by Laura Christine Price

The sand is hot. They keep to their beach towels, locked into cloth rectangles damp with sweat to save themselves from the burning white that surrounds them.

‘Imagine having a beer right now,’ he says. ‘A cold one.’

She thinks of it, cool lager fizzing down her throat, the icy feel of condensation on the bottle, straight from the fridge. She exhales a warm breath.

‘Pass me the water.’

He leans across, his tanned arms flexing, passing the bottle. She takes a glug, her mouth filling with lukewarm liquid. The opposite of refreshment.

‘Not quite the same,’ she says.

Today, there is no sea breeze: the air is still, hot, thick. The beach is packed, the heat bearing down from the sun reflected outward from the bodies that are desperate for a day’s tanning. It is loud, and children swarm. It is not what she wanted to do today.

He lies propped up on his elbows, squinting a little, looking out to the unmoving sea. Like a duckpond, her mother would say. She feels the phrase like a stab, shakes it away.

‘I’m going to look for some,’ he says.

‘Some what?’ She is sat, knees bent, arms folded across them, her flesh scorched. She pulls her hair out of the messy bun she shoved it into, trying to shade her shoulders.

‘Some beers.’ He is pulling trainers on. She thinks of the sand between his toes, how gritty it will feel between his feet and soft trainer insides. He is stubbly; she thinks he was clean shaven when they first met. The stubble suits him better.

‘From where?’

‘There are loads of bars nearby.’ He stands, looking down at her through messy brown hair that flops over his eyes. ‘Do you want anything else?’

She shakes her head; her hair stings her tender shoulders. He lopes away, almost jogging, as if the heat of the sand is radiating up through the soles of his trainers.

She takes another swig of the horrible, unfamiliar water, crunching the flimsy plastic bottle in her hand. It is almost empty. She should have told him to get more water. Surely he’d think to get more water?

The truth is, she doesn’t know what he’d think. She met him forty-eight hours ago, only barely knows his name. She doesn’t even know if he’ll come back, she realises. All he has left behind is his t-shirt, folded with surprising neatness at the top of the towel. There is a dent in it, where he rested his head.

He might not come back. The phrase rings around her head. The towel is hers; the t-shirt is probably old, or cheap. She looks behind her. There is no sign of him now, disappeared into another road, a bar, the metro, maybe.

She has been in Barcelona for four days, waiting for the start of her visiting studentship in the dog days of August. The city is brim-full of tourists; many of the locals are still away, or hiding indoors, where fans stir the warm air.

They met in a bar on her second night. She had escaped her dour new flatmates – both British, like her, both PhD students like her, but neither of them interested in making friends or showing her anything at all, beyond which room was hers and how to force the reluctant shower into action. She feels like an unwanted guest. Silence falls when she walks into the
dim living room, interrupting her flatmates’ conversation as she tries to make them out through the shade of drawn curtains. It makes her sulky, so she refuses to leave, or to break the silence. Let them sit and be uncomfortable. But it didn’t take long for this to feel lonely. So on her second night, knowing she would have to see the city for herself, she went out.

The streets were darkening as she ventured towards the bars she’d seen earlier that day, out to find a shop to buy fruit and bread and thin red wine. Tall buildings crowded her, edging out the fading light as she hoped, prayed, that this was the road she took earlier. There was litter all over the pavements, hot and sour – a spilled falafel pitta, pooled beer
lapped at by insects, a used condom. She tried to breathe through her mouth.

She found the bar she’d noticed earlier, and sat down with a book and a bottle of beer, trying to feel comfortable enough to stay there until closing. It was quietly busy: there was no music, only dull chatter, a grandmother chastising her grandson for staying out late and worrying his parents. The windows were large, looking out onto a shabby square where small children played late into the night, their parents sat on benches. No English was
spoken. She’d been there for an hour and a half, feeling stiff and self-conscious, when he sat down opposite her. She looked up.

‘Liam,’ he said.

‘Sorry?’ She responded in English automatically. So did he.

‘That’s my name. What’s yours?’

‘Cat,’ she said, not wanting to tell him. Unable to stop herself.

They talked for an hour before he tempted her back to his place with talk of a ceiling fan. She was tired, and a little drunk, and desperate to not go home. She didn’t usually do this; she tried not to think of what her mother would say if she could see her. Since she met him, she has only spent an hour in her own flat, showering and gathering some things. He said
they should go to the beach, and though she knew it was too hot, she silently assented; she threw two beach towels into her bag, with knickers, a hairbrush, a swimming costume and a strip of the pill.

He is good looking, she supposes, and audacious in a charming way, and he makes her laugh. He seems unusually keen to spend time with her. She’s not used to this. She wonders if there’s something wrong with Liam.

But beneath the whirring fan in his white bedroom, sweat beading in the folds of her body, she didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. At all. They had disturbed the lazy air of the room, sending it spinning into dusty corners just as much as the ceiling fan.

‘How are you enjoying Barcelona?’ he asked, entangled with her despite the heat. She had almost let herself go. Almost.

‘I think I’m going to enjoy it,’ she said. He laughed.

‘Shall I tell you what I think?’ he said. ‘I think you have to make your own pleasure.’ She wasn’t sure what he meant. She nodded.

Like her, he is only here for a while, teaching English until the next place calls to him. She will be here for a year of her PhD, mainly stuck in the archives, sometimes teaching undergraduate classes. She didn’t expect the dread that swooped on her when she wheeled her cases along the dirty street to her new flat in Raval. She thought it would be hot
sunshine and new friends in crowded bars, settling into her studies and learning Catalan so she didn’t stand out as a tourist. Less than a week in, the only respite from the dread has been him.

She wonders if she’s doing it wrong. The only person she has had a meaningful connection with in this new place was born fifty miles from her hometown. It must be screamingly obvious that she does not belong here. Maybe that’s why her flatmates are so rude. She’s just not Barcelona enough for them.

It must be twenty minutes since he left, Cat thinks. It can’t take so long to find a bar. She knows he has abandoned her. Moving onto the next place already, perhaps.

It shouldn’t feel so big, she knows. They hardly know each other. In fact, fuck him. Fuck him for walking off like a coward. Ten more minutes and she’ll stand up, shake out the towels, and go. Leave his t-shirt on the beach.

She could ring him – it might stop the twisting in her stomach. Her resolve has vanished. The sun is white and relentless, bearing down on her as she takes her phone from her canvas bag. No texts. No missed calls. She wipes the screen with her thumb, wonders what to do.

She rakes her fingers through the too-hot sand, wanting to feel the heat. Even if he’s gone forever, better to sit here writhing with anxiety than ring him and make a misstep. She thinks of her mother saying she didn’t deserve to be happy, flinches, her shoulders too hot and tight for the skin that stretches over them.

She pulls her knees into her body, her skin red and flame-hot, feeling pathetic. Her view of the sea is thick with a shimmering haze. Children run screaming along the shore, their feet muddy with sand. The sky is oppressively blue, the sun blinding white and commanding. She
so wanted to enjoy today.

A shadow sweeps over her. She starts, freezes for a second, turns; it is Liam. Something tight inside her releases.

‘Took me a while,’ he said, ‘because I thought I should get us some water too.’ He holds up a supermarket carrier bag, shakes it a little. She dives into it, pulls out a cold bottle of water, lets it dribble onto her chin and neck as she chugs it.

‘Woah,’ he says, ‘how long was I gone?’

The water is cold and the relief is hot. Her emotions tumble around, fighting for supremacy.

‘Come on,’ he says. He produces a bottle opener, flicks the caps off the beer bottles, kicks off his trainers and hands Cat a beer. It is colder, somehow, than the water. She presses it onto her chest. Lets out a held breath.

He pulls her up and drags her by the hand over the hot sand, dancing almost as he skips and seeks relief in the thick still air. They leave the towels behind, nothing but the beers to weigh them down. The sea is bath-like, clear and soothing; their skin almost smokes as it is submerged.

Liam wades out a little way, sinks his shoulders under the sea, keeping the beer bottle out of the water. He beckons to her with his free hand; she wants to go.

She pushes through the warm sea, wets her shoulders, takes her first sip of cold beer. So many things happening at once she doesn’t know what to concentrate on: water cooling burnt skin, relief slackening limbs, beer chilling heated insides. She drops back down into the water, lets the salt wash over her, taking the sharpness away. The mess she left at home,
her indifferent flatmates, the day’s unexpected horror – she lets it all go into the sea. There is only space left in her muscles for a brief shudder of delight, and the certain knowledge that she is going to let her year in Barcelona feel just like this.

‘This is what I was talking about,’ he says. ‘We make our own pleasure.’

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Laura Christine Price

Laura Christine Price is a writer, teacher and historian from Yorkshire. When she isn’t teaching history and English to teenagers, she writes novels, short stories and poetry. Her academic writing has been published in books and journals, and a volume on working class history that she has co-edited is forthcoming.

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