A Trip to the Beach
By Barrie Sherwood
"It might be cold," Murray said.
"It's been raining a lot," he said, handing her the swimming bag from behind the door. "Windy too."
They were in the bedroom getting ready and he was making an extra effort to help with her things. She crouched at the chest of drawers and picked out a navy blue, one-piece bathing suit.
"You don't have anything brighter?' he said. "Something more visible?"
"Why?" she asked, stuffing it into the bag.
He shrugged. "I don't know."
He handed her the swimming goggles. She put the bulbous orange lenses to her eyes and made a grotesque face. "This is me in a year." She exaggerated the smile, tilting her head and twirling a finger next to her temple.
He stepped forward and took the goggles away from her face. "Please don't," he said. He put the goggles into the bag, then set about folding the beach towel.
She went past him to the bathroom. "What do I need that for?"
He sat down on the curule seat she used as a clotheshorse, the towel in his lap. It was a deep rich blue with gold monogram; they'd paid a hotel in Tioman a small fortune to keep it as a souvenir. How calm the sea had been then. He ran his fingers through the thick Egyptian cotton; how terrible to think that she would not use it – that it was only for show. After all, when you go to the beach, you take a towel. He had his own swimming things in a bag too. And a pair of binoculars.
She returned from the bathroom. "Shall we?"
"You don't want to put the bathing suit on now?" he asked. "It might save time once we're there."
"Are you in such a rush?"
"God no. I just meant. Well, wouldn't it be better if…"
She laughed. "Have you already started a Tinder profile?"
That levity that had brought him so much joy over the years now made him flinch. "Honestly, how can you?"
She came to him and tousled his hair. "Sorry."
He stood and pulled her in tight. They still fit together. She hadn't changed. People asked if she'd lost weight, said she'd gotten thinner recently. It was easier to acknowledge a physical change. But he knew it wasn't true. She was as fit now as she'd been when he first met her. Fifty-seven years old and he still loved the rondeur of her ass in his hands.
"Not again?" she said. "It was already perfect."
He was glad she remembered. "It just sort of happened, didn't it?"
"It certainly did. But don't you think we should be going?"
"Force of habit," he said, loosening his grip.
She put a hand on his cheek. "It's been a wonderful habit."
Now he was close to crying. It was impossible. He took his hands from her and looked at the ceiling to stop the tears welling.
"Courage," she said. As if he were the one who would need it.
They left the condo with everything in order. Three envelopes containing three letters that they had composed together lay in the top drawer of her dressing table. One each for the children, the third for him. He had promised her to return carefully, driving only when he felt ready, but what if he still got into a road accident on the way home? There had to be an explanation. An alibi. The third letter would prove he had known nothing of her intentions.
He'd made the same drive many times and, depressingly – if that were possible at this stage – there was nothing exceptional to note today. No sign that the world was in accord with what they were doing. Some trees flowering by the expressway would have been enough, a rainbow edging out from a squall of rain, a tangle of balloons freed from a child's clutches, but there was nothing of the sort. The apartment blocks, malls and condos were carried past in a sorry state, darkened by the night's rain and the still overcast sky, the barest recreation of a city that the set designers could manage. The most basic props to approximate a still ordinary world.
He searched for important things to tell her, just the same as he'd done when Beatrice went off to university, racking his brain for nuggets of wisdom he'd failed to impart in all the previous years. Nothing came to mind. The only thing that incited anything approaching conversation was the rear window of the car they followed across Woodlands Causeway: at left there was a stick family (mother, father, daughter, son and two dogs) and at right a sticker that read: Horn broken, watch for finger.
"People can be so crude," she said.
"Which sticker are you referring to?"
"Both. Where does it come from, this need to advertise everything? Why are they trying to sell the world their idea of family?"
Finally they passed through customs – as usual, no questions as to where they were going, a scenario he had envisioned many times over – and accelerated onto the raised highway. They turned off within several kilometres, headed north, but the road to the coast was as uninspiring as the expressways in Singapore had been. The landscape offered nothing they hadn't seen many times before: empty building lots, run down shophouses, billboards, half-finished construction projects, and then the endless palm plantations.
He turned to memory; three times over he almost began: "Do you remember when…"
He finally settled on: "Tell me what you remember."
"Oh dear," she sighed. She kept her eyes on the road ahead. Hands crossed on her lap and sitting primly, as if on the way to church. "Many things," she said. "So many good things. Only the good things."
They came to a roundabout. Instead of turning right, in the direction of the hotels on Desaru Beach, he took the first exit to the left and went up the coast. At an unmarked turn-off that he had reconnoitered twice already in the past month, he turned off the main road. The low-slung car juddered and scraped down a red dirt road through a palm plantation. They came to an open lot, overgrown with weeds, and he pulled in and stopped. They took her things from the boot and started along a pathway that disappeared through the undergrowth into a stand of casuarinas. He tried to take her hand where the pathway steepened but she slapped his hand away. "I'm not an invalid," she said.
They crested a bluff of sand and the seascape opened before them, the clouds as turbulent as the water. Each step they took pushed the land further back over the curve of the earth behind them, a place that didn't really exist anymore, a token of solidity in this vast and fluid amalgam of sky and sea. It was as if the earth were no more than a ship and they were standing at the very prow.
"I've never seen it like this," he said. "There are actually whitecaps."
She pulled her hair back out of her face and stared out to sea. "Is it far, you think?"
"The other side. I imagined it would be very far. But I can already feel that it won't be. It's only when you fight."
He knew that for someone standing on the beach, the horizon would be four kilometres away. How ghoulish that he had actually checked. How ghoulish, he realized, were the binoculars in his bag.
"I feel so light in my body," she said. "All the tension has gone right out of me." She smiled brightly for him, took his hand and they started down the short, steep slope.
The beach was empty, windswept, desolate. They had discussed this, whether it wouldn't be better if it were a crowded beach in a high season. Australia or Bali. People were swept away all the time. There would be no suspicion then. He would fall asleep on the sand and would not wake for several hours. He would search for her, then go to a lifeguard. But what of those lifeguards in their high-chairs with their twelve-power binoculars? What if they saw her out there? And all the jet skis and sailing boats and kite-surfers? There was too much potential for embarrassment.
She said, anyway, that she didn't want to be around people. "It's not sad, is it? That I prefer to be alone?"
The decision to come here had been made two months before, when "things", she told him, had "come to a head." The scenario she dreaded most was already occurring. Her memory so very precise and selective, she had recounted the incident to him in detail, paced to the unfolding horror of which it was sure to be only the first of many episodes. Their son Marcus had come over that morning to pick up a hotpot. Apparently he'd called the day before to tell her he was coming. All she knew was that the doorbell rang after breakfast and she found a tall, muscled man with a shaved head standing at the door in deck shoes and cargo shorts and a white polo shirt.
She put her hands to the lapels of her housecoat. "Yes?"
And then this man, brazen as anything, stepped forward and said, "Morning." Actually leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. "Something the matter?"
Yes, there was, she thought, but something told her not to admit it. She would feel her way into this situation. She stepped back and looked at him again. What was it she'd been told to do? Focus on the eyes. Forget about the rest.
Then it did come to her, recognition and a warm rush of relief. "No, nothing, sorry," she said as she closed the door behind them. "It was the bald head."
"So blur," he said, slipping off his shoes. "It's only been two years."
"Oh I suppose," she said. "When I close my eyes all I see is my little boy."
He walked down the hall. "Did you find it?"
She knew not to ask what. But when they came to the kitchen they found a gas hotpot already on the countertop, with all the utensils in a bag and an extra canister and even a bottle of white wine.
He looked at the label. "Wow." He turned to her. "Sure Dad won't notice this?"
"He has more bottles than he'll ever drink."
"Um, yeah… that's the point."
"Oh just take it. Whatever he plans to do with them, he has too many."
"Not vin jaune '91 he doesn't. D'Arlay even."
"Go on," she said. "Enjoy it. I'll take the blame."
She had been in tears when she finished telling Murray the story. "My own son," she said, over and over. "My own son. I didn't even recognize my own son."
But Murray had already known that something had happened. Marcus had come to return the bottle the next day. "It's one of your bottles for auction, no? I don't think she knew what it was."
Murray pushed the bottle back into his son's hands. "Keep it."
"When your mother gives you something, you take it," he said, unaccountably angry all of a sudden. "And be grateful."
"Fine then," Marcus said. "Jeez. Don't go changing your tune when she gives me a Romanée-Conti."
They walked across the intransigent sand until it hardened at the furthest reach of the waves, fanning down the beach. Smooth as aspic they spread, leaving a frothing line of foam that bubbled and disappeared when they retreated.
"So empty. I could get changed in the nude," she said, spinning around in a pirouette. "You wouldn't get excited?"
"I would," he said. "You know I would."
"Then I will." And her dress was over her head. She stood there in her bra and panties, the lace very white in the sun. And then they were off too, kicked into a tangle on the sand, and she was facing the sun with her eyes closed and her arms held up like some Greek or Mayan priestess.
"We've never been to a nudist beach," she said. "Or what do you call it, naturalist." She turned to him with a frown. "Or did we ever?"
"No, we didn't."
"It's wonderful to be naked," she said, "but how terrible to see other people's bits."
"You've turned prudish."
"Me? Prudish? I'm the one who's naked!" She tilted her head and looked askance at the sky. "Coming here today… to do this… it must be just about the complete opposite of prudishness, wouldn't you say?"
He knelt down and took the bathing suit out of her bag. "It doesn't seem necessary, does it?" she said, but stepped into it and he pulled it up to her waist. She slipped her arms under the straps and shrugged it on. He held out the goggles.
"I don't think I'll wear them after all," she said. "What's there to see?"
"The seawater will sting your eyes."
Her hands went to her hips. "How many times have I been swimming in the sea?"
He tried to think.
"That was rhetorical."
"Perhaps you can just put them on your forehead. If you need them. Just in case."
"There's no more just in case," she said.
She let him put the towel around her shoulders and they stood holding hands in the intermittent rays of sun and the wind off the water.
He was waiting. Waiting for her to change her mind. To submit to the logic he'd tried to convince her of. Practically every day there was something new in the papers or online if you went looking for it. Some new test with amazing results. She could still come home. Go on a diet of mackerel, coconut oil, walnuts, Omega 3 capsules and Sudoku. Volunteer for every experiment. They could just have a swim, get back in the new car and live out the day as if nothing were amiss.
If it had to be, it could be next week. There'd be time for another hike around the reservoir. Another humble hawker-centre lunch or crazily expensive menu degustation overlooking the CBD. One more opera or musical – it didn't matter what so long as she wore that black gown and they drank flutes of champagne at the intermission. Seven more nights. Seven more lazy breakfasts.
Or they could fly away! They could go anywhere. What the hell did you need a memory for when everything was new? Peru, Japan, Morocco – you'd have to start with the basics anyway.
It could be put off. No one said it had to be today.
She raised his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles. "When they ask, you'll explain?"
He nodded at the sea, which was only a blur.
"I couldn't become an object of pity," she said. "I couldn't put them in that position. I never could suffer to see them embarrassed, Murray."
"Always so protective," he said, and cleared his throat. Cleared it again. "But you know they wouldn't be."
She shook her head. "You repeat it to them, what I wrote in the letters. No love without dignity. When standards slip, so does love. You'll help them understand?"
Now he was wiping tears away, pulling her in, crushing her against him.
"Shh," she said. She tried to take a step backwards. He held onto her. She kissed his cheek and breathed into his ear. "It's time."
Still he wouldn't let her go.
"We've said everything, my love." She held his cheeks and looked into his eyes. "Let me."
He wiped his eyes, and she slipped from his arms. The towel was at his feet now and she was walking down the beach towards the water. A wave came in around her ankles. He crouched on the sand, ready to vomit, but his throat was rigid with fear. He couldn't watch; he couldn't look away. She was up to her knees now. The current made swirls of white-water around her legs. She took another few steps, her body rigid, and then she bent her knees and sank into the water before setting off in a breast stroke.
He shook his head, muttering like an imbecile. His soul was groaning. How could he suffer to watch this? Let alone abide the thought of this scene replaying in his memory for the rest of his days? Before she had swum a hundred metres from shore he was tearing off his shirt shoes trousers and running down the beach in his boxer shorts. He plunged into the water and went after her in a crawl, head up, ducking through the onrushing waves.
"Christine!" he yelled. "Christine!"
It was all he could do to call out and keep swimming and breathing. The waves that had seemed diminutive from the shore were breaking over his head and his chest was constricted with fear. He was frantic that he'd already lost her. But when he dove beneath another wave and struggled to the top of the next one, he found her right there before him. Her dark, slick hair, the skin of her cheeks and forehead taut across her skull.
She was horrified. "Go back Murray," she cried. "Please go back. It's dangerous."
"I don't care," he gasped. "I don't care."
"Go back," she said, her brown eyes black above the black water. "Please."
"We could try something else."
"Go please!" Her face was contorted now with anger and worry. "You promised me. I have to know you're safe."
He tread water, ducking the waves, caught between the long habit of deference to a strong-willed wife and the sensible option of just forcing this intransigent woman back to shore.
"Go, my love," she said, softer now. "Go back."
No love without dignity. He could not drag her back. He took a stroke forward and, jostled by the waves, their bodies met. It was not a kiss – their wet, hard faces brushed against one another, and she eased him away. Not quite a push, but with the next wave the distance between them grew. His eyes were stinging with salt. He ducked beneath another oncoming wave. Underwater, he let his body turn with the wave's momentum.
Already the towel and the rest of their things were far to his left. The current was carrying him with unsettling insistence. He thought of what she'd said and swam hard for shore. When, finally, he stumbled in to waist-deep water and turned to face the sea again, he raised his arms. "I'm here! I'm safe!"
He ran down the shore in the same direction as the current, hoping to keep pace with her though he could no longer see her in the waves. Again and again he shouted into the stiff wind.
"I'm safe, Christine!"
He stopped and kneeled on the sand. He remembered how, years before, he'd kept pace with her on the other side of a wall of greenish glass in the airport. How, when he could follow no further, they met at the glass and – oh it was worse than any Hollywood film! – pressed their hands together on either side of the partition. They'd been together for six months and would be apart for only two. He would have groaned to see anyone else be so demonstrative and sentimental, but he hadn't hesitated to raise his palm and press it against the glass. He knew that it was only given to you a finite number of times to embrace – without doubt or regret – every romantic cliché.
Still the ragged waves would not reveal her. His whole body was shaking now. When had the wind ever been this cold? He ran back down the beach to get dressed, then mounted the sandy rise to survey the seascape, trying to focus on the furrows of black water between the white rows of incoming waves, flanked to the offing where the sun made a bright patch on the grey sea. But he could not scan a whole row of waves before losing his place. It was like trying to read a document as it came shunting out of a computer printer. Her hair, slick and black, her body in that navy blue swimsuit… he would never see her among the whitecaps. The binoculars were in his bag, but the thought of using them made him want to retch.
He dropped to the cool sand and sat with his forearms on his knees, staring out at the swift clouds and their swifter shadows, rippling across the vast plain of the sea. Then he let his body sink into the fitted contours of the sand and he stared up at the rapid sky, exhaling months of tension. Every muscle went slack. It was over.
He hadn't realised how tight his nerves had been, how much on edge. How many times in the past months had he avoided pursuing a point of conversation she'd so suddenly lost track of? How many times had he avoided making comments on her forgetfulness? He had taken to meticulously organizing her days to avoid any awkward moments. Sometimes it had worked, sometimes it hadn't. He was experienced at micro-managing people, but she was not so good at being micro-managed.
His own health had suffered too. All his life working for an easy retirement and then this. She'd said over and over that it was for the children she was doing it, but it was for him too.
And now it was done. She had achieved what she had so desperately wanted. There was a sickening satisfaction in it. He couldn't have said whether he was hungry or thirsty now, warm or cold – but already he knew this void would be filled.
He sat up and looked inland. Somewhere back there across the palm groves and the city and the causeway was home. And the children. Who would not just question his judgment, but his own mental health. They would read their letters and look at him in horror. How could you have let her?
He would tell them to read the letters again. To understand what she was telling them. How could he have denied her?
"For 30 years I've honoured her," he said out loud, defending himself, as if the children were there with him. "Love and cherish, I don't think I even understand what those words mean, but honour? Yes."
The sun slashed at the ragged clouds above the palm plantations. The land would become a place of promise once again. It was as if he had just returned from years and years at sea. He would go back through the casuarina trees to the car, drive to the nearest town and plead for a useless search. And then a new stage of his life would begin.
He picked up the swimming bag, turned for the last time and stared at the elements into which she was already dissolving. The waves came in even as an assembly line. Bands of white moving across the steely water to founder and spread on the shore. As he watched, down the beachy maybe three hundred yards, something detached itself from the regiment. Someone was walking through knee-high surf, wading into shore. Murray dropped the bag and went running over the bluff's edge – too steep, too steep! Shoulder-first he tumbled to the base. Spread-eagled, grit in his mouth and eyes, he pushed himself back onto his feet and ran down the beach spitting and crying.
Oh thank god they had failed! They would find some other, sane solution. He hadn't run like this in years and his chest burned. Into the shallows he went bounding, fell, struggled to his feet and charged towards her. "Christine!" he coughed, his throat a stinging mess of phlegm and sand and salt-water.
She was shivering, her arms wrapped tightly around her body. She made no gesture towards him. She looked disoriented, uncertain.
"Oh my love," he heaved, "oh my love!" He went to take her in his arms and she recoiled, her features blue and drawn, her eyes wary.
"Come in," he said, "come in to shore."
She would not take his hand.
"It's finished this, this… ridiculous plan," he said.
But still she did not move. Her head shook slightly, from the cool wind or fear he could not tell. He went to put an arm around her but she stepped away again, no sign of warmth or even recognition in her eyes.
"Come, Christine. Please," he said.
And though her gaze did not soften, she did eventually let him take her by the elbow and guide her to the shore.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019