Jade Angeles Fitton
Lizette by the Sea
Lizette stared at the oranges on her Liberty print diary until they bloomed into the glowing lanterns of a Maxfield Parrish painting her gallery had exhibited ‘before’. ‘Before’ was another planet now that glittered at night like all the rest. Admittedly, like all the other planets, it’s not like there was much to long for. Apparently, out there with all the rest, there existed planets that rained rubies, wind that blew faster than the speed of sound – little good this knowledge did Lizette here, now, by the sea, with a wind so bitter there was no doubt it had a grievance. But with who? No one had mentioned the wind when Lizette moved in three springs ago. Nor had anyone mentioned that if you live long enough facing the sea, it will come to feel as if it always has its back to you. She rubbed the brown-black Chanel lacquer on her nails and anxiously pulled another long hair from her jumper. The call of black-backed gulls was no longer a novelty, neither was the fire.
Lizette had been lead to believe that life outside the city unfolded as naturally as the tongue-pink peonies she mail-ordered, that all she’d needed was the right view to write something that would be her breakthrough, and that her malaise, this hole in her solar plexus would be transformed into something transactional, something she could be congratulated for, maybe she could even win some awards for feeling like shit. But the air was thick with the smell of seaweed and rotting crabs. The atmosphere as heavy as the steps of the large, salty men that passed her house before first light. Everything she wrote was rejected. She had made a total of £640 from writing in two and a half years and despite living rent-free, her substantial savings were now down to a troubling four figures. Recently, whatever the time of day, she’d begun downing a shot of Chambord every time she got a rejection, wondering why her literary heroes always seemed to limit themselves to whiskey or wine, or gin. No imagination.
Lizette huffed and considered her tusk-sized dinner candles in their large glass holders, her Portobello Market chandelier, her mismatched porcelain china picked up in the thrift store: what was it for if a couple of friends had only visited once since she’d moved, none of them had been of any note, and all of them had appeared in single file? Where were the out of town parties people were supposed to be having, the ones she’d seen in, like, Jerusalem, and, well, she couldn’t think of any other out of town parties at this moment except for the dinner parties in The Remains of the Day. She huffed again and moved a candleholder closer to the centre of the table, stood back, looked at it, said, ‘Fuck’s sake,’ and then moved it back again.
Lizette’s friend had once said to her in regards to her pursuit of a married man, ‘You only regret the things you don’t do.’ It had seemed a frivolous notion at the time (surely, you would regret murdering someone? Or running over a dog? Or holding a fascist dinner party?), but now that she did absolutely nothing, staring out to sea, at the vast vacuum, the heron-grey horizon indistinguishable form sea to sky, Lizette was starting to wonder whether there might be some depressing truth in it. She flicked her brown-black nail.
There had been countless dispatches on the news that in towns and villages such as hers the fishing crisis had been impacted by an exodus from the cities to newly acquired homes, and second homes, for a “better quality of life”, but the villagers here openly questioned for whom. Most of the newcomers who’d bought here a couple of years ago had moved back to the cities already and only visited in the summer now, which meant Lizette was one of very few who’d had to hide indoors when the protest went through the village, right past her house. It meant she was one of very few that heard the chants of ‘Houses are homes not investments!’ as she sat in her father’s. It meant she was one of very few who felt accused by the graffiti she saw next to the corner shop on a daily basis that read, ‘Eat The Nouvaeu Rich.’ Frankly, Lizette was finding this presumed guilt she was supposed to be feeling a little tedious now. As far as she was concerned, the nouveau riche were the only subsection of society who actually knew how to enjoy their money, and anyway, it’s not like any of this was her problem – it wasn’t her fault that they were all poor here. But the place was starting to make her feel like maybe it was, and with the gut-weed green sea walls and the wet, tyrannical Westerly of a third winter looming, it was all starting to get to her. Incidents she would have smiled at and shrugged off when she first arrived were percolating deep beneath her thin layer of subcutaneous fat. In the local charity shop where Lizette didn’t buy clothes but ‘curios’, she would still take clothes off the rail and press them against her thin body in front of the mirror to entertain another, less comfortable way of living. She was holding a faux fur-trimmed coat up to her chest and moving her shoulders from side to side. ‘This would suit you,’ a woman to her right said, pulling out a knitted wooly jumper.
‘Oh.’ Lizette was so used to people ignoring her now it took her a moment to pull herself out of her daydream. She’d been picturing herself wearing the coat somewhere where the buildings had high ceilings, where money had currency. New York. She took the jumper the woman was holding out, thrown a little by how attractive she was despite her wrinkles and obvious lack of tweakments. ‘Thank you.’
‘Looks handmade,’ the woman said, the silver of her nose-piercing moon-cool on her irresponsibly tanned skin. She was the kind of rollie-smoking, sofa-surfing, joy-chasing crusty who irritated Lizette, because she made her question the rewards of living so clean, made her wonder if she might’ve had a different, less comfortable life, and find she might’ve preferred it.
‘Yes, it does.’
The woman smiled and moved on to Lizette’s favourite area, the dust collectors. Lizette didn’t want to make any further conversation so, in an attempt to ingratiate herself with the local economy, she took the navy jumper to the till. The woman behind the till turned it over and then folded its arms. ‘You know what this is?’ she said, her grey eyes looking at Lizette through dirty lenses. Lizette looked at the jumper, wondering what it could possibly be other than a jumper, but decided she would rather appear ignorant than sarcastic and just shook her head.
‘It’s a Gansey jumper.’
‘The women who made it, they travelled down here from the Hebrides, following the herring with their fisherman, and they used to thread their hair in with the wool for good luck – that’s specific to this village, nowhere else but here. You see a few hairs there?’ Lizette leant in and grimaced a little as dozens of human hairs in the weave glistened in the light. ‘Little threads of luck, they are. And you see that pattern on the shoulder?’ the woman continued, showing Lizette a patch on each shoulder.
‘Oh yes,’ Lizette nodded. ‘Lovely.’
‘They did different patterns on the shoulder for each village, because after a shipwreck, by the time they found the fishermen, the bodies were so badly discomposed that this was how they would be recognised – you could tell which husband it was from which village.’
Lizette no longer wanted the jumper, but she didn’t want any embarrassment either, so she paid for it and left.
In the weeks since she had bought (and promptly disposed of) the jumper Lizette had noticed hairs in her own. Not just one or two, but dozens. Sometimes they were blonde like hers, most of the time they seemed almost grey. It didn’t matter how often she pulled them out, new ones would arrive on new jumpers, and some were so hard to pull out it was as if they had been threaded into the weave by fishwives past, willing her to capsize. As she pulled at the hairs with increasing desperation she would look up to the vast grey vacuum of the sea and feel she was losing a battle.
When Lizette first arrived in the village a man in the pub had told her that a ruined couple had taken their boat out during a storm and never come back. The couple were never found but the smashed boards of the ship now hang in the pub, the white and green of the ship’s name reading ‘Gratitude’. Lizette had only been to the pub a couple of times since she’d moved here and she could never tell if anyone at the pub was telling the truth or having her on, and she was too scared to ask.
Looking out towards the pub, through the all-enveloping sea mist from which the masts of boats rose like white crucifixes, she saw the memory of London fog. She saw the orange streetlights that would bridesmaid her down to the warmly lit pub that only served ale, with its huge glass window. Huge and beautiful old glass – and no one had ever smashed it in, miraculous, really.
Lizette had previously worked in the marketing division of an established London gallery and had believed she was an extremely capable woman. Her parents had instilled in her from a young age that she would be capable at everything she set her mind to, that she could reach for anything in the world because she had the platform of security. The reality of writing, Lizette was finding out, was that it was incredibly boring, very lonely and extremely difficult, even if you had money behind you. Her desk on the second floor faced the vast grey vacuum and it sucked her confidence, her concentration, her hope. As she picked the long hairs from her jumper, the sea whispered over its shoulder that she was a fraud.
Apart from the tourist deli where one could pay considerable sums for burnt sourdough and the tat in the charity shop, everything Lizette bought was online. She occasionally went to the corner shop to buy milk, but as non-dairy alternatives went they only had soya, and it was sweetened, so she tried to avoid that. But this week she had failed to get a delivery slot in time. Wrapping herself up, she secured the zipper of her goose down coat but stopped short of zipping it up. Grey hairs were meshed into the weave of her jumper so tightly that when she pulled them out they snagged the delicate angora. She turned around, suddenly aware of a presence behind her. No one was watching. There was a small child in the back of a car, heading out of the village and into the granite-riddled terrain of the nearby moors, but he was looking into the future. She looked over towards the fishing boats and out into the grey ocean that was roaring like an audience of trees in the wind. No one was watching. Lizette was getting sick of this shit. Sick of feeling unwelcome. Sick of feeling watched and hexed. She took off her coat, took off her jumper, marched down the little drive and shoved the jumper in the bin. ‘Fuck you!’ she hissed at the jumper. She hissed through the jumper, through the rubbish in the bag below, through the galvanized zinc bin, and into the land. She slammed the lid on the bin as hard and as loudly as she could. Fuck. You.
Lizette bought her sweetened soya milk wordlessly from the woman in the corner shop, and as she put her hand on the brass handle to leave she turned around. The old woman was staring at her. She smiled at Lizette. Lizette smiled back and shoved headphones in her ears as she ran into the mizzle of the wet street.
‘Hello, darling, nice to hear from you.’
‘Nothing! Jesus. I was just calling to say hello.’
‘It was only a joke, come on now, Ettie. How are you sweetheart? Is that the sea I can hear?’
She mistimed crossing the road and the car approaching didn’t slow down for her so she had to break into a sprint to get the pavement. She felt bullied as she glanced at the leaden, violent ocean. She could hear a warm wind blowing down the other end of the phone and imagined her father out on their veranda, squinting a little in the hot sun, a date tree swaying by the pool. She felt so sorry for herself she could burst.
‘Yeah, it is. It’s cold and wet. I don’t think I like it here any more, dad.’
‘Well, I did warn you, darling.’
‘I know,’ she said, her voice cracking a little.
‘Oh, Ettie, please don’t, it breaks my heart.’
‘It’s just so fucking miserable here.’
‘Visiting in summer is always misleading – it’s a portfolio property for a reason, darling, you wouldn’t actually want to live there. Come and stay with us for a while, beautiful weather we’re having.’
‘I think I just want to go back.’
‘Alright. Well, that’s perfectly doable. What’s the problem?’
‘I don’t know really, I suppose there isn’t one.’
‘Sweetheart, if you don’t like it any more, just leave. Nothing keeping you in that little crock. We all think you’ve done brilliantly well on your own, no need to labour the point.’
‘I suppose. You don’t think I’ll look a failure if I go back?’
‘Don’t be so provincial! The place has served its purpose, it got you out of the city while it was dangerous, there’s no need to stay there a second longer.’
‘Your mother’s dying to see you. You know your brother’s coming out at Christmas?’
‘Yeah, I might want to spend Christmas with friends though if I’m back in London.’
‘But I’ll come out for New Year’s.’
‘Just let us know when and mum’ll book the flights – check it out sooner rather than later though, Virgin get booked up quickly around Christmas.’
‘I know, dad.’
‘Alright, darling, find somewhere you like and I’ll set up a standing order. Nothing to worry about is there?’
‘No, I guess not.’
‘That’s my girl.’
She’s here again. It’s almost as if she never left. ‘Before’ was just a comet on an elliptical orbit rather than a distant planet. A couple of her friends here now have babies and a new emotional landscape, but most spent a lot of time and money on paving stones, NFTs and psychogeography courses. What Lizette has to show for the last three years is a persisting sensation that she has forgotten something, and a short story she had published a few weeks ago, almost the moment she left the three-bedroom house that now sits dark and eyeless, facing the hunchback of the sea.
Her luck has changed but the change has circumvented her emotional landscape, so her fortune is makeshift and uncomfortable. She has signed with an agent who wants her to expand her ‘twenty first century pocket companion to Cold Comfort Farm’ into a novel. Lizette’s not sure she’s got a book in her; she’s not sure what’s in her. She’s surprised how quickly her achievements dissolve in the vortex of her more successful friends’ news cycles, wonders how long she can cling on before she’s flung into oblivion. She blinks at the thought of this as a single-decker bus exhales and a few passengers disembark, taking a little hop onto the pavement as they do. It trips her out from time to time, how little has changed from the London before, the London that stayed in her mind. The orange streetlights still glow in the December fog like the orbs of Maxfield Parrish’s The Lantern Bearers.
She follows the glowing lanterns down the hill, her heeled, Spanish leather boots clicking on the frosted pavement, and arrives at the pub with the huge window that’s never been smashed. The pub is full with the warmth of the fire and the bodies. Her friends wave from a booth they’ve grabbed in the quickly busying pub, the windows wet with the condensation of others’ breath, breath that they have re-learnt not to fear. The pub’s playing Ramble On. Lizette doesn’t know the words but her friends sing along. She pretends she knows it all too well by nodding her head to the beat, but it drops and throws her off. A gust of wind rushes through the few brown leaves left on the trees and she can hear waves crashing on the shore. Lizette turns to see the vast grey ocean out of the window, but it’s missing. It will always be missing now. At what point do you become real, she thinks to herself as she pulls a long hair from the weave of her jumper, pulling until it snaps.
Jade Angeles Fitton’s short stories and poetry have been published in Somesuch Stories, the British Film Institute’s TTIN, The Moth, Common Breath, among others. Her journalism and cultural and literary criticism has appeared in The Financial Times, Vogue, The Guardian, The Fence, The Independent, The New Statesman, the TLS and Literary Review among others. Her first book, Hermit, will be published spring 2023 by Hutchinson Heinemann.
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