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It’s almost as if she’s a little girl again.
As a child, she loved the beach. She’d spent the majority of her teenage years in the Mediterranean, and her and her friends had often lounged about in hardly decent apparel, lapping up the sun and basking in the warmth like cats. She’d always been a swimmer, from a very early age, and summer vacations had been full of trips to the amazing place where the water met the sand. Her mother had lay on a towel and watched her as she’d splashed around in the waves, with not a care in the world.
But that had been back when things had seemed perfect. She doesn’t have time for the beach anymore, and the last time she’s been near one was in the name of the chase. She supposes He has something to do with her being there now. It has his name written all over it, and besides, he usually has something to do with everything.
Her hand goes up to shield her eyes, because the sun has grown white-hot and when she blinks she sees stars. Seagulls are squawking over an abandoned picnic further down the shore, and normally it would have annoyed her to no end but something about this wasn’t normal and surprisingly, it was a soothing sound.
She is aware of the presence of another behind her and somehow knows who it is. It occurs to her that she should be confused, even alarmed, but for some reason, she is calm.
‘It’s peaceful out here, isn’t it?’
Yes, she thinks, yes it is. She hasn’t been at peace in a long time and it’s an unfamiliar sensation, though pleasant to feel as if she doesn’t have to be rushing off somewhere, and that she has an excuse to wriggle her toes in the sand and close her eyes and revel in the cool air brushing over her skin.
She doesn’t talk straightaway because although nothing’s wrong, she senses that there is something between her and this other person. That she should be irritated, even angry. It bothers her, and she doesn’t understand.
‘Why?’ she asks, and it’s as if the words leave her lips of their own accord.
‘I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.’
‘That’s the story of our lives, you know,’ she says, and her voice is sad and angry and easy all at once. ‘So many questions, and so many missing answers.’
‘But we’ve tried.’
‘And look where it gets us.’
There is a short moment of silence, and both are thinking about the same things. About all the words that they never got to say, but should have, and everything they never did because they didn’t have the chance.
When she eventually speaks, her voice is slow and quivering, and for a moment she thinks she might lose control and cry, but she doesn’t.
‘I hated you for so long, when you first left,’ she admits, because it’s the truth, and she values that more than anything because she’d never had much experience with it. ‘You left me alone there. I was stuck in that hell, all on my own... I used to think that one day you’d come back, that one day you’d take me away with you... But that never happened.’
‘You can say that, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Not to me. Sorry doesn’t cut it when you take into consideration everything... everything that I’ve gone through.’
Waves break with silent fury like great white stallions against the warm sand, and the spray from their wind whipped manes is carried along the breeze to brush past her cheeks. She lets her eyes close again, and gathers air into her lungs as if gathering strength as well.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says as her eyes open, though her lashes remain lowered. She knows that it doesn’t mean anything, and that sorry just doesn’t cut it. ‘I wasn’t their only victim. But it’s just... it hurts sometimes.’
‘I know,’ comes in reply. ‘And I promise you, if I could have... I would have come back for you in a heartbeat.’
‘Things weren’t meant to be this way. They were meant to be perfect. I’d tell my friends that, you know?’ She laughs bitterly. ‘My mother had always told me that things would come good in the end, and mothers know everything, right? She told me that I’d get my happily ever after. Fall in love. Meet my Prince Charming. The closest I ever got to that ended up dead on my porch. I know now that I was just believing in another silly fairytale. That my mother didn’t know what she was talking about.’
‘I’m sorry,’ is said, though they both know that it doesn’t mean anything, and that sorry just doesn’t cut it.
There’s a pause, and then,
‘I’m sorry for not knowing what I was talking about.’
At this, she does lose control, and she breaks down and tears slide down her skin to disappear into the vast desert below. Her fingers clench around sand and her breathing is unsteady and when her mother pulls her into her arms, she doesn’t resist.
‘I’m sorry, Baby,’ her mother whispers. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Suddenly, she’s eight years old again and she’s wrapped in That embrace and nothing bad can ever, ever touch her there. Her knee is grazed and it stings a little but that’s okay because her mother kissed it and it will heal because a mother’s kiss can make anything better.
‘Make it better, mama,’ she pleads, and she feels the lips pressing to her forehead. ‘Take the pain away.’
And then she’s crying again, because she wants to say sorry. She wants to apologise for everything and maybe that will make it better, maybe that will help take the pain away because although she knows sorry doesn’t cut it anymore, it did a long time ago and she wishes more than anything to be back there where everything was perfect.
They cry tears of pain and love and for what was and what could have been. They cry until there’s nothing left to cry about and that’s when she pulls back, because it seems like the sun has come out from behind a cloud and everything is warmer now.
‘Stay with me, mama, please. I want to stay with you, I don’t want to go back. I...’
‘You have to go back, Baby,’ her mother says sadly, and already her voice is drifiting, but she already knew that, and she only asked because she felt it was important for her to do so. ‘You have to keep going.’
‘But how can I... I can’t take this anymore, not alone, I need...’
‘It’s all going to be okay. You just have to believe in that. I might not have known what I was talking about then but that doesn’t stop me from believing. You have to trust in yourself.’
‘It’s too hard,’ she says quietly.
‘Just remember. When things get hard, Baby, just remember...’
She only closes her eyes for an instant but when she opens them again her mother is gone and the eight year old in her is terrified. She scrambles to her feet and whirls around in desperation, running out to where the water comes up past her ankles and dropping to her knees in the ocean.
‘Don’t go,’ she whispers.
It’s exactly eleven days after she’s been discharged from hospital that she goes down to the beach. The long gash and stitches across her belly, destined to form an amazing scar, are a blatant reminder of her fight for life. She’s weak and often breathless and she knows she’ll probably be half the woman she was for a good few weeks. Only time can heal. It has taken her a while to realise it, but it’s true.
She goes down to the beach because once upon a time, perhaps when she was eight years old, that’s what she would have done. She goes down to the beach because when things are tough, the sun on her face and the wind in her hair and the sand between her feet is like heaven and two and a half rooms.
Many had thought she’d never recover. They’d seen her as unbreakable but the minute she’d taken a spin she’d been deemed a lost cause. A little over eleven days ago she would have agreed with them but she gathers air into her lungs as if gathering strength as well and she knows she’s getting better every day. The pain will never disappear but it’s something she can live with as long as she believes.
Believes, and remembers.
So she lowers herself into the sand and curls her legs beneath her. Her hair is blowing in her face and for some reason it doesn’t bother her, because she’s busy remembering.
She remembers swimming on the beach and at the lake in the summer. She remembers playing monopoly in the winter and playing in the park in autumn. She remembers cooking and dancing and playing the piano. She remembers time at school and time spent as a family.
Most of all, she remembers her mother.
Her fingers dance over the sand and as she remembers holidays away from home and brushing her hair and snuggling by the fire, she sculpts a castle.
It isn’t a fantastic castle, because she’s never been artistic in that way but art is an expression of self and she knows her castle is beautiful because her castle is an image of memories and hopes and dreams and it comes from the heart.
Seashells make patterns and remind her of the jewellery she used to make of them. They become the windows to the castle because she’s always loved sitting at the window and watching the world outside through the glass that seemed to keep everything at bay and only the love and security inside. Seaweed becomes a garden, because her mother had always loved gardening and she thinks she does too, but it has been so long that’s she’s not so sure.
When the air gets cold and she has to start home, she walks close to the water and lets it lap at her feet. She doesn’t look back but straight ahead, and she knows that she’ll never see her castle again because the tides will wash it away, and there’s nothing she can do about that.
But that doesn’t matter, because the tides can’t touch the castle in her heart. Not as long as she believes.
Believes, and remembers.