Soft Gold, a short story by Bethan Roberts

Another cool morning, with a lick of wetness in the air. Sam and her father are on the water, and from here even the surrounding hills and forests look blue. Sam reminds herself that there is no such thing as a blue tree. She knows trees are, in reality, green. Still, today they look stone blue, like the back of the Pacific Gray whale she glimpsed yesterday.

Sam’s mother says that Sam’s father, Brian, wants to rediscover his masculinity in the wilderness; that’s why, a year ago, he left their terraced house in Leamington to live in western Canada. When Sam had announced she was going to visit Brian, her mother had laughed. ‘In those heels? What about your job at the salon?’

But Sam went anyway, and now she’s sitting in a small wooden boat, wearing the lace-up walking shoes her father bought her at Jamie’s Adventure Outfitters, travelling across Clayoquot Sound to Meares Island. She’s also staring at the ferryman, whose head is strangely rectangular in shape, and whose teeth seem to sprout from his mobile lips. He steers the boat with one hand, talks rapidly.

‘I got ancestors from England.’

‘Whereabouts?’ asks Sam.

He laughs so hard his teeth seem to rearrange themselves. ‘No idea!’

Today’s boat barely makes a dent on the emulsion-like surface of the water, and it seems incredible that yesterday’s whale-watching vessel had rocked madly on the open ocean, making Sam sure she could feel the pull of the waves in her groin. The blue of the sea was up to her eye, then down at her feet. It reminded her of those school plays about Noah where the cast represent waves by flapping lengths of cloth across the stage. Her father had come to see her in a play like that once. He’d sat in the front row, holding her mother’s hand. She wonders if her mother was seeing the man from her French class, even then. He’s moved in with them now; he’s called Donald and he owns a 4×4 which is always very clean.

Brian says, ‘This island is going to be great. The trees are really, really, old.’

‘How old?’ asks Sam.

‘Some of the oldest on the planet, right?’ Brian looks towards the ferryman, who nods but says nothing.

‘Isn’t that great?’ Brian asks, not quite managing a full smile. He’s had his hair streaked blond, and his face is darker than it ever was at home. For a moment Sam wonders if he’s started using a sun bed, but then decides this is unlikely, as he’s living alone in a caravan next to the Co-op on the edge of town.

‘There’s a new boardwalk,’ says the ferryman, running a hand over his wide, fishing-jacketed belly. ‘Not suitable for seniors.’

Sam shoots a look at her father; but Brian doesn’t flinch.

‘Whole thing takes around an hour and thirty. Stick to the boardwalk. That’s my advice. Don’t go to the mudflats. The path’s not good. Very slippery underfoot.’

As soon as he says it, Sam knows that her father will want to go there, if only to look at the danger. She thinks of the time he took her and her mother to Beachy Head at dusk and made them peer over the edge at the cars smashed into pipe-cleaner sculptures below.

She’d always imagined fur whenever she’d thought of Canada – seal, black bear, cougar. At school she’d learned that this coast was once the region of the soft gold rush.

The island is coming nearer. It’s a dense mass of trees, circled by darting black birds. The air suddenly becomes thick with damp, and Sam shivers. What she’d really wanted, when she stepped off the plane a few days ago, was to buy a fur coat. She’d always imagined fur whenever she’d thought of Canada – seal, black bear, cougar. At school she’d learned that this coast was once the region of the soft gold rush. The words sounded like the name of a lipstick, or a new club night. Rich and mysterious. British explorers and traders had come here to hunt sea-otters, sell their downy pelts, and enjoy the profits. There’s not much hope of anything like that for her father, Sam reflects. Her mother kept the house, the car, and the Rottwiellers.

Through the blue mist, Sam can’t see where they will possibly land, but, of course, the ferryman knows.

‘Be back to get you in an hour and thirty.’

‘Has anyone ever got lost here?’ asks Sam, taking his hand and stepping onto the wobbling wooden jetty.

The ferryman’s teeth settle into a smile. ‘Oh yeah. Couple I took last week. I told `em ― stick to the boardwalk. The path to the mudflat’s no ―’

‘Did they get back?’ asks Brian.

‘Picked `em up that night. They was lost, though.’

Sam and Brian climb uphill, past a stinking shack that houses a public toilet, and then into the forest. Below the even slats of the boardwalk, each one still clean of mud, the earth looks unstable. There’s stuff down there, seething, thinks Sam.

As they go further in, the damp air gets chilly, and the skin on her arms begins to rise and tighten. If she had a proper coat, one made from the soft pelt of an animal, then she’d feel safe. Her father once gave her mother a fur; it wasn’t expensive: it was from Debenham’s and made of rabbit skins, but Sam had cried when she saw it shoved in the charity bag outside their gate.

‘Mum threw out that coat you bought her,’ she announces.

Brian stops and looks her in the face. ‘What coat?’

‘The fur.’

He gives a quick nod. ‘No one has fur now, do they? It’s not very eco, is it?’

‘I wanted it,’ Sam says, quietly.

Brian swallows. ‘Let me take your picture,’ he says. ‘Stand by that tree.’

Sam steps off the boardwalk. The mud only comes up to her ankles, but it pulls on her feet, the way the sea pulled on her groin. She walks to the massive trunk and stretches out her palm on its cool flank. She looks up, but cannot see the top. Brian’s camera whirs, clicks, flashes, and she thinks of the moment when the grey wave of the whale appeared yesterday, how everyone on the boat had their lenses poised, waiting to capture the smallest glimpse of a mystery.

Walking slowly around the trunk, her feet fighting the draw of the mud, Sam notices another wooden pathway, much thinner and rougher, going off into the trees. Brian has seen it too, and they both stop and look at the way it disappears into the green darkness.

It occurs to Sam that she doesn’t really know what mudflats are. The mud might come up to their thighs. It might bubble and plop. They might get lost in its stinking mass. Or they might discover something incredible, like the soft gold traders. She knows, though, that this is where her father wants to go. And she remembers that as she’d looked over the cliff top at Beachy Head, he’d held on to the hood of her yellow windcheater, anchoring her to the edge.

She takes her father’s hand, leads him to the other path, and they walk together, with only the trees for protection.