November. Cath sips her coffee and shivers. Her bungalow stands on the shore road facing the grey North Sea. The nearest other permanent resident is a man of her own age whose bungalow stands half a mile or so up the road. An ex-banker, someone said. In the summer, he takes his boat out. She doesn’t know what he does the rest of the year. She isn’t interested. It isn’t that sort of place. She isn’t that sort of person.
Cath sloshes Bushmills into her coffee. She pulls a thick document out of a jiffy bag and thumps it down in front of her old Imperial. She is running out of ribbons and the ‘h’ key sticks but it suits her. Besides, the electricity is unreliable here. She hasn’t a landline telephone and mobile reception is patchy. That’s fine by her, as well. She’s not a people person.
She works all morning, blowing on her fingers. The keys peck the paper, the wind howls, the waves roar and seagulls fight on her roof. In the afternoon she drives twenty miles to the nearest village and stocks up with jars of coffee, tins of this and that, cartons of long-life milk, and oranges. She can’t find any Irish whiskey at the Cash and Carry. She has to make do with Bells. Her rusty old Datsun is a petroholic, so she usually makes a detour to the cheapest garage. Only today it’s closed.
Not a good day she thinks as she drives home. The wind is getting up. Fat clouds lumber across the sea. As she passes the ex-banker’s bungalow, she sees another vehicle parked next to his beaten-up Land-Rover. A white van.
As she chugs by, a shock of blonde hair and a pair of long blue legs emerge from underneath the van. Eyes meet. She doesn’t see the fuel gauge needle slump like a drowning man’s arm.
Two minutes later, the inevitable happens. Fighting the wind, she begins the trudge back to ex-banker’s bungalow. The door is opened by the vision of blonde hair and long blue legs. The middle-aged man is nowhere to be seen. Cath explains her predicament. ‘No probs,’ he says. ‘The old man’s got plenty of cans in the shed.’ He disappears. His voice calls back ‘You’ve not got a cat, I take it?’
‘Cat?’ she jumps. ‘No. Nor a dog,’ she stammers. ‘I live alone.’
He returns with a can and a grin. ‘Cat - Catalytic converter. Unleaded. If you’re green, you’re knackered. The old fart’s only got four star.’
‘That’s - that’s fine.’ Bugger. Here she is, the wrong side of forty and she’s behaving like an adolescent, or worse - a mad menopausal woman. He flicks blonde hair from his eyes and her stomach melts. He’s bloody gorgeous. His skin is a fine suede she aches to stroke.
When she gets home, she slings her shopping across the floor, knocks back a tumbler full of neat Bell’s. How long is it since she’d had sex? Too bloody long.
It’s one of those days when the air’s so cold you can chip the edges off the sky with a spade. Time for another coffee. A knock at the door. Bloody Gorgeous is standing there, looking, well, bloody gorgeous.
‘So,’ he says. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
Cath feels a rush of blood and it isn’t to her head. ‘Are you making a pass?’ she says. God, she’s rusty. Her sexuality creaks like old bed springs. What if he’s only come to borrow a cup of sugar? He’ll think she’s an old tart.
‘I’m not passing. I’m staying.’
November becomes December. Gulls screech mournfully. Rain hammers splinters of ice into the roof. Fog rolls across the road. His name is Greg, is as spectacular out of clothing and under sheets as one might expect. He makes the occasional foray into the outside world for food and cigarettes (nobody’s perfect) but otherwise they live in steamy solitude.
‘Haven’t you got a job or anything?’ Cath asks him one day as he slowly runs his tongue along her spine.
‘Well I have.’
‘Oh yeah. Translator of German scientific journals. What sort of a job is that?
‘Least I’ve got a job....’
’And what sort of life? Alone, knocking back Irish whiskey and that disgusting coffee that tastes like boiled rucksacks, dressed like a raggle-taggle-gypsy-O. When you’re dressed that is.’
‘So why are you here?’
‘Something to do.’
She throws a pillow, but before she scores a hit, he has rolled on top of her and smothered her with his mouth, his hand cupping the soft middle-aged sag of her breast.
Outside the fog persists. She likes fog. It smothers the hard edges.
Later, Greg finds an old radio under the bed. ‘Any batteries in this?’ He shakes it. It crackles into life. ‘Attention all shipping. The Meteorological Office issued the following gale warning to shipping at 0600 hours GMT, today, December 25th. Humber. Northerly. Severe gale force 9 imminent...’
Christmas Day. A time for families, people.
Someone is hammering on the door.
‘Carol singers,’ she laughs but feels a shiver of reality down her spine. She flings a sheet around her and opens the door. It catches the wind and flies out of her hand. The full force of an easterly gale hits.
It’s Greg’s father. He pushes past her with a growl. ‘Have you a telephone?’
Greg is behind her fully dressed. How did he do that? ‘What’s up Dad? Come to rescue me from the clutches of The Older Woman?’
And suddenly Cath knows she’s a toy, a diversion, a decoy in the complicated animosity between father and son.
‘I’m over eighteen you know. Big boy.’
‘Big fool. I don’t give a toss what you do. I’m here to call the coastguard. Saw a boat go out a while back. Now it’s upside down.’
‘Haven’t you got a phone?’ asks Cath.
Greg’s father throws her a look of such utter contempt, she shrinks. ‘Of course I’ve got a phone. But I thought I’d have a bit of fun, tramp along in a force ten gale, get frozen stiff and waste valuable time when someone could be drowning out there. Of course I haven’t got a bloody phone!
Cath hasn’t got one either. At least, not one that gets a signal here.
‘The pub!’ Greg cries. What pub? She didn’t know there was a pub. ‘They’ve got a phone.’ Greg grabs his father’s arm and they’re gone. Together.
She sees the crumpled bed, the overflowing ash-tray, clothes strewn across the floor, the empty bottles, the dirty plates. She is engulfed by a tidal wave of loneliness.
It’s one of those rare January days, when the sky is blue pearl. A deceitful day that reminds you of lilacs and daffodils, before blasting you with another cannonade of winter. A mocking day that looks young but makes you feel as old as the ocean. Early that morning, a man digging for worms found a bloated body washed up against a break-water ten miles further down the coast. It’s time she moved. Time she lived.