by Aliya Whiteley

The desert came to her house in the night. It filled the cracks in the paintwork, and shored itself up in doorways. It formed dunes in the corners of rooms, and peaks over the armchairs. The standing lamp was a marker in the sand, and the kitchen table was a raft on static, silent waves. She climbed aboard and sat, cross-legged, the blue glass bowl of fruit on her lap.

Beyond the sink, the view from the window was unchanged. Sunday morning lay quietly upon the sweep of the road and the small copse of bare cherry trees in the centre of the roundabout. It was a grey October, and summer felt far away.

Who could be called on to remove sand? Eleanor thought of waking her neighbours. Would they come together, and help to dig her out? She could offer to pay for a takeaway – tonight, or some time in the week. She did not move as she constructed a version of the future in her head, where the sand was taken away and normality reconvened so that the days could go on again, as they had been, as they were.

Her knees hurt. She stretched them out. Sitting on tables in her pyjamas – ridiculous for a woman her age, with grown children and an ex-husband. Maybe she should phone them: wake up the halls of residence, or the new wife, and play the helpless card, the confused card – sand in the house! Bring shovels! But the phone was on the hall sideboard, and the hall was buried to its neck, like a deserter from the foreign legion, undergoing punishment.

And now Eleanor thought of it, she didn’t feel old, or confused. Her knees hurt, yes, but hurt came and went, regardless of age. After he left her, she had sent Jack a text message – Everything hurts, you have hurt every part of me. And he had replied – Sorry xx. What a conversation to have via text, and yet, if she had not expressed it that way, it would not have been said. Watching the small screen, pecking at the numeric keys, allowed it to begin to trickle out of her, like the fall of time through an hourglass. And now, she realised, it was all gone. There was only the clean sand left. The grains had buried every pain but the twinge of her aching knees.

The desert was claiming her.

For it was the deep sand of the desert, not the kind of sand that lay upon the beaches of Brighton or in a child’s sandpit. And it was warm, as if the sun had beaten upon it for thousands of years. In it she could see the remains of towering cliffs, of tectonic plates, of shifting earth meeting crashing seas. It talked of the millennia, the death of a million creatures, the beating of endless rays, the solar suffering of the planet.

To feel like a transient speck amidst the eternity of a grain of sand – it appealed to Eleanor. She didn’t want to clear the sand away. It could claim her house, her furniture, her photos. She put down the fruit bowl and shifted position on the table so she could dangle her hand over the edge and touch the flat expanse of the sand. Yes, it was still warm.

She had seen programmes about people getting lost in deserts. There were so many buried corpses out there. They had walked around in circles, their footprints dissolving behind them. If she opened her front door, would she find the Sahara waiting for her, ready to swallow her up? She pictured it – swinging open the door, being hit by the white, bright glare of the sun. She would throw off her dressing gown and set off in her white pyjamas towards a mirage of such beauty that it couldn’t be denied. There would be green, fronded trees ahead of her, and the scintillating blue of water, never to be reached. Sand and water, desert and ocean. How strange that one could look like the other, and call to her in the same way.

And, with the mirage in her mind, the sand started to move.

She felt it trickle under her hand, moving away from her, responding to a magnetic pull, and she sat up, watched the surface, witnessed the formation of a dip just ahead of the doorway to the living room. The dip lengthened in all directions and formed a concave circle, a shadow of moving sand that deepened, and she realised that she was watching the sand falling – to where? Through the floorboards? It was a spiral of motion, like the pattern of water through a plughole. The sand drained downwards.

The lamp fell. She saw it being carried along, and then it tipped into the circular flow, and was gone. The sand gained momentum, moved faster and faster, and claimed more of her furniture – the arm of the sofa reappeared, like a cry for help from a drowning man, and then disappeared into the hole. The sideboard edged forward, and, underneath her, the table shifted. It sneaked closer to the hole, inches at a time, slow enough to let Eleanor think of her options, weigh them, wonder about the likelihood of jumping to a curtain or calling out for help.

She did nothing. The sand took her, and she did not complain, even when the table bucked underneath her and she fell from it, to be swallowed. She stretched out, tried to keep her head above, spat at the grains that crept towards her mouth, but it could not be deterred, and eventually she reached the centre and felt it take her down, downwards, into a new, scratchy darkness into which she held her breath.

The sensation of falling overwhelmed her, grabbed her stomach, and as a reflex she took a breath, coughed, expected to choke. But there was air. She breathed, in and out, even as she fell, and then time slowed and her limbs felt a new pressure through which she could move. The darkness lightened to a deep blue, enough to see her hands in front of her face, the fingers spread, and she realised she was under water, her feet kicking, her arms undulating in the cold liquid.

Her furniture was around her, drifting down; the kitchen table went past, and she could make out the lamp and the television below – the water was so clear, and a glow was coming from her, from her face and eyes, casting light around her, just enough to illuminate the blackness. How far down was she? She looked up, and saw no sand, no surface, no hint of sun.

The table was leaving her behind. In a panic, Eleanor angled herself and set off after it, swimming breaststroke, until she caught up. There was no point trying to stop it; she let herself drift down with it. The fruit bowl was a few feet away, so she collected that and held it close again. The fruit was nowhere to be seen.

On the day Jack left, she had pelted him with fruit from that very bowl – plums, she remembered. After she said – is there someone else? And he said – no. I just can’t do this any more. As loquacious as ever. She used to love the idea that he was the strong, silent type. But it turned out he was merely silent. Mute about his feelings, his growing need to be away, his sense of aging, of worrying that their small house was arid, incapable of sustaining the life he wanted. Whatever that was. She was merely guessing. He’d never actually told her what he wanted, not even when he was covered in the sticky juice of the plums. Surely at that moment, on the receiving end of a bowl of fruit, a person could tell the truth, let it out, shout and scream, just once?

Great – he had said. Just great.

But was she any better? Had she told Jack what she wanted? It wasn’t such an easy piece of knowledge to have, or to share. There were vague fantasies of trips to the Maldives and learning to scuba, but nothing concrete. It shifted and reformed, these ideas, and she had assumed Jack would go along with whatever came to her. Except nothing ever did.

The table came to a halt. A moment later, Eleanor’s feet hit the bottom of the sea. The light coming from her face showed other objects settling, making an underwater version of her house. The armchair came to rest beside her, and the sofa was close by. The mirror from the hall floated down in front of her face and she saw herself, the white light from her eyes, and the black streaming tendrils of her hair.

The mirror continued downwards – she watched it fall in slow time, to the ground. And then… The sensation of being watched. Of being the centre of someone’s attention. Behind her.

Eleanor turned around. A figure stood there, a small distance away. A man.

She opened her mouth and called, but only bubbles emerged. She walked towards him, feeling the drag of her feet through the resistance of the water. As her light fell upon him, she realised it was Jack. A stone statue of Jack. And yet the feeling of being observed by it, by him, was so strong. She could have sworn he was in there, behind the stone, trying to communicate with her.

She put her hands on the stone, tried to move it, to find him inside it, but it was solid. Was he drowning in there? Was he begging for her help, only she couldn’t hear him? How could she save him?

The fruit fell softly down on him, and collected around his feet.

She knew then that if he could have broken free, escaped his underwater prison, somehow made his stone mouth move, he would have said – Great. Just great.

She stroked his face, feeling the utter coldness of him, and bubbled out a goodbye. Then she started swimming upwards, leaving him behind, leaving everything just as it had settled. Up, up, up, until she was not the only light any more; the sea changed to paler blues, a shifting palette until it was as white and clear as clouds on a sunny day.

She broke the surface, felt hard warm wood under her hands, and pulled herself up and out of the water. She was in her house. There was no sand, and no furniture. The hole through which she had escaped closed up after her, and the floorboards were a varnished length of normality once more.

She opened the front door and walked out into the October morning. It wasn’t cold. The sun had decided to shine after all.

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