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by Cath Barton

He runs his hands over his shaved head and stands sideways to the door. There’s a whiff coming off him, last night’s beer mingled with the fry-up she must have cooked for him this morning. The woman’s at the café counter with a boy who’s twisting away from her; the man’s jiggling coins in the pockets of his jeans. It wouldn’t take much, I can see. Just the wrong kind of look. From her, or even me.

“Come on, Jake,” she says. “Just choose a juice, yeah?” Her voice cracks and I can see that she’s that close to shouting. Or something worse.

The man says nothing, just rocks on his heels. He must work out to get those tattooed biceps to bulge. Does he hit the woman, at night, drink-fuelled, when their bedroom door is closed and the child is in bed next door, supposedly asleep?

We’re behind them now on the path through the reeds, heading for the lighthouse. He has that kind of wide-legged walk. The one that men like him have. Men with a casual sense of entitlement. The sort who would have been gun-toting cowboys in another life. The woman’s wearing a baseball cap and I wonder what it’s covering up. They’re together, the three of them, but walking apart.

We stop, you and I, to look out over the still lagoon. No birds in sight, then a solitary coot, emerging silently from the reed bed. The plop of a fish nearby. Circles spreading.

“You wouldn’t know there was anything bad in the world, would you?” I say. The two of us laugh, quietly, and sit there, close, just watching the blue between the reeds.

When we get to the path that skirts the shore we see them again. The boy has climbed down onto the rocks. Voices rise up, indistinct. I turn because, behind us, other children are shouting. The sounds swirl with the cries of rising geese. When I look out to sea again I don’t see anyone. Just trails of prints, from three-toed birds, and maybe the bounding of a dog.

“Come on,” you say, taking my hand. “I’m thirsty.” Your easy smile wipes my mind clean of worry.

Until later, as I lie in my safe bed. I don’t even know her name, and there’s nothing I can do.


Cath Barton’s prize-winning debut novella, The Plankton Collector, is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.