The wave started at one end and washed towards the other. And it returned and so on, and so on; she thought that it might never stop, though she saw it diminishing, and she swept her fingers through the water again, bringing new waves to life. Sybil rose at last from beside the tub and glimpsed herself in the mirror, one hand at her mouth, the other cupping the small, greenish-brown shell of a turtle.
‘My goodness,’ her mother had said. ‘Where did you get that?’
She had gone with Henry, wandering between stalls of clothing and food and jewellery to a table with the exotic birds and a glass container full of turtles no larger than her palm. One turtle had cost exactly what her father had given her the day before. She handed over the folded bill and the man on the other side of the counter, whose skin was darker than hers, gave her the turtle with a smile and no instructions. It didn’t occur to her to ask.
‘Well, you’ll have to look after it,’ her mother had said later, with an air of helplessness, facing her daughter in the kitchen, steam unravelling from her raw-looking hands – she had been washing dishes. ‘I know nothing about these things, I’m sorry.
And so Sybil had found the blue tub in a laundry cupboard and filled it from the tap. She had taken the most spectacular examples of her own shell collection and arranged them on the bottom in a pattern that glimmered through the ripples made by her hand. Her mother called her for dinner and she slipped the turtle into the water, watching the first living thing in her care swim around its new home, and then she ran down the stairs.
She woke later that night to the crack of the front door and her father shouting. Sybil could tell when her mother was dragged out of bed. She could hear it in the tightened pitch of her voice. Sybil’s father took people by the hair when he was cross and her mother’s hair was long and beautifully thick. Sybil watched her sometimes, combing, in the mornings. You have it too, her mother would say. A smile, shared in the dressing-table mirror. Her father’s blows echoed up the stairs. Henry slept on in his bed against the far wall, with his cheek f lat against the mattress, his eyelids smooth.
You like that? Ask me to stop. Ask nicely.
Sybil thought of the motto at her school, gold words over the gates, manners make the man, and she knew how mysterious being nice was, the way it meant different things to different people, how it could mean being silent or not mentioning things or pretending to forget them. Then she heard more blows, and her mother asking nicely. A silence followed, as her mother clattered around the kitchen, and the smell came of onions and meat frying in olive oil, her father talking on and on in a bitterly satisfied tone, whore, bitch, unfaithful slipping between Sybil’s restless head and the pillow. She decided to check on the turtle.
She had not thought of a name yet and pondered this as she lit the candle that she kept under her bed, crept from her bedroom to the bathroom and closed the door. Her father had told her once that the entire world sat on top of a turtle, a monstrous one, older than time itself. Sometimes, he’d said, you could feel its movement, and she liked to believe that this was so, and on occasion lying there in bed she really did believe she could feel its lumbering stride. But she knew that it was just trains passing near where they lived, in the night.
The candlelight lapped against the chipped green tiles above the tub. The turtle was f loating upside down in the water. It seemed smaller when it was motionless. She scooped it out, cradled it in her palm, touched it with one finger. The turtle rocked back and forth, but all the motion came from her finger. She would never speak of this to another soul. She glanced up and caught herself in the flickering of the mirror – sleep-messed hair crowding her face, eyes large, naked and painfully awake – and promised.
‘I guess,’ Sybil told Brian, twenty-five years later, ‘that it drowned. I don’t know.’
‘That’s funny,’ Brian said. ‘That’s a funny story.’
That was the part that drew her back now, the turtle, or maybe it was just the part she could bear to think of, the way that you touched a door but didn’t go through. There were numerous places inside your head that you learned to live around.
Brian stretched his arms either side of the bed and she nestled in the juncture of his chest and shoulder. Sybil could hear his heart from there, as if she were hearing it from around the corner of a submerged corridor. She liked speaking as she lay against his chest, full of the warmth and smell of his skin, hearing the words resonate between the steady strokes of his heart. It reminded her of being a child. It was a feeling that both comforted and unsettled her.
‘I remember it swimming and swimming in circles,’ she murmured,
‘and I thought it was enjoying its freedom, you know, the way you swim when the sea is fresh and clean, when you’ve been cooped up all day and you throw off your clothes and jump in.’
Brian stirred. ‘Swimming. If people belonged in the water, they’d have been born with fins or gills. I prefer my feet on the ground.’
Sybil lifted her head and studied his face. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You’re not much of a swimmer. What is it about the sea with you, anyway? Did something happen when you were young?’
Brian glanced at her, then fixed his gaze to the ceiling. ‘Nothing happened. I just don’t like it.’
Sybil kept studying him and put a hand under her chin. ‘Tell me a story,’ she said.
‘Anything. About yourself.’
‘I’ve told you everything there is to know.’
‘Tell me something again. You might tell it differently.’
His breath slowed. Something tensed in his chest or maybe it was in her own fingers that rested there, the way that sometimes, when she touched his neck, she couldn’t tell whether she was feeling her own pulse or his.
‘I don’t have any more.’ The smile deepened and his eyes remained fixed on the ceiling. ‘You’re the one with the stories.’
He made it sound like an accusation. She kept staring at him, the stillness of his face, the lazy quality in the set of his mouth. This was what happened to people over time, she thought, this was what made them appear so old; the lack of movement in their expressions, how it all stopped except in certain ways, so that it wasn’t like movement at all anymore.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘People have been talking for thousands of years. You’d think they’d enjoy it more. The art of it.’
‘The art of it, huh?’ Brian laughed through his teeth. ‘People do just fine. Sometimes they expect too much.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hate it when you get into these moods. Why can’t you just watch TV or even have a cigarette afterwards, like a normal person?’
‘That’s what people do with language. Use it to protect themselves, to not discover anything.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I don’t know. Bad weather.’
He gave an exasperated puff of air. ‘You think I’m controlling you.’
Sybil felt something harden in her face. ‘Did I say that?’
‘You’ve said it before. I can only assume.’
‘Are you even listening to me? That’s not what I’m saying at all.’
‘Is this your way of starting another fight?’
She shrugged and glanced away. ‘I’m just thinking, letting my mind wander. It’s not even about us, really. I’m just thinking.’
‘Well, as long as it’s not about us,’ Brian said. He didn’t look entirely convinced. ‘I’m sorry, talk away. Talk all you want with me.’ He waved his hand. ‘Get it out of your system. I’m used to you these days.’
Her gaze wandered up and down the length of his body, the pale skin of his chest and arms patched with dark hair, the middle-aged muscles indistinguishable from the fat.
‘How long have we been doing this?’
His breath caught a little, then resumed its steady rhythm. ‘A while. You’re right. We should have some sort of commitment ceremony. You want to get married, don’t you? You’ve changed your mind and you want to get married. Is that what this is all about?’
Sybil didn’t answer. She ran her fingers through the fine curls of hair around his nipples.
Do you know, she wanted to tell him, when I first saw you, my heart didn’t skip a beat. It never has.
He grabbed lazily at her breast. ‘Do you want more?’
Sybil glanced away and rose to her feet, stepped back, and his fingers fell from her. She stood before him naked, drew the hair from her face so that her expression, too, was bared, as if to challenge him, then she turned and went into the bathroom.
When she came back, he was drowsy, on his back, with the sheet drawn across his hips, just under the soft swell of his belly. Sybil put her knees on the bed, either side of his waist. She began kissing his skin, made her way to the border of the sheet, pulled it down, and pressed her lips against the hollow beneath which the femoral artery coursed down into the leg. She could feel this pulse when she pushed down with her mouth, its steady, restless vitality. He stirred, looked at her uncertainly. She lifted herself and their eyes met.
‘Next time,’ she said, ‘I want you to slap me.’
She looked at him in silence. Neither of them spoke for a moment, then he cleared his throat.
‘Like on the face?’
‘Wherever. Wherever you want.’
He shifted his hips beneath her and raised himself on his elbows so that the hair on his belly gathered together. ‘God, Sybil, that’s an odd thing to say. Are you serious?’
Sybil’s expression didn’t change. ‘Of course not. I wanted to see how you’d react, that’s all.’
He sank down, stroked her knee. ‘One of your jokes. Why don’t you lie on your back? I know what’ll make you relax.’
‘No. I want to sleep.’
Brian shrugged and switched off the light. They lay in bed, side by side. She pressed the front of her body against his back, her nipples against his shoulder blade, rested her hand below his ribs, but finally rolled onto her opposite side, away from him, and curled up with her knees near her chest. Brian keeled over onto his back and his breath began sawing in and out. She listened to him and waited in the darkness.
Sybil had her running clothes on by the time he stirred. Her sports bra pressed her breasts firmly around her chest so that they hardly seemed to exist. She walked into the bathroom, studied herself in the mirror, her eyes quiet and fierce and full of movement, her hair sweeping alongside her cheeks. She studied her face more closely, the new lines in it – more of them every day – and thought of a man she had not seen for a few years now. She pulled at the skin at her temples, very gently so that some of the lines disappeared, and tried to remember him.
‘You coming?’ she called into the bedroom.
Brian pulled a pillow over his face. ‘You can’t be serious.’
She touched her mouth, stared into her own eyes. ‘You said that you wanted to get fit.’
He groaned. ‘Not at five in the morning! We’re meant to be on a holiday. Can’t we just enjoy our last day?’
Sybil didn’t tell him that she had been awake most of the night listening to him breathe in his relentless way, as if he were hacking at a stone wall. She had emerged into the morning in a near state of panic, but she showed none of this. Instead, she sat beside him on the bed and plucked sadly at his belly.
‘This isn’t going away by itself.’
‘Oh, you bitch.’ He showed his teeth. ‘I’ll make you pay for that.’
The air outside was damp and still. The cabin stood on a hill, mist hung at its edges. Out over the distance, the sea sat in a thin layer separating the green hills from the sky. They began running, followed the trail between the farming properties until it veered into forest
The warmth of the run filled her muscles, and she felt that sense of awakening, the sweat, the coolness of the air, the urge to push back, that ache growing in her joints and melting into warmth and drawing the fears and anxieties from her blood. People always admired her fitness, that leanness and sureness in the way she moved. Sometimes she’d run with friends, both male and female, and she’d inevitably outpace them.
‘I wish I had your discipline,’ her friend Frankie would tell her, through spurts of laboured breath in the moments before Sybil pulled ahead. But once, when they had gotten drunk together, Frankie had leaned in close, and said, in a tone meant to be joking but somehow awkward: ‘From a distance it looks great, but when you run alongside me, something frightening comes into your face. I keep wanting to look over my shoulder.’
Sybil ran faster, heard Brian’s breath labour as he tried to keep up. She slowed, but not out of sympathy. She wanted to see him suffer. She supposed that this was perverse. He wasn’t a strong man, she thought, cutting him a glance as he struggled through his own weight along the narrow path. Suddenly the contempt she felt for Brian deepened. The funny thing was, that no matter how much she thought about it, she wasn’t sure if she would do it, leave him for good. Sometimes she was sure, but then her doubts would come. Maybe she loved him. Maybe this was how she loved someone.
She ran faster, let him drop away. Her legs stretched into the new pace, with only the barest tug at her breasts, her feet finding the contours of the ground and lifting effortlessly. Everything smelled so new. She let her mouth slacken, her lungs open and she knew that she could run like this for a very long time, that the pain was nothing, that she enjoyed it, and part of the pleasure came from knowing that Brian was behind her, falling further and further behind, lost now, and she was somehow naked, stripped down to something that he could only ever glimpse.
Pines with thick, tapering waists fell away either side of her, the path continued to bend and twist through rises and drops, and the low, thick sea of ferns gave everything a deep other-worldly stillness that broke suddenly into a wild, raucous sound, not of one or two, but a pack.
Dogs. The sound dropped, then came back twice as loud, as they burst from the trees behind her, as if they had been pursuing her all along, and she heard a growl and pant over the scrape of twigs and stones, and, glancing over shoulder, her heart quickened from bewilderment into something pure and instinctive, so that all she could think of doing when they closed in was to fall and curl up into a soft-bodied shell.
Brian saw them up ahead as he rounded the path, the hunting dogs, in a knot of stiff, razoring tails and muscular lunging. An overweight woman stood amongst them, one hand on her rifle, the other pulling at the frenzied animals.
‘Oh God,’ the woman was screaming while she waved the rifle over her head, and from a distance, at first, he mistook her hysteria for joy, almost for an ecstatic dance of celebration as if she had caught something rare and magnificent, and her high-pitched cries made no sense to him at all. ‘My God, my God, oh God, off, off, off! ’
Then – he would swear later that this was exactly how it happened – the scuffle of dogs pulled back briefly and he knew what he would see in the instant before it revealed itself to him, and Brian stopped in a blind, sweating state and could not at first make himself go forward. And it was not fear, but confusion. Looking back, he was sure of that.
Sybil pressed her face against her knees and her fist against her ear. An engine ground at her, working at her shoulders and neck and calves, shaking and lacerating her nerves. Teeth tore into her left buttock, peeling back the years and years of f light and pursuit. She kicked her leg, and teeth closed on the upper thigh exposed underneath to sink into muscle and flesh and down to the river coursing from her heart towards the soles of her feet. The dogs panted and snarled and twisted.
Something inside parted. She was back in the beginning, taking her shells out of the tub, dismantling the world that she had made so carefully for the turtle, as if it had never existed. She did not notice the disappearance of the dogs, but she at last felt her lover who was not her lover, and his shadow, its enormous, unbearable coolness, and the way his hand pressed against the mouth of the river exactly where it opened up. Pushing at it, as if this was the last part of her that he wanted to see. As if you could somehow force it back inside.