The first time Max used the kissing gate near Trevington Haven that winter, he thought a leaf brushed his cheek. He must have been mistaken; he was a good arm’s distance from the sharp tangles of the hawthorn hedge. Not only that, it was January. The leaves were mulching, long buried under mud and foot. The steady breeze, then, blowing against the side of his face. Except it was warm like breath. He felt the sensation again on his return journey from the Trevington Arms. This time he batted the air as though there were a cloud of insects and rubbed his skin impatiently as the wooden gate thunked closed behind him.
Rather than diverting from the coastal path across the field to their rented cottage, Max walked the last few feet to the granite edge and admired the beautiful bleak seascape dominated by the elements. He tasted the salt on his lips with relish. The screeches of the gulls faded in and out with the wind.
Before Hannah had become difficult, it was here, to the whitewashed cottage comfortably hunkered down on the clifftop, that they returned season after season. They used to spy on the seals in the small cove below. The tide was out now and the rocks glistened. And there! One, two seals—no, three. One more shifting its blubber on the wet shingle. Was that another group over there? No. Maybe. Fuck it, there were lots of them. Max turned his back, tired of the game. They were just fat slugs anyway; he couldn’t see why Hannah was so fascinated with them.
Back at the cottage, Hannah would be preparing a stew with the lamb and the last of the veg in the fridge. He tried to imagine the smell of the rich meat simmering away instead of the wet earth and cow shit surrounding him. If he told her about the seals, she might be tempted to come out onto the cliff. She hadn’t been out there since their arrival on Monday. Remembering happy times would be good for her. He’d brought her up to the old place to help her rest. It seemed pointless somehow, but what else could he do? She hadn’t given him much warning, had she, when she’d admitted to being diagnosed. Hodgkin lymphoma. Of course it was; the same disease her mother had.
As Max stepped through the door of the cottage, hungry and cold, he heard the hard, sharp chop-chop-chop of a knife. He leaned against the kitchen doorway. The onions sizzled as Hannah slid them into the pan. Her shaved head, which she had done at the beginning of the summer, as he’d suggested, allowed him to see her face clearly, her expressions unconcealed by a mane of bewitching curls.
“Oh. I thought it would be done by now.”
She jumped. Said she was sorry again.
Max left to buy packet of cigarettes and more milk after his bacon and eggs the following day, leaving Hannah to do the washing-up; he’d always made it clear he liked a tidy house, and that included when they were away from home. If she wasn’t so damned quick to antagonise him, he’d count himself lucky to have her. He was definitely lucky with the weather. Dry again, although the wind had picked up. It had rained overnight, leaving dull cloud masking the shallow sun.
At the cliff edge before his short journey, he breathed in the sea air through his nostrils, felt invigorated. A few gulls swooped and struggled near the waves. Instinct warned him that someone approached, but when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the path was clear. The sensation persisted, and he eyed the kissing gate suspiciously, but it too was empty. As Max slipped inside the enclosure to head down to the village, the gate creaked. He hadn’t anticipated the touch on his cheek, and when it happened it felt so like a kiss he expected his skin to be damp. His fingers rose to it automatically, but it was dry. He thought of Hannah – not the Hannah now of course, but the Hannah eighteen months ago, and the kiss she gave him here; the kiss intended to soften his heart as she confessed her pregnancy. His fist curled, even now, at the blatant manipulation. What did she think he would do? He’d already told her he didn’t want any children. Her problem was that she never listened. She just wanted – all the time.
He looked up sharply. Huh. He thought he’d heard his name in the wind. It never stopped moaning and shrieking up here on the cliffs like a mad woman. He hurried through the kissing gate, quick as he could.
The man at the store asked about Max’s wife. He was surprised that the store owner knew who he was. You two used to come in a lot a few seasons ago, the man had said. Always seemed a very pleasant woman, your wife; a kind smile.
Max smile politely. “I’ll pass on your regards.”
Then he waited at the bus stop at the top of the hill for the bus home. They had driven to the store on Monday. It had been raining and she’d felt tired. Said she didn’t want to walk along the cliff. Perhaps she still felt guilty for provoking him the last time they were here. Max stopped, not wishing to be reminded of that day. It was ugly to him.
Of course, that wasn’t why he chose to catch the bus today; the sky threatened rain. It wasn’t that he was a little bit spooked by the gate, or Hannah’s kiss. The use of her name derailed his train of thought. Max sat on the thin plastic strip of a seat and watched a pair of gulls shag in the gutter of the church while he waited. It started to rain. He’d been right.
The cottage was almost immaculate when he returned, though the fatty stench of a fry-up still hung downstairs like a rancid fog. Stupid bitch should have opened the windows to freshen the place up. She knew he hated it; Christ, he’d told her enough times.
“I hear you’ve been smiling at men again, Hannah,” he spat. It seemed cutting her hair hadn’t stopped their interest.
Max pushed through the field to the edge of the cliff and stood staring out at the steady rise and fall of the slate green sea. It was a choppy, surging mass. The wind came buffeting inland and he had to struggle to hold his position. He clenched his fist repeatedly, forcing the bruised joints into activity, trying to let the pain pass through him. Max felt like he was being watched again. Had Hannah hobbled out from hiding, now he’d given her something to think about? No, the field was empty. He faced the gate and eyeballed the figure he imagined there. Fucking bitch. The feeling continued long after he turned away. He did not wish to return to the cottage right then. He couldn’t bear her self-pity. What he really wanted was a couple of pints at the pub. His fingertips briefly brushed the car keys in his pocket. She was even trying to deny him that now.
It was ridiculous. Who did she think she was? Max shoved the gate open and stepped inside. He felt the kiss on his cheek. He heard a voice, Max? Max. Her voice. He remembered looking back eighteen months ago, seeing her smile – so sweetly – before she delivered the hateful truth. Max turned now, but saw no-one on the other side of the gate. Yet there was a presence. Hannah of sorts, but no ghost. Hannah wasn’t dead. The old Hannah waiting for him, perhaps. Her memory then – not his; he wasn’t that weak – her memory, trapped in that enclosure the day she pushed him too far, the day he struck her for the first time. A memory that needed to be banished.
Max barged through the gate again, flapping his arm against the kiss on his cheek, roaring her name so as not to hear her voice. He ran across the field, sliding in the mud every other stride, on, on toward the white-washed cottage that looked like a phantom in the driving rain. He ran until his boots thumped onto the concrete path and, gasping, he wrestled the key from his pocket.
“Hannah!” Bursting in through the door.
Front room. Kneeling in her faded lounge pants and ratty jumper, worn slippers and that bloody slouch beanie. A piece of a puzzle caught between her fingers, the others contained tidily in the lid of the jigsaw box.
“Come here.” He didn’t wait for a response but took her arm and pulled her toward the door as she scrambled to her feet.
Max, my shoes, she said.
“Fuck your shoes.”
She was being deliberately slow – anything to make getting her to the gate as difficult as possible. She hopped like a mad woman down the path.
In the field, she couldn’t walk far without slipping. She fell several times, so he dragged her dead weight through the mud to force her to her feet again. Max, please, she said, I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m sorry.
“You’re going to make it better. You’re going to tell that thing to stop fucking with me.”
He tilted his head into the rain and wind. His thighs ached. His arm felt like it had been wrenched from its socket having to haul her around, but they made it to the gate. He pushed his wife down and her shoulder smacked against the post. The back of her head hit the hinged wood and shoved the kissing gate open. Her beanie had been lost in the churned mud. Her jumper was ripped and misshapen. Her lounge pants had slipped down to her thighs as she struggled. She pulled the waistband back up, irritated. She was barefoot, and daubed in mud. She was a fucking wreck.
“Do you see her?”
Hannah made a piss-poor attempt at sitting up, and didn’t bother to answer straight away. How many times does he have to show her he doesn’t tolerate being ignored?
Who? she asked.
The answer to her question was suddenly so ridiculous that Max could not bring himself to voice it. He closed his mouth. Her head lolled on her neck. How on earth can she see anything just staring at her fat mud-splattered legs?
Her head shot up. The same red eyes. He was sick of seeing them faking tears.
What do you want me to do, Max? she moaned.
He had already told her. Christ, she was dumb. “Tell it to leave me alone!”
Shaking, she twisted around, searching for it – whatever ‘it’ was. She started crying again, frustrated and helpless. I can’t see—
He slapped her.
His palm tingled as he roared at her pathetic carcass lying between the gate posts. “Tell it NOW!”
She muttered words and the wind stole them away.
“Don’t fucking whisper it, Hannah!”
Leave him… alone, she sobbed.
The wind still tore along the cliff howling like a banshee. The skeletal fingers of hawthorn branches remained an impenetrable maze. The kissing gate was still a gate. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to change. How could he know?
Hannah was still lying crumpled in the mud. Just like she had eighteen months ago. He shut his eyes to block the thought. “Get up.”
The wind almost unbalanced him.
She clambered up the gate’s cross brace as the structure swung away from Max. He hesitated. Grabbing her meant he would have to enter the enclosure.
“Did it work?”
Their eyes met briefly for the first time in months, then he broke away to look at the roiling sea. She was acting frightened and dumb, and of course she’d blame him because that’s what she did.
“Get your eyes off me.”
She dropped her gaze. He took a step forward and asked her once again: “Has she gone?” Her head moved down and then up.
“If you’re lying to me, Hannah, I will throw you off this fucking cliff.”
She wouldn’t dare, of that he was certain. Hannah’s step backward was as slight as her flinch. Look at her. He smiled.
“Where do you think you’re going, all barefoot and freezing, love? I’ll take care of you now. We can have a bath together, like we used to. That’ll warm us up, won’t it? Eh? Light some candles, open a bottle of wine, treat ourselves. You deserve it. Come here.”
From the bedroom window, Max watched the calm sea steadily swallow the winter sun. What insubstantial warmth was left, died. It was five o’clock. The day had been clear and blue, one of those rare gladdening January days that lift you high above your troubles. He’d driven them to Gwithian Beach to stroll along the sands where some people were flying kites. They didn’t stay long; her immune system was weakened and he didn’t want her coming down with something.
He’d picked up supplies, including beer, from the supermarket this time, not the village shop. Fuck that guy, he’d thought. The coastal path and the kissing gate, he assured himself, had nothing to do with it. From where he stood at the window, the gate was hidden by the hedgerow, but he knew it was there. He was pretty confident it was just a gate now, an access that had been there many years and seen many things. Just a gate. Yet, until he actually walked through the entrance, he would still feel an unease.
By the time he tied up his walking boots, retrieved the car keys, and told Hannah he was going to fetch some fish and chips from the village, the light had faded. Instead of turning right where the car was parked, he switched on his torch app and headed out across the still damp field. Hannah wouldn’t lie to him, but he never was very good at blankly accepting someone else’s word. He wanted to get this ridiculousness over with, he’d put it off long enough. A simple in and out, then a drive down to the chippie. His belly rumbled at the thought.
The sun’s embers singed the underside of the thunder clouds rolling in. The waves fled the provocation, crashing against the rocks in the cove, becoming louder with each of his steps. He shone the torch at the gate. The scrutiny of the artificial light revealed emptiness. Max waited, but the Hannah’s memory remained hidden. Could it ever be exorcised entirely? Hand heavy on the wood, he pushed the gate, stepped inside and looked to the approaching darkness of the storm. The diminishing light threw shadows across the cliff top. Was there someone coming in the other direction? No. However, the sense of being observed remained prevalent. The kiss came next.
Max backed up, almost tripping over his own feet in his haste. The old Hannah was staring at him from the darkness of the gate, beyond the cast of his torch and his tensed motionless body. She studied the back of his skull as he ran, she peered at him from the driveway, blocking an escape to the cottage; she spied at him from the clouds hanging over the sea, from the beach below, clawing her way up the granite. “Max,” the wind howled through the gate and along the coast path, pursuing him; “Max,” came her voice, flung up in the gusts that whipped through his legs and his arms, catching at his clothes like billowing sails; “Max,” she bayed through the hedges and the trees, deafening his thoughts. He whirled, stumbling, begging, raging at her presence, her insistence, her demands. “Max!” she screamed in his face, stealing his breath.
He took a step backward, and the wind shoved against his chest the way Max had pushed his wife all those months ago: open hands, bang, into her sternum, dropping her to the dirt, gasping and shocked. Max toppled, rolled, his phone slipping away from him as the wind kicked him in the stomach, over and over. The light of his torch vanished, swallowed by darkness a metre away. He doubled over, cried out – just as Hannah had back then, and the wind came on with its merciless barrage driving him closer and closer to the cliff edge.
“Hannah!” he screamed against the wind, but he might as well have been mute.
Even if his cry reached the cottage, even if it were carried in with the draughts that worried the curtains, even if his wife heard it, Max had locked her in. Kept her safe.
22nd April ______
I am cancer free! Fuck you, cancer! Fuck you with bells on.
I bought an apartment. I decorated it White Cliff white, which is sort of grey. It’s still very bright, although the decision wasn’t – everything looks dirtier quicker. If I really hate it, I can opt for a different colour scheme. I can choose.
There’s a guy at work, on the shop floor. We talk about nothing regularly. He’s asked me out twice. There might be a third. It’s just, well, there’s a lot been going on. The guy will think I’m not interested. I’m not sure that I am. It’s… easier on my own.
I hear the screeching of gulls every night. It’s been one year, three months and eleven days since he jumped. Even after identifying his body, I still had to keep reminding myself he was dead. One day I hope I’ll be certain he’s gone. But for now, I live with his name nailed to my tongue; if I speak it aloud, he’ll return.
Eric Nash is a member of the Horror Writers’ Association. Over a dozen of his short stories have appeared in Aggregate by Writerfield, Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! series, Mythic, and other magazines and anthologies.