The woman stood by the water’s edge. The water was cold as it ran over the top of her feet, the sand was warm and solid-soft beneath. Tiny bubbles formed then burst between her toes and the moments of vitality made her think of small, squishy creatures in the sand, but she would not move her feet, the sensation was too pleasant.It would be difficult to drown, in fact it seemed a little ridiculous. She swam so well, how could she not? Perhaps the current would carry her away. To swim out intending nothing more than to prove that she could not not swim only to find that she had been wrong. Surely that would be an accident, a tragic misjudgment. She preferred the sound of that. She would swim out to the rock, it couldn’t be more than two or three hundred yards and if she reached the rock and if she reached the shore again then she would celebrate on the veranda with a glass (or more) of whiskey.“Here’s to the woman who swam so well,” she held up an invisible glass to the setting sun and the gulls – and if the rock or shore were far too far or even just a little, then “Here’s to the woman who didn’t swim quite so well,” she drained the glass and threw it to the waves.“Was it whiskey or gin?”
She span round, angry, embarrassed. “Neither,” curtly.
In the morning she carried coffee and toast onto the veranda and sat in the squeaky whicker chair again. The day was still and warm, the sea flat. Later it would be too warm. She liked to watch the gulls in the morning but today she couldn’t look at the sky which was very blue and gigantic or listen to their screeching – the whiskey had seen to that.The veranda was her favourite place, the reason she had bought the cottage. It was the centre of her sad and occasionally beautiful life. Behind her were home and bed, her books and photographs and other things that she had brought from her old life. Before her were the sand, the sea and the sky and the sky swooped up from the sea and came back and covered the house and so the house was inside the gigantic blue sky, above the shifting grainy gold, beside the breathing blue-grey-green and because of this she would swim to the rock (and back?)She drank what was left of her coffee and stood up abruptly. Hangovers made her morbid. She took a long, hot bath then put on some old jeans and a paint spattered T-shirt and went into the garden. As usual she had let the grass grow too long and the handle kept coming off the mower, making her worry about her toes. There was too much grass to leave where it lay so she raked the lawn and threw the little dead sticks of skinny green onto the compost heap. The few weeds she pulled from between the shrubs and flowers she had planted under the kitchen window went the same way.Standing on the stone path that separated the lawn and the tatty greenhouse she thought that she had done a good job and that it hadn’t been such a chore after all. Again she promised not to leave it so long, again she would break the promise.The garden was at the opposite end of the house to the veranda. The path on which she stood went down to the wooden gate in the middle of the hedge and through the gate the track began and went off to the left. The track followed the top of the short, rocky cliff at the back of the beach for half a mile and then you came to the main road. Really it was a ‘B’ road but it felt pretty main after the track. The ‘B’ road took you to an ‘A’ road (whichever way you went) and the ‘A’ road took you to a town or a city (whichever way you went). She stepped off the path and onto the lawn.When David had died she had felt strong and capable at first, there didn’t seem to be an alternative. She went to work and she cleaned and tidied the house when she got home. Friends came and said the things that would help her and the days went by and then it was six months later and everyone said that she was a very strong woman because the outside of her life looked the way that it did. But there was an alternative. One night she threw the iron through the kitchen window because David wasn’t there and she drank most of a bottle of whiskey (before she was sick and passed out) because she was lonely and it wasn’t fair. And so, quite suddenly, so everyone thought, her old life had fallen in.Within a month she had sold the ‘semi’ in it’s leafy suburb at a price that made it a bargain for the ‘discerning buyer,’ and bought the cottage. It was basic, spartan even, but it had the veranda which overlooked the beach, a tiny lounge with an open fire, one bedroom and a worn but functional kitchen. The bathroom was through the bedroom and had one of those deep, old, enameled baths with legs and giant taps.In the kitchen she poured a glass of milk, picked up her book and went through the lounge and out onto the veranda. Between a wooden post which supported the veranda roof and an iron peg set in the mortar of the wall itself she had fixed a hammock and into this she now lowered herself. She put the book and the glass of milk on a small wooden table beside her and gazed out into the lazy nothing of the hot, blue afternoon.(The wagon driver had been drunk because his wife had left him and taken the kids with her. In court he had cried apparently and the judge had given him a suspended sentence and told him that he would have to live with what he had done for the rest of his life. She hated him which seemed natural and fair and when the letter had arrived begging her to forgive him and telling her of his misery in strong and simple words she had torn it up and burned it – later she had cried – for David and for herself and for the miserable wagon driver).The veranda was twenty feet or so above the beach and from there it was easier to gauge the distance from the shore to the rock. Five or six hundred yards she guessed. She wondered whether she would see the man on the beach today. He had been polite and he had worn a watch like David’s.(In the paper it said the car had been crushed beyond recognition – David had been in the car – the young policewoman who had made her some tea with shaky hands said that he would have died instantly or was it immediately? In a small black bag were his watch, his wallet (a wedding ring) and his glasses – the glasses weren’t broken which she thought was odd and terrible.)It was half a mile to the rock, one mile there and back. In the slow, fat heat of the afternoon she fell asleep and a tiny trickle, saline and sad, dashed from her eye to her ear.She walked on the shingle without making a sound and beside her was the man, his head turned toward the sunset.“It’s beautiful,” she said.“Yes,” he replied.“Should I swim to the rock?”“Of course,” he turned to look at her and his words were enormous and his eyes wanted her to understand. “You must.”“And back?”“Maybe,”“Did you?”“No,” he turned away from her, toward the sunset.“I don’t understand,”“You swim well but you must know the strength of your resolve.”“Is that all?”“No. But it’s enough,” he walked on.There was no sound and no movement. The sea had stopped and the sky, immobile, died. She could hear the man’s feet on the sand – soft brushstrokes that held her fast whilst he walked away. She fought to move a limb, not with muscle and tendon but with her will and her wanting. She won and threw her arm across the table, knocking over the glass of milk, which ran and soaked the book.“Shit,” she rolled from the hammock and jumped to her feet then sat down in the whicker chair and, for a few seconds, looked very old.In the kitchen drawer with the glossed red front and the wobbly handle were the things the police had brought in the bag and other odds and ends from her old life – and there was something else – she hadn’t put it there. She opened the drawer and pushed aside the things. The man’s face was there with the eyes that wanted her to understand. It was him – though the photograph was faded and the newspaper brittled with dry and damp and age – it was him. Below the picture the words said that the local artist (his seascapes were desirable) had presumably committed suicide and that his body had been found on the beach by a woman walking her dog. Since the death of his wife the artist had been depressed. The newspaper was twenty years old.She moved the things back over the words and the picture and closed the drawer, then she took a large towel from the warm cupboard in the bedroom and walked down the wooden steps to the beach. In the flat, grey light that was the end of the day she took off her clothes and swam out to the rock.She swam well and when she reached the rock she climbed onto it, which was difficult and looked about her. She was out of breath and her heart was beating hard. She turned around on top of the rock again and again and it was true – everything was inside the sky – the rock, the sea, the shore, the cliffs, the house with it’s veranda and even the sky itself. An iced bolt of perception drove the dizziness of motion from her head in an instant and left her looking out toward the horizon. Tears of molten rage and frustration seared twin paths from the furnace of her lachrymal pools to the line of her quivering jaw where they hung for an age then fell for longer, opting for an infinite divisibility that would forever spare them the anonymity of the sea.She turned and dived high into the gigantic, blue sky then rushed to the water below and as she fell and the world was upside-down something flickered (shiny-smooth) in a crack in the side of the rock and then was gone. She sensed it rather than saw it. Encrusted in the spiky-brittle life that had slowly evolved on the rock was the face of a watch.Then the water hissed and roared all around her and she thrilled as a thousand waving ribbons of air swept across her body, defining her every inch intimately. Here, beneath the surface of the blue-grey sea, inside the closing dome of the early evening sky she learned the strength of her resolve and found that she too had no choice.
The man stood five yards from where the sand turned to shingle, she should have heard him coming.
“I didn’t mean to intrude – I’ve seen you here before – on the beach. I’m sorry if I made you jump.”
“It’s O.K.,” she was relieved. He seemed to be more embarrassed than she was, or he pretended to be – whichever, she didn’t feel so silly.
“You did surprise me, I was miles away.”
“I should have made more noise,” he smiled, watching her as she walked back to the hump of seaweed and driftwood that ran in a line along the beach. She slipped her feet into a pair of worn, leather sandals, cursing silently as particles of sand scratched her wet feet. Usually she would carry them until she reached the wooden steps that went from the beach to her veranda but his intrusion had made her feel foolish and self concious. She would wear the sandals to walk on the sharp, munching shingle and he would see that she was sensible.
As she bent to hook the flattened back of her sandal over her heel she looked at him through her hair. He wasn’t embarrassed and he wasn’t about to walk away. He watched the sun as it fell behind the clouds – she was dazzled momentarily as light was reflected startlingly from a gold watch on his left wrist. It was a Rolex, David had had one. It was in the kitchen drawer with the pair of glasses and the wallet and the other things (a wedding ring) that she felt she needed now because she had thrown away so much.
“I’m walking the same way if you don’t mind. I live around the headland,” he indicated with a nod and his eyes to where the rocks ran out to sea half a mile ahead.
“Fine. It’ll be nice to have company,” damn, why had she said that? She’d spoken to few people since moving to the cottage. It had become difficult.
They walked along the beach in silence and the sound of their feet on the shingle made the silence louder. He walked to her right, closer to the sea, his head turned toward the colours and the changes of the sunset. It was beautiful for him.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“Yes,” she tried, “I’m sort of immune to them now.”
The encroaching ambiance of the early evening softened the harsh grind of the shingle beneath their feet. The sun had gone now and the remaining light had about it a vestigial quality, an inevitability – soon it would be dark and there was no choice.
They had reached the bottom of the wooden steps that climbed the small cliff to her veranda.
“Well this is where I get off,” she simultaneously winced at her sudden chumminess whilst reveling unashamedly in the knowledge that she would soon be alone. The memory of having met the man was something that she could enjoy later, the reality was too immediate, too potential.
“I didn’t think you could get round there. I tried it once but had to give it up.”
“That’s because you don’t know the secret path,” again he smiled, “It’s nice to have met you. I’m sure we’ll bump into one another again.”
“No doubt. Goodnight.”
He continued along the beach, his progress marked by a receding, rhythmic crunch. The rocks that ran out from the headland looked black and distant now, an extension of the barrier formed by the headland itself. It would be dark when he got there.
She went inside and poured a whiskey. Back on the veranda she watched the last of the day’s light drain from the horizon and tried to sip her whiskey. His face had been familiar and, though he didn’t look like anyone she knew, his features sat easily in her mind. He said that he had seen her on the beach before, perhaps that was it – she didn’t think so. He had been polite. She glad of that since she would almost certainly see him again. Beaches are narrow.
“Sod it!” she went through to the kitchen and returned carrying the whiskey bottle. She sat in the squeaky whicker chair, took off her sandals and slowly massaged the top of her feet. They were red and sore where the sand had stuck and been rolled around as she walked.
At night the air was cool and the smells and sounds were those of the sea. Sometimes oystercatchers would “kleep-kleep” as they passed overhead. David would have liked it here. She poured another whiskey and made no attempt to sip it.