Updated on May 24, 2015
This was another short story exercise I did during my Masters. The aim was to write a story where the narrative perspective changes halfway through.
The first thing Sarah did on her way to the kitchen each morning was draw back the curtains. They were thick, heavy black-out curtains but when the sun rose they were rimmed with seeping light; it could not be completely kept out. The window ran almost the entire length of the living room wall and stretched from the curtain pole near the high ceiling all the way down to the level of a person’s knees. The glass was immaculately clean on the inner side of the window pane but sea-spray and buffeting winds had created dappled stains on the outer.
Having drawn the curtains and tied them back, Sarah paused and looked out over the little bay. The house was situated on a cliff overlooking the beach, nestled between the arms of the headlands. The houses and shops that comprised the village were clustered together down in the valley, with a tiny river running through the middle of them all and out along the sand to the sea. On the eastern headland stood a small hotel; the paintwork of its façade was blotched, and the gardens full of twisted trees and stunted shrubs. Sarah touched the ring on her finger and wondered what he was doing, right now. The sea was quiet this morning under the new rays of sunlight, but on the horizon in the near-distance a fold of grey cloud hinted at an approaching storm.
Sarah examined a handful of her long hair and pulled out a grey at the root. With the remote control she turned on the television – it was in the corner of the living room, out of the way. She mostly preferred to watch the window.
There was footage of deserts, wrecked villages and angry faces. Soldiers waded through the destruction and the crowds, waving their weapons. She examined their faces, one by one, but they were all strangers. A quiet voice intoned that the fighting had escalated, that there was no abandoning the country now. Sarah perched on the arm of the sofa and watched for a while, then she stood and went to the window. The voice continued as she looked out over the sea and the cliffs. This was the only country that mattered to her, she thought. Let all the others go to hell. It did not occur to her how strange it was that she had never felt patriotic before he was posted abroad.
Sarah turned off the television and turned her back on the window. It was sometimes obvious even to her that she spent too much time scanning the section of coastal sky afforded her by the window. The illogical film she had created in her mind’s eye played every time she stared through the glass: the plane, breaking through cloud cover in a beam of golden sunlight, banking over the eastern headland and landing, finally, on the cliff top. She would run out of the house with open arms. Occasionally, when Amy was in the village or with a friend, and Sarah was in the house alone, time flowed between her fingers like sand. When she finally looked away the hands on her watch would have turned too far; the coffee would have gone cold in her hands.
A door slammed elsewhere in the house. She sighed, yawned and went to turn on the kettle in the kitchen. For a few minutes nobody looked out of the window; a seagull flew past and caught an updraft, climbing into the white sky until it was nothing but a mote of dust. She walked back into the living room and set down two steaming mugs on coasters on the coffee table.
Soon a young woman strode in and dropped onto the sofa as Sarah eased herself into an armchair. The young woman sipped from one of the mugs and put it back down on the table.
“Put it on a coaster please Amy,” said Sarah.
The girl rolled her eyes and put the mug on a coaster.
“And don’t roll your eyes at me young lady.”
Amy picked up the remote and pointed it at the television.
“Why don’t we talk?” said Sarah, “You’re always busy when you get home from school so we should talk now.”
“Just put the remote down, please.”
It dropped onto the edge of the sofa cushion with a thud and slid off onto the floor. Amy took a stick of chewing gum from her pocket and put it in her mouth; she chewed it looking straight at her mother and continuing to drink her tea through the flavour of mint. Sarah shifted in her chair, crossed her ankles and pressed her knees together. She cleared her throat.
Beyond the window the trees in the garden began to move. Their branches dipped and nodded; leaves skittered along the broken paving stones. The seagull had descended from the clouds and allowed itself to be carried inland on the breeze. Tiny drops of rain clung to the window pane.
Sarah asked her daughter about school and homework, friends and boys. Amy responded with nods and scowls through her chewing, every now and then pulling the gum out between her lips in a long strand and winding it around her fingertip so that it stuck to her nail and she had to suck it off. Sarah watched her daughter and wondered how she had come to be so far away.
A small plane pulling a banner advertising an amusement park flew by the window, rocking through the air, and Amy sat up straight.
“Mum there’s a school trip” she said.
Sarah made her coaster square with the edge of the table and put down her mug. Amy barely paused for breath: the trip is in August and it’s a study trip to Egypt and all my friends are going and it only costs £500 and then the flights and everybody else’s parents say it’s worth it for such a once in a lifetime thing, three weeks in the markets of Cairo and riding camels through the desert and the pyramids and finding out about population or migration or something, and I’m sure Grandma and Grandpa would help if it’s too expensive but really it isn’t because the hotel and all the food is included so really it’s very cheap for going so far away.
As her daughter spoke Sarah looked out of the window. The trees were moving more strongly now and the dark cloud covered more than half of the fresh morning sky. One wall of the neighbouring house was visible from the window and the shutters had been closed against the whipping leaves and sharp raindrops. A small sailing boat appeared from behind the western headland and scudded through the white-tipped water to cross the bay; it moved quickly and sliced the iron green with its wake before disappearing behind the eastern cliffs.
Amy stopped talking and looked at her mother. Her face was in profile against the window, and her eyes seemed distant. Amy had always thought her mother’s nose was too long and too pointy; it made her look snooty.
“It is far away,” was all Sarah said, watching Amy.
The wind beat against the glass but neither of them looked out.
“Really Mum, that’s it?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Amy raised her hands.
“Oh I don’t believe this!” she said.
“Amy, calm down.”
“I won’t! It’s just because Dad’s not here!”
“I thought separated parents were meant to buy their kid’s affections?”
“Amy. We’re not separated.”
“Well there’s miles and miles between you! Seems pretty separated to me.”
She kicked the remote control and it skidded underneath the coffee table. Sarah pointed at where it had gone and told her to pick it up. Amy’s eyes were wide and angry.
“Go to hell!”
Sarah tried to speak but her throat felt constricted. She walked quickly out of the room. The dregs in her mug were rapidly losing their heat.
Amy stood in front of the window. Rain had set in properly now but the trees were not moving any more; they stood there vaguely twitching as the water ran off the tips of their leaves. Drops that had been pelted against the glass now ran slowly down leaving long trails behind them. The sea in the bay was relatively calm, protected as it was by the encircling headlands, and the air laced with the scents of wind-crushed flowers in carefully tended gardens was a little more stifling. Out to sea the waves were higher and wilder, and far beyond the haze of the rain was the open expanse of limitless ocean. Amy stretched out her arms and spread her fingertips but still could not touch both sides of the window frame at once.
She heard a noise behind her and turned around. Sarah was standing behind the sofa, watching her against the window. Amy scowled and folded her arms as her mother came round from behind the sofa and walked towards the window; she placed her hand on the glass and said she was sorry. Amy looked at her back, mistrustingly.
“I just want you to be safe,” said Sarah.
Amy saw the opportunity; she knew from the tone of her voice that her mother was giving in. She moved closer and stood next to her. It was best to act as if the argument were forgotten if she wanted her mother to relent.
“I would be,” she said. “There’ll be loads of teachers and…”
“I’m not just talking about the trip.”
Slowly the sun began to burn through the thick layer of cloud and the lid broke apart into wisps and tufts of grey that were blown quickly inland, leaving behind the little bay and opening up a clear blue sky. Sunlight dried the window glass leaving only faint stains where drops had been; it threw the pattern of the window frame in relief on the cream carpet.
“I am safe,” said Amy.
Sarah looked into her daughter’s open, confused face and asked her why she had said that about her and her father. She watched as Amy struggled to find something to say, all the while keeping her hand on the glass and watching out of the corner of her eye the leaves gently stirring outside. She knew she had asked an unfair question.
“He will come back, won’t he?” said Amy.
Sarah pulled her daughter against her and whispered into her loose hair. The things she said were reassuring, close to promises; she did not believe them herself. After a while Amy felt uncomfortable – her mother had been holding her for too long. She pulled away.
“I have to go, Mum.”
“Can I go on the trip?”
“We’ll talk about it another time. You’ll be late.”
They left the living room and disappeared into different parts of the house. The girl returned a minute later with her hair brushed back into a ponytail. She picked up a schoolbag from the corner of the room and made a slice of toast, which she ate as she was walking out the door. She stopped in the doorway, turned around and with the toast hanging from her mouth she picked up the two mugs and put them down again straight on the coffee table. When she left she took all the coasters with her.