‘And White Horses Danced On The Shore’ – Jennifer Harvey

He is not the spontaneous kind. This is something he has always known. But things have changed, and so here he is, standing by the window in some unfamiliar hotel looking out towards the sea.

He’d phoned the day before. “Did they have a room? Yes, a single would be fine. No, just the one night, perhaps two.” Then packed his case and taken the train to the coast. The ache of the long journey still pulls at his muscles, ten hours by train at his age was never going to be easy, but the heaviness he feels throughout his body seems appropriate somehow, a confirmation even, that this was a journey which had to be made.

From the window he can see a vast expanse of sand which sweeps in a wide arc between the cliffs and in the early morning light, the sea has a silvery sheen that is as beautiful as it is intimidating, so he stays by the window a while, taking it in, floating somewhere between awareness and dreaming.

Because of this he isn’t sure at first if the tiny figure he sees walking along the beach is real. “Is it her?” he thinks. And he stares longer, face pressed against the glass, but he can’t be sure. It is too out of focus, too distant; more an apparition, a trick of the light, a wish, as yet, unfulfilled.

*

It’s winter, low season, so the dining room is empty, but just to be sure he walks swiftly so he can claim a table by the window, somewhere he can sit alone and look at the sea. The waitress welcomes him with an affectionate, tilt-of-the-head gesture, the kind the young reserve for the old,  a pleasantness he has come to despise because he has never considered himself old. Even now.

“We can keep this table for you, if you like?” the waitress tells him, as she lays down a basket of bread and turns over the tea cup beside him, but he doesn’t reply, just answers “tea”, in response to her “tea or coffee?” She nods and he watches her walk across the empty room.

“Why do you have to be such an old grouch, John Evans?” he thinks, “she’s only being kind.”

It’s like an echo, this thought, but he pushes it away because he knows all too well the many ways nostalgia can weaken his resolve. And besides, he’s just being honest; he really isn’t in the mood to be fussed over.

Still, when she returns with the tea he makes an effort, smiles a thank you, then turns away and continues to look out the window. The sun is higher already and it’s casting a golden shimmer on the water that is calming. And he thinks, ‘yes, it was the right thing to do coming here.’

But the waitress disturbs him. He hears her polite cough and though he tries to feign deafness, she hovers, waiting for something, and it takes him a moment to understand what it is.

She is carrying a small tray of pastries, a little offering, though he can’t think of any reason why he deserves it.

“We have so many,” she explains. “I thought you might like a little treat to start the day?”

And as she leans over to place the little cakes on the table there it is, a cornflower blue he hasn’t seen in years, a colour he has longed to see.

She holds his gaze and when she smiles he feels a memory rise in his groin, an old longing that quickly fades, but is far stronger than he would have thought possible.

“So, you’re more alive than you think, John Evans.”

That life could still throw up some surprises is not something he wants to think about and he shakes his head and tries to throw it off but she mistakes it as a request for something else.

“I can bring you some eggs, if you prefer?”

The banality of her question almost making him laugh. An egg, does he want an egg?

“No, these look delicious. Thank you.” And he lifts one of the sticky cakes onto his plate to let her know he really does appreciate this small kindness she has shown him.

In the quiet of the empty dining room, he sits with his tea and the pastries he does not want, and tries to ignore the gentle self-mockery of his own body. For some, that little swell of life would be enough, the sliver of doubt that keeps everything moving and ensures self-preservation.

And though he fights to suppress it, it comes just the same.

Are you sure, John? Are you sure?”

Nostalgia again. That terrible longing to head back to a place and a time when things were … were what, he wonders. Happier? Golden? Filled with possibility?

All of that.

Though it doesn’t help him answer the question. Are you sure, John Evans? Are you sure?

And he remembers the figure on the beach and wonders if she is still down there on the sands. If he asks her, she’ll know. Though why he believes an apparition would have the answer he cannot say.

“Oh don’t think so much, John. Just do it. Do it now.”

And he feels the strength of resolve in his legs as he rises and leaves the dining room. The waitress starting as he scuttles away leaving his tea and pastries untouched and she calls out to him when he reaches the far end of the lobby.

“Will you be joining us for dinner, Mr Evans?”

But he simply raises his hand in the air, and flutters his wrist, part dismissal, part wave, then takes the stairs, two at a time, up to his room to get his coat.

*

The path down to the sea falls without end and is strewn with tiny stones that slip under his feet and cause him to slide with almost every step, as if the ground itself is doing its best to ensure he never makes it onto the sands, nature aware somehow of his foolishness.

Overhead a seagull caws and he stops for a moment and watches it swoop.

It glides aimlessly and he sees the yellow of its eye glaring down at him, clear and sharp, hinting at an intelligence that goes beyond instinct, and he feels his breathing slow as he watches it tilt and swoop, the smoothness of its movement causing him to sway and exhale, so that he feels he too is gliding on the breeze.

He wants to close his eyes and sway a little longer. “It’s the reason I’ve come here, after all,” he thinks, “to feel something like this, some sort of calm,” but the bird fixes its gaze upon him and he hears it caw again, louder this time and more like a guffaw, as if it is mocking him. Its ululating cries ringing in his ears, “You fool! You fool!”

“Are you always so rude?” he asks it.

But the sudden emergence of his voice amid the dampened down silence of the winter beach causes it to tilt and reel away from him.

“Suit yourself,” he mutters.

For a moment he feels abandoned. He is alone on the path and will be alone on the beach, and self-preservation once again leaves him nauseous, the gut fighting the mind, right to the end.

But isolation is the point. Anyone seeing him would act on instinct, rush towards him and pull him from the waves. Assume such a thing could not be deliberate. Because who would choose such an end? Alone in the water on a damp winter’s day?

“I would,” he thinks.

And he says it out loud, letting his words scatter through the air, thud into the earth, and crash into the waves.

“I would, do you hear me? I would!”

*

The tremor of his hand had been slight at first, but he had recognised it immediately for what it was, understood the inevitability of all that was to come and decided, right then, that he would take control when the time came. Waiting for fate to deliver the final blow was never an option.

Perhaps if he had been younger, there would have been enough anger there to make him rage at the injustice of it all, but he had looked at that shaking hand and thought only one thing.

“At some point this will become unbearable. Is this the end you want, John Evans?”

In the doctor’s surgery, words had been bandied about. Words he had only half heard, and not all of which he understood. Neurology. Pathology. Tremors. Degenerative. Palliative.

Incurable.

That last one penetrating more than the others. How could it not? He had nodded and looked the doctor in the eye, made a good show of pretending.

 

But really, what was the point in listening? Incurable was the word that stripped all others of their meaning. The only word in the whole conversation he need absorb. The only thought he need contemplate.

And he’d found himself thinking instead about the magazine he had flipped through as he sat in the waiting room before the doctor had delivered the diagnosis. He’d thumbed through it but read nothing, stopping only to admire the photographs, one in particular capturing his attention.

“Get away from it all!” the exclamatory headline had shouted out, and he’d laughed at that and thought, “Yes please.”

But the photo also hinted at something else. Those cliffs with that imposing wide beach and the discernible chill in the air. The possibility seemed real.

Get away from it all.

For months afterwards he’d found himself thinking about the sea, and the way the sky in the photograph had opened out and extended to the horizon before bending away. The curve of the earth an indication that something infinite existed. You just needed to know where to look for it.

“Why not go?” he thought, “why not get away from it all?”

*

And now here he is, as far away from anything as he has ever been, and he is pleased to notice that it’s not the isolation of the winter beach, so distant and so different from the streets and houses he has left behind, which makes him feel removed from the world, but the understanding that this remoteness, this distance, exists within him now.

“You always felt that way, John Evans, admit it,” she says.

Had hadn’t noticed her approach. The rush of salty air around him and the fizzing of the waves had muffled all other sounds. But he knows immediately it is her, and when he turns towards the voice there she is, cornflower blue eyes and a bright smile, just as he remembered.

“I thought it was you,” he tells her. “I saw you from the window and hoped I wasn’t imagining it.”

“But you’re sure now?” she asks. He doesn’t reply, because none is required. They are standing there after all, face to face again, that’s all that matters.

“You look tired,” she says.

“I am,” he tells her, “tired and old. Why? Did you expect something else?”

And he watches her face for traces of what she really feels, the things he knows she will leave unsaid, but there is nothing there, or nothing he can decipher at least, just a flash of blue in those eyes of hers, bright as a summer sky.

“Too bright,” he thinks, “for a day such as this.”

“I didn’t expect this,” she tells him. “To find you here, on this beach; to have you come to such a bold decision so quickly.”

It’s true. He has never been bold, but he has always been resolute, and he wonders how she could have forgotten this.

But it has been such a long time. How many years now? Thirty at least. The exact number eludes him. Not that it matters, once the first decade passed it all blurred and became vague. There were many days when he struggled to believe she had ever been there beside him, that they had ever shared their lives, that they had ever laughed. And that is the thing he still finds the hardest to recall. The sound of her laughter.

And, as if she can hear his thoughts, she laughs out loud. Deep and bold and surprisingly alive, it rises above the splash of the waves on the shore and mingles with the sound of the sea.

“Come on then, John,” she says, “If this is what you want, then let’s go.” And she begins to walk towards the sea.

He watches her a moment, then follows.

*

At the shoreline the sand is wet and he feels the tug around his feet as he sinks into it, pools of water rising up between his toes.  He stops to steady himself and raises his eyes to the horizon, because the pull of the sand enclosing his ankles, makes him panic.

He imagines himself at the mercy of the sea, the water foaming around him, the tide and the sand pulling him under before he is ready. This is not how he wants it to be, to struggle against the forces of nature. He wants to flow with it. Lean into it and let it be.

“Angela!” he cries out, but his voice is lost among the screech of gulls, and he feels muted and distant as he listens to the last gasp of her name, as it dissipates and is absorbed into the landscape.

“That is how I want it to be,” he thinks. “I want to be absorbed like that, piece by piece, little by little. But not alone. Just not alone.”

“Then come, John,” she says. “Come.”

And though he knows it is nothing more than a trick of the imagination, some hoped for apparition to calm his fear, in the shimmer of the water he thinks he sees her standing in the waves as they break on the shore, waving to him, beckoning, assuring him that this is the way.

So he pulls his feet from the sand and walks on.

The water is cold and it draws a rasping sound from his lungs as he stands knee deep, adjusting to it. The pinpricks on the surface of his skin feel like little ripples of fire and he imagines how it must look inside, the nerves suddenly alert in the chill, the unexpectedness of events triggering another rush of vitality.

“Funny, the ways we cling on,” he thinks, and he laughs a little and draws a deep breath, then wades in deeper until the water reaches his waist.

He can feel it now, the numbness he has chosen, and he lies back and floats on the water, allowing the waves to lift and carry him, as they rise, then dip, a feeling close to sleep finally overwhelming him as he drifts, first above, then below, the waves.

*

In the dining room, the waitress stands by the window looking out to sea. She sees John Evans as he walks on the beach, waves lapping at his feet. A fine spray surrounds him like a veil and white horses crest and dance on the shore. And she thinks she sees him lifted by the wind and waves, though she can’t be sure.

She rests her hand on the glass and tries to touch him, reach out to him, but there is nothing there.

John Evans is gone.

Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as The Guardian, Carve Magazine, Crack The Spine and the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. Her radio dramas have won prizes and commentadtions from the BBC World Service and she has been twice shorlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a Senior Advisor and Editor for Mash Stories and a Resident Reader for Carve magazine. You can find her online at www.jenharvey.net

Copyright © Jennifer Harvey, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.