Johanna Robinson is a writer, proofreader and mother of two and is back in her home city of Liverpool, UK, after spending most of her adult life in Leeds. Despite a BA and MA in English Literature, and perhaps because of a diversion into law, she ignored the urge to write for too many years. She was eventually kicked into action by taking the Comma Press short story course in Liverpool in 2016. Her short stories have been longlisted for the Short Fiction Prize (2017) and the Bare Fiction Prize (2018).
By Johanna Robinson
‘We haven’t got long.’ The newspaper flapped around his hands, the page corners pecking at his wrists. Every now and again he rattled the paper tight as though to claim the rectangle of space in front of him. We haven’t got long. The statement hung over and between them like a flag, sagging lightly. His words were spoken towards and past his newspaper, and beyond, to the sea.
‘We’ve got a while,’ Linda replied, shuffling down in the deck chair a little, to take advantage of the full protection of the windbreak behind her. Its gaudiness rang out in their little patch of sand. Against its prime-colour stripes they would look like silhouettes, she thought, to anyone who happened to stand looking at them from the sea. Navy blue (her) and dark grey (him), and a straw hat each.
She watched his lips draw into the tight little line she knew so well. He peered in judgement past the brim of his hat, first to the sky, unexceptionally blue, and then to the sea. She knew he was betting against himself. Rain or tide: which would be first to call time on this pause on the beach?
She looked out to sea too. Some clouds were starting to tread the horizon. ‘It won’t rain. I don’t think,’ she offered, perhaps against his odds.
‘Is that west?’ She pointed, as though she meant one neat coordinate of the sea rather than the expanse, everything that west could contain.
‘What?’ He spoke his word like a bite.
‘There. In front of us. West?’
He knew facts like this. It was safe ground. She didn’t really need to know if it was west, and she could probably have applied enough common sense to work it out.
‘South-west,’ he said.
‘Why.’ A statement. Or a sigh.
A sailing boat blurred into sight beyond her ex-husband’s profile. It was both quick and slow, driven by time rather than wind, she thought. She shifted slightly, and her foot knocked over the nearest polystyrene cup; the teabag flopped out onto the shingle, like a desperate, exhausted fish. She was about to apologise, until she realised it was her cup, not his, with her bite marks around the rim, her tea pooling.
‘No reason,’ she said.
Linda could not read here, and of course not today; once, she had brought a book – the first time they came – but the words, in all this real space, were too small. With the waves as their backdrop, the words were released from their sentences, minute, standalone, pointless. The sea won, every time: the sea and, today, the fleeing comma of the sailing boat.
A crayon-yellow buoy was floating in the centre of the sea. Linda reminded herself that it wasn’t really floating but calmly wrenching itself around on the spot.
‘Do you remember,’ she said, ‘in Grady Road, how the sun used to set over the warehouses at the back, in October, and then how the sunset would move further and further to the right across the bedroom window, so that by July it would set all the way over towards the rugby posts on the playing field? And then one day, it would jump back, and be over the warehouses again. And we never managed to catch that sunset, the one where it jumped back. I’d just notice, one day, in the autumn, that the sun was back where it started.’
‘It wouldn’t have jumped. It would have happened over a few days, maybe a few weeks.’
‘You always said that. You didn’t believe me at all at first. I had to wait a whole year to prove it to you.’
She picked up a seagull feather that was lying between the two chairs and held it like a quill, as though about to write in the air. ‘I remember thinking west seemed pretty vague.’
Tom dug the heels of his shoes into the shingle – it could have passed for sand on a hot day, dripping with ice cream and erupting with kids and footballs, but today, in this hyphen of a season, it was still inherently damp, determined to become the seafloor again.
He’d made a small mound with his fidgeting feet. The wrong shoes for the beach, of course. Smooth, with a panel of elastic on each side. She imagined him pulling them on that morning, hooking a thumb of each hand under the leather sides, sliding his dark-green, thin-socked feet inside, perhaps giving a wriggle and a tap. Her own shoes were sitting neatly next to her feet, grains of sand smattering the insoles.
He lowered the paper to look at her. ‘We haven’t got long.’
‘Yes. You said.’ He hadn’t turned one page since they sat down.
‘I mean the tide.’
Linda watched the creeping edge of the sea. ‘You always did look ahead. Ready for anything.’
Tom attempted a full sideways turn in his deck chair, but its resolute design forced him back into his original position. Linda smiled. Watch the sea, the chair demanded; you are here to watch the sea; you must watch the sea.
‘How could I not?’ His voice was reproachful, as though she had accused him of growing old. ‘And not anything. Just whatever was coming next.’
‘I couldn’t.’ Her hat lifted gently away from her head and settled again. She rested her hand on it, as though to reassure it.
A dog, landing from nowhere, jammed itself into the space between their chairs, and then into the sand, headfirst, paws shovelling everything towards the tide, showering Linda’s bag, trampling the contents, its sea-matted tail shunting gleefully this way and that. It rammed its nose into one of the polystyrene cups and, panicking, began to run in a tiny, trapped circle between them.
When Linda shrieked, it was with a voice she hadn’t heard for years. Tom launched sideways, almost tipping out of the chair, both hands cupped to rescue the wooden box that was sitting in the shade of the windbreak exactly halfway between their chairs.
‘Wolf!’ A man’s voice and body loomed above them, blotting out the buoy, the sea, the boat that may have passed. ‘Heel!’
He tore the cup from the dog’s nose and launched it over the windbreak, dragging the animal away by its collar, leaving behind four unsteady, scrabbling paw tracks.
Linda kicked the remaining cup to one side. She picked up her shoes, banged them together in time with her heart, and just as loud, and put them on. Tom was sitting, legs together, the box cradled in his hands, on his knee, his forehead leaning forward, as though to pray.
‘Tom. The tide. We need to go.’
During their joined-up, wedded years, on their monthly visits to the young people’s care home, as it was known, the beach had never featured – other than as a backdrop from the car window, a flash of sea, either sparkling or shadowy, glimpsed at the end of streets. The same flash/flash/flash each time, when they had set off from the same house, the same marriage, on the same journey, to the same end, and back again.
Linda’s hand paused, just above his shoulder, but instead she placed it on the end pole of the windbreak.
When their marriage ended, just like that, they had still made a joint, togetherly visit to the home once a year; they thought it might give a sense of reassurance, of stability. She had tried to see it as a chime rather than an echo. The same day each year, of course: the last day of May. The last time, ten months ago. When their annual visit was up they would each sign their name in the check-out column of the visitors’ book – his in upper case, even his signature; hers a scribble and a dot – and leave the sterile building with its old, clinking heating pipes and the smell of standardised food. After the first of these annual post-divorce, clinging visits, they had been drawn to the beach, and by the next year it was tradition. Linda’s fingers closed on the wood of the windbreak and she wondered if they’d ever had this one before. This exact one, with the same synthetic weave and this grain of this wood.
The rest of the year they would each plan their visits carefully to avoid an accidental meeting in what the home’s brochure called an atrium, but which was really just a foyer.
‘Tom. We should go.’
He clambered out of the chair, still clasping the box. ‘The chairs. We should take them back.’ He looked around, for a solution, for someone to gesture to.
‘Leave them. Just this once. We can.’
They walked away from the chairs and the windbreak, silent until they reached the pavement again. Tom’s trousers were ringed with shingle at the hem, but his shoes shined. He tried to stamp away the sand. ‘Thirty-one years. It was more than we thought. More than anyone thought.’
Linda suddenly hated the massiveness of the sea, its permanence. Turning her back on it, she glared at the nearby garish roadside stall, sticks of rock swinging, almost in rhythm. Thirty-one years had been no time, and all time. Five years, they had said at first, in that post-birth clamour, when his breath was hot and his skin was still shedding and his nails were as tiny as shells. But five years became seven-and-a-half, and more, like a half-life, and more, eking out, drifting by, trickling away, growing but slowing, until – they had been told – his needs were best met elsewhere.
‘Linda, did we let him down?’
Linda became aware of her hat. She’d forgotten she had it on. She wrenched it off and threw it with all the intention she could gather over the wall towards the beach; but the wind danced it through the air instead and laid it down.
‘By sending him away? I don’t know. We’ll never know.’
‘Do you want me to get your hat?’ Tom pointed to it, placid now on the beach, a seagull hunched nearby.
‘No. Thanks.’ She took a step towards Tom; had his hands not been cupped around the box, she would have grasped them. ‘Goodbye.’
‘Linda.’ Her name, from his lips, cracked.
He held the box up towards her. A question.
‘You take it,’ she said, looking at the buoy, further out than it had been earlier. ‘You have him.’