Stingray by Liz Churchill
He had written a list of non-negotiables:
No wildlife parks
No frigidity (prefer it if you can’t keep your hands off me).
His face was stern like a lifeguard about to blow a whistle.
And I fell for him. It was love at first swipe-right.
Our first date was in a Coffee Shop called Espresso-Yo-Self. In the flesh, he was slight, many years younger than me and had the air of a clown without make-up. He bought me a gingerbread man from a jar of gingerbread men, eyes all looking left. I asked if a gingerbread man wasn’t a snack? He said no, it was a treat. The specificity turned me on. If he could be this particular about language what else might he be particular about?
“I’m a woman in my seventies but there’s life in the old dog yet,” I told him.
I burped, accidentally. I had opted for carbonated elderflower due to the too-hot nature of the day. He said he found me sexy. Came right out and said it while eating a chocolate éclair. A little bit of cream caught on the side of his mouth so I slid my finger across his lips, brought it to my mouth and sucked. He said I made him feel like life was for the taking.
Next date, he took me to the cinema. We saw an arthouse horror. Curled up with him, in the back row, on a vintage sofa, he tutted and coughed his distaste. The film choice had been mine. There was a good discount for the more mature voyeur - which was how I liked to refer to myself. He ran a hand up my stockinged leg and said the words I used were foreign to him and dirty. I told him he was not a deep man.
His name was Ray. One of those names you couldn’t shorten. I called him Ray-Ray. And we spoke about his interests which included Christmas markets and sharks. He said he was named after a river in the West Midlands that was spelt differently. He said he wanted to go there. He said he wanted to take me.
“What’s your ideal date?” he asked.
“Venice,” I replied.
“More canals in Birmingham,” he said, like a dead-eyed tourist guide.
One late afternoon, he took me to a pub with bars on the windows like bulletproof ribs. Inside, the sound of pool balls clicked like knuckles.
I sat on a banquette corner seat, a glass of Tia Maria in hand. Ray perched on a bar stool sipping lager from a beer mug. The carpet was busy; a sea of patterns in maroon. It was a shabby, third-rate place.
“My Great Uncle used an iron lung,” I told Ray. “He used to tell me that without it, breathing felt like pushing against the weight of water bearing down. From a young age, I became fascinated with incapacitation.”
“Seeing him trapped in that thing. In it up to his neck, it made me appreciate the full range of my physicality,” I went on. “I was a fidgety child. I would swing from monkey bars. I played rounders. My favourite sound was the wooden bat cracking against the leather casing before I ran for my life.”
Ray emitted a low chuckle. “You wouldn’t think it now.”
“You’d be surprised what I can do.” And I gave a saucy look that caused Ray to rub one thigh. His, not mine.
“Do you wish to be buried or cremated?” I said. It was a question I asked all of my dates. Even if it was a topic closer to my heart than theirs. It often led to small talk about rotting flesh. Microorganisms. The timeless reduction of matter.
“I’d like a sea burial,” Ray said. “Let the fishes go to town. I’ll be a dolphin’s dinner.” And he slapped one thigh. Mine, not his.
Later, Ray took me to the river. He nodded. “There she flows,” he said. “There she bloody well flows.”
It was underwhelming. A scraggy, inconsequential stream. “Has your life been full of disappointment?” I asked.
He ignored me. Or didn’t hear me. Or didn’t understand me. It was difficult to tell.
One of the photographs on Ray’s profile showed him closing a door. He was looking back at it, clutching the handle still. His face wore a troubled expression. As though he was holding it shut against something. But the door was glass. And nothing of interest lay beyond.
Ray had brought with him a double canoe. I told him it was ridiculous expecting me to get in it at my age. I was delaying. I thought, for just a moment, of the sad statement Ray had written on the dating app: I’m fascinated with this ball we live on.
He said, “Look. There’s only a very short stretch of this river that’s at all navigable. We won’t be long.”
“I see.” I said. “The opportunity is fleeting.” And I knew that it was now or never which is why I hitched up my skirt and waded towards him.
“That’s my girl,” he said. And smiled.
The weight of the oar was manageable, easy to swing. Sat behind him as I was, my thoughts darkened as they always do, surrounded by water, in the shade of violet dusk.
Liz Churchill is a writer and drama facilitator based in Birmingham. Her short stories have appeared online in the Mechanics Institute Review which as a current Birkbeck MA student I highly recommend, and Ellipsis Zine. She completed the Stinging Fly Summer School in 2022 and she has previously been long-longlisted for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. Liz also read for us at our inaugural competition back in June and ended up winning the entire competition. Liz now runs her own night of live fiction upstairs in a pub in Birmingham. It’s called Mo Stories and everyone is welcome!