Runner Up 2012 - 'Driving Barefoot' by Samantha Priestley

02/19/16 05:45:32PM
112 posts


Cath lies on the grass and watches her husband stroke the petals of his beloved flowers again. This is what he does best. Better than any post-retirement hobby he has, or the laid back patter of the host he’s trying to perfect and likes to practice on the poor paying guests in the converted barn next door. No. Tending to the plants, that’s his thing. Weeding the boggy borders until perfection is achieved, arching his back when he stands up straight again, wide-pronged fork in his hand, martyr’s smile on his face. He loves them, Cath thinks. He treats them like children. He uses love that has nowhere else to go and he pours it over his flowers. And they grow.

Cath stretches on the lawn and watches him for a moment longer, entertaining the thought that he can still feel her gaze burn his cheek after all these years. But, of course, he doesn’t.

Life here is a calm front, shielding a decaying core. The life Cath hand-picked for herself, almost. It’s alien enough to have broken her completely free of her old life in Yorkshire, yet not so different that she can’t still experience the pull of the land beneath her. Her life, on the surface, is the perfect balance of duty and reward. Work, and the quiet, sanitised old farmhouse she lives in. It should be perfect. The cows over the fence. The cat, old and docile too, which visitors love. The stream by the garden, draining away down the hillside. Solid husband. Enough money. The sea, bubbling on the horizon. Paying guests, always pleased with their stay, in the cottage next door. And a son, aged twenty, who times his morning runs from their old farmhouse on the hill, down to the village and beyond, to the sea, then back again, stopping for butting cars that mount the pavement by the post office where the road narrows and the tourists double park, and knife the peace with beeping horns. He can’t complain, Cath’s son, mixing his life like this with his rural roots and the busy impatience of cars and noise from the city, which his age demands. He’s in too much of a hurry himself. So he jogs on the spot by each junction until he can stride away again, checking his watch.

Cath’s seen him come back up and walk straight over the lawn, pausing to hold onto his breath, hands pushing down on his knees. She wonders what he’s preparing for, but never asks him.

            Kids must always be a mystery to their parents, she thinks. But especially this one. Especially her son. He doesn’t understand where he came from, that’s the trouble. Always seems to be looking to the horizon. Though he never says it, she knows her son feels disjointed here. Cath is from Barnsley, Yorkshire, originally. Her husband came down from Glasgow one week and never went home. But her son, she wouldn’t know how to categorise her son. She supposes he’s Welsh, since he was born here. But, of course, if you took him out, placed him somewhere totally neutral, you wouldn’t believe it. He doesn’t have an accent as such. Has never adopted the quick, clicky, serene speech of the locals. Doesn’t have anything of his father’s hard, but twinkley Glaswegian voice. Maybe he sounds like Cath, though, as a mother, it’s impossible to recognise.

Cath rolls over on the spongy grass, puts the book she’s been reading face down, and looks at the dry stone wall that outlines their private property and separates it from the other buildings, almost all now renovated and to rent. She watches the cat leap from their garden, onto the wall, over the stream and up to the holiday cottage, sniffing and mewing at the door for food. This is why the garden pulls at Cath. Not the beauty of the garden itself which her husband sometimes seems so at one with he can almost disappear amongst the leaves, but its function as a window to the rest of the world. Inside the old farmhouse she has work to do, shirts to iron, meals to make. Out here, in the garden, she has another kind of life. Cath lies on her stomach, elbows wedged in the tickley grass and watches the door of the holiday cottage. It’s almost a quarter to ten. They have to be out by ten. It’s clear enough, written in black felt tip and Sellotaped over the kitchen cupboard nearest to the door. She waits, turning her wrist by her face and squinting at her watch through sheets of sunlight. It’s a beautiful day, and Cath knows she should leave the tenants in the holiday cottage alone to pack their bags in peace. But she can’t wait for them to leave.

            Almost as soon as the paint was dry inside the cottage nearly twenty years ago, before the carpets were laid and electricity connected, Cath placed a visitor’s book on the chest of drawers by the TV. Since then, every Saturday when guests have gone and she nips in to clean, Cath has spent a secret minute reading the scrawl by the date of the latest entry in the faded visitor’s book. Little messages. Descriptions of a week full of beaches and castles, hill walking, market towns and steam engines. For that moment she’s in touch with people, has connections.

Very comfortable. Enjoyed our stay. Will recommend

            She leans her chin on her hands and checks the door of the cottage again to see if the tenants have gone yet. They’re from South Wales, this particular family. They made her feel misplaced as soon as they arrived. Cath has spent so long trying to justify being here to herself that she’s come to feel she never can. It’s an un-win-able game. She came from Barnsley. Settled. Took a husband who might have passed through, but didn’t. Had a baby. Bought a farmhouse and converted a barn into a holiday cottage. Makes a good living, thank you very much. But all the same. All the time, she’s faking, isn’t she?

            She bobs her head back down behind the wall as she sees the man of the family coming out and loading the car with ridiculous amounts of luggage. They’ll be gone soon and Cath can slip into the cottage and read their words, get a feel for them, imagine who they might be and what they might do when the curtains are pulled shut at night and the kids are tucked into the bunk beds that creak and rock with every little, innocent movement.

            The wife comes out with the keys in her hand. She’s seen her, and Cath smiles and waves. She was the one Cath greeted when they arrived a week ago. The husband was busy moving the car and didn’t come into the cottage until Cath had left. The wife, at least, was pleasant. She seemed genuinely grateful when Cath pointed out the bottle of Frascati and semi-skimmed milk she’d slipped into the fridge for them. The kids – two. Boy, girl – were both suitably shy as Cath showed them the choice of videos, books and games she always leaves in the cottage in case of rain. She added, well, you never know, do you? She’d felt the woman looking at her. You never know. It sounded like she was hoping, not warning. Hoping for rain. The truth was, of course, the climate here in North West Wales was unbelievably kind. Winters were mild. Summers were warm. Rain passed over quickly as if the mountains forbade it. It was Yorkshire she was still thinking of, wasn’t it, when she wanted to talk about the weather. Always obsessed with the weather, even after all these years. She’d laughed nervously - she knew she never thought about Yorkshire, but she did think about rain. 

            The woman is coming over, walking up the S shaped path through the middle of the lawn. Cath gets up and brushes tiny specks of grass from her skirt with her hands. The woman is smiling as she gives Cath the key to the cottage. The husband is at the gate behind her. Cath holds the key, still warm from the woman’s hand, and looks at the man standing at the gate. He’s watching Cath’s son jog up the hill at the side of the farmhouse, stop, put his hands on his knees and heave his chest, his mouth open, waiting for his breathing to slow. Still timing. How long does it take his breath to return to normal? How fit is he now?

            Cath looks at her son. And then looks at the man at the gate watching the way the runner’s muscles move under his skin. Of course she knew it would catch up with her one day. Maybe she even knew it was coming. But her son couldn’t know, could he? Not unless he’d looked for hours at his father, traced the shape of his face and the smallness of his eyes and realised he wasn’t, in fact, his father.

            Twenty years ago, in the summer, here in North West Wales, Cath had been down at the beach. Entranced by the sand dunes and the boy she was sitting talking to. Boy. He was only a boy, compared to her anyway. At thirty-two Cath knew enough about sex to impress a boy of eighteen. She touched his fingers in the sand. Felt a spark. Felt a tingling. Never wanted it to stop. And then the sky turned powder paint black and the rain came over. People everywhere were packing up their things and running. Cath got up with the boy and started running, their hands wet, their fingers slipping away from each other. They kept grabbing them back again. Cath ran to the boy’s car with a shirt over her head. She looked down at the muddy path and saw huge raindrops landing in puddles, making the ground appear pockmarked. The boy, Anthony, drove the car barefoot. His shoes were sodden and he flung them in the boot, then gripped the peddles with his naked feet. He said it was the best way to drive.

            She looks at him now, standing at the gate. He has a wife, a boy of eight and a girl of six. And another boy, now twenty who’s pulling his body upright on the lawn and checking his watch again. The wife turns over her shoulder and says, Anthony. It sinks into Cath’s skin. His name again. After so long, his name in her head too sudden like the pop of a balloon.

Twenty years ago Anthony came to this coastline for a week. Just long enough to show Cath what life could be like. Then went back to the south. In the following weeks a man from Glasgow came and didn’t seem at all frightened by the idea of a baby forming inside Cath. Did she go through with it because she wanted the child, or did she feel she had no choice? It was probably her last chance. As it turned out, it was her only chance. And some hidden code in her body was compelling her to do this. But at the time it was only an idea. It wasn’t something that could rot, but never leave her. Ideas can be formed and then forgotten.

She walks towards him. She must look like a mad woman, staring at him like this. The thought is stuck in her brain for the briefest moment, but some things are more important than appearances. Anthony. She says it. Anthony? She’s about to ask if he remembers her, his face is so blank. The children are sitting in the car behind him, scrapping already over the toys on the seat between them. She considers using them. Forcing him to acknowledge her through the blood they share with her own son. One day they might need each other. There might be some genetic failing, something in their bones that binds them together. Some medical condition that won’t let them ignore one another. But Anthony never knew, did he? He still doesn’t. He hasn’t recognised his genes bent in a heap on the grass over there.

‘Do you know each other?’ the wife asks.

She thinks Cath is some sort of aunt figure. Cath can hear it in her voice. She can’t possibly imagine the truth. She thinks maybe Cath knows Anthony’s mother or has a connection to the family in some way.

Anthony flushes. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Although it’s been a long time…’

It’s as good as an admission. He probably didn’t mean it to be, but intimacy is looped between each one of his words. It was much more than he meant to give away. He straightens himself and says, ‘Well, goodbye.’ Stiffly. He’s hoping to have covered his tracks. He glances over at Cath’s son on the field. Weighs the thoughts in his head. Staring back at him, Cath’s son grasps at something slippery. An annoying puzzle he can’t solve. In his brain, something doesn’t fit, but he can’t ignore its presence.

Anthony gets into the car without a second glance, slams the door and starts the engine. Cath fights an urge to run up to him, bang her fist on the window, ask him if he remembers driving barefoot from the beach when the rain soaked their clothes so entirely they pulled them away from their bodies back at Cath’s caravan like sheets of static filled polythene. She wants to tell him what became of that afternoon, that life and love tricked her, gave her something and took something away. What was she supposed to do? She wants to force him to look at her and remember properly. But she watches the break lights flicker as the car moves away, creeping past the dry stone wall, the stream and Cath’s wide, secure garden. She glances at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. Not a single raindrop. She feels sure something should happen, that this is too big to go unmarked. Then Cath walks up to the cottage she’s been watching all morning and unlocks the door. Inside she turns the pages of the visitor’s book. It says,Enjoyed our stay. Thank you for the goodies. Black and white on the page. Eternal. A reminder she can keep hold of, proof that won’t sprint away.

From the window Cath can see her son watching the car ease down the dirt track from the farmhouse. He re-sets his stopwatch. Takes a deep breath. Sets off again to try and better his time. He has Anthony’s long legs, the same angular face, but he’s his mother’s son all right. For no good reason other than doubt, she thinks, he’s taught himself to run.  

updated by @americymru: 02/19/16 06:05:14PM