Kay Sexton Offshore : Short Story Prize Winner
Kay Sexton’s fiction has appeared in over 70 anthologies and literary magazines. Her recently published novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in addition to being shortlisted, finalist or winner of many literary competitions she has had two non-fiction books on gardening published. This is remarkable given that her sole ambition as a child was to become a librarian so she could read all the books ever written, rather than writing anything.
If I get up during the dawn chorus I can make quite a lot of noise without waking anybody. It’s even easier if I don’t go to bed, stay awake all night and head out first thing in the morning when the sky is folding back the lemon-peel edges of dawn for a fat blue day. The land birds clatter around, relishing the absence of seagulls in these first half-lit minutes.
My brain soaks up the bird sounds; it is porous with alcohol and lack of sleep. As I prepare the trays for early morning tea it takes everything in and gives nothing out, so it’s good there is a list. The list is pinned up in the still room and the tea and coffee pots are stored beneath it in the hot cupboard, which is cold at 5am. The pots are old silver, made matte by long use, but when I hold them to the pre-day light they offer back the citrus gleam of the sky.
My only job today is cups, saucers, pots, jugs and sugar bowls. As I lay up the trays, two lumps of white sugar, crisp and unreal, sit on my tongue. They melt to a slurry that slips around my teeth and slides down my throat in a rough, sweet, flavourless gulp, giving me the energy to plait my hair and shove it inside my blouse. People don’t like stray hair in their cups.
I switch on the urns and fill the bain marie with cold water. When my father comes down at six he will put oats and milk in a big bowl and slide it into the simmering bain marie. By eight it will be porridge.
Before that he’ll walk in his silent shoes to the first door, knock gently, intone ‘early morning tea’ and place the tray on the floor. We serve early morning tea from six-forty-five to seven-thirty and breakfast from eight to nine. Normally I help serve breakfast until eight-thirty, when I take off my apron and leave for school. Apart from the apron, my school clothes and my waitress garb are indistinguishable – white shirt, black skirt, flat shoes.
Today is Sunday, my day off, and I am escaping, but only if I leave before the live-out staff arrive. This reminds me to switch on the deep fat fryer and to put yesterday’s sliced white loaves out on a big flat board. Fanned out, in the heat rising from the hot cupboard, they will fry quicker and crisper than fresh bread.
I have a long walk ahead, three miles across the headland to the marina where I will ‘borrow’ a boat. It’s a more complicated trade than that, which may include cigarettes, or gossip, or if I am unlucky, being groped.
By the time I get outside, the birdsong is over; there is no sound in the lull between dawn and breakfast. The pavements are cool. By nine they will be warm, at eleven they bake and until two or three in the morning they give back their heat to the night. I kick off my shoes and let my feet relish the chill.
I need to take a strange route at first, along the side of our hotel, across the road into the cliff top gardens, down and along, angling my way parallel to the main road until I pass the next junction.
Walking the direct route would put me in danger. I might see Milly, our housekeeper, walking to work and if she tells me that one of the other girls can’t make it today I’ll have to go back with her and be a chambermaid for the morning. Or I could bump into Jeff the chef, full of bad temper and last night’s beer, falling out of the first bus of the morning and that would lead to a boozy hug and salacious comments about how much he’d like to take me out one night. My parents don’t want me to upset Jeff; breakfast chefs are not easy to find.
Or worst of all, I might find Old Bert sidling up to me, his long yellow nails spiking from spongy finger ends. His hands are always wrinkled and pink from so much time in hot water. Bert runs the washing up machines and hand-washes the pots and pans too big to fit in them. He makes me feel sick, especially when he pins me in the corner of the still room and pats me as though I am a dog. My parents don’t want me to upset him either, because he is cheap and washer-ups are not easy to find. Sometimes I think daughters must be the easiest thing to find.
The truth is, we are dying. My parents’ hotel, all hotels in our town, our whole coast. There are no longer enough tourists to pay wages, so instead of hiring staff we do the work ourselves. The odd day off school, the odd swig of booze, the occasional night out that goes wrong … prices that hotel kids are happy to pay, prices that hotel parents have no choice but to stump up for. There’s a long winter ahead in which to catch up on schoolwork, after all.
Once I’m clear of all the routes by which our staff reach the hotel, I can get back on the pavement and run. I run because I need to be at the marina before the day staff open up at eight-thirty, and because running is just about the only thing that my coordination seems to permit. I am always turning ankles, walking into doors, tipping motorbikes off their stands just by walking past them, banging into tables and bumping into walls.
My mother says I am uncoordinated. It is really because I am drunk. Nothing else seems to give me away, but drunkenness releases a spirit in me that requires a bruise for every binge. It’s a price so small that I rarely notice it although I try to hide the evidence from others.
There’s always drink in a hotel – dregs from wineglass, a quick nip from an optic before the bar opens, my Dad giving me a cherry brandy at the end of a long day, bottles hidden in guest’s wardrobes and topped up with tap water. Anyway, we all drink and nobody cares. How else do you survive a summer season? Hotel kids thrive on a bit of booze, my father says.
Each hotel I pass is preparing for the day ahead, lifting blinds, opening curtains and taking in the big blue trays of bread: white sliced; bloomer; fancy roll, and breakfast special. Slouching towards me are waitresses in gingham aprons. They all have plasters on their heels from the espadrilles they wear at night. The plasters ruche up under sensible black waitress shoes and expose espadrille blisters that will be rubbed raw by evening. Another way to get alcohol – dress like a tourist and pretend to be one. Nobody asks your age, they just take your money. Can’t turn away summer trade – what would we live on in winter?
I have the blisters too. That’s why I am running barefoot.
The sea is sixteen thousand shades of blue. It says ‘sixteen’ with each incoming wave, sibilant with power, and ‘thousand’ with every grumbled backwash, rolling grains and small pebbles back into its salty dance.
I bargain for my dinghy, oars, and anchor with the marina night manager.
‘Going far?’ He stares at my red bikini top showing through the white blouse.
I shrug, pushing forward a crumpled five pound note.
‘What do you do out there?’ He doesn’t really care.
‘I could come and join you.’ He does mean that.
I stare fixedly at his wedding ring until he gives up and hands me the padlock key that releases the little craft from its mooring.
The fiver will go in his pocket and I’ll lock up the dinghy when I return, dropping the key back in the night box, none the wiser. We all seek out hidden profit, come summertime.
The dinghy is a repo, taken to cover unpaid mooring fees and I’ve used it a dozen times this year. The oars and anchor were probably found, left behind, abandoned. It’s amazing how profligate yacht owners can be.
I row, after a fashion, out beyond the marina. My rowing is not good. Nobody has taught me and my left stroke is much stronger than my right, requiring an extra right-hand stroke to stay on course. This means I rock backwards and forwards and my loosened hair flops in my face, yet nobody laughs when I row. A year ago folk would have roared out loud; when I was fourteen and just a skinny whelp they would have pointed at me and howled until their eyes ran. But now men stare when I pass and nobody laughs at me.
In my bag I have six peaches, a packet of extra strong mints, forty Marlboro, two cigarette lighters, a bottle of cherry brandy. In my boat I have an anchor, a baler and – sitting on the thwart where I can see it as I row – Justine by Lawrence Durrell.
The list of things I don’t have is longer; no water, no flares, no life-jacket, no protective clothing, no compass, no sunglasses, no hat, no sun oil, no radio. When the night manager goes off duty nobody will know I am here.
The sixteen thousand shades of blue become slap-blue, slap-blue as I heave my baby boat through the water. Gulls caw, but they will be quiet by ten, unless a lobsterman comes back into port. Flies are travelling with me, quizzing my bag for the peach-blood they can sense inside, but they will depart in the next few minutes, zigzagging back to land. How can landlubbers not know that the best place to eat fruit is out on the water? No flying insects will bother you. And how do the flies know when they must turn for shore? These mysteries puzzle me.
I will spend the day getting hard-baked drunk, sieving cherry brandy through Marlboro-furred teeth. I will listen to the sound of the deep ocean scuffing against the dinghy. I will read Justine and cry at the end because there are only four books and now I have read them all. I will smoke, cleanse my palate with mints, and sleep.
There are seven positions to enjoy in this little craft.
1. Flat on my back in the hot-as-tea seawater that is too low in the boat to bale, with one foot over the stern to trail in the seawater, easing my blisters until they swell like full moons.
2. On my belly, legs bent up, soles to the sky, with the book on the thwart to keep it dry.
3. Crossways, so that the boat wallows even in the calm, both my feet in the water, my neck cricking against the side.
4. Upright in the bow, feet paddling in hot water, toe-teasing the varnish bubbles and kicking peach stones through the bottom brine.
5. Upright in the stern, ditto.
6. Upright in the stern but facing over it, both feet in the sea; this soon stops the circulation to my legs as the wood cuts into the backs of my thighs.
7. Flat on my back in the stern with both feet in the water. This is my favourite – cool feet, warm, brine-lapped spine, gazing at the blank sky. I can sleep like this, with my book over my face and my hands folded on my belly. This is when I sleep best.
When I look to the shore I am far enough away. I let down my anchor and prepare for the next eight hours, or nine, or ten, or as long as my cigarettes last. This is my home. Far enough from the shore for the jewelled lines of the island to reflect the sun, near enough to hear the car horns and yells of boat-launchers, I am anchored to the secret of what makes this non-place the love of my hollow heart’s core.
I am offshore.