by Susan Elsley

I GO IN APRIL when I wake up and my mouth’s parched as if dreams have sucked me dry. I text the man I sleep with every third night and tell him I’ve got a cold. He offers soup and paracetamol. I text, ‘No. Thanks,’ and imagine him staring at his phone before pulling on his running gear.

I get my tent and my sleeping bag out of the cupboard. I leave a message for my boss and say I’m taking a week off. ‘I need space,’ I say. ‘It’s caught up with me.’ She’ll go with that because she prides herself on being understanding. Then I turn off my phone and toss it in my backpack along with a jumper and a sandwich.

When I start the car, my stomach lurches and I take a slug of water. Riffs of memory have tugged for months. Popping up when I am doing the dishes or walking to work. Sliding in when the man kisses my forehead in the morning. I bat them away, hoping that it will get better the further I am from that hot, hard day last summer when my dad held my hand for the last time.

I take the road to the motorway and my shoulders relax. All I’ve done is hit the highway in my dad’s old car and I’ve made more decisions than I have done for months. I drive towards the mountains. By six thirty, the light’s a threadbare glimmer. I sing songs from way back, remembering Dad’s booming bass and Mum joining in on the chorus. The old notes float around the car.

I arrive in the evening. With detours, it’s taken me seven hours to get here. There’s little to see apart from a straggle of lights in the village across the bay. In the tent I reach for the torch when there’s rustling, only to hear footpads in retreat.

It’s nine when I crawl outside. The sun’s fighting its way through early mist, and there’s a slow rumble from the sea. I walk through grass spotted with flag irises down to the gate that leads to the beach. I have not visited this place for fifteen years. It’s never cropped up in conversations, but memories have wriggled in since Dad died. 

The beach seems smaller but long enough for a jog to the rocks at the end. I lie down on one that’s long and almost flat and put my jacket under my head, watching the clouds float in from the west. My phone buzzes. It’s a text from the man asking if he should come round. My finger hovers. There’s a message I’ll send later. I drift into stillness.

A dog barks and I prop myself up on my elbows. A woman in an orange jacket walks towards me with a slight limp that I recognise. A black Labrador zigzags besides her and sits when she stops a few metres away.

‘I saw someone camping in the field,’ she says. ‘I’ve looked every morning since the summer. In case you came back now John’s gone.’

‘Hello, Annie,’ I say.

She looks older with her hair a cluster of silver and her face sallow without the russet lipstick she used to wear.

‘Come to the house,’ she says, and turns.

The dog hovers while I pick up my jacket. Annie walks off, and I run to catch up as if I was here last week and this meeting is nothing unexpected. The fuchsia lined path still makes me feel something magical might happen when we see the house. I let the gate bang behind me, and the spell’s broken.  

The kitchen is the same except there are no drawings on the fridge door and the clock with rays has gone. Annie holds out her hand to take my jacket.

‘It’s good to see you, Lorna.’

The sound of my old name makes me start. People don’t call me that anymore. I’m Lorrie.

‘And you,’ I say, even though that’s an untruth.

‘I’d recognise you anywhere. Those gorgeous auburn curls. Like hers.’

I put my hand up, as if to protect myself from the soft tug of a brush on childhood hair and relax when I remember the touch of lips on my forehead.

Annie fills the kettle. Her fingers are as slim as they always were, but she’s not wearing any rings. I used to think her hands were like a film star’s, with pearly pink nails and the gleam of silver on each hand.

She points to a framed photograph. A boy with a fishing net grins, while a girl in shorts squints at the camera. Her legs are smooth without a ripple of puckering skin on the left thigh.

‘Do you remember? We had a barbeque. Rory said he’d catch a fish,’ she says. ‘But he didn’t catch anything, and we had fish fingers instead.’  

I know she wants me to nod and add my stories. Us laughing round the table when Rory told us about the fish that had slipped out of his hands. My dad patting Rory on the back when he got upset and pushed his plate away.

‘No. I’ve forgotten,’ I say.

The lie’s easy. The man in the city said it was strange that I didn’t have any photographs.

‘They’re somewhere,’ I told him. Dad’s answer. As if they were in a box under a bed and all I had to do was find the key.

Annie touches the picture. ‘You wore those shorts every day that summer.’ Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Do you remember what happened, Lorna?’

‘It’s hazy.’

Dad said I’d forgotten because I needed to. ‘Trauma,’ he said, so I never told him that I remembered having a boiled egg for breakfast, and a white boat bobbing in the bay. I let him think that everything had floated off like seaweed fronds with the tide, so he didn’t have to explain.

‘Go through,’ Annie says, ‘I’ll bring coffee.’

I walk into the living room which is filled with pale April sun. The same bookshelves are along one wall. New doors open into the garden. Behind the trees is the blue grey of the sea.  

Annie puts a mug next to me and stands by the window. I ought to ask how Rory’s doing. Instead, I pick up a small ceramic dog from the table. It slips out of my fingers and rolls onto the rug.

‘Sorry,’ I say, and reach down to pick it up.

Annie waves her hand as if she doesn’t care. Her words come out in spikey sentences.

‘We were like twins. Your Mum and me. I loved it that you visited every summer. You played with Rory on the beach. Jam sandwiches when you were hungry. We drank coffee in the morning and gin in the afternoon. We had such fun.’

‘I remember,’ I say.

The sweetness of strawberry jam on white bread. Lying on the lawn plucking at daisies while I listen to Mum and Annie talking. Dad handing us sausages charred from a beach fire. The squidge of wet sand between my toes as I skip towards the waves.

The dog whines and Annie opens the door. He heads towards the flower bed and starts to dig. The sun disappears behind a cloud, and the tightness in my chest shifts. The afternoon I’d forgotten until three months ago gets brighter. I run across the sand. Scratches burn my shins. I hear Rory shout, and I sprint as if I’m being whipped by the breeze. The tide’s in, and the rocks are covered except for the jagged ones high up the beach. If I scramble over them, I’ll be safe from Rory who wants to hit me like he did when I fell in the rose bushes and petals covered my head. Except I don’t get to the rocks fast enough, and he shoves me with his fists.

Annie turns from the window where she’s watching the dog. Her eyes are closed. 

‘I heard Rory scream,’ she says. ‘You fell on the rocks.’

This is why I’ve come. I lean forward and touch the ridge of the scar on my thigh. I remember Rory staring at me. His mouth a hollow. Blood on my fingers. Pain that makes me curl up. Moaning that’s like a hum.

There’s something else that’s wrong. My father appears over the dune with his floppy hair pushed back from his forehead. His chest’s bare, and he carries his shirt. He shouts behind him, and there’s Annie in the dress that Mum said was the colour of the setting sun. It’s buttoned up funny so I can see the top of her breasts and she’s pulling on her sandals as she follows Dad. I shout out, ‘Where’s Mum?’ Then there’s only a swamping darkness.

‘We found you,’ she says. ‘Me and John. So much blood. You were unconscious by the time they took you off by helicopter.’ She taps on the window. ‘That silly dog.’

I’m in a room filled with lights, but it’s cold as if a window is open. Someone holds my hand.

‘You were at the hospital,’ I say.

Annie rests her cheek rests against the glass of the window. ‘I had to be there. Chrissie couldn’t come.’

‘Where was she?’ 

‘She was ill, remember. She wanted you to have a holiday.’

The two events are squashed together. My fall. My mother’s falling away. When I went to see her in the hospital back home my bandaged leg was hidden under my trousers.

‘Our secret,’ Dad said, before we walked into the ward.

I touched my leg and looked up at him and said, ‘OK,’ as if not saying anything was easy.

She was in a room with a machine that pinged. I told her about the starfish I’d found, and she squeezed my hand in a grip that was feather light. Dad watched us, and then stared out of the window, when she said that it would be alright.

That autumn was squelching leaves and rotting roses. The quiet got quieter, and I put the summer away. Neat in a box. Snippety snap. It stayed there until Dad died last summer, and I fell into the cracks between remembering and forgetting.

Annie has folded herself into a chair. She doesn’t look at me and her hands tug at her hair as if she wants to pull it out strand by strand.

‘It was nothing, me and him. Comfort, that’s all,’ she says, ‘I saw Chrissie before she died but she never knew. John never spoke to me again.’

Annie’s crying is muffled by her hand across her mouth. I pick up the ceramic dog. I toss it from one hand to the other, higher and higher, until I pull my right hand away. It falls onto the hearth and the head of the dog snaps off.

The breath I’ve been holding in my stomach bursts out of me in sharp skelps. As if I hadn’t known that we’d rubbed away the day until only faint lines remained. Dad’s hollowing grief. Her lonely guilt. My throbbing pale scar.


Susan Elsley writes short and long fiction and lives by the sea in Edinburgh, Scotland. Short stories have been published in The Storms, Northern Gravy, Postbox, PENning, Pushing Out the Boat, Northwords Now and The Blue Nib. Shortlisted for Moniack Mhor’s Emerging Writer Award in 2019 and the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize in 2023. She is working on a short story collection and her first novel.  Find her at