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Paper Boats

The dead flowers lie amid a pile of sea-wrack, where fronds of oar-weed mingle with bits of old rope and broken razor shells and plastic bottle tops and the ever-present sand. She stares at them a moment: a sorry bundle of what might once have been lilies and roses, now all but unrecognisable. Still, she thinks she does recognise them, although she knows that’s impossible, and she turns away. Off down the beach, noonday light gleams on wet sand, sending back flashes of brilliant light. They move ahead of her like torch-beams as she walks, always a little out of reach. The sand is studded with pebbles of all colours: various greys of shale and basalt, orange and fox-red of sandstone, diseased yellows of banded quartz. Among them are jumbled lumps of pudding stones, hunks of washed-up concrete, pieces of brick and glass washed smooth. Here and there, pebbles of pure white jut from the rest, like bones scattered across the beach.

Her son loved naming the stones, could have identified them all in a trice, and for an instant the scent of rotting flowers reaches her through the brine. A brief bubble of laughter skims across the pulse and roar of the waves and is gone.

A new voice reaches her, seemingly out of nowhere. “Yours, is he?”

It’s an old fellow, ambling along the beach alongside a stocky, stiff-legged black Labrador, as grizzled about the chops as its owner. The man shades his eyes and looks towards the edge of the water and for just a moment she imagines what he sees: a small boy in a pale blue coat splashing in the wavelets, stooping to sail one of the little paper boats he loved to make.

Except the man doesn’t see anything at all; he can’t have, because her son isn’t there. He will never be there again and her stomach roils and turns with the knowledge of it. Her mind can’t encompass the lack; her thoughts wheel and scatter in an echo of the shrieking gulls flying above. Still, a strange feeling strikes her that the man has seen something. She tells herself that it’s only because she’s a mother, it’s written all over her, it must be; some part of her will always be a mother, even though. The old man sensed that and, half dazzled, imagined the rest.

His next words affirm her thoughts and calm her a little.

“Well, that’s odd.” He rubs his salt-and-pepper stubbled cheek. “I could have sworn—”

She tries a smile, though it doesn’t fit her face any longer. She wishes he would go, and fortunately he does, bending only to ruffle his dog’s fur. The dog doesn’t seem to notice, or perhaps takes the caress as his due.

“Thought I saw a little ’un,” he says. “The image of you, he was. Little blond boy. Had on a blue coat.”

She stares after him as he shuffles away, muttering something about the sun being in his eyes, and them not what they used to be. Inwardly, she’s muttering too. She’s telling herself that what he said meant nothing. How many little boys could his words have described? Plenty. Many, even, but not hers. There’s nothing here to see and therefore he saw nothing, because nothing was all there was. That’s how sane people think, isn’t it? And so she’ll make herself think it too. She can’t allow herself to entertain any other possibility, certainly not the notion that he actually saw her son, wherever he is. If she did that, she’d be finished; she’d never be able to live again.

Her gaze falls on the dead flowers as she walks away. Dead flowers, just like the ones left for her boy at the roadside where it happened. Perhaps these were left here for someone else; offered by another mother or father, not to the gods of traffic and fumes and the pitiless thing we might once have called progress, but the equally indifferent gods of the sea.

The sea, at least, had rejected what it had been given.

She swallows the bitterness that rises to her throat as she walks away, heading back to the little cottage on the coast where she’d once spent holidays with her family.

She folds the paper corner to corner and opens out the centre, creases it anew, re-folds until the flat sheet becomes a little white boat. Others like it are scattered across the table, a whole fleet overturned and foundering. Her son always wanted to make the boats himself. He would carry each one into the waves and let them go, a look of intense seriousness on his face. He didn’t mind it when the water took them. He’d just smile and laugh at her.

Outside, it’s the perfect day for sailing paper boats. The sky is the same pale blue of his coat, speckled with scudding clouds, a light breeze carrying the cries of seabirds and the tang of salt. She knows that the sea will be perfect too, the blue of holidays, the sun glittering so brightly on the water it will be impossible to look at. Half blinded, staring into it, it would be easy to see him there; to watch him as he launches his boats, imagining them seaworthy, picturing himself climbing on board and sailing away.

She sweeps her arm across the table, sending the boats tumbling. She takes only one with her as she heads outside, marching down the path towards the sea. The world is filled with its endless booming, the force of a whole ocean echoing back from the cliffs. Scanning the sands, she sees the old man. He stands at the very edge of the water, hunched and motionless, staring towards the horizon. She moves from concrete step onto soft sand and slip-steps towards him, stopping at his side. He doesn’t look at her. The dog does; he trots towards her but pauses halfway, moving his head as if nosing at someone’s pockets, wagging his tail at nothing.

“You saw him,” she says. “You saw my son.”

The man sends her a half puzzled, half worried look, but doesn’t say anything in return. Only the dog, today, has any life in him; he turns and lopes away, unexpectedly sprightly, then stops and paws at the sand.

“You described him exactly. His coat. I want to know what he was doing.” She waves the paper boat in front of his face. “Did he have one of these? Was he sailing it?”

He looks troubled. “Might have been.”

She’s made a mistake, of course. She shouldn’t have mentioned the boat. She should have made him describe what the boy had been doing, that would have been proof; now there could be none. The dog trots back towards them. He stops in the same spot as before, sits, looks expectant, as if waiting for something. Then he lopes off again, paws at the sand again, and she realises: he’s playing fetch. He’s playing fetch even though there’s no toy or stick to be seen, and no one to throw it for him.

“It wasn’t white,” the man says. “Looked as if it was made of newspaper.”

She crumples, as if he just punched her in the gut. An image: the two of them pulling sheets from The Guardian, her boy pressing down the folds, holding up his hands with fingers spread to show the black smudges from the newsprint. She opens her mouth to ask for more, but what else is there? The words have gone.

She must have put the image into his head somehow. It isn’t much of a leap to imagine they might have made paper boats from anything at hand. Of course they might have used newspaper. He’d taken a chance, that’s all, and lucked out. Whatever this is, whatever he saw on the beach, it isn’t her son. How could it be?

The dog comes back again. Sits. Trots away. Bends and nudges at the sand with his nose, as if at a ball that has fallen there, one he’s eager to chase again. He looks back over his shoulder, towards nothing, and lets out a thin whine, his nose covered with damp sand.

The man watches the dog too. He mumbles under his breath and she catches, “Well, I’ll be—”

“You didn’t see anything.”

He stares at her with rheumy, unhealthy eyes. Shrugs: I didn’t ask for this. Then he says, “It was like this with my wife.”

There’s a little leap in her chest. Here we go. This is how they work, isn’t it, people like him? They home in on the desperate and the grieving. Drop a chance word; a look. They slip their fingers through the gap that opens and claw it wider. Then what?

He might claim to be a clairvoyant or a medium. He’ll say he has a message for her. What will it be? That her boy is happy; yes, probably that. That he loves her, of course. Ghosts are something we make. The living conjure them from the air, make them dance and speak like puppets. Those are the kind of things they all say, people like him. They make their words sweet, anything they think the living need to hear, so they can imagine they’re carrying out a precious service that can be exchanged for the blank shine of coin. He’ll say her son is in a good place. He’ll tell her he came to say goodbye, before moving on to somewhere better. Not too soon, though, surely, because then she wouldn’t need him, would she?

She tells herself he’s just like the fortune-tellers in their booths at the end of the pier, laden with purple velvet and silver stars, candlelight gleaming from the milky glass of a crystal ball. Somewhere he’ll have a dusty CD player with the kind of music they play in shops that sell patchouli and crystals and fairies made out of twigs. Shops that sell magic; magic that doesn’t exist.

She shakes her head. Soon, her husband will finish whatever work he’s absorbed in and he’ll come to the cottage. He’ll join her and banish all thoughts of this man and the odd ideas he has summoned to her mind. Harry wouldn’t tolerate such things for a second. He’s all too aware that reality hurts but he also knows that reality must be faced and he wouldn’t accept anything less in her. He’s clear-sighted. He’s always been the same, even when they met: he could always take one look at her and know if something had happened, if she was upset or brooding or angry. He always saw everything.

She realises that she has reached out and is gripping the sleeve of the old man’s coat. He is blinking, his eyes too pink, watering in the salt breeze.

Words spill from her. “Did he say anything to me?”

He shuffles. “I can’t hear him. That might just be the sea, though—the noise of it, drowning him out. Maybe he’s just too far distant. Here, but faded. My wife was the same, before she left. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear any words. Your boy—it might be that. Or maybe I just need to be closer.”

There it is. She straightens, her back stiffening, but still, she finds herself saying: “Come to the cottage. As soon as you can.”

She points across the line of dunes to the roof that can just be seen above the marram grass. Then she walks away, not as quickly as she would like, her feet slipping in the sand, the ground so eager to pull her back, or perhaps under.

Walking past the railing marking the edge of the path, she sees a bunch of ragged flowers tied to a post. They might once have been roses and lilies, but are now ruined, their browned petals gradually being snatched by the breeze. As she marches away, she cannot resist the impression that they are the same ones she’d seen on the beach, crushed and ruined and dead.

As soon as she invites him inside, she’s uncomfortable. It makes her feel a little better to see that he is too, though not by much. He grunts as she leads him over the threshold, until he stands, dark and fusty, in her white, clean kitchen.

She offers him a drink and he refuses. He looks around, his gaze skimming the surfaces and hanging mugs and kettle and toaster and little wooden seagulls and lighthouses her son had loved. It’s as if he’s looking for something and she follows his line of sight across the empty room, into the empty corners, through the open door and along the empty hall. He shrugs, a motion she realises is characteristic, and uninvited, he goes to the shelves on the far wall. He starts to pick through her possessions as if they were his own. He picks up a framed photograph of her son and suddenly she feels the dry touch of his fingers, as if they are on her arms instead of the smooth metal. He tilts it before his eyes and drinks in the picture, which seems even worse; an intrusion greater still.

“I suppose you do this all the time,” she says, for the sake of something to say, an attempt to stop him from prying where he has no business prying. But isn’t that what she wanted him to do?

He gives her a swift glance, one that doesn’t quite meet her eyes before his gaze slides away.

“No, I don’t.” His voice is higher one moment, pitched lower the next, and she isn’t certain if that’s for effect or a consequence of not using it very much. He adds in a rush, “I didn’t ask to come here. I don’t want anything.”

Doesn’t he? He says that now, but it probably won’t be long until he uncovers some problem, something he needs, something she could help him with. After all, he’s helping her—isn’t he? And she invited him here, opened the door and practically dragged him in. That makes her think of vampires, the way all power against them is lost once they’re asked inside, and she wonders if this is any different.

But she did ask him in. That requires something from her, so she indicates an album on the shelf and he takes it down. She takes it from him, turns the pages, showing him her life. As they look at it together, her son takes on substance and colour. Her heart warms as the moments flood into her, lived again, if only for a moment: a laugh, penetrating the quiet house. A shadow, hovering in the corner by the table. A fresh drawing carried in triumph and pinned to the fridge with a magnet. She sees her boy again as if he were next to her. There he is at eleven months old, sitting on the lounge rug, sucking on the corner of a building block. At two, little legs running towards her, chubby hands grasping her knees to save him from falling. At four, he scribbles with a blue crayon, creating sea and sky, sky and sea, no difference between them that she can make out. At six he is jubilant, holding up a crab he’d pulled from a rockpool. After the photograph was taken he’d dropped it and held out his finger, pincer-nipped, for her to kiss better. Finally, there he is at seven, always seven now, folding those little paper boats, one after the next; the ones that never would sail.

He is there and not there, but still, she sees him. She hears his voice. She can smell him, but she can’t feel his sticky fingers or run her hand over his fine hair. She can’t ask what he wants to say to her, can’t soothe away his wounds. She blinks and there is only this man, his breath laced with stale coffee and cigarette smoke, the musky undertow of dog embedded in his clothes.

She tells him her son’s name. “A car accident,” she says.

The old man flinches, as if he’s seeing that too, or perhaps he had only forgotten she was there. He gives a sudden quick nod. “I’m not getting anything,” he says, and for a second she thinks he means money; then the walls of the cottage close in on her, just as empty as they had been before she arrived, as empty as they were afterwards, she alone unable to fill them.

“Maybe he just likes being on the beach,” he says. “That might be all. I can’t control it. I can’t make him come to me. It’s not like that.” He picks up a paper boat from the shelf and she resists the urge to snatch it away. His touch is a defilement, something that doesn’t belong, something from a different world to her and her son.

He sighs and replaces it, rubs his fingers together as if savouring the feel of the paper, or as if it’s all just as strange to him.

“I’d best get back,” he says. “The old lad’ll be wanting his dinner.”

She’d felt nothing but revulsion when he entered her home, but now has to swallow down anger at the thought of him leaving, the knowledge that he can leave. He can put all this behind him, cleanly and simply, forgetting it all by stepping through the door and going back to his dog. In the meantime, where is her son? He is leaving too, fading, the man had said, and soon it will be too late for anything at all.

“The beach then,” she says quickly. “You can find him there. Please.”

He does that thing again, a brief glance and away, as if she were something only half-glimpsed, or something he’d never wished to see at all.

She stands at the edge of the sea, staring at the horizon. The tide is coming in and she’s soaked to the knee, still wearing her shoes, but she doesn’t feel the cold, doesn’t feel anything at all. The sun always seems to hang in the same position; she might have been there for hours, even days. The breeze picks at her jacket and puts its fingers on her skin but there is no chill, nothing but the knowledge of being numb. She is waiting for something. She doesn’t like to admit that to herself, but it’s true. She has become one of those people she’d imagined lining up at a sideshow tent, the ones who are only half present any longer: there, but not there, always looking into another time, another place.

Ghosts. They are something we make.

And yet there is no trace of her boy hopping over the waves, no sign even of the old man. She wonders how long it will be until Harry comes to her. She hasn’t spoken to her husband in a while, hasn’t had any words to say, but it can’t be long now. He wouldn’t leave her here alone. He would know that wouldn’t be good for her, and he was sensible after all, the clear-sighted one; he wouldn’t allow that to happen.

And so she faces it. The one memory of her son she never wanted to see again.

A drive home. It was late. He’d been to a sleep-over, but he’d got scared; he didn’t like the woods around the house, said there were faces in the trees. He kept getting up and wandering about. Tired of leading him back to bed and tucking him in, this boy who wasn’t her boy, his fears not her child’s fears, the friend’s mother had eventually called her.

The roads were quiet and dark; easy to see any headlights coming towards her. She was tired, perhaps even exasperated. The night lent itself to driving a little too fast. Her son was sniffling, upsetting himself afresh with the thought of the trees pressing in close, because they were all around him still; they surrounded the car for miles. Then, around the next corner, with no lights, no warning: a bike. The rider was wavering, drunk maybe, weaving towards the central white line.

She saw her hands, pale as they spun the wheel, gripping tight, trying to turn a car that was already set in the other direction. She heard a series of thuds, each no doubt spelling out irreversible damage to the undercarriage as the car reached the edge of the road, crossed the rough verge, skated across a shallow ditch, reached fallen branches. The trees were skeletal in front of her; ghost-trees, painted by her headlights.

That was when she saw her son.

She saw him, and yet she didn’t. He had form, but no face she could make out. He had weight, but no substance. He was a blur, a shape in the corner of her eye, doing what he shouldn’t do, positioned where he shouldn’t be. Her mind could not fathom it. It was only afterwards that she realised he must have undone his seatbelt, the one she’d clipped him into so carefully—or was she not careful enough? That, she would never know. Perhaps, one day, he will tell her.

Her son had become a shadow that flitted through the car, or perhaps the trees had come for him after all, summoning him to their twisted lair. Her son, in that moment, was magical. He was flying.

She cannot remember seeing him after that, although she knows she must have. There would have been the hospital, or at least an undertaker’s; the choosing of clothes to dress him in, something she’d done every morning for so long, but this time the last. Then there’d be the church, a cemetery, but all of that is gone. Perhaps the sea has washed it away. She knows she must have absented herself—prostrate with grief, isn’t that what people call it? Or she might have been recovering in hospital, dosed up on tranquilisers because the doctors knew she couldn’t face the bad news. Or perhaps she had been present all along; there, but not there. Whatever had happened, the outcome was the same. She never saw any of it.

Something taps against her feet. The sea has brought her something: a sorry bundle of what were once roses and lilies. She does remember those—choosing them for him so carefully, running her hands over the silk ribbon, once clean and gleaming, now bedraggled and stained with salt.

She realises she is holding a little paper boat. She bends, plucks a flower that is too soft, becomes into a handful of damp petals. She tucks them inside the hull, waits as a fresh wave washes her feet, then sets the boat onto the backwash. She imagines climbing aboard with her boy, waving goodbye to the cottage, the beach, the shore. The boat overturns at once. Salt water dampens its edges, then runs in a shining wash across the surface. As the paper begins to disintegrate, there is the faintest trace of decay on the air. The sea takes what she offers and does not give it back.

An indeterminate time later, she sees the old man. He is walking on the beach, his dog beside him, but they never seem to come any closer. Perhaps he hasn’t seen her; or perhaps he has. She waves at him. She wants to tell him that it’s all right, she isn’t going to ask him anything else. She knows there are no words he can give her.

He sees her waving and stands stock still. She calls out, something that doesn’t really matter, but anyway, he cannot hear her. He touches his fingers to his ear and shakes his head. I see your lips moving, but there aren’t any words. He isn’t so very far distant, but perhaps her voice is drowned out by the sound of the sea. He waves back once, his arm outstretched, as if saying goodbye. Then he turns and walks away. For a while, his dark coat is outlined against the marram grass, and then he is gone.

Time skips. She is back at the cottage, standing in the kitchen, looking out into the dark. This particular window overlooks the side of the property. There is a strip of grass, and beyond that another couple of holiday homes, closed up for the season. After that is only a band of trees, dark and formless. She peers down at the drive, sparse white gravel with weeds poking through it, too many; someone ought to pluck them out. There is no car parked there, not the old one nor a replacement, and for the first time she wonders how she got here. She wonders what she said to Harry when she left for the summer cottage, or how he replied. That she needed some time, probably. And he would have said it was all right, she should take all the time she needed. She tries to remember his exact phrasing, but she can’t, nor even his way of speaking: instead, it’s the old man’s voice that comes to her.

My wife was the same, before she left. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear any words.

She remembers the way he’d waved to her on the beach and tries to shake the thought away. She feels unmoored. If she could only remember what Harry had said to her, anything at all, surely she could find her way back again; seize upon something real. She could feel real again, take on substance and colour. She could resume her life, go on breathing, existing, surviving. But there is nothing. She is here but not here. She might still be standing on the beach, her mind empty, thoughts scattered like seagulls wheeling on the breeze. She might be adrift, having climbed onto a little paper boat and cast herself into the sea.

Then she turns and sees something both familiar and strange. There is a vase on the table, though she doesn’t remember putting it there. The vase is full of dead flowers. When she reaches out and grasps them, she finds that they are desiccated. They crumble into fragments and fall from her hands and scatter to the floor.

As she stares down, a beam of light pushes in through the window, tracks across the petals, across the wall, over the table. A moment afterwards, she hears the sound of an engine. A car is pulling onto their drive. She goes to the window and for a moment, makes out a fragment of her husband’s face through the windscreen. The car is new: red, though she always preferred black or silver. She doesn’t remember seeing it before. She should go to the door, meet her husband on the threshold, but still she doesn’t move. Instead, she waits for him to step across the drive and turn his key in the lock, this man who always knew her, understood her; saw her.

Soon, he will come inside. He’ll walk into the kitchen and stand in front of her. She prepares to turn and look into his face, and wonders if, this time, he will be able to see anything at all.

About the Author

Alison Littlewood’s first book, A Cold Season, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and described as ‘perfect reading for a dark winter’s night.’ Other titles include Mistletoe, The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and The Unquiet House. She also wrote The Cottingley Cuckoo as A. J. Elwood, along with the forthcoming The Other Lives of Miss Emily White. Alison’s short stories have been picked for a number of year’s best anthologies and published in her collections Quieter Paths and Five Feathered Tales. She has won the Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction. Alison lives with her partner Fergus in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls in deepest darkest Yorkshire, England. She has a penchant for books on folklore and weird history, Earl Grey tea, fountain pens, and semicolons.