Seventy years ago, Alice and Oliver Bennett spent a day at the beach together for the very first time.
She was twenty-four, he twenty-six. Cornwall, April. Still a little cold, but they didn’t seem to mind, or they didn’t notice. It was overcast, but with brilliant breaks of sunshine every so often, and the stretch of sand was somewhat empty. A silhouette in the distance was walking either towards or away from them, who could tell?
They were so utterly distracted by one another that they needn’t have come to such a picturesque location. The sounds of gulls and breaking waves were wasted on them, and although Alice was palming away at the sand as they spoke, she didn’t really register its fineness, or its warmth from the latest swell of sun.
Oliver was talking about his family, a large family. Lots of brothers, a sister, countless cousins, aunts, uncles. Mum, dad, step-dad, no step-mum. And confusingly he had three Grandmas, or ‘Nans’ as he called them, and three Grandads, due to divorce and re-marriage. He said he didn’t believe in divorce, and having grown up seeing so much of it, it was one of his greatest fears.
Alice confessed with a scoff of laughter that her biggest fear was dogs. She told Oliver of how she would cross the street to avoid even the smallest, fluffiest of canines, and how a walk through the park would fill her with anxiety. Oliver watched colour spread fast across her rounded cheeks and cat-like nose. Her sudden red complexion clashed against her white-blonde curls.
“I can’t swim!” he announced, in a lively effort to ease her embarrassment. “Lived on the coast all my life, and still, the sea…” His bottom lip jutted and he shook his head, eyes on the waves, “Terrifies me.”
“So, you brought me to the beach?” she quizzed, suppressing a mocking smile. He scratched at his tufty, brown hair for a second before breaking into laughter with her.
The silhouette moving along the water’s edge was now noticeably larger, confirming that it must have indeed been coming towards them all this time. A man, judging by the shape. Another, smaller silhouette was now visible, toddling alongside him. A child? No. Four legs. Details were becoming ever clearer. A cat, Alice hoped. And the colour finally drained from her face.
The Border Terrier came bounding towards the sitting couple. In an automatic display of fight or flight, Alice made to spring to her feet from her crossed-legged position. Her heel caught the bottom of her skirt as she did so, pulling it down a little so that her pants showed. She tripped over herself, falling backwards into the sand, exciting the hurtling dog even more. Its legs and tongue flailed as it raced ever closer.
“Stirfry!” shouted the faceless dog owner, breaking into a jog towards them. Oliver watched as the scene unfolded in slow motion before him. The dog is called Stirfry? He thought. After a beat, he rose to his feet and helped Alice to hers.
“Stirfry, come here!” The man cried in almost a bark, perhaps to better engage the excitable dog. “Sorry love,” he said, “He’s harmless, really.” And the colour returned to Alice’s cheeks once more. She was beginning to feel like a traffic light.
The man and his little beast had gone, but Alice was struggling to look Oliver in the eye. They could both hear the waves and gulls now.
“Stirfry?” Oliver said, finally breaking the silence, “That can’t be a dog’s name, can it?” He could see a smile forming on Alice’s face, so he carried on, “Stirfry, sit! Stirfry, fetch!” They both chuckled. “He must have left Teppanyaki at home today!” Alice was laughing, but still a little tense, still staring down at the sand. There was only one thing for it. Oliver began removing his shirt.
“What are you doing?” Alice asked, looking up at him at last.
“Why should I sit here, right as rain, when you’ve just been traumatised? You must be having a terrible day. And that just isn’t right, or fair, now is it?” He kicked off his shoes, and hopped out of his jeans. “There, now you’ve seen my pants too.” Alice smiled.
He moved with such athleticism, his body taught and nimble. Alice realised in that moment that she quite fancied him.
“Now I just need to confront a fear,” he continued, hands on his hips, scanning his surroundings, “I’m not married… yet…” He stole a cheeky glance at her, “so divorce is off the cards…” He looked across to the ocean, his shoulders becoming tense as the sun took residence behind a thick cloud. “Would you care to join me, Madame?” He said, lending Alice an outstretched hand.
She looked at the hand, then at the sea.
“What? In there?! You must be mad, you’ll catch a death!”
“You’re perfectly welcome to spectate if I can’t tempt you.” They lingered a moment.
“Sod it.” she said, accepting his hand, and stripping off.
The half-naked pair sauntered down to the water’s edge, fingers interlaced.
“If I back out now, will it spoil the romance?” he breathed.
Alice threw her head backwards in laughter.
“Don’t cry,” she said good-humouredly, “I’ll teach you.”
“Can you cry underwater?” he quipped.
Alice was never much of a crier.
She didn’t cry when her mother drank, or when her father shouted. No tear was shed when her rabbit, Maxie, died – though she was sad – or when she left home aged eighteen. She put blood, sweat, but no tears, into her photography degree, from which she emerged with first-class honours. Not even the smallest pool formed in the corner of her eye throughout the string of early-twenties heartbreaks. Her cheeks rose into a plump, wholesome smile, yet remained dry when Oliver proposed to her, and her lip was stiff on her wedding day. This is not to say that the emotion was not there. She loved him dearly and completely.
They cried together when their first and only child, Billy, was born. A water birth. He did not cry underwater. He made the tuneful announcement of his own arrival only once he had surfaced in the new, dry surroundings that would house him for eight short years.
But Billy was forever a water baby. Growing up by the sea, he learned to swim early. Breast stroke was his favourite. His long limbs gave him an advantage over the other kids, and he overexaggerated his movements to such an extreme in an effort to be the fastest, it was comical to see. Billy interpreted the grown ups’ amusement for awe, and he was very pleased with himself.
“I think he must have been a frog in a previous life!” he heard his aunty Helen say to his dad one day.
He proceeded to strut around for the rest of the afternoon with a proud little hop in his step, and from then on, he would always tuck his knees to his armpits and say “Ribbit!” mid-air as he jumped into the school pool. It irritated the formidable Mrs. Flynn no end, but Alice and Oliver chuckled every time, watching from the poolside, feeling blessed.
He was learning the butterfly when they got the diagnosis and quickly lost the energy to practice. He never perfected it.
Soon, his only contact with the sea consisted of a painfully slow walk along the coast, every Sunday, paddling his feet in the shallows. It would break Alice’s heart to see the look on his face as he studied the thrashing waves. She had a few haunting photographs of these moments, trying to capture every bit of him while she still could.
Even at such a young age, it was clear Billy understood that his freedom stopped when the water reached mid-calf level. He understood that even the small waves were stronger than him now, and that he would never fulfil his dream of snorkelling along the ‘Great Barry Reef’. And the worst part was that he accepted these facts without ever complaining, or asking why.
Billy would stand in between Alice and Oliver, as they each held one of his hands, every so often swinging him into the air. Not too often. Having witnessed Billy’s life as a series of dramatic growth spurts, it was surreal for the couple to suddenly see him become smaller and smaller. As if time was going backwards (they could only dream). Would he just continue to shrink until he eventually disappeared? Was that how it worked?
Alice could not accept that their happy little child would simply stop being. He was such an important addition to the world. His shadow, rippled in the sand, was confirmation that light had travelled nearly ninety-three million miles unobstructed, only to be deprived of reaching the ground in the final few feet, thanks to his very existence. That had to count for something.
Alice’s eyes would water and she would blame it on the wind. Then she would run to the public toilets on the promenade and cry with the taps running, every week. Those were her moments.
In the final months, Alice maintained an unwaveringly brave face, as she read her son stories about little lost boys and girls that never ever grew up, but instead lived out infinite adventures in a magical realm with pirates and fairies and crocodiles. She omitted the ticking clocks that featured in the tale, because time seemed far too real a concept for a dying child.
Oliver requested that he be permitted to paint mural of the Great Barrier Reef across the wall on Billy’s ward. The doctors and nurses, who had become fond of the family, were happy to oblige.
Billy awoke on the morning of his eighth birthday in a marvellous underwater kingdom. Every night after that he would escape into subaquatic dreams, disconnected from monitors and drips, breathing through gills and befriending fish. A world where there were castles made of coral, and the word Leukaemia did not exist. One night, three weeks later, Billy decided that this was where he wished to stay. And so he did.
That same year, a man named Dr Nigel Alastor announced an unprecedented series of scientific and biomedical breakthroughs, which included the formulation of a single treatment applicable to all forms of cancer. It had a ninety-seven per cent success rate in human trials. Alice and Oliver Bennett could do no more than watch as their child slipped away from them, in-between unrelenting newscasts about the treatment’s FDA approval and upcoming release for UK patients. They were now mourning in-between the yet more relentless sensationalist newscasts of miracle recoveries.
It didn’t feel right that Billy be buried in a box in the ground. Even at night he would never lie still. For all the years that he was able, he had energy bursting from every pore.
The possibility of a cremation was discussed during some of the thin and inconceivable conversations that took place between Alice and Oliver in the week following their son’s passing. And after viewing a child-size coffin, their minds were made up. It was a silent agreement. They kept the image of that little black box locked inside another little black box, and never spoke of it again.
After a hundred sorry-for-your-losses from a hundred people who had no faces, the couple took most of Billy home in an urn. Oliver drove in silence, not taking his eyes off the road, as Alice struggled with how to hold it. Him. Like a vase? Like a new-born baby? She settled somewhere in-between, trying to warm the brass with her even colder hands.
They waited for the perfect weather before finally visiting the beach with his ashes. Not too hot, not too cold. Billy always said those kinds of days were his favourite. When the sky was scattered with those little stepping-stone clouds, and the sun’s brightness would undulate.
The couple instinctively stopped walking at the same time. The beach was empty. Alice was still holding the urn somewhat like a vase, somewhat like a baby.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said.
“Anything.” Oliver replied. They were both looking through squinted eyes at the vibrating horizon.
“…I will,” Oliver said, reaching across to take the ashes. “We’ll keep it short and sweet for you, bud. I know you have the attention span of a fish.”
Oliver’s heart warmed at the first sight of a smile on Alice’s face since it happened, and he pulled her close. For a moment, the three of them were a unit again.
“Me and mummy love you, Billy. And we’ll always be here for you. We know you’ll be heading straight for the sea, working on that butterfly. So if you ever need anything, or just wanna say hi… all you have to do is, wave.” Alice rolled her glassy eyes, and they both laughed through sobs. “We’ll be listening, mate,” Oliver finished.
“Love you forever, sweetheart,” Alice choked, kissing her hand and placing it on the brass. She and Oliver exchanged a look to say that it was time.
The lid made a tinny scraping sound as Oliver twisted it loose. It was the first time either of them had looked inside. They did the first one together, using one hand each to form a scoop, and letting the wind lift the ashes slowly from their fingers, just like sand.
It felt awkward and unmagical at first, which was not what they were expecting. They were waiting for some kind of transcendental moment of peace and liberation. What came instead was a sense of duty, to carry out the last thing that they would ever do for their son, and to do it right.
They were taking their own palmfuls now, scattering some in the sea, some on the sand, and some aimlessly into the air, letting him make his own choice. They continued along the stretch of sand for about a mile until there was only a little ash left. Each taking one last handful, they stood on the water’s edge, counted to three, and threw them into the air. Alice shouted “Ribbit!” as pieces gravitated into the sea, and the pair laughed freely. A larger-than-usual wave crashed, and Oliver waved back.
“Bye, buddy.” He said, and they walked back up to the dry sand to sit down.
“You know,” Alice said, fondling the sand, “We come here all the time, and I’ve never taken a photograph of this part of the beach that didn’t immediately get deleted.”
“Why?” Oliver asked.
“No matter what I try, I just can’t seem to fit it all in.”
“But I bought you that extra wide lens for your birthday a few years back.”
“That’s not really what I meant.” Alice said, transfixed on the horizon once more.
Oliver wrapped his arm around her, and together they watched the last of the ashes disappear. Billy became part of the sand, warming the in-betweens of their toes. Part of the sky, playing hopscotch on the clouds. And part of the sea, mid-calf level and beyond.
“Not really.” Oliver slurred, heavy-eyed, upon being asked if he would like to go for walk. Alice stooped, searching his face, trying to locate him. She quickly straightened up when the intermingling scents of scotch, English mustard, and liquorice flavoured e-cigarette vapour became too much.
“No, of course not.” Alice bit, deciding that she really didn’t want him staggering beside or behind her this time anyway. Oliver watched her leave, half consciously, his vision swimming in and out of darkness. Then he fell asleep, and dreamt of a walk along the beach, of Billy, a dog, a death, a divorce.
Alice hated it when he was like this. At first, he was sad in the way he was meant to be. With her, not against her. The first twelve months were like a period of suspended reality. Going through the motions, waiting for that one-year mark, as if it were somehow going to bring him back. When that had been and gone, the finality crept in. Then it was just forever.
There was something about being in his forties and childless that changed Oliver. He had always been the man who helped Alice to her feet when she had been near savaged by one of life’s beasts. A Border Terrier. The word SON in white chrysanthemums and baby blue ribbon. Both had brought her sinking to the ground, sand in her pants one day, mud on her knees the next. Oliver was always clean and dry and collected, lending a hand, a handkerchief. He never wavered in front of her.
He was to her what the makeshift cardboard refuge was to the homeless woman next to their local Waitrose. All she had. A necessity for survival. If it gets wet, it turns to mush and so does she, and so does her whole world. But rain is rain, Alice had to remind herself, and it falls on the heads of the resilient and the vulnerable alike.
That afternoon, however, she had an umbrella. So she made for the beach, alone, despite the drizzle. Though she resented herself for it, she had to escape from the soft mass of scotch-soaked cardboard, sopping away to nothing in its armchair. She spent the short, brisk walk toward the seafront trying to justify her own intolerance towards her husband’s ever-increasing susceptibility. If she couldn’t even make allowances for her own feelings, she thought, then she truly was alone.
She self-indulgently thought about how much she hated liquorice. Those e-cigarettes smelt worse than the real thing. Why didn’t he just go back to smoking? It’s not like it could kill you, after all.
By the time she had reached the beach, her internal venting had subsided, and Oliver had been somewhat distanced from her thoughts. It was the sea air. Even on a wet and erratic day like today, it was cleansing.
The rain had pockmarked every inch of the sand so that it looked like a giant sheet of coral. Alice walked barefoot creating a track of smooth depressions. She felt cold, but connected, so her shoes remained swinging from her hand despite the prickling in her toes. Though it was cloudy, it was blindingly white.
“What do I look like?” Alice scoffed to herself as she sat looking out through her sunglasses, in her heavy coat, umbrella in hand, with bare feet. That’s Cornwall for you, she thought.
She pictured herself flouncing down to the water, naked. Diving boldly into the piercing waves. Swimming out into the open water under the murky bright sky. How refreshing, how liberating it would be, to go about her day afterwards as if nothing had happened. A little secret between her and the sea, which she could later daydream about while she and Oliver co-existed silently in front of the television. The whole idea felt so forbidden. She tried to remember the last time she had done something that was solely for herself.
But she was far too self-conscious, even if the beach was empty. To bear the burden of a post-childbirth body, and not even have the child to show for it; there’s no pride in those kind of scars. Her stretch marks didn’t make her a tiger, as she once thought. She was just a blemished, aging woman.
“Oh, god.” Alice muttered to herself like a ventriloquist. A boy and his Black Labrador were walking in her direction. They were both quite small. The dog can’t have been that old, and neither could the boy. About thirteen, fourteen, she guessed.
She noticed that the dog was on a lead, and immediately felt better. It had one of those cone things on its head, so when it sat down it looked like a desk lamp. It kept strangling itself trying to get closer to the creeping waves, but the boy tugged it back every time, and she could faintly hear him saying “No.” Finally the animal started to behave itself and Alice sat impatiently on tense buttocks waiting for them to pass.
Something in the water had sparked the interest of three or four seagulls, and they came swooping down to the spot, flapping and squawking. This attracted the attention of the dog, which tore away from the unsuspecting boy with great speed, towards the guffawing birds.
“Charlie, no!” the boy cried, as Alice followed the dog with her eyes, “No, Charlie, not the water, you can’t…” It began paddling towards the gulls, at first with determinism, then with increasing difficulty, flogging against the whitecaps as the cone around its neck became flooded.
Alice was closer to the scene than the boy, and suddenly found herself stripping off her coat and sprinting towards the water, just like in her daydream. Before she knew it, she was past mid-calf level, then hip level, then waist level, beating her way towards the struggling animal in the fast-filling cone. It was making helpless little noises as it fought to keep its head above water. Alice reached out to willingly touch a dog for the first time in her life. It was slimy and jumpy and it smelled, but the way it relaxed into her chest as she scooped it up was no doubt endearing.
The pup panted in her arms, tongue flopping, looking up at her. He looked gleeful despite having almost just drowned. Alice smiled back at him, not in the least bit frightened, and made her way back towards dry land.
“Thank you, miss! Thank you!” the boy said, jogging towards her. Alice handed over the dog.
“No problem,” she said, “He’s lovely. Lovely name.” The boy smiled, looking a little embarrassed as he wrapped the lead twice around his wrist.
“Thanks,” he said, and continued quickly on his way.
Alice looked down at her sopping clothes, feeling grateful for her large coat that was waiting for her on the sand.
She wrapped it around her body like a cocoon. She would go home feeling liberated after all, without having taken her clothes off in public. She cast her mind back twenty years. Sat in almost the exact same spot, watching her life (what there was of it at the point) flash before her eyes, as the four-legged nightmare came bolting towards her. The horror. Now, she was sure there wasn’t much left that could scare her.
“Stirfry,” she tuts, picturing the little dog. That always makes her laugh. It would be dead now. The thought made her a little sad, and she wished she could go back in time and pet it. But of course, these things never occur to you until it’s too late. Then she thought of Oliver, and decided to go home and tell him about her day.
Alice passed Waitrose on the way back. The little homeless lady’s cardboard roof had clearly moistened, but she had placed it inside a narrow alcove in the wall to dry, and was using another. Presumably she had them on some kind of rotational system, making the most of her available resources.
Alice emerged from the shop with a half-chicken from the hot counter, a large pack of assorted cream cakes, and fresh ingredients for dinner. She gave the chicken and the cakes to the homeless lady, whose name turned out to be Belinda. She expressed her undying gratitude by offering Alice a palm reading. Alice told her maybe next time, and this seemed to please Belinda, as she delved into the steaming bag of chicken.
When Alice finally arrived home, Oliver was fresh out of the shower, presumably to clean up his act, she thought. She placed the shopping bags on the kitchen counter, and approached him without saying a word. She could see the apprehension in his face. He had become so tense around her. Like a naughty child, so afraid of having done or said the wrong thing in one of his stupors. So afraid that today would be the day she would tell him she was leaving.
Alice’s lips met his with a long-awaited kiss, and he relaxed immediately. The tension of the last six years faded into the background.
“Are you hungry?” she said.
“Yes.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“Good. I’m making a stir-fry.”
Now, seventy years exactly since their first day together, she is ninety-four, he ninety-six. Cornwall, very early in the morning. Surprisingly warm for April on the coast. The sky is clear, save for the spatter of gulls, and not a single other soul occupies the gently meandering stretch of sand, which blurs into morning mist about half a mile in each direction, making them feel even more cut off from the rest of the world. It is the perfect transitional gulf.
They are not staying long this year, but they sit in their usual spot nonetheless, instinctively fondling the sand, remembering its fine texture and warmth. They smile an old, practiced smile at one-another.
Oliver no longer has a large family. Between them they have only each other. Alice is no longer afraid of dogs, and Oliver does not fear the water, nor did he ever experience divorce.
Alice has an aggressive form of cervical cancer. A week ago, her physician said to her, “Nip over to the surgery on Monday morning and we’ll make you right as rain again!”
“I’m ninety-four years old,” she replied over the phone.
“Mrs. Bennet, ninety-four really is no age. Average life expectancy for women in this country is now one-hundred-and-fourteen!” he said, as though reading from a script.
“My son was just eight years old when he passed away. Does that make him any less significant?”
“Now, Mrs. Bennet, I understand that even today, cancer can be frustrating. But it is not life-threatening, and you surely must think of yourself!”
“It’s not the cancer that is frustrating, Dr. Shaw,” Alice said to him, “It is outliving your child. And then outliving your mind. Why should I sit here right as rain, when my son never had that same chance?”
Alice does a double-take, sure that she saw the silhouette of a small child walking up the beach. There is nothing there. The pair pull out lunchboxes, still warm and radiating steam into the air as they are opened. Stir-fry. A dish that has brought them many laughs over the years, ever since that first day. Not a typical breakfast. Not a typical dog’s name. They can’t finish it all.
They tremble as they help each other up to their feet. Oliver undresses first. Slowly. Alice helps him here and there. His frail body determinedly maintains a small amount of muscle definition. Alice still quite fancies him. Her clothes come off next. It is a little chilly now, but they don’t seem to mind, or they don’t notice.
“Would you care to join me, one last time, Madame?” Oliver offers Alice his hand, which she accepts, as much for love, as for the need to stabilise herself as they make their way down to the water’s edge. Their toes reach the cold lip of the sea, and they share a kiss. Alice feels the tears rolling down her still plump cheeks.
“Don’t cry,” Oliver says, “I’ve got you.”
They look back to see the candle lit beside their framed picture of Billy. Then they walk on, and out.
And they keep walking, not looking back. Oliver feels his heavy bones being lifted by the water, easing his joints, making the journey easier. They walk until they can barely feel the seabed beneath them. Then they hold each other, and float. Waiting to feel even lighter.
In their last moments, they learn that, yes, you can cry underwater. One tear will cause the overall volume of an ocean to rise. The amount will be immeasurably small, but that does not make the contribution any less significant.