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Just before sunrise, in the middle of the first week of a summer month I could not name,
I woke up in someone else’s bed in a country I never thought I would willingly go back to.
I rolled away from a sweaty body of a stranger sleeping next to me and surveyed the room.
It hasn’t changed much from the night before - a lonely bottle of wine discarded next to the bed with a still pool of red liquid that formed underneath, a pile of clothes in the corner that looked like they’d been there since the very beginning of time, slowly catching the dust lazily floating past the hair-thin ray of sunshine coming from the window above. I let my eyes rest there, the small square of unchangingly blue sky, suspended like a painting in mid air, as beautiful and as unreachable as it was the day I arrived.
The space was considerably less forgiving now that I was looking at it in the light of the early morning. The sun, criminally bright, was highlighting every element of last night that on any other day I would be slowly beginning to regret. The underwear hanging off the bottom of the bed, swollen, decomposing cigarette butts floating in a wine glass on a night stand next to me, a discarded condom on the floor, the man sleeping soundly on the other side.
The lingering feeling of his hands on my body and a layer of his sweat on my skin filled me with disgust. Slowly, desperate to not wake him, I swung my legs down from the bed and began gathering my clothes. I could feel the alcohol from the night before rising to my throat.
I swallowed hard against the bite of the acid on my tongue and, pulling my stained shirt over my head, quietly made my way to the kitchen. I flicked on the tap and poured myself a glass of water that looked worryingly cloudy, leaned against one of the pale green cabinets and allowed myself a deep breath. I thought I was the first person in a long while to step into that room - the green paint peeling from the cabinets, the cream linoleum floor coming apart and raising up from the edges, yellowing on the sides. A fruit bowl made out of wicker with what looked like the remnants of mould stuck to the bottom. A thin layer of oil stuck to everything around me. I drank the rest of the water, disregarding the strong metallic aftertaste, peeled my hands away from the cabinet and trudged back to the bedroom to take the rest of my things and follow through with the plan of disappearing before anyone, including me, realised I’d even spent the night. I stepped into the bedroom and was immediately met with half open eyes looking right at me. I cursed under my breath and shot him what I thought was a pleasant enough smile.
‘Leaving so soon?’ His raspy voice was as good of an indication as any that I wasn’t the only one who’d had a bit too much to drink the night before.
‘I didn’t mean to wake you.’ I wasn’t sure what else there was to say.
‘Clearly. Well, if you ever pass by the restaurant again.’ He yawned and rolled over, pulling the grey covers over his shoulders.
I took this as my cue to leave. I watched his turned back with a mix of the usual relief and something new, a heaviness that I couldn’t yet locate or understand. I wished he never woke up. I made my way to the kitchen again, as if on autopilot, filled up a glass with water and left it on the bedside table. He didn’t move. I stood there in silence until I couldn’t tolerate the stark and naked brightness of the walls around me any longer. I opened my mouth to say something, but then thought better of it and walked out of the half empty bedroom, kicking aside a pair of trousers and picking up a half empty bottle of wine on my way to the door. The sharp bang of the door closing behind me didn’t erase the heaviness the way I imagined it would.
I pushed open the heavy French doors at the entrance to the old fashioned building he lived in. The exterior wasn’t too different from the way the house looked on the inside - time chipping away at the stone; it was slowly crumbling to rest on the pavement below.
I stepped out to a day like any other, and on any other day I would be able to appreciate the crystal clear skies and their depth, unmarred by even a memory of a cloud. The air, heavy from the smell of ripe oranges hanging low on the branches, the sun so nurturing and gentle on their skin, their scent so present you would swear the oil from beneath the peel was dripping down on the ground underneath. And the people. Going about their lives, carrying bags and bending under their weight, heavy with the fresh produce from the market around the corner, the sweat dripping from their faces, just as sweet as the oranges. The waiters leaning out onto the street in an attempt to attract tourists, just as they did every single day, with half moon patches of sweat on their clean white shirts.
I wondered if when they came home, in the depth of night, they would wash their shirts, collapse onto the bed and pray for the end of summer.
I wanted to belong to all of this. I wanted to be weighed down by fresh fruit and meat and vegetables I would bring home for dinner, I wanted to shake hands with the tireless waiters and drink the juice from the oranges. But I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t sure how to exist any other way. I turned a corner and sat down at a small beach front restaurant, the one that used to be my mother’s favourite.
I looked out onto the sea, the very same sea whose slow, deliberate tides took her away from me. We used to come here on holiday almost every year. We even had a house by the beach - my father bought it for her for their first anniversary. It was derelict when he got it, the renovation was supposed to be part of the gift. My mother loved fixing up things on the brink of collapse. What a sight it must be now - abandoned, standing there with no walls, splintered wood beams holding up the remnants of the roof which by now would have turned to moss. Surely, the sand would have replaced the floor - the light oak shade with a natural stain, carefully selected by my mother after weeks of heated arguments. He preferred redwood, but the thought of using redwood as a material for the flooring made her sad. He couldn’t stand seeing her sad, and so now, it was oak that stood rotting there instead. Each year and with each storm that came rolling through the harbour the water took it back, piece by piece, until one day the whole house will finally rest with her, at the very bottom, in the sand.
I was young, but I remember her so vividly. Walking around the house naked, the C-section scar thick and jagged just above a dark triangle of hair, stretch marks on her breasts and hips, the comfortability of knowing her body belonged to both of us. On summer nights in the beach house, she used to go swimming late at night, after my father went to sleep. I used to watch her out of my window - watch her strip down, watch her slowly walk up and disappear between the waves. She never looked back, simply kept walking in, with more purpose and conviction than anything else she ever did. Every night, with a stomach gripped as if by an invisible hand, I would impatiently wait by the window until I saw her come back out, for the oat yellow hair to emerge from the dark sea. And I wouldn’t worry too much because it always did. Until the night it didn’t. I don’t know how long I waited by the window, but I remember that the sun was starting to break through the horizon line when I went to shake my father awake. The crashing waves were merciful enough to drown out his howling when he found her clothes on the beach.
‘Can I get you anything?’ A distant voice gently pulled me out of the memory.
I could taste the sea salt on my lips.
‘The spinach pie sounds good.’
A short nod, followed by a ‘coming right up’ and footsteps quickly fading away.
I turned my gaze back to the sea. The dark grey colour of the water was slowly seeping into the sky, two parts of a fresh watercolour painting melting together. The wind started picking up. The waves brushing the shore were now reaching further and further up, reaching the tips of my toes. The air was heavier, pushing down on me, pulling me in with the rising tides.
I thought I knew now how she felt. She surrendered to any force towering over her, she belonged to my father the same way that she belonged to the water that pulled her under.
Slowly and deliberately, I got up and started walking until I could feel the cold salt water licking the underside of my knees, teasing them relentlessly.
On my left, I saw a woman surrounded by cats, crouching in front of the small clay houses lining the stone sidewalk near the wooden pier. Half its planks were hanging down in the water, green with mould or algae, I couldn’t tell. She had just caught a fish; I could hear the faint scraping sounds as she was taking off the scales, slow but deliberate movements, her hands occasionally breaking their pattern to swat the greedy paws away, only to then reach into a plastic bucket sitting behind her and throw them an entire fish, shouting something in a foreign language. The sunlight that broke through the gathering clouds was grazing her white hair, I thought could see it reflecting in the waters, a liquid gold in between the waves. I continued watching her as she finished gutting the fish, threw the remaining scraps to the cats, washed her calloused hands in the water, brushed off her knees and disappeared behind the rust red doors of her house. She never saw me.
And though it felt crazy, to put this much meaning on a figure of a person I witnessed beside me for less than five minutes, there was something about the encounter that I couldn’t shake. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was - her hair, the effortless grace in the confidence of her movements, the skin that resembled the rough surface of the sea or the culmination of all of all those elements that made her into something that felt almost familiar. A dream I’d had once. A woman my mother could’ve been, a person I could still choose to be.
I turned around and walked back to my table as the sun started its journey down, settling on the horizon line. From across the pier, I could see smoke rising above the houses. I could smell the fish sizzling on a searing hot pan. The tide slowly started to recede.