by Katy Darby
He alights on schedule and without any hitches, though he’d been afraid of missing it: spent half the journey edging the hardwearing flock seats, ears strained for announcements, instead of ingesting the scenery and atmosphere like you were supposed to. The station’s half-deserted; a genteel riot of fussy white ironwork and High Victorian optimistic grandeur, carefully restored and maintained by a heritage-conscious Borough Council. But for all the gloss paint and hanging baskets of luminous geraniums sponsored by a local garden centre, the exit gates don’t work and a kind-faced woman in a green tweed coat has to help him with his ticket. Despite the whistling cold, she’s not wearing gloves, and her fingers are indecently warm as she hands it back to him and their hands brush. Being British, they both murmur apologies, smile forlornly, and avert their eyes. The stranger is a smart-looking gossamer-haired lady, about Ivy’s age: she would have been seventy this year. Two years gone and it still floods him, that quaking ache, every time he remembers.
People must surely know what happens here, he thinks, though he’d no idea himself until six months ago – but now he sees everything through the tinted lens of his newfound knowledge and can’t conceive of ignorance in anyone else. It’s like after he made love for the first time (to Ivy, only and always) and wandered through the next day stunned, watching the world with new-peeled eyes, knowing that almost everyone he saw could do, had done this, perhaps only hours ago: that this thing existed in the world and there was a conspiracy not to talk about it, like a great wonderful joke only adults were in on.
But perhaps they are all innocent, all the people getting off the train and scattering the platform; all the people on the bus and patrolling the seafront, even those late-afternoon wanderers spread across the famous sands. Of course, the deaths can’t be ignored – the lurid warning signs sentried along the seafront testify to that – but they can be dismissed as accidental, as blameless, by those who don’t care to know. Ignorance as necessity, rather than bliss.
The wind’s no slouch down here at beach level, scything in off the sea and along the railed promenade, bullying stragglers like a sadistic games master. Despite half-hearted efforts at protection – the promenade studded with cylindrical lookouts, half-Moroccan lamp, half-bus shelter, in which people huddle out of the vicious breeze, catching their breath – those brave souls still attempting seaside walks are nearly pushed off their feet by the blast. Hang on to your hat, as Ivy would say. But they’re all woolly and snug to the skull this time of year – beanies they call them, don’t they, nowadays? – not the sort of impractical, wind-catching hats they’d worn the first time they came here, on honeymoon.
He has a sudden flash of her standing against the high sun, one slim arm on the rail, the other holding her flapping straw hat to her head, laughing at the absurdity of it, and he doesn’t know if it’s a photograph he’s remembering or the memory itself. Either way, the onion-sharp wind chases any moisture from his eyes as he squeezes them against the afternoon’s glare.
It’s getting late in the season, but the usual shops are still open along the seafront: overpriced cod-and-chips, strobing arcades, bucket-and-spade shops with racks of shiny postcards and plastic fridge magnets, ceilings barnacled with inflatable rings, neon footballs and bright flimsy fishing nets for catching tiddlers. It’s tempting to linger, because though it seems that everything else has changed, and usually for the worse, here it’s just the same as fifty years ago, bar the prices. Sunhats and flip-flops next to umbrellas and ponchos: the eternal English seaside dilemma. But he strides on, impervious to distractions; things to do for a change. A man with a purpose. At last.
* * *
The first time he got caught in the sands he was eight, and he had never been so terrified in his life. Dashing across Morecambe Bay after his big sister as the tide sucked out across the great flat trout-brown washes, he’d suddenly sunk up to one knee in a wet bog, not two feet from solid sand. Trying to lever himself out on the other leg, he’d ended up with both feet stuck, thrashing and calling until Sarah skipped back to see what all the fuss was about. She stood limpet-still, jaw sagging – he remembers the rosy, nubbled gap where her two bottom teeth still hadn’t grown in – then turned and shrieked for their parents. His father, pipe still in mouth and red-armed from the day’s sun, kneeling calmly beside him, helping him coax his thighs from the sucking sand, one by one – never mind the wellies, son – though they were custard-yellow and gleaming new, his favourites. His mother’s trembling hand across her face keeping the scream in; a look of anguish and terror he’d never seen on anyone, let alone her.
He’d been scolded thoroughly, his mother’s voice hoarse and unsteady like she was standing on the deck of a pitching ship, then bought ice-cream; a mixed message he only understood decades on when he became a father himself. B; but, he’d never forget the sight of those wellies, and the rocks he’d collected, all flung out when he fell, sinking swiftly into the mire as though they’d never been.
Everybody on the forums talks about their first time, the first time they felt the pull – though it’s usually men a generation younger than him, in their fifties and forties, even, and usually they saw it first on TV or film. Some creaking B-movie: a cowboy suddenly swallowed up to his hips or even chin, lasso floating on the hungry mire. Or, less often than you might think, a girl: young and lovely (of course – it was TV, after all) bathing-suited or hot-panted, gripped in the quicksand’s embrace, her struggles only sucking her in deeper until, screaming and wild-eyed as a horse, she’s rescued. Or not. They’re not always rescued, or not in time, anyway, and the lists of films and television episodes and YouTube clips which circulate online have little asterisks to indicate those more esoteric scenes in which full immersion occurs. There are “sinkers” and swimmers, waist guys and armpit guys and some who like it all the way up to the neck. There are wet and dry-sand guys, jungle and beach and desert. Takes all sorts to make a world, Ivy used to say, but she didn’t know a quarter of it.
He doesn’t judge these folk, or blame them; he feels a little sorry for them if anything – though, late to the party, on his ancient wheezing desktop, he’s stumbled his way to the forums too, discussing, comparing, planning – so who’s he to dole out pity? Nearly everyone who posts is strictly a watcher (fiction or real-life footage doesn’t seem to matter; it’s all about the depth) but eventually he found a small sub-community of people like himself – or as like as can be – who swapped tips and leads for places to go. To feel it, for real.
He buys an expensive coffee from a morose, whitewashed beach café – the last before the sands begin, the final staging-post. When the young lad gives him his change, he fumbles it, old fingers already numb with the chill, and their hands clash trying to gather up the spilled coins amid a flurry of mutual apologies. He sits at the wind-scoured wooden trestle table outside and watches the light bleed orange out of the western sky. Hot, damp hands, the boy – probably embarrassment. He’s always surprised by how alive other people’s skin is , when they touch, but it’s always by accident: buying something or reaching for something. Taking a ticket or a receipt: he could count them on his fingers. He doesn’t make a lot of new friends these days, not even online. Can’t remember the last time he shook anybody’s hand. A fragile hug from his sister-in-law at Christmas; blown kisses over Skype to the kids and grandkids, oceans away.
He conjures their beaming faces, his son and daughter, remembering when they were handspan babies, tight little parcels nestled into Ivy’s neck. How warm they were when he held them, and skin so smooth it felt like silk air. She was warm too, at the end,; burning dry like a fever. He’d expected her to feel cold, clammy, in the stifling mugginess of the hospital; to clutch him hard like she used to in bed, or at goodbye when he went on business trips. B, but when he took her slack hand in his, it was smooth as a child’s again, and so hot he’d all but dropped it. Almost expected it to glow.
Two days of that, as if all the life left in her was blazing up, a collapsing fire, and then sleep sucked him in and under, slumped in the hard, blue vinyl chair next to the bed. When he woke again her hand was cool, and he folded it gently back across her chest and pressed the button for the nurse. Two years. Is that all? Seems longer. Everything does, these days.
The last inch of his coffee is cold. He bins it, cup and all. The lad’s closing up for the night; the neon sign stutters and winks out.
You have to be careful. Go on the beach at sundown, when fewer people are around, the light’s low, the shadows long and confusing. Take a walk, take a ball or a lead if you want to, pretend to be walking or looking for a dog. Wear tight quick-dry clothing, man-made fibres, nothing thick or woollen that can get waterlogged and drag you in farther than you want. It’s all about controlled risk: ankles, knees, waist, chest, it’s up to you – but don’t get caught and don’t get stuck. The beach won’t get you because it’s impossible to drown in quicksand – but the tides can and will if you’re too slow or too rash. Once you’re in deep enough, to pull out a foot takes as much force as lifting a small car. Don’t struggle; you’ll sink quicker. For safety’s sake, bring along an understanding friend if you can, they say, but he’s never imagined that’s common. Surely that’s the essence of the pull – you feel it alone, you have to? Besides, if you had someone to bring, maybe you wouldn’t need to come here in the first place?
He wanders along the darkening strand. He’s studied a map of the danger areas, poring over it in his reading-glasses, and thinks he knows where he’s going, but the sand will’ll decide. Life, luck, it’s always in the gift of the landscape. You could break your neck just as easily tripping over a rabbit hole or tumbling off a cliff; you could drown in a fishpond or a storm at sea. You can die at home or in an overheated hospital; you can go willingly or fight every inch of the way, but sooner or later you’ll feel the pull and it’s got him now, like a finger hooked under his sternum, and he can’t resist it anymore.
The sky is a stack of broad streaks; charcoal cloud, burnt-yellow above, rust-red below. The gulls squeal and yaw in the freshening wind. His footsteps in his sensible shoes plash and smack against the firm sand. Maybe today is his lucky day. In which case he’ll come back tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
And then the sand beneath his foot turns to water as he steps – that’s what it feels like, walking off a ledge, and he’s in up to his knees already – his chest constricting, he can hardly believe it, his macintosh spreading around him as he wades and stumbles and sinks deeper.
Don’t thrash, they say, don’t attract attention if you want it to be private, really want to feel the pull. Just let yourself go; let yourself be held tighter than you ever have. How she clutched him in bed, and at goodbye.