I can’t hear him shout. His face is turned to me, his mouth contorted with speech but the cold wind holds sound captive in its blast. As I climb the rise of the dune, the slow subside of the sand unfooting me; I can hear only the abrasive silence fragmented by the waves. The sand compacts in the winter damp, looks hard like cement yet yields to the slightest pressure. There are no rocks or pebbles, no seaweed washed into the shore, just sand. The beach is as bare as a carcass, picked clean by the elements.
I think him brave, a small Cnut, ordering the sea not to wet his feet. His coat firm against the weather, his old jeans clammy, heavy against his knees; he is always first. Striving, pushing his way into the new, while I come quietly behind him. He loves the beach in winter. Unpopulated, elegant in its abandonment by the summer hoards, the beach is prim and discerning. He wants to conquer, to dominate his surroundings, but gently, politely. I wonder why he brought me here today.
He is patient with my illness, and it is an illness, depression, though I have no physical symptoms. I feel like a small animal, sitting in its own dirt, waiting for change. I malinger in the sludge of old wrongs. I am tethered to the past by long cords, and can’t seem to sever them. The psychiatrist prescribes pills to calm, pills to dull, pills to flick the switch from wrong to right; but they do nothing except distance me from my body. I turn my head to the right and face into the decrepit scent of the beach; I smell nothing but rot and erosion. In flux yet fixed, the sea is circling, circling, aloof and remote from the younger land at which it corrodes. It disassociates itself and yet jealously claws at the soil it once possessed, the sea antagonising the coast, riles it with its backwards drag towards a shared and violent past.
The waistband on my trousers chews into the fat accumulating around my belly. My lungs flex and drag as I pull myself and the excess weight up over the summit of the dune; I eat and eat to prove I exist. My mass confirms my continuance, I am present, real. Held by gravity’s immutable grasp; increasing with my appetite. I am stuck fast. He says it’s ok, that he likes these curves, that I am even more of a woman. But I feel less. Uncomfortable in my old clothes, I can’t bear to buy new and accept my bulk.
We escaped the bump and fuss of the city. We moved for my health, for our relationship and the dog. We moved for the peace, the air and friendly locals. We moved to spend more time together, to walk for miles hand in hand, to spend Sundays in bed with only the wildlife spectating. We left our friends and I left my job, we left the place that contained our shared history, the place that rooted us. But he is still in the city during the week, working, commuting. Fighting the rush for the train, so he can be home with me, devoted as he is, he is doing all this for me, for me, and I am alone all day.
At the top of the dune, the beach reveals itself; recumbent and passive, impotent in the face of the sea’s rage. A large ship is far out to sea, it straddles the surface, self possessed with its metal hull, as strong as man can make, fragile as a new love; it is sailing somewhere else, not here.
A thrust of birds shocks the air, disturbed by my heavy steps.
Once we were having an affair.
He was married, older than me. No one approved. But it didn’t matter, because we loved and hid in the isolation of our intimacy. He sacrificed everything for me. His twelve year marriage, the respect of his children, his wife’s money; the job, he left it all. My sweet man, a martyr to his passion for me, his slip of thing, his sexy girl and still loyal despite my ever thickening waist and waning sex drive.
I idolised him. I set out to get him. How odd that seems to me now, that I would destroy his family, his marriage and not care. He was weak, he let me steal him from the warmth of his home and run with him into the cold atmosphere of guilt. He has always been weak. Nothing changes, everything changes. I am the same girl, but a different woman.
I sat outside in the car on the day he left his wife. Waiting for him as he disassembled his life, my bare knees resting on the dashboard, the diamond ring he had bought me shiny and brazen on my finger; I sat and watched the street that witnessed his life with her. I watched the house for signs; would he stay if she begged him too? Was he kissing her goodbye, trying to console the hurt he caused by sleeping with me? Their children were playing in the garden, a skinny little boy with big teeth and a small girl holding her doll like it was a baby. They were digging in the dirt, hands black with soil, ugly children; I wondered which of his genes had created their funny little faces. There wasn’t a scene, he just opened the front door of the calm house, his bags in his hands and stepped out, from her to me. He kissed the children, and turned, he kept his eyes fixed on me as he walked down the drive, I was his exit point; without me being there he would have stayed, cosy in his stale life. Like Orpheus, if he had looked back all would have been lost.
I never met the wife. She never bothered us. She stopped him seeing the children, of course, but he didn’t seem to mind. She sent photos at Christmas, of their big toothy smiles and gawky limbs and he sent her monthly cheques, a mutual exchange of something each considered precious. But their presence faded quickly from our lives and they remain just images. Old lives pickled on paper, pasted into a scrapbook.
I eavesdrop on our life, I watch him try to please me and I listen outside myself to his coaxing. I hate him. I hate him and his good nature, his thoughtful warming of my morning bath robe, the eggs coddled in a pan, his cheery smile and ‘what will you get up to today?’ I hate him and his patience with my vulgar moods, I hate the way he resists my attempts to fight, his placid back turned to my fists and pathetic temper. I hate myself for hating him. I hate him for continuing to love me.
I watch him as he bends to pick up a pebble; he turns it in his hands, determining how suitable it is for skimming the waves. I am not close enough to see him make these small movements, but he is a man of habit and I know just how softly his thumbs would test the grain of the stone. He straightens and flexes his arm, pulling back, twisting from his hip and flicks the stone at the incoming waves. The stone bounces four times. I can feel his triumphant smile from here. A pebble, the sea, the universe collude in this man’s easy success.
A large black dog splashes up to him along the shoreline, stopping to fidget and waggle at his legs. He leans down to pet it and I am reminded of how he looked as he kissed his children goodbye. The owner strolls over and clips the dog to its lead. The stranger laughs at something my husband has said before walking on and leaving him alone, facing the sea.
I am jealous. I am jealous of his friendship with strangers. I am jealous of his calm smile and willingness to try anything once. Why must he be so happy? And in this happiness, because of this smile he carries, I want to create turmoil because I am not part of the grace he has. I want to destroy him, slowly; I want to eat away at his self belief because it isn’t mine. I can’t remember when I became this person. This twist of myself, I can feel the impulse to hurt him, but like a child, I can’t stop.
A truth, our truth is contained in this moment, but what witness is the indifferent beach? Reality is infinite in its interpretations; and we have slipped between its cracks. Even with the pills, I can’t change what I have become. The beach imitates a Klein bottle, with no edge, no inside or out, the three dimensions indistinct. I stand under the hardened sky and see him; he is illuminated, haloed by the cresting waves. The red of his jacket glows; there are no obstacles to block his light; consumed as he is by the probing sea.
I walk towards him, my rubber boots scuffing the flat surface of the sand. He is still, watching the waves gather, break and retreat. He doesn’t turn as I approach, just stands looking away from me. We stand together, not touching, just watching the sea and its unreliable familiarity.
“Do you remember when we went to Brittany? It must be ten years ago. Do you remember the derelict old cottage we had? There was no electricity, no bloody gas!”
“Yes, I remember,” I do remember, I remember laughing with him in the dark, his big feet hanging over the end of the short bed; I remember we played cards by candlelight and drank cheap wine.
“This beach reminds me of that holiday, the way light was absorbed by your eyes. I was remembering the way you smiled after we made love. Stupid. I am a sentimental old fool, I know.”
He stops speaking, and looks at me for a moment. Faltering, his voice warm in the chill breeze, he continues, “I ask myself, is it enough to love? Isn’t it necessary to be loved back? But I am afraid now, afraid of being alone, afraid of failing at marriage again. I know you don’t love me but I don’t have the strength to be alone now; though I have thought about it.”
He smiles, at the sea, at the memory of the woman he loved, and then turns to me, his wife, still his love; he continues to smile. “I’ll meet you at the car.”
I stand there and watch him walk back. He hunches his shoulders against the wind, resisting the cold, resisting time whipping away everything precious. His valour strident against my erratic moods, I realise I mistook his strength for my weakness. I have never taken the time to understand my weakness. I have always taken the easy route. Avoiding anything strenuous or anything that would require me to confront myself, and demand honesty. It was easier to stop loving him; I was never up to the challenge of loving someone.
I am alone. The beach is empty. I am terrified by being alone. I need him. I need his solidity. I need him to love me, without him I am unsure of what I will become. He has considered leaving me, when all along I thought I was safe. Panic folds me in two, slows my movements. I want gravity to loosen its grip. I want to run to him, to check he is there. I want to flow and rush, instead of coagulating with this fear. I can only walk forward, my heart, tap, tapping at the wrist. I walk back down the dune to the car park. He is waiting for me, with tea cooling in a paper cup.