This short story was a highly commended finalist in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.
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Love is so short, forgetting is so long – Pablo Neruda
Lindisfarne. Holy Island. Bamburgh. These are place names which taste of childhood; we repeat them and their familiarity is an incantation, conjuring images out of air. They draw pictures in the mind whose lines have been traced over and over again: castles, crabs, walks across the causeway and along the beach.
For you, the names meant nothing, and you laughed at my enthusiasm for this cold, bare stretch of Northumbrian coast with all the confusion of the die-hard Londoner. You used to find it endearing that I always wished to show you things, worried that you might otherwise miss them: pointing out double rainbows in a silent library, or waking you up at 5 to show you a particularly nice dawn. It was this primary school show-and-tell urge which brought the two of us here, to Bamburgh beach in spring, one of the most beautiful places that my limited experience could give you. You showed me the Italian hills on an August evening; in return, I offered you the North-East of England.
Now I am returned on that most meaningless of days, February 14th, accompanying two friends on a Geography trip, and everything is coloured with your presence. Childhood memories are banished by your long, steady stride; by your hand at my shoulder, still warm from your pocket. The beach is obscured and you block my path, uninvited, unavoidable.
We took the train from Newcastle on one of your long weekends visiting me, arriving as the morning shed its first grey feathers. I remember we walked slowly where my younger self used to run, desperate to be the first to see the sight which meant you had really arrived: Bamburgh Castle, lying quietly in wait for you the moment you turned the corner. I told you the story of the Forsters who used to own it, very loosely related to us, and the girl who helped spring her brother from prison in the Civil War by dressing as a maid. As a child, part of the magic of Bamburgh for me was its stories: the Vikings landing on its beaches, Grace Darling rescuing the shipwrecked and then dying young, Millie and Flo and other assorted great-aunts and uncles playing on the beach in knickerbockers. I try and show you the thrill of these stories, the layers of other generations who gather like sediment, one on top of the other at our feet, but I don’t find the right words; you enclose me in your coat as I stop making sense.
In my mind the castle was vast and uniformly grey, but that day it seemed both smaller and somehow more vivid, gleaming from sea spray and the unexpected morning sunlight, silhouetted against the great expanse of northern sky. You smiled at my indrawn breath, my slowing down of pace, without sharing my reverie; to you it was just a castle, significant only because it mattered to me. Today I’m cast in your role, observing my friends’ delight without being able to join in; it feels as if I’m seeing everything from behind a pane of glass. It is Spring in my mind, and I am here with you.
After the obligatory castle viewing, we cross over the dunes to the beach. We ought to go and see Ruth Miller, my 96-year old great-great-aunt who lives in the village; I know this, I tell you this, but we don’t do it. We justify it to ourselves because she won’t know who we are, because it will only agitate her, and at the time it seems enough; it is only later that the guilt kicks in, and I do not tell my parents. The long distance between us makes us selfish lovers; we retreat into each other during these weekends, duck through a door in the wall into the secret garden which is ours only.
Watching my friends roam around the beach with clipboards, I flush slightly at the thought of how violently we kissed by the sea that day, with the kind of fervour only acceptable in locked rooms or on wide, empty beaches. My hair, lifted by the wind, kept whipping your face, and I could taste the salt on your chapped lips, the hint of toothpaste on your tongue. I felt so overwhelmingly happy that I broke off from our kisses abruptly, afraid of spoiling it, and went to paddle in the shallows – bitingly cold even in May. I told you proudly that my sister and aunt swam in this sea in February; you told me that I seemed younger by the sea. I look at you and would rather look at you than at all seas, beaches, castles anywhere: you will never again look as beautiful to me as you did that day.
I turn my face seaward now, and find that familiar catharsis in the suck and pull of the waves, their long steady retreat followed by the inexorable rushing return, scattering pebbles and seaweed at my feet like gifts; an attempt at compensation. We three splash our way together up the shoreline, picking up nice stones and shells for each other to admire; they are cold and smooth against my cold soft skin.
We come to the huge bowl-shaped sand dune, which I could never walk past previously without rolling down. Once we as children – led by my sister – came out here at dawn, leaving a note saying where we’d gone. I remember the note, and waking up to the alarm, but only the vaguest outline after this: a disappointingly grey dawn sky when I was expecting resplendent pinks and oranges, and then rolling repeatedly down the sand basin and laughing so hard I thought I might throw up. Apparently I cried on the walk home because the sand was too cold and I was tired; this part, unsurprisingly, I don’t remember at all. I never told you this story; it was not one of the many which we used to exchange late at night, in that twilight zone between sleeping and waking. I realised the other day that I no longer expect every second brown-haired man to turn around and show your face, that I no longer experience that jolt of unfamiliarity in restaurants and on escalators. It is a kind of second leave-taking.
We walk forward, beyond the point I reached with you, past the castle. The sound of the sea, the monotonous crashing of the waves, follows steadfastly behind us as we go. Your presence, resurrected Lazarus-like by my longing, fades the further we walk, and I cannot bring it back. I think of Steinbeck’s assertion to his son: nothing good gets away.
It is too cold and the sky begins to darken; we turn back and return to the village. I hear your name, echoing down the long length of the beach, my atheist’s prayer, an incantation which conjures its own set of familiar images: your drowsy-eyed face in the early morning, the thin silver scar tracing the curve of your collarbone. On the train home, my friend buys me an Aero Mint and says Happy Valentine’s Day. I laugh and it tastes delicious.