To be by the sea (A short, short story)

She had driven through the night to get to her favourite place. The seaside had always held a certain magic for her. Not the beaches of the Mediterranean or the strange English coastal towns that made her hum Morissey’s Everyday is like Sunday. Someone indeed had forgotten to bomb them down. No, she longed for the rough seaside of the far North of Scotland. No amusement arcades, no piers. No sweet rock or salty fish and chips. Normally, just a lone car park, a camper van here and there, out of season rarely anyone.

It had been a moment of madness, she thought now as she was driving on a single track road just after 5 am. It had been a Sunday afternoon and the thought of returning to work the next day had suddenly seemed so impossible. Like her personal Everest and she was not trained, not equipped and yes, not ready to climb it. At the same time, the thought of spending one more hour in her house seemed likewise impossible.

She had packed a small bag. A few changes of clothes. A raincoat. Scotland after all. Walking boots always in the car, as if she prepared to run through the countryside at a moment’s notice. Some snacks purchased from the petrol station. Crisps, chocolate, coke. The three Cs of any successful road trip. There was no Thelma to her Louise. No Clyde to her Bonnie.

Her SatNav indicated an arrival time at 5.30 am. Setting of from the petrol station at 6.30 in the evening, she travelled up the motorway, only stopping occassionally to use service station toilets, replenish the big Cs and once to refill the petrol tank. Now, she was the only car on a narrow single track road that she knew would lead to one of the best parts of the coast in Scotland.

She would have to call in sick. Checking her phone, she realised she had no reception. She should have sent a text when she was in the Inverness area. Was there phone reception in the village? Probably. She threw her phone onto the passenger seat, slightly annoyed with herself that she had not thought about calling in sick, that she was checking her phone while driving and then that she had thrown the phone so hard it ended up in the footwell. She never did things in the right order.

Now, that she was approaching her destination (ETA: 5:35 am), she felt unsure about her decision. A bit late to get qualms about her courage and her longing to be away from it all. It had started Friday night. For once, she had joined a gang from work for their usual Friday night dinner. There was a lot of teasing, that she was joining them. “Oh, Carol, are you now becoming social.” There was also a lot of teasing as the new colleague who had joined the team that Monday was going too. “Carol’s only coming out because Hank is joining us. Carol and Hank sitting in a tree…” It had continued like this all afternoon and Carol almost gave up on the idea on going for the curry, but she knew she had no choice. If she opted out now, the teasing would get worse. She often wondered if her workplace was the only one like that. The teasing, the familiarity where there should have been professional distance. No matter what walls she build around herself, they kept on coming at her. Breaking down any defensive structure she had erected. Making her blush and worse.

She was used to it. She had worked for this small marketing company for years. Office admin and general do-it-all. There were 10 of them including the boss, who was the worst of them all. Now 11 with Hank. They specialised in those glossy brochures, she always wondered if they were not just a waste of paper and no one actually looked at them. An expensive design exercise that allowed her boss to write huge invoices and pay all of their wages. They were proud of their output, it looked good and they wanted you to look at it and compliment them and tell them how well they had done. Like kindergarten kids. Nice colouring in, Steph. That kind of thing. She was not creative. And she was constantly reminded of it.

“Carol, as someone with no creative bone in your body, what do you feel when you look at this brochure.” She hated being put on the spot like that and in all the years, she had never gotten used to it. What she wanted to say was that she felt nothing at all looking at the brochure, other than maybe intense boredom. That their conversations about fonts, colours and paper weights and textures bored her to the point where she wanted to go home and pull the duvet over her head and sleep for three days. The self-importance of these trivial things was everything she felt to be wrong with the world. Instead she said: “It appeals to me.” Or “Very nice.” This usually did the trick and was welcomed with words like “See, it even works on Carol.” As if she was the great litmus test for all design elements.

On Friday morning, she had looked forward to the weekend. Like most employed people. Not that she had great plans, but she wanted to do some grocery shopping, read a book, maybe garden a bit if the weather was nice. Call her mother for the obligatory once a week phone call. Drink a cup of coffee without rush. Friday at the office was always a bit mad. Rushing to get things out to clients, who would not look at stuff until Monday, having meetings where anything that was decided was forgotten by Monday, the usual talk about weekend plans. She did not like most days at the office, but Friday was worst.

She could now not remember what made her agree to join them for the curry. She never went. She did not get asked, not anymore, but really not ever. But Hank had come over to her desk and asked her: “Will you come out for dinner tonight?” He had no idea that she was not part of the gang. She was not quite wearing the right clothes and saying the right things. Always standing at the edge of the party looking in. And really, she had no desire in spending any more time with the lot of them than she had to. But Hank was nice. He was polite. He had made her a coffee during the tea round, the others normally ignored her. When he saw her coming back from the shops with her arms full, he actually opened the door. Little gestures like that. It was nice. That’s why she agreed to go out.

They went to an Indian restaurant around the corner from the office where you could bring your own alcohol. She never drank so she ordered a juice. She wondered when they had added something to her juice. Or maybe it was in the meal. She had gone to the toilet, left her drink and when she came back her starter was on the table. They were all sniggering and she was so used to it, she did not even think about it for a moment.

She felt a hot flash of embarrassement travelling up her neck into her face. A glance in the mirror and she could see herself glow with the shame.

She had no idea what it was that they had given her. But from the moment her main course arrived she had no clear memory of the meal. Flashes popped into her head. Her talking a lot. Them laughing until they wept. Going to a club, Hank looking at her in a strange way. Her dancing on a table. She had come home without her blouse, just in her bra and a T-shirt not hers. Lots of photos were taken and put online. She looked at all of them on Saturday, they sent her links to her mobile phone. In one picture she was licking Ted’s face. She was appalled by this. So disgusting, but it must have been somewhere in her. Hidden and brought out by the drug. There must be a part of her that had wanted to lick Ted’s face and she did not quite know how she could go on with that feeling.

She was now in the small village. She parked the car and hunted for phone. She had just enough reception to send a message to her boss. At first she typed: “Not coming in today.” She then deleted the words and wrote: “I resign my position with immediate effect.” She knew she could. She had so much holiday left that her 4 weeks notice would be covered. And if not, she did not care anyway.

She got back into the driver’s side and drove the last few miles to the beach. The car park was empty. It was 6 am. The morning was bright, it would be sunny. She walked onto the path leading down to the beach. She felt like she was walking into another version of herself.

Friday night had ended with her asleep in the club on a sofa by herself. Just in her bra and her work trousers. She still had her handbag thank god, but all her colleagues had gone. Even Hank. They had just left her there. There were people laughing and pointing at her. She remembered only that she wanted to die in that moment. The effect of the drug was easing off, she was realising that she had no recollection of all the things she had done or were done to her. She was too weak to get up, so she just sat there. Minutes, hours later a girl approached her. She asked her if she was ok. No, she was not ok. She was a 42 years old, alone, working with a bunch of assholes and most definitely not ok. The girl gave her a T-shirt with the name of the club on, called her a taxi and sent her home. Kindness. Maybe. Probably just wanting to remove the embarrassing older woman.

The text messages and emails and tags on social media kept coming all Saturday and all Sunday. “Look at our Coral. Precious.” And each picture got likes and comments. “So funny.” “Ha, that old girl needed a bit of fun.”

For a moment, she thought that the anger and hurt and shame would take over her body, that she would not be able to walk, but then she looked up and saw the sandy length of the beach. The sea ferociously hitting it. Over and over again. It was like the sea could feel her anger and was angry for her. She sat down and did what she had come to do here for. What she traveled for all this way. She sat down and she wept.