Stepping Back – On the Beach

The journey to the beach was becoming so familiar to Rachel that she felt she could almost get there with her eyes shut.  She smiled and waved in response to the boat builders at Pete’s old boatyard, catching a whiff of paint and fibreglass that was reminiscent of the golden summers she and Lou had enjoyed. 

It wasn’t a conventional beach by any means; very little sand, mostly muddy shingle, but with plenty of huge rocks that provided an excellent perch from which to watch the yachts sailing in and out of the Marina, and the little pink ferry shuttling across the river.  When she wanted more action, Rachel walked further round the headland to where the river broadened into sea and the big liners were tugged into the port.  She was in the mood for crashing waves today, so she carried on walking until she came to the old blockhouses, one of which was the home of a transplanted Bofurs gun.

At the weekend and during the holidays, the blockhouses teemed with small children climbing from one building to the next, playing hide and seek, or more complex war games, but on this chilly morning, Rachel had the beach and the blockhouses to herself.  She climbed the steps and sat on the wall at the top, breathing in the scent of salt and seaweed peculiar to this part of the coast.  It was a fine clear day, and she not only had a good view of the shoreline but also of the Island on the other side of the water.  She and Lou had sailed there many times, and it remained a place of very happy memories. 

Lost in her reminiscences for a while, she had managed to move Sam into that part of her mind where his presence couldn’t cut and hurt her.  Whenever she returned to the present however, he was a constant, as was his subsequent betrayal and desertion.  She could see him in her mind, see every part of him, feel the warmth of his skin against hers and smell the faint musk of his aftershave.  As she filled her lungs with his imagined scent, the tang of the sea broke through the reverie, and reality returned.  The tears that she hid from Lou and the girls flowed freely here on the beach, with no one but the gulls and the occasional dog walker as witness to her grief.

As far as Lou was aware, Rachel came to the beach to get inspiration, but it was the only place she felt safe enough to give vent to the feelings she had to keep locked away inside.  If he had turned up then; if Sam appeared on the beach at that moment with his penitent grin and irresistible charm, she would have taken him back.  She would have thrown herself into his arms and forgiven him for everything.  What a fool she was!  She shook her head in amazement at her own stupidity.  Sam wasn’t coming back.  He’d been gone for over a month, and as far as she knew, the affair with Adele had been going on under her very nose for several weeks before that. He’d made his choice but what choices had she ever been given?

Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Rachel blew her nose defiantly and dabbed at her eyes, after glancing around quickly to make sure she was still alone.  A huge oil tanker slid slowly into the port and several small boats tacked to and fro up the river in order to catch the best of the wind.  She climbed off the wall and walked down the steps to the shore, placing the lunch basket down, and picking up stones to skim across the water.  The complex search for the correct size and shape of stone concentrated her mind, and the further science of getting the right angle and spin on the skim rescued her from the bad place again.

Having exhausted the supply of stones on that particular stretch of beach, Rachel picked up the basket again and headed back.  Her path lay towards the foreshore; the picnic benches, car park, and a patch of green that overlooked the river.  Settling herself down on a bench, she unpacked the basket; feeling a better constriction in her chest at the delights Lou had prepared for her so lovingly.  A package of her favourite chicken salad sandwiches, a bottle of fresh orange juice wrapped up in a cool pack, sea salt crisps and Lou’s speciality, two cupcakes in girly pink with chocolate icing, red butterflies and a golden letter ‘R’.  In the four days that Lou had been sending her off to the seaside with a packed lunch, it had never been the same dessert two days running.  Even Lou’s daughters, streetwise as they were for such a small village, enjoyed their mother’s packed lunches, and were the envy of friends who were given an allowance to hit the fish and chip shop, or buy boring school lunches.

Sitting there each day, nibbling absent-mindedly at her sandwiches and watching the boats sail past or moor up at the jetty, Rachel had become familiar with the regular fishermen, and wondered if one of the them was the brother of Jeff at the Gun. She’d lost count of the nights that she and Lou, had spent evenings at that particular pub, playing pool and drinking orange squash.  At ten pence a shot and free water, it had been a cheap night out, and there were usually a few boys who would buy them something a little stronger, and challenge them to a game of pool. They’d scrape together a pound for the meat raffle on a Friday night in the hope that they would win something to cook for the weekend back in the grubby kitchen of the halls of residence where they lived.

By the time they started their second year at Uni, they had moved into a cottage in the Village rented by Rachel and paid for by her ever absent grand-parents. The girls acquired part-time jobs to enhance their social lives, and as barmaid and sous chef at the more affluent Crown Inn, orange squash and pool became a thing of the past. It was in the Crown that they had made further acquaintance with Pete and his fellow yachties, and were enticed on board to crew on trips around the Island, and further down the South coast.

Bringing herself back to the present, Rachel realised with a start that she had finished all the food and drink in her basket and was idly picking up the last crumbs of her cupcakes with a wetted finger.  She sighed; and took the wrappings and bottle over to the recycling bins; noting the presence of a group of men talking animatedly in a language that sounded Spanish, but not quite.  She couldn’t be absolutely sure but she got the distinct feeling that the men weren’t particularly happy, especially not with the thin, gangly young man wearing washed out jeans and a tee-shirt that had definitely seen better days. He was shivering and hugging himself in a way that wasn’t just from the chill of a breezy day; his hair was lank and his sunken eyes had huge pupils. 

Whilst living in London, Rachel had seen many young men and women in a similar state, and it saddened her to see that even here, in this sleepy backwater village, the steely hand of the drug world had taken hold. She shuddered and throwing the last of the wrappers in the bin, picked up the picnic bag and decided to go back to the cottage.  The foreshore no longer felt the safe haven she had thought it to be earlier.

As she walked past the group of men, she felt them scrutinising her and keeping her eyes forward, she walked briskly up the hill and into the first shop she could find. Unfortunately, it was the designer boutique she had been avoiding for the past couple of days.  It was a typical tourist trap; the windows adorned with expensive and impractical dresses and tops. Rachel was tempted by a long silk scarf in shades of green, but remembering Mark’s comment about lady authors in flowing scarves, she put it back quickly and turned her attention to a display of silver and turquoise jewellery.  It was particularly pricey and not very nice, but the dangling earrings and spike-adorned necklaces provided a suitable subject for browsing.

“They are darling, aren’t they?” gushed the assistant, picking up a particularly ferocious looking bracelet and holding it out to Rachel.

“Lovely.” She replied, “and so – original.”

“Oh yes, we pride ourselves on only stocking artisan goods in this boutique.  All our stock is made in the locality by artists and dressmakers known to the owner personally. She is an artist herself, of course.  Those lovely hand-painted vases on the bookshelf are hers.  Such a talented person.”

Rachel looked over at the stubby clear glass vases adorned with amateurishly painted flowers. She smiled and decided that she would have to buy something in order to get out of the shop.  Tucked away on a lower shelf she found a little watercolour of the Square.  As she picked it up to examine it more closely, the assistant tutted. 

“That ugly little thing.  I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  You can have it for twenty pounds but I wouldn’t give it house room.”

Rachel rummaged in her pocket for her purse and was pleased to see that she could pay by credit card. With Lou providing her with food, she hadn’t had cause to go the bank since the day she’d arrived and bullied Lou into accepting all the cash that she’d brought down with her.

In order to mollify the now slightly sniffy assistant, Rachel took the least offensive pair of turquoise earrings, and in a moment of devilry, picked up the green scarf as well.  The assistant rang up the purchases; her attitude warming as she realised how much her commission would be.

“Are you staying in the village or just visiting?” she asked in a friendlier manner.

“I’m staying here for a while.  My friend Lou runs the teashop up in the square.”

“Oh.  Lou.  Well in that case you’ll know our owner’s fiancé Mark.  He’s going to be marrying Damaris in the autumn.”

“Oh, how lovely.” said Rachel, wondering how this piece of information tallied with what Lou had already told her about Damaris.  She picked up the rather gaudy carrier bag containing her purchases, said goodbye, and left the shop. 

The group of men had disappeared from the Quayside, and the Square was beginning to fill up with muscle cars disgorging yummy mummies collecting their tiny offspring from nursery.  In an hour or so it would be packed as the school run began.  Rachel decided not to call in at Lou’s tea shop to return the picnic bag, and hurried back to the cottage instead.  She and Sam had never discussed the idea of children, but that wasn’t to say she hadn’t fantasised about adorable babies and toddlers with her hair and his eyes. Yet another area of her life that smacked of failure.

Closing the cottage door behind her, she felt relieved to be able to shut herself away from reality for a while.  Her mobile rumbled and she pulled it out of her pocket.  A text in reply to the one she’d sent earlier agreeing to take on the commission.  She could tell from what Tony didn’t say that he was relieved to get her reply.  An email containing the details would follow, so could she turn her laptop on please? The laptop was still sitting in a bag by the side of her bed, and with a sigh she went into her bedroom, dumped the carrier bag on the bed and set the laptop up on the dressing table.  Lou had given her the password for Mark’s Wi-Fi; he had a separate secure network for official business, but this was for his own personal use – and that of his guest.

Once the laptop was on line, Rachel’s inbox filled up ominously and only stopped when the tally reached three hundred and twenty-seven.  She sighed again and set about sorting the junk mail from the real emails, then separating the dull from the more interesting correspondence.  By the time she’d finished she was down to about seventy emails, some that she would answer and some that could be safely ignored for the time being. The worst were those of commiseration from friends who had heard about her leaving London, and assumed that she’d had some kind of breakdown in the wake of Sam’s desertion.

She put together a cheery standard reply about working on a piece about the countryside and being able to tie that in with visiting an old friend and her family.  It combined cheerful practicality with tinge of truth, and through the wonders of cut and paste, she managed to respond to two thirds of the outstanding emails, and decided that the rest could keep whilst she read the email from Tony in greater detail.  It was long; with two attachments, so she dug out a memory stick and saved it all in the hope that she could persuade one of Lou’s girls to print it off for her.  She knew that she should make more of an effort to be green and save paper, but sometimes she needed the tangibility of a paper copy in her hand.

Looking in the mirror, Rachel felt that the pigtails and sea air had done sufficient damage to her hair and a shower was in order.  As she dried her hair, wrapped in a huge fluffy black towel, she also decided to make more of an effort with her clothes.  This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Mark was coming for dinner, and she in no way wanted to impress him, nor give him the idea that there was more to her than a clumsy, short-sighted woman with pigtails who might or might not possess at least one flowing scarf.

Oh, Rachel.  Whatever happened ‘to thine own self be true?’

She looked in the carrier bag and carefully extracted the watercolour, propping it up on the dressing table next to her laptop.  It brought back memories of happier days, and no matter what the stupid shop assistant said, Rachel could see that whoever had painted it loved the Village and the Square in particular.  There was a signature in the corner but even with her glasses on, Rachel couldn’t quite make it out. The hideous earrings hadn’t improved in style or beauty on closer inspection; they would do as a present for the receptionist in the office who had a penchant for the kind of dangly earrings that looked as if they could cause serious damage to herself or anyone nearby if she moved too quickly.

The green silk scarf was rather gorgeous though; going from pale jade in the middle out to vivid emerald at either end, and tasselled with tiny faceted silver beads that caught the light and sparkled.  She was tempted to build up an outfit around it but had a feeling that it might lead to a conversation about Damaris and her designer shop that Rachel now realised, from looking at the carrier bag, was called “Dee’s Designs’.  Something of a misnomer considering the only items in the shop actually designed by Damaris were the tacky painted glass vases.  Rachel felt relieved that she hadn’t allowed herself to be bullied into buying one.  

Looking through her wardrobe, she found the item she’d been thinking of; a sleeveless dress in a soft lilac which was fitted to the waist then flared out in gentle folds to below her knees.  An old Oxford blue cashmere cardigan that she’d found in a flea-market, and comfortable blue sandals completed the outfit, and satisfied Rachel’s vision when she looked in the mirror.  Her dark blonde hair hung in shining, newly washed strands around her shoulders, and as she turned this way and that she felt happy with the effect, but it needed one more touch. Rooting around in her makeup bag, Rachel found the string of amethyst beads and matching earrings that she had thrust in there as an afterthought, just as she was leaving the flat in London four days ago.

Finally, she was ready.  She tucked the watercolour into Lou’s picnic basket, locked up the house, checking all the doors and windows, once, twice and a third time just for luck.

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