I live in a thatched cottage overlooking the sea. It is a listed eighteenth-century cottage believed to have been built in eighteen-thirty and the first coastguard’s cottage. To the right of the cottage is the harbour, to the left the beginning of the promenade. It has been owned by my family for the past seventy years. Believing the air to be cleaner, the climate to be warmer, than that of Manchester it became my parent’s home back in the nineteen fifties. It has a veranda that spans the entire width of the cottage. As a child, I played on the beach below with my sister – no matter what the weather – supervised by our parents from the veranda above. A sharp whistle blast and we knew that it was time to brush the sand from our feet, pull on our tops, shorts, and plastic sandals, and present ourselves for lunch or dinner looking marginally less the sea urchins that we might have been mistaken for only minutes earlier. There were rockpools immediately below the sea wall amassed with tiny transparent crabs scrambling up over the limpets and mussels that clung to the rock surfaces. There were shrimps that we caught with our fishing nets and gently lowered into our bright red buckets. The rockpools were our favourite hidey-hole, hidden from view of the veranda. Our favourite time of day was two hours after the tide had turned leaving behind her line after line of sparkling stones, shells, and sea bladder that we popped beneath our feet. Each day we collected handfuls of mother of pearl shells, our young eyes keenly trained to spot their iridescence. We built moated sandcastles, studded them with shells, and dug trenches down to the incoming tide. We ran into the waves, we splashed in the sea, we swam in the sea – never a thought in those days to the pollution that might lay in the vast beyond. And, when finally, exhausted, we flopped down on the sand or sank into our fold-up chairs. Come rain or shine that was where we played. That was in those heady days when you could let a child roam free on the beach alone; when strangers offered to help build sandcastles; when strangers bought ice cream for small children – simply because they were children. It is all those memories that I shall treasure.
I am older now and my health is declining. It is of no concern to me, I have lived a full and happy life. I live in the cottage on my own. The view across the bay remains the same as it did when I was a child; the tide comes in, crashes angrily against the seawall in her quest to break out of her prison, and when exhausted, makes her gentle retreat. Twice a day. On stormy days, the white horses rise and fall like magnificent white stallions, their legs flailing in the water. On calm days the gulls soar above the mirrored waters. The sea rarely parts with her shells anymore and when she does, few retain their former beauty; they have been crushed by some beast invisible to the eye. Maybe they are yet more casualties of climate change.
The veranda, now enclosed and centrally heated, is the perfect spot to take my mid-morning coffee and my afternoon tea. It was one morning in the early Spring when I was having my coffee that I first noticed her. An onshore east wind whipped wickedly across the sand, walkers held onto their hats, sand dry at the shoreline swirled high and deposited itself on the walkway alongside the sea wall. The tide, low, was just on the turn. A solitary figure sat mid-way between the water’s edge and the shoreline in what looked to me to be a fold-up chair – the type that you squeeze together and pop in a bag to carry over your shoulder. From a distance, I glanced wellington boots beneath a dark wrap-around coat. The figure wore a white knitted hat and white knitted gloves. There was something strangely familiar about him or her, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The hat near blew off in the wind. As an outstretched arm redeemed it, I noticed strands of dark brown hair escape its grip. I was now almost sure that the figure was a woman. I watched her for an hour or more, her head remained still, her eyes, I imagined, fixed on the blue yonder. I never once witnessed her speak to anyone or anyone speak to her. Walkers walked behind her, in front of her, to her right and left. Dogs retrieved balls that landed within inches of her feet, but not once did they stop to sniff, jump up at her, bark, or acknowledge her presence – neither did she appear to notice them.
There was something about her sitting there that I found disturbing and yet calming. I have seen far stranger things from my veranda, so it was not something that I dwelt upon at the time. I read my book and as lunch time drew near, I retreated into my warm cottage. As I stood, I glanced out across the sand. The woman had gone, there was no trace of where she had sat, the tide had washed away her memory.
She was there for five consecutive days, an hour later each day when the tide was low. The weather did not deter her. Sometimes she huddled down in the chair bracing herself against the wind. When the skies were blue and the weather clement, she turned her head to the sun and soaked up the warmth. It puzzled me that not once did I ever see her arrive or pack up her chair and leave. However fanciful it sounds, it seemed as though she always waited until I was distracted before she made her entrances and exits.
I did not see her again for a week. It was not until low tide returned to more civilised hours that she next appeared. I watched her from the safety of my veranda for two days. On the third day, I resolved to go down to the beach and talk to her. It was not my intention to interfere but just to offer a few kind words to a soul who might be lonely, maybe invite her up to my veranda for a cup of tea. I put on a warm coat, sensible flat shoes and picked up my walking stick, locked the cottage door, and started to walk down the road and around to the beach – there is no direct access to the beach from my cottage short of throwing a rope ladder over the veranda.
It took me no more than five minutes to round the corner and start my descent down the slipway to the beach. I shielded my eyes from the sun and looked towards the exact spot on which she had been sitting on her fold-up chair only moments before. She had gone. I searched up and down the beach, but she was nowhere to be seen.
That night there was a new moon. The following day was a spring tide; gentle waves broke on golden sand that had not seen the light of day for the past fortnight. There, in the distance, at the water’s edge, sat my lady, gazing out to sea, her face upturned to the sky in the Spring sunshine.
I sat watching her, my eyes never left her. I was determined not to miss her departure. Hours later, my vigil was rewarded. She stood, folded up her chair, turned, and waved at me. I waved back at her, but she was gone.
That night I fell into a deep sleep from which I did not wake. In my dreams I sat in a fold-up chair, gentle waves broke around my feet, and the sun warmed me as I gazed into the blue yonder.