She had done it again. Naked under her duvet, a man lay beside her; a new one she’d found at the pub last night. I watched them through the open window. She sat her back flat against the headboard, knees pulled to her chest while he sprawled on her mattress, a starfish of weathered skin, and muscles shaped by the pulling of ropes, the hauling of fishing nets, whose name started with a J — James, Jeremy or Joseph. She had forgotten, amid fumbling fingers, kissing mouths, and tangled body parts. Maybe his name was waiting for her on the floor along with their clothes and the rest of her mess — unfinished novels, notebooks filled with endless lists of places that only existed in her head or on the pages of glossy magazines, half-drunk glasses, cups stuffed with ashes and twisted filters, jars filled with shells, and polished glass. I had been watching her ever since she ran up and down the beach as a child, writing in the sand the names she would like to be called, rescuing fish from shallow pools with a pink bucket.
I’m starving, he said with a morning breath sour with last night’s lager. She suggested scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages, but he turned down all of her offerings.
I want words, he told her, hungry for an assortment of fresh letters. Intrigued enough to indulge him, she started with plumped and rounded words, sweet amuse-bouche for starters. She plucked the ones she liked best: ellipsis, shores, pebbles, matinée. They rolled around in his mouth as he savoured them, sucked the marrow of consonants, cracked the soft shell of vowels. His smile, as he chewed, warmed the blood in her cheeks and woke up her heart. No longer ticking, it was drumming to the beat of an unfamiliar rhythm.
He was different from the others. They normally left with rounded shoulders and curved spines, scurrying away as soon as a new day blushed above the slated roofs, stuffing the words she offered them in the pockets of their coats between their keys and cigarettes, eager to go back to a life she wasn’t a part of.
Emboldened by his appetite and his hunger for what she had to say, she mixed ingredients, whipped up sentences, seasoned them with the aroma of her skin. He ate them all up. She kneaded phrases together until she made stories, tender ones from her childhood that melted on his tongue, spicy tajines of her teenage years, flamed-grilled tidbits of sneaking out for the first time, her first cigarette. She fed him the sweet and sour pieces of her first love and first heartbreak.
He ate everything she said.
When he finally burped with contentment, he collected his clothes and his name off her floor and said, let’s go to The White Hart for a couple of pints. He didn’t wait for her answer, but she caught up with him by the front door.
Outside, the sky wore a rebellious shade of denim she envied. Compared to it, the semi-darkness had tinted her skin a sallow shade. As they reached the top of the hill, she turned back towards me; I waved in the distance, shimmering under the waterfront lights. She stared at me with eyes full of questions, unaware that the answer to all of them lay on her lips, in the salt she liked to lick from them. Her attention was still on me when he grabbed her by the waist and spun her around. His arms around her waist unleashed her laughter, high-pitched like when we used to play tag. At the pub, they drowned inside vats of fizzy goldens or dark ambers, burned time to ashes with every cigarette they smoked. As the night unfolded, he kept her close, the arm he wrapped around her gave her substance, the slight pressure of his fingers on her waist if she moved. He talked football with his mates, made jokes she didn’t quite catch but laughed when the others did.
The beer fizzed down her throat, vapours of hops tickled her nose, the condensed glass chilled her fingers, laughter detonated above the miasma of voices, lively bodies crowded the place, their combined body heat raising the temperature. The air bowed under the weight pressing on her — the world was an explosion of sensations and she was drowning in it. After the last ring of the bell, they swayed through the streets, veins warm with lager as he took her back to his.
Under the dim light of his bedroom, he scattered her clothes around, fabric caught alive in the air for a moment before withering on the floor. Carrying her, he laid her body on the sheets — a late night snack before going to bed.
He kissed her hard, his mouth ravenous for hers, his enthusiasm contagious. Not immune, she caught it quickly, her fingers fighting with the buttons of his jeans. She struggled with the tangle of fabrics, sleeves refusing to let go of his arms. He kissed his way down her skin before he buried himself inside her hair. Her spine arched as she gasped for air, alive under his touch, until she collapsed back into the mattress, flustered body, damp fringe plastered on her forehead.
You taste like pennies, he told her afterward. She wondered how he knew what pennies tasted like. Maybe as a child he used to put coins in his mouth, used his tongue instead of his hands to learn about things. Turning on her side, she scrutinised his resting face, looking for the boy who tasted coins under the shadow of his stubble or in the creases on his forehead. She searched the dilated pores on his nose, the bushes of his eyebrow but didn’t find him. The boy might be hiding so deep under the layers of flesh and muscles even he didn’t remember he had been that young once. A little child trapped behind a bony cage made of ribs. Sadness unspooled inside hers. She stroked his cheek until sleep worked its way behind her lids.
Late morning trespassed under the curtains casting a strip of yellow light on her blouse on the floor. The white folds of fabric pooled into a desert island amid the steel ocean of his carpet. It was time to go home. But before she could get up his hand pressed down on her shoulder.
Feed me, he said, his request a heavy breath in her ear. She smelt the sleep and lager on him and underneath the scent of what they had done last night, an aroma that tethered her to him.
I really should go, she said, glancing at the door.
He responded by straddling her, pinning her wrists. I’m not finished
yet, he said. He gorged on all she surrendered to him, swallowed words as soon as they left her mouth. But each bite seemed to make him only hungrier.
I threw myself against the pilings of the pier and rumbled like thunder. But the sound of my anger was merely a distraction, one that didn’t hold his attention for long. I ached for him to be within my grasp so I could pummel him under a battering of waves before spitting his body onto the rocks in the harbour.
The rising sun shifted the shadows inside his room but no matter how many sentences she fed him; nothing could satiate his appetite. His chin glistened with the dripping juices of her life stories. Ravenous, he snatched the beginning of sentences from her lips. He stopped sampling the flavours as degustation twisted into gluttony. His tongue probed her mouth for any leftovers she was hiding from him, his lips trailed down her skin looking for crumbs of syllables or the end of a sentence. She had given him so many pieces of herself already: her body, her words, the taste of pennies that lived in the folds between her legs, the stories etched on her bones and under her skin. She wanted to get away but there were walls all around she didn’t know how to tear.
Hollowness spread as he emptied her of words and thoughts, crushing them under his teeth, the sound compressing the nobs of her spine. Bruises bloomed under her skin where he had pummelled the words too hard to swallow. Her eyes brimmed with tears. She didn’t blink so they wouldn’t fall down her cheeks. He had taken everything else, but he wouldn’t have her pain, she would hold on to that and make it hers, fill her veins with it until it pulsed under her skin.
When he decided he had had enough — for now — he pulled on a pair of jeans, sniffed t-shirts until he found the least offensive.
You stay here, he said. I’m off to the pub.
Fear sunk down her stomach like a pebble in water when she heard the metal click of a turning key trapping her. Unable to pick the lock or break through the wood, fear drove her out of the window and down the drainpipe. The rendering bit into her flesh, scraping the skin on her knees and the sole of her feet, but the thought of his return outweighed the pain.
Running down the street she came to a fork, to the left the main road that led to the heart of the town and its pubs — the men that drank there, him included — the road to a future she already tasted, one where he would stagger back to the house, to her. She turned right, sprinting downhill towards the salt of my breath. Gasps of air tore out of her until her lungs burned.
Shouts came from behind. His dark silhouette stood harsh against the blue of the evening sky. His surly words chased after her, and her feet smacked the asphalt even harder. At the end of the pier, her body launched up at me, arms outstretched — an arrow piercing my surface. She remembered being ten and sinking under the bathwater when shouts had risen from downstairs. Hiding under the surface, the cloudy water had dulled the sharp edges of her parents’ screams until all that had reached her were distorted echoes stripped of their meanings.
I pulled her down into my folds. Taking her as one of my own, I made a new skin for her, one I covered with a fine pelt to keep her warm. Wrapped in this new husk, her legs smoothed together until they became one. The gentle stroke of my waters closed her ears and nostrils. Now, she could stay with me for as long as she needed.
She had searched for years, looked for it at the bottom of pint glasses, in
the cigarette smoke she swallowed, in unfinished novels and an endless lists, in the hands wandering up her blouse or down her skirt, oblivious to the fact that what she was seeking lay at the end of the pier.
It was waiting for her in my depths, down where my waters grew dark
and seaweeds danced under the gentle current of my breath, and it tasted of salt and the raw flesh of fish.