Authors: Hannah Tunnicliffe
âI got talking to Helen. I've never burned
Max waves his free hand. âShit, Juliette, I thought it was going to be something serious; someone hurt or something. It's cool, mate. It's just cake, right?'
' Juliette replies, looking strangely guilty. Max reaches out to pat her shoulder. He can feel the food in his belly, the caffeine slowly working through his blood stream. He passes Juliette his empty mug.
âI know what Helen is like. The girl can talk.'
Helen is now back on Max's mind. Helen laughing. Helen tipping an oyster into her mouth. Helen giving him something. A pot plant.
Helen. Helen. Helen.
Her name thumps in Max's head like a heartbeat. He stands quickly.
âAre you okay? To get to bed?' Juliette asks.
Helen's head against his shoulder. Helen smoking in bed with him. Helen the first time he saw her. Her lean frame, her dark hair like a cloud behind her. The thick eyebrows, the smile, the long, pale fingers wrapped with his. Max remembers the ring box.
But he is already going. Up the stairs, to his room, to get what is meant for the girl who told him âlater'.
With every step Max sees Helen in all her incarnations: the girl in the park that day he first met her, at a bar buying beer, her legs in the air that time she fell off a wall and into sand and the rich laughter that followed, her fingers around a wineglass, her lips around a cigarette; Helen in heels at an exhibition opening, the way everyone in a room turns when she enters it, the way she holds her shoulders, the roll of her walk; Helen reaching for one of her friends, the way she closes her eyes when she hugs someone, the way she rests her head on Max's shoulder, how when she laughs so hard she loses her laugh altogether and makes those funny wheezy noises, one hand pressed to her chest. Helen, drunk, on the bathroom floor, giggling. Helen on the trampoline Lars and Nina bought for Sophie when she was small. Hair and blouse flying. Helen smiling at him.
Her room is black but Max finds the bed. He sits on the edge and then rolls on to his back, beside her.
âMax?' she says. In the kind of voice that Max wants to wake up to every morning. Soft, a little raspy, full of love.
âIt's only a number, Max. I know you've been feeling strange.'
âIt's not that â'
âI've been feeling strange about it too â¦' Helen's voice is sleepy. âWe're all getting older. It makes you think. What am I doing â¦ what do I want â¦'
âI need to talk to you about something.'
âIt's going to be okay. You know that, don't you? We'll be okay.'
âYes,' Max says. âWe will be okay.'
She turns to him. âDo you want to turn on the light?'
âAre you alright?'
Helen brushes the side of his face with her free hand. Max takes a full breath.
This is it.
âHelen, I love you.'
Her fingers on his face. âOh Max, I love you too.'
Max's chest tightens. In the dark, without being able to see her, Max hears her voice so clearly. It describes more than she says, but not as much as he wants to hear. He must go on. No matter what.
He feels a bit woozy. Still drunk. Max squeezes his eyes shut, though there is no light, and forces himself to continue. This is later. Later is now.
âNot like that, Helen. Like this.'
He finds her hand, gently opens the fingers and places the ring box in her palm.
There is a silence.
âI've loved you as long as I've known you, Helen. I love everything about you. Every good thing, every tiny flaw, everything. There is no one I love more.'
âMax â¦' Her voice is thin and delicate, like tissue paper.
âNo one, Helen. You're it. You are my family. You're all I have. You're the only one I want.'
Max finds her face in the dark and strokes her cheek with his finger. Beautiful Helen.
âI want to wake up with you, Helen. I want to go to sleep next to you. I want to share it all. Everything.'
Please. Be mine.
Max finds Helen's lips. He runs his fingertips over them. He leans towards her. To feel those lips against his.
The weight of the word. It is solid. It is an anchor.
It cleaves a space between them.
This is not happening.
âNo. I'm sorry,' she falters. âI can't.'
slaps Max's face. He squints. The beach rolls away from
him like a page, makes him feel as though he
is in the centre of things and at risk of
and being closed up; both at once.
He squeezes his eyes shut and then opens them
again but the glare is worse. A long, white beach,
the air throbbing with heat, panting like its own kind
of beast and Max, half dressed, on his back and
sweltering. He sits up and hugs his knees to him,
feeling the grains of sand press into his skin like little diamond chips. This is not Douarnenez.
Down the other end of the long expanse of beach there is something dark and wobbling. Shimmering, coming into view.
A person or a monster?
Max's voice is stuck in his throat. Wobbling, focusing, wobbling.
A mirage, he guesses, or perhaps he does need glasses
as Frank once suggested. Then there are legs. And a torso. And a dark head. Or is that hair?
The figure is in a swimsuit. She is carrying a towel and wearing glasses. Round ones with black discs for lenses. She is walking towards him.
The black swimsuit is low on the thighs. She has a way of moving that reminds Max of Marilyn Monroe. What do you call that walk?
Max waits for her to say his name. His own voice is still stuck, his tongue a thick and dry washcloth in his mouth. He blinks and stares at the woman and wants her to come closer. A hot breeze is skedaddling handfuls of sand across Max's legs.
She is an angel, Max decides. Though there are no wings and no halo. She is bringing something good. Max can tell. Not a thing, of course, but â¦ something. A delivery of good fate, of luck. A bathing suit angel. A goddess. A messenger.
She's close now, still smiling. She's close enough for Max to see her teeth and notice that her lips are painted an orange-almost-red. Her glasses have tortoiseshell frames. Her swimsuit has gathers or pin tucks or ruching, whatever those things are called, that look like river ripples down her sides. Her skin is pale. Pale as full-cream milk, French milk, the good stuff, and she has pink-beige freckles on her kneecaps.
Max's heart pounds.
She pulls off her sunglasses. âMax?'
Max wants to turn his head away. It cannot be her, because Max does not know what she looks like. Not like this. He knows her only in two dimensions. In photographs. The sun scalds his skin, takes his breath away. Max wants her to stop smiling. It's too kind.
The woman looks into his face. But it is. Though she's not quite clear, not perfect, it is her.
It's the voice that doesn't belong. The voice Max knows from other dreams.
âMax? Are you okay?'
From another world.
Max sits up too fast. It makes him feel ill, almost ill enough to throw up, but he rarely vomits, so that doesn't happen. The blinds in his room are wide open and sunlight is pouring in. Helen is perched on the edge of his bed. She lays her hand against him, calming him, encouraging him back down onto the pillows.
âFuck,' he says, blinking.
Helen's hair is wet and she's wearing a white shirt and navy shorts. She looks like she should be on a yacht. She looks like a magazine cover. High gloss. Max inhales through his nose and catches the smell of himself. Sour and dirty.
âYou were having a bad dream.'
He rubs his eyes, still half-stuck on that beach. His eyes feel full of sand.
He nods. âI'll be alright after something to eat.'
âJuliette is cooking breakfast,' Helen replies.
âBreakfast?' he asks, shaking his head, which seems stuffed with stones. Max has the nagging feeling there is something he should remember. Helen smiles gently. It makes Max think of the woman from the dream. Her teeth, her lipstick.
Max watches a drop of water from Helen's hair slide down her neck and into her shirt. He thinks about following it with his finger. Or the tip of his tongue. This thought is better, is more familiar. The feeling slinks over him, like a clean shirt. Settles his heartbeat. Presses pause on the tightening of his head.
He is not on a beach with his mother. He is in bed with Helen. If only Helen were
the bed with him. If only he were in Helen. He relaxes back into the pillows.
âMorning is overrated. I think we should skip it.'
âWhat would you have us do instead?' Helen asks.
Pull the blinds and make love
, he thinks. Instead he shrugs. âWe could take a vote. All in favour of deleting morning and skipping straight to lunch, say aye.'
âNay,' Helen replies. âIt's nice here in the morning.'
Max reaches out for the hem of her shorts. âYou like it here?'
âI really like it here.'
He tugs on the hem. âYour sister doesn't agree.'
âSoleil doesn't agree with much.' Helen is looking down at Max's fingers pinching the fabric of her shorts.
âShe said the place was a monstrosity.'
Helen glances up at him, face serious âSoleil is very particular about town planning and architecture â'
âSoleil is fucking particular about a lot of things,' Max says and then regrets it.
He is lying in bed with Helen, he should be enjoying it. He should not be complaining about her sister. He should not be sulking. He glances at Helen, checks her face. But she is now looking out the window as though she didn't hear him at all.
âI should have come here earlier. Before,' Helen says.
âWe have busy lives,' Max says compassionately, resolving not to be an arsehole. He will be loving and kind. He can do that. He has it in him. He takes Helen's hand in his.
Helen looks back to him. âYes. But do you ever wonder what you're doing? I mean, why?' Helen looks down at Max's hand and whispers, âSometimes it feels like my life is living me, rather than the other way round.'
Max wants to nod. He wants to say, âI know exactly what you mean.' For the statement to have weight. For it to resonate and amplify and clarify all that Helen is thinking, in that way that staring at fireworks bursting across a dark sky makes you feel alive and full of wonder.
âSometimes â¦ Sometimes it feels like I just woke up in my life,' Helen says. âI'm just stumbling along and I can't figure out who made all the choices to get me to this point, you know? I know it was me but â¦ what was I thinking? What did I want? I need to make some choices, Max.'
Max continues to stare at her. God, she is beautiful. Even with her mouth twisted down, with her face so sad.
Helen takes a deep breath. âI couldn't say yes.'
Max's mind whirs. The temporary silence between them feels vast. Max pushes the pieces of last night back together in his memory, like a jigsaw. It takes him a few moments. A few, painful moments. Helen's cheek under his fingers, her lips. Her voice â apologising, once, twice â each time driving a kind of dagger into Max. Staggering back to his room in the dark, throwing the box, that stupid box he'd placed all his hopes on, across the floor.
He really feels like he is going to be sick now.
Max searches for the right thing to say. The perfect thing. The thing that lets Helen know he gets it, really gets it, that it's no big deal. But of course it is.
âThis is pretty heavy for early in the morning, isn't it?'
Max, you are such a fool.
âI need to know you are okay.' She looks so tortured.
The room sways and Max's head pounds.
âI'm fine, I'm fine,' he lies âI'll be fine.' The moment shattering like a plate against the floor.
, Max thinks.
Fuck fuck fuck.
âI should help Juliette,' Helen says, tentatively.
âNo. Stay,' Max asks, his voice choked, more desperate than he wants it to be.
âShe's probably down there by herself, cooking for all of us.' Helen is straightening now, ready to stand. Her expression is still pained. She releases his hand.
âStay here,' Max begs, wobbling dangerously on that line between cool and wretched. And then, âIt's Juliette's job.' Which he wishes, immediately, he could take back.
Helen's brows knit together. âMax.'
âWell, it is,' he says, digging himself deeper into it.
âDo you know why she left
? Why she left Paris?' Helen asks gently âDid you ever ask?'
Max doesn't answer. Of course he never asked. He never even thought to.
This isn't happening. This is not the plan.
Helen stands. âI'll see you downstairs.' She turns to leave.
Max feels like he stood up too fast, like all the blood has rushed from his brain.
Helen pauses when she reaches the door, hand on the door handle. Though Max doesn't know what she is going to say, he knows it's not something he wants to hear. He can tell by the look on Helen's face, now turned back to him. The look is hesitant and conflicted, worried.
âDo you know where Soleil is? I can't find her. Her bed is made, but she's not here.'
Max's mind works faster this time. The pieces falling into place without him having to work at it. His fear, his shame, deepens.
Oh God. Soleil.
Max licks his lips and clears his throat. Though it's the truth it feels so much like a lie it hurts.
âNo. I don't know where she is,' he replies, in the lightest, smoothest voice he can manage.