Photo courtesy of Reading Tom
He’s renting from the friend of a friend. Shading his eyes he peers along the long string of chalets facing Dunster beach. But which one? Christ, they’re identical Wendy houses, and set so tight they could touch shoulders.
When he tracks it down it’s not identical at all – the others have been given a fresh spring coat of paint, but the lapped boards are bleached and peeling. The window’s cracked, there are gaps in the picket fence, and a dog has tunnelled through a hole in the hedge.
He forces the door with a vigorous shove. Inside it’s musty, the furnishings jaded and worn. Even he can see it needs what estate agents term updating. The kitchen area’s primitive, the cooker rings encrusted with grease, the formica top scrubbed, its gingham pattern almost invisible. And no cleaner has been near the place with dustpan and brush – leaves litter the vinyl floor which has bubbled with damp. When he clambers up the ladder to the mezzanine to investigate the bed he slips on a loose tread and wrenches his ankle.
The ideal bolt-hole for a writer? So it claimed on the website. For a moment he feels cheated, then remembers it was cheap, very cheap. He laughs. Would Henry Miller have expected pristine styling at Big Sur? Of course not, for a writer working on a novel it’s perfect. A plain, unfussy space allowing the imagination to roam and, all importantly, giving a breathtaking view of the Bristol Channel outside the door.
He takes out his pad, opens it at the first page, lines up his pens, pencils and rubber, and props the photo of Miller alongside him on the table. Time to begin the novel? Maybe. He heaves a chair across to the open door and sits for a while, peering down at the empty beach. The tide’s out, so maybe a swift stroll along the sand first? No, he’s too exhausted to think, let alone write. Dazed, he crawls up the ladder and falls on to the bed.
He wakes much later with a buzzing in his ears. Disoriented, he stumbles back down the ladder and throws the door open. There’s still no sea, just pitted sand and mud stretching far into the distance. His eye flickers across scattered pools of brackish water, and when he searches for the tide it’s a good mile out, a glistening mirage, faint, indeterminate.
Sparrows bicker in the ragged hedge of the next-door chalet. It’s shut tight till Easter, the door cloaked with a metal roller blind. But on the other side the door’s open, so he has a neighbour. He prays there’ll be no boisterous children to disturb the peace.
Scrambling down the slope to the beach in bare feet, he picks a path across the stones. The sand is hard, and when he looks back over his shoulder his steps have left no trace. The good news is no one knows he’s here, only the rabble of crows picking energetically at the mud, and a line of white gulls like distant flotsam. He can get on, make progress.
Back inside the chalet he collects his pad and pencil. It’s turning chill so he wraps himself in a blanket and sits on a camp chair in the tiny garden, eyes half-shut against the hazy sunlight, ignoring the envious glances from walkers. Pencil poised, he empties his mind and starts to write.
Twenty minutes later he has a paragraph, not Shakespeare, but at least a beginning. He’s writing about the breakup, the trauma his character suffers from being misunderstood by a girl he’d given everything to. It’s autobiography, of course, but he’s doing what’s always advised in the manuals: write about what you know. It’s still painful to recall, but he’s hoping that the writing will deaden the misery.
When he looks up a girl’s walking by. She’s pretty, tall and dark haired, a yellow scarf thrown round her neck. Twenty-five, twenty-six? Intrigued, he hurries to the window. She must have gone into the chalet next door. Is she on her own? Or is her boyfriend or husband inside? What does it matter, he’s here to write. He begins a second paragraph.
When he looks up she’s wandering the sands below, bending to pick up the odd pebble, turning it over in her fingers before tossing it away. He’s planning to do the same, find the perfect one, place it by his writing pad as a talisman, a tangible link with the beach’s spirit of place. Maybe she’s a kindred spirit. Curious, he follows her down on to the sands.
‘Found one yet?’
‘The perfect pebble. Have you found one?’
She looks puzzled.
‘I always search for exactly the right one,’ he tells her. ‘You know it when it speaks to you. I’ve a drawer full of them at home but I always forget where they came from. Coffee?’
She’s thinking hard, and answers reluctantly. ‘Okay, a quick one.’
They head back up the beach to his chalet. Inside she peers around. ‘I can’t stay long.’
He boils a kettle and spoons instant into two mugs, making covert glances at her while she inspects the small space. She’s certainly a beauty, clear skinned, with stunning legs.
‘Not much of a place, is it,’ he says. ‘Needs updating. Rented it from a friend. But at least it was cheap.’
She doesn’t respond.
He plays his trump card. ‘I’m a writer.’
Still no response. He thinks she hasn’t heard so tries again. ‘I’m here to write my novel.’
Just a polite nod while she runs a finger around a stain on the coffee table. He’s boring her.
He chatters mindlessly on about the weather, the beach, and the importance of getting away, but it’s more monologue than dialogue.
Minutes later she gets up to leave. ‘Thank you, I really have to go.’
And that’s it.
‘Maybe we could have another coffee tomorrow,’ he calls after her.
That didn’t go as he intended. Most girls perk up when he tells them he writes. He’s no Brad Pitt but it usually does the job. Women go for writers, but not this one. Must be a bit shallow and stupid. Shrugging it off he settles down to work on paragraph number three – writing about the miserable night he suffered after the break, shivering in a stinking pill box by the canal. He wields his rubber. No, he’ll make it two nights and add in a storm to heighten the drama.
Late evening. The beach is dark and silent, the moon masked in cloud, with only the distant lights of Wales glimmering. Deciding on an early night he lies on the narrow bed thinking about the girl, then finally sleeps.
He wakes in the night to weeping from close by. Is it her? Probably on the rebound from some airhead boyfriend.
At eleven the next morning he stands at the gate and sees her reading a Hello magazine. He leans over the fence and she looks up.
‘Oh, it’s you. I suppose you’d like a coffee. You’d better come in.’
Her chalet couldn’t be more different from his own. Spotless and immaculate, it’s as if an entire Ikea room set has been transported down the M5 and squeezed in. A coffee table’s littered with more magazines – Okay, Celebrity Gossip, Fate & Fortune. Has he made a massive mistake? Is she even shallower than he thought? But there’s still the chance of sex – she may not be a thinker but she’s a hell of a looker.
‘I’ve been working on my novel since six,’ he tells her. ‘Or trying to. It’s painful to write but I think it’s going okay.’ Again, no response.
‘So, what do you do?’ he asks. Inside he blenches, waiting for her to tell him she’s studying accountancy or working in the cosmetics department at Debenham’s.
She fills the kettle. ‘Go and sit down,’ she calls, ‘I’ll bring the coffee out.’
In the garden he flips through the Hello magazine in disgust – who are all these bloody people with their fake tans and perfect homes? – then guiltily drops it as she comes out with two mugs.
He watches her stare into space, vacantly sipping her coffee. Probably pondering the unresolved death of Princess Di, he thinks.
‘Sorry, she says, turning to look at him, ‘I’m being rude. I’m elsewhere. Not your fault, occupational hazard. What do I do, you asked? You really won’t want to know.’
‘No, please, tell me.’
‘Honestly, I’d prefer not, I’m not at my best.’
‘Look, I heard you in the night. Come on, I’m a good listener.’ He leans forward.
‘I’m a trauma nurse.’ Then in a whisper: ‘A two-year old died in my arms the other night.’ Then dropping her mug heavily on the table she says ‘ I love my job. Sometimes, though …’
She sighs. ‘I thought getting away, coming here, reading these shit magazines would help, but … I’m sorry, I’m no company, better if you go, my sister’s arriving at twelve. This is her chalet.’
‘Look,’ he says, ‘maybe I can help, comfort you.’ He reaches out and touches her knee.
‘Don’t, please, just don’t.’ She shudders and turns away.
Miserably he stumbles back next door and slumps down in his writing chair. The fourth paragraph of his novel refuses to come. He hurls his pencil across the room and heads off down to the beach and stands, wretched and ashamed, in the shallows.
He’ll go home early.
Brent geese land in the mud close by, jabbering inanely.