NOTHING BUT ASHES by Jason Jackson (3rd place Apr19)

It’s Friday, and she’s gone. They’ve talked – it’s all they’ve done for weeks, because words are what she’s good at – but now the house is quiet. On the table is the manuscript, her first novel, the final draft, the version everyone will see. It’s thinner than he expected, and on the cover is a small yellow post-it note. In blue pen, she’s written: Read it.

He remembers their first Christmas, the notebook he bought her. In the bottom right-hand corner of each page he drew a stickman. If you flicked through, the little man ran on the spot, did jumping-jacks, press-ups, stood up again, ran a little more and finally ended in a leap, arms aloft, suspended and grinning, on the last page.

He flicks through the manuscript, catching words and phrases here and there. He stops on page 65 and reads:

“…there are thrills in this world, and we should never forgive ourselves for missing the opportunity to live….

More blurred words until he gets to page 122:

“…the oranges, and they rolled across the floor, resting against his boot. She looked at him, and he lifted his foot, brought it down hard.”

He grimaces, remembering, and flicks forward to page 189, and this time a shock:

“…the fierce sting of the flat of his hand on her cheek, and the sun high above Kings College in a blameless blue sky…

He stops, dropping the pages as if they’re in flames. Cambridge. A day trip, summer, three years ago. His quick, predictable anger at some slight or other, and her laughter, taunting. There must have been something about the set of him, his stance, because she’d said, quietly and seriously. “Hit me, then. Go on. Hit me, Tom.”

And, of course, he hadn’t. God knows they’d fought many times. It’s what, in the end, had finished them. But there’d never been violence. They’d never come to blows.

He picks up the manuscript, flicks through pages, this time more slowly. He sees his name. He sees hers. First person. Past tense. He flicks to the beginning, reads the words: This book is dedicated to no-one other than myself.

He gets up, fetches a mug and some coffee, and as the kettle boils he thinks about a night, years ago now, on the beach near his parents’ old house. He thinks about how he’d taken her there, had wanted to show her the only place which meant anything to him. She’d been talking about travelling, about India, how they had see everything there was to see in the world, and eventually he put his hand up like a schoolboy.

She laughed. “Yes? What would you like to say?”

“I want to show you something. Something real.”

They drove for two hours, a radio phone-in filling the air between them. As they reached the coast, the dark twists of clouds caught the dancing lights from the fairground and he pointed to the black sea.

“Look,” he said.

They pulled over, and then they were both quiet for a moment.

“Let’s walk on the sand,” she said. “I want to feel it.”

They took the crumbling steps at the far end of the promenade, steps he’d run up and down as a laughing child, steps he’d sat on with friends in his late teens, steps he’d crept to from his hot bedroom in the middle of sleepless summer nights in that long last year as his parents fell apart. He held her hand, and when they made it to the bottom of the steps, she pulled off her shoes.

“Come on. You too,” she said. “It’s not just about seeing.”

They went bare-foot to where the waves met the sand. When they walked in, the water was so cold it stopped their breath. They rolled up their jeans, and soon they were in up to their knees, the cold making them dance a strange kind of jig.

“Okay, turn around,” he said, and together they faced the shore.

The fairground lights played red and yellow and blue against the darkness, and the houses on the slow rise of the hill were reduced to the subdued glow of curtained windows.

“There are people there,” he said. “All that life.”

“I want to stand here and watch the lights go out one by one,” she said. “I want to watch the fairground go to sleep, the people in the houses too.” She turned to him. “I want it to be just us and the sea.”

He pulled her close and they kissed.

“It’s so cold,” she said.

“How long do you think we could stand here?”

“Let’s count,” she said. They measured the seconds quietly together, perfectly synchronised, and they lasted much longer in this than either of them thought they would.

Later, they walked the length of the beach, gathering wood to burn. They managed a meagre kind of fire, a lopsided pyramid no higher than their waists, but he set alight to some rags he found on the rocks near the promenade, and the driftwood caught the flames. The fire burned pale, a yellowing whiteness which drew them closer. She danced around the flames, and she was on fire, her hair, her waving arms.  He remembered a book he’d stolen from a library, a book about all the unexplained things in the world, and there’d been a photograph of the charred outline of a body on a street. Spontaneous combustion: how someone could be here one moment and then, suddenly, consumed by fire. All that was left was their ashes.

As she danced towards him, he held out his arms, aching to hold her and certain he would never let her go.

And now, at the table in the kitchen, blowing on his coffee and resting the mug against his cheek for the warmth, he reads the first page of the manuscript. It’s the first time he’s read anything she’s written. Years ago now they’d decided he’d be better as a supporter than a critic. What did he know about stories? About literature? So, he’d left her alone to write, and all those words had been secrets, all of that time her own.

But now she was gone, and she wanted share.

The first page told of a man with his name having sex with a woman with her name. The woman with her name was not thinking about the man with his name, but was thinking of a wolf – in fact, as things progressed, a pack of wolves – and these animals surrounded the naked, writhing woman, who was somehow now in a forest, and the wolves were circling, coming even closer, and there was their fur, and they were hungry so their ribs showed, and there were strings of saliva hanging from their opening jaws…

And then the woman with her name was finished, and the man with his name was grunting, his skin sheened with sweat, trying to finish too, but he was clumsy and he was pulling out and pulling at himself, and the woman with her name was turning her back…

He puts the manuscript back on the table, straightens the edges of the pages, takes the post-it note and crumples it into a ball.  He gets a pencil from the drawer and he sits back down at the table to read. As he finishes each page, he draws a stickman in the bottom right hand corner. At first the man is standing motionless, but as he finishes the pages – page after page – the man begins to be consumed by flames. They start at his feet, and the simple lines of the man’s expression seem to express surprise, but gradually, as the pages progress and more of the stickman is consumed by fire, he appears resigned, and then saddened, and, finally, in the last few pages, his face disappears in grey scribblings of flames, and there is nothing left of him other than a small, triangular pile of ash.

There’s a moment, after he closes the manuscript and straightens its edges, when he thinks of her. There is nothing left in the house that was hers, but he still has so many things to remind him.

A life together, or part of one at least.

He opens the window wide, takes the lighter from the drawer and the manuscript from the table. He stands at the sink and holds the pages above the flame. It’ll burn quickly, leaving nothing but ashes, and then he’ll begin.

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