*Shortlisted in the Eyelands 2nd International Flash Fiction Contest
Mary Bennet was an old-fashioned thinker – even as a child. And now, as a woman of twenty-one, she preferred to keep to herself, unconcerned with society’s trivial pursuits.
The events in her life, deliberate and planned, were the consequence of consideration and hard work, and her current position at the University of St Andrews – reading Art History – was not an accident of fortune or connection. It was something that she had spent years working towards: a child’s resolve. She had been eight-years-old when she’d first seen a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and she’d thought it to be magic – as if someone had bled the contents of her lost and agitated mind out onto canvass.
Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.
Softness did not come naturally to Mary, but as she thought on Van Gogh’s words, she felt something struggle toward the surface. The warmth of a pulse beneath her skin, a flicker, and then it was gone.
Mary looked up from her desk, the black night pressing at the window, and she expelled a puff of air from her swollen cheeks. It did not do to dwell on history; such indulgences only served as a distraction.
She withdrew her mind from the past, and returned to the textbook in front of her, using the tips of her fingers to still the words. However, it was not long before the commotion outside her window snagged at her attention, and the uninvited furore pulled her eyes toward the glass.
The first day of May.
Mary’s least favourite day in St Andrews.
The night air was laced with a putrid depravity, an odour so potent that she could almost smell it. She scoffed as she observed the human dregs; her fellow academics stumbling by her window. Shameless. They walked on legs unsteady, numb to the cold, their tongues and faces loosened by alcohol, as the torrent of stumbling feet and frivolous conversation staggered past, headed for East Sands Beach.
The May Dip.
It was one of the university’s oldest traditions.
One that Mary abhorred.
Every spring, the small city would awaken before dawn and a rabble of misguided and bleary-eyed students, pulled straight from the sheets of their unmade beds, would saunter and stumble to the sea. It was absurd -barbaric. Mary had watched them in her first year, staring out at the congregation of naked bodies, shameless in their various stages of undress, as they huddled together like vermin. Then, with the first hint of light in the sky, they had plunged into the freezing North Sea, squealing like mice as the cold burned their skin.
A foolish escapade.
Mary straightened in her desk chair, rubbed the twinge from her neck, and returned to the comfort of her textbook.
She did not stir until the third knock on her window. The first two taps went by unnoticed, or ignored at least. But her caller was persistent in his intent, loud and untiring, and Mary failed to maintain her train of thought.
The face pressed up against the glass was familiar rather than friendly. Mary didn’t do friends as such – her exposure to people her age was limited – but she remembered this particular face from one of her tutor groups. He hadn’t mastered the study of art; but his insights were not entirely vulgar.
“Mary,” he shouted, “come on, dawn waits for no man. Or woman.”
A smile played around his mouth, a catching happiness, then he was gone.
Mary watched the empty window for a moment, confused. Ordinarily, such an intrusion would have left her feeling slighted and bitter. She had no intention of going to the sea. But, whenever she turned her eyes to her textbook, that same happy smile came back to her.
And so, it was with wary disbelief that she gathered her jacket, slipped through the door, and made her way down to the beach.
Mary Bennet closed her eyes as the water lapped at her bare ankles, and she moved deeper into the sea, the cold reaching every curve of her exposed body. The water moved around her with acceptance, wholly absorbed in some calm business of its own.
And Mary tilted her head back, raised her arms, and looked at the stars.
Then life seems almost enchanted after all.