Early winter and the sun hides its face behind a mask of brooding cloud. We trudge up the empty beach in single file, a meandering column of two with you at the head and me at the tail. A slight pitter-patter of rain crosses our vision like a thousand ghosts of shooting stars that leave the stones beneath our feet wet and glistening and make our impractical shoes slip against them. Our progress is slow, but it doesn’t matter because we have so much time to squander on this day, to spend as we please.
The tops of silent seaside shacks are just visible above the bank of shingle; their occupants safe inland for the length of the British winter. I wonder if they are worth the expense, only useful for such a short period that is our supposed summer. Do you remember how it used to last so much longer? When, as children, we spent so long adventuring in the woods and paddling in the sea; building sandcastles that were there one day and gone the next, ready to be resurrected. Now each year the sun shrinks farther away and becomes more blanched. Our autumn comes on in overcast waves.
The waves: they crash on the shore like heavy thunder; throwing up spray that kisses our faces and tickles the insides of our noses. Even though it is bitter and cold and a wind cuts through to my skin, I still feel cheerful walking by the sea, awed even. A scientist friend of mine once said that the reason the sea makes everyone happy is because the salt water releases free oxygen into the air which makes you, in a literal sense, high. A chemical reaction is all. A biological process that we take to mean so much more.
I ask if we can stop to rest and you nod, your face softening to give me a smile and reverting back to a more intent look as you begin to scan across the stones. A rogue strand of hair gets tucked back beneath your beanie with a gloved hand. I saw it fall out earlier while we ate ice cream from the isolated van. I didn’t say anything because I liked the way it framed one side of your face.
While settling down onto hard stone I see you walk around in tight circles, following an invisible path which, from experience, I know means you are searching for something suitable for skimming. Still, I ask:
“What are you searching for?”
“Something suitable for skimming.” You reply without looking up (and that familiar smile becomes visible at the corners of your mouth). A few moments later you pick up a stone that is flat and smooth and fits snug into the palm of your hand. You toss it into the air a few times, flicking it with your fingers and getting a feel for the shape, then you pull your arm back and launch it with a practised precision that sends it spinning well over the white foam and onto the swell of that heavy, undulating ocean. It skips three times and then disappears over the horizon of a far away hill of water. I clap through thick gloves. You turn to me and beam.