Every evening in the long months of summer, the man would go down to the beach and sit looking out to sea.
He was short and broad, his limbs still thick with muscle, and he moved with a grace that belied his bulk. But time had carved gullies in the skin of his face, and his eyes were bleak below the bony ridge of his brow and the brim of the ancient hat he always wore. His clothes, too, were old, and though they had once been dark blue, the sun had bleached them greyish-white.
The man felt at home on the beach. As he walked down each evening between the old wire fences, past the boardwalk now warped and splintered with wind and sun and rain, he felt that he was leaving the present behind and going back to the time when it all still had some meaning, some hope.
Behind him, the town lay, the buildings crumbling to dust even as they were buried by the blowing sand. Every year, the desert crept closer, stealthily like a predator sneaking up on its prey. In ten years, maybe twenty, it would swallow the town, and then the beach would be merely an extension of it. But the man did not expect to live to see the day.
On the way down to the beach, he would always avert his eyes from the weather station with its masts and cables, now sagging and crumbling like everything else. Once, in the old days, he’d worked there, and he didn’t want to remember that. Nor did he want to remember the life he’d had – the kind of life almost everyone had had. All that was over, and everyone was gone. He’d keep telling himself that, and sometimes he’d believe it.
And sometimes the memories would make him come awake in the night, and he would wipe away the tears from his face.
Each evening, then, as the heat of the day receded and the sun sank over the sea, he would go down to the beach and sit, looking out over the water. And, sitting like that, he could almost imagine that he was no longer alone.
And so the months passed, as summer turned into autumn, but the man went down to the sand every evening, waiting for something to happen, only he did not know what.
He only knew that it would happen, or he would die waiting.
He saw her in the distance, on an evening when the first winds of autumn were flinging scraps of cloud across the sky. She was a tiny figure, outlined against the lurid glow of the setting sun, so far away that she was a wavering dot on the horizon. The old man didn’t react, didn’t turn his head. Only his faded eyes turned, watching, as she came closer. She was walking along the edge of the ocean, leaving dark footprints in the smooth wet sand, red with the light of the sun. Her head was down, studying the ground at her feet, and she seemed oblivious to him, until she was almost directly below where she was. He became convinced that she was about to go on.
But then he must have made some kind of noise, because she looked up and walked up the beach towards him. He patted the sand next to him, and she sat down, without hesitation. For a while he didn’t look at her, but kept staring out to sea.
“I didn’t expect to find anyone,” she said. Her voice was husky, as if she hadn’t spoken for a long time. “Do you live in this town?”
He finally dared to sneak a glance at her then, under his brows, as though expecting that she was a creature of light and shadows, and would have vanished. But she seemed real enough, from the tangled hair which hung around her shoulders to the narrow elegant fingers with which she was sifting the sand by her knees. “Yes – I’m the only one left. Where do you live?”
She made a vague gesture, in the direction from which she’d come, round the distant headland. “Over there.” Her face was narrow and triangular, her eyes darting quickly away from his. It was impossible to guess her age; she moved like a girl, but her face and eyes seemed older, experienced. She was dressed as an older woman would be, too, in faded jeans and a blue windcheater. “I never thought I’d find anyone else,” she repeated.
“I’ve...” I’ve been waiting a long time, he wanted to say. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to come back. But he couldn’t make himself say it. “I never thought I’d meet anyone either,” he compromised.
She smiled suddenly, and flipped a pebble at the setting sun. “So we were both wrong. It’s good to be wrong sometimes. Is it a good town to live in?”
He glanced involuntarily over his shoulder at the houses. “It used to be good to live in, once, and it hasn’t crumbled too much yet. The desert will swallow it in a while, though, and I can’t say I’m sorry. Too many ghosts.”
She nodded, and got to her feet in one smooth easy motion. “Sun’s almost down,” she said. “I’d better be going.”
“Wait!” he said, and almost made the mistake of reaching out to hold her, drawing back his hand at the last second. “Will you be back?”
She looked down at him, the sun behind her head making her expression unreadable. “Do you want me to?”
“I’ve been waiting,” he said, “for someone to come. It’s been a long wait.”
“Fair enough,” she said, turning away. “I’ll be seeing you.” Walking back down the beach, she did not look back.
The sun went down, and the darkness came. He was still sitting on the sand when the moon came up behind him, throwing a silver sheen on the sea. And all the time, his eyes did not leave the direction in which she’d gone.
That night, the old bed seemed colder, and the town even lonelier, than he’d ever known them to be.
She came again five days later. This time she was already there when he came down to the beach, sitting where she’d sat before, leaning back on her elbows with her legs stretched out. “I thought you might not be coming,” she greeted him.
“I come every day,” he said. “Even days like this.” The wind was whipping past overhead, dragging sheets of cloud at the height of the cliffs along the headland round which she’d come.
“The autumn storms are coming,” she observed. “It might not be safe out on the beach then.”
“Would you like something to eat?” Every day now he’d brought something from his stock of food, in expectation of her coming. He rummaged in his bag. “Chocolate?”
She shook her head. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “You eat it if you want.” But he didn’t want to eat without her, so he put the bar back inside the bag. She watched, looking faintly amused, he thought.
“What were you,” she asked suddenly. “Back in the old days?”
He swallowed. “A meteorologist.”
She grinned. “I probably put my foot in it, talking about the weather.”
“No, it’s all right.” He glanced up and back towards the hulk of the weather station. “These days I know as much about the weather as you do.”
She laughed suddenly. “Wasn’t that what people used to talk about in the old days? The weather?” What a waste of time and effort. I mean to say – the weather!”
Far out to sea, lightning flashed, as though on cue. The wind began to whip a light drizzle against the beach.
“Time to go,” she said. “We’re probably in for a rough night.”
He almost invited her up to the town then, but hesitated. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he said.
She came often after that, but at irregular intervals, so that sometimes a week would go by without a sight of her. Always, she wore the same clothes, but that was nothing odd – so did he. And as the winter clamped down on the beach and the town, with its squalls of rain and the storms that raged out to sea, he still went down each afternoon and waited on the beach till it was dark, hoping she would come.
He still hadn’t dared ask a thing about her, her name, where she came from, or anything else about her. It was a fragile link they had, one he was desperately afraid that would snap if he pushed hard. And even if it was lashing down with rain, she would never come anywhere but to the spot on the beach where they’d first met, there to squat uncomfortably on the wet sand, but without complaint.
One day he found the dog. It was the morning after the great storm, when the wind had picked up sand from beach and desert alike and hurled it so hard against the town that he’d been afraid that the walls and roof would disintegrate. But somehow the old houses had held together.
She’d come the evening before, but only for a few moments, and looked at him with concern. “You shouldn’t be here,” she’d said. “It’s not safe out here with the storm. It’s going to be a bad one.”
He’d looked at the water, grey and flattened from the force of the wind. “What about you?”
“I’ll be all right, don’t worry. I’ll go back now, right away. I just came to make sure you wouldn’t sit out here in the storm waiting for me.”
“I wouldn’t have...” he’d begun, but she had already been walking away, her hair blowing like a cloud around her head. Besides, she was quite right – he’d have waited for her, at least until it was dark, and maybe longer; and if she hadn’t come, he’d have spent the night worrying something had happened to her.
And in the morning there was the dog.
It was a small black bitch, half-grown, and more than half-starved. He found her cowering outside, and she whined when she saw him, and tried to crawl away. Then he noticed that she was dragging a hind leg.
“Where have you come from?” he asked her, though he knew that she must be from one of the packs of feral dogs which haunted the fringes of the town. She whined again, and turned around to snarl at him when he approached, though she was so weak that it was little more than a formality.
“You need help, girl,” he informed her. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” After a little thought, he fetched a packet of biscuits and tossed one in front of her. The biscuits were old and crumbling, and fell to pieces on hitting the ground, so she shied away for a second. Then, extending her muzzle, she sniffed, and her pink tongue darted out, licking. In a few minutes, she had finished off the packet, all the biscuits, one by one.
He gave her a bowl of water after that, and, a little later, she curled up on his doorstep, and slept.
The woman didn’t come that day, nor the day after that.
He named the dog Reena. Little by little, as her leg healed, she began to follow him around, slinking along at his heel as though apologising for her presence. But as the winter passed, and the days began to lengthen, she began to run at his side, and nuzzle his hand for attention. When he went down to the beach each afternoon, she went down with him, and raced excitedly up and down the beach, barking at the glint of sun on water or the scuttle of a crab. He laughed sometimes to watch her.
But the winter turned to spring, and still the woman did not come.
He’d become unable to sleep because of waiting for her. Each evening he’d stay out longer and longer on the beach, till the dog would whine to go back and begin tugging at his sleeve. And then he’d lie in bed, staring into the darkness, and willing her to be there tomorrow. But she never was.
It was on the day of the vernal equinox that he finally decided to go and look for her. He’d never asked her where she lived, but he knew that she had to be somewhere within walking distance. And he knew there wasn’t any town or even a shack within walking distance that way down the beach.
“We’ll find her, though, Reen,” he told the dog. “I made a mistake, not asking her. It might have scared her off, I thought – but this is much worse, the not knowing.”
They started out in the mid-morning, the man and the small dog. Though it was the equinox, it was a cold day, with the squalls coming off the sea and the rain falling in curtains. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have gone out on such a day – but he couldn’t make himself wait any longer.
It was further than he remembered to the headland, but it had been years since he’d last bothered to walk this way. The wet sand sucked at his shoes, and the rain soaked his clothes, so that he was cold and uncomfortable by the time he rounded it. Beyond, there was a little bay which he remembered, lined by a white sandy beach. But as he rounded the headland, he stopped suddenly.
A ship lay beached in the bay.
It was a fairly large ship, which must have been abandoned at sea, and driven to shore during one of the storms of the previous year. It lay listing far over, so that the red-painted bottom of its hull stuck far out of the water, and its masts leaned over the strip of beach, almost touching the wall of rock on the landward side.
The dog whined, pushing her wet nose into his hand, disturbed by his sudden stillness. He shushed her, still looking at the ship.
“That’s where she stays,” he said finally, aloud. “It’s got to be.”
For several minutes he stood where he was, watching the ship, trying to decide whether to go and look for her or – now that he knew where she was – to go back home. But there was nothing at home except to wait for her, and waiting was what was destroying him little by little. At last he sighed and looked down at the dog.
“We’ll go and look for her, Reena. If she’s angry about that...well, not much we can do, is there?” Shrugging, he walked past the headland and toward the bay. Puzzled at his hesitation, the dog followed warily, her flank at his side.
Seen close up, the ship was smaller than he’d first thought, probably one of the tramps which had hauled cargo up and down the coast in the old days. It even looked vaguely familiar, which was not a surprise; he’d probably seen it in harbour more than once. It had also taken a dreadful battering, its windows shattered and the smashed remnants of a lifeboat hanging from the davits. But the hull looked solid enough, and a jumble of rocks gave easy access to the deck, almost like a staircase.
Still, at the last moment, he hesitated. “Hello?” he called, his voice wavering. “Anyone?”
The rain dripped from the mast on the deck and the sand, and the wind moaned in the rigging. But there was no answer.
Slowly, his legs reluctant at this last moment, he boarded the ship, climbing over the rocks till he stood on the deck. A look around showed him that there was nobody in the wrecked bridge or in the cabin in the superstructure, but with the smashed windows he hadn’t expected to find anyone there. And then, after rounding the stern, he found the stairs leading down into the hull.
There was something at the bottom of the stairs. In the grey light, he couldn’t make them out clearly, but after descending a few rungs, he saw them; a blue windbreaker and a pair of faded jeans, both salt-stained and battered as if with the passage of years.
There was nothing else.
He sat down on the deck, leaning his back against a bulkhead, and looking out to sea. “She must’ve just gone somewhere,” he said to the dog. “It stands to reason that she just went somewhere, and she’ll be back. I mean, I couldn’t have just imagined her, could I?”
The dog whined and came closer, uncertain on the tilted deck.
“It’s not as though I saw this ship earlier, and found these clothes, and wiped the whole thing from my mind, could it, Reen? And then I imagined her? It couldn’t be like that, could it?”
The dog, not understanding, sniffed at him, trying to gauge his mood.
“She must be somewhere around, and she’ll come back,” he said. “We just have to wait. We’ll just wait a while. That’s what we’ll do.”
The dog lay down beside him and put her head in his lap. Her tongue licked his wrist, and he fondled her ears in response.
“I wonder how long we’ll have to wait, Reen,” he said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013