Wave after wave by Brigid McConville
‘Effing blinding effing MEN’ shouted Rebecca at the windscreen, thumping the steering wheel with the heel of her left hand, causing her car to veer alarmingly across the narrow coastal road. It was enough of a shock to slow her down, while her left hand came up to dash tears away, just in time for the sign to come into focus: BLACK ROCK BEACH - CAR PARK
She turned right onto the rutted track and read the list of charges. She had left her purse behind on the kitchen table when she swept out of the house this morning, aiming for maximum dignity. But now she needed change. Damn. All she wanted was a quick swim, to cool herself down, to douse her raging disappointment which even now she knew was kind of childish. ‘Effing car park, effing charges…’
A horn tooted and she turned, muttering ‘alright alright’, only to see a smiling woman in a bright blue head scarf in the driver’s seat of the battered van alongside. The woman held out her hand waving a small printed scrap of paper. ‘Here you go love’, she said as Rebecca reached out to accept the ticket. ‘It’s for all day, but I have to rush, they’ve found Clark Kent!’
‘Oh, okay, thanks,’ said Rebecca, baffled but grateful. Tucking the ticket under her windscreen she turned onto a grassy parking spot, cut the engine, gathered up her swimming togs and headed for her usual place on the beach. There were some good people in the world after all, people who showed kindness and generosity, even if they were perhaps a bit barmy. Nice people who didn’t forget their partners’ birthdays.
Forget? After years and years together? Or was that ignore? Why did Johnny not seem to understand that a person likes to be appreciated, likes to be made a bit of a fuss of, to be told she is special, and loved? And that years and years together makes that more, not less important.
- Wave after wave -
Rebecca picked her way across the beach with its little family enclaves of windbreak, towels, blankets and boogie boards. She passed a very large man in very small briefs - what Johnny called budgie smugglers. She once thought that was funny; today she felt it was mean.
She passed two little girls engrossed in building a sand boat, pointing out to sea. She passed a young woman, long smooth limbs stretched out on a rattan mat, reading Brides magazine. Good luck with it love, hope he remembers your birthday…
Soon she reached the far side of the beach and put her bag down at the base of the sloping rocks where she and Johnny liked to park their stuff, near enough to the sea but far enough from the summer crowds to have a little privacy and shelter. Although now in September there were fewer young families, more retired people with dogs – like the black and white collie which suddenly launched itself across the sand and dived like a bird into the waves. Incredible!
Right, time to get in! With a lurch of anticipation in her stomach – half dread at the shock of cold water to come, half elation at the joy of just being in the sea again – she pulled off her dress using a token towel across her back for modesty, wriggled into her swimsuit and then jogged towards the surf.
She was soon in up to her knees. And already she was more herself, more positive, striding deeper, looking outwards. When a wave broke above her thighs she gasped and quickly launched herself over it, duck-diving down into the swirling surge behind. Surfacing, spluttering, she couldn’t help smiling.
Her bare feet found a sandbar, high enough to launch herself, arms outstretched and face down, into the waves at the exact point of breaking. They carried her towards the beach each time until their energy petered out and she could raise her head, wipe her eyes, and head out to sea again. She heard a child comment: ‘look mummy that woman is surfing without a board.’ She smiled at the child and felt the proud camaraderie of sea swimmers. Oh well, life is good, the world is beautiful.
A dozen breaking waves later, salt in her eyes and nose, sand in her hair, Rebecca was dizzy with joy of the sea. Her fingers were turning white, she felt the chill in her blood; it was probably time to go in. But she wanted just one last wave, one really good wave, a wave she would catch exactly as it broke, the moment its wild energy was unleashed around her.
She laughed at herself, remembering how when they first got together, Johnny always used to beckon her in from the waves, exasperated that she wouldn’t stop - and she would laugh at him and call him a wimp when he retreated to light a fire on the beach and make that wonderful sweet tea with a slug of whisky. He always had a tin cupful ready for her when she came out, shivering, and would offer to hold her towel while she stripped off, peering over the top at her chilly goose-pimpled body. ‘You jiggle when you giggle,’ he’d say, trying to make her laugh.
And now she trudged out of the waves, still hearing the surf in her ears, the roar, the taste, the tumult. She was suddenly glad she had said nothing to Johnny as she had walked out that morning from a breakfast table empty of birthday cards. Oh well. She reached the rock, grabbed her towel and wrapped it round her shivering shoulders. A thin column of smoke was rising from behind the rock. She heard some rustling. Then some muttered swearing. Johnny’s face appeared from the left of the rock. He had a steaming mug of tea in one hand, and a fat slice of birthday cake, balanced on a paper plate. It was adorned with one candle guttering in the wind. A large towel was draped over his shoulder.
‘Come here’ he said,’ take those wet things off. Did you know you jiggle when you giggle?’
Rebecca and Johnny left the beach about an hour later, having split the fat slice of cake which he had bought from the Beach café. As they pulled out of the carpark, a young man was sitting in a Ford Fiesta, frowning at the parking charges. Rebecca waved a little piece of paper at him. ‘Here you go love’ she said, ‘it’s an all-day ticket.’
Josh brightened. ‘Oh, thanks,’ he said. Parking up on a sandy patch of grass, he got out of the car to put on his walking boots and stretched his long lanky body. Then he set out across the beach to where he could join the coast path. Every step of the way he felt his heart beating good-bye, good-bye, good-bye. His throat ached from the effort of not crying. He passed a very large man who was struggling to do up the zip of his wetsuit. Josh stopped. Should he offer to help? Was that a bit weird?
‘Excuse me mate’, said the man, ‘if you wouldn’t mind…? I just can’t reach…’
‘Of course’, said Josh and stepped forward to hike the zip upwards bit by bit, anxious not to pinch the folds of flesh which were bulging through the neoprene. This guy was definitely doing the right thing. No better way to get in shape than swimming.
When the zip reached the top, Josh tucked the velcro strap across the back of the man’s neck. The man smiled and set out for the sea, while Josh stepped past a couple of little girls intent on decorating a boat they had built in the sand. The waves would come in soon and their boat would be washed away. Washed away like his dreams.
He felt so at home on this beach, where he had spent many summers, where he had learned to swim, to kayak, to paddle board, to surf. Year after year he had passed on his enthusiasm and skills to his brothers and friends, finding out along the way that he was a good teacher, patient, encouraging, firm. If only he had got that adventure school job. Somehow it felt worse to have been told this morning that he nearly got it, that he was the runner up.
His eyes passed over a hot girl, sitting on a straw mat reading a magazine - and passed back again. Wow, classy! But not as lovely as his Molly. He sighed. Not really ‘his’ yet; he had been waiting for the right moment to ask. Having a good time together was one thing; commitment was another. And now he had to go back to Bristol to stay in that grimy flat, cycling to work at the call centre day after day. How could he say he was serious about her if he was leaving?
He’d call in to the Beach café to see Molly and break the news on his way back, but first he needed to fill his eyes with sky and sea, to expand his lungs with salty air, soothe his aching heart with the peace of this place. He reached the end of the beach and scrambled up to join the coast path. He followed it, working his legs hard. Good-bye, good-bye said his heart. It had been a wonderful summer, and the prospect of a job at the adventure centre doing what he loved best, and being with the person he loved best, was perfect. But he had just missed out.
Josh gazed across the coastline, far headlands grading paler and paler into grey until they merged with the horizon. Gulls wheeled; bees hummed in the thrift; a strange dog flew past. He pulled up some strands of marram grass and twisted them together, thinking. The coast was unchanging but its beauty shifted by the minute. Maybe this was not his time, but his time would come. He had better go back and tell Molly that he would be leaving soon. He retraced his steps, edged through the kissing gate and made his way to the door of the Beach café. He heard her laughing voice on the phone before he went through the door:
‘It was so sweet Mum, he asked for a double slice of cake and candles, but I only had the one so he just stuck it into the icing. He said it was her birthday and he had been admiring her body surfing from the car park, he was so proud of her! He said he needed to light a fire because she’d be getting out soon and he wanted to surprise her. Yes, he was quite an old bloke, sort of Dad’s age. I wonder if Josh would do that for me when we’re old?’
Josh’s heart lurched and he felt a strange throb in his chest. Then he realised it was a message which had just come into the mobile in his breast pocket. ‘Please call me’. The text was from a Cornwall number, as were two missed calls. His hands trembled as he touched the keypad.
‘Adventure Centre’, said the manager, answering right away. ‘Oh, Josh? Great! We’ve been trying to call you. The chap we selected declined our offer. Some of us thought you were the best candidate anyway, but the other guy had more experience; it was a toss-up. Are you still interested?’
Mary was looking for coins in her pocket when a Ford Fiesta pulled up beside her. A smiling young woman held out her hand, waving a piece of paper. Mary noticed that she had a strand of marram grass woven like a ring around the third finger of her left hand. ‘It’s an all-day ticket’ she said. ‘But I’m taking the afternoon off, because we’re celebrating!’ She was really speaking to the young man in the driving seat who grinned from ear to ear and tooted as they drove off.
Mary tucked the ticket onto her dashboard, parked facing the sea and took a rucksack from the passenger seat. It was bulky against her shoulders as she set off for the far side of the beach, passing a large man who had just come in from the waves, puffing and exhilarated as he peeled off his wetsuit. Two little girls were frantically shoring up their sand castle – it looked like a boat - as waves began to lap at its prow, and a lithe young woman was packing a glossy magazine into a beach bag.
The tide was coming in. She had to hurry to reach the rocky outcrop. The waves were swallowing up a bit more sand each time. Like the passing years, she thought as she put down her rucksack and pulled out the green plastic urn. It was surprisingly hefty; her brother had told her most of the weight was burned up coffin.
‘How fitting’, she had replied. ‘Mother - a fraudster even in death’. Her brother Simon had smiled. Only the two of them could joke like that, only they knew what it was like to be raised by a parent who insisted on keeping up appearances in public while endlessly criticising her children behind closed doors.
And yet, and yet. The best times for all of them had been on this beach. When her mother got into the sea she seemed to forget about her absentee husband, her loneliness. Fretting and complaining as her children pulled her towards the waves, she would start whooping and shrieking once the surf took over, dissolving her demons. By the time the three of them emerged shivering and dripping, they were content. Mary sighed. It never lasted long. But she liked to think that was her mother’s true being, the glowing girl she had been before she fell into the crevasse between her dreams of a perfect marriage and the messy reality of family life.
She looked out to the horizon. This beach had also been the place she and Simon came to talk about life’s shocks and losses. Her breast cancer. Mother’s dementia. His drinking and depression. Simon was still fragile, still banned from driving, so Mary had driven to the beach to dispose of mother’s ashes, while Simon was walking over the headland to join her for tea afterwards at the Beach café.
She rolled up her trousers to her knees, grasped the urn and waded into the waves. She glanced across the beach; people were leaving now, there was just a streak of a dog hurling itself into the distant surf. And while she was distracted a big wave broke over her legs, soaking her trousers nearly up to her waist. She laughed. ‘Okay mother, I hear you, ‘stop dawdling girl’!
She twisted the cap of the urn and began to pour the gritty ashes into the receding wave. She was still pouring when an even stronger wave nearly knocked her over. ‘Okay okay mother, nearly done’, and she upended the whole ugly plastic pot and shook the remaining ashes into the sea. But a third wave broke against her and soaked her to the skin. She gasped with the cold and ran onto the sand, chucking the empty urn down by her rucksack.
She took a breath, and then saying ‘sorry mother, might as well’, she ripped off her wet clothes and ran naked back to the water. With a yell of freedom and triumph she dived into the sea which had so completely absorbed her mother’s ashes.
Never so close to you!
A few minutes later, she saw Simon on the beach, grinning and holding out his coat to her. He pretended to avert his eyes muttering ‘mother would be scandalised’. ‘I hope so!’ said Mary, wrapping herself in his warmth. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘the Beach café is closed, that Molly has swanned off, so come back to my place, I’ll look after you.’
A woman in blue headscarf was rooting through her purse for change as brother and sister were leaving the car park. Mary, her right arm oddly bare under the big baggy overcoat, held out the ticket; ‘this one’s for all day’.
‘Oh, you’re an angel!’ said the woman. ‘I was here already this morning looking for my dog.’ She chattered on. ‘He’s very fast you know, so as a puppy I called him Jeremy Clarkson, Clarkie, to annoy my hippie friends. As he grew he did this thing of leaping, almost flying, so I changed it to Clark Kent. But he’s no superhero; he was frightened by some fireworks last night – there’s a big wedding party coming up – so my poor dog ran off. I looked for him everywhere today. Some friends said they saw him on the beach, but I don’t know how, unless he really can fly, because when I went into the café I got texts from my neighbours to say he was waiting for me at home.’
She turned to put the ticket in the window of her van where a black and white collie was sitting on the passenger’s seat, tail thumping, quivering with pleasure. The woman opened the van door and Clark Kent shot out, an arrow of pure joy, leaping in a perfect arc across the sands to where the sea meets the sky.