He’s standing in the street, shouting for her. As he always does. But this time it’s different. He’s not here to have sex. Not for her to lie motionless on the bed, waiting for him to sluggishly finish, sprawled out underneath him as if she had been dropped from a great height. Dave is here to take her out. Like a boyfriend.
He’d laughed when she’d asked if he loved her, covering his shock. The realisation that she might be a person, with feelings, had hit him like a punch in the stomach. So he’d laughed, ‘You? A fat ‘tard?’
After he’d left, she’d lay on top of the faded floral duvet, staring at the ceiling. Ophelia drifting. Gobsmacked by the possibility that Martine had feelings, Dave had been halfway down the road before he’d sensed he hadn’t handled it well. That he’d rocked the boat. The sex was nothing but the money she gave him was useful. Maybe, deep inside, he felt bad. Marginally.
He got the impression that Martine lived in some kind of halfway house, but no one seemed to care who came and went. Walking in through the unlocked front door, he’d made his way up the thinly-carpeted stairs to her room, sweating with the effort. She hadn’t moved. Too bludgeoned. A stunned mullet. Dave had taken a breath and spoken quickly, pushing the words out as if he didn’t trust himself to see it through. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow lunchtime. Make sure you’re ready. We’re going to the pool. And bring your bank card.’ He’d paused, ‘Darlin’.
Martine had laid still for a few more minutes, processing his words before she’d rolled over and pulled a black plastic bag out from under the bed. Tipping the contents out onto the floor, she’d rummaged through the pile of crumpled clothing for her favourite dress and her old school swimming costume. Satisfied that they would do, she’d then finished off the takeaway from the previous day.
She’d woken early, anxious not to miss him and, pulling the chair over to the window, sat dozing as the afternoon sun slid through the greasy glass.
‘Come on, girl. Get a fucking move on.’
Dave’s voice woke her with a start and, stuffing her towel in an Aldi carrier bag, she carefully took each stair one at a time before heading out the door.
She’s surprised to see him with a car. Borrowed from a mate, he has tied a battered red canoe to its roof. Already regretting his short-lived and unusual display of humanity, he quickly gets back into the car when he sees her. The blue sundress is too short, and he can see her podgy thighs rubbing together as she walks towards him. She is smiling uncertainly as she grips the handles of the bag. Even she feels it might be too good to be true. ‘What a bleedin’ mess,’ he mutters, and shakes his head.
On the way, he parks near the cashpoint. ‘Out,’ he says, before gripping her arm and propelling her along the pavement to make her walk faster. His fingers squeeze her flesh. Hard.
The queue builds as she fumbles with her bank card. Behind her, expensively-dressed couples snigger and chatter, and children whine, desperate to get on the beach. Dave stands to one side and watches her, exhaling loudly as she finally gets the PIN right. One hundred pounds. Again. A nice tidy amount. She tries to give it to him.
‘Not here, you daft bint,’ he frowns, nodding towards a nearby doorway where she hands over the cash. Not even looking at him in her shame and fear.
Dave grins and pats her on the cheek. ‘Cheers. Much appreciated.’ That pause again. ‘Darlin’.’
He drives them to the sea pool, and Martine covers her face when he drives too fast down the steep slope to the car park. She doesn’t think he will be able to stop in time and that they will crash through the railings onto the beach. For an instant, Dave thinks the same and presses his foot a little harder on the accelerator. Just for an instant.
It’s a perfect summer’s day, and the place is rammed. Trip-hop drifts from a speaker tied to the back of a yellow van, decorated with spray-painted flowers. Children and dogs run behind the parked cars, giddy with freedom. On the horizon, vast container ships head to Tilbury, full of indestructible plastic objects from China. Martine’s heart lurches with forgotten happiness. This is paradise.
In a moment of hope, she reaches for his hand as they stand by the parked car. He recoils, looking around to see if anyone has noticed. His aim is just to get through the day and, fuelled by that thought, he drags the canoe off the car roof.
Martine removes her dress, ready for the water. He looks at her. Her swimsuit is too small, and in the harsh sunlight, her arms and legs have the colour and texture of squashed raspberries. Angry, hot and embarrassed, Dave starts to drag the canoe across the car park towards the beach. ‘Oi mate’, someone laughs, ‘you’ll knacker it doing that.’
He turns on her. ‘Fucking help out, you lazy cow. Pick up the back end.’ Martine does her best and the heavy canoe thumps into her legs. The rough fibreglass edges make her palms sore, but she struggles on. Head down.
He makes her get in first. The canoe rocks from side to side as she shuffles across to the small seat. She hunches over, hands clenched together on her knees and stares out over the pool where people dip and flip like sea otters.
She freezes as Dave climbs in behind her and begins to paddle. The canoe moves across the water, and he unleashes a red-hot stream of whispered vitriol. ‘You disgust me. You’re fucking mental. You should be in a home. Locked up.’
On and on, he continues. Martine remains motionless. Blank-eyed. Finally, he returns them to the beach where she climbs out and silently lifts the back of the canoe. Its weight presses against the already-forming bruises as they head back towards the car.
Dave notices people looking at them. He drops the canoe and turns round. To his disgust, he sees tears sliding down her sun-reddened cheeks. Not wanting a scene of any kind, he tries to bring them to a halt. He spits out an apology.
But the tears can’t stop, and the more familiar words come out louder than he intends. ‘Stupid fat bitch. Can you hear me? Stop cunting crying.’
He strides back to the car, resolutely ignoring the shocked stares. He slams the door and drives away, leaving Martine standing silently beside the canoe. A broken fleshy statue, weeping through closed eyes. Eventually, she opens them, sighs and slowly walks to the railings. She smiles as she climbs over and opens her arms wide as she jumps. The wind ruffles her hair, gently wrapping its arms around her as it guides her over the sea until, after a few false starts, she gets the hang of it.
Soaring and gliding, she swoops out to sea. The sight of a young woman lying awkwardly in the soft, muddy sand below the car park doesn’t even register.
She is skimming the surface of the waves when she hears the call and joins the others as they make their way towards the town centre. Together they circle, shrieking over the rooftops. Below them, a gull, not long out of the nest, crouches in hurt bewilderment. A group of men engulfed in an oily smell of weed, throw empty beer cans and cigarette ends at it, passing the time.
The gull’s parents begin to dive-bomb the group, and she, like the others, follows suit. The men scatter, diving into shops, cafes, the bus shelter, anywhere to escape the deluge of vomit and excrement that precedes the attack of bills, wings and claws. In his panic, one of them shouts, ‘Fuckin’ hell. You vicious bastards!’
Something in his voice ignites a spark of anger and hate, and she hones in. The spark grows until it consumes her. Viciously, she swipes at his head, and his scalp begins to bleed. Panic-stricken, he keeps running, dropping his mobile as he raises his arms to protect himself. He sees the old phone box on the harbour side and lurches towards it.
Once inside, Dave takes deep breaths to steady himself. He is hit by the overwhelming smell of stale urine, so powerful that he retches. The pay phone has long been removed. Cursing, he looks through the glass. The gull is still there, and he has the impression that she’s waiting for him.
Eventually, she settles down by the door and, laying her head on her back, appears to be asleep. Dave quietly attempts to leave but the gull is too quick and drives him back, using her wings like weapons.
Patiently she stands, one leg tucked up under her body, half-listening to Dave as he shouts to catch the attention of passers-by. Eventually, he becomes silent and slides onto the floor. The sun sets over the sea, turning the sky a deep hazy red. The gull makes contented little mewling sounds.
Martine is aware that someone is holding her hand. A man is kneeling beside her. She thinks he has the face of an angel but when he opens his mouth, she sees that his teeth are chipped and broken, and she feels unaccountably disappointed.
He speaks but she can’t understand him. A woman has covered her with beach towels, but her body is cold from lying on the wet sand. She feels pain and starts to shiver.
Posie Brown has had a long career as a professional writer, working as a journalist before going into corporate communications. She also worked with a number of arts charities. A timely redundancy has now given her the opportunity to finally focus more on her fiction writing. She lives in Kent, UK