I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
There she was again, as of course he knew she would be. Her white linen dress billowing gently around her legs as she carefully navigated her path through the newly washed up conch shells. This was the third morning he had spent watching her; her head bent down intent upon the task of trawling over every grain of sand.
Yesterday, after she had passed by for the second time without uttering a word, making it plain that she didn’t intend to even acknowledge his presence, he decided the time had come for action. The next time she passed by he would make the first move and speak to her. But now that time had come he wondered whether it was all too late, whether any intervention by him would now do more harm than good.
Watching her making her slow, thoughtful progress across the sand he noticed that there was real purpose in her movement. What he had assumed was thoughtless meandering he could now see was anything but. Wasn’t that exactly what she had always accused him of; assigning an importance to his own motives while at the same time believing all of her actions to be mere whimsy. Perhaps it was that that made him question his earlier resolve to challenge or provoke her.
The tide was out revealing the white, icing sugar sand, which stretched before him as far as the eye could see. When they arrived only a few days ago he had been surprised at just how vivid the colours of the island were; the blue of the sea against the white of the sand that lay claim to every scrap of land, no matter how small. The idea for a holiday, time to try and recover a part of themselves had been hers, as had the destination. He would never have chosen a Caribbean island let alone one that he had never even heard of. Leafing through the magazine on the plane he had been skeptical of that it boasted. But looking down on the island as they circled it before landing, his natural cynicism gave way to an almost childlike sense of wonder. Never could he have imagined anywhere quite so brazenly beautiful. In just the same way as a woman who defies one’s normal sense of beauty needs no adornment to commend her, so it was with this tiny island. The turquoise sea, the pearl white beaches; the utterly insane beauty laid bare beneath him appeared to be offering him a declaration; this is all I have but I defy you to want anything else.
That was three days ago yet he was still not reconciled to the landscape that unfolded before his window each morning. Just as the man mired in domesticity finds himself suddenly reminded of the beauty of his wife, catching a glimpse of her across a crowded room, smiling and unaware of being observed, so it was with him. Each morning, rising with the sunlight he found himself involuntarily inhaling with a sharp intake of breath at the splendor resplendent before him.
Lost in his thoughts and moment of hesitation he realised he had let her pass by. Quickly rising, he ran to catch her up. Her head bent low looking at the sand she seemed to be scanning every inch; turning over the debris left by the sea with her bare feet before moving on.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m looking for sand dollars” she replied without even lifting her eyes from the sand.
“Well you won’t find any here.”
As he uttered the words he was conscious that they sounded unnecessarily harsh, almost reproachful. Had he the chance he would have explained that the tide on this part of the coast was too strong, that he had read that the delicate skeletons were smashed before they reached the shore. He could even have told her where the guidebook recommended looking. None of that he had said and the few words that had passed between them hung in the air, stark in their incompleteness. Was that the way it was always going to be now between them?
How had conversation that sense of togetherness, of souls joined forever become just nine words, uttered in a vacuum from a well of loneliness?
He walked back to the villa without glancing back and despite having only recently woken up he felt overwhelmed by a feeling of utter exhaustion. Not the tiredness that comes from a few late nights, something that an early night puts right. This was something quite different; it was as if every ounce of life had been drained from his body so that even a sleep of a hundred years would do little to revitalize him. Climbing onto the vast bed he ignored the heat that already clung to the day and crawled under the covers falling immediately to sleep.
Waking in darkness he was disorientated, both as to time and place. Lying perfectly still to allow his sluggish consciousness to catch up, he looked at the clock beside the bed. In his confusion he had forgotten that darkness comes early to the Caribbean and though it was pitch black outside the clock confirmed it was still early evening. He had slept a whole day and alongside the shock at having indulged in such an act of utter selfishness, he was aware of nagging hunger pains.
Quickly showering and dressing he went out into the evening to find somewhere to eat. For the past few nights he had eaten alone, cooking on the barbeque or existing on takeaways, reluctant to join the throng of bronzed happy couples at the beachfront restaurants. Now he saw that the beach he knew from the day was transformed. In the day, the sound of children’s laughter attracted by the racks of conch shells sold at the water’s edge mingled with the doleful cry emitted by the shells themselves. That was now replaced by fairy lights and Caribbean music transforming it into something at once exciting and slightly threatening.
Looking along the beach the cafes beyond he could see that diners from a beachfront restaurant were spilling onto the sand, some dancing at the water’s edge. Walking towards them he could hear the sound of music accompanied by a strange bass rhythm, which as he got closer he realised was the clapping of the other diners encouraging those dancing.
Choosing a table close to the edge of the sea he watched the torches set along the perimeter of the restaurant, their flames lighting up the beach, casting shadows on the sand and providing impromptu stage lighting for the dancers.
He sat back with a drink and watched the revelry. Three men and a woman were dancing, the woman wildly as she was passed from one man to the next as in a dervish. Other diners were clapping and cheering as the dancing reached a crescendo. The intensity of the dance and the seemingly choreographed moves made it appear more like a ballet or an opera with the female lover thrown between the men before spinning off, alone, to the water’s edge. It was on one of those occasions, spinning away from the other dancers, that her face was caught in the torchlight and he realised who she was.
But unlike the contemplative, unhappy woman who had walked along the beach that morning, the woman dancing before him looked so young, so carefree, so happy. Laughing as she danced, her long hair, that had earlier been wound up tight in a bun was flying freely behind her. And once the dancing stopped and she sat down at a table to catch her breath, he saw her talking and crying out in delight at the conversation around her.
His food came and though he had been ravenous such a short time before he now only picked at it all the while watching her eat, drink and laugh just a few feet away from him. He knew that she was unaware of him, unconscious of being watched as those caught up in a moment of pure happiness often are. But at the same moment as registering that fact he was conscious of feeling a happiness of his own that she was uninhibited by his presence. He wanted to observe her just as the other diners observed her. He wanted to watch her unencumbered by the knowledge of who she was and what they had once been.
Her feet, as in the morning, were bare and as he looked from them to her legs, across to her arms and then to her face he saw that she no longer bore the scars of a body cocooned and swaddled from the cold of an unrelenting winter. Instead she was tanned glowing from the tender touch of the Caribbean sun. What had she said to him all those weeks ago? That they needed to shake off the malaise and drudgery of winter, that once they had some sun they would learn to relax with each other again, that they would be healed. Thinking again of those words he remembered laughing at her naivety; at her belief that all could be well again and that all that they needed to mend the rent in their relationship was a bit of sun, sea and sex.
That intimacy between them; the mornings spent in bed long after waking, reading the papers or their books before finding each other; that, just like the conversation had long gone. The times they had been out for dinner unable to wait to get back into their flat before seeking out the warmth of each other’s bodies. Even the selfish need, sated by quick, unloving sex before turning away and falling asleep that too had gone.
Nowadays, he felt that they were bound by nothing more than habit and apathy and that even that meager tie was bound to be broken. Wasn’t that the reason for the holiday, a make or break for their relationship? But watching her share a lobster with the others at her table, he wondered just when it was that he had forgotten who she was, when he had lost all sense of who he was.
Walking inside, taking care not to draw attention to himself, he paid the bill and left. Intending as he got up from the table to walk back to the villa and sink back into bed, he realised that unlike earlier in the day when he felt completely exhausted, he now felt alarmingly awake. It wasn’t simply that he had only recently woken up but that his mind was racing from one thought to the next, each fresh idea quickly cast aside in favour of the next and in order the quell the storm he felt an overpowering need for a drink.
Walking away from the beach he quickly found himself in unfamiliar territory. He walked from street to street resisting all of the noisy brightly lit bars and he had just decided to turn back towards the restaurant when he noticed a dim light escaping from an open doorway. Music came from inside but unlike the happy beat of calypso coming from the other bars this was the strained notes of jazz. He looked inside and saw that the bar had only three tables; each occupied by a singe man. Walking in he sat on a bar stool and ordered a whisky. It was then that he realised that the music wasn’t from a recording as he had first thought but was being played by a trio in the far most corner of the bar.
The other men drinking at the tables beside him in the bar all seemed lost in their own worlds, perhaps concentrating on the music that enveloped the tiny bar. And as he sipped his whisky he too found himself surrendering to the music. Jazz wasn’t a genre he was familiar with nor was it one that he particularly liked. Modern jazz he found too jarring as it tugged at his sense of reason, demanding to be not only listened to but also understood; both propositions that were utterly beyond him.
But this music was soulful, almost bluesy and as it weaved it’s way around the room it was as if it trailed an invisible net behind it catching all within its reach while at the same time taking every last particle of air from the already confined space. But while the almost claustrophobic hold of the music gave it the effect of being anchored in that time and place, he had the sense that it came from elsewhere; that it was being blown in from another place. And as he drank he felt as if he too became part of the music, that it touched his soul alone and was being played just for him.
The trio consisted of a pianist, a bassist and a trumpeter and each was clearly a master of his own instrument. Yet at the same time as playing as one with each forming a part of the whole, within that dynamic each player clearly held their own, none subservient to another. And although the resulting sound was a seamless blend of each of the constituent parts, as he isolated in turn a single instrument, it felt in that moment, as if that instrument held the key.
In the bar the evening flowed into night and the night flowed into morning; drink followed drink, as he was supported by the music. On the occasions the band took a rest he felt as if time itself were suspended. It was only when the trio took up their instruments again that, just as in the childhood game of musical statues, the spell was broken and he felt as if he could move again.
When he finally left he was surprised to see that the darkness that had led him to the bar had been replaced by the early sunlight that announces a new day. Looking at his watch he saw that it was nearly five o’clock. He had been in the bar for nearly eight hours; something he had never done, not even as a young man. And though time for those eight hours, entwined as intimately as it was within the strains of the music, had seemed without end, he felt as if he had only spent an hour or so in that way. He was also once again ravenous and spotting a bakery opening he bought some bread before walking back to the beach.
Tearing at the bread he thought about the previous night. Of her wild dancing, her happiness and the sign of total abandon on her face as she laughed and ate and of his own abandonment or perhaps relinquishment later on to the music that had captured him. Of what it was that he had relinquished he wasn’t sure but felt a sense that something within him had been changed.
Distractedly finishing the bread he walked along the beach to the villa. Unlike the night before the tide was now in and at times his path became un-navigable without clambering over the rocks peeping through the nagging water. Ever since he could remember he had been transfixed by the transformation brought by an incoming tide; how a vast expanse of sand became a swirling mass of crashing waves and though this tame Caribbean sea was nothing like those of his childhood memories, he still relished the excitement of picking his way back along a now unknown and potentially unknowable path.
Watching the ebb and flow of the water he knew that it would give him a few hours in which to rest before the carpet of sand was once again exposed. But even with that knowledge he knew that he couldn’t risk oversleeping and missing his opportunity and so he set the alarm. Waking, he showered the night from his bones and walked onto the balcony to wait. He saw her approach long before she came into his immediate view and he walked onto the sand to meet her.
Unlike him, she showed no visible signs of the night before. An appliqued cotton top covered her swimming costume paired with a hat and sunglasses. Just as yesterday she was consumed by her task, her eyes combing every part of the beach for the elusive discs.
He stopped directly in front of her forcing her to look at him and not wanting to say the wrong thing he almost blurted out the words he’d been rehearsing.
“I’ve read that the best place to find sand dollars is Pine Cay. If you like we could take a trip over there to look together”.
She lifted her sunglasses from her eyes and registering neither surprise nor anger looked directly into his.
“The problem is that it becomes almost addictive once you start looking” she replied and then, before moving off, she once again lowered her sunglasses adding “and as you are all too well aware, it is foolhardy to voluntarily embark upon something which you know will ultimately trap you.”
The words, once spat out by him during one of their arguments, hit him with a force he could not have expected. Indeed, such was their censure that he too was on the point of moving away when the picture of her dancing on the sand in the light of the torches flooded into his mind and he ran to catch her up.
“I don’t really care about the sand dollars but I hoped I might be able to persuade you to come to dinner this evening. I’ve found a lovely place just down the beach.”
Just as in a game it was now her turn to look stung by his words and she raised her sunglasses looking questioningly into his eyes.
“I have never been one to give up on a challenge or an addiction”, she laughed before walking away.
The last four days after that they spent doing the things you do on holiday; swimming, drinking cocktails, taking boat trips and talking. Talking as if they had just met. Neither of them was brave to broach the subject of where it was that they had emerged from, each aware of just how fragile the peace that had been brokered between them was. Yet at the same time they relished the renewed intimacy between them; an intimacy that was all the more real because it stemmed, unlike that of a new lover, from a shared history.
The villa which until then had the appearance of a house shared by students; each aware of the existence of the other but living within their own space, never meeting and keeping within strictly defined limits, was once again a temporary home. A single bedroom shared, clothes and swimming things, towels and snorkeling equipment scattered around the open plan living area and the unique feeling of abandonment that accompanies a holiday filled every crevice of the sundrenched building.
Leaving the restaurant on the last night neither of them wanted the night to end. Emerging from the front rather than the beachside exit, they found themselves in the back streets of the town and he realised that they must be near to the jazz bar he had stumbled upon that night.
He hadn’t told her anything about that night, of watching her dance, of having spent the night in a bar listening to music that spoke to his soul. But he had thought of it often during the intervening days and now, feeling its presence once again, he felt a desire to rekindle the feeling of that night. He also wanted to share it with her.
Agreeing to have a drink before returning to the villa, he led her through the streets until he once again found the bar. Looking inside he saw the three tables occupied by what appeared to be the same men as before. A band was playing in the far corner just where the trio had played that last time. But this time it wasn’t a jazz band but a quartet playing the island rake and scrape.
Uncomprehendingly, his sense of disappointment took the form of a physical pain and he expressed a reluctance to go into the bar. But without an explanation and having agreed to a last drink he was forced to follow her inside.
They each ordered a whisky sitting, as he had before, on the stools in front of the bar. The music meant that it was impossible to talk so they sat, each caught up in their own thoughts watching the band as they drank. Suddenly gripped by a desire to dance, he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her onto the floor in front of the band. In the small space between the tables he held her close as they danced. At first he felt her body resist him and the hurt and resentment that had been the bedrock of their relationship for so long once again nagged at his consciousness. But he kept his hold on her and as the music entered his body he felt himself becoming free of the fear and petty concerns of the past months. And then they became one, moving in time with the music. But, just as before when listened to the jazz trio, as much as the music enveloped him he gain felt apart from it.
The men sitting at the tables were as unaffected by them dancing in front of them as they had been before, allowing him to experience a freedom and vitality he hadn’t felt for a long time. After a while he moved back to the bar leaving her to dance just as she had that night on the beach. Watching, he saw that she had once again abandoned herself utterly to the music; a young girl emerging from the weary body of a woman.
When the music stopped she walked back to the bar and leaning against him, hot and tired but palpably alive with energy. He passed her a drink and smiled as she rubbed the icy glass over her forehead and chest before downing the amber liquid in one.
Leaving the bar they walked back across the beach feeling the sand beneath their bare feet. The tide had just gone out and so rather than the icing sugar softness they had grown accustomed to, the sand was cold and solid, their footprints more permanent than before. Just before they reached the path to the villa Sophie rushed ahead of him letting out a muffled gasp followed by a cry of joy as she bent down to the sand. Standing back up smiling she held out to him a perfect white circle. Taking it he examined the hard doily complete with its perfect cutout pattern.
Nothing could have prepared him for the joy he felt seeing the tiny, absolutely perfect white circle that lay in his palm. Bleached by the sun it had the radial symmetry and petal like pattern, the five-paired rows of pores he had read about. Holding it in his hand, all the time conscious of its delicacy, he turned from the disc to Sophie, suddenly understanding why she had been so determined to find something so perfect and so rare. Those that succeeded in making the journey onto the beach were often smashed to pieces in the process under the strength of the waves, their delicate structure making it more likely that they would ultimately become sand themselves rather than something precious to be claimed from it. Turning it over, he saw that its very fragility made it illusory almost to the point of being non-existent. Yet at the same time it felt very real, tangible proof of the movement of time and of change itself.
Handing back the disc that had once been a living, moving creature he understood that it represented something unique; a thing more sought after in death than in life but more than that it was something that it was more beautiful, more alive now than it had ever been in life. Turning away from the beach they walked up the steps to the villa for the last time. Looking away from Sophie Martyn caught the reflection of the sea behind them in the glass doors and realised that rather than the end that he had once thought it had been, this was just one part of the cycle of beginnings. He and Sophie were a constant, they ebbed and flowed and though what they had appeared to be something delicate and fragile he now knew that that what bound them together was stronger than either of them.
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