Thursday 19 March 2015

By the Water's Edge: short story

I left the boxy flat with my family squeezed inside - my mother sweating by the window, her unshaved legs spread apart in a warrior position; my grandma sweating by the stove, dipping a finger into the bubbling soup, licking it off with a click; my brother and sister bored and hot and sweating on the sofa.
    I left, sweating myself, my thighs already wet as they rubbed against themselves under my skirt, calling back through the closed door - ‘Just going for a swim!’
     I walked down the steps that echoed and smelt like every other hallway in this place - a mixture of cigarettes and stock-cubes. I carried a plastic bag that cut into my hand, weighed down with a towel, picnic supplies, and a book I hadn’t started yet. It was too hot to eat or read but I needed the pretense of having something to do.
    Outside, the air was heavy, basting me with greasy heat. Moving was hard and slow. I waited by the road while a tractor passed. It wheezed like an old pair of lungs. The farmer waved and beeped his horn.
    Remembering the way to the riverbank, I crossed to the dirt-track lined with unfinished houses on either side. Some were crumbling, clearly destroyed, others were half-built and caged by scaffolding. The grass was dead and yellow, the mud grey and dry. On my right was Mira’s house. She was a friend of my grandma’s who we’d visited the previous day. I passed the shady patch of garden where we had sat eating watermelon.
    Kids played in the field ahead, kicking balls through rusty white goalposts stuck in at jaunty angles. Kids half-naked, skinny and brown and bare-footed. They ran and screamed at each other. I felt embarrassed, like they were looking at me knowing I didn’t belong, thinking who...?

    I walked to the quiet patch by the river, away from the wooden docks where the dogs played and left their shit to slip on. Through the gaps in the trees I could see the broad stretch of water glinting playfully.
    Cornfields spread out to my left, so tall I felt protected. Grassy mounds and weeping trees surrounded the riverbank, making it soft and swamp-like. But there was noise, hot noise, bugs and echoes of the children screaming. I lay on my towel feeling self-conscious even with no one around. I straightened it out, moved it so it was level on the ground and wondered which way I should put my head. The towel was starchy and coarse on my back. I stripped down to my bikini and sat bent over, kneading the folds of my stomach. I lay down instead, preferring it flat.
    An image came to me - of my grandma reading her gossip magazines by the electric fan. It made me wish I had kissed her goodbye.
    I lay with my hands above my head and gave my body a stretch right down to the toes and I felt it in me, some fleshy heat that travelled up and along me, collected where the sweat was spreading between my thighs. With my eyes closed I felt drowsy, drugged. It was only half pleasant.
    The earth beneath my head thudded. I tensed but didn’t open my eyes. The thudding stopped and I felt the sunlight blocked out from beneath my eyelids.


    It was a voice that resounded, stayed static in the air.
    I started, sat up, twisted around awkwardly. It was Atso, Mira’s son. I’d only met him in passing, dressed in his light-blue uniform buttoned all the way to the top. Tight trousers. He had smiled down at me, my head only reaching the badge on his chest.
    Now he was standing there, towering over me even more. He wore swimming trunks, white and worn. He had foam slippers on his feet. One of them was almost touching my hand, which was spread out to support my weight.
    ‘Cao’, I answered back, the only word I could pronounce with confidence.

    He crouched down, a violent and sudden action, changing his whole stature. His elbows leant on knees that jutted out towards me. It was an open gesture. He squinted through the sun and smiled wide. There were small gaps between his teeth.

    ‘Is hot.’ The words shivered and wafted into the heat.


    He came to sit beside me, I moved over on my towel. I was glad that I looked red from the heat. I hugged my knees as close as I could. His shoulder brushed mine so lightly that a current ran up my skin. He opened his mouth - closed it again - furrowed his eyebrows.
    ‘ swim?’

    I unclasped my knees.



    He stood up, his knee next to my head now, hairs like brambles.
    I waited until he had walked right down to the riverbank. I was suspended for a moment - I wondered if it was a joke, if he really wanted me here. He hadn’t brought a towel. I watched as he kicked off his slippers and without a backwards glance jumped into the water. He howled like a wolf. The sound shocked me out of my stupor in time to see his face rising out and sparkling. I smiled.

    ‘Aide!’ he called again.

    I snapped the fabric of my bikini bottoms, pulling them to cover my buttocks. The earth under my feet was smooth and compact. I didn’t jump. I stepped in slowly, my blood fizzing with the cold. He laughed when I threw myself under and resurfaced with a scream.
    The river looked like a lake - so wide and still. The water was cloudy and filtered green from the bordering trees. I could feel the promise of river weeds tickling my toes as I kicked lazily to keep afloat. Atso did flips underwater. I swam breaststroke, wondering if I looked elegant or just shy.
    There was a moment when I turned around and he was gone. I looked in all directions. Then I felt a tug on my ankle. Something was pulling me under. I struggled to get away - splashed and breathed in gulps of water. Then he emerged beside me, hair dripping, an intent smile coursing over his face. I splashed him.

    ‘Nemoj! Don’t do that!’ I said, laughing.

We swam for hours until the water felt lukewarm and natural, like air around our bodies. The river had soaked off a layer of skin. I felt opened up and stretched out.
    We spoke through laughter and exclamations of ‘ahhh...’ The sky was pink and alive - a final burst of colour before nightfall. I followed Atso as he swam to the shore, watched his shoulder blades beat like wings.
    It was strange when we stood on dry land. Everything was heavier and more real. I handed him my towel and pretended to search through my bag. I couldn’t look at him as he rubbed his hair dry. The way he bent down reminded me of grazing bulls.
    We walked in twilight, his slippers slapping his feet, a rhythm conducting the near silence.

    Then he asked, ‘How many years you have?’

    I hesitated. Two slaps of the slippers.

    ‘Fourteen’ I replied, immediately wishing I’d added on three years instead of one.

    He turned to me, his eyes white, ‘Strasno!’ Then he laughed low and long and said something I didn’t understand.

The dirt-track was lit up by kitchen lights, cosy and orange. There were still people outside in their gardens, stoking mini bonfires and roasting corn, an old man loading firewood into the back of his truck.

    ‘Jesi li gladno? Eat?’ Atso asked, stopping outside the bare-brick walls of his mother’s house. Half his face was in shadow, making his long nose stick out and his features look moulded like clay.

    I nodded, feeling my skin prickle. I followed him inside where Mira was at the sink, her body bulky, the same formidable stance as my grandma. Her face lit up when she saw us. She came to me and kissed my cheeks, said my name in a throaty voice. She spoke no English but I laughed along regardless.
    When we were here the day before she had sneaked glasses of rakija to my little brother until we realised, as he rushed around, crashing his head on the sofa, that he was drunk.
    I sat down at the table covered in a plastic sheet, decorated with gingham and cartoon woodland animals. The news was on the TV. I could make out a shot of some smoke-filled city, before it switched to a turbofolk concert. Trashy ballads filled the room. Mira poured me a glass of strawberry juice, thick and pulpy, ice-cold from the fridge. Atso lay down a plate piled high with ready-made pancakes and next to it, a tub of chocolate spread so big it could have held paint. Still topless, he sat down beside me, stray pearls of river water dripping down his temples. We ate in silence while Mira fussed around us. The pancakes were damp with butter. I could feel the wet bikini soak my clothes.
    Atso motioned me to eat more - I refused. He laughed and said something about ‘little’ and ‘English’. Mira laughed back and placed a parched hand on my shoulder.
    It was nearly eight. I wondered if my brother and sister were in bed. If my mother was also looking at the clock. I discarded the thought when Atso invited me upstairs, leading me along an olive-green carpet. First he showed me his brother’s bedroom. It was bare apart from a mattress on the floor. He tried to explain where he’d gone. The walls were painted a bright, sickly blue, covered with graffiti letters in shades of silver and gold. Some words I recognised, ‘Gangsta’, ‘Get Money Fuck Bitchez’, dollar signs everywhere. There was a sort of pride in the way Atso showed me the walls.
    His room was next door. It was white and just as bare. His bed had a frame at least. My mother had told me he was training to be a policeman. A red leather punch-bag hung in the corner, swaying from the slam of the door.
    He pulled on a t-shirt. It was plain, grey-blue, too big even for him. He sat on a plastic chair while I leant on the wall, my legs rigid and straight on top of the duvet. The laptop made a welcoming ping as he turned it on.

    ‘You watch video?’


    He clicked on a folder and scrolled down, muttering under his breath. He showed me videos, some I’d seen before, of kids falling off skateboards, football tackles gone wrong, singers tripping onstage. He made me jump with his laughter; it burst out of him like claps of thunder.
    Then he showed me something else.
    It was a man sitting at a table, filmed like a police tape, grainy and official. The man was crying, pleading. I didn’t recognise the language. There was another, deeper voice coming from behind the camera. The man’s eyes were dark and laced with desperation. Saliva trickled down the corners of his mouth.
    Then - a gunshot.
    The man’s head crashed and spluttered, a mess of red on the wall behind. It all happened in an instant. Then the video ended.
    Atso was laughing. A jolt ran through me. I tried to look relaxed and push out a giggle but I felt sick with adrenalin, the pancakes dancing in my stomach. I worried that he could hear my pulse - so loud, it was as if the blood wanted to escape my body.
    He sighed; exhausted, amused.

    ‘Eis Ventoora? Jim Cerry?’

    I nodded. My hands held each other still.
    He played the film and turned off the light. For the next hour and a half I felt his body next to mine like a radiator turned up too high.

I knew my mother would be worried by the time he walked me home. We were surrounded by the creaks of crickets and the warm residue of the day. All the houses were dark by now, drenched in blue ink. I wrapped my arms around myself, the jumper he’d leant me scratchy, almost reaching my knees. We walked slowly. Atso dragged his feet, kicking the dust and stones. He kept his eyes forward like they were stuck.
    I thought I could see my grandma’s balcony on the far side of the road. White sheets hung high on the washing line. I heard a window close and the distant sound of a dog’s bark.

    ‘You cold?’ he asked, as I shivered.

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