The Girl in the Rusty Smock (1485 words)
Bright sunshine dressed the sea in a trillion dazzling sequins and their sheer flickering brilliance hurt her eyes. She looked away to the harbour where the tide was out and the coloured fishing boats lay tilted in the sand. The arcing sky was June blue and even the bright, warm air itself seemed to sparkle. Alice raised her hand to the canvas again, jabbing short yellow ochre marks on the tidal line.
Far across the bay, the famous lighthouse rose like a candle from its rocky, granite bowl and she stroked it in, a slash of titanium white over charcoal grey.
“I want to be away with the fairies,” she whispered to herself; “far away with the seals and mermaids.” That was when a shadow drifted like a cloud across her canvas, until it was darkened entirely.
“Morning, Alice.” She felt the warm weight of a hand on her shoulder and the breeze of a kiss to the crown of her head.
“Robert, I’m painting,” she said, without looking up.
“I’ll be quiet as a starfish,” he murmured, moving and flicking out a towel on the sand beside her. As he did so, the cloud cleared from her picture and all the colours jumped out at her again.
“No!” She looked round at him now and saw him flinch; saw the disappointment deepening in his eyes. “Such a boy!” she thought, and relented. “No, sleepy head,” she said more gently. “Meet me by the slipway. One o’clock. We’ll get a sandwich.” And she turned back, wiping her brush.
He walked slowly up the stone steps from the beach, coming out into the narrow road behind the hotel that sat on the rocks facing out to sea. Would she let him close again before she died, he wondered. They had been close, despite the wagging heads. She had encircled him and made him safe; given him a sense of security in his own acceptability, in his own alrightness. He hadn’t even realized how cold and monochrome his life was, until she had whooshed it into colour with her warmth and love of him. To have that extinguished… The lane between the terraced B&Bs smudged and danced in the blur of his tears; and he stared through the oncoming faces, as a lightning stab of desolation drove deep into the meat of him.
Emerging from the funnel of buildings, the sky widened, where the road curved away into the town and the path ahead revealed a slice of beach through its railings, with a stream and seagulls scattered like litter; and beyond them he could see once more the whole panorama of the harbour and the open sea. With his hands still in his pockets, he slumped down on one of the benches to his right, which were bounded from the rocks below by a low stone wall, and gazed out across the bay to a line of dunes on the far side. Often he found comfort in the changing colours and movement of the sea, a freedom from the constraints and demands of reason; but, today, it seemed salt and sterile, with no life in it. Fertility, fecundity was all on the land. And he got up and walked back into the mouth of the lane to a wall with a trailing vine over it. Freeing his hand and taking hold of one of its leaves, he stroked it between his finger and thumb, closing his eyes and feeling the living substance of it, ribbed and silky.
“When you’re 35, she’ll be 52.” His mother’s words rang in his head. That was at the start, seven or eight years ago, when he’d first told her about Alice.
“Well, she’s never going to be bloody 52, is she?” he snarled, turning away, angry at her warning, wanting her, and feeling cold in the sunshine.
Alice checked her watch; she still had twenty minutes or so. She leant back, studying the painting. She never quite managed to catch the light the way she wanted to. The sea was good, but the sky was too flat; it needed more variety of tone to let the light through. “Enough!” she told herself and started to pack away the tubes and brushes into the faded khaki bag her father had used for fishing.
Standing up, she took the canvas off the easel and then sat down again, feeling dizzy. She dipped her head and waited for the nausea to pass. Along with other possible symptoms, her consultant had told her to expect these spells of feeling sick and giddy. The swimming stopped; her vision cleared again and her stomach settled.
A movement in the corner of her eye caused her to look up. A little girl in a rust coloured smock was staring at her, her ginger curls caught in a shimmering halo of silver-gold sea. “Hello,” Alice smiled. The large blue eyes didn’t falter. “Are you sad?” the girl whispered, and Alice breathed in hard to quell the lurch in her chest. “No,” she said; then, not wanting to veil herself from the child’s openness, added: “Well, I was, a little bit, just for a moment; but I’m all right now. And how are you?”
“I’m three and that’s my mummy, there.” She spun round pointing with her small rubber spade to a young woman sitting on a towel with a stroller beside it. The woman waved and Alice raised her hand. “That’s your mummy and I’m Alice” she said, watching the child. “And what’s your name?”
The curly head turned. “Alith?” she said, screwing the corner of her mouth up into her cheek. There was a pause. “I’m Bella.”
“Bella,” Alice repeated. “What a beautiful name!”
The girl’s lips wormed against each other again, before she said, “Where’s your rabbit?”
Alice laughed, blinking away tears. “What a serious little face,” she said. She leant forward and brushed the girl’s cheek with the backs of her fingers. “I’m not that Alice, Bella; I’m a different one.”
The little face pouted and then the pout dissolved into a big grin. “That bad lady not chop our head off! I’ll chop hers off!” And she whirled her spade in the air and brought it crashing down, sending sand spurting over Alice’s bare feet.
“Bella, you’re a sweetheart!” Alice wanted to seize the little girl to her and hug her and never let go, such a fierce, warm, beautiful bundle of energy. She was going to be late she realized, glancing at her watch. “Oh, I’m sorry, Bella, but I’ve got to go.” She stood up. “I’m going to leave these here,” she said laying down her easel and collapsing the folding chair on top of it; “and cover them with my towel.” Then, taking the bag by its strap, she slipped it over her shoulder and picked up the canvas and her sandals
“Right,” she said and felt suddenly uncomfortable, under the child’s continuing gaze, at her hurried departure, as if she was letting her down, abandoning her. “If you’re here when I come back, Bella, maybe we could have a tea party, like the Mad Hatter. What do you think?”
As Alice moved round her, the little girl raised her arm, shielding her eyes from the glare. “I like green jelly,” she said.
“I’ll see what I can do. Bye, Bella.”
The blue eyes still watched her and Alice didn’t want to be the one to turn away. But, as the little girl showed no signs of moving, finally she walked off towards the same steps Robert had taken earlier. After a few yards, she tucked her sandals under her arm and turned for a final wave; but all she saw were Bella’s back and candelabra arms running towards her mother, a rust and ginger smudge of movement.
The graveyard stretched down, past the chapel at its centre, towards the beach and ocean below. It was a wild October day, with a big sea running; and the wind, lashing Robert’s hooded face, stung as if still laced with spray, even this high up. There was a mound in the lea of the perimeter wall, but no headstone yet. It was coming; he’d ordered it, although, in a way, he dreaded that final marker of her going. While the grave was unfinished, so was she. And, for now, he could come daily and be with her and feel her not yet gone. But afterwards, what then? Well, he had her final picture from the beach, so much like her in spirit, so full of light and natural loveliness, so like the little girl in the rusty smock in the foreground. He had puzzled over her and her ginger curls. Had there been a child near them that morning? He couldn’t remember. Or was she simply Alice’s memory of her own beginning? Maybe that explained the playful signature.
“I miss you, Alith,” he whispered and turned away.
Copywrite: Charles Becker, 2018.