By popular demand, another short story by author Michael Collins. Adult themes.
Alone and unfeeling, her raft slowly floats in the doldrums, going nowhere.
There is a curious stale beauty to this scene. The yawning expanse of the sea stretches out in all directions; a deep, rich blue, sunlight glittering upon its jewelled surface. The ocean the same colour as the sky; the horizon barely perceptible. There is no breeze, no sound. No ripples surge across the surface of this painted ocean.
She can’t quite remember for how long her raft has been floating suspended like this, or quite how she came to be here. Fragments of memory flash across her mind from time to time and are gone – a cruise ship, a terrible disaster – but they are wispy streamers of paper, untethered to the core of her mind, and they fade away.
From time to time she will hear a voice, and turn to a figure on her left. ‘Eleanor,’ that man will say, and she knows he speaks her name. ‘Eleanor,’ this man says, ‘where are you? I’m so cold. Is it warm where you are?’ Yes, she will reply, I am warm. Here, touch my hand. She’ll reach out her hand to grasp the man’s arm. Of course, there is nobody there, and her hand clutches only the sultry air. Who was that man? She cannot remember.
She thinks: Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. And sighs. And the raft continues to float, going nowhere.
Time seems to pass and not pass; the sun walks proudly across the sky. Its heat hammers down on her unguarded neck, making her hang her head, as if in shame. The phantom man calls her name again; again she reaches across to find nobody there. But now she knows. The man is her husband Miles. She can remember his name, and remember who he is, but where is he? What happened to him remains lost. There is instead a deep ache in her, a sighing, wrenching sense of loss.
‘Eleanor,’ he says, reaching for her with a hand made of mist. ‘Eleanor, where are you?’
And she tries to answer but cannot. She has no strength to move, and the still, heavy air pulls her down into the motionless raft.
A stray cloud crosses the sun, and she shivers. Not from the dark, or the temporary lack of the sun’s warmth, but from a new memory that springs from her. A party. Women, glamorous in shimmering cocktail dresses, men resplendent in white tie tuxedos. Radiant lamplight illuminates the pool in the back garden. Soft jazz lightly lingers on the fragrant air. She, on Miles’ arm, wearing a smile of luxuriant content. He’s bantering a man with an extraordinary bushy beard, a Father Christmas beard. One of Miles’ targets for the evening, no doubt.
A discordant sound from behind them disturbs the twinkling ambience of the party – the shattering crash of glass on wood-panelled floor. She turns to see her daughter, Sara, eyes wide, hands over her mouth. The remains of Eleanor’s beautiful crystal grand vase lie carelessly on the ground. The embarrassing scene (in front of so many dignitaries, she can’t regulate her own daughter?) raises a cold anger in her. She grabs her daughter harshly by a slim forearm, dragging her indoors away from the party, issuing sharp rebukes of Sara’s lack of awareness and self-control. Eleanor sees the disapproving faces of her guests in profile and shrinks from them. The terrified, mortified, tear-stricken face of her three year old daughter does not register.
A wild thought starfalls across her mind: I’ll never be able to tell her I love her, or how sorry I am.
From one memory, another. She’s with a man, in a small dark room. Her back is to the wall, one leg curled and raised around his waist. He is in her roughly, his breath hot and quick against her neck, a hand on her breast through her three thousand pound green silk dress. This man is not Miles: Miles is at the table, schmoozing another client. Eleanor doesn’t know the name of the man who is taking her against this closet wall. She neither needs nor wants to. He finishes with a gust of exhaled air, as if he is punctured. As he composes himself, Eleanor reaches down and picks up her discarded underwear, which she presents to her illicit lover as an erotic gift. Seated again at the table: Miles give her a distracted smile, which she returns with innocent malice, a slight incline of the head. He doesn’t know. He never knows. Their meals arrive. The waiter is the man who had her in the closet ten minutes ago. He delivers Miles’ steak without a hint that he’s just made the man a cuckold. He delivers Eleanor’s fish with the same detachment, but as their eyes meet she sees the embarrassment flicker in his eyes. Which makes her triumph all the tastier – more satisfying than the act itself. When Miles tips the guy twenty percent she barely resists the urge to dissolve into laughter.
Her mind, that perfect and relentless instrument of torture, says: Miles. He never wronged me in the slightest. And he never knew.
The kaleidoscope of remembered cruelties hits her like a rogue wave. Memory after memory assail her: small things like the sharp-tongued imprecations to employees and the casual insults towards family members; the many infidelities, both minor, like the restaurant waiter and major, like Miles’ brother; the missed birthdays, flute recitals, playdates – all the times she left her daughter in the hands of another. The smell of the lilies in her mother’s living room as she said, ‘You’ll never see your grandchild again, you bitch,’ in a calm, cold voice. All these sharp darts into her brain, reminiscences of a good life lived badly.
And the raft floats, stuck in the doldrums.
She comes back to herself in horror. There is a terrible weight on the back of her neck, and across her shoulders. She hears a cry that for a moment exists only in the echo chamber of her memory, until she realises that cry is real. She raises her head – the effort it takes! – and sees a great albatross, huge, heavy and elegant, seemingly suspended motionless against the canvas of the sky. Its wide flared wings, white flecked with black feathers, stretch out to catch the thermals, its strong hooked beak is proud against the sky, and its noble eyes pierce her with their gaze. The great bird hovers above her raft. It calls once – a high whistling call. The weight on her shoulders grows heavier, larger.
She glares at the albatross with a sudden flashing glare of hate. Stupid bird! How does it get to be free and happy, and she desolate and destined to die alone in this wet desert? It’s a thought that dies as quickly as it is born, to be replaced by an instant of darkest gloom. It’s the first time her mind has truly acknowledged her situation.
She thinks: I’m going to die here.
The realisation should make her scream in despair. Instead, it sinks and rests in her mind like a dark blanket. It settles over and covers those bitter memories like balm on a wound. Her breathing slows, and her eyes close. A listless, doleful calm descends.
From this resting place a new memory rises like yeast. The graceful dreaming spires of Oxford, the streets filled with serious, excited young students. She bumps into him outside the Apollo, where she’s trying to buy tickets for the Guys and Dolls revival. A light rain is falling. He has a strong jaw and wavy brown hair, and laughs off her stumbling apology for tripping into him. What’s your name, he asks. Eleanor, she replies. Eleanor, he repeats, savouring the taste of her name on his lips. I’m Miles. Can I buy you a drink? Yes, she replies, her smile warm and inviting. She seems at once hyper-aware of her surroundings (the narrow, rain-slicked streets, the rich smells of the meat pies in the covered market) and completely oblivious to the world. He is instantly lost in her, captured by her, and she feels immense pride at having the arm of this man. She sees other girls glance across at them, and dismisses them. You girls haven’t got what it takes to snag a catch like this, she thinks, with a smile.
From that memory, another: a hospital room, warm and close. She lies in bed, exhausted and in pain, but exhilarated and proud. Miles stands by her side, his eyes full with wonder and love. He gazes, as does she, at the bundle in her arms. Her daughter, perfect in miniature, sleeps in her swaddling linen. A wave of dark hair covers her tiny scalp. Eleanor looks at this new life and thinks triumphantly, Mine, all mine. Not his, mine! She cradles the baby like a trophy. ‘What do we call her?’ asks Miles, deferring to her will, of course. She need think for only a moment. ‘We call her Sara,’ she says.
The albatross cries again, bringing her back to the raft with a start. All these memories, crashing in on her. Even in those moments of happiness and love, she sees the thread of her own selfishness and arrogance. All those snapshots, all those moments show the same flaws, the cracks in her nature, ready to shatter like a vase about to hit the floor. The cruelties, the slights, the neglect, the cheating and the lying: they’re all pointing to the same thing – a good life lived badly. She looks up at the albatross. Its black eyes stare back, and she sees its bland judgment in them. Her wretched life is reflected in their black depths. She cries out, the pain the greatest she has ever known, as the realisation slowly comes: however she came to the doldrums, she deserves to be here. Whatever her fate is in this raft – and there is really only one fate for her here – she must accept it. The painted ocean, still and calm and clear, calls for it. The great albatross demands it. She cries out again, all her fear and shame and sorrow poured into one desolate scream, and it echoes across the desert of the sea.
‘Miles! Sara!’ she cries into the still, sultry air. ‘I love you! I am sorry! I am so, so, sorry!’
And Miles responds. He smiles in her mind.
Eleanor, he says. Eleanor, my love. Eleanor, my dear. I love you. I always did, from the very beginning, and I always will, no matter what. Go with my love, and our daughter’s love. We will wait for you.
Now she can cry. Finally the tears come from Eleanor’s tired, sunburnt face. They are tears of great sadness, and of shame, but also tears of relief. She cries for her husband and daughter, lost beneath the waves four days ago when the ship sank. She cries for all those souls, lost in the disaster. And she cries for herself, for her badly lived life. The tears fall, more tears than should be possible from her dehydrated husk of a body.
The albatross cries again, and the weight around her neck slowly lifts. She raises her head. The albatross dips slightly, as if in salute. Then it flaps its wings, once, twice and then again, and lifts on the thermals, up and away. It spirals in the cobalt sky and is gone.
A breeze, the first in days, lifts the hair from Eleanor’s forehead. Ripples appear in the water. The raft slowly begins to drift again. And on the far horizon appears a ship, her salvation and reward for her penance.
She throws up her arms in triumph and joy. She thinks: I am saved!
And hears the hiss of escaping air from the puncture in the raft.