Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) – Sheila Scott

Rashmi leaned into the thick perspex of the tunnel, her body bending to its curve. Outside the wind tugged at the grass and tore it horizontally. She longed to be that grass.

Everyone else she knew had moved on. They had learned to live with this new life, like hamsters in plastic tube houses or rats in a laboratory maze, but she couldn’t let go.

A loose slate on the building opposite shook free and clattered off the top of the enclosed walkway. No-one batted an eyelid. Finally, a voice broke her reverie.

‘There you are!’

Rashmi turned towards her sister. Eloise was standing, hands on hips and head tilted to one side, a pose familiar to Rashmi from earliest memory.

‘I’ve been waiting an absolute age. Eventually gave up our table and came looking for you.’ She tugged at Rashmi’s arm. ‘I should’ve known you’d be wind watching again. Come on, I’m starving.’

Rashmi trailed after her sister down the long winding tunnel towards the mall. Outside, a bird was careening towards the left wall, its wings scattered and useless and its beak open in impotent protest. Eloise glanced over as Rashmi’s eyes followed its final path. A smear of feather dust decorated the exterior for a matter of seconds before the currents lifted and carried the particles clear. No trace remained.

‘Dunno how those beggars still get out there.’ Eloise rapped her knuckles on the perspex. ‘Just as well it’s made of sturdy stuff.’

Rashmi had stopped again.

‘Jesus wummin!’ Eloise pulled again at her sister’s sleeve and hauled her towards the colourful noise of the food court.

‘Don’t you ever miss it?’ They had placed their order and Rashmi was circling her glass of soda and lime round its damp outline on the paper tablecloth.

‘Hmm?’

‘The wind. Don’t you ever miss standing at the seaside, the salt air blowing your head clear of thoughts. Or breezes cooling the sun on your bare skin in summer?’

Eloise lifted one of the laminated menus from its holder and used it to fan herself.

‘You live in the past Rashmi. Do I miss spending an hour getting ready then within seconds of stepping outside having the style ripped out my hair and my make-up smeared by streaming eyes? Do I miss dodging airborne litter and flying debris? Do I miss projectile bird-shit on good outfits?’ She set the menu on the table and looked her sister in the eye. ‘What do you think?

‘Trouble is, your memories are rose-tinted.’

‘At least we were…connected.’

Eloise’s waved hand took in the perspex warren beyond the food court. ‘How much more connected could we be?’

‘Not that kind of…’

‘Chicken pesto panini?’ The waiter dropped the plate on the table without waiting for a response.

‘That’ll be m…’

‘And brie and cranberry on wholemeal.’ He deposited the second dish and left. The sisters swapped plates.

‘So, Mum rang last night…’ Eloise barely broke for breath, a mouthful of food pouched in her cheek. Rashmi took a sip of her soda and resigned herself to another lunch with her sister.

The foreman looked pointedly at his watch as Rashmi returned to her station at the depot.

‘I’ll make it up at the end of the day.’ She made a face at his retreating back.

In the changing room, she opened her locker and retrieved her uniform. As she pulled the overalls up over her boots and slid her arms into the sleeves, she stared at the photo taped to the inside of the door: two sisters in matching bathing costumes, knee deep in waves that stretched all the way back to the sky. They were grinning as the breeze tangled their salt-straggled bobs.

‘Rose tinted.’ She shoved the locker shut and pocketed her key-card.

Pete was standing by the truck, stabbing a finger at one of the hand-held devices as she approached.

‘Thought you were a no-show.’

‘Sister. Lunch. Phone call from Mum.’ She stuck out a hand for the device.

‘Lucky we got you back at all then.’ He patted the cab. ‘Loaders are done. It’s all yours.’

‘Cheers Pete.’ She clambered up the three metal bars on the side of the wagon and settled into the driver’s seat. One of the depot floor runners heaved the door closed behind her, its hefty locking mechanism slamming into place with a resounding clunk. She set the device into its port on the dashboard and considered today’s route.

‘Ya beauty. Coast here I come.’ Rashmi slid the key-card into the ignition slot and mock saluted Pete through the cabin window as the truck roared into life and began gliding along the iron track towards the exit. The siren howled throughout the depot and the floor runners retreated to their kiosks before the great doors slid open to the howling winds.

She had been ecstatic when she finally secured a transit post; this was as close as you could get to being outside on your own since the great winds began. Once on the open rail, she clipped her music box in place and voice-selected a favourite indie band. The cabin filled with the sound of twanging guitars and a decent gruff melody, and she smiled as Eloise’s accusation of her living in the past resurfaced.

‘Stuff it.’ She rattled the gear stick to the beat and sang along with gusto. The journey ahead would take her through the beautiful rolling hills of Kenville County and terminate at the pristine coastline of West Brand, previously a popular seaside resort.

The immense bulk of the truck thrummed along the monorail network requiring only the occasional input on the gear stick or brake from its driver. Cities and towns came and went. In the gaps between lay open landscapes, the blasted scrub narrating the prevailing wind direction. Occasionally, she caught glimpses of the coast: sand bulked in the far end of its curves and rocks undercut by waves thrown out by forceful currents.

Rashmi remembered the freedom of childhood summers. Wind breaks and parasols were secured with the simple heft of her father’s hand. You could build sandcastles that lasted until the careless step of a stranger caved the ramparts. You could sit on a towel with the breeze lifting your hair from shoulders sticky with sunblock. When you got bored, you could run with abandon into the rippling cool of a welcoming sea. The level surface would take your weight gladly and, as it gently lifted you up and down, you could raise a sleepy smile towards the heat of the sun.

The last family holiday to the seaside – in fact, outdoors – had been the year before the ban. The wind break had been torn from her father’s hands and vanished up and away like an overgrown kite. Grit had filled their eyes, noses, mouths, making the picnic inedible. The sea had hurled forbidding waves onto the damp sand, forcing the family high into the shelter of the dunes’ stinging grasses.

The following year, they joined the other families in the domed enclosures of Midpoint Parks.

Beach trips had been outlawed for nigh on ten years now, but she had never forgotten the feeling of those now distant outings.

The grey blocks and tube network of West Brand rose quickly on the horizon and the rail drew the truck closer to the crystal shimmer of the sea. Rashmi dropped through the gears until the truck glided to a halt within the concrete confines of the depot. Doors clanged shut behind her and floor runners emerged from their kiosks like cockroaches into a night-time kitchen. The forklifts buzzed round the back doors of the truck, carrying away the treasure to be hoarded in bays before onward distribution to the enclosed malls.

She clambered out the cabin and passed the device to the waiting clerk.

‘Lovely day out there.’ She pointed beyond the steel grey wall towards the beach.

‘Is it?’ The clerk didn’t look up, just clicked the device from the truck into a second one hanging from his belt and uploaded the data.

‘Anything to take back?’

‘Yeah. You’ve time for a coffee if you want.’ The clerk nodded to the staff canteen on the mezzanine.

‘Cool.’

Rashmi took the elevator to the upper deck and swiped her card in the door lock. She collected a coffee, wandered over to the viewing pane, and watched as the floor runners emptied and reloaded her truck. Grey overalls, grey walls, grey base, grey vehicle. She glanced up at the light tubes overhead and caught the slightest glimmer of blue sky.

When they had finished, the foreman waved up at her and Rashmi returned to the truck. He handed her the updated device and she recorded its receipt with a squiggly signature on the screen held out by the foreman.

‘Cheers, Paul.’

‘No bother. Probably see you tomorrow.’

‘Aye, no doubt.’ Rashmi once again scaled the steps to her cab. Once again, she slotted the reconfigured device into its slot on the dashboard. Once again, she waved goodbye to the foreman and listened to the siren wail as the cockroaches ran for shelter.

But this time she unclipped her seatbelt, manually overrode the sealed door of her cabin and descended the three silver rungs to the depot floor. This time, as the doors slid open at the end of the warehouse, she ran towards the daylight, beyond the prison of the compound and into the elements.

Paul hammered on the reinforced glass of his kiosk, his warning shouts trapped within the protective shell. In panic, he hit the emergency button, but she was too far ahead, the doors juddering together too slowly to prevent her escape. For a second, Paul watched as the winds devoured the solitary figure standing beyond the gap. He heard a primal howl break from Rashmi as the blast of the wind struck her face, ripped at her hair, clothes, skin.

By the time the doors clamped shut, she had gone.

Hybrid writer-scientist, Sheila most enjoys turning idle thoughts into short narratives and illustrative doodles. Her work has been published in Postbox, Edwin Morgan 100 Anthology, Cabinet of Heed, Causeway, Ellipsis Zine, Flashback Fiction, Bangor Literary Journal, Poetic Republic, and 2019 Morton Writing Competition. Her intermittently hyperactive Twitter account is @MAHenry20.

Image via Pixabay

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