Short Fiction ~ Rose Morris
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
It happened thirty years ago.
They were young. They were giddy with love and sunshine.
She closes her eyes and she’s back there: Portugal, 1991. Hitching a lift.
Through a break in the hedgerow, the blue-purple swell of the Atlantic.
She sharp-nudges him awake.
Let’s jump out here, she says. She’s twenty-two, and impetuous.
But, aren’t we … shouldn’t we …? His drowsy brow is furrowing, his eyes quizzical, because this lift is heaven-sent: it’s going all the way from Sagres to Lisbon.
Please, she says.
He shakes his head and leans forward to get the attention of the driver.
What are you like? he says, laughing, as the car pulls away.
They shoulder their rucksacks, and walk past a clump of houses and a closed shop. Before long, they reach a gated track. The scramble down is steep and hot, but the deserted beach is long and beautiful.
Paradise, she says.
He laughs. I thought we’d be drinking rum in Lisbon tonight, but I guess this’ll do instead.
She kisses his freckled nose.
Later, she emerges from a heat-lulled doze to find the light changed and a breeze goose-pimpling her arms.
She scrambles up, muzzy with sleep, rubs her eyes and scans the empty beach.
Alarm traces a bony finger along her spine.
She runs to the water’s edge, her eyes darting back and forth across the swell.
Thank God, she says, thinking she sees him, raising her hand to wave. Not him. A cormorant, bobbing on the swell.
She swallows her panic down into her guts.
He’ll be at the tent, she says. She’ll find him pulling on jeans and sweater, chilled from his long swim, and he’ll tease her for panicking. She careers across the beach, scrambles over the dunes, and picks her way across scrubland to their camping spot.
The tent is empty.
She hurtles back across the dunes, shouting his name over and over.
If you’re hiding, come out now, she hollers.
But he wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t frighten her.
Sometimes she wishes he’d treat her badly, just once. She imagines wild drama, and a passionate making-up. But he’s been gentle and considerate every day of their six years together. And he always lets her get her own way.
But maybe today is different. Maybe he’s getting back at her for sabotaging their lift to Lisbon. That’s it! He’s tucked in the dunes watching her. Five minutes from now, she’ll be raging at him and he’ll be shame-faced and remorseful, promising never to scare her again.
It’s not funny, she calls, projecting her voice first one way, and then another.
I mean it, she cries. I’m really scared now. Please, Davie. Please.
She wheels around and around, her eyes frantic searchlights sweeping across the beach and the dunes and the distant headland. And then back out to sea.
She rushes back to the shoreline and stares impotently into the waves. Suddenly vicious, they heave and crash at her feet as she yells his name, over and over, the dense salt air stinging her throat.
Chrissie, she chastises, for God’s sake get a grip. She shakes her head hard, her hair flying across her line of vision. There’s another explanation. There is. There has to be.
Hanging tight to the fraying hope that he’s tricking her, she races back over the dunes to their camping spot, hurtling again into the empty tent, starting up the steep track, changing her mind, running back to the beach, dashing first one way, then the other, eyes everywhere, calling and calling him. Her breath is ragged, her legs buckling, her concentration skittering, unable to settle, unable to think.
She bends double, hands on her knees, head down, trying to slow her breath, struggling to find a foothold in her mind.
Okay, she decides, this is what’s happened: he thought he’d just meander along the beach while she slept, didn’t intend to disappear from view, but something distracted him, fossils perhaps, so he strayed further, way off beyond those distant rocks, rooting in the sand, losing track of time. He’ll reappear any minute, and she’ll laugh at herself, at all her wild panic.
She walks slowly back to their towels and sits down. She’ll stay calm. She’ll wait. She’ll try to read for a while.
Half an hour later, she scrambles to her feet for perhaps the twentieth time.
This time, the truth, refusing to be kept any longer at bay, looms over her, its hands reaching for her throat.
By the time she reaches the road, her knees are buckling, her breath spent. She bangs on the first door she reaches, crying out her panic. A man opens it, startled, calling behind him for someone else to come. A woman appears. A child is sent to fetch a neighbour, a young man who questions her in broken English, searching for shape in her incoherence.
As she tries to steady herself, ragworms of hope gnaw through her livid mind.
Perhaps he decided to walk back up to the little shop, and surprise her with wine and food for dinner. Perhaps someone invited him in and he’s playing cards in a small back room.
Or perhaps sunstroke invaded his tender mind, and he grabbed his passport and left her while she slept. He’s left a note in the sleeping bag. He’s hitching alone to Lisbon. Can blistering sunshine affect the brain like that?
The young man is waiting for her to articulate her distress. She suddenly sees herself through his perplexed gaze: a straggle-haired young woman, wearing only a bikini and flip-flops, half-deranged.
My boyfriend went swimming, she says. He hasn’t come back.
Where she lives now, no-one knows that he existed; that three decades ago, she sacrificed her lover to the malevolent ocean. She, his tragedy.
She looks out to sea.
Lapping at her feet, the moonlit tide.
Carried on the swell, his ghostly voice.
When the water is waist-high, she hesitates, looking skywards.
A gull cries out, above her.
Rose Morris lives in County Cork, Ireland. For decades, she stymied her urge to write. But longing will have its day and in 2019, Rose finally threw off her shackles, becoming a founder member of the Irish Writers Ink group, and beginning to write regularly, openly and in earnest.
Her first novel, There Will Be Tempest, will shortly be sent out into the universe to look for a home.
Rose has recently turned to short fiction, since when she has been placed or listed by Fish Flash Fiction 2021, Strands International, Lunate 500, and Bray Literary Festival. Her biographical writing has been published in two editions of Childlike.
Rose has a passion for books (of course!), wildlife, the sea, old friends, new ideas, fresh air, bright colours and hot chocolate.