I hear the call. It breaks my focus. I almost had it, I feel sure: the correct proportions were there. I consider the small models lined along the empty bookcase. When I brought this clay with me, I expected shells, and leaves, and flowers, and so they are, content and complete, and I’ve lost interest in them. Every day I sit here and sculpt something small. When I started, months ago, I took to it completely. There are five conch shells and a few flowers without names. I didn’t think to bring any paints or glazes, so they sit there each day, fading as they age. They’re too hard to turn back now. Again, I hear the call, my mother’s voice, and I put down my new, impossible project. I consider it: the torso looks fine but I’m failing to manage a correct head. I don’t have the scope to imagine it and I’m trying to avoid copying one.
Downstairs, in the bright living room, my mother tells me that we are being joined by some friends of the family – yes, I say, I remember them. They wanted a weekend away and my mother suggested joining us on our long summer break. We always rent this house. It’s a short ride to the coast and it’s lonely and beautiful. I always have the same room. She asks me if I remember James, their son – only a few years older than me. Yes, I say, I remember him.
They’re here. The welcome was long and lingering, but we’ve made it to lunch. Wine is poured, chicken and salad and potatoes are in the middle of our table, outside, where the sun is beating down but the wind casts an uncertain edge every so often. We help ourselves and I continue to think of my sculptures. I tell myself that if I simply can’t manage a head, I’ll move on. My mind lingers over the architecture of a pinecone, and then I notice that he’s watching me. James. Except that he isn’t. Like me, he isn’t paying any attention to our parents’ everyday chat, but neither is he watching me. He’s looking beyond me, through me; he thinks of something else.
He doesn’t look the same. Yes, he has the same dark hair and holds himself in the same way, but there is something to his face that I’ve never recognised. Either something has happened to him, or else he wants it to. Through the motions of selecting food and pouring myself water, I steal glimpses of him from time to time. He casts scornful looks at his parents. I suppose he didn’t want to join them here. All through the meal he sits upright, uncertainly. He isn’t comfortable. His face is powerful. His eyes are painted black. When he gets up, excusing himself, I hear heavy, purposeful steps.
I cross my room and as I look out, I see him again. Everyone has gone to bed, after long hours of drinking outside. Their laughter drifted up to my room. It’s always my habit to stay up for as long as possible. He’s out there smoking. He leans against the veranda post, looking towards the pitch-black field in front, but his occasional glances back at the house tell me that he isn’t known to smoke, not to either set of parents. I work out his age, and although it isn’t old enough to buy cigarettes yet, I know that he doesn’t have trouble getting them. I stand there for a while, until he turns more decisively and I quickly retreat. I can still see his form, though, when I think about it. His clothes are so dark he seems featureless out there.
We spend time with each other only through our parents. We all sit together at breakfast and walk along the dry field and through the nearby forest after lunch. He and I don’t spend any time alone together, and all the things he’s said to me have been commonplace. Everyone is disappointed about today’s weather, and the beach plan, such as it was, has been delayed until tomorrow. It will be their last full day here. I think the rolling clouds are nice; I consider trying to make one. They’re a welcome break in the dull, constant heat we’ve had here. On our way back, I listen to the dry rustle of the grass and the song of the crickets. James walks a little ahead of us, purposeful. I think he wants to get back soon, to smoke somewhere quiet.
Before dinner, we nearly collide on the stairs. Startled, we both mumble an apology and then linger for a moment. I want to say something; I can’t find anything. It seems too late to open something up. As I descend, I worry that I’ve seemed rude.
He smokes again; perhaps this time he’s cold, as his body has changed. He holds himself together tightly, hops gently between feet and takes shorter, quicker breaths of the cigarette. I watch, this time without any caution. I think. I decide.
His room is the spare, which I’ve never used. It’s dark in there – only the light from the hall flows in, so I leave the door wide open. I stand still for a minute, adjusting to the darkness, and try to make sense of it. Mostly, the room is how it usually is – a generic, pleasing seaside theme. The only evidence of him lies at the foot of the crumpled bed. I peer down at his heavy holdall. For this weekend, he lives only from that, and there are old socks and T-shirts spilling out of it, among other things. I think of my carefully rolled clothes in the drawers – such a habit of mine – then I pick up some of his things, smell them. I sit on the bed and gaze forward. I lose myself a little and then he comes in.
I stand up instantly, burned. I hurry a startled expression; it’s almost comical. I tell him I chose the wrong door, and then I tell him I was just looking for something I thought I’d left in here – it all trails out. He does nothing. He stands at the open door, staring at me. His mouth moves as if to say something, only for a fraction of a second. He continues to stand still, and I know he will do so until I leave.
I slowly run the clay torso through my hands until they’re filthy, and then I fall asleep at the foot of my bed.
As usual, I’m called in the morning, but I don’t go. I’m always the last one up because of my late nights. Today, I’ve been awake for a long time and I sit and look across at the window, seeing only one square of brilliant blue. I wince at the voice from downstairs; I cross the room and shout, telling them I don’t want breakfast yet, that I’ll come down later. There’s a pleasant reply; they’re caught up in their lovely day and can’t detect anything in my voice. I can’t really face him yet. It wasn’t a heinous crime, but it wasn’t okay. I’ll leave a note, I think, then go to my table. I write six notes – they’re all smudged with the clay mess from last night – and then I choose the seventh. I slip it under his door and go back to wait for nothing.
His parents and mine are bustling around, discussing things like wine boxes and pretzels. I smile at them and then get myself some milk. Before I finish, my mother accosts me. She asks, why don’t I take James to the beach right now? They’re planning a leisurely stroll in a bit, and James seems so keen to go. His parents agree readily; he’s looking so fed up all the time, he would really enjoy a chance to get out. They’ve decided this will happen, I can tell, and my father qualifies it all by suggesting James take the old spare bike that’s always been here. If he wants to.
He wasn’t there for the discussion about the bikes. I slowly go up to his room and knock; he answers quickly. I pause for a moment, considering an apology, remember my note, then hurriedly repeat what my parents suggested. He draws in a small breath, then agrees, fairly quickly, and joins me in the hall. My eyes dart to the space at the foot of the door, and my note is definitely not there anymore. I don’t think he’ll mention it.
The bike is dark green and dusty. I joke that it may fall apart in our hands. He takes it, appraises it. It should be fine, he says, hoisting himself up. I can tell he hasn’t ridden for a while as he starts, uncertainly, making a few experimental turns along the dusty path. I wait there, more certain with mine, until he seems ready to go. Then with a turn, a faint smile, he beckons me to follow him. I hesitate. Aren’t I meant to be taking him to the beach? I shrug and clamber onto my own bike – shinier, newer – though I am no more graceful than he on his.
Soon, the stark, chalky lane in the field gives way to a tunnel of trees, and we are plunged into the coolness of the forest. It’s only a narrow strip of trees along here, young, and I love the way shards of light pierce through as if the sun could rain. Now, he is all I see. I watch the way he cycles heavily and energetically. I look at his saddle. More than once I fail to see a pothole and lurch around furiously. He never once looks to his side; it’s as though I’m not there. I don’t mind, though; the breeze is still warm, and I’m filled with joy.
When we arrive at the beach, I’m inclined to look for a quiet spot, but he sits down straight away. We’re some distance from the sea as the tide is out. The sand, where we sit, is soft and warm; only metres in front of us it becomes a dull, wet gold. I sit for a time, taking in the sun and the soft breeze; I play with the sand next to me. I wish I’d brought a book. I’m relaxed in body, but not altogether comfortable in his company. I sense him with every part of me. I know, without looking, how he sits upright, thinking, deciding. Eventually, it seems, he stands.
I didn’t bring sunglasses. If he turns, he will see that I can see. He takes off his top, dark again, and quickly removes his blue shorts. He takes navy trunks from his bag and deftly steps into them. I take in the shape of him. I commit it to memory, and then I sit back and fall asleep.
Icy droplets rouse me, and I see him. He is cold and renewed from his swim and talks about how great the water is. He almost seems cheerful; it’s the first time he’s properly spoken to me. I nod (with certainty, I think) when he asks if I’ll go in too. I wait until he moves away before I change, though it’s far less swift than when he did it.
My trunks are years old, long and out of shape. His are short and cling to him as he runs, and I hate that I refused to get a new pair.
My shivering hand runs along the lines in the sand that I made earlier and I find a tiny shell. A beautiful thing, a bleached periwinkle. I’m waiting for the sun to dry my freezing body. My towel is nothing and I sit while he smokes and looks, through his sunglasses, at the clouds.
I pick up the shell and hold it up, and then lean over far enough that I know he will see. He smiles at how ‘mini’ it is, as he says. With it, I picked up some grains of sand and tiny shards of broken shell, and these sprinkle onto his stomach. It’s concave and has a trail of dark hair leading somewhere. I don’t apologise for the sand, and I place the shell on his belly button. The very tips of my fingers brush his belly around it.
When I pull my hand away, he takes it and brings it back.
I sit, frozen again, and wait. I wait. He turns on his side and looks at me, smiling. ‘You’re incredibly sweet,’ he says, and kisses the back of my hand before returning it to my own stomach. He settles, as if to nap, his eyes on mine for a moment, and then we hear voices. I turn and recognise my own name being called, and my heart breaks.
When we walk back that night, the adults are in front, mostly quiet after their day in the sun and reflective in the orange glow of the sky. James and I walk a few paces behind, wheeling our bikes, talking easily. We talk about our lives back home, our hates and our hopes; everything that we should have spoken about already. We don’t mention the beach. He and his parents are returning home tomorrow, and mine have a week to go. We’ll have one last dinner together. I’ve asked if I can have a glass of wine with mine. Later, I’ve decided, I will see if I can join him outside and try his cigarette. I don’t know what he’ll say, or even if I’ll ask. But for now, I’ve made up my mind and that is enough.
If this were another story, I would have used his body, his head, as the inspiration for my next little clay sculpture. I don’t. Instead I add to my growing collection of clay shells: I sculpt the tiny white shell that I wish I’d brought back from the beach.
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