WATER (Short Story)

First Published in 2016 in

The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! Volume 2 

“A story that gave me that “aah” moment was Stephen Embleton’s Water. Water is a beautifully crafted story that explores grief. Without really mentioning death (I think it’s only brought up once), Water manages to pull us into what looks like a mundane morning routine but is, in fact, weighed heavily by the loss of a lifelong companion. This story is so well crafted that I return to it time and again. I deserves a special mention for its ability to quietly draw you into the world of its main character.” - Introduction by Duduzile Zamantungwa Mabaso (Black Letter Media)


by Stephen Embleton

Steam rose from the subsiding water of the bath, latching on to the cool glass of the windows and mirror over the sink. George gave the hot tap one last twist with his frail hand and leaned over to pick up the small tincture bottle of lavender from the side of the bath. 

The lid unscrewed easily, having made sure he didn’t over tighten it the morning before, and he gave the dark brown bottle a slow sniff. The burst of aroma tingled through his nasal passages and over his body in a warm, goose-pimpled wave. He closed his eyes and breathed it back out again, suddenly having to steady himself on the bath as he lost his balance in the semidarkness of his closed eyes. Back in the reality of the light bathroom, he plopped himself on the closed toilet lid. 

He brought the bottle up to his narrowing eyes. “Lavender: Lavandula Augustifolia. Burns, sunburn, lumbago, halitosis, nausea...” He felt bile rising in his throat. “…cystitis, vertigo.” He swallowed, then, tilted the raised bottle over the still bath water. 





He watched all eight drops leave the bottle and fall, momentarily oiling the water surface. He noticed the change in the room’s aroma. 

With his free hand, he began to swirl the water around. “You have to swish it before you get in,” he said to himself. 

He flicked off the water from his warmed hand and twisted the lid onto the bottle. He nestled the bottle in his hand for a moment, feeling its coolness begin to warm, then replaced it alongside the bath-salts dish. 

Crunching the small wooden spoon into the pink crystals, George took a heap of the rose-scented salts and sprinkled them around the bath. 

Again, he smelled the air. It was like a recipe, but instead of tasting, he allowed his sense of smell to direct him, to fine tune it to the perfect result. 

From the toilet, he looked over at the sink, the mirror above it a pale sheen of condensation. He stood and moved into his usual routine, the routine his father had passed on to him. He took his facecloth from beside the sink and, in a few broad strokes, cleared the view in the mirror. He could see the reflection of the bath over his right shoulder, the steam still rising from its hot water. He glanced back at his reflection, momentarily distorted by two streams of moisture running down the glass. He gave another quick wipe then dropped the facecloth into the sink. 

He plugged the hole and turned on the hot tap. The material darkened then was overcome by the rising water. 

George kneaded the course fibres until soft, squeezed it out and placed it squarely over his face. He felt the heat and steam on his skin, eyelids, nose and lips. He imagined the skin loosening, the bristles of his day’s growth softening under the dark cloth. He stood there for a few moments, breathing lightly, looking up into the darkness of his covered eyes, then tilted his head forward and allowed the cloth to drop freely into the water with a slosh. 

He opened his eyes and caught sight of the old man looking back at him in the misty mirror. He took a deep breath and grabbed the facecloth, wrung it out again and gave the mirror another wipe. He gently placed his cool, steel razor into the warm water to heat up. 

He looked back at the bath, stepped over and picked up the translucent, pale yellow block of soap. Glycerine. No added colourants, perfumes or irritants. The solid bar filled his hand as he held on to its slippery form in the water. In a few brisk strokes he had created a thin white foam on the surface of the water. 

The smell changed. 

He was ready for shaving now. 

He rinsed the soap from his hand and returned to the sink. He took a deep breath of the fragrant, humid air and proceeded to squeeze shaving cream into his hand. He lathered it up between his hands and began applying it to his face. 

All areas covered, he picked his razor out of the water and gave it a few quick flicks. 

His strokes were slow and precise, crunching through the hard grey bristles; each followed by a rinse in the sink water. He took extra care around his top lip and nostrils, and some finer work around his sideburns. Not exactly lampchop length, but enough to say “I’m no square, babe”. 

Done, he let out the scum-covered water, wiped out the ring and filled it up again with both hot and cold water. In the meantime, the razor was dried and replaced in the wall holder. The sensation of the warm water splashed on his tingling face felt good. His skin felt softer. 

The sound of the sink emptying gurgled in the empty bathroom as he dried his face on his towel. 

Finally, he was able to look at his ‘normal’ self in the mirror. His hands felt separate to himself as he stroked and checked for missed hairs, the numbness after the shave dissipating slowly. He closed his eyes and felt the feeling of a warm hand on his cheeks. 

Moisturizing would wait until after his shower. 

One last step; he pressed out three squirts of the Marula shampoo and conditioner from their dispensers into his hand, then swirled it around the bathwater. Noticing the temperature of the water had dropped, he turned the hot water tap on full, foaming where it hit the water and letting up more steam into the room. 

He now had the full aroma of the rose, lavender and fruit in the thick air. 

Folding open the glass doors, George stepped into the shower to turn on the hot tap, deftly manoeuvring out the way of the initial blast of cold water and back out to safety. He felt a pinch in his lower back, knowing he’d really regret it in the morning. The air in the shower turned pale with steam as he looked on, mesmerized. 

He finally roused himself from his cloudy daydream to continue his routine. 

The white sleep-shirt was easy enough to remove and toss into the wash basket, but the shorts required a steadying hand on the sink, one leg at a time. And, again, he noted his lower back aching. The air in the room was just so that he couldn’t feel any chill on his naked body as he one-armed the shorts neatly on top of the shirt. 

Careful to step around the boiling spray, George edged the cold-water tap on and closed off the hot tap a fraction, until it was perfect to douse himself. 

He allowed the goose-pimples to flow down him like the hot water itself, a rush of tingles from the crown of his head down to his extremities. He always allowed a few minutes to enjoy the sensations, the aliveness in his skin and the warming up of his muscles for the day, before going about the task of lathering, scrubbing and rinsing. 

The process ended much the same as it began: allowing the water to just flow over himself, catching his spluttering breath and enjoying the cocooned warmth of the shower enclosure before stepping out to towel himself off as quickly as possible. 

Finally, naked and semi-dry, George gave the bath one last swirl and pulled the plug out, listening to it empty as he creamed his body, applied his roll-on and slapped on his aftershave. 

Nearly ready for the day. 

Ten minutes later, George had managed to maze his way through the attempts at meaningless conversations, aches and complaints from the attention deprived residents of the home, and found himself at the top steps looking out over the green gardens. He took in the fragrant air and stepped down onto the paved path winding its way through the ponds, flowerbeds and benches. 

He was early enough to, at least, have an undisturbed stroll before breakfast. Many of the pensioners needed their initial boost of protein and fruit juices to give them the energy to barely make it to lunchtime - mid-morning tea more a respite to get them there. George, on the other hand, although weatherworn from his decades on the seas, was relatively mobile and fit for his 83 years. His bald scalp, nose and exposed hands had always taken the brunt of the elements; the odd patch of skin graft, pale and shiny in places, contrasted with the scarred laser removals on the backs of his hands. Whether out in the open ocean for months at a time, or the modest family yacht, the sea took its toll. 

He knew the path to the fountain by heart; he’d always threatened to walk it with his eyes closed but his land legs had always been his excuse not to try. If he closed his eyes, he could always feel that sway of the ocean, the solid earth under his feet swaying gently and the occasional sudden drop-off – the sensation of the ship peaking a sixty-foot swell and diving back down – would bring him back to earth, and reality. 

He stopped at the steady spray of water spurting skywards and then falling, in parts, in a light mist carried off-centre onto the paving to the left, while the heavier drops of water fell into the fountain’s catchment, replenishing itself. 

The bench sat to the side of the path, solid concrete. Immovable. The mist stain stopped a few feet away from where George’s feet would have been had he sat down. 

Instead, today his attention was drawn further away from the usual destination. 

In the distance, he could see the rising haze from the ocean he knew was crashing on the beach in front of the prime apartments blocking his view. Back at the room, later, he would look out at the silent swells in the distance, the white-tipped waves and the seabirds skimming its surface. For now, the faint smell of the salty air tickled his memories and quietened his mind.  

His hands felt cold, empty. He folded his arms in front of him, pulling himself tight and, allowing his feet to be prickled with the fine water of the fountain, he made his way to the end of the gardens. 

He stopped at the whitewashed wooden railing that separated him from the flowerbed and the eight-foot-high perimeter wall enclosing the entire complex. He looked at the blankness in front of him, much like the looming waves he’d faced off decades before. But he wasn’t here for the view. 

Like he had done many times in his life, he planted his feet square to his shoulders, firmly in place on the paving slabs. He let his arms relax and fall freely at his sides and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes. 

He listened. He smelled the thick air. He could taste the salt. 

A wave crashed in the distance and George braced himself. His jaw clenched and he balled his fists. He took another deep breath, this time feeling himself pitching and going over the top of a wall of water. 

Solid ground left his feet. He felt, for a split second, weightless. A wave crashed and George gripped the railing with both weathered hands, white-knuckled and trembling, and steadied himself; salt water oozed out the cracks of his still tightly shut eyes. 

“You are safe. You are safe. You are safe,” he could hear Wendy saying to him that first night back home. Her arms were around him as he sat upright, drenched in sweat, after reliving his nightmare at sea in his sleep. 

She had never asked for explanations. She had never pushed him. It had taken years for him to open up about the ocean; the world where there is no land in sight, and where you feel you are on a watery planet far from your family and safety. 

The sweat tickled his spine. He held on to the railing a few moments longer and then finally let out a controlled hiss of pent-up air and energy. Trying to relax his hands and fingers, as if they were frozen in place, they began to ache and resist his brain’s impulses to flex and release the wood. 

A moment later, and some warming movements, George slipped his hands into his pockets. The sun, rising above the wall, had begun to warm his face and chest. 

Feeling somewhat normal, George turned and made his way back past the fountain and on to the dining hall. 

The day progressed much as it had for the past fifteen years; the bustle and chatter filled the open room, mixed with the clink of cutlery on cheap crockery. 

Dining near the open doors to the patio, away from the distraction of the other patrons and their gripes, George went through his three courses in his naval manner: elbows in, methodically cutting, combining and chewing with the occasional sip of orange juice. No one attempted a one-on-one conversation here. They needed distractions. It was always the group. 

Satisfied, George checked in for mail at reception – nothing – and then removed his paper list from his pocket as he stepped into the small store attached to the building. 

More a convenience for some of the less mobile residents, it provided some of the basic necessities like toiletries and treats, giving them a sense of independence and not having to rely on the sparse visits of ‘caring’ relatives for their provisions. 

He could’ve easily carried the three items in his hands but, nevertheless, he picked up the small green basket at the doorway and began browsing the shoulder-high shelves. Nothing really new on the shelves, that he noticed, but he enjoyed the sights and the smell. The local shop down the road from his family home on the Bluff had had a similar smell. Past the cramped shelves and aisles and at the back of the old store was the dispensary; the subtle medicinal aromas had permeated the whole room; disinfectants and sweet cough syrups would hang in the warm air along with the stale popcorn and tobacco behind the single till. But this store didn’t have popcorn, or cigarettes. It was clean and stark. 

If it weren’t for the nametag, he wouldn’t have remembered the young boy’s name standing behind the cash register. 

“Hi, Dylan,” he smiled and placed the basket down on the counter. 

“Morning, sir,” the young man said cheerily. “Is this all you’ll be needing?” 

“Indeed,” he nodded as if to a cadet. 

Dylan bleeped the 500ml shampoo past the scanner. 

“I hear Sandalwood is a very good fragrance to try,” he said picking up the small bottle of essential oil. 

“The lavender will do. Thanks, Dylan,” George smiled and removed the rose salts bag from the basket and handed them to Dylan. 

Bleep. Bleep. 

“Mrs Cresswell loves her lavender, doesn’t she?” 

George smiled at the sound of his wife’s name and gave a nod. “She does. Her best time of the day, her morning bath. Apart from getting in her fresh clean sheets in the evening, of course.” 

The items were charged to his account and wrapped up neatly in a paper bag. 

Dylan was already ringing up the next customer as George headed back to the room. 

“He’s still happy to come and get his wife’s items for her,” he said to the elderly lady placing her products on the counter. 

“Who’s that dear?” 

“George. Mr Cresswell. Buying Mrs Cresswell’s aromatherapy goodies.” 

“That’s a shame. It is.” 

“How do you mean?” 

“Oh, Miss Wendy passed not a month ago now, lad.” 

“I wonder why he would be buying her products then?” 

“When you get to our age,” she smiled at the young man. “The scents of another, the spaces they occupied, their sounds and smells are noticed. You take for granted the smell of their pillow. It will be washed out one day. You sit in the car they drove for years; sit quietly in it, with them no longer behind the wheel. Their scent is still there. Handles have worn from the daily rubbing and touching; shining surfaces smooth. You now notice what a room is like with them no longer sharing it with you. All that is there is you, eventually. You shared a bathroom. How was that room when you shared it? How was a room when they walked in? Face to face, as you drift off to sleep in the darkness, the smell of their steady breath, both of your breaths mixed. Did you notice it while they were here or only when they were gone? You want that back. You want to feel that familiarity. And mostly, you want them there with you. You want them back in that space. The space between you and the rest of the world.” 

The hiss of the ocean was barely audible from the room, windows sealed, but he seemed to feel the rumble through his feet, an ever-present tremor in his body. He looked out at the quiet waves in the distance, watching their gently swell ripple across the dark surface. 

He brought his hand to his face and sniffed his fingers. The oily bottle from the store had left some residue behind. He smiled and rather than prepare himself for the evening, he removed his sneakers and lay back on the bed, staring up at the blank ceiling. 

Without anything to stimulate his sight, he was now aware of the residual smells from the morning hanging in the air. He placed his arms, hand over hand on his chest, feeling his steady breathing. 

The aroma in the air seemed to intensify and he could almost hear running water in the bath, the steady hiss from a tap. 

A tingle started at the crown of his head, and rapidly moved down his face and neck, over his chest and through his body in a sudden wave, prickling every pore and hair. 

His senses were totally engulfed; the ceiling didn’t seem so blank anymore. The dull whiteness began to brighten; the edges of his vision shifted between a pale yellow and a bluish glow, like a camera lens trying to focus on empty space. 

The sound of rushing water intensified. The scent of his wife became visible. 

He felt weightless; the bed beneath him fell away. A wave crashed in his ears. 

“I am safe. I am safe. I am safe,” he breathed out. 


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