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Washing Lines

Photograph by Tali Kimelman, Story by Bethan Roberts


Martha boarded the train early, squeezing in with the commuters and enduring the smell of yawns and coffee and toilets. Her aim was to be at the house on the coast by tea-time, and she thought she’d plenty to see her through until then. She’d packed a lunch — two hard boiled eggs wrapped in a sock and salt in a twist of cling film, and had her sketchbook and a flask of coffee in her rucksack.

            For much of the first leg of the journey, she gazed out of the window and tried not to think about where she was going or what she was doing. What was the point of thinking about it, now? She was actually doing it. It had taken her over thirty years, but she was returning to the red-roofed house on the coast.

            Outside, the sky was a clear, hard blue and the leaves had started to turn. She thought about getting her sketchbook out and drawing but decided she was too nervous for such things. The bridges loomed and passed overhead and the houses became more spread out, their gardens larger. To pass the time, she counted washing lines. Martha loved to draw washing lines. She liked the way they swooped across gardens, flying their flags of the intimate and the everyday: underwear, shirts, aprons. She’d had such a washing line when she’d lived in the red-roofed house, and it had always been full of baby clothes that never dried. Most days had been wet and chilly, filled with creeping damp. When she’d moved back to her mother’s house in the city, she’d kissed the tumble-drier.

            By midday, Martha had changed trains twice and counted twenty-two washing lines. On the local service to the coast, a young man in a raincoat sat opposite her and scowled at his laptop. His eyes flickered in her direction when she removed her boiled eggs from the sock and started cracking the shells on the table between them. When she had two clean, pearly ovals, she scooped the shell from the table back into the sock and ate each prize slowly and carefully, dabbing the eggs in the twist of salt as she took smaller and smaller bites. The man said nothing. But he did close his laptop and move down the train.

            Perhaps her habits were odd — offensive, even. As she’d grown up, her daughter, Ella, had certainly seemed increasingly irritated by Martha’s idiosyncrasies — not just the way she evaded personal questions, but the way she pegged out even their smallest knickers on the washing line for anyone to see.  Martha had been surprised and afraid when her daughter had contacted her again. She’d barely heard from Ella since she went to university. Ella announced she’d moved back to the red-roofed house and suggested Martha should visit. Martha was afraid of many things, but she was most afraid of what Ella might demand to know.

            It was around three by the time Martha reached the station. A voice made an announcement about delays to services to the almost empty platform and she remembered standing on the other side of the tracks, years ago, with her holdall and her daughter in a sling bound tight to her chest, both of them sweating as they waited for the train back to the city. She’d wished then, as she wished now, for a bicycle, so she could put down her burden, hitch up her skirts, find her balance and pedal away.

            Martha shouldered her rucksack and began to walk. It would take about an hour to reach the house. There was still time to change her mind. If she turned back soon, she could be in the city again before midnight. Pressing a thumb into the centre of her opposite palm to steady herself, she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

            She crossed the scruffy recreation ground, where a group of dogs were racing in circles, noses stretched into the air, reaching for nothing other than the sensation of reaching. She’d often sat on the bench here when Ella was a baby, and her daughter had stretched, too, holding her arms out to the wind, grasping for anything that passed by — other children, dogs, ice creams. As she’d grown, she’d begun to shout her own barks. That new sound of Ella’s voice had sealed her decision to run away from the red-roofed house.  She’d told her own mother that she couldn’t allow her lively, loud girl to grow up with only racing dogs for excitement. But even then she’d known it had been more about her own loneliness. Ella’s father had left before she was born, and Martha had never looked for him. She’d told Ella, later, that her father was dead. It had seemed kinder than saying he’d never looked for them, either.

            And she had wished him dead, as punishment for announcing his decision to leave, even though he knew she was carrying his daughter. She’d done more than that wish for it, actually. She’d willed it. She’d taken one of his shirts — white, unwashed, still smelling of him — and cut away the collar, which she bound into a ball using a spare piece of washing line cord. She’d wrapped the ball tightly in cling film. Then she’d taken a spade, crunched up the beach to the small hill behind the house where strangled plants survived the winds, and buried it. She didn’t believe in witchcraft but it felt powerful to drive her boot into the gravelly earth to pack it down. She had smothered him. She had silenced him.

            The smell of the sea grew stronger as she walked first down the tree-lined lane and then past the bungalows that faced the beach. It was too late, now, to catch the train home. It was just a case of keeping her balance on the shingle as she made her way to the red-roofed house. The sky had softened into pink, and the sea was still enough to be noiseless. But the damp crept very close as Martha approached her daughter’s door, and whatever questions were behind it.

Bethan Robert's first novel The Pools was published in 2007 and won a Jerwood/Arvon Young Writers’ Award. Her second novel The Good Plain Cook, published in 2008, was serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and was chosen as one of Time Out’s books of the year. She also writes short fiction (she has won the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Prize and the RA Pin Drop Award), and drama for BBC Radio 4. Her new novel, Graceland, which tells the story of Elvis Presley and his mother, will be published by Chatto in 2019. Bethan has worked in television documentary, and has taught Creative Writing at Chichester University and Goldsmiths College, London. Find her on twitter @BethanRoberts8

Tali Kimelman has been a freelance photographer for 13 years with clients such as Unicef, HBO, Coca-Cola, Nestle, The New York Times, Bloomberg, Condé Nast, Monocle Magazine and many companies and ad agencies in Uruguay and abroad. Her latest project was shot in Arboretum Lussich, in Punta Ballena, Uruguay and is based on the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku or "Forest Bathing". Find her on instagram @talikimelman

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