Gathering

Photograph by Chloe Dewe Mathews, Story by Tom Ward

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Annabel reached the top of the nearest dune and stood for a moment, looking out over the beach. The tire tracks in the distance were frozen over with salt. The old refinery conveyor belt stood rusted and abandoned, like some piece of forgotten fairground equipment. And, if she squinted, she could just about make out the flat, grey rim of the sea in the distance, mirroring the hooded sky above. Sharp green scrub was returning here and there, and in the distance, a turn swooped low and fruitlessly over the sand.

 

Annabel wound her way among the dunes, to the flat expanse of the beach. As a girl she used to love the feel of sand between her toes. The memory hit her like a wave breaking against a tide wall. She hadn’t thought about her childhood in a very long time.

 

Now, she picked her way across the beach, the salt-dried sand crunching underfoot, more like snow than any sand that had existed before. Here and there, huge swathes of the beach glinted as black glass, blasted this way many years ago when the world became a kiln and the night skies were bright and cut with lightening. 

 

Annabel searched among the sand. She watched the turn overhead. There were still salt-preserved fish to be found among the wind-blown mounds that broke the monotony of the beach. But the birds returning meant more competition, and less food for Annabel and her people. 

 

The sky seemed to draw in around her and Annabel watched, with relief, as the bird winged its way to somewhere else. She would have liked to have taken a picture, to show the others. Photography, she remembered now, was something she liked to do before, too. Every weekend she would hunt rabbits or kestrels through the countryside, camera in hand, coaxing them to sit still for her lens in a low and loving voice. 

 

She could still picture what rabbits looked like, if she closed her eyes and thought very hard. And, if she thought veryhard, she could just about remember what rabbits used to taste like, the cold, stringy pies her grandmother used to make for her and her sister during those long months in the cottage on the hill. Those long nights when Annabel and her sister used to sit awake and watch the valley burn below, until their grandmother would drag them away and scold them. And then came the sickness, and, eventually, their grandmother lying still and peaceful in bed. And then came the empty cupboards, even the cans of oxtail soup gone. Then Annabel’s sister telling her to sit still while she went down to the village for food. And then, ten days later, when she had still not returned, the starving Annabel wandered from the cottage in a daze and pounced on the first animal she saw –her neighbour’s rabbit, wandering dopily about the hedgerow –and tore it apart with her fingers and teeth.

 

She didn’t like to remember this, Annabel. And although she had done her best to forget this, and although it paled into insignificance alongside the stories of some of the others in her group, what she did to the rabbit still brought stinging tears to her eyes in the middle of a particularly long night. But then, come morning, it seemed like these things had happened so long ago, and that the world had changed so much, that they never happened to her at all, but to someone else entirely. 

 

By mid-morning, the patchwork satchel on her arm was heavy with fish. It had been a good haul, as though the sea had, months ago, foreseen this difficult week of hunger, and sent forth just enough food to help them through it. Before heading back, Annabel sat down in the nook of one of the hard, tire-marked dunes, and ate her lunch. An old, dusty jar of peanut butter which she dug into with her fingers, and a can of something that tasted sharp and fizzy. It wasn’t much but Annabel was grateful for every mouthful.

 

It was then that she heard the noise. A shuffling, secretive sound coming from behind her. In the empty, silent beach, every disturbance was something to be noted. Setting aside the last of her lunch, Annabel crept up the side of the dune and lay flat against its top, sand brushing her lips, her nose filled with the scent of the ocean.

 

Beyond the dune, towards land, was a patch of rough scrub. Some of it was long dead, desert-stricken boughs liable to snap off in the wind, or lick into flame when the next storm came through. But among these dead strands, life was returning, green patches filling out the empty spaces, soon, it seemed, to overcome the dead plant matter entirely, and flourish into a new meadow of thistles and sage and scrub.

 

Annabel stared at this new life in disbelief. Even in the depths of the forest in-land, only the smallest, most nervous weeds were returning between the roots of the dead trees. Out here, in the mist of so much emptiness, a place filled with such, anti-life, she had not thought it possible.

 

Then, the thing that she had heard moved. A white tip among the scrub. Darting wasn’t the right word, whatever it was was moving slowly, and without concern. Annabel shifted position. The white tip might have been a tail, a round hairball of fur at the end of a living animal. She thought of a rabbit, of course, and looked around for paw marks or droppings. She found none, but that might not mean much.

 

A rabbit! The rabbits were returning. She cried, then, without meaning to. A cry of pure joy, and happiness and excitement. So foreign was the sound that it scared even her. But most of all, it scared the fox who darted from the cover of the scrub, and away over the beach, it’s white-tipped tail brushing the dry sand behind it.

Tom Ward is an author and journalist, writing for Wired, Esquire, The Telegraph and more. His fiction has won the GQ Norman Mailer Award, and been shortlisted for the Book Of The Year Award. Tom lives in Brighton with his girlfriend and his dog, Ralphie. His new novel Fires is out now. He can be found on Twitter at @TomWardWrites.

Chloe Dewe Mathews is a photographic artist based in St Leonards-on-Sea. Her work is internationally recognised, exhibiting at Tate Modern, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Museum Folkwang and Fotomuseum Antwerp, as well as being published widely in newspapers and magazines such as the Guardian, Sunday Times, Financial Times, Harpers and Le Monde. Public and private collections have acquired Chloe’s work and her awards include the British Journal of Photography International Photography Award, the Julia Margaret Cameron New Talent Award and the Royal Photographic Society Vic Odden Award and her nominations include the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet and Paul Huf Award. Find her here @chloedewemathews

© 2016 A Thousand Word Photos

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