Series: The Art of Not Breathing
By Sarah Alexander
I need to talk to you about what happened that day.
I’ll be at the Point tomorrow at 6. Please come.
ELSIE: Why did the lobster blush?
EDDIE: I don’t know.
ELSIE: Because the seaweed!
The thing I hate most about my father is that he hates me.
And he has good reason to.
It’s something we don’t talk about.
He has pale blue, cold eyes that are one minute full of hate, the next full of so much sadness that I pity him. And I can’t stand to feel sorry for him. When I look at him I get this sensation in my throat that feels as though maggots are crawling about in there. The only way to get rid of the itching is to hold my breath and swallow until I almost pass out. The best thing to do is not look at his face or eyes, or better still not look at him at all.
Fortunately, he’s hardly ever home. He’s either out running so that the village women can drool over his “chiselled jaw”, or he’s at the bank where he works in Inverness, or travelling about Scotland selling loans. You’d think he loved his job, the amount of time he spends doing it, but he grumbles that his clients only care about cars or TVs and not about the terrible wars and disasters that happen around the world. “Never mind the rain on the Black Isle,” he says. “What about remote villages that flood every year?” Or, “Thousands of people die every day from mosquito bites in some countries.” He says this one a lot when it’s midge season here and I’m complaining about them. (The midges love my blood.)
My mum tells him, “Do let us know when you’ve found a cure for malaria, Colin. In the meantime, your son needs study books for his exams and your daughter has grown out of another school uniform.” I wish she didn’t use my weight as a way of getting his attention. Why can’t she say the gas bill needs paying or the damp in my room wants sorting?
In the drawer by his bed is an atlas covered in ink; the blue dots places he’s been to, the red ones places he’s desperate to go. There’s a massive red dot on Australia – he pressed the pen so hard there’s ink on the next page, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He nearly made it to Australia once, when he was twenty and had a job as a singer on a cruise ship. When we kids were small he told us bedtime stories about his travels, his voice smooth and soft like melted chocolate. His favourite story was the one about the port in Jakarta. The weather was thundery and the cruise ship had just left the port, next stop Australia, when he received the call to say that Dillon, my older brother, had been born. He used to say, “I was so surprised, I nearly fell overboard, but then I jumped off anyway and swam to shore.”
Mum says this isn’t true, that he wanted to stay on the ship. I often wonder what life would be like if he had stayed on that ship. Or if he’d actually fallen overboard.
I’ve picked up a few snippets about my parents’ life before I was born, mostly from Granny before she died (and before she fell out with Mum). My parents moved into our house on McKellen Drive, the cheapest house in Fortrose – and probably on the whole of the Black Isle – when Dillon was a few months old. It was cheap because the walls were crumbling and it backed onto a cemetery. My father wanted to work on the ship for a few more months so they could afford to move to Inverness, but Mum wouldn’t let him go away again. She didn’t think he’d come back.
Instead, he tried to make money by singing in pubs around Inverness. The house never got fixed and the bills never got paid.
When yet another FINAL WARNING arrived in the post and Mum was hormonal and pregnant again, she marched my father to the nearest bank and made him fill in an application form to be a bank clerk. (This is how he describes it.) When he’d finally made enough money, we packed up ready to move to the city. We kids had a box each with our names on, full of our clothes and toys. But then everything changed.
My brother disappeared.
“How can I leave all these people,” Mum said, staring out of my bedroom window at the headstones in the cemetery on the day we were supposed to move, “when my son is one of them?”
It wasn’t strictly true – there’s a headstone with his name on it but my brother isn’t buried anywhere.
We didn’t unpack his box. Mum taped it up good and proper so nothing could fall out. I think about his toys in the loft sometimes: a grey furry dolphin called Gordon that my father bought for him after he’d had a tantrum at the Dolphin and Seal Centre; a wooden xylophone; an Etch-a-Sketch with his name on it in wonky black lines – he would cry if it got scrubbed off; handfuls of pine needles that he’d collected (the dead ones because they were softer than the spiky green ones – they’ve probably turned into compost now). I try not to think of his clothes, all folded up, damp and creased. It just reminds me that he’s not in them. Instead, I imagine my own clothes all folded up. One day, I suppose someone else will have to try not to think about that.
On Sunday morning, Dillon is hogging the bathroom. The tap’s running but I can still hear the disgusting noises. He’s always been a bathroom-hogger, but he spends even more time in there now he’s got a girlfriend.
I pound on the door and give it a kick for good measure.
“Just a minute,” he yells.
He sounds as though he’s holding a boiled sweet inside his cheek, his voice strained and muffled.
“Hurry up, Dillon. I need to pee!” I shout through the door.
Mum leans on the banister at the end of the landing, glancing down the stairs, watching out for my father coming home from yet another “work trip”.
She asks me if I’ve done my homework and I lie and say I did it all yesterday. She raises one eyebrow at me and scratches her head.
If I don’t do my homework, she often tells me, I won’t pass my exams and I’ll end up being a receptionist like her. But I wouldn’t mind being a receptionist because you just sit all day.
“Think of your exams, Elsie,” she says. “Dillon will get all As for his Advanced Highers.”
Dillon’s got two years on me and he’s a complete brainbox, so it’s not really fair to compare us. I’m already a school year behind because of my Laryngitis Year and I’m only taking half the exams I’m meant to be taking – the school thought I “needed more time”. Dillon’s a year behind too because he also lost his voice, but he’s making up for it by taking extra exams. He likes to be the best at everything, whereas I take pride in being the worst.
Dillon eventually emerges from the bathroom with bloodshot eyes.
“What were you doing in there?” I hiss.
He ignores me and disappears into his bedroom.
There’s something that looks like a piece of spaghetti in the toilet. Mum calls to Dillon but he doesn’t answer.
I flush the toilet to drown out his silence, then turn to the mirror.
Unfortunately, my father didn’t pass his good looks onto me. I got my mother’s dark, wild curly hair and green eyes, which I don’t mind too much, but I didn’t get her petite figure, dainty nose or perfect skin. My face is blotchy and my double chin grows by the day. I tried losing weight once but the more my mum commented on what I was eating, the more I wanted to eat. I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Ruby Red is the colour of my lipstick today – stolen from Superdrug along with a packet of condoms, which I might put in Dillon’s pocket as a joke, and some hairspray. The lipstick feels silky smooth on my lips as I apply it and it glues the chapped bits of skin back down. I don’t blot with a tissue like Mum does. I like it when the red comes off on my cigarettes.
When I come out of the bathroom, Mum is sitting halfway down the stairs with her chin in her hands. I prod her shoulder and she slowly turns around as though she has no idea who might be behind her.
“Your father is on his way. As soon as he’s back we’re all going to the supermarket.”
She doesn’t move so I climb over her to get downstairs.
No matter how carefully and quietly I try to open the fridge, it always makes a loud suction sound.
“I’m just getting a drink,” I call back, reaching for a Coke. I take a few slices of ham and throw them into my mouth before anyone comes in, careful not to wipe my lipstick off. Mum says I eat her out of house and home but this isn’t true because my father pays for the food and Dillon eats like a baby sparrow, so I’m entitled to his share. Anyway, I do most of the cooking, so it’s fair payment.
“A watched door never opens,” I say as I climb back over her.
But then we hear the keys jangling. Neither of us goes to open the door so my father is surprised to find us staring at him from the stairs. He looks as though he’s been up for days.
“I’m back,” he says, as if for some reason we couldn’t see this.
One minute Eddie was there. And the next he was gone.
Five years on, and it’s Elsie who’s lost. All she knows is the pain she feels. Pain that her twin Eddie’s body has never been found after that day on the beach.
Then she meets Tay; confident, cool and addicted to free-diving. He says it’s too dangerous for her to join; it’s too dark, too scary, too deep. But what does he know?
He doesn’t know that being underwater is the only time Elsie doesn’t ache for her brother. That diving gives her flashbacks. And that uncovering the secrets of that day is the only way for Elsie to start breathing again.
“A dark page-turner which will leave you haunted and moved.”
Julia Bell, author of The Dark Light
“Astonishingly good... I couldn't put it down.”
Cat Clarke, author of Entangled
Sarah Alexander was born and bred in London. After working as a tomato picker, travel consultant, mental-health support worker and suitcase administrator, she returned to London to complete a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck College in 2013 (which she passed with distinction). Sarah now works as an editor on digital language-learning projects. She has had short stories published in The Mechanics Institute Review and on Writers Hub, as well as several non-fiction pieces on travel websites. THE ART OF NOT BREATHING is Sarah’s first novel.
Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
“An absolutely amazing read”
I picked this book up from the library as a quick read, and truth be told wasn't expecting much. However, this book is breathtakingly beautiful and now holds a place on my precious bookshelf. The story is raw, emotional and enticing throughout. The loss that hangs over the main character is heartbreaking, and Alexander through her amazing writing is able to connect the reader to the main character through this heartbreak. The young romance that buds is another reason this book is so beautiful and so hard to put down. I would recommend this book to anyone, as I personally cannot find a fault with it.
“An astonishingly good debut novel. I couldn't put it down. Sarah Alexander is the real deal, and I can't wait to read what she writes next.”
Cat Clarke, author of Entangled
“Intense, compelling and beautifully observed, this novel opens a window into secret worlds and portrays a family dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. A dark page turner which will leave you haunted and moved.”
Julia Bell, author of The Dark Light
“Narrated in a crisp, unvarnished voice, Elsie's frightening and alluring tale shows that even while in the depths one can reach for light. In a breathtaking setting, this is a fresh and vivid take on the long-term effects of a child's death on a family.”
“A strong debut novel that tells an intriguing tale of grief and recovery.”
School Library Journal
“The author has created an unforgettable heroine in Elsie, whose haunting, heartfelt tale comes highly recommended.”
“One of the most breath-taking covers I’ve seen all year.”
Lucy Powrie, Queen of Contemporary
“A beautifully written debut, very lyrical and moving, which swept me away.”
Eve Ainsworth, author of Seven Days