The light moved greyly over the sand. They hadn’t set out until after three, frustrated once again in their battle with the day. It is difficult being on holiday though, everyone knows that. The wrecks of old shipping faded against the shore: the primary reds and blues and yellows of their flaking paint acquiring in old age an odd congruity that made them seem as natural as the cliffs. He kicked a shell limply across the sand with the toe of his walking boot. She stood, wellied, in the sea, like a consciously belligerent toddler.
Turning, she realised he had started off up the beach. She stayed still a moment, sulkily, part of her toying pleasurably with defiance, but soon, and with humiliating inevitability, started to trudge after him. A slap of wind blew off her yellow hood. The salt, the sky, the sea she thought: perhaps this is enough.
He was headed towards the cliffs. She followed the command of his footsteps as they wettened in the sand, the fury with which he had tramped them in slowly seeping into the sea. She could see him ahead, irritated even by the irregular flapping of his grey jacket, and he too could sense her behind him, creeping up on him in recrimination. He hadn’t wanted to come on holiday, and the whole ordeal had been a failed exercise in appeasement. The sort of appeasement which, recently, seemed both increasingly necessary and increasingly ineffectual.
By the time she had scaled the height of the cliff, he had been there some time, waiting, idly, inflicting the horizon with a merciless gaze. She didn’t even attempt an appeasing platitude about the view. They carried on together in dogged silence. The coastal path scored the cliff edges, collecting and scattering loose rock, following the land’s contours up and down, and at one moment plateauing into a brief field. As the winter sun cast its last light, they found themselves just above sea level, surveying the debris of a disused quarry. The light (pinkish, low and dipped in melancholy) was teasing the aged industrial litter, awakening in it an unknown passion. At the edge of the quarry, a sign fastened against a metal gate warned, in ugly lettering and tones, of the dangerous implications of passing beyond it. The sheer desolation of the place seemed to offer some respite; the possibility, even, of a humorous resignation to the failure of the day. They began, at least, to talk.
‘Must be some kind of military base or something probably,’ he said.
‘We should try and cut across it. To get back the car. How long have we been walking?’
‘About an hour, half an hour?’
They looked back to the coastal path and the several distant and invisible headlands between them and the car park.
‘It’s already nearly dark. Let’s just do it.’
It was an event at least. Other than their getting stuck behind a sheep, and inadvertently setting fire to two pieces of locally-sourced fish, the holiday had lacked external drama. They walked slowly along the wide gravel path that led up from the quarry and around a series of manmade mounds. The stone shone whitely in the encroaching darkness.
‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbled. ‘About earlier.’
‘It’s fine,’ she lied.
The shot rang so suddenly that neither of them had any sense of where it had come from. It was only the second shot, ricocheting across the gravel in front of them that gave any clue as to its direction. They looked up together, instantly. It was not so much terrifying as unfathomable.
‘What the fuck?’
‘I knew this was a stupid idea,’ she shouted.
She ran to the edge of the path, crouching for shelter; he started in the opposite direction, back down towards the sea.
There was silence, apart from the odd scawk of a seabird. They crouched in it, motionless: she at the path’s edge, he at the bottom of it. Below them, the sea hit the rocks, crashing against them with a calming regularity. After a while they became embarrassed: self-conscious in their theatrical positions. The drama and fear, so welcome in its own way, had faded, and normality had regained its sobering hold. Neither of them could quite face being the one to stand up first: to admit that everything was fine, that their lives were as pedestrian as they had always assumed. Or worse, to be forced to look at each other. To have to laugh or smile, feel relief, amusement, surprise — anything — but something, together. If he was honest, the idea of both of them standing up and meeting in the middle of the path, and confessing to having shared something, survived something, together, made him wince. It embarrassed him, no not quite that: it made him feel sick.
He had run to the bottom of the path. He had run straight to the bottom of the path. The weight of this hit her with palpable force. His selfishness had never been in question, but his cowardice was a shock. She stood up sharply, and felt as she did so a surge of energy, a strength almost akin to happiness. She realised she was smiling. It was nearly dark, but as she stood, the gravel she dislodged and scattered down the path in his direction glimpsed almost white.
She was coming towards him smiling. He couldn’t bear it. Clearly she had already appropriated this as yet another romantic and mistaken narrative about their union. Incorporated it into that strange tapestry of sentiment she had been slowly weaving ever since their ill-fated beginning: a series of disappointments refashioned in crudely rendered, medieval significance. A seagull started above him.
‘Let’s try and get back. To the car,’ he said quickly, deflecting any potential for reunion, any possibility of touch.
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t in fact seem to be listening to him. Still smiling, she headed straight for the cliff path. He followed her, struggling to keep up with her pace in the darkness. The ground was uneven and kept falling uncertainly below his feet, and he couldn’t see her footprints to trace her path. She was, it seemed, getting faster and faster, and he was, if not exactly angry, or hurt — he hadn’t wanted her affection after all, the very idea of it had sickened him — bemused. She hadn’t even said a word. Her neediness annoyed him, unquestionably, but its absence did not quite bring the respite he had always imagined it would.
And then the third shot rang out. Closer this time.
They had walked for at least 20 minutes, straight along the coastal path, and had moved far away from the quarry and the sign and the private, forbidden land. Whoever had fired the shot before had clearly moved; in their direction.
She screamed. The shot ran right through her, its sound scoring a hole in the front of her chest and fixing her still. He didn’t even have to think and ran straight to her, pushing her down onto the path and covering her body against the slope at its side. They lay in the darkness, her face squashed in between the ground and his shoulder, her ear scratched by long blades of scrub and her cheek by the polyester fold of his jacket sleeve. She smelt grass and earth and his sweat. His sweat. Its familiar scent softened something in her so immediately that it floored her. He felt her breath shake her chest beneath him. That familiar precursor of hers to tears. They lay there, breathless and alert.
It was a few minutes later that they heard the footsteps. They were coming from behind them, and walking in their direction. He pulled her up and ran, dragging her along the path and stumbling her down the half-formed steps that led to the shore. He glanced desperately about the boats, and ropes and rigging, monochrome now in the darkness, and made for the largest of the boats, anchored heavily in the sand. He ran around the back of it, and squeezed her into the inverted arch of space underneath its hull. He followed her in.
They lay there. In a fear so unaccustomed and true that all their senses heightened and refined to a single, vibrating pulse. They heard the footsteps descend the same steps and walk onto the beach, slowly. They were heavy and purposeful and searching. She pressed her mouth as hard as she could against his shoulder trying to stop herself screaming, or perhaps just to breathe his safety in. He strained to see what was happening, trying to make no greater movement than his eyeballs tracking right to left.
He saw the feet travel the sand: up to the rocks, down the low tide of the shore to the sea, and then back again to the heavy anchor at the foot of their boat. They kicked its side once, and again. And then stopped.
All the years that they had spent loving and hating each other were compressed and elongated into a stretch of silent fear so outside of time and space that it could have been for ever.
And then the feet walked away from the boat, away up the beach, and away until they couldn’t hear them. A few minutes later they heard an engine start and drive away.
Without knowing how they were half naked, grabbing at each other’s clothes and hair and mouths. And what started as animal logic turned slowly and gently into love. It was a long, long time since he had made love to her like this. In fact, she suddenly understood, he never had. And as the one thing she had longed for with all her being presented itself in front of her, she realised it was already gone.