by Sarah Hills
flat white coffee
I don’t look it, but I am lost. And in the way lost people do, I look for signs. I wear out my eyes, for anything that might be significant. I search for prophecies, omens, arrows pointing forward. From the tourist shops opposite the harbour, I find dream catchers and crystals to hang in my windows, chakra stones for the sills. Then I buy mobiles and wind chimes, because I like them anyway, but when the wind blows through the flat, Mel jumps at the tsunami of tinkling glass and bells which builds in a soprano wave from the front windows to a bass grumble of the bamboo tubes by the back door. Mel raises his head from his newspaper then, sighs, until I close the back door to stop the wind searching through.
Since we moved to the flat, I go down to the beach to walk. The golden curve of it stretches out for miles. The waves come in so regularly, like heartbeats, but between every wave, I hear a silence, this kind of pause. Once, I put my fingers on my wrist to count my pulse, breathing in time with the waves, and realised that between every clench of my heart, it also stops before it can clench again - in every heartbeat, I am both alive and dead. Alive, dead, alive, dead, alive-dead-alive-dead. All the time. I’m more wary of the sea now.
Mel can sit and read and read. He reaches zen-like peace of mind from perusal of print. He’ll potter out to his bowls club and down to the second-hand bookshops. I’ll find him with a pile of books and a coffee in one of the new trendy coffee bars – reclaimed mismatched china and hand roasted coffee beans. He is happy. I can see that. Plain as eggs. It takes me by surprise, time after time.
I’d forgotten he could be happy. He trudged so long as a postman – early doors winter and summer, all weathers, cyclical threats of redundancy, constant changes and re-shuffles - that I forgot. I think he had too. Neither of us understood his grumbles, that litany of complaints about work, a rosary of our daily life, rose out of the trudging itself – like steam rising from an overheated, overused engine. Don’t think I didn’t know they called him Moaning Mel at work. It wasn’t a behind the back thing, more a nickname to his face in affection, ‘cos they knew, every one of them, that he would always cover for them. Always go that extra mile, literarily, when one of them couldn’t make it all the way through their round.
What goes around comes around, Mel would say to me. And sometimes it did, that was true. But it seemed to me that Mel got landed with more than he passed around. He’d take the extra hours, work the shifts to cover illness. We always needed the money, of course.
I remember him saying to me one night, packing up his lunchbox for the next day as I put together another meal for his dad or my mum. “It’s never just us, honey, is it?” Three kids – Jon, Mark, Kitty. All out there now with jobs, Jon and Kitty with families as well. Bit of coming and going, but they got there. Kitty had her eldest, Liam, before Jon had left home even. But then we all helped look after Liam when he was such a sickly baby. I held the fort after he died, while Kitty got herself back together. Then there was his dad and my mum. Each slowing down and dying in their own sweet time; not that I begrudge them. What goes around comes around and all that, as Mel says. I was their one-woman social service – arranging meals and carers, their social lives. She had a sharp tongue, my mother. I won’t do it to mine.
We agreed, Mel and me. Retirement and move away.
So, here we are in Bridlington. Our house exchanged for a ground floor flat, with a bit put aside for rainy days.
Quiet oozes out of everything here, like a syrup. If I sit long enough, silence fills up the flat, gradually pooling round my ankles, rising to my knees, stomach, pushing against my ribs like a weighted pillow. Mum’s lungs filled with liquid in her last days, and she drowned. With every hard breath I gasp in the sickly silence. I must heave myself up before Mel comes home to find me stricken in the chair.
I don’t know what Mel sees in his bowls and bookshops. There are just old people here queuing up to die, browsing discarded bric-a-brac from the houses of those gone before while they wait.
Mel says I have nursed the dying so long, I am haunted. I tut at him, but I have never told him I see Liam. Always. Since he died. Ten years old, he’d be now. He’s grown. I used to see him at ours and now, since we moved into the flat, when I walk by the sea, I see Liam, curly haired boy, running into the waves, laughing. He doesn’t come out, but I’ll see him run down the beach again. Used to see him running into the roads round our old house, so running into the water seems better.
Today, I come back to the flat from shopping for dinner and Mel makes me a pot of tea, pulls out the biscuit tin. I’m placing new Good Luck charm magnets on the fridge, he’s talking to me about Old Joe at his bowling – still playing at 103, spry, prickly and wiry as sea holly. He pats my hand, and my stomach knots before he even opens his mouth.
“If you could be young again, a child even,” he goes on. “What would you want to do?”
I put my cup down too quickly and it catches the saucer rim, some tea spills out. “For God’s sake.”
I am halfway out of the room when Mel says. “You have to retire sometime too. From looking after other people.”
“There’s you.” I retort.
“I don’t need you to look after me.”
No. There’s the rub in all its rawness. After I’ve mopped the split tea, I stomp off to bed, get under the duvet and pretend to sleep. My jaws hurt from the force I use to clench them together and still the tears leak from my closed eyelids and run down my face into the pillow.
The next morning, I leave early to walk along the beach. The sea has been rough overnight and left, scattered along the high-water mark, small shells, whole and delicately pink, some still in pairs like minute butterflies. I can see Liam wandering ahead of me picking them up, so I do the same until I have a handful. For heaven’s sake, Eve, I can hear my mother say, you could at least act your age. God, she had a tongue like a piece of barbed wire. The only thing that had value for her was work. “The devil makes work for idle hands.” That was one of her favourite sayings. She worked till the day she had her stroke. 76, she was. I cannot remember a single time I saw her happy.
Halting, I look at my collection of shells. Just things like this can make me happy at least. A few are blushes of deep fuchsia, while others are elegant pale pink teardrops, some single, four sets still paired like wings. Sitting down on the sand, I catch my breath, lining the shells up on one palm, dark to light. Rows of wings and tears. Such beautiful things, tiny and perfect; concentric curved lines, like minuscule waves, a moment of sea frozen in shell. Not sand yet, I think, they are paused, no, suspended in this loveliness on their way from being to not being.
I look round for Liam. Of course, he’s lost interest in shells, now he’s starting his walk into the waves. He turns to me and raises his hand. My heart jolts. He’s never done that before, never looked at me, never communicated in any way. I start to my feet, sliding in the sand as I rush down the beach to him, stumbling, because I don’t take my eyes off him for a moment. He waves, but he’s also stepping backwards into the water. I know I can’t get to him. Know I can’t get across the beach in time. I stop. Liam puts his hand down and smiles at me, the same wind blowing our hair, the same light in our eyes. Then he takes another step back and he’s just gone.
All I can hear is my breath out loud, catching in sobs in my throat. Going to wipe the tears from my face, I realise my hands are still full of shells. It’s crazy, but I can’t drop them. They seem like a gift from both Liam and the sea itself. I cannot let them fall and risk them being crunched into the endless sand.
Slipping one handful into the other, I dig out a tissue to wipe my face and blow my nose while walking to where Liam had been. Standing, staring, just shells and tears between me and the great breadth of the sea, filling all that unseen land, shore to horizon.
I drop the shells into a clean tissue, take off my shoes and socks, push socks and shells carefully into the shoes. The waves are lapping my ankles before their ice chill pushes me back, numbs the burn of grief over my skin. I don’t think Liam wanted me to join him, I think, he wanted me to let him go. It occurs to me, that it was him keeping me company all those years rather than the other way round, him waiting until I was strong enough.
Wandering along the shore, I watch clouds drifting in the sky, merging and forming, dissolving into blue, making endless pictures, while silk sand from further up the beach warms and dries my feet. I wonder if this could be my own zen time - walking in the sunshine, searching for shells, in the company of the sea. I should get a dog. I always wanted a dog. I see myself, walking on this beach every day, getting to know it like the back of my hand.
I don’t know how long I walk, just me, with the sea, beach and sky. Long enough for the horizon to lodge inside my head.
When I start to feel cold, I turn round. All those chakras and wind chimes will have to go to the charity shop. The seashells will line up on a windowsill or they can sit in a bowl of water on the table, where they will gleam in liquid light. At least they won’t bother Mel with any noise. I walk back along the sand, heading home, listening to the rasp of water drawing back from each wave, and it seems to me I have adapted in some way to become part of the sea - the ebb and flow of air in my lungs, the salt essence of the tides in my heart.
Then I think how nice it would be now to sit with a cup of coffee and Mel, eating a warm scone, reading a second-hand book in a café.
About the author