I came to this beach as a child, but that was before any of the bad things which would happen had happened, so it was another world. My parents smoking and arguing in the front seat as they searched for a park, me and my brothers jostling for space in the back, the scent of coconut lotion on my arms.
As an adult, here in the night, it was a different place. Black water under a black sky. The car park emptied out, the tip of the cigarette glowing in the darkness of the car.
“Here,” the man in the passenger seat said, passing it to me. I took a long drag and tried to remember his name. He’d shouted it at me, near my ear, as we stood in the din of the bar.
“I haven’t come here since I was sixteen,” he said. There was a story there in the way he looked out at the water, but I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know his stories. He was tall with broad shoulders and thick short hair, that was all he needed to have. Everything else had to be in my imagination.
I turned from him and blew smoke toward the open window. The salt scented air rolling in.
“When I was a kid, I used to love all the little rock pools here,” I said.
Nodding my head toward what we couldn't see in the dark. This beach you didn’t come to swim, it was too dangerous. If you walked out into the waves a rip might carry you out to the deepest ocean, leave you there to swallow the cold water, to sink beneath it. I’d thought about it.
I remembered crouching over the rock pools, watching the living things in their tiny worlds. Crabs and silvery fish, snails curled in their shells. Disappearing under rocks.
One afternoon I collected them in a bucket. Half filled it with salt water and made another tiny world in the plastic bottom, sand and rocks and scraps of seaweed. Caught up the living things in my hands and deposited them in there.
“You’re not taking those, Ruby, they’ll die,” my mother said, when she saw me carrying it toward the car.
“They won’t, I’ll look after them,” I said, looking toward my dad.
Those were the last days of him being able to be talked into anything, before he was just tired and pissed off all the time.
As the youngest I was always stuck with the middle seat, wedged between my sprawling brothers, and I sat with my arms wrapped around the bucket, watching nervously as the water sloshed around.
Back home I put it on my dresser and I watched as the living things died one after the other. There was no looking after them. It was not a world but a prison I had made them.
When they were all done dying my mother made me take the bucket outside and tip it out onto the grass. I watched the bodies of those dead things soak into the foreign land.
I cried and she said to me; If you take something from the place it’s meant to be, it dies.
I remembered her words sometimes. It was how I felt now. As if I’d been snatched up from the world I knew and deposited down in a strange new place. Yet I lived.
When I turned my head to the right I could see the lights of my own house, before the road curved around. Shining there in the darkness.
“So, uh…” the man beside me, the wrong one, said.
“Ruby,” I said.
“Yeah, sorry, it was loud in there.”
In the car, alone in the night, he was quieter and less drunk than he’d seemed. Something darker simmering in him. Less like Nick.
“I’m Wade, in case you didn’t get that either,” he said, and I didn’t look at him but I could tell he was smiling.
I took another puff before passing back the cigarette. I didn’t usually smoke, but I’d never turn one down either.
“You live nearby?” he asked.
One day the ever-encroaching sea here would rise up over the road and claim it all. It was the reason we’d been able to afford to buy our house, me and Nick. It was the reason I probably couldn’t sell it even if I wanted to.
“No,” I said, looking at my house. Beside it the darkness of my neighbours house. At nine each night, like clockwork, their lights snapped off. In summer Hazel was out at seven every morning watering her roses.
The only flowers I’d ever managed to grow out here were orange daisies, spiky leaves pushing up out of the matted sea grass. Everything else I’d planted had died, some of it straight away, some of it slowly. But Hazel’s roses flowered abundantly through summer in shades of pastel yellow and orange and pink.
“How do you get them to grow?” I’d asked her, touching a finger to a petal, like a tiny miracle out there in the sea air.
She’d shown me the trenches where’d she’d dug in dark soil, the shelter belt of hedges. She watered them by hand each morning, holding a hose over each one.
That morning when I looked out my window and saw Len out there instead of Hazel, I’d known something terrible had happened. I ran out of my house and stopped in front of him. He held up his hands, as if warding off what cursed thought was in my head.
“Hazel’s gone to visit her mother for the day,” he said.
Relief shot through me, the knife of envy following. Hazel was seventy-five and she had a mother to visit, she had her husband waiting at home.
That day at work I’d seen Katrina. I was standing behind the counter of the pharmacy, masked up, taking scripts, handing out boxes and bottles.
It was soothing, the repetition. The way I could focus on the names of strangers and medications. I looked up and saw Katrina come in the door. She looked at me and I saw her look, hesitate, look away again. Arrange her face in a blank expression.
“Hi there,” Katrina said at the counter, the bland tone people used for a stranger.
“Hi, how can I help?” I asked, sheltered behind the mask. Katrina could pretend not to recognize me; I could let her do it. I didn’t want to talk any more than she did.
“Just have a script to pick up for my husband, David Wells," she said. Her voice hesitated over the word husband, as if embarrassed to have one.
I was glad to turn away and go to get it. It was over a year since I’d seen David Wells and his wife Katrina, at Nick’s work Christmas function. Katrina had been wearing heels she could barely walk in and kept hanging on to the arm of David, who now needed his script for antibiotics filled.
I hadn’t been drinking that night because I was driving, and Nick was knocking back the tap beer because he hated work functions. He’d leaned over to me and smiled a blurry smile and said-
I bit down on the inside of my mouth to hold back the memory. The feel of him at my shoulder.
“Thank you,” Katrina said as she took her husband’s medication.
“I hope you have a good day,” Katrina said, and her gaze flicked to me before she turned away.
After work I’d stood in the kitchen looking at the fridge, thinking about dinner. When I looked out the window I could see straight into Len and Hazel’s kitchen. Saw them there at the table having dinner, sitting across from each other the way they always did.
I’d grabbed my keys and headed out. Sometimes I couldn’t stand to stay in the house and had to go out and drive, soothed by the swooping corners of the road, by the knowing that one day the sea would rise up and wash it all away.
I drove to a bar on the edge of town, some dark place where I didn’t expect to know anybody. Stood against the wall nursing a drink and warding off the men who approached. Not any guy would do.
When I spotted him, he was up at the bar, leaning against it and watching the room, as if he was slightly outside of it all. It reminded me a little of Nick. It had made me want to be the one he let in.
He turned and saw me watching so I held his eye and smiled before I looked away. He was beside me a minute later, offering to buy me a drink. I made conversation as best we could over the noise and music pulsing around us, the two of us there in our world.
When it seemed a decent enough amount of time had passed, I leaned over and asked near his ear if he wanted to go for a smoke. We walked out to the street where my car was parked and got in. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes at the same time as I produced a joint.
“I meant this,” I said.
“So did I,” he said, and grinned, so I smiled back.
I asked if he wanted to go someplace nicer than the side of the road to smoke, and he did.
Some nights as I drove the road with a stranger beside me, I imagined Nick could see me. Look what you’ve made me do, I wanted to say to him. Look what you’ve done to me.
“What’s that?” he asked, as I took the cigarette back, our fingers touching.
I knew he was looking at my ring, the glint of it in darkness. I always wore it still, and none of other men had questioned it. Didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“My husband’s dead,” I said. The words I used to say aloud as I stood alone in the kitchen, trying to believe it. I hadn’t spoken them for a long time.
“Sorry to hear that,” he said. But he didn’t really sound all that sorry. He sounded like someone who understood shitty things happened in life.
“Right there,” I said. Pointing toward it, the curve in the road where his bike had slid. There was the place. “Just over a year ago, he crashed his motorbike.”
I was sure he would want out of this now, but he just followed my gaze to the spot where my husband had died.
“It’s crazy that I came here, right?” I asked.
I wanted him to agree. Yes, you are crazy. Your husband died and it made you crazy because you loved him so much. No one saw that. All they saw was me getting up each day and going to work and paying the bills. There was no mortgage because his life insurance covered it. Like the lottery you never want to win.
But he just shrugged. “When I found out where my ex and her new boyfriend were living I went around and smashed the windscreen of his car in with a hammer. People do crazy shit sometimes.”
I laughed and then turned away from him again. I had to stop talking to him. I couldn’t pretend he was Nick if I was thinking about him smashing a man’s car with a hammer. Nick never would have done something like that. Nick would speed and crash his bike and die, that’s what he would do.
I shoved open the door and got out of the car, stepped into the salty air and the loose shingle of the car park. The night was moonless, the water moving in dark ripples. Left him behind in the car. I'd talked to him too long. This wasn’t going to work.
I wouldn’t be able to shut my eyes and run my hands over his shoulders and through his hair and let myself pretend Nick was there with me again. Touching me, on top of me.
I walked past the rocks where I’d played on that long ago day. Walked until my shoes were wet and even in ankle deep water, I could feel the force of the current, pulling the sand from beneath me.
“Hey, be careful here,” I heard him say. He was beside me. Standing in the water with me.
I looked up at the sky and the stars pinning it above us. After Nick died his sister named a star for him and she sent me a card with the constellation and how to locate it. I never did figure out where it was. Still, I found it comforting somehow. Something eternal carried his name.
“When I was sixteen my cousin drowned at this beach,” he said. There was no spot he pointed at, just the ocean out there.
“Were you there?” I asked, already knowing. I could tell in the way he looked out at the water, as if he saw it still. I hadn’t been there when Nick died and I’d never know if it was better or worse that way.
“I swam out and tried to hold onto him, but he started pulling me down. I let him go. I used to wonder if I should have let myself die with him.”
Sometimes I wished I’d died when Nick had too.
“But if you had it would have just been another funeral," I said.
“I know,” he said. “Took me a while to see it that way though.”
I looked at him, Wade.
“I live nearby,” I said. “You want to come back to my place for a drink?”