Port Talbot steelworks blinks at me through an orange haze, and I blink back. As the Smooth Sailin' drifts through the black, liquorice waves, I close my eyes, thinking up entirely new, untouched coastlines, but I wake up in Splott.
As Bertie turns the boat around, we hear the gentle splish-splash of a paddler approaching. The postman waves two small boxes from inside a dirty, plastic swan. Our hearts sink.
"Duw, I been searching for you girls all morning," he says. His swan taps against our boat as he chucks the boxes. Bertie and I watch them land on the deck. The postman whistles as he paddles the swan in a large arc, turning to head back to shore where we can see his little red van waiting.
The boxes are damp and soft. They've travelled great distances to find us. We nudge them with our toes.
"He can't be a real postman. No one talks like that anymore."
"The Royal Mail prides itself on an over 90% delivery success rate," she says. "He's all too real."
She goes to grab one of the boxes, but I stop her.
"If we're going to dump them," I say. "It has to be somewhere else, somewhere Dai-boy Postman hasn't seen us."
Our boat might've been a beautiful, if small, leisure vessel once, but years of neglect had ruined it. The polished cream was a dirty toilet yellow with green around the edges, and rust crumbled on the steel furnishings.
We finally manage to pull away from the Cardiff coastline and head back west. By the old raggedy map we'd nicked off a walking group, we needed to go back out near Port Talbot and hook out round the south coast of England. All we'd done is take a trip up the Bristol Channel. Bertie had heard of a place we could go, somewhere we could live in peace, safe from our winnings. I'm not sure it exists.
Bertie yells something over her shoulder.
"What?" I yell back.
She cuts the engine. "Another one is dead," she says. "I wanted to wait until we got there, but I guess it doesn't make a difference."
"Who?" I ask as if I know any of them personally.
"Buddy. Wagon Wheels."
"Wagon Wheels," I say. "He never stood a chance."
She takes a folded piece of A4 out of her jeans pocket. Opening it out, she skims the list of names until she reaches Buddy's and puts a line through it.
"You ready?" she asks.
I look at her little freckly face, her hair thin and weak against the wind. "Fuck it," I say. "If this place doesn't exist, let's head south to somewhere even the Royal Mail can't find us."
She whacks my knee. "There she is."
The boat rumbles again as we take off across the sea, leaving the sick air of the coast behind us. I look back just once at the cliffs. So many nights after Bertie left, I'd stood there wondering what would happen if I stepped off the edge. If I would plummet to the bottom or float like a meringue caught on the wind, bouncing along towards Port Talbot Steelworks until the hot, orange air hugs me, pulls me down to the towers and the fire, and I melt in soft, pink gloops, tarnishing someone's steel.
Bertie had found it online. A whole new way of living. That's what she'd said. She has no idea if it's real or not. It probably exists but is not as promised, like everywhere and everything. It's a community made up of people like us, and not just those who've won the hallowed top prize of the confectionary world but winners of savoury snacks too, including a literal breadwinner. How sad. I bet it's not the crumbly, thick-crusted stuff, but the thin, machine-sliced white loafs, the kind that feels damp. Bertie told me that he'd receive his entire annual bread shipment on one day, so he had to buy industrial freezers to store it all.
He was reportedly in his thirties when he won that prize. Makes you wonder what he was thinking. I was thirteen when it happened, Bertie only seven. Fruit Pastilles. Dental Nursing Weekly had done a spread on her.
"Look, endless sea," she shouts.
I follow her shaking finger to where the grey sea melds with the sky. We could sail forever, never see another soul. Just Bertie for the rest of my life, her chortle, her sniffs, her thin peeling lips.
Bertie found me through her list. She'd got it on the dark web and gone through the names of ones near her. A lot were missing or dead, but eventually, she came to me. I was in a pretty bad way. I couldn't bring myself to attend job interviews, so they cut my unemployment. I had visions of being crushed to death by all the boxes in my flat. That, or a food coma.
But she strode right into my life and started selling my stock round the back of Safeways. Hers too. We would sit on the big bins and wait for the school kids and office workers to traipse round. It was a new time, warm and fuzzy, like a slow-motion SunnyD ad. Days spent bouncing around the cul-de-sacs, leaving little gifts of Snickers and Fruit Pastilles on top of garden walls, scaling the rundown rollercoaster on the pier, and regaling Bertie with all the gory details of the accident that first closed it.
She loved that story. He was a kid a from the local school, a couple of years older than me at the time. He stood up as the rollercoaster carriage was heading down the big drop, and his head was cut clean off. It soared through the air and landed on a nearby tent. One kid in my class said he'd been in the tent and heard the thud as the head landed on it, saw the jaw twitch its last through the fabric. Probably bullshit. But what was the last thing he saw? Because if history class taught us anything, it's that the head can stay alive for a while after a beheading. Was it Port Talbot steelworks chugging away? The pavilion? The rubbish-strewn pier? A pensioner fighting an umbrella on the common? Or maybe he got lucky with the arc and saw the infinite sea. They closed the rollercoaster down for a week after that, and we had a special assembly on safety.
We would mimic the head's journey with our Snickers and Fruit Pastilles, climbing as high as we could and aiming for the stained tent roof. I don't even remember what that tent held when it was open. Some game rigged from the very start. It doesn't matter now. What matters is the day Bertie disappeared. She left without a word, and I couldn't find her anywhere. I waited round the back of Safeways, stalked the common, stood by the entrance to Weight Watchers, everywhere we'd been together. She was nowhere.
She'd begged me to quit Snickers altogether. I'd got closer than ever before, but I still snuck one in here and there. She was a gun dog, sniffing out my chocolate peanut musk like I was a lost duck. How could she stay clean next to me?
I started eating seriously when she left. I even looked it up, how you can die by eating. Your stomach is the size of your fist when it's empty, and then it expands to fit all the food you eat, so if you eat too much, it can explode like a beaten piñata. One woman's stomach expanded so much it stretched from her hips to her ribs before exploding. I wished then that I'd won Fruit Pastilles or something colourful, so my explosion would at least be interesting.
I wondered if Bertie would cry or feel any guilt at my death. She'd hear the news wherever she was and cross me off her little sheet. I stopped eating altogether to lull my stomach into a false sense of security until the moment I'd sweep everything into my mouth: the chocolate, the wrappers, the boxes, my bed, the toilet, the sink, the shower, the table, and the little china box on it holding the earrings I never wear.
My stomach would fill every inch of skin, my organs and bones absorbed into it, stretching my skin more and more until you could see through it as it tears apart, an ever-inflating stomach filling up my little room, bursting out the door, chasing my landlady down the stairs, stretching out into the rest of the house until it exploded. How big could I get? Could I take out this little seaside town? How many tiny towns could I destroy until they flew in the troops to shoot me down? Then they'd be sorry. I'd explode, spilling Snickers and local buses and bingo groups all over South Wales.
But she came back before I'd unwrapped the first bar. I told her I hadn't eaten a Snickers in five days, and it was the truth. She told me it didn't matter, she'd found what she was looking for and wanted me to come with her.
Hours pass, and the view doesn't change. It's grey as far as the eye can see. Bertie's stopped saying, "Any minute now," and is staring stolidly ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other holding a compass she barely bothers to check. Of course, we could die out here, circling nothing. The postman would probably find us, two old potatoes, soft and squidgy.
"Wait," she yells. "I think that's it."
She's pointing at an abandoned oil rig in the distance. It stands incredibly still in the grey waves, its fluorescent orange legs faded like a washed-out tan. It's a massive platform with a tall pylon stuck in the middle and little cranes and other skeletal structures scattered around. We pick up speed and hit the waves hard. Salty sea smacks my dry lips, and I shiver. My raincoat isn't designed to get wet, and I can feel the water prickling my skin.
Small figures appear at the platform's edge, clutching the barriers. None of them wave, they just watch our approach. I can see Bertie searching for where to dock, but trying to do it without moving her head, like we've been here before, seasoned visitors of this new society.
One arm points down at the front right leg, and Bertie waves a thanks. I glance at the gathering figures but try and keep my eyes on the small, approaching dock. There're a couple of crappy dinghies tied up. Our boat hits the platform and sends us both reeling backwards. I grab the sides, praying not to fall out.
A man with curly black hair is climbing down the ladder soldered to the oil rig's leg. He hops down from a greater height than he usually does, I can tell by his wobble. He regains his balance and motions for Bertie to throw the rope. I watch as he ties up the Smooth Sailin' and offers her his hand.
"Bertie," she says.
He raises his eyebrows. He has a face like a coat hanger.
"Fruit Pastilles," she continues.
He nods, encasing her small hand in both of his now.
"Leon," he says. "Turkish Delight."
"That must've been tough." She nods back at him. He takes a deep breath.
"It's all relative. Everyone's journey here is respected," he says.
Lord. I concentrate on the back of Bertie's head, but she doesn't turn round, she's still nodding at Leon.
As he tells Bertie about the world she's just agreed to enter, I jump out of the boat. It feels like I fall in slow motion, but the thud of knee on concrete is all too sudden.
"Oh, shit, are you OK?" Leon bends down to help me up.
Bertie has a hand over her mouth, her body jerking off a laugh. "I'm fine," I say.
"And how about you? Are you a fellow lifetime supply winner or just emotional support?"
"Ah, one of the big boys." His laugh is like that of a trapped squirrel, scrabbling and high-pitched. "Scott's going to be pissed. We always have to bring him back a Snickers from the mainland."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we ban any product that a winner's trying to escape from. So now Snickers and Fruit Pastilles are gone."
"That's stupid, I don't mind."
"It's not stupid, it's the rule," he says, his sweet voice hardening. "It's for everyone's safety."
"What about the bread guy?"
He cocks his pointy head at me.
"Wasn't there a guy who won bread?" I continue. "Does that mean we can't eat bread?"
"Dave, yeah." He scratches his chin. "He's not with us anymore, so we reintroduced bread."
"He left?" I look at Bertie and raise my eyebrows. She shrugs back and points up the ladder. Leon nods and watches her climb.
I head up last to a windswept platform where about fifteen people are waiting, huddled together but not touching.
"Fruit Pastilles and Snickers," yells Leon.
I hear a slight groan from one end of the group, but I can't see the source. Bertie is trying to take in every member of our new home and doesn't look back at me once.
My coat is stuck to me. I'm sat next to a grinning old woman with spiky black hairs sprouting from her chin. I've seen enough fake smiles in my time working behind counters to spot them easily. I know I should make an effort. I look around the room we're in – lots of panels with switches and dials – searching for something to talk about.
"So, this used to dig for oil?" I ask.
"That's not quite how it works," she says, sipping Leon's tepid tea. "It's not technically an oil rig. This baby does the dirty work to get the black gold out. She tunnels through the mud and rock, and then someone else comes in to tap it." She rubs a crooked finger against the bottom of a chin hair. "She's not even that old, but they built too many, so she's decommissioned. She was heading to some shipbreaking yard in Bangladesh when Adi bought her and set her up here."
"An entrepreneur," she replies. "He comes by every now and then. I'm sure you'll meet him."
"She must have cost a lot?" I ask.
The old woman fake smiles again, with a slight shake of her head.
"So," I say, searching for the right words. "What're you in for?"
She grimaces and puts her tea down. "My weakness was pizza." She stares at a control panel. "I won a lifetime supply of pizza from a local pizzeria. I had one a week. It seemed reasonable enough. I wasn't out of control or anything. But then I upped it to two, and then, before I knew it, I was coming home from work every day and not feeling in the mood to cook." From her dead tone, it feels like a confession perfected over many years. "They told me it was too many, they tried to get out of it and said a 'lifetime supply' doesn't mean a pizza every day, but I said they should've put that in the terms and conditions. It wasn't my fault." She sticks her chin out. "And then they closed down. They sent me a letter after their last day, so I couldn't even talk to anyone. It was over. I felt wronged, personally, you know? But then I found out they had a sister restaurant a few towns over, so I went there and demanded they honour my winnings. It took weeks of me calling and going in there, raising my voice. I even found a solicitor to write a threatening letter for me. I had to pay him a little extra, and I could tell he thought I was mad. But eventually, it worked, and I ordered my first pizza. I was so on edge I started calling every five minutes after I'd ordered to see how close it was. And you know what, when it finally arrived, it was a Pepperoni Party, not a Pepperoni Triple Threat, like I'd ordered. I was so mad, I ran over to their little restaurant and threw the pizza at the window, smearing all the tomato sauce and cheese across the clean glass. I was screaming at them, calling them all sorts of names, telling them I was owed, I knew people, I could get them shut down. I still remember the staff staring at me. They were just kids." She wipes her shining eyes. "It wasn't me. I remember looking at my tomatoey hands, thinking this isn't me. I didn't recognise the person I'd become. A stranger was controlling my body, and I had to expel them." She takes a shuddering breath. "And that's why I'm here."
I let her cry next to me for a while, thinking about the odd way she'd said it. Maybe it wasn't me all that time. Maybe it was a little Mars Incorporated employee in my brain controlling my movements.
"How long have you been here?" I ask.
"A year, more or less," she says, sniffing. "And I love it. It's a truly free society."
"I heard the bread guy left?" I say.
She blows her nose in a flowery handkerchief. I wait as she wipes.
"Bread? Oh, Dave. This place isn't for everyone."
She flaps a hand at me as she searches her pockets.
Leon comes in and waves. "There you are," he says. "Bertie's settling right in." He sits down on my other side. "I really hope you are too."
Everything smells fetid, earthy. They showed us the little garden they're somehow keeping alive, the workshop where they make crappy bags to sell at some market in Milford Haven, and the kitchen which stinks of boiled cabbage.
Everyone sleeps in one room. They have spare blankets for us until we can get our own. But we have to work to contribute to the community and its output — same shit, just wetter.
Bertie nudges me with her shoulder, smiling slyly. We're sat in the dormitory. Everyone else is in the kitchen. I look at her, wondering how to say it. There've been times when we didn't even need to speak, times when I've felt drunk with the affinity. But there were other times when I wasn't sure how two-sided it was. I need to be tactful. She wanted to come here so badly, she saw it as a way out of everything that had happened before, and she's clearly trying to enjoy it. She'll tell me to lighten up, give it a chance, to stop being so close-minded, so singular, we want a different life, and this could be it if I give it a chance. Maybe just a hint then, a hint of my unhappiness but a promise to try, for her, to give it some time and see if I can't sink into a life on this poorly-repurposed oil digger.
"What do you think?" she asks.
I look at her eyes, so far apart, I can feel the seconds ticking away as I look from one to the other and back again. Tact. I need tact here. I can't ruin it for her. Be the bigger person.
"I hate it," I say quickly.
"God, me too," she says, her whole body falling forwards. "It's like a Poundland version of Jonestown."
Her eyes crinkle at her own joke. I laugh nervously. "You do? I thought you were into it?"
"Nah," she says. "These guys are all so desperate. All these stupid rules. I imagined something different. I thought it'd be new, relaxed, and free, but I guess that's impossible. People are people. And that Leon bloke creeps me the fuck out. I thought he was alright, and then he made me listen to him singing Keane songs for forty-five minutes."
"Let's wait until they're asleep, bag some of their supplies, and get the fuck out of here."
This is happiness. This moment right here is everything. I nod, and we lay down on our itchy blankets.
The room smells like an abused car, and it takes a while for people to come in from their late-night chats. They trickle in slowly, some try to be quiet, others throw their things around before settling down with a loud exhale. At one point, there's some shushing and a zipper sound followed by the unmistakable smack of hurried flesh hitting flesh. It's all over in about thirty seconds, and the lovers separate, a round shadow makes its way to its own mattress on the floor.
We wait for the breathing to become regular before we make our move. We hold hands as we edge out of the room. The only light is a small lamp on the floor in the corner, there to help full bladders find their way out. We tiptoe, holding our breath. Suddenly, Bertie's hand is ripped from my own with a muffled yelp, and I feel the space next to me cold and empty.
I mimic the front crawl as I grope in the darkness, looking for any sign of her. I hear blankets rustling. I bend lower and lower but still nothing. Had they faked going to sleep? Were they waiting for our betrayal? Where's Bertie? Is she in on it too?
"Bertie?" I whisper. My groping hand smacks into skin.
"Ow, watch it!" comes a deep voice. I freeze. "Who's that?"
Fingers grab my knee, and I shriek, pushing them off.
"Calm down," hisses Bertie from somewhere in front of me. "I fell over."
"Yeah, over my legs," says someone, possibly old.
"What's going on?" I ask. I feel surrounded.
"Will you lot shut up," a voice from the other side of the room cuts through the air.
"You're on my blanket," says the deep voice near me, slapping at my daps.
"Are you looking for the bathroom?" a high-pitched voice asks.
"Uh, yeah?" I reply.
"Head towards the light, dear," it says.
Bertie's dry hand grasps my own once again, and she tugs me into the small gap between the mattresses. I stumble over some more blankets, but we finally get out, closing the door behind us. We're in a dark corridor.
"Well, we fucked that up," she whispers, laughing. We hurry to the moonlit kitchen.
Bertie shoves a bag in my hand and starts grabbing cans and bottles. It's a quilted bag that opens up like the Tardis. Definitely homemade.
She's taking things without even looking at what they are. It's getting heavier and heavier.
"Maybe we could take some crisps and biscuits and stuff." I nod at the cupboard where all the good stuff is kept. I'd spied it being opened earlier. Bertie nods and takes all the crisps, biscuits, waffles, and bread.
"Maybe we should just take one loaf?" I ask.
She twists her lips round, so they're almost upside down. "Yeah, maybe I'm being a dick," she hesitates, each hand holding two loaves by the cloth bags they're stored in. "But maybe it's about time."
She puts three loaves in our bag and the last one back in the cupboard. I don't say anything about sharing the waffles.
We carry the bag between us across the platform. If it wasn't so heavy, the wind would throw us straight off and into the dark sea. It's maybe not the best night for two inexperienced sailors to be setting off, but I don't care.
We pass a washing line where some blankets are pummelling the sky, bouncing and kicking against the wind. Bertie takes down two, and we hurry to the ladder, easing the bag down as far as we can before just letting it smash on the floor. We both cringe. As I climb down the ladder, I'm expecting sabotage. There's no way they'd trust us. They shouldn't.
But there it is. Our stained leisure vessel with the keys still in it. I untie it while Bertie starts up the engine. I throw a blanket round her and another round myself as she eases us out between the legs of this ageing rig. Once we're out, there's no protection from the wind. It drives through my fat, wrapping itself round my bones.
"Where are we heading?" I shout at Bertie as she huddles over the compass.
She keeps a hand on the wheel, and we press forward, climbing waves and smashing down the other side. We're both soaked. I look back at the dark oil rig, already so far away.
"Shit, I think this thing is broken," she yells at me, shaking the compass.
We're going to die. I'll probably go overboard, and Bertie will head in circles trying to find me, washing out into the Atlantic. Maybe she'll starve to death. Ironic. Or maybe she'll hang on, she'll see a cruise ship and wave one weak, bony arm in their direction as they scythe through the ocean, and the pensioners, on their last holidays, will fatten her up as she tells them her story over and over again.
"What the hell is that?" she screams.
I look to where she's pointing. I can't see anything, just walls of waves, but she keeps pointing, her face screwed up as she leans forwards. And then I see it. A dark shape in the distance coming closer and closer, relentlessly pushing its way through. The smashing waves only hide it for so long before we both realise, with a sinking feeling, what it is: a stained, hulking, plastic swan.