Short Fiction ~ David Mohan
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Brewer turns his back on the sea and takes the first train home.
The sun is beginning to touch the edges of buildings, all across the skyline. Certain windows glimmer as the train speeds past.
In one apartment building the green of an electric light stands out in the great mass of black surrounding it. A man stands facing the city, ironing a shirt in the phosphorescence of his kitchen. He is so concentrated he looks frozen, just standing there, staring into a grey crease of cotton.
The train passes a woman smoking on her balcony. She looks fresh from her bed, her eyes flickering in the light, her hair set loosely in place like a wig she put on to cover the mess of her thoughts. She has her handbag on the table in front of her. There is a spill out of it. He imagines a lipstick and a compact mirror, a spray of white mints.
He gets off one stop early and walks the long way to his apartment. He wants a little more of this air, this sunlight, before he goes to bed.
There are people sleeping in boxes outside the station – waking on beaches is nothing unusual for them. Finding shelter from the sea breeze amidst the dunes, trudging across cold, slipping sand, and wiry grass, is just another late night trek for such travellers.
But he feels chilled by his night spent under the stars. And grateful for this morning, its soft, diffuse, translucent light. The day will be warm, he suspects, but there’s still a little of the night chill in the shade of the big station arch. As he walks along, taking his time, he observes how the day re-claims the city in gradual subdivisions: lemony sunlight touches up the glass of the Financial District, golden tones drip down fawn and salmon coloured walls, bright, blinding points blaze at intervals.
The raffia bag he borrowed from his landlady pats his shoulder blades as he walks along, and he feels the subtle weight of the shells he’s collected, the loops and curls and spirals he has stolen from the tide-blackened sand. They are worthless things, of course. Even more so now he is back in what is supposed to be the hub of industry, and at the most restive, frantic hour of the day.
But these shells are worth something just the same: for the walks they compel him to take if nothing else. They are the reward of such walks. No: they are the evidence. Like the broken up sneakers he found once, or the seal skull. Inessential things. So soothing, so compulsive.
Today, after a little sleep, he plans to pick around at the edges of his city life before he commits to anything concrete. He will be like a fox scavenging for scraps in trash bags, or one of those gigantic gulls that swoop down onto squares, raucous and strutting.
And this evening it will be the sea train again, as always, and then it will be a blind search as the dusk crawls towards absolute darkness, and the tides re-set. He will be as free then as the sound of the sea, beachcombing till whatever time he likes.
But for now, he walks into a café that has just opened – The Bayside Retreat. A waitress yawns behind the counter as he slips through the door.
He orders a latte and curls up in a corner, his bag of shells whispering as he lays it down beside him. His threadbare trainers smell of sand grit and seaweed: a saltwater tang.
For a moment, falling into the warmth of the place, he is on another coast, in another town, far away, elsewhere. But that place is warmer, that beach has another quality, appears to be a white-hot bar when the sun is at its fiercest. And there is a house beside that ocean, and a family, although most of the time is spent wandering the dunes, and hiking the coast road, and fishing in tidal pools, and running, running and running, never still, never settled. And in this odd memory, that is, by now, as much a dream as it is a memory, there is no clear sense of inside or outside, of indoors and outdoors, as the house back then was composed as much of the beach as it was of a hallway, and as much of the dunes as it was of a kitchen, and the doors and windows were always open in any case, and everywhere you went you smelt and heard the ocean, as though it lived inside you, akin to the sound of blood pounding in your ears.
And so it is unsurprising to witness again a version of himself run from the beach, run in a wavering line up the staggered boardwalk and then through the wild, marram grass country of the dunes, and then through the open doorway of that little slanted, salt-caked house, and up the dusty, blue-dark hallway and stairs, and then along that dark landing to the room at the opposite end, facing away from the ocean, and into that musty, antiseptic-scented bedroom, and then to the seaglass jar on the dresser, where he would deposit the latest shells he had discovered, and see the soft white face of the person sitting up in bed turn towards him in the dresser mirror.
It was always a shock to see that face turn, at that moment, although it was always anticipated, always the wish that lay behind everything else, and so Brewer startles when he awakes, and finds the waitress standing over his table, frowning, her notebook lopsided in her hand, her voice, so light, so delicate, the flicker of a lighthouse glimpsed miles away.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Hobart, Necessary Fiction,
Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Penn Review, The Seneca
Review and Westerly.