'She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air.'
A powerful piece of writing about a woman in an abusive relationship, Message in a Bottle by Eilidh Clark won second prize in this year's SMHAF Writing Awards.
Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears.
He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here.
He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.
She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though.
She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the in jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon.
She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.
She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year.
‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point?’ he’d said, and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’
She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand.
She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk!
She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape.
She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.
She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.
It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.
She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven.
Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.
She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.
‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it.
He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note.
70 Stories is an online project curated by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mental Health Foundation. The project connects stories from our Writing Competition, stories from SMHAF participants, and more in a compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.