Maura typed as if her life depended on it. She was in full flow now and her characters’ actions unfolded in words across the screen. The hero took the heroine in his strong arms and kissed her until she felt as though her heart would burst. The end.
There, it was finished. It had ended the way her books always ended, the way her editor and her readers wanted them to end. Maura ran the spell-checker on the last chapter and decided to leave it a few days before giving it a final polish and sending it off to her publisher.
She sighed and stretched, feeling joints pop. How long had she been sitting? She glanced at the window. Too long. Dawn was not far away. She needed some exercise.
Two summers ago she’d joined an early morning Tai-chi class on the beach, but after a few weeks she’d stopped going to avoid the invitations to coffee afterwards. Less complicated just to stick to her lone walks.
She sipped cooling tea from a chipped china mug, her favorite, one she’d brought with her when she’d fled from Dublin to Canada. It had been the first and only present Kevan had ever bought her in their stormy five-year relationship.
The chip had been there since the day she hurled it at him in a fit of complete exasperation for his roguish, brogueish ways. It bounced off his shoulder and he’d caught it on the rebound. Miraculously, it suffered nothing worse than a small chip in the rim.
“That’s a lucky vessel.” Kev had said, rubbing a developing bruise.
She wasn’t superstitious, but she’d taken to drinking from it when she was writing. Soon the rejection slips became checks for advances. Maybe it had nothing to do with the mug, but she wasn’t going to test the issue.
Maura slipped on a pair of old shoes. Her brain was still hot-wired to her story, so a walk would do her good, and better taken in the dark while there was a little relief from the heat and humidity of the day. She’d had the air conditioner running for two weeks continuously and the weather didn’t look as though it was ready to break yet.
Out on the front porch the still air settled round her face like soup. Sweat began to prickle her forehead before she reached the street. Maura turned south, towards the beach. She never would have done this in Dublin. It had been a revelation to her that you could still walk the streets alone in this part of Toronto and feel safe. She crossed Route Two and then Queen Street at the lights.
Soon the dawn would ignite the CN Tower like a votive candle and reflect golden in the glass-faced high-rises of the city core, but for now they slumbered. In front of her loomed the hideous, concrete swimming pool that seemed so out of place against the timeless sweep of Lake Ontario. The shadows beneath its cantilevered concrete always seemed sinister.
She hurried past, crossed the boardwalk and, shoes in hand, stepped down on to dry sand. At the water’s edge, cut off from the city by a low rocky outcrop, the gently lapping water freshened the air. A tideless beach bordering a freshwater sea that filled the dark horizon from east to west was still a novelty to her. She didn’t think she’d ever tire of it.
A single slap of chill breeze made her shiver and then left her aching for more.
Her heart thumped. A shadowy figure stood not ten strides away from her. Her first thought was panic. In this whole city who would know her name?
“It’s all right, Maura, it’s only me.”
“Kevan?” Her world tipped.
“How have you been?”
“How did you find me? What do you mean, how have I been? You weren’t bothered how I was when you went off with that barmaid with the big tits.”
“Ah, I like to think of Brenda as a generous woman.”
“She certainly gave you all you wanted.”
“I didn’t come to talk about Brenda. I came to see you…to apologize.”
“It’s too late to be sorry now.”
“Not quite, there’s still time.”
“A flying visit! For forgiveness? It’s been over five years. Why now? You never had any conscience before.”
“I’ll not deny I was a bit wayward, but…”
“Wayward! You had all your little pieces of crackling on the side while I brought home the bacon. Such talent, Kev, and you wasted it. You could have been the next James Joyce or–”
“You were always busy working and writing your own stuff. We only talked in bed.”
“We didn’t have much time for talking. You always wanted to be at it like a rabbit.”
“Aye, I liked to make the love go round.” He glanced at the lightening sky. “You didn’t say how you’re doing.”
“Fine. My eighth novel comes out in September. It’s not like yours. It’s fluff, but it pays the bills.”
“I didn’t ask about your career, or mine. I asked about you–personally. Have you got a husband yet, a lover, friends? Or do you still invent friends on paper?”
“I’ve been working too hard to socialize much.”
“I thought so. You still get your emotional kicks by playing God to a bunch of two dimensional paper characters. Do you shiver when they kiss, shudder when they fuck? Where are your own hurts, your own kisses?”
“My work is–.”
“Crap. You said it yourself.”
“I said fluff.”
“Fluff then. I’m sure you make a decent living at it. It sells to bored housewives who get as much of a vicarious thrill out of paper lovers as you do. But it’s crap because you’ve given up living, yourself. At the end of the day, when your housewives put the book down, they’ve got real lives. What have you got, Maura?”
She looked at him. In the pale dawn light his eyes were so blue they almost looked transparent.
“I’ve got me. I’m self-sufficient. Damn you. I don’t need your derision. I came here to escape literature. I came here to find my voice, find myself. Feck James Joyce. I’ll write feckin’ fluff if I want to.”
“You came here to lose yourself, to lose your voice.”
“I came here to lose you.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I do.” She almost enjoyed the hurt in his eyes. “You’re still a patronizing git, Kev. You always were. Spent more time critiquing my writing than doing your own.”
“You were angry when you left.”
“Sure, and didn’t I have a right to be? You stifled me. You wasted your own talent and belittled mine. You shagged every warm willing woman you could find to make yourself feel like a success. Every time the words wouldn’t come you went out on the piss, chasing skirts–as if it could solve all your problems.”
“Do you remember your last words to me?”
She shook her head, remembering all too well.
“You, said, ‘May you rot in Hell.’ Did you mean it Maura? Only…it’d mean a lot to me if you said you didn’t.”
She shook her head.
“Does that mean you didn’t mean it, or that you won’t say you didn’t mean it.” He grinned and a lock of sandy hair fell down over one eye.
“Oh, you still…drive me nuts.”
Come here and tell me you didn’t mean it. He held out his arms.
“Why is it so important? Why now? Do you know how much I missed you? Do you know how long I waited for the phone to ring, for a letter to arrive, a postcard, anything? Do you care? Did you ever care?”
“I cared. I never stopped caring. But it wouldn’t have worked. It was too late for us, even before Brenda with the big tits. We both messed it up.”
“Is that what you came to tell me?”
He held out his arms again and this time she walked into them. Into the familiar tobacco and Old Spice smell of him. The roughness of his calico shirt against her face, the comfort of his arms around her.
He drew her down into on to the sand, sheltered from the city by the rocks and held her as the sky paled to violet in the east and the first rays of the sun cracked over the horizon. Just for a moment, they were two fictional lovers on a sun-drenched beach. Everything would be happy ever after.
“You’re not staying are you?” she asked.
“So why come back now?”
“I came to say a proper goodbye and to ask whether you really want me to rot in Hell. You haven’t answered that yet.”
“Just like that? Just goodbye?” She pushed herself away from him and sat up. “You’ve met someone else.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“Isn’t it? Did you think you’d come and take me for one last spin. See how I compare to the new model? Take off the tarpaulin, polish me and then put me back in the garage? Well Mr Irish Feckin’ Brogue. See if your new coupé has got the upholstery for a long run. I polish up pretty well for an old model.”
“Then take your brake off. There’s nothing to stop you now. Certainly not me. Write the book you’ve always wanted to write. Do that for me. In remembrance of the good times. You’ve got a new life here in Canada, use it. Only, please, tell me you don’t want me to rot in Hell.”
“Does it mean that much to you?”
“More than you think.”
“Then I don’t want you to rot in Hell. Are you happy?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.”
An early morning gull flew overhead. Its cry punctuated their conversation. He looked up.
“I’m coming,” he said softly.
The gull took Maura’s attention. She watched it glide across the surface of the lake. When she turned back, Kevan had gone.
There was nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.
She stood up. Where Kev had been sitting was a rolled up newspaper. She picked it up. It was dry and sandy.
Something about the format caught her eye. It certainly wasn’t the Globe and Mail. She opened it. Irish. Kevan’s local paper. How come he’d brought it all the way to Toronto?
It was open at the public notices page. The deaths column caught her eye. One name stood out. Kevan Loughran…after a short illness…St Catherine’s hospice…
Her breath caught in her throat.
A cold wind screamed off the lake, snatched the paper from her trembling hands then died as quickly as it had lived. Out on the horizon of the lake lightning flashed. Maura began a steady count to see how far away it was, but the thunder never came. Maybe it was a white squall, one of the sudden summer storms that plagued the Great Lakes. Maybe. Maybe not.
A shiver ran through her. The tears that had dried up so long ago splashed down into the summer sand until the sun dried them.
She sighed, scrubbed her face with the heel of her hand and turned her back on the lake. To her left the downtown core of the city glowed like the pillars of heaven. Over by the swimming pool she could see white clad figures gathering for Tai-chi.
“Rest in peace, Kev,” she whispered. “May your heaven be filled with generous women and may the right words always come easy.”
Instead of walking straight back home she stepped on to the boardwalk and turned right thinking about her next novel. She had an idea…
Jacey Bedford is a British writer with a three book deal from DAW. Empire of Dust, a Psi-tech novel came out in 2014. Crossways, its sequel, follows in 2015 and Winterwood, a historical fantasy, in 2016. Her short stories have been published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines. She lives on the edge of Yorkshire’s Pennine hills with her songwriter husband and a long-haired, black German Shepherd (a dog not an actual shepherd from Germany). She’s been a librarian, a postmistress, a rag-doll maker and a folk singer with the vocal harmony trio, Artisan. Visit her online at www.jaceybedford.co.uk.
Image by Carlos Pacheco