:: Article

Before the Storm

By Alex Sheal.

I met her in a cocktail bar, but she wasn’t working as a waitress. She was getting drunk like me at the counter, blabbing away to strangers, some of whom were queuing to order. We swooned this way and that, as if on the deck of a storm-swept ship; then she yelled in my ear. She stank of perfume and gin; and later, in her room, I wondered whether she’d splashed on the latter and drunk the former.

Before that, we had a conversation going something like:
– You?
– Yeah, hold on a minute.
– I know that it’s ____ ____. No, it’s OK.
– Wait wait wait…

So we hit it off. I can’t remember where we were standing then, just the words and the sharp stink of gin and the other one of perfume. A number of people loitered around, some with their backs to us, like an open-mic audience whose attention has wandered. Shouting or chanting occurred at a certain point as an individual climbed onto the bar before crashing off again.

When we burst out the doors, it surprised me to see the hurricane had passed; moreso that not a drop of water lay in the street full of taxi drivers. Then I remembered it was November and a storm hadn’t rampaged through this city in months, years since a proper one. Which explained the lack of overturned cars and gale-ripped rooves in the vicinity, the passersby dressed neatly and looking like they had plans: not dishevelled and haunted like drunks or hurricane survivors.

But the storm swirled up again later, hurling our half-naked bodies from one end of her bedroom to the other. A shelf cracked my skull and she stubbed an ankle; there were weeps and yells, I recriminated and pushed a wall back with my palm. That room made no sense as a storm refuge, numberless rogue objects lying around and not enough duct tape on the windows. Her housemates panicked up and down the stairs, thumping on the walls, for dawn had turned to day and still the storm roared.

Somewhere in the midst of that I wondered about the perfume and the gin. I may even have muttered to her: Did you put on the gin and drink the perfume? And she probably said: Yes. She said that a lot, darting her eyes directly at mine.


She had the kind of figure flustered artists try to paint twenty times before throwing down their brush. Full of secrets; bright with life. All lines and turns, squiggles and swerves. I stayed in motion, thought of nothing, gripped tight with toes and fingers to happenstance wall corners and benighted bed posts.

Then we slept, our storm-scattered raft adrift in the afternoon sun, mouths parched, detritus trailing us across the lifeless ocean. Or did fish school beneath us, flashing like bonfire sparks in a bottomless night?

The weird thing – and I only remembered this later, soon after we’d parted – was the way she clamped up as the winds rose, forearms before my face, knees to her neck, head pressed groundwards, and how, damp with sweat, I had to prise her apart, one limb after the other, coaxing in the stairway.

I heard the following year that she died in a motorbike crash, drunk, during a season that made the papers for such pointless catastrophes.

October __, 20__

Alex Sheal’s fiction has previously featured in Litro, Untitled Books and The New Writer, and he has been the recipient of the New Writer Novella Prize and David Higham Award. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam, and is the co-founder of photography tour company Vietnam in Focus.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 19th, 2013.