Express Yourself

Retreat: a short story by Sareeta Domingo

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Sareeta Domingo
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This soul-soothing story is exactly what you need to read today.

The early morning light is milky for now, but with enough potential that the very idea of the rest of the day fills her with envy for what she’ll be missing. But she closes her eyes, happy, knowing the view will be there when she opens them again. Well, maybe not happy so much as… content. This trip has definitely been worth it, even if it does end today. Slowly drawing her eyelids up once more, she cranes her neck a little, the better to catch the corner-of-the-ocean view she apparently paid for.

The sunlight begins to strengthen and glint off the water’s surface, and she sighs, reaching up to pull off her head the silk bonnet into which she’d tucked her bum-length, subtly ombre’d box braids before she’d gone to sleep the night before. She’d paid well over the odds for them – in-salon, no less – due to the short notice, just before she flew out here.

She revels in the feeling of them tumbling around her shoulders, even if she’ll probably take them down tonight when she gets home. Before she goes back to work. She never has them in unless she’s going away – they’re not used to seeing her like this.

She drains the last of the coffee she’d made from the machine in the suite, and adjusts her ear buds so that the delicate harmonies emanating from them sharpen and grow louder. She wonders if she should go and get her sketchbook for one last try before the taxi comes. She has an hour…

There’s something – someone – more interesting she could do with that hour, though. She smiles, chuckles even. This whole week has been completely ridiculous.

“Who even are you?” she whispers to herself on the breath of her near-silent laughter. She slips off the wooden table she’s been perched on and feels the gently warming tiles of the balcony beneath her bare feet. It feels like she’s been here for so much longer. The first truly, genuinely, crazily spontaneous thing she’s ever done.

What would she take with her, now it was coming to its conclusion? Her drawings, of course. Would they look different in the cold grey light, in the chill London air that will have infiltrated her flat while she was gone? Don’t do that, she tells herself. Whack the heating on. Draw what’s there. Carry it on.

That’s what the— Well, he’d said to call him an instructor, but she’d already decided on teacher in her head when she saw his hunched frame assessing them at their easels that first day. That’s what he’d told them: “Don’t draw what you see – draw what is there.” Rounding behind each of them, a nod of encouragement, a gentle finger grazing the textured paper to point out when they’d overthought and imagined shadows where there weren’t any. She’d needed that. God, she’d needed it. After secondary school, she’d never even picked up a pencil to draw more than a doodle during an interminable meeting, which was the only time she really had actual paper in front of her at all these days. But an online ad, an errant mouse-click, and before she knew it, the retreat was booked. That was the word that had made her do it in the first place. Retreat, leave it all behind for a minute. Yes.

Three days later, she was on a plane.

And now, she eases the volume down on her phone as she makes her way back inside the suite, music still in her ears as she pads towards the bedroom. She pauses at its threshold and leans against the doorway for a moment with her arms folded, watching the semi-clothed form breathing steadily under half-kicked-off white sheets.

The muscles in his back shift, still, and rise again under his gorgeous deep brown skin, and again she thinks about trying to capture the image in her sketchbook. That’s how it was now – everything was a picture. Hold on to this. Hold on…

She’d sort of shocked herself the first night he was in her bed – after all, she’d only just started getting her head around the very idea of what she’d done. She’d been on the island less than 48 hours. But it was his easy smile and his lack of push, coupled with her new energy, her plan to grasp this new f-it, do it that had suddenly taken her over – and, frankly, it was his impossible beauty. All of it had let her open that invisible door, and he’d stepped through it. Boy, had he.

This man was completely different to her drawing teacher in every way, but she couldn’t help her amusement when she learned that he, too, was an ‘instructor’. She flushes as she watches him from the bedroom doorway now, thinking about some of the instructions he’d issued her when the lights were low… But no, his job was something under the water – somewhere she’d informed him she had no intention of going with her freshly-done braids.

“Wet suits? Nah mate,” she’d told him with a grin that felt suddenly so comfortable. “A paddle at the edge as far as you’ll get me.”

He’d laughed, and she’d loved the sound of it, and then, so quietly she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right, he’d said, “We’ll see.”

She hadn’t gone diving… but this whole trip had shown her she could go further than she’d thought possible, in so many ways. She smiles to herself again now and walks over to the bed, pulling out her earphones and sinking down onto it beside him. The bedroom is small, and sounds echo off the tiled floors in a way she’d remember fondly. Just like she would remember having him next to her during the night. It’s OK, though. She’s ready to let it all go.

He stirs, turns over and smiles the way she’s known him to when between sleep and something more active. She returns it, and sighs as he trails one long finger lazily against her exposed thigh. He sits up a little to reach her height, and they lounge against the headboard, watching their reflections in the mirrors of the wardrobe at the end of the bed, both their skin tones subtle riffs of its warm mahogany. The wardrobe itself is empty now, and her small suitcase is all zipped up off to one side of it.

“All packed up, then?” he asks her, looking into her eyes through the image in the glass.

“Yeah,” she says, nodding.

“OK.” He looks regretful, just for a moment, but then sits up a bit more, pulling her into his side so that her cheek rests on the heat of his shoulder. Gently, she feels him smooth one large hand over her head. “I’m going to miss these,” he says quietly, sweeping her braids away from her face. “And you.”

“That’s sweet. Thank you.” she murmurs.

But she sits forward, away from him, and looks at herself more closely in the mirror, rolling the end of one long, plaited strand between her fingers. She thinks about how much she loves the length and weight of these braids, how well they suit her – how they make her feel so much more herself. And suddenly, she thinks: Maybe it’s time to show them who I really am.

She closes her eyes to her mirror image for a moment, knowing that like the ocean, the real her will still be there when she opens them now.

“Time to show everyone who I really am,” she whispers to herself.

For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.

For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.

Sareeta Domingo is the author of The Nearness of You (Piatkus Books, 2016). Follow her on Twitter at @SareetaDomingo.

Image: Unsplash