On The Beach
It took Nigel a while to pin it down; just what it reminded him of, that distant memory of heady anticipation and freedom. Then he got it: the first day of the school summer holidays. The first day was always brilliant, but even sweeter was the last afternoon at school: reading any book you fancied; drawing pictures; joking with the teacher – counting off the light hearted hours and minutes until release. Back then, six weeks might as well have been six months or six years stretching off into the apparent forever.
That’s how Nigel felt right now: like he could do whatever he pleased; let off the leash. No nine-to-five monotony. No more living within slender means. There was plenty of money in the bank and he could afford to do absolutely nothing for months on end if he chose. For so long he’d been bound up in worries over molehills; now he could climb mountains – well, Goatfell peak on Arran was almost a mountain. In his mind’s eye he could picture it pointing emphatically out of the sea into the milky northern sky.
Over breakfast that morning, Kevin began to wonder if the jaunty Nigel sitting before him lightly humming an unidentifiable tune as he read the paper was perhaps a body-snatched version of the Nigel he’d known for all those years: the sensible and careful, apparently passionless Nigel who, since his late teens, was apt to burst the balloons and dash the dreams of others, diffusing them with dismal, grey practicality. The Nigel of old would have fretted over making a ferry crossing the Saturday before Christmas, imagining all manner of delays, deluges, wind and waves set to impede his progress. But instead, he was decidedly chipper and full of beans at the prospect of the journey.
The immediate plan was to take the drive north at a leisurely pace and then stay that night at a hotel he’d booked on the seafront at Saltcoats, travelling the short distance to the ferry terminal first thing the next morning.
When put together – and including his cherished Gibson recently received from Simon by courier – Nigel’s possessions didn’t amount to very much. Everything squeezed quite happily into his recently purchased six-year-old Freelander. As he moved towards the vehicle, opening the driver’s door, Kevin slapped him on the back and wished him luck, promising to come up and visit some time. Then Muriel stepped forward and gave him a teary peck on the cheek as he adjusted the seat, then handed him some sandwiches for the trip. Nigel began to well-up; the gesture reminding him his dad’s unwitting farewell. This was it: he was finally cutting the umbilical cord between his old life in Oxford, with its thick accretion of memories, and embarking on this new adventure.
This time on his drive north there was no urgency pushing him on; he could take his time and allow the South to recede into his past.
Nigel slept well that night at the hotel in Saltcoats and enjoyed a lazy breakfast the next morning before setting off for the final leg of his trip.
There it was again: the long, yellow van; the same Mercedes Sprinter he’d seen on his visit to the house with Flannery. Nigel parked the Freelander up alongside it and peered into the cab; just like before, there was no-one to be seen. The power cable was hooked-up again too. He’d dimly recalled Flannery having mentioned something about someone coming to look after the place.
Nigel yawned and stretched his arms, flinching slightly in reaction to a stiff shoulder as he strode towards the vehicle. He was convinced he could hear a subdued voice coming from inside, so tapped the side door gently. The murmuring stopped and the door slid open to reveal a woman greeting him with an assumed sense of recognition.
“Yes... how did you...?” he replied, somewhat surprised.
“Chris and Carol said you were due to arrive today; they’re away on holiday at the moment or they’d have come to say hello. I’m Zoe, by the way,” she said, offering her hand to his as she stepped down out of the vehicle. Nigel briefly held it without gripping before letting go again. He couldn’t be sure of Zoe’s age: perhaps late thirties, or even early forties, it was difficult to tell. She had a clear, healthy looking complexion; rather plain in appearance with no strong features, and wore her dark hair short; it corresponded to no particular style. To Nigel’s ear, her accent lay somewhere along the M1 between Nottingham and Sheffield.
“Oh, hi. Haven’t I seen your van here before?”
“I’m sorry; I know what it must look like,” Zoe said ruefully, while looking down at cable snaking across the gravel drive, then rummaging inside her colourful knitted shoulder bag. “I must pay you for the electric I’ve used. I should have spoken to you first. I sort of had an arrangement with Chris and Carol –“
“No, no; don’t worry, seeing as you’ve been keeping an eye on the place,” interjected Nigel, feeling an obligation to wave any charge.
Zoe returned him a warm, natural smile. At that moment he felt a distinct but inexplicable attraction to her and found himself smiling back, though self-consciously quickly averting his gaze to the floor rather than into her eyes.
“Thank you. But I should explain: this is my home,” she said, accompanied by a revealing gesture with her arm aimed inside the van. “As I was saying, Chris and Carol let me hook up here from time to time. In return I’d help out making up the guest beds; cleaning and whatever. I sort of spend a week here and a week there.”
“I see. Doesn’t it get a bit cold?” Nigel speculated.
“No, not with Maggie and our little fire... I’d better keep my voice down, she’s still asleep.”
At this dismaying news, Nigel aborted any aims at flirtation in response to this double blow of unavailability: that she was both already attached and seemingly also a lesbian. He chose instead to resume his routine of polite questioning: “Oh... right. I see. Well, my plan is to carry on using the place as a guest house, once I get settled in. I suppose it’s not so busy this time of year?”
“In the time I’ve known the place – it’s our second winter now – it’s always been booked up most weeks of the year, even at Christmas. It’s a bit sad to see the place empty like this” she reflected, while turning to stare at the building with her hands on her hips.
Casting around for something to say next without putting his foot in it, Nigel spotted a picture hanging in the van and decided to comment on it, in a whisper.
“That looks like the lighthouse. Do you know Mal Flannery?”
“That’s right, it is. I drew it in the summer. It’s charcoal. Yeah, I know Mal. Most of us know each other around here – it’s such a small place.“
“So you’re a bit of an artist, then? It’s good.”
“Thanks. Yeah, I sell the odd one here and there; the tourists, you know. I’ve got my own little cottage industry in this van. There’s the kitschy souvenirs made from shells and starfish that go well; they sell them on the front in town. It helps to have more than one job here: I’m a mobile hairdresser; aromatherapist; chiropodist...”
“No, there’s lots of people with loads of jobs on the island; it’s the way we get by.
“Yeah? I was kind of thinking about giving guitar lessons – if there’s a call for it.”
“Why not; give it a go. There’s a chap up the coast who has photography students stay. You get a fair few older people come here; you know, got a bit of money. Reckon some of them could go for that. So, you’re a bit of a creative too, right?”
“Well, I use to be a musician years and years back, yeah.
“I do a bit of singing with a folk band here; we should get together some time.
“Probably a bit rusty now, but you might talk me into it,” he responded, quickly followed by a remark to deflect any attempt by Zoe to commit him to any definite performance; he wasn’t ready for anything so challenging yet. “Right, well thanks for the advice. Suppose I better start getting unpacked. Looks like the weather’s moving in.”
“Shall I give you a hand?”
“No, it’s OK; I don’t want to put you out...”
“But the electric... remember?
For the first day or so, Nigel was aware of an unusual echo inside the large bungalow; the type of tinny reverberation that is generally apparent inside unfamiliar buildings until your brain assimilates the acoustic signature and it gradually becomes unnoticeable. That’s what Aubrey had explained to him one blustery night inside his study. He’d also gone on to express how the previously unnoticed smell that is often apparent when returning home after being away for some time “is approximately the aroma detected by one’s visitors”.
He missed Aubrey and hoped he could meet up with him again before too long; return the hospitality he’d so generously offered to him when he was feeling so down and spaced-out. He pondered on how so much had changed in just a couple of months.
Just like that night at Aubrey’s Lodge back then, the wind was now howling outside the bungalow. There was an unsettling flapping and whistling in the darkness as the rain beat against the windows. Sitting there poking the open fire, Nigel delighted in the whistling sounds out there in the night; it made him feel safe and comfortably cocooned.
Thinking back to Zoe mentioning Christmas, it occurred to Nigel that he had made no plans for The Day. Tomorrow was a Sunday, so he only had three more shopping days to go, as the saying went. The prospect of spending the Holiday alone didn’t concern him in the least. In fact, he quite looked forward to spending some time by himself, perhaps pottering along the foreshore investigating rock pools.
Apart from a run into Brodick for supplies on the Monday morning, Nigel busied himself over the next few days with the myriad little tasks involved in moving into a new property: working out how to change an LPG cylinder; organizing the phone and internet being reconnected; arranging home insurance; finding the water stopcock; mending fences –
the list seemed never ending.
Nigel was keen to get onto the internet as soon possible, seeing as he’d commissioned Graham to design a smart new website for the guest house. Now that he’d completed the refurbishments he would email some new photos for him to upload; the result enabling potential guests to see a tour of the various rooms and a panoramic view of the exterior before negotiating a self-booking page. When the sluggish broadband connection eventually delivered some sample pages, he was impressed with the job he’d done so far; easily as good as the one for Sabrina’s burlesque club. He fired her off a quick email to inform her the pages would be up and live on January 1st.
Christmas Day dawned lightly overcast, much as they’d tended to be back in now distant Oxford. Hopes for a white Christmas were traditionally raised a week or so before only to be dashed nearer the day; bookies generally avoiding a big payout.
Nigel downed two poached eggs on toast and a mug of strong tea to set him up for his walk that morning. Belly full, he wiped a crumb from the corner of his mouth, pulled on his wellies and set off.
This was his fourth wander along the beach and he was now starting to notice subtle landmarks along the way and spot anything new which had appeared since the preceding day. Today there was a solitary jellyfish, a plastic milk crate and a doll’s head that were being gently lapped by the receding tide. As he searched for a stick to poke the jellyfish with, Nigel tried to remind himself of the correct nautical distinction between flotsam and jetsam. He knew one related to objects thrown from a sinking ship and the other was simply seaborne junk, but couldn’t recall which was which.
As he wrestled with this taxing question in his head he became aware of a distant voice. It sounded thin and faint. He turned his gaze inland and saw a figure waving. He lifted his arm hesitantly to wave back, checking along the beach before he did so in case he wasn’t the intended recipient of the greeting. It was empty, so he beckoned the stranger with the heartiest arm flapping he could muster, accompanied by a spirited “Happy Christmas!”
An equally enthusiastic “Happy Christmas!” was returned by the figure. At that very moment Nigel became aware of a large beast hurtling towards him like a guided missile. As it grew nearer he could see that it was a very large, hairy dog. The waver could be heard shouting, “Don’t worry, she’s harmless!” As the creature grew larger in view and apparently intent on violent collision, Nigel instinctively took evasive tactics: sprinting ninety-degrees out of its path along the sands with a turn of speed not experienced by his legs since early manhood. Sensing some sport to be had, the animal jinked and homed-in on its reluctant playmate, resulting in thinly disguised terror from Nigel as he realised his sole tactic for escape had proved useless. Knowing the game was up, he fell to the sand submissively.
“Off... off! Leave him alone! yelled its owner as a slobbery tongue washed his face. “I’m so sorry.”
Nigel largely failed in projecting indifference at his fate as he rolled around and tried to push the eager woolly head away to at least arm’s length. Peering up, he saw a face loom into view, together with a hand covering it in apparent shame. Then he heard laughter. “Nigel, it’s me... Zoe. Meet Maggie. It’s not how I’d planned to introduce the two of you... I really am sorry.”
By the time Nigel had struggled to his feet and brushed off several areas of light sand from his clothing, Maggie had spotted a small terrier at the far end of the beach, so sprinted towards it, panting heartily.
“She’s massive! What is it? I mean what breed?”
Zoe helpfully pointed Nigel’s attention towards a collection of damp particles still clinging to his knees which he’d missed. “Yes, she’s a bit of a monster, I know, but still actually a dog: an Irish Wolfhound.”
“I haven’t seen one that big since... I don’t know... The Hound of the Baskervilles, or something.”
“You’re not the first to mention it. The other question I’m constantly hearing is if I’ve got a saddle for him.”
Once his heart rate had returned somewhere close to normal, Nigel’s mood lifted at the emphatic revelation that Zoe wasn’t necessarily spoken for, and was quite possibly heterosexual. They strolled the foreshore together, engaged in relaxed small talk until Nigel felt comfortable enough to use the opportunity in attempting to clarify her relationship status. “When we first met and you mentioned Maggie being asleep in the van, I though she was your partner.”
“What, you mean you thought I was gay?” Zoe put her hand to her mouth again, but this time it was to laugh. “I might have been off men for while but I haven’t quite gone that far.”
“Happily single, then? Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound like that...”
Zoe paused for a second to weigh Nigel up a little more. She noticed his uncertainty and shyness, but also instinctively knew he was harmless.
“I take it you’re not with anyone yourself at the moment either?”
Nigel spoke before passing the words through his head for possible censorship.
“No, but I guess I’m open to persuasion.”
“Oh, that line! I love that song... who was it?”
“That’s right. Yes.”
“I’ve just realised. We’ve come back full circle with the lesbian thing again.”
Zoe smiled as she looked down at Maggie and called her to heel. “So it has been a while for you, then?
“Does it show?”
“I sense you’re a bit of a lone wolf like me.”
Nigel was never much good at reading signals from women. And at this moment he might as well be negotiating Clapham Junction. He couldn’t make out if she was kind of interested and leading him on, or asserting her intention to remain single. “I didn’t use to be. It kind of crept up. But I suppose I am, yes.”
Reflectively, Zoe turned her attention to the hazy horizon. “Since I’ve been here, on this island, it’s like my old life was a film I’d half forgotten.”
“Was it a good film?” asked Nigel.
“Well let’s just say it wasn’t a happy ending.”
“Neither was mine”.
Zoe turned to face Nigel again. “I’ve got to know quite a few people since I’ve been up here. The outsiders often turn out to be like us: escaping from something or other; starting again for some reason.”
“Have you decided what your new film’s going to be about yet?”
Zoe smiled at Nigel enigmatically without answering, then extracted herself from their shared reflective mood by throwing a stick for a now bored and bereft Maggie and chasing after her.
A little later, back at the bungalow, Maggie monopolised the space in front of the fire as Nigel and Zoe stood above her, reaching out their hands to warm them.
“You’ve smartened the place up well. Looks like you’ve been busy,” said Zoe approvingly before placing one finger between her teeth and casting her gaze about the room once more. “Though, if you don’t mind me saying, there’s something missing.”
“Oh, what’s that?” replied Nigel, looking a touch surprised that anyone could see fault in his handiwork.
“It’s a bit... you know, lacking a bit of personality; no pictures or anything.”
“I haven’t really had the chance to get any stuff like that. No time. How about putting some of your work up?”
“Really? Don’t think I was angling to make a sale. It just looks a bit bare in here, that’s all.”
“Tell you what, why not put some of your paintings up, and the guests – presuming I get any of course – could buy them if they liked them. How about that?”
“Don’t be silly, of course you’ll get some guests. But yeah, OK. Sale of return. It’s a deal. What about your commission?” replied Zoe, with mock businesslike assertiveness.
“We could start negotiations over Christmas dinner; though I imagine you already have plans. Most people –”
“No, no. I haven’t any plans. Anyway, I’m a bit of a pagan; we had a knees-up at the Solstice. There are a few others on the island too.”
Several hours later, with meal eaten and washing-up completed, Nigel and Zoe had returned to the warmth of the fire and the still dozing but vigilant Maggie, seemingly having not conceded her territorial claim on the spot since their arrival. The pair faced one another from each end of the sofa and chatted as they emptied a bottle of local malt whisky between them.
Head now beginning to spin, Nigel’s empty glass tipped over onto the coffee table as he attempted to place it onto a coaster, which had slyly moved at the last split second.
“Whoops! Good stuff, this. Shame there’s no more.”
Zoe glanced at her watch. “Come on, Maggie. About time we called it a night.” Maggie remained inert, other than from one eye swivelling reproachfully towards her owner. Nigel was unable to disguise his disappointment.
“What, already? It’s only (he attempted to focus on the dial of his watch without success); well it can’t be that late, anyway. Why not stay a bit longer. Look, Maggie’s comfortable there by the fire. You can’t make her move now...”
“No, I think it’s for the best, otherwise I’ll regret it tomorrow. The van’s only outside.”
Nigel appeared crestfallen. He stumbled towards Zoe with open arms, obviously expecting a hug. Zoe acquiesced while inching backwards, but without embracing him in return; her arms steadfastly at her sides. She could guess what was coming next.
“I really like you, Zoe. There’s a connection, yeah; don’t you think?” slurred Nigel as he unburdened his emotions.
“I don’t know, Nigel; perhaps. Look, I really ought to be going. Come on, Maggie.” she exclaimed to her prostrate pet as she attempted to slide from his sozzled squeeze. Maggie rose to her feet and growled protectively at Nigel.
“It’s all right Maggie, I’m not going to hurt your master... your mistress, I mean. Mistress sounds naughty though... How about a kiss, Zoe? Just one kiss – it’s Christmas for Christ’s sake...”
It was 11am before Nigel awoke. He felt like death: his eyes hurt and his head throbbed violently; so much so that he feared permanent damage to his cerebellum. That, and he recalled more than one genuflection to the toilet god during the night. But it was only the beginning of his self pity that morning. Within a minute or so of regaining consciousness he remembered how he’d approached Zoe before she left, and some of the things he’d said to her.
“Shit and double shit! Why did I do it?” he moaned at the wall. “I’ve blown it...”
Once washed and dressed, Nigel girded himself and sheepishly knocked on the side door of Zoe’s van. At least it was still there; he feared she might have fled for good. Just at the very moment he thought she must be out, the door slid open and Zoe’s dishevelled head appeared. She shielded her eyes against the gloomy overcast sky as Nigel smiled at her nervously.
“Believe me, you can’t feel remotely as bad as I do. I’m really sorry for last night. I’ve never been able to hold my drink...”
“You couldn’t even put it down properly. Have you seen yourself in the mirror?”
From Zoe’s muted response and apparent lack of anger, Nigel sensed that perhaps all was not completely lost. “I did catch a glance. If a vet saw me I would probably be put down.”
“Careful what you say in front of Maggie. Look Nigel, why don’t you come in. I need to speak to you. I’ve got some coffee on. Do you want some?”
It sounded ominous, like he’d been summoned to the headmaster’s office at school and was about to be given a severe talking to for some misdemeanour he’d committed.
“Yes, OK. Thanks, I will.”
Nigel squeezed himself between an easel and some washing drying on a line stretched behind the driver’s seat and sat down on the small two-seater sofa. Wood smoke suffused the interior of the camper. Zoe handed him a mug of coffee as she folded open a small pine chair with her free hand, positioning herself opposite him.
“Nigel... did you mean what you said last night?”
Nigel hesitated. “Look, Zoe... I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that, I know. I hardly know you, and all that, and I was pissed. But, yes, I did mean it. I’m really attracted to you... I don’t mean just –“
Zoe leaned towards him and put her mug on the floor. “I know, Nigel; you don’t need to... There is something, yes. It’s just that I’m not into that entire relationship thing right now. It’s one of the reasons I came out here.”
Nigel was puzzled. He wasn’t sure if he was getting a polite brush-off or not.
“I’m sorry if I came on a bit strong and all that. If you knew me how I was normally, I would have taken about two years to say what I did.”
Zoe laughed as she ruffled Maggie’s head. “You weren’t exactly a lecherous monster. Look, I know we haven’t known each other long, but it’s enough to know I like you too. More than like; I can’t find the word... It’s just that there’s all this baggage I’ve brought with me; far more than this van could hold.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I told you, I’m not sure if you would feel the same way about me.”
“I think it’s worth it. Try me.”
“I’ve been in prison for one thing.” Zoe responded matter-of-factly, noticing an expression of relief cross his face as she said it.
“Is that it? I don’t suppose you murdered anyone,” he joked.
“I’m serious, Nigel. If you must know, it nearly was murder – well, in self-defence.
Nigel returned to his concerned state. “What... you mean someone attacked you or something?”
“My husband. I stabbed him with a pair of scissors. I got two years for it.”
Nigel opened his mouth but was unable to say anything. His mental processes veered between compassion and the concern that he was perhaps sharing a small space with a psychopath.
“Let me explain properly. Hear me out, then you can decide if you still feel the same way about me. Zoe paused for a few moments, looking past Nigel, touching her top lip with the tip of her tongue as she breathed in. “Dean and I were married for years before it started. We had a market stall; up at five in the morning and into town every day: unloading the van, all day in all weathers, then loading it again at night – this van we’re in right now. Anyway, he was a good man; why I married him in the first place. I was only seventeen. He worked hard, was great with Amy – our daughter; she’s living with her fella in America now. Good job and everything, and we never had any real problems; we were happy. It was a graft at times but we got though it – until he started to drink.
It was after the market owners bumped up the rent: we struggled to pay the mortgage, the bills; all of it after that. There wasn’t any profit in it any more and Dean didn’t know anything else. It must have played on his mind a hell of a lot. He didn’t sleep and he got more and more irritable. It’s when he turned to the bottle it all started. He’d shout at me and slap me for the least little thing. Then it got more and more violent.”
Seeing Zoe become tearful as she restlessly gripped the top of her arms, staring at the wall, Nigel opened his mouth, about to offer comforting words.
“No, it’s OK, please don’t... just let me get it all out.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, my mum said I should leave him, but I couldn’t; I still loved him. I thought I could convince him we could make a go of it doing something else; just give the house up and do anything... even come somewhere like this together in the van and start again. But Dean was too wrapped up in it all; the shame of it... I don’t really know what he was thinking, he wouldn’t talk about it. He just gave up in the end. All his anger at everything was aimed at me. For months I put up with the slaps, and his fist too; I spent a couple of nights at my mum’s here and there but always went back. I thought I could change him back to how it used to be.
Then one night Dean came in from the pub completely paralytic; had spent the eighty pounds I’d left in the tin for the electric, and completely lost it with me when I mentioned it; lashed out and smacked me in the face... broke my nose I found out later. There was blood all over me. It’s odd what goes through your mind: I was worried I’d never get the stain out of the carpet. It didn’t bother him, though, seeing me like that; just kept shouting at me that I was a moaning bitch and kept kicking me while I was trying to get up off the floor. When I did, he put his hands round my neck and kept squeezing. I don’t know what it was, self-preservation or whatever you want to call it; I reckoned he was going to choke me. I tried to push him off but he was too strong. He’d shoved me into the kitchen at that point and I had my back up against the sink. So that’s when I picked them up... the scissors. They went into his neck. I thought I’d killed him. I rang 999...”
Zoe began to sob. Nigel instinctively put his arms round her, with tears too in his eyes, and kissed the top of her head, trying to console her, but she pushed him away.
“I’m sorry, Zoe. I was just trying to –“
“That’s what I was trying to say,” she said, apologetically while sniffling and wiping her nose. “He made me like this. I can’t get close to any man now. It might always be like it, I don’t know...”
Nigel held both her hands as they sat facing one another. “I don’t care. I’ve got stuff myself I’ve been sorting out; though nothing like you’ve been going through of course. I don’t know if I’m ready myself for seeing anyone. Can’t we just be here for each other... no strings, yeah?”
“I knew I could sense some sorrow in you; I can see it in your eyes.”
Maggie uncoiled from her comfy spot next to the stove and ambled over to lick Zoe’s face.
“You’ll always be safe with her around, and with me.”