Martha Williams lives in Cornwall, UK. She studied biochemistry at King’s College, London, and worked for almost two decades as a scientific writer before turning to fiction in 2009. Since then, her short stories have won various prizes and been published in a selection of online and print journals. In 2011 she was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize, and ‘Wet Stones’ was commended in the 9th Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition. Her first novel has been accepted by a literary agent in London.
Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
If you asked how much, she’d struggle to underplay how she’d swallow needles, hold out her beating heart, or run naked into church for them.
Perhaps she’d just mutter, “ ... much as any mum.”
Still, she runs risks.
She ditched her career just so she could wake in the night, bare her breasts, rise at dawn, learn to cook, pee to their audience, and sing in public. No alcohol, no cigarettes ... Still, she scans the mirror for flaws.
If you ask how she feels as she spoons peas into their mouths, her smile tugs an eyebrow. By bath time, her shoulders are rigid. As they pull their duvets under their chins, she’s flicking her own fingertips. Peter Rabbit, Winnie The Pooh. What did we do today, how was school? Twinkle Twinkle, cuddle and kiss: precious time that she yearns to want more, but doesn’t.
As soon as they’re adrift, she slithers into her black Lycra, body taut and ears primed for murmur or moan. Then a grin for their father, a click to the dog, and she sneaks into the wind.
She sprints and skids down the steep path, leaves and mud shifting beneath her. The blackness baffles her wide-open eyes; a dark so dense it hides her feet. She knows without seeing that she’s flanked by a wall on the right and brambles on her left but all she can see is the dog, white by day but now a blur of grey on black.
“Heel.” He slows and she sprints, but he soon springs ahead again and so they bundle and stretch to the sea.
As they crash onto the scree, she slows. A south-westerly blows strong and she scrunches her eyes against the salt spray. A sliver of moonlight cracks a cloud and for a moment the ocean’s a silver bushfire on black savanna. She holds up a hand to feel the fury, hesitates for a few breaths, then jogs to the surf line and plunges in.
The cold smacks her eyelids and burns her back as she rolls and reaches for the surface, gasping for air with her tongue curled tight to her teeth. She kicks, blind as the surf breaks over her, plunging her into Neptune’s throat where saltwater and mucus flood her pharynx. She can’t see the dog but she feels him beside her. Her arms scythe through the waves, burning with pain and cold. The headland will take ten minutes and she can’t afford longer; the chill will take her quicker than the tide.
She hears the dog hit the shingle first and a second later, she’s bleeding, her fingers sticky and sharp, her shoulder throbbing. She’s rolling, thrust up and drawn back by a storm swell on steep rocks. The shock throws water up her nose and she snorts snot in great streamers that tear free. She clings. The stones beneath her are hidden by moonless air and black water, but with the intimacy of a lover she knows the lumps of streaked, white quartz; bruised snowballs frozen amid blue-grey granite and smashed kelp. Only wet stones have a living hue; on drying they hide inside pallor, waiting for the sea to blast the life back into them. Now they’re wet with her blood.
Another surge throws her further up and her feet fail, losing ground as the waves suck shingle from beneath her. She flails up the beach, her legs numbed with cold, barely strong enough to straighten as she curls and crawls to scrubby grass using the strength in her fingernails. Has she bitten off …
The top. A track. She staggers ahead and the dog trots apace, and still all she can see is the grey flickering of his legs. She lopes into her usual thump, thump, huff, belly tight and hips loose; she knows the road. As she warms to her stride, the dog breaks his trot into a canter and they’re running again; hard as weathered knots, silent as silhouettes, chasing the cliff path high above the surf before unfurling into a golden pool of shelter by the horseshoe harbour, where boats nestle in a gentle chop. Spray flies over the harbour wall while gulls roost behind the chimney stacks of the sleeping village.
She creeps behind the cottages to the overgrown footpath, battling uphill brambles and nettles until the church lawn breaks their struggle. She stands amid the stones, pausing for the dead and fancying she hears their clamour; they’re local folk and must love to talk.
“Where you to, my robin?”
“She’s from down the hill. You be running home, my love.”
She clicks her tongue for the dog, hums a tune and they’re away down the blackberry lanes, heading home. She slows only when the downhill dash rattles her knees, drifting into a walk by the fishermen’s cottages where the air is warm and thick with beer, cigarettes, and flowers. A man crashes out of the pub. Whilst she is drenched, a wisp of wetness haunting the street, he’s a rock. He has no coat; lost it between bars and he’ll find it sodden on the railings in the morning. Meanwhile he seems to be dislodging the rain by some means, because he’s dry and burly as he fills the path. There’s barely room to pass.
His cigarette’s the only hot thing out tonight, she realises, shuddering. Her legs are stiff; reluctant to even walk, now. The dog bounds forward.
He trots back, and she loops a leash.
“Home.” She sighs; her body’s done. He knows the way and he’ll pull her.
They gasp to a standstill at their gate. In silent acknowledgement, she goes first.
Her children are asleep, hair rumpled on glittering foreheads, cheeks like ripe peaches, and lips awaiting one last kiss before the deepening breath of mother home.
Their father is in bed, his sleeping mouth wide open with the same incomprehension as when he watches her get ready.
Why do you want...?
It keeps me alive.
But you are...?
His hands rest on a spill of phone and book. She slides them away, and scratches his neck as she kisses him.
When she emerges, flushed and shocked from the shower, even the dog’s curled in a tight ball beneath her chair, awaiting her breakfast feet.
She steals one last glance through the window to the gathering clouds, black over golden home, but her thighs are trembling and her breath is loose now. She draws the curtains around her sleeping family.
White clouds tumble as she stands by the school gate, watching her children smile and run with her kisses still moist on their cheeks and patches of her warmth rising from their backs.
Other mums call hello and she talks about the spelling test, iron-on labels and the price of shoes, but when the conversation moves to television, her eyes glaze and she peers at the sheen of last night’s rain on the pavement.
When someone jogs her arm, her head shakes almost imperceptibly but she doesn’t turn. They look at her intently, as if she’s not quite all there. They say her name.
She flinches, and blinks. As her focus sharpens, she wonders that they can’t smell the blood and rain on her smile, nor hear the echo of a white dog on wet stones.
©2012 Martha Williams
Martha Williams Home Page
'Old Men's Faces': story by Williams in Fictionaut
'Breathe In': story by Williams in Atticus Review