Tag Archives: relationships

Sarah Salway

On Hold

She was just passing the phone box the first time it rang.

Or that’s what she said afterwards. She checked her mobile of course, but her boyfriend had recently changed her ring tone to ‘Hello Barbie’ so he could find her easily. This was an old fashioned dring-dring. It brought back so many memories that when she picked up the receiver she almost imagined it to be her mother telling her to be careful.

‘Hello,’ she breathed, ‘hello, hello, hello.’

She gently touched the four corners of one of the postcards plastered on the wall as she waited for the torrent of words in a language she couldn’t understand to finish. And then she replaced the receiver.

***

The second time she took the call, she’d been waiting for half an hour.
The phone box wasn’t even near her house, but she changed the route of her run so she could pass it. Every third run, she’d wait. Just to see. Her boyfriend complained that she wasn’t losing that much weight for someone who ran so much, but she told him muscle took time to build up.

When the phone rang she didn’t say anything at first, just let the voice on the other end run on, smiling at the way it rose and fell, how the consonants tripped over each other. As she listened, she let her fingers trace the women on the postcards. They were all so happy looking.

‘Sweet dreams, be safe,’ she whispered as she replaced the receiver. It was what her mother always used to say to her before she went to sleep.

She threw the cards into the bin by the park. ‘Sweet dreams,’ she whispered as she imagined them nestling together in the dark.

***

It was some time before she could go near the phone box again. Her boyfriend insisted on running with her and he liked easier routes, ones he could measure after on his computer. He liked to run for twenty-five minutes exactly and then have sex for another twenty-five minutes. Ten minutes for a shower. He called it their productive hour. ‘I don’t understand why you used to take so long,’ he kept saying.

It was a relief to get out without him. The roads seemed familiar, as if they were welcoming her home, and the phone box gleamed like a red present waiting for her to open it.

There were new girls pasted up, all still smiling though. She was counting them, cataloguing them in her head – brown haired, Asian, blondes – when the phone rang. Dring dring. It came as such a shock that she almost dropped her stack of girls.

It was a different man on the other end this time, but the words were the same. Unintelligible, and such a hard rhythm to the language that she shut her eyes as if that might stop her hearing.

‘Mum,’ she whispered, ‘Mum, hello, it’s me, Josie.’

She was still talking when the phone box door swung open, an arm grabbed at her, swiping the cards so they fell, forming a circle around her.

‘Sweet dreams,’ she told them. ‘Be safe, be safe, be safe.’

###
Sarah Salway is the author of six books: three novels (Something Beginning With, Tell Me Everything, Getting the Picture), two collections of poetry (You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book, Digging Up Paradise), and one short story collection (Leading the Dance). She is a former Canterbury Laureate and RLF Fellow at both the London School of Economics and the University of Kent. She writes about gardens at www.writerinthegarden.com, and tweets @sarahsalway. Her website is www.sarahsalway.co.uk.

 

Elaine Chiew

Insurance

 

You go diving with him in the Bahamas as a leap of faith, even though you’re not sure whether it’s a leap of faith in yourself or in him or in your togetherness. It’s new still in your relationship; you’d met him at a medical conference, out lounging on a cabana. He had drawn up close, in his tan linen jacket and sharply-creased blue trousers, and asked if he could buy you a drink. Not that you are looking for a relationship, or even a carefree fuck, because your mother is in her last stages of Alzheimers’ and it’s just you and her but between shuttling on the commuters’ train from her home of assisted living and your job in insurance sales, you’d begun to find chit-chat with strangers nauseating. But there was something about his blue eyes and shaggy hair that spelled an aura of wanting to please and you thought to yourself, oh why the hell not? Your mother would disapprove of his slight put-on dishevelment and crude jokes. When it’s just the two of you, he is altogether more serious, more real, more himself, but he truly comes alive when the audience is ten or more. Then he would sing Nessun Dorma in a faux baritone (which your mother would find kitschy or attempt a ballerina stunt and split his pants). But your mother will never meet him, or if she does, she will never remember.

So you think of him as insurance. A kind of biological safety net, safe enough to risk an underwater world where you go diving with him. You are such a terrible swimmer that once you’d sunk to the bottom of a kid’s pool at the swimming club and thought you were drowning and surfaced and screamed for help and when people rushed over and someone finally pulled you out, you claimed a leg cramp because you were so embarrassed.

Down now in these murky watery depths, you panic and start hyperventilating. Water rushes into your mask. Your heart drops to a new plumbing depth. Someone grabs your shoulder and then holds your hand and guides you with finger gestures on how to empty your mask of water. You suck in lungful after lungful of oxygen and begin to feel giddy. All you can see behind his mask are his eyes, but not the expression in them because there is a film of moisture over everything. A school of fish swims past and you think you’ve never seen anything more beautiful in your life. You think the man holding your hand is a godsend, and you wonder if he isn’t the diving instructor, with his rapid gesturing and purposeful movements. There, before you, are schools of marine bioluminescence. Florets of musky coral. Plumes of purple anemones. Membraned jellyfish, lit from within, rising as clouded fumes. Seawhip. Polyps like thousands of eyes. They sense your dark presence. An entire school of fish changes direction. Your lungs swell, you feel the massive ache in your jaw even before you hear the snap upon bone. What is blue becomes red, then black. You are neither fish nor human now. There is no name, no memory, for the undersea monster you’ve become. You power through subterranean coves, your body sleek, aerodynamic. Swimming. Finning. The water closing over you is icy, instantly numbing. Your sleek tail torque, you rappel down to seabed level.

When you finally surface, you are delirious.

You tell this man it’s the most amazing trip of your life. The two of you are sitting eating lunch at a seafood place with all the other divers, and that’s when you learn two things: the school of fish is barracuda, and the man who had held your hand is no instructor but the man you are dating for insurance. You burst out laughing and you simply can’t stop. Everyone around you first smiles indulgently, including the man you are dating, and then their smiles become more hesitant, and the way their smiles start to fade made your epiglottis seize up and you almost choke on your mouthful of tilapia.

###

Elaine Chiew is the editor/compiler of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). She has won prizes for her short fiction and also been shortlisted in numerous other U.S. and U.K. competitions. She is currently based in Singapore and has just completed an M.A. in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts.