James closes his eyes. He’s been piling oysters in sixes for too long. He’s a multiple of six, he realises, comes from a family of six, which is a multiple of itself. And he is twenty-four, four bags of oysters. More recently, James has dreams where he is an oyster, trapped in total darkness with no limbs.
James and Gary sit a few metres apart, simultaneously checking the oysters for chips or discolouration. Given all Gary’s spoken about over the past month is Mersea Mens’ moving up in the league, James suspects they have different sorts of dreams. He rattles on now about inconsistent grass lengths but had nothing except silence to offer when James told him why he wasn’t his ‘usual self’. All he can think about is pulling out Gary’s tongue and clamping an oyster shell around it.
He looks out of the window. The cars parked out the back of the restaurant stare at him with those square, angry eyes. Tyre marks unsettle the sand. James wonders whether the mud on his wheels has washed away yet. The drops fall on the water fast and light. They’re spritzing the sea, cooling it down like those rich holidaymakers on cruise ships. The docked boats look alive and breathing in the wind. It seems like some are trying to escape. The sails dance in to one another like a heavy night’s pillowcases hanging out to dry. He knows it all. He knows the way the orange paint flakes off; the way moss gathers up the legs of the pier. He knows the distance between him and the horizon; between the sea and the lowest cloud. He wants to know nothing. He wants to step out of his front door and turn the wrong direction.
“Are you pretty much done yet?” Paul Radcliffe runs the cleaning department. “Not still moping about that kid are you?” Fridays he is even more of an inconsiderate bastard than usual. James can’t blame him, having two straight days with his wife ahead. The daughter of a keen diver who discovered the cove of oysters just two hundred metres past the floating rock, his wife owns the factory. She only visits the actual workplace occasionally. When Geri does come in, she gapes at the conveyer belt whilst picking off her nail varnish. Today, she wears a beret on the verge of falling off and a jumper with a bumblebee stitched on, Bee happy, it’s Friday! written underneath. Sometimes she brings mini cans of pop for the employees. More than often she just kicks a few boxes into corners, pretends to know their names.
James taps his foot on the ledge of a box to the beat of Paul’s heavy breathing. He can clean three oysters a minute, sometimes four, which means that after he’s done a crate of two hundred, hopefully an hour will have passed. He has just half an hour left of today’s shift. But it’s not about going home, it’s about passing time. Ella’s boxes lie waiting in the draft of the landing to be collected.
He looks across the road to the Oyster Bar. It’s November now, so the tourists only come in twos. You can always spot them – the ones linking hands by the saltshakers. Hours of silence often go by for the local diners. A couple that James recognises sits by the window. They both stare at a space above their partner’s head, barely moving a muscle. A tiny piece of batter hangs off the man’s lip. Will his wife bother to mention it? It’s ironic that oysters are an aphrodisiac because there’s nothing less sexual than the couples of West Mersea.
“Fancy goin’ to the Victory to sink a few?” Gary’s mother-in-law is visiting, so this means he can get away with disappearing. The Victory Ship, with its plastic chairs and clock that stopped in ’98, is the only pub in town.
“Think I’ll pass.” James looks down at his hands. They’re wrinkled and raw, like usual. His nails look so transparent, like someone’s trying to trace his fingers. “Have fun though.”
He gets into his car and immediately hits off the stereo. They’ve started playing Christmas songs already. The fan heater only blows out cold air, so he revs a bit harder than necessary as he pulls out. His house is just around the corner, a cul-de-sac. He kisses the lock with his key then freezes. What day is it? Friday. James frowns slightly and steps inside.
The house smells like meat and stale smoke. His dog’s alone in the room barking at the television: their local channel, of course. He puts his bag on the sofa and taps down the kettle, causing it to glow blue – the kind of artificial colour only on t-shirts or packaging. The last top Mike wore was blue. It had a picture of a woman in a Hawaiian skirt on it, dancing in the breeze on the shore. It’s been so long since the sea seemed blue. James hasn’t been near it since it happened. Five weeks, four days, twenty hours ago. The water had been freezing, more black than blue. Mike’s body splayed over the rock, James just bobbed there. Numb. He watched Ella swim away, screaming, his eyes closing for every wave that tumbled over his head. It was only minutes before the sea had erased her footprints. He raises his eyebrows, just as he did then, to make sure he feels something. After she ran from the beach, he retrieved both t-shirts from the bollard. He folded Mike’s and placed it on the passenger seat. One of Ella’s sandals lay beside the wheel; he put that in a fabric bag and waited. He waited for three hours to drive home, so he’d have a clear head. The sensible thing to do.
He wants to forget about the sea and have a warm bath with bubbles. He lets the water from the tap dance between his fingers, playing with the stream as if the keys of a piano. The hum under the bath water is an addictive sound. Unlike the hum at the factory, it clears his mind rather than interrupts it. He cups his hands on top of the bubbles, he likes how resilient they feel even when he bounces so lightly.
One of his mother’s magazines, damp from his footstep, now curls at the edges. He thinks about how he leaves quiet traces everywhere he goes. James and his mother converse through coffee rings on unwashed mugs and toothpaste lids left off. His brothers are a puzzle he doesn’t have the energy to complete. He sits on the edge of the bed in his towel, and stares at himself in the mirror. His hair is getting long; he looks like a man he’s never met. He wonders if perhaps his real face still lies out on the rocks, his smile crumbling apart like an old sheet of pastry. He unfolds a clean t-shirt from his shelf and without realising, hugs it against his chest. It doesn’t smell of anything.
The doorbell rings, long and piercing. It makes his surroundings throb into focus, so that he notices a pile of coins about to fall off the dresser, a cushion without its filling, a pair of pearl earrings. He used to find that endearing, the way she presses the bell for longer than necessary. Now it makes his stomach drop like a rock. James pulls on some jeans that are hanging up on the door. He likes to keep them there, it means that everything he leaves in his pockets is easy to reach.
He smoothes his hair to the side and clears his throat. She looks fuzzy through the textured glass, like a watercolour. He spends a few seconds opening the door. (There are a couple of locks that he can pretend to struggle with that buy him time. Really, he knows to pull here and push there with his eyes closed.) Even the keyhole carries a draft that’s harsh on his bathed skin.
The first thing he notices is that she isn’t wearing earrings. He attempts to look into her eyes but she searches past him into the corridor.
“Do you want to come in?”
“No.” She’s stiff, plain. “Do you have my things ready?” He nods. She even used to wear her pearls in bed. His little oyster. “Did you remember the stuff from the bedside table as well?” He taps the box’s side. “And the spice rack?”
“Mum’s put some of her stuff on it. I don’t know. I can get it if you want.” Her face looks so pale. He remembers her teeth chattering, then her hand clinging to her mouth.
“Whatever, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” The fact she won’t look at him makes him feel sick. He leaves the door to hang half open and scuffs in the living room to get the boxes. Looking at them fills him with regret – why had he wanted to remind her of their bonfire night, before all this? They’d manned the baked potato stall, held gloved hands under the table when the fireworks started. He wrote her name with a sparkler. They had talked about that complex of apartments on the other side of town. Six-sixty a month was manageable, split.
James arranges the boxes in the boot of her car and closes it as gently as he can. He speaks softly, too, asks her again to come in.
“Ella.” He remembers shouting up to the rocks. Jump, you pussy. The commotion then the silence.
It wasn’t strange that he didn’t eat breakfast when he got in, because sometimes he didn’t anyway. And it wasn’t strange that he didn’t say good morning to his parents, because most of the time, he didn’t anyway. He didn’t say anything, to anyone. He didn’t go round to Ella’s. He didn’t call. The funeral came and went.
James watches her car leave his driveway. When it turns out of his sight, he begins to run. He runs past cats and bin bags, friends’ old houses. His bare feet run over tiny pieces of broken glass he can’t see. The cold makes his eyes water so the streetlamps blur to an orange sky. It grips its fist around his chest so he breathes hard. And runs fast, six steps per breath. He watches the second hand tick on his wrist, twenty-two breaths per minute.
James, he’s not breathing.
Copyright © 2016 by Eva Hibbs