I left Brighton early that morning. The others had gone out the night before, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, but I’d stayed behind to keep my head clear for the drive. Caitlin probably thought that I was avoiding her, although that hadn’t been my intention. This was the state in which we lived, every action magnified: the turn of a head, the shrug of the shoulders able to insult or alienate. To cause storms upon the far side of the world.
She came down to say goodbye. I was staring out at the garden with a cup of coffee in my hand when she appeared in the doorway. I’d been moving around the kitchen as quietly as I could, so I apologised for waking her.
‘It’s OK.’ The words came through a long yawn, which she breathed against the back of her hand. ‘I was getting up now, anyway.’
‘Are you working today?’
She shook her head. ‘I like getting up this early. The light, the quiet.’
She sat down, pushing away the pungent remains of someone’s moong dal from the table, and picked up a peacock feather from the clutter at the side. We were a pack of scavengers in this house. Last year, someone had brought home the skull of a horse, perfectly bleached by the sea.
‘Did you speak to your mum last night?’
‘I called her.’
‘How is she?’
‘She sounded all right.’
They’d met the previous year, when Mum came down to the coast for a couple of days. We’d gone out for a meal together, to a fish restaurant off the Lanes. I ended up drinking too much. Mum and I argued; Caitlin made her excuses and left us to sit, simmering in candlelight. ‘I’m sorry she had to see that,’ Mum had said, picking apart the wrapper of an after dinner mint.
‘It must bring a lot back.’ She was pushing me, I could tell. ‘I mean the fact that she’s asking you back to commemorate things…’
‘Yes. Yes, I guess you’re right.’
She gazed at me, her eyes dispassionate and calculating, as though she had noticed something in me that she was deciding whether to share. We had, after all, shared a lot. A flicker, and she changed her mind. ‘Well, give her my love.’
‘She asked about you,’ I said. (‘Whatever happened between you and that girl?’ she had said, but it hadn’t been during our most recent phone call and I think that Caitlin understood this.)
‘How do you feel about driving?’
‘It’ll be OK.’
‘It’s a long way by yourself.’
‘I’ve been further.’
‘When you were in America? Didn’t you drive to Mexico?’
‘Not that far,’ I said. ‘But I did some driving.’
‘A road trip. Is that what this is?’ She grinned at me, holding the feather to her mouth.
‘In a way.’
‘Did I ever tell you about the time I wanted to go hitchhiking? I was seventeen. I had these romantic ideas. But after standing freezing on a verge for about half an hour and the only people who stop… Well, you end up wishing they hadn’t.’
She began to spin the quill beneath her thumb and forefinger, and it seemed that the eye at the tip was winking open closed, open closed. I glanced down at Caitlin’s bare legs, the fine blonde stubble around her calves. I remembered the times that we would stay up late in her room. She’d still been smoking at the time, both of us had, although unlike Caitlin I’d never really caught the habit so had never had to give it up. She would lie on her front, rolling the filter of the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, and when she was done, she would offer it to me between her fingers, the way she held the feather now.
The beginning of spring had been cold and grudging. You could walk out into the bright, white sun, but away from cover the wind slipped across the channel, thin and quick as a blade. A silver wind. Over Marine Drive the green heavy waters smashed into white, like the fine ground powder of destroyed glass. Starlings oozed over the pier, an intelligent fog spreading in front of the pink sunrise. Caitlin had come to the front door, watching me leave as I reversed out onto the road. Despite all of our poses, hers was the belief that allowed me to continue, to navigate and survive all the hazards of the morning.
Words © Daniel Bennett