His eyes drifted over the lip of the Uffer, past the crab shack and to something directly in front. A figure gradually took shape, as if rising into form out of an upset pallet of paint. It was her. He recognised her a few moments before he knew it. He was looking straight at her. He wasn’t aware of how long she had been there, or at what point he had seen her, but there she was. She was standing about ten feet in front of the car looking back at him. She was wearing a black anorak over a bright pink skirt. There was a polka-dot scarf about her neck and a royal blue head scarf wrapped over her head. Her shoes were wholly unsuitable for the weather and he saw that she was standing in a puddle that was being whipped up in the wind about her ankles.
There was a prickling sensation crackling up his arms and over his chest. His heart has risen up to his throat and his mouth was too dry to swallow. Was it really her? Maybe it wasn’t her. Why on earth didn’t she get out of the puddle? What was she doing there? In a fierce onslaught of rain he lost her for a few seconds. When she appeared again it seemed that she was smiling at him, dipping her head a little and cocking it to one side, her face smudged in the blurred rain that sprayed across the windscreen. She waved. His hand juddered forward to turn on the windscreen wipers, but then changed direction in mid-course and went to open the door. He was out of the car and into the rain faster than he had expected, cursing his rudeness in sitting there so long. As he waded through the wind towards her he felt a cold sweat swarm over his head and down the line of his neck. What would he say to her? He stopped a foot from her and stared into her face. A bolt of pain shot through his chest as he recognised eyes he had not looked upon for a lifetime.
Reeling a little, a gust of wind took advantage of him and he almost stumbled over. He shot out a crooked leg driving his foot deep into the puddle she was standing in. She was laughing at him. He opened his mouth but any paltry words that rose up died in his throat. He was lost, and terrified, and thought that the wind would bowl him over at any moment. He took his foot out of the puddle and tried to straighten himself. She said nothing but looked back at him with an amused smile.
To relieve the drama punching in his chest he forced a sentence out but the wind carried his words away as soon as he said them and so he heard only their wooden echo inside his own head. She laughed at this though he heard nothing of that either and she shook her head smiling. A damp and twisted string of her hair danced across her face. Worn and heavy flesh drooped over her black eyes that were pulled back into her skull. But the sparkle in them spun like that string of dark hair, stubbornly joyous against the silvered fringe that peaked out below the headscarf. The wind roared. He cried,
‘What … What are you doing here?’
Her eyes danced over him and her hardened face didn’t drop from that rich smile. He opened his mouth again to entreat for answers but then close it. She nodded. Something stirred in the smoky pit of his bowls and rose like a bubble, stifling his throat. He could feel his mouth stretch and hers mimicked his as her eyes blurred into tears to join the rain streaking down her cheeks. He raised his arms and his hands gripped her shoulders. Bringing them around her back he brought her to him and held her fully against his body and they gently rocked in the wind. As if aware of awkwardness he took his hands back and shoved them into his pockets like a shy groom. He shuffled his feet and brought the left one out of the puddle. ‘I’m shaking like a dog!’ he bellowed at her. ‘What are you doing here?’
He took hold of one of her cold hand to take her back to the cat but she shook her head and gestured towards the Uffer. Without withdrawing her gaze she turned to the sea. He followed a few steps after her and they began to walk across the car park towards the beach. He took her hand again and was surprised to feel embarrassed at his rashness. Her palm fell easily into his. The rain spat in their face. As they walked the racing in his chest began to lessen and in its place rose up a confused sensation of joy that swelled in his breast and lifted his head, like a bouncy-castle slowly filling with air. The beginnings of questions rose up in his mind but were chased off by the next load before he could hear them through. The same happened to the following questions and together the whole lot made a merry dance of puzzlement and wonder in his head that took physical form in the smile that grew across his face, and in his fingers that gripped her hand the harder. As they turned to the sea his legs grew lighter and his knees buckled in their caps. The rain that splattered in his face was as refreshing as gulps of water swallowed when still panting after a run in the sun.
They made their way slowly along the path that cut off from the car park and lay between the woods and the beach. Like an awkward couple courting they stumbled along. They descended the crumbling steps down to the beach slowly, bumping into each other against the wind. At the foot of the steps they both sunk a little into the waterlogged sand. He turned to her. She was looking across the empty beach out to sea with an expression of rapture filling her little old face, blotches of apple-red emerging on her cheeks. Suddenly she let out a little yelp and stumbled into a trot towards the water, ungainly and crooked, she seemed to tip to one side as she went. He stood where he was and watched her go.
What would they do now? What must they do now? These questions rose up above the din in his head. Venture into the water? They could take off their shoes and socks and he could roll up his trousers to his knees and she could lift her dress up about her. Or they could return along the path to the hut for Krebbe in Brott … He walked a few feet into the beach in front of the steps. The trees creaked and strained at their roots behind him, and little branches were torn off and thrown about him on the sand. He paid them no heed but only watched her zigzag her way down the beach. She wasn’t making progress fast and had still not reached the waves which crashed less than forty metres away from the steps. Each trip and turn of hers he watched, each stumble and spin, trying to guess where she would turn next. And when it came, when she bent her legs to steady herself or turned her face up to the sky, a little burst of pleasure sprung up in his chest as he realised that he had known she would do just that, and this little realisation surprised him each time, and pleased him as much as the guessing. The rain had lost its ferocity.
He watched as a gust of wind snatched her headscarf from her. She went to catch it but it fluttered through her fingers and was taken out to sea. She began to fall to the ground and fear struck him. As she fell further from him he felt a surge of heat rising up and spilling into his temple. The confusion was cleared and he saw that he would lose her in the rain, and if he lost her in the rain, he would not this time find her again. He loped down the beach after her in great wonky strides, falling unstably on small rocks and sinking into the soggy sand. He reached her in a few leaps as she was struggling up from the sand. He took her in his arms, his hands clinging to her slippery anorak. She tumbled back to him and lifting her face up to his they kissed. The colour of her hair seemed now to reflect not the cloud above but the sand they stood on her, and as he pulled away from the kiss, he saw that her lips were rosy once more. The wind appeared to quieten for a moment within the great air that hugged him as he clung to her. Upon this plateau of wind and rain that he felt from his pink nose to his wet toes to her warm mouth, into this he fell.
Slipping apart they led each other across the beach, winding in and out of the shallows, the water to one side of them, the woods on the other. They grabbed and stroked each other both still unpractised in this forgotten gaiety, dodging the little Löcher des Strand with improving dexterity. The echo of jokes unrecollected rose again between them and twinkled in their eyes and babbling unheard giggles, a peace reclaimed, even though the planks and ropes of its original construction were forgotten. He noticed there was a ship out to sea. Walkers passed by along the path up, taking advantage of the slight repost the wind had taken.
Ahead of them they could see the barrier where the public beach became the private one. He turned to go back the way they had come but she led him on staring straight ahead. He smiled as the rain continued to splatter across his face, watching her closely, expecting her to turn back after the next step. They had never before dared to break this rule and slip under the wire to the other end of the beach. But she kept going forward with a broad smile on her face that broke through her attempts to suppress it. He didn’t dare look around to see if those on the path by the woods were watching them. Without slacking or increasing their pace they walked straight through the barrier. They kept walking in this calm fashion, until it was clear that no one was to going to call them back. Then, like a young child, or a dog that gradually begins to realise that you mean not to scold or ignore but to play, the thrill took over them growing, wagging, jumping and they scuttled farther along the path. The further they went the stronger he felt. He had left the shell of his frail and timid self the other side of the wire, and breathed deep gulps of wind on this new beach. He drew his hand through his hair and let out a whoop. She looked up at him and laughed.
This side of the beach was the same as that before but a little wilder. There were no benches here or indeed any landmarks to break the heather and rock that led up from the beach inland. The path stretched on in front of them, until it appeared to turn to one side in the distance, the like the curve of the horizon.
Stopping to embrace again he pulled her into his body and holding her face as he kissed he raised his hands and ran them down her smooth cheeks to her neck. He stifled her laugher here and withdrawing, saw that her eyes had grown serious. He loosed his grip on her but she held him where he stood, her arms slipping under his coat and around his waist. Now she came to him. He felt one finger wriggle its way between his shirt and belt. That finger pressed cold against his flesh and after it followed the rest of the hand. The other then came to join the first. Their bodies seemed to make sense again.
The wind carried to them the sound of a dog barking. They pulled apart and saw through the rain someone shouting after it. Looking back towards the car park they saw a dark figure, bundled up and hooded in the drizzle. In front a black dog was leaping, snuffling in the undergrowth and springing up into the air when the wind blew between its legs. They turned back to each other and giggled, her corn-coloured fringe dancing in the wind. Up the path from the way they had come a couple were approaching, an elderly man and a woman. He was wearing a stiff winter, khaki trousers and thick brown boots that threw his feet out of proportion with the rest of the body. He had a black scarf wrapped neatly about his neck but no hat, so his hair blew erratically in the wind. She was almost half the size of him, stout and wrapped up in a black coat and wore a bright yellow dress that blew in the wind like a veil. She smiled up at them as they passed as an indulgent grandmother might while the man nodded to them congenially and Anya tried to push away his hands that clung to her. When the couple had passed them they fell into each other again, she squealed and he chuckled guilty. The old couple turned back at them and all four smiled at each other and broke into laughter.
As a particularly ferocious gust of wind tumbled down upon them he jumped up like a starfish and howled into it. She fell to a crouch laughing at him and had to steady herself on all fours, her hands sinking into the mud. Seeing her glee he howled louder until she toppled onto the ground, and he fell down next to her. The person was shouting after their dog again. It paid no heed as it rushed towards the sea. Catching their scent it ran towards them, snuffling in their faces and trampling over their bodies with filthy paws.
Keeping the dog at bay with one hand he rose to his feet and she scampered up after him. And then, whether it was the wind that rushed behind them urging their legs forward, or whether it was in an attempt to mimic the enthusiasm of dog that ran about them, or whether it was to catch up with the couple ahead who were already disappearing into the horizon, but at the same moment, free of the aches and strains that had previously debilitated them, they began to run. The wind whistled louder in their ears, pulling their hair back from their faces that flinched and grinned into the rain. They ran with full lungs bursting to live, their hearts beating with a bouncing cadence. They threw their knees into the air and kicked out their feet behind them, all four limbs bending out akimbo like a gaggle of geese in a flurry. Their arms swung around them and their elbows knocked together until their hands found each other and clasped tight. Like this they ran faster and faster, pebbles shaped like little bird eggs flying off in all directions under their feet. Hand in hand they flew along the beach, flying down the path that stretched to where land became sea and sea became sky.
Bertie Digby Alexander