"You're much stronger than this," the guiding voice in her mind spoke with a sudden contemptuous clarity, pulling her back from the darkness. "Get a grip. Wipe your eyes, blow your nose and deal with it. Shit happens and it's happened to you... again."
She stared across at the broad expanse of ripple-marked sand and the unavoidable detritus left by the Summer People, savagely clawing back her self-control. The holiday hordes were now a distant memory, the small town just settling back into a grateful state of semi-consciousness that came during the winter months. By the long stone slipway, a man threw sticks for a half-grown black Labrador who considered the game to be the best thing in the world.
The dog barked an encouragement, its tail wagging with a mad exuberance that should have made her smile had she not been so busy with her own thoughts.
Two hundred yards away from him, a woman dug for bait while she smoked a pipe and crushed shells under her highly polished black boots.
The fragrance of pipe smoke vied with the smells of salt and sun-warmed, gently mouldering seaweed. They were both doing normal things, getting on with their lives. How nice for them, she thought, jealous that she was the only one whose world was about to go down the toilet. "I've been looking for you," she kept the tone light and half-teasing, desperate for him to tell her it had been a bad dream. A nightmare. A mistake. Anything. She still clung to the hope that he would kiss her and then say that it was a misunderstanding, an early April fool's joke or anything but the truth.
He was leaving her and there was nothing she could do about it.
"I woke up and you were gone. The bed was cold and the boiler's still playing up so that plumbing course I did was a waste of time. Mr Jones is a nice man but he's not a very good teacher." The flow of meaningless words soothed her, taking her mind away to a simpler place where reality was optional. There was a terrible sadness in his storm-grey eyes as he turned to look at her, torn between two very different worlds. He stood with his head slightly inclined, watching her now as if trying to take the hurt away. When he spoke, his voice was gentle and barely above a whisper. "I have to go."
"Just tell me one thing," she said, willing herself to appear outwardly calm and unruffled when she was screaming inside with the unfairness of it all. It was not fair but she realised that she could not make him stay with her.
"Do you still love me?"
He smiled and held her gaze as if it mattered that she believed him. He answered the question with a single word. "Always."
The noise of the gulls was deafening and grew steadily louder as if the ghosts of countless dead sailors were all talking at once. The sound swelled to a crescendo until it seemed to fill the whole world.
The summons could no longer be ignored; they were calling him back, calling to their own and he had already stayed longer than he should have done.
"I will always be with you." The last embrace was all too fleeting, heartbreakingly brief before he turned and walked away without another word. He did not look back. She stood and watched him go, feeling the emptiness and sense of desolation press in on her like a shroud. There could be no goodbyes. There would be none. It was hard to tear away and return to the old life of loneliness, every fibre still charged by that last kiss.
She walked back along the shell-corrugated, weed-strewn strandline, barefoot and not caring where she was going or that the sand still held pockets of water on its rippled surface. A shiny black egg case, the mermaid's purse of her childhood, kept company with a white polystyrene-like mass of whelk eggs. There were other treasures besides shells, a bleached cuttlefish bone, and numerous multi-coloured jellyfish like a string of giant's beads. A long-dead, partially desiccated dogfish stared at her reproachfully with gull-worried eyes but she was in no mood for looking at what the sea had left for her.
The sand was still wet and she left her footprints behind. One set traced the path of her return journey instead of two, a temporary reminder remaining only until the encroaching waves scrubbed the shoreline smooth once more.
Soon, there would be no sign that anyone had ever walked on the shore and she would go back to her silently brooding first floor, back-street flat and, in time, forget about her mysterious summer lover. The memories of him would blur with the passing years and eventually fade altogether. He touched her heart and soul more deeply than any other man had done for two years and she never even knew his name.
Something spoke without words in the depths of her being and told her that he had never needed one.
She looked out across the water and watched the waves breaking on the shore as he had done earlier. A sudden realisation whispered to her in her own mind in an intrusive and unwelcome siren call that was hard to ignore - it would be all too easy to wade out and end the pain of being left behind for a second time. The beach was deserted now and there was no one to stop her, nobody even to notice that she was gone.
Nobody really cared what she did. The man and dog had finished their game and gone home for breakfast. Small piles of disturbed sand and knocked-out pipe ash were the only signs that the bait lady had ever been there. No one would call her to return to the shore or notify the coastguard. Even the early-bird anglers, bird watchers, beachcombers, die-hard Tai-Chi enthusiasts and joggers were still in their beds as she stood on the shoreline and contemplated suicide.
A gull skimmed low over the water, looking like burnished silver in the rapidly gathering early morning half-light. The soft whisper of a wing tip brushed her face as the bird came close enough to feel her breath stir the pristine feathers. The meaning was very clear. At least she had that last caress to remember him by. She raised a hand and waved as the white gull wheeled over her head and then vanished into the mist, leaving a perfect feather floating on the sea. She waded out to retrieve the parting gift, certain now that he had left it for her. Fully clothed, she stood thigh deep in the icy water and allowed the waves to wash past her, letting the Goddess in them take the pain away.
The sea bird's cry of farewell held such haunting sadness but also a joy at returning to its own time and place. She understood the wordless message and no longer blamed him for leaving her. The feather floated a little way out of her reach and she pursued it as the elusive token of a lost love. As she held it over her heart, she felt the new long-hoped for life stir inside her for the first time.
A small group of turnstones piped musically across the ripple-scarred, glittering sand as the wheeling seagulls screamed their usual challenge to the world. She clutched the feather tightly and allowed herself a deep secretive smile. She stood like that for a long time with her own thoughts, playing with the ring on her finger. The plain gold wedding band was her only real reminder of her husband - two years dead and still missed as much as if he had died only yesterday. It felt like he had just popped to the corner shop and would turn up again with the Sunday papers at any moment.
They'd never managed to build a family, although it was not from want of trying.
The nursery they decorated together, scraping together enough money to buy the expensive cot, stood empty until she could hardly bear to open the door anymore. It was a cluttered box room now, painted a no-nonsense magnolia. Layers of emulsion obscured the friezes of dancing teddy bears and clowns but they were there. When she closed her eyes at night, Charlotte could still imagine the room as it was before three years of near misses and miscarriages ravaged their dreams until it was easier to abandon all thoughts of children.
He would have been such a good father. In her mind's eye, Charlotte could see Richard's face as he proudly cradled his first-born daughter or son in his arms.
He was smiling, happy with his new role. In an ideal world, this was where he would be, where he should be, not lying alone near Leominster. The family buried him in Humber Woodland of Remembrance with a mountain ash on his grave and a small flat stone with his name and dates. Green to the last. It was typical of him to care more about the environment than the people he had left behind, overlooking the fact that his loved ones had to drive or take the train to visit.
Richard Evan Thomas - May 10th 1970 - December 23rd 2003
Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.
The alternative reality was inviting and she gave in to the day dream for a few seconds, thinking of how it might have been - would have been if only the car had turned left instead of right.
If only the man had taken a taxi instead of getting behind the wheel after a night propping up the bar in the Old King's Head. Her entire world had been torn apart by a drink-driver who thought he was immortal. Three times over the legal limit and driving at three times the speed limit, he proved that he was all too human and took two people with him. Stupid bastard. She spoke her dead husband's name to the sea fret, letting the breeze carry her words away. Her long pianist's fingers traced the smooth, clean lines of the gold as if it was a talisman and knew that the child would be healthy. If it was a boy, she had already settled on a name: Richard after the man who should have been his father.
She imagined the ring falling into the water, carried out to sea and lost forever but knowing the luck she had, it would turn up again in a fancy London fish restaurant to give someone a nice surprise. No, she would wear a wedding ring until the day she died to remember that she had once been happily married, raising her child to be a marine biologist.
Aphrodite had answered her prayers at last.
The baby kicked again as the beautiful scent of roses wafted past her for a fleeting heartbeat - an impossibility borne on the breeze as if the Goddess was reminding her of her obligation.
Six yellow roses for services rendered.
It seemed a fair enough exchange.