing at the bows. It’s the same water as the water in the drains, in the river and falling from the sky. More and more I think about how it’s all connected – everything is. I suppose it might sound a bit crazy, but I now know that things really do happen for a reason. Small moments can give birth to magnificent new beginnings, and even if you don’t quite grasp it at first, somehow you’ll find the way.
For me, it began with water and weeds.