This story is by Ramsay Short and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Drops of cognac flew out of the glass as it spun, round and round, clinking. Elias set it still, paused.
Jen was gone.
He downed the shot and poured another from the bottle beneath the counter at the bar. His bar. Knocked it back.
At 2am he drew the window shutters and pulled the wood outer door, leaving it open a crack. Lights lowered, he served up cheap beers and bourbon for the rest of the night. He kicked the last punters out at five, finished his bottle, closed up and walked back in the vague direction of his apartment as the sun rose.
One night late when they were lying in bed, his ear pressed against her round tummy, listening for movement, she’d suggested selling up, getting out. Making a proper life abroad.
“We can do it Eli. Vienna. Let’s go to Vienna. I hear it’s beautiful in the summer. And the river, the Danube has this island, 21kms-long creating this artificial channel just for swimming. We could swim just like we do here. There’s no war. No war Eli.”
There was no war here. Not now.
There had been. There would be again. There always was. And it was worse every time. Destruction, rubble and dust on a scale that made the world so unbelievable, it transformed your imagination and understanding.
Like existing in a tent woven of illusory threads.
During the hot summers Elias would hang out at the beach, reading, drinking beer, mostly alone, sometimes, before, with Jen, sometimes with friends. Maybe he’d do that today. His stomach growled. He wasn’t tired. He was hungry. He’d pass by Abu Salim’s for breakfast. He smoked as he walked. He ignored a tremor in his hand.
He greeted Abu Salim outside the bakery, ordered a beer and a cheese and thyme wrap, enjoying the smell of it cooking.
“Wandering the streets again Elias?” said Abu Salim.
“You know me Abu Salim, keep on walking.”
“You think you’re George Clooney now,” he said, chuckling, his eyes glancing up at the Johnnie Walker billboard across the street.
He handed Elias the wrap and the beer and, gesturing toward a non-existent line said, “Now move, look at the queue.”
Elias gave Abu Salim a tired smile and patted him on the back. “Don’t pretend business isn’t good, you bastard. And spot me another beer for the road.”
He could smell the ocean on the breeze. He felt the urge to see it in the morning sun. Elias ate as he walked, wrap and beer a moment of perfection on his tongue. Putting one foot in front of the other he felt calmer, as if passing through an unseen border into a new place. The city was full of unseen borders. If you looked closely you could make them out. One turn takes you into a darker, more intimate place; one to somewhere louder, more public; yet another to somewhere else entirely.
The walk down to the seafront took him through some residential streets, these even quieter, more private. And each street, each building, felt to him to be all at once small and unique universes existing in their own temporality, Elias just passing through.
Jen could never see it. She said the city was decaying. And if you stayed you would decay too, physically and mentally. But we were all decaying. The city, he thought, was an extension of that decay and we an extension of its, interlinked.
They’d argued. She’d walked out.
Elias threw the beer bottle and the wrap paper in a trashcan. At the seafront he stopped, turned a full circle eyes open, looking, listening, letting the city penetrate his skin. He felt it, heard it… fragments. Potholes in the asphalted streets. Shops selling vegetables. Music from cab radios. Political graffiti tagged on broken walls. The smell of home cooked food. Accepting chewing gum for change. The city wasn’t just a visual experience. It was tactile, physical, porous.
Ocean spray blew into Elias’s face. Early morning runners pegged by at pace giving him strange looks. He stood on his tiptoes and stretched, reaching his arms up to the sky. His hands trembled slightly. He remembered he’d been up all night.
There was no beach here just low cliffs, an iron fence protecting the promenade from the drop. But a little way beyond the shore to the west was a small peninsula, undeveloped, natural, beyond the concrete’s grasp. Elias had a sudden urge to walk on it, go down right to the water’s edge, to keep on walking, to cross a new invisible line, enter into another of the city’s universes.
He popped the cap on his remaining beer bottle, took a long swig and continued, step by step, to where the route down to the peninsula began. On the north side was a natural harbor with around 30 wooden huts surrounding it. Fishermen’s dwellings. Sheep grazed on grassy outcroppings as Elias picked his way down. Reaching the harbor he could see small crane-like constructions used by the fishermen to lower their boats into the water. By night, they went out in groups, each carrying a little lamp on their skiff to attract the fish. Elias and Jen had often sat together watching the ocean late at night. Sometimes from rich friends’ apartments overlooking the sea, other times they had to be more creative in their vantage points. Once they climbed the old lighthouse in pitch dark for a view so breathtaking they wondered if it was real. From the shore, they’d pick out the boats grouped together twinkling like little constellations on the water’s black surface.
A boy appeared from out of a shack, looked Elias over and said: “Here for a sail out to the rocks? I can take you.” He had a shock of red hair and freckles. He was small and wiry, 12 maybe.
The rocks. Two small but towering chalk islands one feminine in shape with a hole through it that you could swim through, the other more phallic, a large pillar standing tall to the sky. The height of summer saw boys and men having diving competitions, each trying to be more daring in their plummet than their friends. Elias had swum out to them himself on occasion, from the beach club on the promenade.
“Not this morning thanks,” he said.
“You’ve come to see the Hero then,” the kid responded with a tilt of his head. As if it was obvious. “Over there in the hut with the Marlboro sign on the roof.”
The boy turned and walked down to where a fairly battered boat, its light blue paint peeling off like bark from a silver birch, was pulled up on the shore. He sat down and began to pick off the paint with a small chisel. He paid no more attention to Elias.
Hut with the Marlboro sign on the roof. Elias downed the last of his beer, stashed it in the earth and looked around. There. Was that it? He felt tightness around his eyes. Unseen borders. Different spaces.
He walked to the shack and knocked on the door. No answer. He pushed it open. A stocky man with a large beard turned to regard him from a mattress on the floor. He beckoned Elias in, raising himself up to a half sitting position, adjusting some pillows behind his back and indicated a chair. He was wearing a white robe; his face was round, leathery dry from the sun, the hair on his chin black and thick. He seemed an unlikely saviour.
“They call me the Hero because I’ve rescued a few people, jumpers mainly, from drowning,” he said. His voice was nonchalant. Then, changing tack, “It’s good to have a visitor. I don’t get many. How did you find me?”
Elias told him – if you asked him later he couldn’t say why for sure – retracing his steps from the bar. The Hero listened attentively, then said, “You can feel it too. The city. It’s in you. Its doorways open and close for you.”
The Hero began to tell Elias stories, stories about the families living on the peninsula, stories about the sheep and the grass, about fishing, about the time his hut blew away in a particularly strong storm; about the city and how it had been 500 years since his people first came to the harbour and about the night a year ago Jen had driven her Honda Civic, tearful and angry and too fast to make the bend on the road above, careening up over the barriers and into the sea forty meters below.
“Sadly, I can’t save everyone,” said the Hero.
“What good are you then,” said Elias, exhaustion finally overwhelming him, his head dropping, his eyes closing.
Jen was gone. Their little possibility was gone.
And Elias wasn’t going anywhere.