The icy wave rushed, kicked his shins, hard enough he wondered about bruising. Wondered if it was possible to leave a mark on him, however impermanent, and watched as she shimmied sideways to avoid the chilly, punitive embrace around her ankles.
Her retreat matched the ocean’s; hasty, apologetic, saying sorry, sorry I didn’t mean to, I couldn’t help it.
He didn’t mind the cold. He liked the submersion. And he madly loved her.
This was their first night at the The Ruby, a beachside Victorian they found on a holiday letting site. After an enervating series of flights from Chicago and a bumpy, puttering car ride to Saltburn-by-the-Sea, the last thing she had wanted to do was take a walk along the promenade. But after sitting for so long his body’s restless muscles overtook her body’s close collapse and she reluctantly agreed to come along on the nighttime jaunt.
They had trekked down to the funicular railroad that ran during the day, transporting people down the sloping cliffs in refurbished tram cars for a mere 1 pound. As they passed it by and started down the winding path to the beach, he found himself saddened that the trams didn’t run at night. The idea of a sliding drop into the unknown thrilled him; the absence of a navigable horizon a giddy thing.
Just getting on to dusk, there were few people on the long expanse. Most of the surfers had packed up and left, a few other couples strolled here or there, but for the most part they were alone. The sun had begun its slow descent into the boundless depths, tipping the waves golden and fluid, a shoreward rushing army of sunlight brandished high in relentless advance.
As they walked he thought of her and of his love for her, nascent, a natural, easy thing. Funny, he couldn’t look at her and think of her at the same time. He couldn’t see her cheekbones and not urge to contour them with a hand, finger, his eyes, catch the spark of a glance and not see himself, see their future, without getting lost. So, to catch her in his thoughts he had to avert his eyes, cast them down and resist her pull.
Thus, he had drifted into the sea. The waves lapped at first, like their beginning; an advance, a retreat, coy and carefully measured but with a building promise. The first wave to crash him nearly toppled him, but after he braced firm he met the waves with anticipation and a revelatory joy that surprised him. He had never been much for the challenge, for confrontation. But it seemed natural to gird himself against this onslaught, to feel a pride in the girding, and a purpose. Only after he belatedly noticed her skirting away he glanced upon the old lady.
Sitting on a greyed wooden folding chair, she brushed small, careful strokes on the seascape easeled before her, capturing the dusk, crafting a moment both vibrant and still. Approaching 90, surely, she barely moved herself. Small, quick turns of the neck, checking the sea, catching its movement, traveling through her hand to the brush to the canvas, chronicling the rise and fall like a true believer of perpetual motion. Behind her was a small beach tent, close-quartered he was sure. Large enough for sleeping, small enough to pack quickly, to hold in the crook of an elbow.
He left the surf and drifted a bit closer, close enough to see the strokes, the glisten of new paint on the taut-stretched surface. Close enough to see the sunset glint her grey hair to an embering red, a soft color, malleable and deep. He felt his hand being taken, tugged, and reluctantly retreated to the path, the house, the room, the bed, sleep and dreams of tracks leading into a molten ocean.
The next day was spent visiting all the sites they were enthusiastically informed that they simply must visit. They sat inside the Victorian bandstand, empty of a band but temporary housing for a few twittering birds, meandered through the valley gardens and had a surprisingly sweet sponge cake at a tucked-away tea shop. Then an at-last trip down the funicular to the promenade, the length of which was yarn-bombed and studied in great detail, each figure, throwing exclamations and silly remarks to the brisky wind. It was a beautiful day, a bit sunny, and squinting he picked out a solitary unmoving figure. The Sea Lady, as he had begun to call her, was back again in the same spot, painting the same ocean. About to call out a hello, or hello there, or ahoy, he hadn’t yet decided, the announcement of the last ride up the cliffs sounded and he found himself being tugged along, up the railway, over the mounds of beach grass, into the gathering shadows, departing the outside world for one made of him and her, entwined, warming each other from the ocean’s salted breath.
Sitting at a table outside the local mash and pie shop indulging in a rare rabbit pie followed by sticky toffee pudding, he caught sight of the Sea Lady again, a dot on the meeting of water and sand, and asked the waiter if he knew who she was. He struggled with the dialect, still, after several days, thought it sounded like a crazy mash-up of Swedish and Canadian and Scottish with vowels elongated and clipped at the same time and consonants all but absent. But he got most of the story, he thought, perhaps at least the important bits.
The Sea Lady would come every summer, for a week only, and paint. Always and only paint. The small tent he had seen was apparently her shelter. She brought her own food, and her tiny fire could be seen throughout the night, for cooking, for company, for a beacon, her words, there, a beacon out to the endless night, waiting for a response. Same spot? Yes, the same each year. And no one asked her to leave, gave her any trouble? No. No, she was left unmolested, unhastened from her vigil.
Vigil? Oh. Oh, yes.
Her lover. Maybe husband, no one was quite sure, and didn’t very much want to ask. A pilot, RAF most like, training off the coast near Redcar, just North. She had been in London when he was lost at sea. A mock sortie, or some sort, and no wreckage, no body to find, mourn over, bury, slowly forget. When he went out to sea and never came back, she did the same. Every year since, she traces his current down, down seven towns on the coast, possible sites for his returning, searching, marking the changeable nature of the sea, his new lover, urging it to give him up to her at last.
He paid the check, fuddled with the bills; already not good at remembering pence versus pounds, he let the waiter take whatever he needed and tried to push past the onslaught of emotion that had overcome him. It would not do to weep over the remnants of his rabbit pie. His half-eaten pudding. Already she was looking at him, quizzical, a slight squint to her eyes that spoke of something more than a question, something just less than a judgement. So he let her take him to the dunes where, hid in the undulating marram grass, they made a reckless, hurried love. He was too removed from the moment to pay much attention and wondered as they lay if she had come with him. He usually noticed. He usually cared. But his thoughts kept drifting heavy beyond the horizon, and her weight on his arm seemed inconsequential in comparison.
An afternoon later, making plans on how to spend their last night at the resort town, they had missed hearing a band play in the bandstand and she wanted to dance with him under the stars, was insistent about it really, though they had never been a dancing couple and were not likely to become one. He wanted to go scavenging for fossils beachside, one of the prime attractors to booking this house, this seaside town, and truthfully, he wanted some time from her, from her tugging, from her sidelong looks when he was sidelined by other thoughts, from her increasingly relentless pull. A compromise, as usually happened. He would fossil dig now while she napped and got ready for star dancing, they would have a lovely last night that they could pass on in story to disinterested friends and too interested relatives, and then 14 hours of jets and lags and a slowquick devolution to their normal.
As he wound down the beach path, hopes of unearthing a half-buried remnant of history gave way to the darkening hints of half-buried truths. He tried to wish them away, tried to whistle a tune to distract himself, but he had never been a whistler, and was not likely to become one. After a few earnest but pitchy bars he gave way and let himself look.
There. A somewhat submerged remembering. Her, darting around his life, a constant wave of close and far, here and elsewhere that had always intrigued him, had netted his interest and found him buoyed along at her side, watching while she skittered away and back, again and again, close enough he could touch her and far enough that he was never sure she felt it. It was mad, this kind of love. But he had never angered with her. They never fought. Always, she cajoled, always he acquiesced, amused. Always. Tonight had shown a schism, a trench that once climbed, only showed the next breaker, and the next. And the somewhat submerged thing lifted a bit higher, took clearer form, shone brighter than was comfortable and stopped his feet from continuing down the beach, arrested his eyes from the sand, and brought him to awareness of the Sea Lady just ahead, a fire already built against the chilling night.
Every other time he had seen her she was a study in still motion. Always painting, always looking, always searching for her love within the sea. But now, tonight, her hand drooped to the sand, the brush clutched, her body resting against the woodback, her head crooked to the side.
No. No, he didn’t mean to start moving, didn’t intend to go, but suddenly he was there, by her side, between her and the sea, between yesterday and the next moment, crouching down, seeing her eyes first, mostly closed, a glisten from the setting sun, then her mouth, again, closed slightly, just large enough for a sigh to escape, just small enough to hold in the soul.
He stayed there, gazing, cracking, breaking, so full finally of edges that he reached out and took her hand. No to go. Not to make stay. Just a holding, here, a together that would shore him up against being swifted from one year to the next, his life that he saw lain out on the shore, a long, thin line of disappearing. He crooked his neck into his past, and it was as hazy as the darkening sky. He couldn’t pick himself out of the shadows, couldn’t find where he was before this moment.
The fire popped, and startled out of his rememberings he looked up, instinctively to the house, the place his future disappeared to, to her, and saw her standing outside the front door, a speck, sparkling, winking at him, bright then dark then bright and dark again, smaller than he was comfortable with, and his legs collapsed, sending him down into the sand, turning him away from her, from the undertow of her, turning him to the sea, holding him in the moment, keeping vigil now until the dawn, until the last day of waiting was done, and the next coast could be found, together, apart.