Nick Fairclough lives in Masterton, New Zealand. Father of two boys, husband to one woman. He graduated from Otago University with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Human Geography and Political Studies. He’s done odd jobs ever since. Fairclough’s work has appeared online in Flash Frontier, Blue Fifth Review, and in print in The Rangitawa Collection 2017.
Writing is a strange companion with whom you spend too much time. With whom you experience the extremes – which you can only handle for so long. But as soon as they’re gone you miss them. And think of them. Until they’re back. It starts all over. Again and again and again. Until you detach yourselves, step back and take a look at the object. What is this we’ve created? You both say simultaneously.
The Tidal Island
“Thanks a lot for this. You really don’t have to. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s really nothing.”
Tess gets one end of the sheet and flings it to the other side of the bed. It flaps like a bird’s wings. Tom gets the other end and straightens it. They both fold the sheet under the mattress.
“Just this last bit. Yep, that’s it … there … oh, and this. Yep … All done.”
The last bed is made.
“Thanks again, Tom.”
“It’s really no problem.”
They walk out of the room and down the hall. Their footsteps on linoleum sound over the murmur of evening television. Artificial light from the screens flickers from the doors. Smells of disinfectant and old people. Sunday. It had been a long day for the residents. Visiting days always are.
“Sorry for keeping you – you’re probably dying to get out of here.”
“I guess that’s better than dying in here. Like they are.”
They both laugh.
In the staff room, Tom takes off his uniform, pulls over his woollen jersey, and gets his gloves and hat from his bag. Tess put the kettle on.
“Alright. See you tomorrow then,” Tom says above the rising noise of water boiling as he walks to the door.
“Yeah. See you tomorrow. Thanks, Tom, I really appreciate you staying on.”
“It’s really nothing.”
“I can’t make you a hot drink? It’s cold out.”
“No thanks,” Tom said as he smiles. “I’ll get going.”
A cold wind whistles through the empty Sunday streets. Winter is late this year: still awaiting the first snow. The crisp brown leaves crunch as he stands on them. He regrets not staying for the drink. But he thinks that would be too much.
There is a tidal island close to where Tom lives. The paved path, the causeway, exposed at low tide, looks as if it’s always been there – as if God placed it. The concrete pylons run along next to it – on the right-hand side if looking seawards.
On his morning off Tom sits amongst the rustling tussock and shrubs watching the tide rise. Thin dark grey almost black clouds from the east pass overhead heading west. Stationary white-grey clouds sit beyond the island, above the land across the firth, and blend into a sleepy blue-grey sky. The winter sun is low and dull. The seawater, greyer, a pastel grey-blue, gently rippling, slowly swallows the patches of sand and the causeway. It’s not long until they are gone and the pylons are sticking out of the water like headstones.
Tom has never been to the island.
Tom finishes up the afternoon shift and enters the staff room. Tess is seated reading the entertainment section of the newspaper.
“Hey Tom … how was the afternoon shift?”
“Ah yeah … you know … fine.”
“I was thinking. Umm, would you like to catch a movie? This one here.”
Tom looks over her shoulder.
“Maybe not a movie … Maybe we could do something else?”
Tessa hesitates before responding, “Ok … like what.”
“I’ll have a think about it. Enjoy your night shift.”
Tom knows he wants to show her. But would she like it? Would she appreciate it? Would she understand?
Night shifts are endless. Passing time. Tessa hopes that something will come up.
She thinks of Tom sleeping. What is he dreaming – if he dreams at all.
It’s a calm, cold winter’s day. There’s no wind. The sky is grey and heavy. There’s a noiselessness that is strange for the coast.
Tom takes the rug from his bag and puts it on top of the grass.
“Do you want my jacket?” he asks.
“I’ll be alright – I’ve got a few layers on.”
“Ok. It’s in the bag if you do.”
Tom has made a picnic – bread, cheese, grapes and a bottle of rosé. They sit on the bank eating and take turns taking swigs from the bottle as they watch people walk out to the island.
“Some people have it so easy.”
“What do you mean?” Tess asks. “I don’t think so. Some people just don’t show it. But they still feel it. I think they feel it.”
“Nah. I don’t think so,” Tom replies. “For some people it’s easy.”
There’s a pause in the conversation as Tess takes a grape to her mouth.
“It’s not easy for anyone,” she says while she chews and swallows the grape. “I’m sure of it. Some people just don’t show it.”
The tide gets lower, more sand is exposed. More people are making their way out to the island.
“Look at them. Going. They don’t mind. It’s easy for them.”
Tom and Tessa have been rostered on mornings together. They tell the supervisor they’ll pair up for the morning wash.
They enter Gerald’s room. He’s a tricky character. Always the same problems.
Tess starts to undress him – unbuttons his shirt and pulls off his singlet – and Tom rinses the sponge in the warm soapy water. Gerald’s pale aged skin is like the firth at low tide: patchy, uneven, rocks, seaweed, tide pools. Tom squeezes the sponge and delicately pats Gerald’s skin. Lifts his arm and washes under the pit. Does his back and neck. Then the other arm and his front. Tess pats him try with a towel then put a fresh singlet on.
Outside the window, snow is falling. It has come late this year – only a few days before Christmas. It falls so slowly and softly. Flakes are landing on the window sill. It’s quickly building up. Everything’s turning white.
Tom washes the sponge in the warm soapy water. Flakes of skin come to the surface. The water is slightly discoloured – a brown. Tess undoes Gerald’s trouser button and fly. She removes his trousers, socks and underwear.
“Let her do it.” Gerald directs Tom.
“You know she can’t, Gerald. You know the rules.”
His penis is tiny. A shrivelled foreskin, hardly more. Tom washes it and all around the scrotum. Washing off a film of excess from around his parts.
“Make her do it.”
“Gerald,” Tom says sternly. “I’m going to stop if you keep this up.”
Tess shakes her head as Tom washes down his leg. Tess takes herself to the window and sees the snow landing on the roofs, trees, yards, paths, streets. The white is so beautiful. So clean.
Tom finishes up the washing and helps Tess pull on fresh underwear and trousers on Gerald.
“Thanks folks. You’ll come back for Christmas, won’t you? … Maybe you’ll give me a present.” Gerald laughs to himself.
“Ok. Gerald. You’ll keep. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Tom says as he lifts the basin of dirty water and follows Tess out the room.
“He wasn’t that bad today, was he?”
“Nah. He’s harmless. I don’t know why there’s such a fuss. I’ve got no problem washing him. I don’t see why it has to be a male.”
Tom looks down the corridor into the next room. “Annette. Swap, yeah? You change, I wash.”
Tom gives the basin to Tess so she can refresh the water.
Their feet fall into the delicate snow as they walk to the bus. The snow is still falling, only less of it. They get on the bus. The white seems to have lifted the spirits. People on the bus look happy as they rub circles in the fogged up windows to peer outside as if they’re in a submarine. They leave the city toward the sea. The white diminishes as they go: it hasn’t snowed down to sea level.
“I’m not sure I want to go”. Tom says looking at the causeway.
“Come on. We’ll go. There’s not many people today.”
On the island, there’s a barrack from the war. In and around the barrack are beer bottles, petty rubbish – chippy and chocolate bar wrappers, used condoms, even a shoe. There’s graffiti on the walls. He looks across the firth to the white hills and all the buildings speckled along them. They can see the rail bridge. An aeroplane flies overhead. There are footprints and tracks all over the island. Ruins, an old farmhouse?
Tom looks back to the mainland and sees the white on the hills, the top of the industrial cityscape, chapels and the castle.
“I knew we shouldn’t have come.” He looks at Tess as if she were to blame.
“It’s ok. I wanted to come.”
The snow has turned to sleet. The white city streets have turned to a gritty brown slosh.
Tess has to do some last minute Christmas shopping. Tom can’t stand shopping, even worse in the Christmas crowds. But he likes Tess’s company.
Tom waits impatiently outside one of the stores. Tess comes out with a bag.
“Tom … I wanted to ask you something.”
“Yeah … ok, what is it?” He smiles nervously.
“Would you like to spend the night?”
The snow on the ground has gone. The white has turned brown. The sleet, now a mere drizzle. He looks at the rain and the dirty brown street as he takes Tess’s hand in his.
That night in Tess’s room, Tom undresses her. Naked, she is the island at high tide – how he wished it to be. No trace of man. Her curves and contour are a beautiful landscape.
He becomes nervous. The tide goes out. Tom stays on the mainland and watches as the water gets sucked out to the channel. The causeway starts to show, but he can’t step a foot on it.
“I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“It’s ok Tom. You don’t have to.”
They arrive to work together, looking suspicious, as if their colleagues know.
They tell their supervisor they’ll pair up for the morning wash.
They enter Isobel’s room. She is terribly self-conscious as Tom undresses her out of her nightgown. Her pale, aged skin is like the firth at low tide: patchy, uneven, rocks, seaweed, tidepools. Tess washes her with the sponge. She is very delicate.
Tom walks over to the window. There’s no sign of yesterday’s snow. No rain either, but it’s damp.
Tess rinses the sponge in the warm soapy water and presses in and around Isobel’s vaginal region.
“Ooh …” she groans. She immediately apologises. “I’m sorry … it just feels so … nice.”
“No need to be sorry,” Tess replies as she and Tom exchange glances.
Tess finishes up and helps Tom clothe Isobel.
“Hey Tess,” Tom says as they head out into the corridor. “I love you.”
“I know.” Tess smiles back as they enter Frank’s room.
He is standing there, with Tess, on the island looking at the mainland. They are watching the tide rise. It’s like two oceans meeting as the water laps onto, then over, the causeway.
“We better head back before we get stranded,” Tess urges.
Tom stands his ground as they watch the path disappear under the rippling waters. The last of the people have made it across.
Stuck on the island. With the concrete barrack. The graffiti. The empty bottles. The used condoms. The rubbish. The ruins.
It’s high tide now. The island is separated from the mainland. The pylons stick out of the water like headstones.
The two of them enter the barrack. Night is falling. Darkness envelops the island. Street lights, house lights, city lights all shine from the mainland. The yellow white lights shimmer on the water like the sky is on the earth. Looking up, all they see is black. But they know the sky is there.
In the darkness, Tess is the island. Tom is the island.
The tide starts to go out. In the light coming from the mainland, they can make out sparkles of sand and rock. Then the causeway emerges, rising as if God summoned it.
“We best go back now,” Tom says as he helps Tess up from the ground.