The following text is an extract from the story “Smack”, taken from Julia Armfield’s debut collection Salt Slow, published by Picador, which was nominated for the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. Read our review of the collection here.
The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand. The ocean empties, a thousand dead and dying invertebrates, jungled tentacles and fine, fragile membranes blanketing the shore two miles in each direction. They are translucent, almost spectral, as though the sea has exorcised its ghosts. Drowned in air, they break apart and bleed their interiors. A saturation, leeching down into the earth.
People claim they are poisonous – Sea Nettles, Lion’s Mane, Portuguese Man of War. Bringing their phones down to the beach, they snap pictures, send them into nature shows. One photograph makes it into the local paper, another fills five minutes on a regional morning show: ‘And in local news, a shoal of jellyfish has been causing consternation for tourists at one of the more popular pleasure beaches. Certainly not what you’d expect, coming up for a long weekend, is it, Cathy?’ – ‘Actually, Tim, I think you’ll find a group of jellyfish is called a “smack”.’
The provenance of the jellyfish remains a mystery. People argue amongst themselves, message links to articles back and forth. They are the result of global warming, of toxic-waste disposal. They are a sign of a change in worldwide migration patterns, rising sea levels, El Niño. They are Californian and a long way from home.
From the back porch, Nicola watches the clean-up for the best part of the afternoon. She has been in her dressing gown since the previous evening, sharp with yesterday’s deodorant, caking of toothpaste in the corners of her mouth. She watches men with rubber shoes and litter-pickers moving down the beach, scooping up the glutinous shapes with pails and trenching shovels, dumping them down. The day is hot – white summer, restless with foreign birds. On the deck, she sits with one ankle hooked over the other and eats croissants, stale since Tuesday morning, slugging coffee black because the milk has turned to yellow curds.
Beneath her dressing gown, she is bloody with mosquito bites. Unrazored beneath the arms, unplucked, unmoisturised. The yeasty smell of unwashed bedlinen, salve on childish bruises. Last night, she ate outside – pre-cooked garlic prawns, torn from the packet – and the plates have been left to moulder in the heat of the day. Vulture-like, gulls circle the deck. Dark wails across a melted sky.
‘You’d set yourself on fire, if you ever tried to live by your- self,’ Cece had once said. ‘Two days, tops. You’d boil an egg and burn the kitchen to the ground. Either that or we’d find you three weeks later, suffocated under piles of your own mess. You’re not a natural housekeeper, sweetie. You’re not that type.’
‘Only because you’ve never let me try.’ Cece’s expression – sag of irritated eyes.
‘Any time you want to, sweetie. You just be my guest.’ Her phone has been dead since the weekend. A blessing, in many ways. The power in the house is off, has been off since she arrived, and she has no idea how to turn it on. The fuse box in the cellar is unknown territory. She makes coffee on the gas stove, eats shrink-wrapped ham and bread and butter, pickled onions from a jar. In the evenings, when the sun peels away from the easternmost parts of the house, she retreats by degrees to the brighter rooms until there is no more daylight, and then she goes to sleep.
She cannot watch television, though this is only a minor irritation as all she ever really watches are the shopping channels and the twenty-four-hour mediums. Call now for a personal consultation with an experienced psychic in the comfort of your very own home. Her type of television is the sort that Daniel says speaks to a weakness of character (although admittedly a lot speaks to Daniel of a weakness of character: a fondness for jelly sweets, the refusal to give dogs human names, hair grown past the shoulders, the Tolkien books). He has, in the past, tried to educate her, turning on the History Channel, documentaries about beluga whales. The first time, walking in on Nicola watching QVC in bed, tangle of orange peel in her lap, he had cocked his head to the side and squinted at the screen.
‘What’s that they’re selling?’ ‘Fabergé eggs.’
‘Not real ones?’
‘I don’t know. If you buy half a dozen, they send you a hutch to keep them in.’
She had an itchy dialling finger, an overzealous eye for a bargain. The weekly thud of pink-wrapped packages in the letter cage had quickly become a source of tension; Daniel stiffly handing over boxes containing pizza scissors, ceramic knife sets, printed scarves, cultured pearls set in abalone.
‘What have you bought this time?’
‘It’s a hand-carved set of wooden fruit. I thought we could display it in the hall.’
‘I keep the Japanese maquettes in the hall.’
‘I know, but there’s space for two things.’
‘I think that’s a kiwi. I don’t know. They don’t look quite how they looked on TV.’
On the beach, a red-haired woman is walking a child along the sand on a pair of elastic reins. The child can be no more than three, jangle-boned, with the shambling, drunken gait of one whose legs have only very recently been introduced to one another. Lashed to the red-haired woman’s wrist, he drags towards the headland, where the men with litter-pickers have now paused to inspect their haul. It is low tide, the sea pretending innocence. Squinting down along the line of the shore, Nicola watches the gentle pull of outgoing water, the glassy sink and swallow, waves drawing back like lips revealing teeth.
There is a sudden commotion, the tethered child making a lurch towards something in the sand – a jellyfish, split open and unbodied, a mess of tentacles and bells and polyps that the men running clean-up operations have failed to sweep away. The red-haired woman gives a mighty tug on the reins, enough to haul the child back and halfway off his feet, at which surprise he stumbles over and starts crying. From the deck, Nicola watches as one of the men from the clean-up crew approaches to assess the situation, the red-haired woman already yanking the child up by his wrist and shaking him – the twist of nails in skin. The man holds up his hands, litter-picker swinging jauntily outwards: what seems to be the problem, ma’am? The woman turns on him, jabs a finger into his chest, gesturing first to the litter-picker and then to the jellyfish. The child, wrist still grasped in her other hand, staggers back and forth with her gesticulation, snivelling quickly curtailed by fascination at this sudden opening of hostilities. The man drops his hands, drops back. He swings his litter-picker down, planting it in the sand before changing his mind and looping it upwards, tapping it into his palm like a policeman with a truncheon.
The two of them argue, duelling pointed fingers. The crux of the matter seems to be that the red-haired woman holds the clean-up crew responsible for the child nearly stumbling on a jellyfish, while the man holds the woman responsible for not purchasing a shorter set of reins. The woman jabs at his chest twice more, the man parrying each time with the litter-picker. In her head, Nicola constructs bits and pieces of the conversation – argues both cases, for and against. Meanwhile, the child, working his wrist free of his mother’s grasp, totters back towards the jellyfish with renewed purpose, as the voices of the adults are lost to an easterly wind.
She has been here over a week now and still considers herself to be essentially engaged in a siege situation. The food is not holding up quite as she had imagined: two pints of milk, one already curdled; a bag of oranges, three eaten, six rotted; six tins of tuna, one of sweetcorn; two packets of ham, two of prawns, two salami; a pineapple, impenetrable; the jar of pickled onions; a multipack of crackers; a block of cheese; a bar of chocolate; a loaf of bread turned white with creeping mould.
If she were Cece, she would have brought along pasta or potatoes; food suitable for long internments with only a gas cooker for company. If she were Cece, she would have thought to bring a can-opener too. By the third day, she is roiling with pickled onions, sore-gummed from shards of cracker. The unrefrigerated ham is growing an odd, oyster-coloured film along its rind.
This ignobility of rotted bread and milk is not what she would have hoped, though she can’t deny it adds something bohemian to the situation. The house – dust-sheeted, its swimming pool drained – seems oddly suited, in its current state, to meals of Sun-Maid raisins and orange cheese eaten on the floor. In the afternoons before the sun runs out, she sits in the dining room overlooking the steep incline of cliffs, stacking miniature towers of crackers which she then covers with marmalade and eats over several long minutes, pretending entire banquets from her customary place at the table’s head.
Daniel has already gutted the place of anything really worth taking. The majority of the furniture sold at auction as long ago as November, and most of the blue and white also seems to have been snaffled up around that time. Faded patches where the paintings used to hang – a common phenomenon for which Nicola was once startled to realise there is no formal name – disfigure every room in the house. An exercise in barefaced deception. Daniel had gone ahead and sold the Persian rugs and a good percentage of the silver even before asking for a divorce.
What remains – somewhat pointedly, in Nicola’s opinion – are many of her QVC acquisitions. A shelf of Russian dolls painted to resemble the Muppets. A machine for counting change. A large pottery cat in whose hollow skull umbrellas can be stored. Between the empty spaces left by Daniel’s confiscations, her personal effects remain like a series of insults. A lamp shaped like a goldfish bowl, an egg timer filled with indigo sand. These objects sit around the house like a dumping of useless artefacts; archaeological pieces too mundane to be brought back from the dig.
The divorce has been in the works over six months and Nicola has given up trying to keep track of where things stand. Her finger has mottled up around her wedding ring, a swell towards the knot of the knuckle like the time she ate rock oysters on her fifteenth birthday and had to be taken to A&E. Every morning, before the heat of the day takes her body and makes it sticky and intractable, she grasps the ring and circles it, twisting back and forth in a vain attempt to take her finger by surprise, slip it up and off before the swelling can stop her. It never works – her left hand is too clever for her right.
‘Bacon grease,’ Cece had said on the telephone (this was some months before Nicola stole Cece’s car to drive down to the beach house and summarily surrendered her right to good advice). ‘Or soak your fingers in salt water. It pulls the moisture out of the skin.’
‘I tried that,’ Nicola had replied. ‘And grapefruit balm and salt scrub and keeping my hand elevated fifteen hours a day. Nothing works.’
‘Well, I don’t know, then.’ Cece’s children in the back- ground barked instructions for a game of Twister – left hand red! ‘Cut your finger off or just don’t get divorced, I suppose. What do I know.’
This extract, from the story “Smack”, is taken from Julia Armfield’s debut collection Salt Slow, which was nominated for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, the winner of which will be announced on December 5th.
For more information on the Young Writer of the Year Award, go here.
For more information on, and to buy Salt Slow, visit Pan Macmillan.
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