When Aaron Fletcher became the boy that got to 137 mph on the M76, everyone heard about it, including the police. The way Aaron tells it, they couldn’t catch him, even blue-lighting all the way to the edge of the slate-grey sea.
I was amazed that Aaron’s 1997 Skoda could go that fast without its wheels coming off, but the police didn’t need to catch Aaron. We live in a tiny village with houses that look like they’re shrugging their flinty shoulders, turning their backs on the sea as fishing slowly dwindles to nothing and we all get poorer. Everyone knows everyone. They just went over to Mrs Fletcher’s, and she threw the Skoda keys off the end of the pier after giving Aaron the hiding of his life.
So that’s how I end up driving him along the coast, pretending not to care that he’s smoking in my nan’s old car.
Everyone said I was lucky because of the car, but it wasn’t a fair exchange – a silver Citroen Saxo with a dented bumper for Nan, with her woolly cardis that smelled of fried bread and talc. I’d set the car on fire if I could have one more of her fairy cakes with white icing dripped over the paper and a cup of tea ready for when I stopped in after school – her stories of the wild selkies that swim up to the beaches along the coast, then sausages and mash for tea.
But that wasn’t the deal, so I got the Saxo. In our village, you need a car to get away. The girls with cars in the year above at school always get asked out by the boys. They drive two villages over to the shop that’ll sell you 50 cl of Smirnoff without ID, then come back to mix it with Cherry Tango in the bottle and swap syrup-sweet kisses under the pier.
It’s not happened to me yet. Until now. I’m wearing a G-string, and I straightened my hair this morning. My room still smelt of burning hairspray when I left. I wonder if Aaron will put his hand on my leg. To be honest, it would be a bit awkward. The rain’s coming at the windscreen like someone’s chucking buckets of water over it, and he’d be in the way of the gearstick. But he’s not even given it a go. He’s just watching the hills as the road disappears beneath us, leaving behind the village with its one shop, and sticky-floored pub, and no takeaway.
I asked him back when we passed the power station if he’d got anything on. I thought he’d not heard me. But then, just as I’m thinking I’ll have to see if there’s a CD of something – anything – in the glove box to drown out the thick silence, he mumbles something.
‘What?’ It’s hard to hear over the rain.
‘I said, it’s her birthday today.’
‘Whose?’ A lorry’s coming up, spraying water in sheets across the road.
‘My girlfriend’s.’ He frowns down at his jeans. ‘I’ve not got her anything.’
If he asks me, I’ll throw him onto the motorway.
‘What d’you reckon?’
‘I don’t know her.’ I’ve to raise my voice over the roar of the road.
‘She’s really fit.’
I’m pissed enough to risk taking my eyes off the post van thundering ahead of us and look at him.
‘Alright, I just thought, you know.’
He doesn’t finish whatever he’s about to say, so I deliberately slow right down. He starts flicking his lighter on and off, on and off, until I tell him to stop.
It’s not raining by the time we get there, and the tide’s out, leaving a ribbon of silver sand with seaweed-slimed rocks just before the cliffs.
Aaron slopes off, hands stretching his hoodie pockets out like stubby wings. He says, ‘See you after,’ as he goes.
Before I heard about this girlfriend, I was thinking we’d get some chips. Maybe sit on the smoothed pebbles by the wall and make out, his cider-sour tongue and mine. Then we’d drive back to get off our faces in the woods behind my mum’s house. I’d been thinking of his mouth on mine, the heat of him pressed against me in the darkening car rocked by the wind. He’s not even offered a few quid for petrol.
It’s not that cold, and I don’t want to sit in the car anymore, so I stand alone by the sea wall where the pastel beach huts are bleached white, like bone. The wind is full of flecks of stinging sand, but it feels fresh, clean. I imagine driving away, leaving Aaron here.
Something catches my eye on the edge of the ocean. Maybe a seal. Sometimes their backs break the water farther out. Up north, they come to the rocks and drape themselves under the sky. Here they keep to themselves though, and you can’t blame them for that. There’s nothing here for anyone.
My skin still smells metallic, cigarette smoke and Lynx aftershave, like Aaron’s exuded something particular to teenage boys, and it’s seeped into my skin. It’s actually a bit disgusting. And he gets white bits at the corners of his mouth when he talks. Do I even want to kiss him? The salt wind lifts my hair. I might as well not have bothered straightening it.
The sand is flat and hard from the tide as I wander down the beach towards the pools, shadowed by a cliff. I’ll have a look, then maybe get a Coke, sit in the car until he bothers himself to come back.
As I get closer to the pools, I stop. There’s a woman half-submerged in the inky water between the stones. My heart thud thud thuds in my chest, the beat of footsteps running away, along the sand. But I stay, anchored to the spot. It’s as if she somehow expected me, because she’s calm, tranquil. Her skin is the pale grey of stone, of the moonlit ocean, and she stretches up, watching me with eyes as fathomless as the sea, her naked body glistening from the water. My heart hasn’t slowed down, but this has nothing to do with running away. I’m just a few steps away, and I see her coat crumpled amongst the drying seaweed. It shines like oil.
Nan told me about the men that stole their coats, then kept them on land in woman-form to have their children, wash their clothes, cook their dinners. Cut off from the wildness of the ocean, so close. So far away.
The ocean called them home, sending songs to their dreams. Was the coat the only thing trapping them, though? People just stay in our village, getting older and older, and they could leave if they wanted.
There’s no way not to stare at her. I want to touch, to see if her skin is as sleek as it looks, washed stone smooth. I step towards her as she emerges from the pool. I want to drink her, take long, slow gulps like the first taste of freshwater after months at sea. She takes my hand – cool, strong – and there’s no space between us anymore. Long hair tangles in my fingers, and she is tugging at zips and buttons until skin is against skin, kelp-soft strokes. She undulates everywhere, like water, and my tongue traces her edges. Sand grits between my teeth. Salt in my mouth. A swelling within me, rushing in like the tide’s unstoppable surge.
Her seal coat is discarded on the beach, and when I shiver she drapes it over my shoulders. It is heavy, and she looks at me again with her strangeness, delicate webbing between her fingers and toes and collarbones that I want to press my mouth against to taste her again.
Not walking with her is unthinkable, so I leave my clothes in the shadows by the cliffs and follow her towards the reaching waves, watching the swell of ocean carry her weightlessly out. Sea-washed pebbles massage the arches of my feet. Will Aaron find my boots abandoned by the rockpools? Behind us are paint-peeling cottages. Shuttered caffs. Ahead, the bright expanse of water, wave tips glinting as they stretch out to where sea and sky dissolve.
I don’t know this bit of coast. Riptides. Things lurking in the deep. Fear hooks in my stomach. But the water is licking seductively at my ankles, lacy froth washing over my feet.
Nan always said you only regret what you don’t do. I hope she’s right. I take a step and then another, the water rising up my calves, then up my thighs, cooling the heat between my legs.
The sea shelf drops away, and there is nothing beneath me. I can see her head bobbing away, hair spreading across the surface of the sea.
The coat is weighing me down. Arms trapped. The water is warmer than I expected. I am sinking, lured down into luscious green depths. Kick, kick your legs, swim upwards, towards the upturned mirror of the surface above. It doesn’t get closer. But I realise. I don’t want it to. I want to follow her, to become this – beautiful, strong, powerful. I don’t need to breathe. There’s no panicked fight and wrestle for oxygen as the coat fuses to my body, pinning my arms. The water flows over me, through me, every nerve ending awakening. I am more flexible, more dexterous than I’ve ever been before, as I follow her, swimming out to sea and away.
Alice Langley is a writer and theatre maker living in an old church manse south of Glasgow’s river with two cats. She writes short stories, creative nonfiction, and is working (slowly) on her first novel. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction and works as a writing teacher and editor.