This short story of mine is taken from my newest collection, Over and Above. If you enjoy it, tell me why.
Clare could not remember how long it was since her arm had gone stiff. She could not move her elbow joint at all, gasping with pain and shock every time she tried to inch it straight. She could not remember whether it had been weeks or just days or perhaps a few hours.
‘Since the boat yard,’ mumbled Edward, interrupting her thoughts as he turned from the well-lit window in the yellow kitchen. Hands deep in jeans pockets, he stood tall and square, blotting out some of the brilliant morning sunlight with his frame.
‘I said since we went to see the boat four weeks ago. That’s how long you’ve had that blasted sprain and you have dropped two mixing bowls, the mail yesterday and the iron this morning.’ It was unusual for Edward to be so severe. His voice had not risen above a whisper but it was clear and cutting. Clare flinched as his back turned again and his silhouetted outline rebuked her from where he stood. She balanced on a kitchen stool, gripping a mug awkwardly with her left fingers. It was uncomfortable and almost dangerous. Clare was absolutely right handed.
‘The boat…’ she started. Ever since Edward had bought the boat things had changed. She had thought it would help him assert himself in the world, make him readdress his confidence by tackling an element she regarded as almost almighty. ‘The sea,’ she continued, hoping the subject of her arm would be dropped. ‘It’s done…’
‘And you have done nothing but contradict and discourage me since I’ve started sailing.’ Edward mumbled the accusation with a small grimace, and he avoided her eyes.
He was not right, but Clare was inclined to believe him, partly because of the pain in her arm and partly because of a twinge of guilt. Could the sprain be a psychosomatic response to her feelings of loneliness? Could it be a protest she was making with her body, which she could not make in words? She felt alone when he went out sailing. She tried to bend her arm and failed, uttering another groan of dismay. The mug rocked on the counter, spilling tiny drops of coffee on the yellow laminex top.
Edward moved away from the window and out of the kitchen in a slow sideways trot, as if he wanted to disappear. And he would, Clare knew. Out of her sight and out of the house without a word for the remainder of the day. Even when they were home together, he buried himself in a book about knots or tides or rope splicing or marker buoys whenever she came into the lounge, or turned on a video full of flapping sails, grinning men and large expanses of water.
Try as she would, it was impossible for her to watch a full hour of people in yellow oilskins leaning out over choppy water, changing tack with smooth un-fumbling hands or smiling into the camera from the cramped confines of a small cabin. And the sea: squared off into deceptively manageable pieces on a video screen, it looked almost welcoming.
‘It makes me long for things,’ Edward had once said. Perhaps that had been more dangerous than the thought of him struggling out of his depth in a storm, yellow lifejacket preventing him from thrashing about or treading water, binding his arms to his sides like a straightjacket. More dangerous, because it made her long for something as well; and it was a feeling she was not used to. It was a non-descript longing, like a soft stirring in her stomach, a nauseating sensation that was neither seasickness nor a definite craving for food or drink.
The arm was better the following weekend. Clare rubbed mentholatum into the crook of her elbow at night, making the bed smell eucalyptic, like a childhood sick bed. Edward asked if she had a cold, forgetting for the moment about her muscular distress. Clare rolled to face him, but saw his nose was creased up and the corners of his mouth drooped dismally in disgust.
‘It’s my arm.’
‘Better now ... a bit.’
His response was a quick click of the switch on his bedside lamp, making Clare’s last word dissolve in darkness.
After a while, she could see the outline of the small window through the thin flowered curtains. There was a moon. It made the roses in the fabric yellow; great cabbages to keep her company as Edward slept. They billowed in some strange wind, grew into enormous blimps, spinnakers bulged by a foreign gale that invaded the bedroom but left everything in its place: unruffled, unmoved, except the curtains. Clare changed tack, rolling onto her other side, gasping against the protest from her elbow.
In the morning it was raining heavily. Edward pulled on boating clothes: a new sweater with a white collar and rubber buttons, moleskins and a pair of laced loafers. ‘Coming?’ He seemed light-hearted; he was over the sulky mood that had accompanied his presence for over a week. He whistled, said oops, and that sailors thought it was bad luck to whistle, hugged Claire absentmindedly and kissed her on the ear.
‘Coming?’ he asked again.
‘Looks horrible out there.’
Clouds had moved over Edward’s horizon. ‘Yes or no, Clare. Don’t take all morning making sideways dissenting noises. The earlier I get there, the sooner I get launched!’ He was out in fifteen minutes, gulping coffee as he got things together, passing her in the wordless sideways trot she now recognised as his ‘sailing gait’.
The weekend newspaper supplement was full of boats. It was a conspiracy. Cons-piracy. Piracy, Clare thought. What a thought. She chuckled, searched for her glasses, her sewing basket and her sharpest scissors. Feeling creative, she sank into a chair and sighed.
By the time Edward returned, exhilarated and tired from his day on the estuary, she had sewn a black skull and crossbones onto the bedroom curtains.
‘What is this?’
Clare heard his hissing words and smiled.
‘Clare! Clare - what on earth do you mean by this?’ Edward held a curtain by a corner. He was not impressed.
Clare could hardly contain her mirth.
‘Come on, Clare. What is this? Not a joke, if you ask me.’ He held up the cabbagy print fabric, looking at the rough but regular stitching that held the black cut outs in place.
‘I don’t know,’ Clare laughed. ‘I don’t know exactly!’ She bent over and held herself as laughter surged and curled in her stomach. She went and locked herself in the bathroom, looking in the mirror and bursting into peals of uncontrollable laughter.
The following afternoon, she piped YO HO HO in red icing on the round sponge cake she made. The kitchen contained a warm cloud of flour and icing sugar as she shook things, her elbow now only a little stiff.
Edward cupped his chin in a hand and looked at her in unamused vexation. Then his expression changed, blurred slightly. ‘How’s your arm?’ he asked softly.
Clare stopped laughing. She wondered whether she could tell him about the new uncertainty she felt. The arm was much better, but it had been replaced by a kind of nausea. The hall floor had tilted away from her a few hours back, like a companionway on a boat, rolling on a high swell. Was this a new complaint her body – or her mind – was making against Edward’s new-found love? Was she unconsciously making a physical protest out of jealousy?
I am struggling against an adversary, she thought, and it is mightier than an occupation, stronger than a woman. She giggled again, when a surge of laughter and a feeling of being able to tackle anything came over her. But it made her feel faint.
When Edward’s sailing friends arrived that evening, she was as still and solemn, as if it was a prayer group they had organised, rather than a convivial evening with friends. They smiled at the writing on the cake. Into Clare’s solar plexus came a warm, soggy feeling as she listened to them discuss navigation, storms, man overboard procedures, and different sizes and shapes of sail.
She remembered an old painting from her father’s study, which they had stored somewhere in the roof. A sloop with pregnant sails tilting on an ocean speckled with drizzle and spray. Tomorrow she would bring it down and hang it in the hall.
The water was smooth, thick. Clare was sure it would turn her fingers green if she drew her fingers through the oily reflective surface and flicked drops away. It was thick and salty, smelling of entrails and dead starfish, of empty shells and brown seaweed.
No wind. Edward rowed desultorily towards the small yacht, looking out towards the horizon and wishing up a wind. The dinghy was small and rocked gently on the slightest ripple, but there was no wind to speak of. Once on the yacht, he left Clare to tie the dinghy on to the stern, and rummaged about below for the compass and rolled up charts.
‘We need a name,’ said Clare suddenly. ‘Astra … or Miranda or something like that.’
‘She doesn’t need a name. Registration number – that’s all she needs. Can’t remember it... one-six-oh-four-eight, is it? Or one-eight-six-oh-four?’
‘Olinda or Astrid or Astarte or something like that.’
‘Nah.’ Edward shook his head distractedly as he searched for things in the clutter that had accumulated in the lockers.
Clare did not think it ought to be her job to keep the cabin tidy. It was his passion, after all. It was his space: she rarely came aboard. Her decision to accompany him that morning was a surprise even to her. She had found a horizontally striped sweater in her wardrobe, slipped it on, stepped into a pair of jeans and an old pair of sneakers, and said to Edward, ‘All I need is a cap, now.’
‘You aren’t coming on the boat?’
‘Yes, I am.’
He looked funny, then smiled and hurried her along. Now, in the cabin on the tiny yacht that had started to pitch and toss a bit, he seemed distracted but happy. Claire had discovered Edward’s way of being happy. It did not necessarily include grinning or telling jokes.
‘Shut up, Clare. Look for the river chart, will you?’
‘How about Sandra or Petra or ... hey! Marina! Perfect. Marina it will be.’ Clare clapped her hands and riffled about in the conglomeration of odds and ends in a locker. She surfaced with a cardboard tube. ‘This?’
She smiled at him.
Edward grimaced. He was actually pleased she came.
In half an hour, they were on open waters, looking at green strands of land on the horizon, trying to fix landmarks, which looked so different from when they drove about in the car, from when they were landlocked, concrete objects.
‘So glad you feel better about this now,’ Edward said suddenly. His back was turned to her, a hand raking wind-swept hair out of his eyes. He always looked away in times of emotion or stress. Or discovery or loss or happiness.
‘Mm.’ Claire did not want to destroy his mood.
‘Well - you do, don’t you?’
‘Umm. Don’t know.’ She didn’t like to admit anything to him just then. She was still thinking of last night and the new striped curtains she had put up in the bedroom. They were orangey and warm, vibrant and a strong statement in the room. But a violent clash with the carpet.
‘Oh, Edward,’ she sighed. ‘They are far too orange.’
‘We’ll get used to them,’ he had said to console her.
She sat on the bed and wondered about her recent misses. The big hole in the hall wall where she tried to hang the boat picture. The unrisen bread. And now, the clashing curtains. All small, all unimportant: but gathering into a hilarious muddle, which was so unlike her.
Edward was determined to get her to make a positive statement about the boat. ‘You like this now – you even want a name for her.’
Clare said nothing.
‘Marina,’ said Edward, to prove he had been listening. ‘Marina, you said. I like Marina.’
‘... because it could be a boy.’ She beamed and raised her eyebrows.
And at last he understood.
Over and Above is available for Kindle and in paperback. Find it at your favourite online book retailer.