Thursday 3 August 2023

After Setting, the Sun Rises by Emma Lee, rosehip and hibiscus tea

It looked like a place where hope goes to die: one of those sand and salt-blasted English coastal towns where only those with small children braved the beach and the sea disappeared from sight when the tide went out. The air jangled with jingles from slot machines and the briny tang was disguised by layers of cheap plastic goods and stale grease from deep fat fryers. Smells, sights and sounds she was so familiar with. Sarah left her husband’s car in the shaded corner of the long stay car park. She fed the ticket machine with coins she’d secreted in a wrap of ribbon pinned inside a rip in the lining of her anorak. The ticket was for twelve hours. It would take until the following morning for the car to be noticed. Her husband wouldn’t leave his office to collect it.

She was grateful for the breeze which blew strands of her blonde hair across her face. The motorway service station gave her the chance to put some make-up on: a smoky-blue shadow and starlet red lipstick, colours Martyn would never associate with her. It felt like a mask.

Sarah sank onto a bench near the indoor play centre where there was a ball pool for toddlers, a pool with waterslides for teenagers to try out chat up lines and, on the top storey, a plastic rink incapable of recreating the frictionless surface of ice and only used by the determined or those seeking refuge from the social activities below, as she had as a teenager. The scars left on the plastic would match the tracing of cuts on her arms which had given her an all-too-brief moment of release.

 

“You’re so lucky!” Jackie had gushed when Sarah had let it slip that she’d had a date with Martyn. “He’s so ambitious. And gorgeous.”

They were engaged before university. Sarah often slipped her diamond ring on a chain around her neck rather than wearing it on her finger. She remained faithful. She wasn’t convinced he did.

“He’s a mathematician, of course he doesn’t understand your English degree,” Jackie dismissed Sarah’s tears after his teasing. “He’s at Oxford. You should be proud.”

Sarah swallowed. Martyn was fond of saying “Oxford Brookes” with the emphasis firmly on “Oxford”, leaving the “Brookes” inaudible and eventually dropped altogether. His degree was in Business Studies which he described as “Practical Maths”. Not quite lying, but he’d never correct any incorrect assumptions.

Sarah raised concerns about Martyn’s drinking.

“It’s a stressful job. He has to entertain clients. It’s not like he’s some sad sack drinking cheap cider at the local.”

She and Jackie parted ways months after graduation. Sarah moved to Witney and marriage to Martyn, who was swiftly promoted to partner in a financial services firm. She’d struggled to find a job that he approved of, “You’re not going to be a drab librarian. Definitely not a secretary. Not in advertising. Can you think of the impression it would give clients? Better you don’t work. I need you glamorous at corporate events.”

“You’ve brought your better half,” commented yet another client.

“If I could spend eight hours a day in the gym, I could look like that,” said his wife whose name Sarah had forgotten. “Martyn works so hard. You must be proud.”

Sarah managed something that might have looked like a smile. She was wearing a demure navy shift dress, with sapphire earrings and pendant. Her make-up was neutral with a pearl lipstick.

“You should look womanly yet girlish,” Martyn had told her. “School uniform colours, pink lips.”

He’d be asleep before she was ready for bed, but sometimes she woke to him using her body, not bothered by her lack of response. Resistance on her part meant she’d be hit or choked. Bruises were never left where they’d be seen.

“You’re so lucky,” continued the corporate wife, “he treats you like a princess.”

Sarah stretched her lips and mumbled something about needing to speak to someone. If she was a princess, it was the one tested by a pea under twenty mattresses.

 

A seagull shrieked at her. Sarah shrugged, spreading her palms: nothing to offer. Martyn had become secretive. Bank and credit card statements that used to come by post stopped and he spent more time on his phone, tilting the screen away from her. Sarah knew not to ask. She was given less for the weekly shop, and he began coming home for lunch as well as dinner. He told her what her movements were and asked about any that weren’t what he expected. His questions told her there was a tracking device on her phone. She couldn’t leave it behind because he’d phone her hourly and she’d be punished for not answering quickly.

 

“I got your ring tightened,” said Martyn as they were getting ready for another event.

“Thank you,” she said, tightening the belt on her dress and triple-checking there was no lipstick on her teeth. She took her engagement ring from him and slipped it on her finger. It felt different. In the sunlight of the summer evening, it gave a rainbow, not something a genuine diamond did.

She started a secret fund, not much, just a pound coin or a five pound note she could slip from his wallet when he slept. Not enough to raise suspicion. She sewed them into clothes linings or the hems of dresses, telling Martyn she was adding curtain weights to stop dress skirts being blown about in the wind. He approved of that. He wanted other men to notice her but not touch. Nothing above her knee or below her neck was to be visible. No pale fabrics that might reveal a bra strap.

“I don’t know if I’m happy or sad we don’t have children,” he said in the car.

She kept quiet.

“I mean on one hand it means you kept your figure. On the other I wanted a son. Someone to pass the firm on to.”

“It’s a shame.”

“Perhaps we ought to find out why.”

“Perhaps,” she echoed. With him eating three meals a day at home and taking the lion’s share, she couldn’t top up her scraps, not that she felt like eating anything. Not only had she lost her appetite, but she didn’t have enough body fat to support menstruation. He was too pleased with her child-like figure to notice she no longer begged him for money for tampons or what that implied.

 

Sarah stood up slowly. Quick movements made her feel faint. Her large handbag contained a week’s worth of clothes, carefully rolled, all she could take without him noticing: leggings, tee shirts, hoodies and a couple of shift dresses that would work in an office environment. She heaved it onto her shoulder. She didn’t know how long she could have stuck with Martyn, squirreling loose change and gradually shrinking into herself.

Two nights ago, and out of character, he’d left his phone on the bedside table instead of under his pillow. Tilting it under the bathroom light, she traced the smears on the screen to unlock it. She checked his browsing history. His bank balance was at maximum overdraft, cards maxed out. She’d expected that.

One transaction had made her stomach flip. She’d read it several times to be sure she’d read it correctly, then had gone back to bed and slipped his phone under his pillow. The money hadn’t come from the company’s main account which paid his commission, but a client account.

Martyn could argue she’d been stealing from him, but she could counter it was martial income and it was his insistence that she didn’t work. He’d also ensured that their house, his accounts and the car were all in his name only. All she had were the clothes she had with her and the cash she’d secreted. But she wasn’t stealing from a client.

Once he was fast asleep, she eased her phone under her pillow and slipped out of the house. Although her drive was only a couple of hours, she couldn’t risk him waking, finding the car gone and tracking it. Her cash would get her a bus ticket to the anonymity of the nearest city. What then, she had no idea.

She turned her back to the beach and brushed paint flakes from her leggings. She walked past the sea front’s arcades and shops selling cheap souvenirs, moving inward towards the town’s main street and a cheap café where she intended to have a round of egg and chips and a cup of hot, sweet tea. No one ever made a sensible plan on an empty stomach.

 

About the author

Emma Lee’s publications include “The Significance of a Dress” (Arachne, 2020) and "Ghosts in the Desert" (IDP, 2015). She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, 2015), was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs at https://emmalee1.wordpress.com

 

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