Scooping out a hunk of fat with cupped fingers, I rub it between my palms. It gives way and melts. The smell is faintly meaty, a welcome warmth in the stiff coastal air. I smooth the blubber into the puckered flesh of my thighs, over my shins and down to my feet. As I rub between my toes, I picture a membrane of skin forming between the cracks, fusing the soft pink digits – the advantage that would give me in the water.
I stand into my wetsuit, rolling thick neoprene up from my ankles to my waist, reaching around to pull up the zip. My thick hair is wound into a bun, and I pull my swimming cap over, hearing the silicone snap against my skull. The wetsuit and swimming cap hide my spindly limbs, my mess of black hair, the protrusion of my knees, my elbows, my hips. I am sleek and streamlined, ready for the unforgiving water.
The flooding tide kisses my ankles as I wade in, the cold making itself at home in the hollows of my bones. I plunge my head under. My lungs catch and I rise back up in time to feel the sudden rush of a huge intake of breath. Then comes the second submersion, deeper this time, my lungs tight and full. When my body has adapted to its new surroundings and adrenaline has taken over, I swim out.
I swim until my muscles ache, until I can no longer feel any of my extremities. I swim until the glimmering lights of the island dissolve into the sea.
When I return to the shore, I see the orthopaedic walking shoes and compression stockings of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She is sitting on her bench, which looks out over my beach. Her little feet are swinging, not quite touching the ground below. I try to wave at her, to catch her attention, but her face is hidden behind a blurred curtain of frantic, hungry grey. Gnarled pink talons scratch at the air, at stale chunks of wholemeal bread that rain down like rancid confetti.
When I reach the front garden, there is a rich smell leaking through the gaping seams of the kitchen. Tomato and garlic and chilli, pasta simmering in water bleached white with starch. This house always has a lingering odour about it, of wheat and dairy and other things he knows I don’t enjoy but cooks anyway. I can smell it when I read on the sofa, when I take a bath, when I lie in bed at night. Sometimes I think that I can smell it as far away as the water’s edge and I have to rush in to escape it.
He sets me a plate silently; doesn’t ask how I filled my day or how my swim was. I look down blankly at the wheat shells swimming in their red sea, complete with extra virgin oil slick. We sit like this for a long while, the only sound the thin rasp of cutlery on crockery. I pick at the food, puncture a single pasta carapace with my fork and watch it weep sauce.
It has started to rain. From out of the window, I can see water seeping onto the cracked paving stones of the back-garden patio, bubbling up in the crevices of the grouting. He tuts and sighs and speaks for the first time this evening.
‘This shit highland weather,’ he says, grunting through a full mouth. ‘It’s costing us thousands.’
Personally, I like the rain. I force down another mouthful to avoid having to respond. He eats quickly. I watch a droplet of marinara dribble down his stubbled chin. While he finishes his plate, I picture the shells going down whole, landing in his stomach, releasing a hundred tiny hermit crabs inside. Serrated pincers ripping at him, tearing him apart so that I can build a new man in his place.
The food feels heavy in my stomach, and I leave the rest of my plate untouched. Later, from the next room, I turn the volume up high on the radio to drown out the sound of him angrily scraping the remnants into the bin.
While he is snoring by my side, I go downstairs and open the fridge. It’s one of those big, silver American types, which casts out a bright white glow when opened. I feel like a burglar caught in an automatic porch light, illuminated in an act of desperation. But we are married, and so the fridge is half mine, the contents too. I quietly part jars of jam and chutney, bottles of salad dressing and hot sauce. Toward the back of the fridge, I find a plastic package, layers of orange fish on a bed of golden card. Without hesitation, I pull thin ribbons from the mound and spool them onto my tongue. My mouth fills with saliva, with the sharp, wet ache of a long appetite satiated. I tear at layer after layer, barely chewing, swallowing whole. I wipe my sticky fingers on my pyjama bottoms and return to bed warm and full.
The next morning, I sit across from him and watch as he eats his plain cream cheese bagel in four bites. Crumb, butter and cheese fester like fungus in the corner of his mouth. He does not mention the empty packet languishing in the recycling bin.
‘Maybe we should have some friends round,’ he says eventually. ‘That might give you something to look forward to.’
I do not know what to say, so I shrug. We have had people over for dinner just once since the wedding. Our friends, he calls them. The men he works with and the women they are married to. I try to picture the faces of these people, to match names with executive positions and children’s special talents and favourite football teams, to remember the events of the last dinner party that led to the cancellation of all others.
I remember the wives homing in on me with coiffed curls and sharp stares, asking me questions about my childhood. They were fascinated by me, it seemed, because I was not Orcadian. Not even Scottish.
‘So, where are you from?’ one asked me, looking me up and down like a freshly birthed lamb; adorable and fascinating, but somehow embarrassing, encased in yellow fluid and unable to walk.
‘Sort of all over,’ I replied, which was true.
He interrupted then to explain that I moved up to the island when we got married. A whirlwind romance, he grinned, which made me feel strange as that wasn’t how I remembered it. I didn’t really remember it at all. Although perhaps he was right, perhaps it was a whirlwind. Ever since we met, I have felt dizzy, after all, as though dropped by a sudden gust.
‘It might be good for you,’ he says, bringing me back to the breakfast table.
He doesn’t mean that, not really. He means it would be good for him. Good for him if a few people came around and made us look happy by association. If they ate his pasta and drank his wine and laughed at his rambling anecdotes. If they craned their necks to take in my strange accent and my jet-black hair and my dark eyes. If the men complimented him on my stock, on my lean body and milky skin and the collar bones visible in the space between the straps of my dress. If, after a couple of drams of whiskey and the company of our friends, his friends, he could muster up the courage to place a hand on my thigh under the table and serve us a shared dessert with a single spoon.
In the water, I practice breathing. I tread steadily with my face resting on the ocean’s surface, focusing on slow, relaxed exhalations. Three strokes in forward crawl, breathe, two strokes, breathe, three strokes again, breathe. If I were built differently, I could breathe underwater through the oxygen supply in my blood. Some animals can slow their heart rates from 100 beats per minute to just 10, gliding through the ocean without the betrayal of a racing heart or gasping lungs. I wish that I was one of them.
Back on the shore, oystercatchers in crisp white shirts and black jackets gather in groups like tiny mourners at fresh burial sites. I can see the rock doves too, but not the woman, hidden as she is behind the coo and the clamour and the hollow flutter of wing.
Once, we came to the beach together. The woman was there then too and cooed like a rock dove herself when she saw us walking together, my limp hand gripped in his. On the walk back, he bought me a cone of chips. They were drenched in vinegar and glistening with salt. I tried one, not wanting to spoil the day. The hot mass of potato and oil clung to the back of my throat, and it took all my effort to swallow.
When I get back, he has already called them. He says their names slowly, as though I should be taking notes to prepare for the evening ahead. Giles and Rachel, Eddie and Camilla. Introduced in pairs rather than as their component parts. They will be coming over at eight, he will make a lasagne and he would appreciate it if I could help with the salad. I stand in the corridor while he tells me this, droplets of water collecting at the ends of my hair and dripping onto the imitation oak vinyl floor. By the time he asks me to go upstairs and put on something nice, a puddle has formed beneath my feet.
I shove the muddied towel to the bottom of the laundry basket, remembering that he has warned me not to use the house towels at the beach. They are made with a supreme cotton pile, he often reminds me, and cost a fortune to replace. The last time I got one dirty, he stood staring at it in solemn silence until I felt compelled to apologise.
He has laid out a dress for me, a black lace thing with spaghetti straps. I am not quite the right sort of woman for this dress, being too sharp and pale with no cleavage to fill it. But despite that, it looks fine. It looks like exactly the sort of dress a nice wife would wear to a nice dinner party that she absolutely wanted to throw. I practice smiling for one second, two seconds, three. Then, I relax my face and trace my sombre expression with lipstick. I look at myself for a moment too long in the mirror and see a strange thing staring back at me, dark eyes gleaming.
He guides me into the kitchen and offers me up to the strangers.
‘Hello,’ I say to nobody in particular.
One of the women smiles at me. The other is staring down at the floor. I realise, too late, that I have forgotten to wear shoes and my bare feet look flat and embarrassing against the tiles.
While they sip champagne and talk about the intricacies of planning permission applications for extensions, I pull pinwheels of anchovy and olive from their toothpick skewers and unravel them, licking the remnants of salt-cured fish from my fingers. The discarded olives sit in a briny bath at the bottom of the bowl.
He ushers us into the dining room where there is a lasagne waiting in the middle of the table. Eddie or maybe Giles jokes that I must have found the only man on the island who would do all the cooking and let me sit about doing nothing. It isn’t a funny joke, so I don’t laugh, but everybody else does and that makes my silence seem cruel by contrast. He chimes in, the other component part of my pair, leaping to my defence.
‘She made the salad,’ he says, too eagerly, his smile too sudden and wide.
He points at it, the salad, and everybody looks. Of course, I did not make it. I forgot all about it, our conversation that morning dissolving almost as soon as I stepped out into the sea. I wonder why he would want to give me credit for something I didn’t do, why it makes him feel like a better person to pretend to have done less.
Camilla, or maybe Rachel, asks me what I do for a living.
‘Last time we were over for dinner, you said you were between jobs,’ she tells me.
After a long pause I tell her that I don’t do anything for a living. Either Eddie or Giles seems delighted by this and says there’s nothing wrong with old fashioned values, nothing wrong with a woman keeping the house.
I excuse myself from the table.
The terracotta floor of the pantry is cold against my bare thighs as I sit cross-legged, scraping out the hexagonal corners of a jar of tuna pâté with the edges of a teaspoon. The salty paste fizzes on my tongue. I find another jar and then another. Cured herring fillets in dill marinade. Albacore tuna loins in olive oil. Anchovies with basil and parsley. I squirm in anticipation with the popping sound of each lid.
When I return to the dinner table, I follow our guests’ stares down to the diaphanous bones caught in my hair, the flakes of oily flesh on the neckline of my dress.
When I am sure that we are alone once more, I go outside to read.
In summer, the sun lingers in the sky for more than eighteen hours a day, on account of the high latitude of the island. It rises as early as four and sets well after ten, so it is still bright outside even though the day is long gone. When it does eventually descend, it lingers just below the horizon and bathes the island in a faint blue light which brightens to an amber glow in the northwest. The locals call it simmer dim, the twilight of a summer evening.
I flick through one of his old copies of Men’s Health, pausing at an interview with a swimmer who represented his country in the men’s 1500m freestyle at the 2016 Olympics. The swimmer says that the greater your velocity, the more effectively you push through the resistive drag of water, the quicker you swim. The stronger you are, he says, the greater force you can apply to your propulsive action.
I sense his presence before he arrives, fold the corner of the page over and slip the magazine between the seat and the cushion. In anticipation, I pull a blanket over me and reach for my neglected glass of wine. I am a perfect picture of feminine domesticity. He materialises behind me, resting a gentle hand on my head.
‘Do you have any dumbbells?’ I ask him, staring up at his blank face.
‘Maybe in the garage.’
I wait, unsure of where the conversation is going.
‘Don’t go in there yourself,’ he tells me, sternly. ‘I’ll sort it out over the weekend.’
I nod and smile. He strokes my hair longingly, as though trying to peel back my outer layer and find something more palatable underneath.
I dream of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She pulls open a bag of bread and the birds descend in a fury of white and grey and red and pink and purple and brown. The wild, Caledonian ancestors of the urban pigeon. Then more birds appear. Guillemots and curlews and black headed gulls, a wake of buzzards and a murder of crows, all raining down on her. They rip the bread from her trembling hands, then come back for more. She scrambles through her tartan trolley, until its wheels slip. It tumbles down, and so does she. The birds squawk in a joyful chorus and swoop down, descending on their new feast with sharp beaks and toothed bills.
I wake. The room is dark, too dark, black-out blinds designed to block out the lingering solstice sun. Tomato sauce and cheese and pasta curdle in my stomach. I rush to the bathroom and am suddenly, violently sick. A mess of gluten and congealed vegetable, then bile.
Another lurch. I look down to see a dark mass of scale and blood and bone. A whole fish head lies in the toilet bowl, glassy eyes rolling back in its thin skull. I realise that the knees of my pyjama bottoms are wet and muddy, that the soles of my feet are dark with dirt.
When morning comes, the blinds are up and I am alone. I smile at the empty hollow on his side of the bed, stretching out to fill it. Then I get up and set to work.
The garage is dusty and full of incomplete drill sets, stray bits of sandpaper and rusting metal. Layers of stepladder and blender and bike pump. Dried-up pots of yellow paint, relics from a conversation about converting the spare room into a nursery. A graveyard of abandoned home and self-improvement projects.
What am I looking for? I try to remember, but my mind is blurred. There is so much stuff here, so much rubbish, all the discarded physical evidence of our grim little partnership. I cut an incision through the belly of the garage and pull out its mangled insides.
As I go, I collect anything that interests me. The dumbbells, yes, alongside some resistance bands, a skipping rope and a pair of ankle weights. Amongst my prizes is a small box with a combination lock through the catch. I hesitate for a moment, but before I can make a reasoned decision, I am twisting the dials until they display the four digits that make up the year of our wedding. The lock pops open. Within a moment, the contents of the box are spilt out on the concrete floor, seeming to glow beneath the flickering strip light.
The first thing I notice is pebbles. One that I collected on a trip to Copinsay Lighthouse, and another from the Loch of Stenness, where we spent a long day walking to see the standing stones. I brought back a pebble each time we went to a new beach or loch or other body of water and set them out in a neat row on the windowsill of our bathroom. He removed them during a spring clean, told me he’d thrown them in the bin because they were unnecessary clutter. We hadn’t visited anywhere like that in a long time anyway, so the collection had grown static, and I simply let it go.
Beneath the pebbles I find another layer, one of white paper covered in stern, black ink. I rifle through the documents with limited interest. Our marriage certificate, a photocopy of each of our passports, some contracts seemingly related to the house. I barely recall any of it – the marriage, the mortgage. They feel like things that happened to me, events at which I was merely an observer, rather than an active participant.
As I pull the final sheet of paper from the box, my hand touches something soft. I look down at what appears to be a small blanket or piece of upholstery velvet. I wonder if it is an old sample, from when he was designing the interior of our house. It is a strange design, a mottled grey, with darker and lighter patches and a faint spotted pattern, not a style I can ever imagine him choosing.
I lift it out of the box and unfold it. The centre is darkest, with a deep grey line running down the middle, fading to light grey and then to white at the edges. On the other side, the material is stiff and smooth, covered in tiny pucker marks.
It is not a blanket or a piece of velvet, I realise, but an animal’s pelt. A skin.
I leave the garage, walk through the garden gate, and arrive at the coastal path. I take turns left and right, propelled by muscle memory alone.
Soon, I am at the sea.
I do not have my wetsuit or my towel, but I know, somehow, that I do not need those things, that I will never need them again. I unpack my bag and take out the pelt, rubbing it beneath my thumb and forefinger as the water laps at my heels. I drape it over my shoulders and feel the stiff hide yield, a warm sensation spreading through the matted fur and down through my own skin.
When I hit the water, I do not feel my lungs catch. I do not waver. I do not tread clumsily into the rippling tide.
My heart rate slows, the world quietens, and I dive down into the dark water below.
Lauren Archer is a secondary school English teacher and writer of short stories based in Liverpool, UK. Her work has been longlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenroarcher.
photo by Jeremy Bishop (via unsplash)