Featured Short Story:The Perseids, by Hannah Stevens

bedLouie opens his eyes, kicks back the tangle of sheets. It’s mid-August and Eastbourne is hot. The curtains are open from the night before and he can see sunshine and blue sky. Louie turns over and coughs. Downstairs he can hear voices: the world seeping in. He feels hungry and so he stands, steps into shorts and walks towards the stairs.

In the kitchen the breakfast DJs chat on the radio. It’s always switched on now and the volume is never low. The house may be empty but it’s never silent. Louie passes the kitchen table and heads towards the kettle. The breakfast DJs talk about the weather, the local traffic and, then in national news, another stabbing and someone in their teens on a life support machine. Louie flinches, rubs his eyes. Afterwards there’s a jingle for home insurance and then the newsreader says, ‘The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches peak activity tonight and, if the weather is kind to us, this year’s display will be something to remember.’ Louie looks out of the window. The sky is so clear today: a beautiful bright blue without a single cloud. Tonight he’ll find somewhere high where the ground is flat and the sky is wide. Tonight he’ll visit Beachy Head.

Louie switches on the kettle, takes the teabags from the caddy and puts them into the dark, brown pot. He loves this one with its sturdy handle and well-curved spout. They chose it together: him and Eleanor. Soon the kettle boils. Louie picks it up, pours the water and doesn’t flinch at the stray drops that scald his hand.

*

After breakfast Louie stands and fills the sink with water and washing-up liquid. He washes his single plate, mug, and knife.  The water is hot and his hands throb. Next he dries the items on the drainer, carefully places them back inside the cupboards and the drawers. Afterwards he wipes the sideboard and places the cloth over the tap. Louie looks around. ‘There,’ he thinks, ‘everything will look neat and tidy when they find it.’ Through the window he can see the postie push letters through doors across the road. She’s already been on this side and there’s nothing for him today.

Louie places a piece of paper onto the table, picks up a pen and begins to write. He’s not sure who he’s writing this to, but someone will need to know. When the hallway light is not switched off for a few days, maybe one of the neighbours will notice. Maybe they will knock the door, maybe they will begin to worry.  Louie folds the note and places it in the centre of the table. Then he puts his packed lunch into his rucksack and silently closes the door.

Beachy Head cliffs are a forty-minute drive from Louie’s house. He unlocks the car, climbs inside and slowly turns on the ignition. There’s no rush: he doesn’t have to be anywhere else today. He switches on the radio and the DJs still chatter on the breakfast show slot. Mostly Louie doesn’t listen: he just likes the noise. He puts the car into reverse and backs out in to the road. It is so much quieter during the summer and there is almost no traffic. There are no parents taking their children to school, no teachers fighting their way to work: rush hour almost disappears. A song finishes playing and then the newsreader says again, ‘The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches peak activity tonight. Remember that August nights can still feel damp and cool, so wrap up warm if you are heading out to watch them. Find a dark spot with no stray lights and give yourself twenty minutes in darkness for your eyes to properly adapt. Then just look at the sky in any direction and wait for a good show.’ Louie turns the radio up, indicates and turns left.

Soon the traffic thins. The road starts to curve and arch and slims down to a single lane. There are fields on the horizon now. This road leads to the cliffs. The incline is slow but soon Louie’s ears begin to pop. He yawns and tries to clear the muffle.

*

beachy-headThe car park is already busy with families out on day trips. It takes a while for Louie to find a space. It’s a spot away from the main entrance, far from the road. Louie stops the car and turns off the engine. He climbs out, closes the door and locks it. The keys feel heavy in his hand. He looks around: there is nobody watching. Louie carefully places the keys on to the warm tyre and pushes them further back, deep into the wheel arch, hidden from view. He’s not sure who he is leaving the keys for, except that if he can make this easier for people when he’s gone, then he will.

The car park attendant doesn’t smile as Louie walks past.

‘Beautiful day isn’t it,’ says Louie. The sky is still blue, still empty of clouds. He realises that this is the first time he’s spoken to anybody in three days.

‘Yes,’ says the car park attendant.

‘It’s going to be a clear night too,’ says Louie, ‘I might stay to watch the Perseids.’

‘The car park closes at 8pm,’ says the attendant. They peak at midnight and you’ll get locked in if you’re still here. There’s a charge for overnight stays, you know.’

‘Of course,’ says Louie, ‘it won’t be a problem.’ The attendant turns, looks the other way.

Louie begins to walk. It’s popular here: a well-known spot. Louie loves the view across the water.  His eyes are drawn to the line far, far in the distance where the sea touches the sky, where the two shades of blue meet. He loves the dusty trail, the worn down stones rubbed shiny and smooth that are slippery beneath his feet. He loves how the green parts here stay green: the path is far back from the precipice and only the people who are foolish or desperate venture on to the grass close to the edge.

Louie likes to be amongst people, to hear the noise of their footsteps, their voices, the rustle of their clothes and coats as they walk past. Sometimes he can smell them as they walk by or as he walks by them, always just a few feet away. Sometimes he can smell perfume, strong, sweet, sickly. Eleanor never wore perfume. She hated the unnatural smells. If a woman was supposed to smell like a flower then she’d have been born a rose, she used to say. Sometimes, when people walked by, he could smell the scent of their washing powder and know that their clothes were fresh from the cupboard that day. Did they do their own laundry he wondered? Or maybe a husband or a wife washed them, folded them, left them on the end of their bed.

Today there are the usual walkers.  Louie looks out across the water. In spite of the still air, the water is rough, restless, foamy. The waves smash the chalky white of the cliffs. Louie is 162 metres above sea level. It says so on a sign. The fall is a long way down. A woman walks past. He can hear the crunching of the scree beneath her feet. He turns, sees her long hair. Louie remembers the last time he’d had his hair cut. It was a month ago now. He’d never been there before, wanted to try somewhere different. He wanted to go somewhere where they didn’t know him, didn’t know Eleanor, didn’t know about Joshua. He wanted to go somewhere where they didn’t struggle to find the right words, to form the right sentences, to look him in the eye because they knew.

Louie remembers that at the hairdressers, the stylist was friendly, brusque. He took Louie’s name, led him over to the sink, sat him down and covered him with a black cloak. Then the stylist turned on the tap and the water flowed over his head.  Louie remembers the feeling of the man’s hands, his fingers feeling their way across his scalp, how he pressed the soft bits of his head and then the hard. This was over a month ago now. It was the last time somebody had touched him.

Louie walks along the path for a while. It’s dusty, chalky white. He can hear the sea below, its ebb and flow. The current is strong here and the waves high. He hears the water as it crashes against the rocks. There are birds in the sky above him. They have their nests on the outermost parts of the cliffs: the crumbling edges of rock. Louie had got close to the edge before: had scrambled along on his stomach to look over the precipice. The well-sculpted nests of house martins clung tightly to the cliff. He’d watched the birds darting in and out of the tiny pockets to feed their chicks. He’d seen how the soil and the rock sometimes fell away and thought of the sorrow a house martin might feel if she returned to the nest to find it gone: plunged in to the sea below.

Today Louie doesn’t get too close to the edge. He sticks to the path and the grassy parts behind it. The grass is longer further away from the edge. Maybe it grows better away from the harsh, salty wind. There are flowers too: purple, yellow and white. A handful of red admirals hop from stem to petal, petal to stem. Louie pauses to watch, admires the stained glass window of their wings.

A couple with a child walk past him on the path: two women holding hands, a child on a rein walking clumsily, unsteadily. It’s a little boy – a child about Joshua’s age. Except Joshua isn’t here. The couple talk about the weather, the clear sky, how it will be perfect for the falling stars. They look at each other and breathe in the clean air, the beauty of it all.

The morning has gone quickly: it’s after lunchtime now. He should eat. Louie looks for a place to sit. The long grass behind the path is quiet, he thinks, the tourists mainly stick to the worn down trail. Louie heads inland and finds a spot well back from the strolling strangers and the winding path. He treads the grass beneath his boots, makes it flat and sits. Louie opens his rucksack takes out bread, cheese and a few soft figs. He has water too and bottles of beer. Well, why not, he thinks. He unwraps the food from the foil and he eats.

Afterwards, Louie lies down. The air is cooler here by the coast but the sun is still warm on his face. He closes his eyes.

He thinks about the other times he came here, tried to do it, tried to fall from the cliff edge to the water beneath. It was always daylight before: a stupid time now that he thinks about it. There were always people who stopped to admire the view: people who saw him, panicked and shouted until he stepped back. And the chaplaincy team too of course: the people who would walk the cliff paths looking for potential jumpers, to talk them down, to keep them alive.  This time he knew he couldn’t pause. Even in the dark there could be no moment of hesitation: not this time. And so he would have to walk without stopping, without looking back. He would have to keep walking beyond the crumbling edge into the air and wait that split second for his brain to register the fall. Then there would be the feeling of air beneath his feet and he wouldn’t help but struggle, to try to find footing, or a hold: just a reflex of course. Maybe he’d hear voices of others on the cliff edge, maybe a shout, a scream, a gasp of shock.

When Louie opens his eyes, it’s dark. He’s been sleeping for hours. He’s lying on his back but doesn’t move in spite of the rising cold that seeps through his clothes. The sky is clear: there isn’t a single cloud and already stars are falling. The moon is full, big and bright this evening but the view isn’t hampered: the stars are too bright. Louie watches the fierce, white flashes that tear across the sky. He watches as they grow, then shrink and disappear in the blink of eye. He wonders how they make the blackness more black. And he wonders how the sky peppered with comet debris so far away could be so beautiful. He thinks of Eleanor, how she would have loved this. He thinks of how she would have hugged him tight to keep warm, squeezed his hand. His heart aches.

*

shooting-starsHe knows that when he hits the water it will hurt: the impact will be hard from this high up. His bones will break and when he plunges beneath the water he wont be able to move his arms, to kick his legs. His lungs will be full of the cold sea and burning in spite of this – aching for oxygen. His heart will pump hard then tire and fade.

He thinks of Eleanor in the car the night she died, driving but not at fault, and Joshua, still so small and new strapped in to his car seat. He wouldn’t have felt any fear, wasn’t old enough to understand.  It was raining that night – the other driver had been rushing, going too fast. He’d wanted to get home – didn’t they all – and had misjudged the corner that was tighter, longer, slicker in the heavy rain. The car had spiralled outwards: tyres not able to grip the road and then… sped into oncoming traffic, into Eleanor and Joshua in the opposite lane. Eleanor would have seen him coming: known what was happening. Maybe she screamed, raised her arms, covered her face. But Joshua:  he would have watched the light of the oncoming traffic through the darkness. He’d have seen the flash and fade of other cars as they’d passed, the droplets of rain lit up in headlamps. And then there would have been those particular lights, that particular car heading towards him through the dark. Maybe they’d looked like stars far away and then closer, dazzling: a beautiful white light. And then there would’ve been nothing – just the silent slipping away.

Louie stands on the cliff edge. It’s difficult to see where the earth ends, the air begins, where the sea moves below. He looks up, sees the stars above him and then, after a while he is falling. He feels the air through his fingers, across his face, how it pushes his hair from his eyes like a child might or like a lover would.

***

Hannah Stevens is a queer freelance writer and workshop leader with a PhD in creative writing. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have been widely published. Originally from Leicester in the UK, Hannah is currently in Sofia, Bulgaria.


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