Fiction by Callan Preece
It was in Brighton, on the beach and near New Year’s, when it was cold and dark and there was a wind blowing and you could walk across the pebbles of the beach, climb over the groynes and feel the slow erosion of the earth and the sounds of the sea and the salt and how it all seemed to unfurl away like that with time. I was waiting for Willa. I remember I was lighting a cigarette, hunched down beneath the groynes as it began to rain these spitting molecules that turned the air misty and quiet, as if all the air had been replaced by tiny drops of water. I would have been cupping the lighter with my left hand and shoving my face into the sparks, the cigarette drooped between my lips as the sound of the beach whirled through the water—wind and waves and cars and the few people still up at this time, and then some boat out in the distance, fog-horning through the sea—the whole night containing itself in those first few breaths. I remember I was sweating. I remember the sweat mingled into the salty water, the air quickly turning into these thick walls of water, the world becoming water, and the specks of rain enveloping the beach, making it seem as if there wasn’t so much sky and ground but instead a clear and unceasing space between the two. And I could feel the sweat joining with the water. You could see me trying to think about the water and looking for Willa, and not seeing Willa, and wondering if Willa would come, and then hoping that she wouldn’t, then just trying to think of the water, and then thinking of the thoughts between the thoughts of water, and then the cigarette, and then the rain.
When she appeared she was standing under a yellow umbrella that was colourless in the half light, and the world was drowning around her. Behind her was the moon and she was shadowed by it…I remember it like that even though there couldn’t have been a moon, just the rain…and from the moon she looked down at me and you could see the outline of her body, her coat, her umbrella, her silhouette surrounded by a thin film of water, and I remember thinking she looked exactly the same, and that looking at her was like saying goodbye, and rain spat down my nose, and we watched each other there for a long time.
It would have been a month, at most a month, after I had tried on my first skirt, and I was wearing that skirt, and the rain clung to it and my legs as though I had a second skin, with my legs still hairy below, my feet and my body below. It would have been the first time Willa saw me like that, the first time anyone had, and I remember I wasn’t wearing it right and I didn’t know how to wear anything right, and I was there, and Willa was watching, staring, and as she stared I thought of walking from my flat in the skirt, waiting until it was dark and the weather was terrible, hoping no one would see and then maybe someone seeing, and me running, ending up on the beach soaked through, and Willa still there and watching. We hadn’t spoken in months and she didn’t say anything at first. She watched me and I watched her watching. It’s possible that there wasn’t anything else about that night but the watching, that everything that came after barely happened, or did, but I know we didn’t talk for such a long time…I know that I tried to show her something with my skin and the skirt and the water, feeling the water on my skin and how it seemed there was an unceasing string of molecules between me and Willa and the water…and when we did finally talk it was hard and horrible and I wanted to say that I was sorry, and in that silence and that sorry you could hear the rain and pitter-patter, and from the walkways you could see small groups running from the weather, and ahead there were the streetlights and the lights of the windmills in the sea and the lights and sounds of cars, the light in the rain and in the water, kaleidoscoping through the water, and the sound of the rain against the umbrella, the thump of water against plastic, and words mixing with the sound, and the rain roosting in the cones of light.
It had been months. I came to Brighton after things fell apart and she didn’t come and we didn’t talk. I wore dresses inside the new flat and smoked and imagined seeing Willa in the smoke, each time in different locations and with different reactions, seeing her on the pier or the beach or the road, seeing her in our old house, with me in a dress and sometimes not in a dress, Willa’s face morphing into different, impossible faces. The moment would exist for a second, maybe a second, but there were too many possibilities, the thoughts would fade and I’d be alone again and unable to picture anything. And so here on the beach, Willa beneath her umbrella, it was as if this were just another of those countless scenarios, with us staring at each other and then Willa drawing closer, hunching now beside me beneath the groynes, both of us sharing the umbrella which stopped the rain but not the wind, my skirt stuck to my skin and the back of my skirt brushing against the sand and the rocks. I remember I grabbed the filters and papers and tobacco from my bag and shakily rolled cigarettes, dropping tobacco into the ground and mingling it with the pebbles and grit. I remember we both lit them and we both smoked and we both let the smoke stream upwards and mix with the air and lights…smoking amongst all these walls of waters…and Willa next to me covered in her own film of water, and you could almost touch her, though I didn’t, and there was the moon above us, though there wasn’t, and I was so sorry that I couldn’t talk about anything.
I remember trying to speak and tripping over my words and each word beginning before the end of the previous word. No moment seemed big enough to explain anything. You could see us in our flat, dry, me a man and always a man, and you could see us here and Willa the same and me something else, a horrible drag thing and a fetishist and a pervert and we were both here. You could see us alone and together in a different city and me not there and dissociating and stuck in the thoughts between the thoughts of the water, me on top and then Willa on top, the heat of bodies touching, fucking, me feeling endlessly faraway—the fighting near the end, and then the final fight, me taking the bus, finding a new flat, disappearing, Willa not coming. And then again together on the beach and Willa down in Brighton to see a friend and then seeing me and us both appearing in the rain with thin films of water over our bodies, connecting our bodies…Willa coughing on her cigarette, and me coughing, the throaty sounds of phlegm and bile.
In all the scenarios of this moment I could never picture what I would say, what she would say. It had felt so important to make her understand. We huddled near each other beneath the yellow umbrella and shielded ourselves from the rain. I was trying to explain it, the reason for the skirts and the leaving, why I had to be so sorry, and there didn’t seem to be enough words, with this person in front of me that I loved and who meant everything, that I couldn’t speak to or understand, and she couldn’t understand me, and so I just told her that it was all so expensive, that I didn’t have the money for anything. That there were things I had to do. And you can look back and see us both there: Willa and the drag creature, both sodden and muddy and both of us silhouetted by that same moon that was there but couldn’t have been there…and you can look and see Willa wrapping her arm around my shoulder and squeezing my arm and my shoulder, pressing myself into herself, and you can see my chemicals and her chemicals intermingling with the rain and light, and you could imagine us both a single thing and everything a single thing, with all these chemicals….
There was FFS and money and not having never having enough and feeling like you’re not real and never getting to be real and wanting to be thinking about something anything else and still hopelessly detached and disassociating and wondering if you’re so far gone and you’ll never not disassociate always being taller than everyone and towering over Willa and the beach and taking up too much space and wet wet hair clinging to your face and the angles in a face sharp and protruding and God why do you have to take up all this space and it is about makeup and nails and dresses and too-short skirts except no it is everything else and you do want the skirt and the dresses and you’re too tall and you take up all this space and your hair is too short and are you ready for a wig and it isn’t about those things but it is and they’re everything but it’s not about those things and
I think we were stroking ourselves together into the rain, at some point not even noticing the rain because by then everything was the rain. In front there was Willa, smiling, and then a second Willa reflected in a pool of water, and then around all the other million Willa’s reflected in drops of water, existing for a moment and then vanishing into the sand, and then my million faces in the rain, and everything distorted and warped in the rain….
and nothing was ever about those external things and those nails and dresses and I couldn’t dress myself and it wasn’t about those things because they were just the external things and my skirt was dirty with sand and mud and the phlegm of my throat and light reflected off rain and I was an intruder in a place I could never go to and the dresses could help but they couldn’t because it wasn’t about the dresses and isn’t it so unfair to have a body and there is only so much you can do and you should have just started earlier and it’s never too late and there are still all the wrong proportions and wouldn’t you just be so much further away from everything and
…the pools of water deepened and rippled and thrashed and muddied and how could you talk about anything and there seemed not enough words or time and Willa was ahead and under the moon and she was wonderful and I was guilty and horrible and I felt her shoulder against mine and the heat of the shoulder and I was desperate to hold on, to hold and be held…under that same moon that I remember…and remembering…and I wanted to be there for an infinitely long time, together and saying I was sorry and not having the words for the rest…
No, nothing came out right. I wasn’t even thinking of Willa, just speaking, and all the sounds were wrong.
I remember, there on the beach, inside one of those innumerable possibilities, thinking that I’d exhausted my language—that Willa was here and I was here, and there was an endless void between us. I spoke about using her makeup and nail polish, feeling their chemical smells, synthetic and artificial, smothering and compressing my face with shaky lines that I’d wash quickly before she’d come home from work…seeing her at the door with her round face and her round eyes, just as I saw her on the beach with her round face and round eyes, her mouth with the cigarette hanging from it. I could speak about examples and particulars, but it wasn’t about them and could never be about them, and they were all I had. There weren’t the right words, but then there never were right words, and either way she hugged me closer and our shoulders pressed together.
I wanted to be held there forever under the rain; it was like saying goodbye and we both knew it would be goodbye; with every word it was goodbye; and I was so desperate for it not to be goodbye. I tried holding on to Willa, I remember that the films of water surrounding our bodies congealed for a moment, the molecules shooting up and sideways and forming tiny bridges in the fabric. I thought maybe that it would mean something, and then the bridges broke again, and Willa said she was sorry too…I think she said she was sorry…and it seemed there was so much time between us, too much time, and with every word and all those wrong sounds it seemed I was moving further away from her and from everything, that the world was moving away, and it did move away, the image shifting, the moon growing larger, the words entangling themselves horribly. I remember feeling as if all moments before the beach were suddenly becoming frayed, until there was just the beach and everything after the beach, and then not even the beach…the world before wholly different to the world now, its shape growing incongruous and contorted as we spoke. I was so sure that Willa couldn’t come with me where I was going, and I tried to see that fact echoed through her face. There was a scene of a person rooting though Willa’s skirts as she slept; the scene killed the moments around it, as if your actions couldn’t just affect the world but time, as if time were the world…
At some point I was crying, we were both crying, and the tears mixed with the salt and the sweat.
After that: the beach and the moon and the umbrella and the goodbyes, the rain, Willa’s face reflected in the rain, we left together. Willa brushed the sand from my skirt. Both of us walked, lit by the moon and the streetlamps, Willa and the drag creature, and I wanted to see her again but we wouldn’t see each other again, and I don’t know why I didn’t see her again…who decided that we wouldn’t…and she had brushed her hands against my skirt and I had felt it beneath the fabric and hair of my legs, tried to remember the motion of the hand. I didn’t use the right words, under the moon that was there but couldn’t have been there, waiting at traffic lights that reflected reds and greens, both disappearing, and me wanting to have used different words. I just left, both of us left, and over the coming days wearing makeup and painting my nails and affecting certain tones of voice inside the flat, and always in the flat and never out the flat, the voice grating and wrong and a drag creature inside the flat and why didn’t we see each other again?
I remember thinking back to it, always back to it—the different permutations of that night that all seem to collapse into the fact that afterwards I wore dresses and makeup and Willa was never there, and it was impossible to keep her there. Because we had left together, with Willa saying, Let’s get out of the rain, and then vanishing. There seems no way to keep her. The moon just grows larger until it envelops everything, Willa below it and then gone and hidden under its light, reflected in the light. I was using the wrong words and there weren’t the right words and there are certain things too big for words. And I loved her and I wanted to talk to her. And no matter how many times you go back it is always the same, whether in a dress or not in a dress or on the beach or the flat, in or out of the rain, with boats fog-horning through the rain. You wonder if anything could have been done differently, if any of it even happened, if anything exists at all after those first moments of staring.
Callan Preece is a writer from Birmingham, England. They have publications in the likes of Adelaide Literary Magazine, New World Writing, and the Potato Soup Journal, and have recently won the Xabia book circle award. Callan is currently training to be a math teacher though they expect that won’t last too long. Mostly they’re just grateful for anyone taking the time to read their stories.