Hannah McKinnon's poignant story about a beach full of the left behind.
My friend Juliette is sitting a few yards away. She turns and smiles, so I wave. She's here every day, too, waiting patiently. We don't always talk. Sometimes we just sit in silence.
Juliette is wearing an emerald-green bathing suit. Her hair, long and blonde, blows gently around her face. She keeps saying it's messy and that she wishes she could have had it cut, although she looks beautiful to me. Her kind, blue eyes sparkle, but I see the sadness in them, even though she tries very hard to hide it. She's waiting for her husband John to come to the beach. She's been waiting for twenty-five years.
Juliette keeps me company, especially at night if I feel lonely. That doesn't happen often - I'm used to being at the beach now - and I'm not scared anymore.
"Gosh Megan, you look like you've seen a ghost!" Juliette teased the first day I arrived. It was such a silly thing to say, considering. We both laughed and have been best friends ever since, even though she's at least thirty years older than me. If John comes and Juliette leaves the beach, I don't know what I'll do. I don't want to think about it.
The beach isn't busy today. It's the middle of the week and the summer holidays haven't begun yet. There are people I see most days and recognise, and there are others who aren't familiar. Most of the unfamiliar ones are holidaymakers and will be leaving at the end of the day. The others are easy to spot, especially when they're new. They spend their first days at the beach in a state of bewilderment, just like I did.
I don't speak to many people because when I was a child, Mother always told me never to talk to strangers, and it kind of stuck. The day after I arrived, I asked a man if he had seen my mother, but he ignored me and walked past. Juliette saw it happen, so she explained to whom I could speak and who I should leave alone. Generally I keep to myself anyway and sit on the sand. I like how fine it is and how it slips so easily through my fingers.
A bright orange and purple kite catches my eye. A little girl is flying it with what looks like her father. She shrieks with delight and claps her hands together as the kite blows in the wind and her father laughs. I watch as the kite soars up in the sky, higher and higher. Maybe I could fly away one day, I think, but if I did, I'd be even lonelier. Besides, where would I go, and how would Mother find me?
My other friend, George, is by the water, jumping over the waves and giggling. He looks over at me and squints because the sun is in his eyes. Then he gestures for me join him, grinning widely. I wave at George, smile and shout, "Tomorrow." He gives me the thumbs up. I don't want to play today. I just want to sit here watching the sunlight on the waves.
Yesterday, George and I played tag. We chased each other across the beach as fast as we could until we were so out of breath we had no choice but to flop down, exhausted, in the sand. I know I remind him of his older sister, and I do enjoy playing with him. But yesterday I kept thinking that Mother wouldn't be able to find me, so after a while, I ran back to my spot, sat down and dug my toes back into the sand. And waited.
George is twelve. He's been coming to the beach every day for five years, almost as long as I have. The first time I saw him was three months after I arrived, and he was so desperately sad. He's waiting for his father, just like I'm waiting for Mother.
I was able to comfort George a little because he's here for the same reasons I am. After a few weeks, he got used to being at the beach. Juliette says that always happens when someone new arrives, which is once or twice a year. At first, people are sad - angry even - but then it changes. All it takes is time.
Not everybody stays. Some people move on right away, but I don't know where they go or how they get there. One elderly gentleman was only at the beach for two days. Juliette and I were chatting when we heard a shout. The gentleman had spotted his wife walking towards him and he'd called out to her, laughing and waving.
We watched them run towards each other, arms outstretched, ready to embrace. They hugged for ages before setting off together, hand-in-hand.
Just that morning, the gentleman had told us he missed his wife so much he thought his heart was going to break. He said he could hardly wait for her to arrive, and that he didn't think she would be long. After they left, we never saw them again. I suppose they have no reason to come back now that they're together.
Juliette's eyes filled with tears when she saw the gentleman with his wife. Every day she hopes that John will come for her. But what if he's in love with somebody else and never does? I couldn't possibly say that to her though. Imagine if I did and she stopped waiting for John and left, only for him to come for her. It does happen.
Our friend Alfred came to the beach every single day for seventy years. One evening last October, he gave up waiting for Rose, his fiancée, and left. Rose arrived the next morning and was distraught when Juliette told her that Alfred had gone. We didn't know where Alfred went so we couldn't help her. Those who leave the beach never say where they're going. Rose went searching for Alfred, but she may never find him. It's so sad. I don't want that to happen to Juliette or to me. That's why we're both waiting patiently.
I look to my right and see the young man sitting at the top of the cliff. We don't know his name - he won't talk to anybody. He sits and stares at the sea all day. Juliette thinks he must regret being here, despite it being his choice to stay. She says he probably spends all of his time wishing he hadn't come in the first place and wondering what could have been if he hadn't. I think we all do that. I know I do.
Despite it making me sad, I think about Mother and my brother James. Sometimes I think about Father, too. I wonder if I would have seen him again had we never come to the beach. He left when I was six, so I don't remember much about him and I can't picture his face anymore. All I recall is his laugh and that he used to swing me round and round in circles, saying I was the prettiest girl in the whole wide world.
Mother told me it wasn't mine or James' fault that Father went away. She said that sometimes people just don't want to be together anymore. Maybe I'll see Father again one day. Perhaps he'll surprise me and come to the beach, if he knows I'm here.
Not all of us are waiting for someone. Danny and Josie, for example, were both very sick, so they decided to come here together. The beach was always their favourite place. They sit on the same dune, arm in arm, day after day, talking and laughing. Danny told me they want to stay here forever, that they never get tired of watching the sun set together.
The wind is picking up, and the salty smell of the sea fills the air. My hair brushes across my face, so I pull it back and wish Mother was here to tie it into a ponytail like she used to.
Dark clouds are forming on the horizon, and I hope it won't rain. I don't mind the rain, and I never feel cold, but it can make the beach seem gloomy. It's easier to wait for Mother on a beautiful day.
A family arrives. They put their bags and towels, buckets and spades right next to where George is playing. He runs past them and jumps over their towels with a whoop of delight, but they don't say anything.
As soon as I saw them, I knew that they weren't here to stay because they each have an ice-cream. I feel jealous, because it's been a long time since I tasted one. They seem like a nice family - mother, father and two young children, a boy and a girl. They'll probably make sandcastles and fill their buckets with pebbles and shells to take home. I imagine that is what my life could have been like, if Father hadn't left and we hadn't come to the beach.
I sigh and look around, then smile as I see Dave the scuba-diver coming out of the sea. I like Dave. He's always happy, and he tells funny stories - my favourite is the one about a fish that got stuck in his wetsuit. You'd think he'd get bored of diving in the same place day after day, but he comes back every morning. He's been here far longer than I have. Dave isn't waiting for anybody. He chooses to stay. He told me that scuba-diving and being deep down in the ocean is the best feeling in the world.
"It was fate, Megan," he said one morning. "My heart was obviously set on me being here, and it made sure I stayed. Diving is peaceful, and I love the water. It's wonderful. It's the very best place to be."
Although I disagree, I didn't say so. Other than jumping over the waves with George, I don't like the sea anymore. Most of us feel like that. We're by the beach, but we don't venture into the water because it terrifies us.
Juliette never goes anywhere near it. She says she can remember the day she was swimming and got terrible cramps in her legs as if it were yesterday. Alfred told her he saw what happened. He said that John had tried to help her, but he just wasn't strong enough, and, in the end the rip tide won, just as it usually does.
I loved swimming. Mother used to call me her little water-baby. But I don't love swimming now, not anymore. Not since the accident.
When our boat capsized, I tried my best to hold on to something, but the waves were too strong. Mother was in the water, too, trying to swim over to me, screaming, "Grab the boat, Megan, and hold on!" I managed to push James onto the hull before another wave hit me and I lost my grip.
"Megan, Megan!" I remember Mother shouting. "Wait, wait! Megan! I'll find you! I'll find you!" It was the last thing I heard before the water forced me under, dragging me down deeper and deeper. Although I waited for as long as I could, I eventually had to open my mouth to breathe, despite knowing I'd be sucking in cold water.
Had I worn a lifejacket like I was told, I would be at home with Mother and James. But I had argued that lifejackets were uncomfortable and babyish. I'd insisted that I didn't need one because I was sixteen years old and a good swimmer. After all, we were only going out on the boat for a little while. It would be my twenty-first birthday next month if I hadn't drowned that day. Now I will be sixteen forever.
I've been at the beach every day since the accident. Mother said to wait and that she'd find me, so she must know I'm here. I have to be patient, because when Mother arrives, it means she's no longer with James, and I don't want him to be alone. She'll come eventually. She will. She told me. All I need to do is wait for her.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the young man on the top of the cliff get up and jump off, just as he does every afternoon. I remember the very first time he jumped and landed on the sand at the bottom of the hundred-foot drop with a sickening thud. I screamed as loud as I could, but stopped when he got up a few moments later and quietly walked back to the top of the cliffs, leaving his body behind him.
We don't know why he killed himself because he refuses to talk. He didn't even say a word when the ambulance came. Most people need comforting when they see their body being taken away. At least that's what Juliette and Alfred said. I wouldn't know. They never found mine.
The sun is setting now, and I watch the last rays slowly fading across the waves. Juliette walks over to me and sits down.
"Your mother didn't come today," she says, and I shake my head. "She will come one day, Megan. She will come for you. John will come for me, too. He will come."
I nod and stare at the waves until the sun disappears and darkness surrounds us.
"Tomorrow," I answer, lying down and closing my eyes as Juliette stretches out beside me. "We'll wait again tomorrow."