Saltburn

This is taken from a first draft of a piece that may end up being a novel or novella – or something else entirely!

*

Eventually she decided she hated the coast. She particularly despised the way the snow fell there; it seemed either to fall as slush or ice, and nothing in between. Were she to miss snow at all – which she did not – it would have been those large soft flakes they used to get when she was a child, dropping softly onto the lawn, the small pond in the back garden, the big hills in the distance. They seemed to bring silence with them; a deep, reverential peace. On the coast, snow just brought noise and danger.

There were other reasons she despised where she lived. Had she taken the time to compile a list, it would have probably been unhealthily long. Eventually she would leave of course, but not really on her terms – and long after the damage had been done.

Like so much in her life, moving to the coast had been an accident. Or at best unintentional. Having never been as driven as her brother – nor as ambitious, depending on your perspective – after she left college, she had meandered from one job to another. It was a meandering much like those country snow falls: slow and gentle, without any obvious purpose, and with an outcome that, whilst inevitable, seemed somehow random too. In her own way she was experimenting. Whilst there was little that was unique about the posts she took  on – relatively low grade administrative work – she varied the industries in which she found herself and the size and nature of the companies too. It was work that was beneath her, at least academically. Even while he was at University – though they had started to see and speak to each other less and less – Mac would consistently bang the drum about her letting herself down, about how she was better than that. If she knew he was right, she never told him.

Her vague experimentation extended to other things too, particularly men. She embarked on a series of shallow, unrewarding relationships with a range of suitors all of whom were, for one reason or another, wrong for her. Perhaps she had hoped – as with her work – that one day she would find that perfect match and thus find the rest of her life suddenly mapped out.

It was thin veneer of a philosophy, and one which belied her intelligence. If anything, Jess’ approach was one which embraced Chance as the preferred route into the future, rather than taking on any personal responsibility for forethought and planning. It was clear to her family at least that she didn’t know what she wanted – again something Mac did not shy away from pointing out to her.

“That’s right,” she said in response once, “it’s easy for you to say, easy for you to criticise, you know what you want to do. I haven’t got a fucking clue!”

She hadn’t always been like this, of course. Her path through school and into University had been arrow-straight. There had been no debate about the subjects she would take nor where she would study; having set her course as a teenager, she saw it through to its logical conclusion – the first part at least. If she had now started to look back to try and decode her experience, to decipher it somehow, it was easy to see when things began to change. For Mac, who had, both increasingly and annoyingly, become the yardstick by which she measured herself (and vice versa, as it transpired) University had been a release; freed from the narrow constraints of home, the rules and regulations of school, he had blossomed. She had not realised – not until it was too late – that the exact opposite was likely to be true of her. And the fact that she ‘went first’ probably didn’t help: that sacrifice may have been an invaluable guide for Mac. Without having rails to run on, wandering off a true line was inevitable.

It was never catastrophic – at least not until she found herself exposed to the daily ritual of living on the North Sea coast and all that entailed in terms of wind and rain. And snow. Her personal perambulations had – at least until she arrived in Saltburn – never got her into any trouble. There were no addictions, no violence, no fights, no misdemeanours. If previously Jess had come off the rails, as it were, she had at least bumped along beside them, rather than plunged into some metaphorical ravine.

From somewhere in her past she remembered reading about the notion of the ‘annus horribilis’; the kind of year where nothing seems to go right. She could see, on reflection, how people could find themselves helplessly submerged in one, struggling for air, but it was a situation in which she never expected to find herself. Who does? And the problem was, she discovered, that it was reflective. You didn’t realise that you were in the midst of such a period until a number of things had already happened and were behind you – or, at best, you were in the middle of them. If you had been able to tell in advance, somehow, magically, that this was going to be one of those twelve months, then you might have the opportunity to change course, to take ‘evasive manoeuvres’. It was probably early spring 1984 when the penny finally dropped for Jess that she was in the midst of her ‘bad year’.

Not surprisingly, it had begun innocuously enough. The traditional family celebrations had passed with their usual mix of joy and boredom, even if that Christmas had been enlivened somewhat by Mac making the unilateral decision that he was going to spend it away in the Lake District with Mags. It was a decision which, not surprisingly had caused some consternation in the ranks, and if Jess felt slightly more ambivalent about the situation than her mother and father – which she did – there was no way she was going to let on to her brother. Part of her envied his bravery and the standing up to tradition. It was what she had longed to do, to miss the well-worm pageant of their family Christmas – but she had never found a suitable alternative in which she believed enough. That Mac had returned for New Year’s Eve re-established the equilibrium somewhat, though Jess could tell that he was a little preoccupied about something. Perhaps the contrast between their straight-jacketed ritual and the freedom that he had enjoyed with Mags had hit him all of a sudden, and that the schism that represented (if it did indeed represent a schism) was preoccupying him. Perhaps it was something else. Although she liked Mags a great deal, Jess wondered about her in a vague way – and wondered about her relationship with Mac. Unconvinced that it was just the disruption to ritual that had caused his preoccupation, she had challenged him over his slightly off-kilter mood. He brushed it away. “There’s a lot going on,” he had said, and left it at that. She hadn’t pushed. Jess felt she was losing her primacy in their relationship, and pushing would not have helped.

If January 1984 had slipped by without any event of note, the following month was destined to be far different.

On reflection, Jess knew that it was boredom that drove her to Saltburn. That and an ever-diminishing faith that the next relationship would be the motherlode, the one which would rescue her from what seemed – and was – an ever-shortening spiral of inadequate boyfriends. If there were some universal law that proved the more one experienced disappointment the greater one’s chances of being able to steer around it in the future, then Jess would be an exception to the rule. It wasn’t – she might argue with herself – that she never learned; rather, it was that she consistent failed to apply those learnings. It was akin to suffering from short-term memory problems. “What went wrong last time?” she might ask herself, and always fail to alight on the correct answer. In many respects, Tim was to prove a composite of all she had learned and ignored, the acme of what she absolutely did not want or need.

The boredom sprung from a role working for a small team of Independent Financial Advisors as their Execute Personal Assistant. At least that was how they presented the post to her – along with promises about learning the tools-of-the-trade by working with them, the possibility of perhaps studying for examinations, of even having her own clients one day. Whether she believed that or not, it was a role she fell into following a disappointing stint with a retailer, and the sell was an easy one for the IFAs. Of course what they really wanted was someone to answer the phone, handle the mail, and look good when fronting their small office to clients. Jess was good at all those; the first two as a result of dull experience, the latter because – as she put it – “she scrubbed up well enough” when she put her mind to it.

In many respects she was like Mac in that regard. Both of them on the dark side of brown when it came to hair colour and eyes, with features that were well enough proportioned to give them a somewhat striking air, even if it wasn’t entirely possible for people who met them to say exactly why. They had an air about them – or at least, the potential of an air – to be regarded as different, a cut above, a class apart. In Mac’s case, this potential was enhanced by his love of drama, the enthusiasm for performance. There his body was a tool, an ally; and when he moved on to directing, it invested in him a kind of aura and authenticity which actors found easy to believe partly because he looked the part. For Jess, that familial trait translated into looking good. She was, almost without contradiction, an attractive young woman; perhaps not in the conventional sense of blonde hair and blue eyes, but her features were open and engaging, and she had a figure that was above passable. Which was just as well. Without the kind of passion Mac possessed, without something to believe in, she was unable to build on that individual distinctiveness and create something superior or superlative, and so she fell back on a more stereotypical presentation of herself as a woman. If it was consciously done, then it certainly assisted her in the consistently futile attempt of ‘finding Mr. Right’ – at least, that was how she viewed it, even if she had come across too many ‘Mr Wrongs’. If people saw Jess and Mac together for the first time, there could be no doubting they were brother and sister. If you spent any time in their company, you might begin to wonder if their familial relationship might not be a little more distant.

When he was feeling on secure ground and self-confident – usually as a result of some artistic ‘triumph’ – Mac was never above berating his older sibling. Although his intentions were fundamentally honourable and sprung from love, often his approach was a little agricultural. This, allied with the fact that they spoke less and less often than in the past, that Mac was younger than her, and because he was preaching from a position of some strength, only served to make Jess’ reaction more hostile than it needed to be. Their time together, physically in the same space, was reduced to annual events like Christmas or the occasional birthday, and this condensing of time had begun to make them a little hot-tempered with each other; they both knew they would row, so dived in earlier and earlier to get it over and done with. Mags’ sudden presence at such family events during Mac’s second year at University provided something of a buffer during the earlier skirmishes, an arbiter and translator – and for Jess, something of an ally. Another female voice was always welcome. After Mac left University and went his own way – a way that eventually took him all over the world – their comings together were even more sporadic, to the extent that the occasional email or telephone exchange became the vehicle for invasive and increasingly brutal moralising. At least from Jess’ perspective, she was later again able to give as good as she got, a cycle completed when she returned to the ascendant position after their father’s death.

When Tim arrived on the scene, Mac was mid-journey in terms of ‘re-finding himself’ after something of a lull in what was supposed to be a meteoric rise to thespian and directorial stardom. His initial European ramblings were his dipping his toe into the notion of a new ‘Mac-as-traveller’ persona. At the same time, Jess was extracting herself from a woeful encounter with Ronny who, after showing early promise, began to demonstrate that all he really wanted was a maternal-type figure in his life, someone to look after him and replace the mother he had recently lost. In his mind, Jess fitted the bill. Unbeknownst to her, he had even gone as far as to procure an engagement ring – but this was an emblem he was never given the chance to present. Someone who had once seemed worthy of compassion transformed almost overnight into a person to be reviled, and her somewhat callous dumping of Ronny happened to be coincident with her leaving her role with the IFAs after she had been falsely accused of breaking non-disclosure agreements and trading clients’ details to a rival firm.

“If they were looking for an excuse to get rid of you,” Mac had observed unhelpfully over the phone from somewhere in Italy, “then you need to ask yourself why that might have been. Don’t you?”

“Thanks for the support!” had been the last thing Jess said before she slammed the phone down on him. If there were times when she missed Mags – and missed her for purely selfish reasons – this would have been one of them.

Consequently the sudden appearance of a tall, slim, openly charismatic man in the florists where Jess took temporary working refuge after the IFA debacle, was beyond welcome. He had come in to buy some flowers for his mother’s birthday, and allowed Jess to sell him an extravagant bouquet and then proceeded to remain in the shop and watch as she helped the florist prepare it. Two hours later, Tim was back. He had delivered his mother’s flowers then returned to town where he purchased a modest but perfectly wrapped bunch of roses from a rival florists. Armed with these, he had re-entered Jess’ shop, presented the flowers to her and asked her for a date. Having been completely undermined by the recent disasters with Ronny and her financial friends, she was powerless to resist.

It wasn’t a whirlwind romance; Jess didn’t apply epithets like that to her love life any more, even if others might have. After the immediate despondency of recent events, she enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be happy and wanted again – particularly the latter as this time it was not a front for being a surrogate mother. For people who knew her – and, more importantly, for people who knew him – they could see that Jess had not been swept off her feet; rather, she had fallen through a trapdoor. She thought she was flying, but in fact she was still falling and had simply confused the two.

When she hit the bottom it hurt. Badly. Perhaps it was as much the surprise as the actual physical pain. Tim was indeed charming and attentive. The roses were not merely a ploy (though they were that too!), but an example of how he went about things. He was a demonstrative individual who enjoyed making his feelings manifest – whatever they were – and solidifying them physically. You could be forgiven for thinking – as Jess did – that this was a sign of his generosity, of him being a genuine individual. And in a way that was partially true. But Tim’s motivation was not selfless; that was the rose-tinted-glasses view. It was entirely the opposite.

After a couple of weeks together – over dinner at Jess’ favourite restaurant – he suddenly announced that he had landed a lucrative piece of work on the coast and would be going to Saltburn for a while.

“Why don’t you come with me, Jess? What have you got to stay here for anyway?”

And he was right, of course; she had little to keep her where she was. In spite of its apparent haste, the decision to go to Saltburn for a while seemed entirely logical to her, so why not? It was her decision anyway, wasn’t it? She had no one she needed to seek permission from, to bounce the idea off; and even if Mac had been around, knowing how he might have reacted, she instinctively knew she wouldn’t have asked him anyway. Mac, she had already decided, wouldn’t have liked Tim even though – to her, at least – they might have had a number of things in common.

The first couple of weeks in Saltburn were perfectly fine. Tim had managed to locate a nice flat in a side road near the seafront, and being her own boss for a while, Jess found herself treating the whole experience as something of a holiday – not that she had any conscious intention of retreating back to her old home town any time soon.

The first evening Tim returned to the flat in a somewhat flat mood – which seemed atypical to her – Jess not unnaturally tried to jolly him out of it, but with little success. A slight sourness had risen to the surface that he was unable to shake. She pressed him, asking what she could do to help. It was a reasonable enough offer, but when she made it – and when it was rebuffed, instantly – she suddenly realised that she didn’t know what Tim’s work was. He had talked in vague generalities when she had asked previously, and used phrases that seemed to fit his personality rather than what he actually did. Whatever it was, it certainly paid well enough for them to eat out often and for him to present her with the occasional trinket.

In the morning he was back to his usual self, full of apology for his behaviour the previous night, and promising dinner out that coming evening. It was a treat that never happened.

Tim arrived back at the flat earlier than usual, surprising her as she emerged from the bathroom having taken a long mid-afternoon bath, something that had become a little routine for her. He looked very vaguely dishevelled, his tie slightly askew, jarring from his normally immaculate self-presentation. His face was tight, and apart from a darkness in his eyes that she had never seen before, expressionless. He stared at her as she stood before him on the threshold of the bathroom.

“What’s wrong?” she had not unnaturally asked, and then, getting no response, “Let me get some clothes on”.

He hit her just as she turned away from him, the blow from the back of his hand becoming a glancing one rather than the full-force shot that he had intended. It was enough to unbalance her, an arm instinctively finding the wall to stop a slide to the floor. Before she could move again, one of his arms ripped the towel from her body. The next blow did send her to the floor form where, this time truly dazed, he half-picked, half-dragged her naked form into the bedroom where he threw her onto the bed.

She had landed suddenly and painfully, the trapdoor closing way above and her cutting off all light.

*