Before Trump was inaugurated as the 45th US President, before the #MeToo campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, I wrote a short story about one woman’s fear of sexual attack while running at a suburban beach. The story which I titled Morning, came to me in a rush of rage, following a run at the beach where a young thug hurled vile abuse at me. It’s also the culmination of stories and fear I’ve heard from friends over the years.
In 2017, Morning was long-listed for the Margaret River Short Story Prize.
Here it is now, but please be warned, it contains offensive language and strong sexual references.
by Nicole McAlinden
Leah pulls into the carpark and checks the car clock. 9.34am. Only two cars sit idle, looking out to the milky blue ocean. She’ll have to stop at the turn off today, she thinks, stepping out into the fiery morning. It’s too late. She should have arrived earlier.
A white haired man with earphones in walks by swiftly, his grey socks pulled up to his pronounced knees, arms fixed high by his sides, as though unable to move. When did he start walking like that? She wonders.
The air is thick, like a blanket of warm glue, its weight and viscosity bearing down on her.
She walks for a minute to stretch out her calves, then at the bottom of the hill, swings into a run, tucking her arms up and in as they swing, streamlining herself, extending her legs out in front then curling them up behind. It feels good, that first burst of adrenaline, like she’s flying. The breeze brushes past her face, bringing lightness and oxygen.
It’s not long before the searing heat wraps around her legs, stinging her pale skin. With each stride, the burn of the pavement penetrates the soles of her favourite joggers, scalds her feet.
She ignores the burn and pushes on, pumps her arms harder and pulls her knees up to climb the next hill. Around the bend the view unfolds, revealing the glaring white sand below, giving way to the palest turquoise over stretches of pitted limestone then a deep blue. The morning light dances on the swaying water, flitting here, dappling there, glinting the surface in nature’s own choreography.
At the top of the hill, her heart pumps hard. Sweat oozes from her pores, runs down her neck and between her breasts, causes her hair to itch beneath her white cap. She licks her lips, swallows, trying to conjure some moisture in her mouth as salt blows up from the ocean, and she breathes it in. This is why she runs. The ocean, the temporary burst of freedom, the sweat.
The path obediently follows the road, bending down to intersect the driveway to the Marine Research Centre. Leah slows, quickly looks both ways to check for cars. Nothing. With a pump of the arms, she surges forward again, around the headland, past a young couple pushing hard uphill on skateboards, towards the spot where families bring their kids. The brilliant green lawn is freshly mowed, the playground fenced, the sand raked clean. A mother sits on a picnic rug in the shade, her baby lying on his back beside her in just a white singlet and nappy. His arms and legs flap wildly, as a gurgling laugh rolls out from his plump mouth.
The smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing billows out from the café across the road and Leah’s stomach grumbles.
A kilometre further north, she passes a young man on a bicycle, converted with an engine. The high pitched buzz drowns out the sound of the waves below. The hood of his dark grey jacket hangs low over his eyes. How he can see where he’s going? She wonders. Just as he passes, he jerks his head back, flicking off the hood and his eyes bore into her.
Leah looks down, keeps her eyes focussed on the path, and despite the ache in her legs and burning in her side, pumps harder, stronger, until she has passed.
The next stretch is okay she thinks, the path is wide, the view open. Four wheel drives with racks on top and utes chug by. It’s mostly men, she notices. Tradies in fluoro shirts and broad hats, probably en route from one job to the next.
The path climbs the edge of the cliff, distancing itself from the white sand below. She glances to the water. At the foot of the dune, a cricket match is under way. Seven, maybe eight young men in boardies with shirts off strut around. One hits the ball hard, the bat coming to a stop high over his shoulder.
One dives into the sand, with arms outstretched before him, calling ‘It’s mine!’ The ball lands, and he pounds the soft sand with his fists.
‘Ah fuck!’ Another voice yells out, hands on hips.
Why he’s so angry, she doesn’t know. It’s only beach cricket after all.
She raises her eyes and just ahead, a man leans over the timber railing that prevents his fall. The thin, tanned skin of his arms and bare chest wrinkles and folds over on itself, like cling wrap that has been stretched too tight, then released. One foot is hooked up on the cross beam, his arms folded before him. He focuses on something down on the beach. Watching the cricket perhaps?
As Leah approaches, she flicks her eyes down to the sand again. Immediately below, a woman on her own, maybe in her twenties, lies on her stomach, her pale bikinis barely covering her mounds of flesh.
The man runs a hand across his jaw and leans forward even more, lost in the moment of watching, a smile pulling up the corner of his mouth.
Leah’s breath catches. You filthy bastard! She wants to shout. Or run down the timber stairs and tell the girl, Look! Cover up! Can’t you see?
She knows the risk, she’s heard the stories. The overweight man masturbating in the shade of the nature trail at the local open space. His eyes half closed in the moment as his hand jerked frantically up and down, in full view of passersby.
She has her own stories too. The faded blue 1980s sedan, packed full of young men that passed by, just as she reached the turn off, only the week before. The front passenger’s left arm drooped out the open window. At the rear, a man’s head shot out, his long beach hair whipping his face as he turned back to stare. His face stretched into a smile, before he shouted, ‘Fuckin’ nice cunt!’
A piercing wolf whistle came from somewhere. It was early that day, only 7.20am.
A middle aged man peddled slowly on a bike in front of her, a group of seniors on foot just behind. It didn’t stop them though.
Wolf whistle. Strange name, she thinks now. Why do they call it that? The whistle of a wolf? With bared teeth like blades and threatening eyes? That’s what it felt like.
Her heart thumps in her chest, her breaths come shallow, and she doesn’t stop, doesn’t yell at the man and doesn’t run down to the girl on the sand, just keeps on the path, fixing the image of the girl in her own mind, and looking at the cars that pass by, hoping that someone sees her, remembers her too, just in case.
At last, the path levels off and Leah slows, catches her breath. Her mouth is dry, her throat burning. The turn off is just ahead. She squints, trying to see if it’s okay to continue.
Two workers in orange vests stoop over in the dunes behind the pine log fence, broad hats on their heads as they dig neat holes in the sand. One upends a seedling from its plastic pot and pushes it into the soil.
She exhales heavily. It’s okay, she thinks, they’re just working. She runs past the bollard. Forty metres ahead, the path deviates from the climbing road and clings to the edge of the limestone cliff, hidden amongst the overgrown scrub.
Sometimes if she’s lucky, there’ll be an older couple sitting on the bench at the lookout, or Mums in gym gear pushing prams side by side, allowing her to continue. Leah’s eyes search ahead for the lookout. It’s empty today. If no one comes, she’ll have to turn back.
She pants and slows her pace just a fraction, preparing to stop, annoyed at having to stop. If only she could keep going. If she continues around the bend, she’ll be completely out of sight from the road. Her heart thuds in her chest, the rapid lub dub of blood pumping echoes in her ears. She must turn back now, before it’s too late.
Just as she slows, a woman rounds the bend, coming straight towards her. Her blonde bob tucked neatly beneath a pink visor. She shuffles slowly in a long stripy dress and thongs on her feet, pulled along by a small white dog.
Leah slows some more, relief crashing over her like a wave. It is okay. She manages to smile at the woman between ragged breaths, says ‘Morning.’ And it is a good morning. She really wants to say, Thank you, thank you for being here, for allowing me to be here too.
Her heart settles and she exhales. This is her favourite part. Ten metres down, the waves crash into white on the reef. In the still water inside the break zone, a juvenile stingray dances in the shallows, its wings licking the air as it navigates the thin veneer of freedom and movement between reef beneath and sky above. Leah breathes in the salty air and thinks, it’s all worth it.
Picking up speed, she runs to the end of the narrow path, glancing back to check the woman is still close, still within earshot, before turning back to where she came from. Between breaths, she nods and smiles to the woman once more before reaching the road again, past the workers planting in the dunes and back towards the safety of her car.