This short story was a bit painful to write. Like many writers I try and draw on my own experience when working on something and this was no exception. The extent to which I draw on my own life, or those I know sufficiently well depends entirely on the piece that I’m working on but I always try to refrain from simply relating events as they happened unless it is specifically a piece of creative non-fiction. This one though… well again I hope it is sufficiently constructed to make it an “every person” standpoint, it is true that this was something that I felt that I had to write based upon my headspace at a given moment in time.
My wider family has always frequented the east coast of Lincolnshire since before my mother was born. It’s the same part of the country that D. H. Lawrence visited when he was growing up, as in the same street, which is nice if that sort of thing matters to you; for me it didn’t when I was a kid, now it kind of does. Well one summer’s worth of visits was coming to a close and I had the strangest feeling that the area was, well, hurting, dying even and I felt like I wasn’t the only one thinking it. What follows is a conversation between two people, and whilst depersonalised for your access dear reader, I wrote it as between my sister and I.
The pebble skims once, twice, three times before it vanishes into the sea. The halo radiating from the splash reaches out but is lost in the confines of forever. Somewhere in the distance the waves and sky are clenched like a fist; held taut and close to breaking. The air smells as old and heavy as death yet swirling and vibrant; equally stale and fresh, alive yet rotting, now but for always.
The coffee in the polystyrene cup is still warm. It also tastes like it was filtered through an old sock. I think about drinking it, even going so far as to lift it near my face to tilt it to my lips. Then I smell it, recoil and move it back to a holding position. From the corner of my eye I see you smile and maybe snort a laugh.
The water pulling back from the stones on the shore sounds like Thursday evening rain. Maybe soon it will be overcome by the roar of thunder; a sound older than God. Thunder; lightning: every time it tears electric white scars in the sky, deep down you feel like it ought to be drawn on a cave wall as an act of worshipful terror; you’ve said this. You said these are the sounds we should have learned to fear as children.
But, you and I sit here and await its coming.
You know this place.
This place is part of us.
You open your mouth to speak, but instead hammer your tongue side to side between your teeth. Seeking to prompt I open my mouth then finding words elusive I breathe into cupped hands.
‘It’s getting cold,’ I say.
A breeze lifts an old, torn, brittle looking, plastic carrier bag from under a rock and sends it flying like a phantom from this place we used to know. Please, remember.
This is all on you. If not for you we would not be here. But we are and so we have to face everything we used to feel here, the people that we used to be. The beaches litter the coast as people litter the beaches. You said you needed to go to that childhood seaside beach. Growing up and keeping seasonal routines inevitably ties a lot of you to the places and practices of the season. But some of us have the sense to let the past sit perfectly, without breaking the façade by a careless attempt at reliving.
When this goes wrong, I’m blaming you.
A few cars wait at the traffic lights at the bottom of the hill behind us, you hear them, just like I do. There they wait to rumble through the fading summer town. It’s all dying but everyone seems too tired to act; it’s carbon monoxide poisoning: too weary to get up and save yourself. Another boarded storefront carries posters of a circus that left town three months ago, where once it displayed treats and trinkets, holiday treasures, mementos to throw away in twisted plastic and clouds of shattered plaster of Paris some time in October. But now, in this place that never changed, we can feel that everything is different.
‘Remember how busy the front was every July?’
‘With the donkey rides and ice cream…’
We never see holiday towns in November, nor did we ever, before today. Maybe every year November’s getting closer, like a blanket pulled over your head to keep the monsters away, or just because there’s nothing to get up for these days.
I’m guessing that you’re thinking about trying not to think about any of that and I know you pretty well.
‘The beach isn’t as noisy as it was,’ you say, and you’re right. The seafront rides do not clank in comforting monotony. The same songs do not blare out, nor do announcements promising fresh excitement then reassuringly delivering the same experience as last year.
‘It’s getting late,’ I say, watching clouds hanging like a condemned winking highwayman. The sky stares back at me.
‘You think we’re in for a storm?’ you ask, and even though I’m almost certain that within the next few minutes lightning will tear the sky to pieces I don’t want to confirm my suspicions with an answer. I shrug and possibly tilt my head to the left.
‘I’ve been trying to figure out the last time we were here,’ you say. I could scream at you, beg you, ‘no wait… don’t think, not here.’ But who can say such things to someone like you?
‘Got any conclusions?’ I ask, wishing that I hadn’t. We’ve always known what the other is thinking; people have always mentioned that. If that’s true now then please do not think at all or even try to describe the dumb show played by the ghosts of you. But it’s not just you; they’re ghosts of everyone with whom you’ve shared this beach. Shared not just with loved ones, or once-loves, also passers-by; kite-fliers like leading figure-skaters, carving pirouettes in the sky; the distant walkers with the dog busily barking at the tide; or lonely fishermen staring like immortals as their lines wait like librarians in the solitude of the deep.
Permit the ghosts a moment to dance through your memories of this place. Listen with your eyes; see the laughter, hear the sandcastles. Feel the weight of all of that time spent here on the coast, near the shore.
That’s when you’re hobbling to the local doctor after stepping on a weaver fish; this is where teenage boys played football, listened to music instead of sleeping; this is where I stood naked in a paddling pool when I was three. This is you, sitting on the concrete steps, on the front that’s as close to promenade as this place gets. Right next to you is me and still you probably haven’t figured out how much we risk losing just by sitting here.
‘I keep thinking about candy-floss.’
‘We used to eat it all the time here.’
‘Until we felt sick! I never really liked toffee-apples.’
‘Me neither,’ you say, using the back of your hand to brush sand off the mile-long step on which we’re sitting.
The back and forth tide, what with the breeze and all, makes it sound like the sea is breathing.
We grew up itching to get here every time the days got longer, and lamenting not being there when the time for going back to school rolled around. Somehow it was always 1973 and summer always waited in these towns, like you could walk into the café in March and it would still be late June from decades before. We played for the summer, back then, and still in our hearts we get that same feeling, like maybe there’s room and resources to have a summer-long adventure, excitement that won’t depart until the forbidden autumn closes the curtains because it’s dark again at night. That not-yet feeling like panic that makes you desperate to press for one more game, one more risk, but everyone’s in doors again, and you’re outside and alone.
Both of us felt this way, so why didn’t we just have the last caper together?
‘It is not the same,’ you say.
‘No. I guess it’s not,’ I reply.
‘Are you still drinking that disgusting plastic coffee?’
‘It’s hard to say…’ and we laugh that funeral laugh, when someone tries to break the silence with an unwanted joke. These days I’m substituting words. I say, ‘I haven’t thought about it,’ when I mean something else, I say, ‘it’s okay,’ when I mean the opposite. I say, ‘I’ll see you soon,’ when it couldn’t be further away. You look at me.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Maybe,’ I reply. You look at me knowing not to start that conversation. Your eyes turn to the sea and a smile blossoms on your face as your eyes narrow, as if your thoughts are brighter than the sun we cannot see.
‘We should dig a hole, a great big one and then wait for the tide to fill it with water; eat fish and chips whilst it creeps closer,’ you say.
‘That would be great. Not sure though, I think we could be in for some weather.’
‘Maybe we should make a move then, if that’s how you feel?’
We wait for the other one to make the first gesture to move; neither does.
We sit here. The wind picks up and the brittle carrier bag from before swoops back into view. There’s a broken shell on the step below next to a collection of chalky-looking stones. Looking back to something I noticed earlier. I reach for a little black stone, then the shell and one of the stones.
One stone marks the shell white, the other brown, or possibly black.
‘Is that coal?’
‘No it’s jet.’
‘How do you tell the difference?’
‘Jet marks things black.’
‘So how do we tell?’
‘I don’t think it matters.’
‘So what colour does flint make?’
‘Flint makes things smaller; it’s sharp and splits things.’
‘Doesn’t make a colour then?’
‘I think it can make fire too?’
‘Like a spark?’
‘Want to make a fire?’ Shrug instead of answer. ‘It would go well with our big hole and fish and chips?’
‘I thought we were leaving to avoid those clouds?’
‘I guess you can’t have fires on the beach anyway.’
Again I place my hands on my knees and brace to stand, but I look at you and you take another doughnut from the greasy, almost transparent, paper bag. It has to be cold by now.
The wind licks across the surface of the sea. It’s mostly flat, like a mill pond, and the tide is pulling further back. Where the wind catches the tips of the tiny rolling water it jumps, the small splash leaving its home and aiming for the sky.
Then there’s you.
Here you sit, looking out at the wisdom of water, whilst thunder waits in the clouds: this storm that has been waiting for us. You swallow, perhaps you can still half-taste the fading warmth of your last drink; the one you swore you didn’t have that you now wear as a fragrance. But like always I leave judgement for those who keep their promises, the unnecessary people who tend their hearts like their gardens. Not like us.
This is us now.
‘Are we going to the beach today?’ circles my head, the chorus to summer.
One year we collected sea-smoothed pieces of glass from those beaches, all of us, tens of us, spread out in a line on the beach, like searching for a body only all of it safe. One year we played a summer-long game of Scrabble, every morning before breakfast, each night before bed. At no point did we ever think that the eclipsed year at the beach would be our last.
The beach is still here. The sea is still listening. But by the looks of those store-fronts, your doughnut and this terrible coffee – the town is screwed.
These days if you stand far enough back and look at this life-support town in the right light you’ll see the slack face of a trusted friend, a confidante, the keeper of your childhood memories, and where once it wore a smile, now it bears surgery scars. You notice the cancer, the wasting caused by wearing a smile for too long. Places scream loudest when everyone’s too tired to hear. This isn’t just me, this diagnosis, this is what you think too; it’s just that neither of us says it out loud.
‘You don’t want to be here. Do you?’ you say without asking.
‘That’s not true.’
‘It’s okay to leave, I just want to sit here a while longer. Want to soak it all up. See the sea.’
I sigh inwardly and bite my tongue hard enough so that I don’t scream at you. Once this seemed like it would work out differently; at least, it did to me. Somehow life works its evil little way around to being a bitter parody of what you begged it would be, and you can reach out your hands like grabbing claws but you will not be able to catch hold of the one you wanted because it’s just a dream, and you’re stupid for thinking it ever stood a chance of survival. It’s counting the atoms of a ceiling for dislocated hours, that’s what it is.
‘Don’t things change?’ I ask.
‘Can you remember how it used to be?’ you ask. Things don’t change, all that much, you know? Sea’s still the same.’
As I sit, staring out, watching sand lift and blow across the beach, I see it all right there as the water breaks troughs in the firm sand nearer the sea. Right there, that’s where the past appeared from forgotten photographs and all that once nearly was was there. Don’t you get it? We nearly had something there. We nearly had it. Now we just watch the replays. I can still hear the laughter from decades ago; I still wear the trackless tearstains. Here life is pressed flat and postcards of the past sit beside the empty coffee carton, the lost jelly sandal near the dead starfish. How do you dance at a dead man’s party?
‘Was that a seal bobbing up then?’
‘I don’t know. Could have been.’
I am not the person I hoped I’d be. Every now and then I get over these things for long enough to forget how true they are, then late one Saturday or Sunday night it returns like waking up, or stepping from that stuffy red-eye bus into the decayed yellow light of a terminal. You never get away, no matter how far you go away; it’s there that it finds you fastest of all. I’m getting to the age where you look back on your life and you see a catalogue of mistakes and you wonder how it all went wrong and wonder when it’ll stop. How you can make it silent. So much of life is watching it all get harder, the fight tougher, until you get to the end and you’re fighting just to hang on to it.
But it’s not about me, it’s about this town. These places, these people, are dying, and we’re letting them, almost because it’s too painful to see them. We’ve all justified not going to visit certain people with certain conditions in hospital so don’t pretend you don’t know what this means. You made excuses not to come and see me, yet you’ve dragged me to this funeral of a town.
And here we are now, at the shore. We sit on the worn concrete steps searching to see if the future is going to give us a heads up somewhere in the salt-water crashing five hundred yards away from us. Somehow on these concrete steps with you sat beside me I manage to suppress the need to bark out how I’m not ready, and say something more dismissive and affirming.
‘Haven’t we moved on since those times?’
‘Shhh,’ the sea gently rattles, as if to wave away the bad dream of a child woken from sleep.
‘Progress…perhaps. I’m not sure I’ve moved on so far as you say. Those times meant an awful lot to me,’ you say, and as you do so jolt my heart from its moorings. All the beautiful bucket and spade dreams, happy dreams, silent dreams of sepia days by that grey sea.
The sea will remain when we’re all submerged beneath it.
A sound like a huge truck rumbles, but there are no trucks around. We need to move. I stand and dust my legs, thinking about walking along the promenade to the ramp, which sweeps away from the beach huts. ‘Let’s cross the road at the bottom,’ I say, but you keep your eyes on the sea. You shake your head in the way you do when I say things you don’t like. I return my eyes to the beach. Someone had walked footprints into the perfect area of sand I’d been using as a canvas in my mind.
All I know is I’m still waiting for something, and the night sky that used to reveal something new each time has packed away its mysteries and refuses to offer a hand whilst ever I stay in this orbit. Why can’t I have it back?
Somewhere a child laughs; no, two children. When you’re clenched in the fist of a tangled duvet some insomniac November night you cannot see the dawn, but it comes round all the same.
‘What did you say?’
‘Maybe sometimes you don’t need to,’ you said.
‘I’m not sure memory lane is making me happy.’
‘Who asked our grandparents if they were fulfilled?’
‘It’s not the same.’
‘So do you reckon there will be a storm?’ you ask, focused so hard on the gentle waves that you can’t possibly see them. You need a reply like a life-ring. I pull my jacket tighter around me, keeping my arms folded. There used to be bucket-loads of happiness.
‘Let’s wait and see,’ I say, trying for a smile.
‘It’s safe you know?’
‘Your memories. Locked up in sea and made of steel. You can’t break memories,’ you say. By that logic somewhere those buckets are still there, lying, maybe a little spilt, on the beach. It makes me feel a little better. It makes sense.
‘You don’t think you paint over your old memories of something with the most recent one?’
‘I knew that was why you were scowling,’ you say.
I think for a second more about what you said. Although I’m pretty sure that I don’t agree, I like the idea of it and that’s enough and I want to believe. I really want to believe that this first beach, for always, is still safe: bullet-proof, and ours, and locked away from cruel scissors, accountants and the prying talons of tomorrow.
This is the shoreline. These are the small stones. That, over there, is where the ground forgets the waves: inland and real, the place that won’t let us go, but if I go with this idea, won’t ever fully have us back again.
The sea won’t let my eyes wander; like I’m fainting and it’s slapping my face to get my attention every time I turn away.
‘I think you eventually become part of it, just another wave,’ you say. I think about the splash from that tossed stone, or a spray crashing over rocks. The sea hushes everything to silence.
As we wait for the sky to play explosive music a young boy and girl, perhaps brother and sister, jump over the tide, laughing despite the storm clouds above their heads; maybe just to spite the storm clouds. This is their beach today.
The seeking storm is entirely ours and it will be stunning. I can’t help but wonder if you realise it yet. In a moment you will close your eyes and the rain will fall and the lightning will remind us why we used to hide in caves. Then today will become a memory, totally lost in the past. Pretty soon the past will also be lost as beautifully, like the pebble beneath the waves.