“There’s an outdoor setting on the deck out the side here, if you fancy sitting in the sun.” Mrs Flynn said. The white plastic looks unappealing. I have a thing about chairs. I won’t buy coffee from a café with cheap chairs.
I arrived in the night, the day before, not knowing what to expect. The salt air welcome after city smells of exhaust fumes and stale food. The only sound the abrupt breaking of endless waves, a breath of silence between each.
I collect the key from the grocery store Mrs Flynn runs on the ocean front. A crescent moon hangs in the sky offering scant light. Thursday, declares a poster in the window, is late night shopping but the shop is empty of customers. On the veranda a straggle of thin teenagers sit at a plastic table under a blue light bulb, eating chips, it gives them a ghost-like glow.
Mrs Flynn cashes up the till inside, a small woman with a big smile and wild hair. She smells of cake, icing sugar. Pale pink skirt and cardigan to match. A young girl with scruffy hair runs round the shop like a flurry of snowflakes. “If I get hold of you, Lucy, I’ll give you a smack.”
I walk up to the counter. Mrs Flynn flushes. The child gives a smirk and skips through the front door, dirty blonde hair flowing behind her. A bit late in the evening for girl of that age.
“Hannah isn’t it? You’ll want your key.”
I nod, leave abruptly with the key in a brown envelope. I don’t want to get into a conversation. I find directions to the small cottage in the envelope. The lock’s stiff and the door bowed, probably because of the damp sea air. I had almost changed my mind about coming, uncertainty made me late. I drop my bag in the narrow entrance way. The house is frowsty with other people’s smells. Fumbling I find a light switch which lights the long passageway painted yellow, faded somewhere between primrose and nicotine. The grey carpet leads to a dark space at the end; doors run along the hallway like lights on a landing strip. I feel like Alice choosing which door to open first. I ignore them all. I reckon the dark space at the end is the kitchen. I need a hot drink.
I flick a switch and a harsh strip-light buzzes into life introducing the spartan kitchen. Once white units line the wall and a plastic jug kettle sits on the top of a Formica bench top. A predictable selection of tea, instant coffee and the just-add-water variety of hot chocolate; all in sachets shoved unceremoniously in a plastic beaker. I try the windows. They’re stiff, not opened in a while.
A wine bottle on the bench top, cheap red with a note. Will it say ‘drink me’? I laugh, a hollow sound. The note says ‘Welcome to Sea Breeze. Have a nice stay’. My lips turn down at the crassness of the name, as if giving your house a name wasn’t crass enough. At least it isn’t ‘Shangri-la’ or ‘Dunroamin’’. In the absence of a decent cup of coffee, I open the bottle. Wine glass in hand I mean to explore the house but only get as far as an old faux-suede sofa in the lounge room. I slump into its softness. The imprint of others makes the place seem lonely. I had imagined my escape would be brave. If Jake were here, he would laugh. The brown and tan décor, the staleness and the landlady who smells of cake. Jake would have bought something to eat, filled this empty space with life. Why did I come? I don’t like to be alone. I take a breath, drain my glass and pour another.
A chink of light bursts through the gap in the curtains. Empty wine glass, empty bottle. An empty space next to me in the bed. The wine glass has satanic looking sediment at the bottom. I think Jake is out getting coffee before I remember. It’s just me. At least I had made it to bed. Nothing dignified in waking up face down on the bathroom tiles. My head aches. I don’t want this day to start. If I hold my breath maybe it won’t. The air will stop flowing and the hands on the clock will come slowly to a stop.
A knock at the front door. I groan and slide my legs across the bed. I’m wearing yesterday’s jeans. I hobble to the front door. A draft blows in from a gap at the bottom, I trip over my suitcase which blocks the passageway. “Fuck.”
I squint at a figure on the doorstep. A sugary smell fills my nostrils.
“Hello, Hannah dear. Hope you slept well. Bought you a few essentials.” Mrs Flynn bustles through the door. “You should move that suitcase. Deathtrap.”
In the kitchen Mrs Flynn puts away the groceries stridently after placing an overlarge handbag on the kitchen bench. “Oh, dear. You drank all the wine.” A brittle smile. “Mind if I put the kettle on? I’m gasping.”
She shoves the kettle under the tap before I can reply. I slide onto one of the stools filed along the breakfast bar. What do I have to do to get some peace?
We sit on opposite sides of the countertop, each holding a cup of instant coffee. That’s when Mrs Flynn points out the white plastic table and two chairs, identical to those outside the shop, set out on a small wooden deck on one side of the kitchen. One is upside down. Cheap coffee hits my stomach bringing on a wave of nausea.
“Look at that, a chair has blown over. You’re from the city, aren’t you?” She accuses.
“What are you doing all the way down here? Is it a man, dear? Never trust a man.” She gives me a knowing look. “It’s out of season, there’s not much to do.”
“It’s perfect, Mrs Flynn, I need a place to think. I’d like to do some walking.”
“Well you can do plenty of that around here without stumbling across another soul if that’s what you want. Call me Peg.”
Peg grabs her handbag and heaves it onto her shoulder. “If you ever need company you know where to find me.”
“Thank you.” Not on your bloody life.
She walks to the front door. “Are you expecting visitors? It’s okay if you are. I’m very broadminded.”
I doubted that. Heat rises in me. I don’t want to be here. It’s Jake fault. But I know this isn’t true. In the lounge room an old piano is tucked away next to the back window. There are music sheets all over the floor, one with a red wine mark on it. The lid is up so I must have sat here last night, feeling guilty about letting my students down. The sheet with the wine stain is ‘Solitaire’.
I don’t think Jake noticed how things had changed between us. I’m not sure I had until Grace’s thirtieth birthday party She’d pushed the chairs back along the walls to make room for dancing. Neither Jake nor I liked dancing, so we sat down, a vacant chair between us. Symbolic of the space between us? He didn’t notice. In the car on the way home our seats seemed to be pushed up against our opposing doors. Once he would have leaned across, squeezed my knee. Jake went straight up to bed without a word. I didn’t sleep.
I don’t pick up the music sheets, I sit in the kitchen. A weak sun is shining on the deck. Too cool to sit out. All four chairs are arranged untidily upside down on the deck. Did I do that?
I lock the door to and put the key in my bag. I feel fresher but the pain behind my eyes persists. Rows of houses sit back from the ocean front, single storey and old. Shabby. I walk along a footpath that leads to the beach. A wind whips up sending ripples through my cotton dress. I take off my deck shoes, barefoot on wet sand. The beach spans a fair distance. I walk briskly until my breath labours, I find a mossy rock to sit on. No one knows where I am.
There’s a caravan park on the grassy headland. A ghost town with spectre-like teenagers and wild children. The wind whistles a haunting song. Grey waves, angry and foaming. And me, dressed in thin cotton with a jacket pulled around me. It feels good and bad. Right and wrong.
If Jake were here, he would give me his coat, keep my insides from falling apart by holding me tight. At least he would have once. My head hurts. I can’t organise my thoughts into the right order. Should I go back and pretend nothing has happened? Jake would think me mad about the chairs. Was it meaningless? Was I expecting too much? I always expect too much. I can’t do this anymore. Something has to change.
Rain falls as I walk back along the beach, horizontal in the wind, assaulting my forehead, stinging my eyes. I change into dry clothes, wrap my hair in a towel. The plastic chairs are now lined up behind each other, like a train made by a child. Peg must have rearranged them. I frown as I sip my awful coffee. I can’t survive on the landlady’s supplies.
I drive. I don’t know where I am going but Bayside General Store holds nothing for me. Midday: Jake will be at his desk, making advertising copy or meeting with clients. His absence a soreness I hadn’t expected to feel. I hadn’t expected it to miss him at all.
We met at a railway station. The train was late. We stood next to one another. It could have been the guy in the brown suit or the lad wearing a skull tee-shirt. But it was Jake. Tall, fair, with hair that never did what he wanted it to. Huge smile, slightly crooked teeth.
“I’m supposed to be going to my nephew’s Christmas play.” He looked tense but smiled.
“I’m meeting a girlfriend in town. She’ll kill me if I’m late.”
It was Christmas. Parties, smiling people, excited kids. Jake introduced me to his family. April had us lugging boxes into our apartment near the river. It was good. For a long time.
“Hannah, can you please try to mop up the lumps of toothpaste from around the basin?”
“Darling, I can’t find the coffee table for books. Why not put them in neat piles like this?”
“Hannah, for Christ’s sake, is another glass absolutely necessary?”
My foibles had lost their charm.
I balance the box on my knee and turn the key in the lock with one hand. I have fair-trade coffee, organic chocolate, preservative-free wine. Cherries and oranges. A picnic spoiled by store bought lasagna. I unwrap the shiny new coffee plunger from tissue paper.
I stand, cup in my hand and face the deck. The chairs are stacked on top of the table, as waiting for the cleaners. I can be seen clearly through the glass doors. I’m afraid. It’s my imagination. Keep busy. Put the lasagne in the oven. Organise the chairs on either side of the table and pour a glass of wine to take outside. This is normal. The air is cool, and the rain clouds have blown out to sea. The first glass goes down too easily. I don’t pour another just yet. I check on supper and retrieve my sweater from the bedroom. Cashmere, a present from Jake. I hear a noise, leave the sweater and head for the kitchen in time to catch a glimpse of a little girl, around ten years old, placing the chairs back to back.
“Hey!” I yell.
The child looks up and starts to bolt. I open the sliding door and sprint after her across the lawn.
“Leave me alone!”
“Leave you alone?” I grasp her bony arm. “What on earth do you think you are up to?” Scared I yell at her but stop when I notice her tears. She wears a frayed red tee-shirt which clearly hasn’t seen a wash in a while.
“Okay, come and sit down. I’ll stop shouting. You’re in luck, I’ve been shopping. Do you want a juice?” She nods and wipes her face with the back of her arm. Tear stained and dirty, I lead her over and point to a chair. Minutes later I am back with a glass of orange juice. She gulps it down. “My name is Hannah.”
“Lucy.” The girl from the general store the night before.
“Okay, Lucy. Why have you been moving my chairs around?” Lucy’s twirls her long thin hair around her fingers. “Lucy?”
“They’re not your chairs.” Her eyes narrow.
“While I’m staying here, they’re my chairs.”
“I wasn’t doing any harm. I didn’t take anything, did I?”
“No. You didn’t. What were you thinking? What are you doing here?”
“I’ve run away.” Lucy lowers her head, sinks her chin into her thin chest then looks up at me. Defiant. “Have you got any food?”
Will I ever be left alone?
Lucy devours the plastic tasting lasagne like it was a culinary triumph. I wonder when she had last eaten.
“I had a row with my dad. He says I’m moody and doesn’t want to deal with it.”
“What about your mother?”
“She left ages ago.” Lucy looks at nonchalantly then shoots back at me. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to get away, to think”
Lucy saw through my adult words. “You’ve run away too!”
“Do you want to ring your dad?”
“No. I run away all the time. I live in the caravan park.”
“The one on the headland?”
“Thanks for dinner.” Her pale face ghostly in the half-light. “Aren’t you a bit old to run away?”
Before I can reply Lucy is gone, out through the glass door and into the dusk. She’s struck a chord, I feel foolish. I reach for my mobile phone, turn it on. Six messages from Jake, four from Grace.
“Hi. It’s me.”
“Hannah! Thank God. Where are you?”
My hand shakes as I hold the phone to my ear. “On the coast.”
Silence. “I don’t know. But we won’t find out with you a hundred kilometres away. Come home. You can’t just run away.”
In the morning I feel refreshed, as if I have grown a new skin. I drive away with the caravan park on the headland in my rear-view mirror. I fancy there is a small figure in red on the hillside. I smile thank