WINNER OF THE HE BATES SHORT STORY COMPETITION 2016
Sean wiggled his toes and felt tiny grains of sand slip between, insinuating themselves under his nails and scouring his skin clean. The familiar sensation calmed his jittery nerves, and he decided to sit and wait. The boat was nowhere in sight yet, but it would soon come. No sense in stressing over it, and who could be stressed under this warm sun, with the sea stretching away to the edge of the sky? Sean placed the heavy rucksack carefully on the sand and sat next to it, creaking a little. He burrowed his feet into pale sand, adjusted his wide brimmed hat and watched waves come and go.
The first day he saw Valerie, she joined his lunch table. She sat opposite and of course didn’t speak to him, chatting to her friends instead. He joined in the conversation but she paid him no mind. No matter, he thought, there will be another day.
Over the course of many lunchtimes, groups of colleagues gradually bonded as their Venn diagrams first overlapped and then coalesced. The bright sun of her smile lit up dark eyes and skin and drew him in, inexorable as gravity. When eventually he asked her out, he held his breath awaiting her answer. Her words sparked a flame in his heart, and her smile was the only thing he saw.
He brought her to the strand where he had grown up, playing fetch with a series of childhood dogs long gone. “I’m going into the water,” he said, stripping as he spoke. Valerie looked doubtfully at the churning blue grey waves, far away over pale sands. “You’re crazy. You’ll die out there, or get exposure or something.” She zipped her jacket right up under her chin. “Don’t think I’m coming with you. I only do warm tropical waters.”
“Oh, I know that. Wish me luck.”
He smiled and kissed her, taking a little sunny warmth with him, and ran headlong into the cold sea. She waved and watched him swim for a few minutes. When he emerged, shrunken and tinged blue, she pulled the blanket from the beach bag and waited.
“You’re an idiot.” She wrapped him up and rubbed his back while his teeth chattered. “Maybe, but I’m your idiot.” He pressed his cold lips to hers, and when he pulled back she watched his face crease in a smile.
“The sea is in your eyes,” she said, but in answer he shook his head.
“No, don’t be silly.” Sean pulled on his shirt and she handed over his sweater. “Tell you what, I need to put some coffee in my stomach. Warm me up a bit.”
They held hands walking back to the car, then found a café on Wexford Main Street where they sat a while over steaming mugs, letting the colour return to Sean’s pale cheeks. Valerie dragged him into the jewellers’ shop after that, where she picked out silver earrings set with deep blue lapis lazuli. She liked to have a souvenir from the places she visited. He stood by, in the shop he had never really noticed on a too familiar street.
Back in the English city where they lived, far from the water, Valerie wore the earrings sometimes and Sean remembered the strand. He had escaped its narrow reach, but now and again he took her back to the cottage where he grew up. His mother cleared the spare bedroom for Valerie, and fed them potatoes, cabbage and corned beef.
On their way back from the pub one night Valerie stopped in the middle of the lane. She squeezed Sean’s hand and looked in amazement at the deep blue sky sprinkled with stars. “Wow. This is too fabulous. No light pollution, and look! You can see the Milky Way here. I love the stars so much.” She gazed into the sky, transfixed, and he saw the wonder of the heavens in her eyes.
He knew, then.
In Tenerife, Valerie and Sean sat on fine sand, the sun warm on their skin. The travel agent had warned them that the beaches were black, but they didn’t care as long as it was hot. “Anyway,” she pointed out, “the sand may be dark but it still sparkles when the sun catches it. You just have to look closely.” She let a handful slip through her fingers and scatter on the wind, and he had to agree. It was easier to spot pale seashells where they nestled among dusky, glittering grains.
She bought silver earrings shaped like crescent moons in a little shop behind the main street. He held her hand tight and gathered her up into a warm embrace that smelled of her rose perfume, of safety and love.
The boat approached, and Sean picked up his rucksack and sandals and waded out to meet it. The boatman chatted about weather over the sound of the engine, and the hurricane that had devastated the neighbouring island the year before. Sean relaxed as they talked about anything and nothing important, and the boat slipped out of the bay.
The sea here was turquoise and blue, and he could see clear to the bottom. It was nothing like the angry, snot green sea that had lashed the strand the day Sean asked Valerie to marry him. The storm came in fast and brooding grey clouds touched the sea. Rain soaked his bare head but he felt only anxious excitement. Down on one knee, yes, all that, the ring in a blue velvet box and their black Labrador frolicking around them.
He was back in Wexford, but he was not yet home. She was what he sought, and his heart swelled again when she rushed into his arms and kissed him over and over. Between each kiss, the word yes.
Later, Valerie sat under a huge umbrella while he went down to the water’s edge. She was careful to keep their daughter in the shade, and the toddler clapped her hands in delight when her Daddy returned. In his hands he bore the seaside in miniature, and he sat Anya down with the bucket. She fished around in the bottom and drew out sand, and a shell. But the shell held a surprise, and she dropped it in shock when a hermit crab popped out. Sean picked it out again and showed her, and Anya forgot her tears in her fascination with its tiny waving claws.
The pale sand of Puerto Pollensa Playa was quite the equal of more exotic beaches, with sun sparkling on the blue sea of the bay. They would return many times, until the children were old enough to let Valerie wander the shore gathering shells, just as she had on a Caribbean beach long before. The children squealed around her as shells grew legs and scampered back to the sea.
Sean watched her emerge from the shallows, his dark Venus, a child on each hip and still, that smile he knew so well. They were both transplanted, yet no place seemed foreign as long as they had each other.
Much later again, Sean and Valerie walked a Norfolk beach in wellies. They buttoned their coats against a cool wind, accompanied by another black dog running in and out of the water and three reluctant children, dragged from their phones and consoles to the outside. Valerie strode ahead, as if wanting to be alone. There were no shells, but in any case he saw her head was up. She was not looking for them. Sean brought up the rear, and the distance stretched between them, filled with children and work and accumulated grievances.
They had their house, far from the sea, with her beachcombing finds lined up dusty on a shelf. They had their family, their dog, their shared life. They had all the beaches they had seen together, but Sean felt oddly misplaced again, as though he were once more the immigrant in search of something he could not find at home. Home was slipping away, fading and less substantial the more he tried to grasp it. The sun was permanently obscured by clouds, and a chill fell over them.
One by one, the children left to pursue their own half-seen dreams. The dog and the house grew quieter, and in that space he sought her again. Sean and Valerie went back to Norfolk, and walked side by side this time, talking. He took her to brochure worthy beaches all over the world. On Whitehaven beach she laughed when she heard the brilliant quartz sand actually squeak underfoot. In the Australian desert she gazed with delight at Jupiter’s rings, seen through a telescope. In Mauritius he presented her with the most perfect conch shell he could find, pressing it into her hands and closing her fingers around it with a kiss.
In their white linen bed she sighed when he held her close. Once more she said, “You really do have the sea in your eyes. It’s not a tropical sea, but still lovely to me.”
He did not disagree this time. Instead he smiled and kissed her again, soft and sincere. They crept back towards each other cautiously, remembering all the seas and beaches and storms they had shared, and he was safe again.
Sean asked the boatman to stop his little craft some way from the shore. The boat bobbed on the surface, and despite his hat Sean felt sweat bead on his forehead. He took off his sunglasses and rubbed one hand down his face. It was so peaceful, he could almost believe he was alone. He missed the sound of waves on the shore, but this was the time and place.
Sean pulled the jar from his rucksack, and then felt around for the blue velvet pouch. He took them out in turn; the lapis earrings, the crescent earrings, the shells and smooth worn pebbles she had picked up, the pretty pieces of broken coral he had gathered for her when snorkelling. Without her, they were random objects, and he cast them into the warm sea in tribute and watched them sink out of sight. Their fate was no longer his to decide.
When he leaned over, her wedding ring swung on a gold chain round his neck. He tucked it back inside his shirt, reassured by its warm weight against his skin. Under the impassive gaze of the boatman, Sean uncapped the jar. He swallowed hard.
“I brought you back to tropical waters, just like I promised.” He turned the jar over and spilt the contents. The ashes drifted away on a warm breeze, and melted into the blue green sea.
He fought the lump that came to his throat, but nothing could hold back the sea of tears that blinded him. The boatman thrust a tissue into Sean’s hand, and he wiped his eyes. He stared out at the sparkling horizon and its promise of adventure in distant lands until his vision cleared, and his heart stopped trying to follow her.
“Take me back,” he said, his tongue thick and dry. “And thank you.” Sean replaced his sunglasses and sat down, clutching the empty jar to his chest.
“No problem, man, no problem at all. We go home now.”
Back in England, Sean sold the big house and named a star for her. Though Valerie would not see it, he knew she would have loved it. She had always said that rituals are for the living, not the dead, and he was both amazed and comforted to find himself smiling at the thought. He had left home, and found a home, and he did not think any beach would feel like home again. But she was in the stars and the oceans, and one day her treasures would wash ashore cleaned and tumbled, waiting to be found.