Seaside Gothic

Fiction | Poetry | Nonfiction

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Low Season

Low Season by Rosie Garland

‘That’s our table.’

I slide my attention away from the window, over the bulging overhang of the man’s stomach and up towards his face. A wife cowers at his shoulder, rumpled as a pillowslip. I stretch my broadest smile, the one Mother said could make a cat laugh.

‘Good morning, sir,’ I say, tipping my cup in a toast.

It’s how conversations should begin. I take a sip of coffee, unexpectedly fine for this moderately-priced bed and breakfast. I’ve stayed in places three times the price and been served swill.

‘We sit there,’ continues the man, snapping each word like a twig when he’s finished with it.

I can see why he likes it. It’s the only table with a view. I gaze at the sea: lines of wooden posts are marching into the water, grey waves fold their lace border onto the sand’s edge, the continual rustling of a sheet being pulled from a mattress.

‘Don’t we?’ he says, louder.

The wife glances from husband to me with birdlike twitches of the head.

‘I’ll be gone as soon as I’ve finished my coffee,’ I say.

The only other occupants of the breakfast room are a couple in the far corner, pretending they aren’t watching.

‘You’ve seen me!’ growls the man, in their direction. ‘Every morning. For a week. At this table!’

They stare at their plates.

‘I was told I could sit anywhere,’ I say, leaning back in my chair.

A waitress appears, takes one look at the standoff, executes a neat spin and vanishes through the swing doors.

‘You! Woman!’ he bellows. In the kitchen, a radio is turned up loud. The man flushes from the neck up, grips the corner of my table between thumb and forefinger. ‘You don’t bother me, pal,’ he splutters.

His fingernails are ragged, gnawed to the quick. I examine my own perfect manicure: crescent moons rising from smooth nail beds, the tips free of the white flecks Mother called gifts.

The wife takes a step towards the door. He fires her a look and she folds in half as though shot, with a gasping hiss echoing the faint brush of the waves on the far side of the glass. I wonder if she is going to hyperventilate. Although fascinating to observe, I shall not enquire. In these situations, wives are unreliable.

She blinks. ‘He does like this table,’ she whispers. ‘You understand, don’t you?’

The man leans forward, slams his hands down. My cup jiggles. I breathe in, spread my palms flat upon the cloth. The linen has been ironed by a careless hand. If I pressed the tablecloth, I would do a wonderful job. The management would be delighted. But I have made promises to the authorities. Have surrendered many desires.

‘You,’ he squeaks, mouth opening and closing with a popping sound. ‘You.’

If I stood, he would see in my eyes what lies within. Wisely, I remain seated. Take a slow mouthful of coffee. I am required to answer. It is the done thing. But I’m mesmerised by his puppet show: grinding teeth, pounding fists, blustering complaints. With each passing minute his face grows redder, as though he is pumping up his head like a balloon.

‘Sorry,’ says the wife, chin jabbing backwards and forwards, a pigeon pecking at gravel.

I could leave. Could take this excellent coffee to my room and enjoy it overlooking the compulsive sea. But that kind of thing never ends well. However hard I try, I am not comfortable in cramped rooms with cramped beds where the sheets become unruly despite my lying with arms clamped to my sides. Here, where the tablecloth is obedient and people are watching, I can be still. See. My hands are barely trembling.

The man advances until his stomach is an inch from my face. I can smell how long since his trousers were dry-cleaned. The wife picks up a serviette and worries it between her fingers, earning such a scowl she hurls it away as though it’s on fire.

‘You’re done here,’ he squeals. ‘Get out. Now.’

There have been other occasions. Incidents I have been instructed not to dwell upon. Unhealthy incidents. I could tell him I’ve sworn to practice restraint. Have sworn to sleep in a bed all night and not remake it with fresh linen on the hour, every hour. I could tell him of the things I can achieve with a steam iron on its highest setting. With my left hand I crack the knuckles of my right, to stop it getting ideas.

He doesn’t hear the warning.

‘I’m sorry,’ tweets the wife.

I don’t know if she’s apologising for him, or for what she can see brewing in my hands and face. I have made assurances, I remind myself. Have signed papers, crisp folds dividing each page into equal parts.

He is making noises partway between speaking and grunting. His face doesn’t know what to do. It can’t flush a deeper puce, having gone as far as it can. His scraggy neck has swollen to fit the collar. Clever, I think, to give himself room to manoeuvre.

I drain my cup, set it down gently. Tell myself a restless sea and rumpled linen are part of the natural order. I will not find answers by pressing everything into submission. Disarray is healthy, and I can begin with small quantities, such as one might measure in teaspoons. I have to remember so many difficult things.

I turn to the man and smile. He looks at me and does not.

For the final time, I gaze at the brimming tide. Its ragged hem is tearing itself to shreds, ripping out its tidy stitches. I grit my teeth.

I must not think of things that can be twisted into a gasping strangle.

Must not forget my agreement, the endless clauses.

Must not forget all of my promises.

Must not.