A Short Story About A Life Too Small
It was the end of August, and summer was dying.
When Margaret looked at Dennis this afternoon, she saw how he had been when they first met. He hadn’t been a classically handsome man, he was too short and there were too many flaws in his features for that, but he had been fit and slim and good to look at. He had something. Other women saw this, too. They would not look directly at him, but they would watch him from the corner of their eyes. They would be aware of his presence, wherever he was. He raised something in them, a low tremor, a heat. Dennis never knew this, although he was aware that women liked him. Margaret knew it, though. She had watched other women around him. It was a kind of sport for her in those days. She hadn’t played that game in a long time.
Dennis moved in his chair. He was reading a book, a crime thriller, and he raised his legs to make himself more comfortable. He placed the book on the arm of the chair and leaned sideways. The lower buttons of his shirt came undone, and his hairy belly emerged like a birthing child’s head.
Margaret looked away.
Through the window of their suburban semi-detached, she saw the street outside. Late afternoon sun streamed along it, gilding all the smooth surfaces with a rose gold tint. Across the street, other houses like hers held other people like them. It was a good area of town, not the best, but good enough. Not too many burglaries, not too much rowdiness or other unpleasantness. As she looked out, a young girl walked past, a small, pointless dog at the end of the leash in her hand. The girl was wearing smart clothes and long lashes and had her head gripped in the vice of a pair of headphones. The dog stopped at a lamppost and sniffed and then squatted. Margaret watched the girl pull a small black plastic bag out of her handbag as she waited. The girl squatted in turn and then returned to a standing position with what seemed to be a prize in the neatly tied bag. She was smiling.
Margaret swallowed, twice.
Margaret got up. She walked to the mirror over the fireplace and looked at herself. She wasn’t vain at all but she knew she was still attractive. In their middle years, both she and her husband were beginning the journey down the far side of life and she had become intensely aware of this fact in recent days. Childless by choice, after an early conversation that they had never revisited, they were nevertheless of only modest means. Each had underachieved in their respective careers, Margaret as a social worker, Dennis an electrical engineer. Neither of them had the pushiness that seemed to be an essential requirement for recognition these days. They were just nice people, helping others to progress and get on rather than putting themselves forward. But that meant enduring years of quiet frustration as these other people moved on and over and around them in their own careers.
She and Dennis had moved on, too, although not in the way she had once hoped they would. Margaret had never had an affair, though she had been tempted, more than once, and severely. She was certain that Dennis hadn’t, either. She felt that he didn’t have the imagination for it. He would never have been able to see the potential thrills of such a situation. As importantly, he would never have been able to conjure up the many interlaced lies needed to conceal it. He was too honest.
She glanced down at the mantle shelf and saw the sympathy cards. Deciding that it was time to clear them away, she picked them up one by one until she had a handful. Margaret didn’t look at them, or read the messages inside. She had done that, and couldn’t do it again. Tightness gripped her throat and she willed away tears that tried to form. She turned away from Dennis to hide her face. She was looking at the mirror again, and in it’s reflection she saw that he hadn’t noticed her upset. She saw him lean slightly to one side in the chair, break wind, and settle back again. He carried on reading. Margaret knew that he had no awareness of her, or his own fart, or anything else in the world beside the book he was reading.
“I’m going out,” she said, walking past Dennis to the kitchen at the rear of the house. “I may be some time.”
She heard him snort and mumble. Not wanting to hear what he said, she walked into the kitchen, scooping her car keys up as she passed through it and out of the back door. She climbed into her little blue Ford Fiesta and started the engine. She rolled it to the end of the drive and stopped. Margaret wasn’t sure what she was doing. She didn’t have a destination or purpose in mind. She just knew she had to get away from here. Away from what she was.
The street that they lived on joined a main arterial route that flowed into the town centre and through it and on into Liverpool. That was to her right. To the left, the road meandered through the rest of the housing estate, eventually leading to the Lancashire countryside. Whenever they left the house, until today, they had always turned right. “I’ve always turned right,” she thought. “My whole life. Turning right. Keeping right. Doing the right thing.”
Margaret turned left.
They had lived on this estate for over twenty years, but Margaret couldn’t remember the last time she had passed through it. She took odd turns, ended up in dead-ends and no-through-roads a couple of times, but eventually she came out at a country lane. It dipped down low to a ford across a stream. She splashed through the little trickle of water and out on to the other side. The road kept on rising from here, and so she drove to the top of it and stopped. Margaret pulled into a lay-by and got out and looked around.
The sky was big and cloudless. The sun was falling, but it would be some time yet before darkness leached this way from the east. There was a soft breeze rolling over the top of the hill. It stirred her hair and pushed gently at her back. She was facing west, towards the coast. As she stood there, a childhood memory came to her. A picnic. The smell of pine woods. Acres of sand and hide-and-seek dunes and long, spiky marram grass and endless rolling, hushing, calming waves of sea. Formby. She would go to Formby.
Margaret climbed back into the car and drove on. She wasn’t sure how to get to Formby, but she knew it was to the west so she just followed the sun until she saw the signs. It didn’t take long for her to reach the town itself. She drove through it, along the access road to the pine forest, into and out of the car park, and finally came to a stop in a sheltered dip farther along the access road. She opened the car window and sat there for a while, listening to the birds and the wind and the faint sound of the sea.
The daylight was fading fast by the time she got out of the car. She took off her shoes and carried them in her hand as she walked along the sandy path to the beach. The smell of pine and brine filled her nostrils. A metal bin fastened to a post had been placed beside the path. Someone had stuffed the remains of a takeaway meal into it, and the sweaty meat stink of it as she passed was like an insult. Hidden in the cooling sand, barbs of pine needle and broken marram grass pricked her bare feet as she walked. The sound of the waves forever rushing to the shore became louder.
She stood now on the wet sand, her bare feet becoming properly cold for the first time. Before her was the great spread of the sea. A lazy swell moved the water up and down, rising to and falling from the pull of the hidden moon. Margaret wrapped her arms around herself and watched the day die.
She began to wonder why she was here. Several reasons came to her mind, but she couldn’t accept any of them. It wasn’t because she needed time to herself. It wasn’t because she needed to be away from Dennis. It wasn’t that she hated her existence. It wasn’t because of her failure to live. It was all of that and more. The reason I’m here, she thought, is because I don’t want to be me any more.
Margaret remembered once being taken down to the evening sea by her parents. It had been a foreign holiday somewhere, Greece perhaps, much warmer than here and now. They had all walked into the sea, her parents holding her hands between them, and they had swum together out towards the horizon. They hadn’t swum quickly, or far, but they had swum together, and happily. Margaret remembered them both now, her mother and her father. She wondered how affection and regret could form such a painful mix.
The sun was almost down. Dark clouds massed above her, but there was a gap in them at the horizon that allowed the sun to illuminate the underside of the mass. The light reflected back down on the to water, a reddening tint over a great black wash. Margaret looked up and down the shore. She saw nobody. She thought of her parents again, and let herself cry for a moment. Looking around her once more, and seeing no-one, she began to undress. Her sweater and skirt were neatly folded in a pile at the foot of a dune, and she placed her sandals beside them and her bra and knickers on top of her skirt. She buried the car key in the sand beneath the pile of clothes. Just in case.
When she reached the water she kept on walking into it. She knew that if she stopped at all she would turn round and go back. The water was cold, very cold, and it wrapped around her legs with a chilling heaviness, holding her and pulling her. As soon as it was deep enough she dived in. The shocking cold forced the air from her lungs with a roar as she surfaced. Throwing herself into a short burst of a crawl, she overcame it, though she was still panting. After treading water for a few minutes, Margaret began a gentle breaststroke, steadily pushing away the water between herself and the setting sun. The sea was calm, and she enjoyed the sensation of the cold water flowing along the whole skin of her naked body. She settled into a rhythm, slow and easy, edging further and further out into the sea. She was curious to see how far she would go.
She thought of what she wanted to be.
There was no going back now.
First published in January 2020 on Medium