Monday, 6 December 2010

The White Tissue

A while ago I was walking along a coast path in Cornwall and saw a woman in the distance on an isolated beach - she looked out of place and I couldn't work out where she was heading. Next time I looked for her she had gone. That memory has stayed with me and has turned into another short story -

The White Tissue

This was normally a favourite walk, a couple of hours through varied scenery which took in woodland, coast path, a beach and some fields, but today it was somehow tedious. The walk starts with a long stroll through beech woodland, which is where he was now. Even on overcast days these beautiful and airy woods evoked a sense of well being which is hard to experience anywhere else. He remembered reading somewhere in a magazine that the Japanese have a phrase for the sense of peace and harmony found in woodlands, shinrin-yoku or “wood-air bathing,” strange the things you remember. The article described the sensation of wallowing in the chemicals given out by ancient trees, allowing them to wash over and through your body bringing forth peaceful thoughts and a calm disposition. This was exactly how he felt about this place, but today those chemicals, if they were exuding at all, hardly dampened the growing feelings of irritation and disquiet.

A dull, heavy sky and a clammy heat combined to make him feel uncomfortable. Sweat pricked through his skin and his clothes cloyed. He thought about turning back but decided to press on, no doubt it would get better.

No dancing, dappled light lit the path, no shadows teased his eyes; not even a bird trilled in delight somewhere far away; this was not a day for play. A sudden scurrying in the undergrowth momentarily distracted him, but whatever it was fled into the shadows and was gone, leaving him alone.
He knew the path ended at a fence where a wooden stile led onto a stretch of coast. He yearned to get there and to a vista across the sea; to feel the fresh breeze on his face.

The trees had become menacingly oppressive with each step. He could barely bring himself to admit it but a growing sense of panic was beginning to take hold as he imagined the branches reaching down, their hard twigs scratching his face and the saw-toothed leaves covering his mouth. Stupid, childish thoughts! He hurried on, occasionally glancing rapidly behind him, and anger at his inability to lift himself from this deepening mood grew stronger.

The woodland ended abruptly at the fence and for a few seconds he rested at the wooden stile before climbing over, his hands held onto the upright posts as though their man made nature was vital to restoring his balance. The rounded ends were polished through years of use. He gently stroked the smooth surface, reassured by their message of solidity and the continuity of human endeavour. Calmer, he climbed over and the menace of the woodland began to fade, even so he was left with a slight feeling of nausea and his heart was beating a little too strongly. But as he looked up to the path ahead he realised he would not see the sea for another half a mile. How could he have forgotten the high, dense hedges that hemmed in the narrow path, blocking the view of the sea? On other days he loved this short stretch of the track. The tangled vegetation would have been an endless source of treasures waiting to be found. A darting butterfly here, a focussed bumblebee there and a tantalising song of an unidentified bird that was difficult to glimpse. Often this section could take two hours of watching, searching, listening, sketching. But today it was a resolute and impenetrable wall. No life stirred in its depths, or at least nothing that he was capable of finding. He pressed on.

The coast path gradually led down to the beach and, mercifully, the hedge lowered and petered out. At last he could see the sea. It was calm and because of the heaviness of the weather the sea bled into the sky on the horizon. The lack of refreshing breeze was frustrating, but at least he could see into the distance and for a long while he stared at the vastness of the dark grey-green water that swayed gently to and fro, but lacking its normal energy. Occasionally, white gulls soared silently in the distance on their way to unknown places; otherwise it was an empty scene. He turned back to the path to look at the short stretch of beach ahead, only 200 metres in length at most and dissected by a small stream that trickled onto the sand and stones from the fields behind. The stream marked the point where the path left the beach again and headed inland towards the meadows and farm buildings perhaps a mile away. It was then he saw her for the first time.

A woman was carefully walking parallel to the sea, picking her way across the flattened pebbles. Two things struck him immediately as odd, the way she was dressed and the direction in which she was heading. Her clothes seemed to him to be more suited to the deck of a classy yacht, not a rather lonely beach far from any moorings, and certainly a long way from what he thought would be the right kind of setting. She was dressed in tight white jeans with a gold belt and a tight white t-shirt that clung to her slim but ageing body. Her gold pumps were not designed for serious walking, they were meant to be seen on clean wooden decks or polished stone floors. What was she doing here? To be honest this beach wasn’t attractive, it was smelly because of the rotting seaweed that fringed the shoreline; a wonderful habitat for sand hoppers, but a surprising choice for an expensively dressed, middle-aged woman. Her dyed blonde hair fell around her shoulders, but it was brittle and thin. He felt over-critical but couldn’t help thinking she had the look of someone who couldn’t accept that the glossiness of youth had passed. All this was summarised in a few seconds and without seeing her face because she was walking away from him beyond the stream and the coast path towards the far end of the beach where no one ever seemed to go.

The sight of another person on this surprisingly gloomy walk immediately cheered his spirits. He wanted to walk up to her, chat about the oppressive weather and the lack of activity all around, which was highly unusual. Where was she from? Did she know this area well? If she didn’t mind him asking, was she lost? Perhaps he could help show her the way? His pace quickened and his mood began to lift. He watched her walking slowly away from him, in a short time she would reach the cliffs at the far end of the beach and then she would realise she had missed the footpath onto the fields. He knew the cliffs were sandy and unstable, certainly too dangerous to climb, and so she would have to walk back this way to the stream and perhaps they could share the journey for while?

The track he was on led to a stile to climb over and onto the beach. He often stood on the raised platform to look around. Many times he had seen cormorants fishing just off shore and loved their primeval snake like necks and dagger beaks and always marvelled at their dark bodies held low in the water and how they dived from view in an instant; mini monsters fishing the deep. For a few seconds he glanced out to sea, perhaps he could point them out to the woman in white and tell her how throwing stones into the water could draw them closer, but today they were hunting elsewhere.

He climbed over the stile and headed out across the beach, but suddenly he stopped in total confusion. The woman had disappeared. How ridiculous! He couldn’t have imagined her, she was right there in front of him only a short while ago. She couldn’t have run back to the path, he would certainly have noticed, and he knew the distant cliffs were un-scalable. So where was she? There was absolutely no sign. He walked quickly along the waters edge to where she had been only moments before. Wet impressions of the soles of her shoes were still on some of the flatter stones, but they stopped after a while and were rapidly evaporating. He looked around for any sign but she had gone, simply disappeared into thin air. In the distance something small and white stood out against the grey stones, a fragment of hope.
He ran to the spot where the snowy paper handkerchief grew heavy and formless on the wet, dark slabs of rock. It was quickly losing its structure and submitting to the destructive power of water. The clawing hands of the waves repeatedly tried to grasp it and take it out to sea, in a few moments they would succeed and all traces of her would be gone.

Despair swept over him and he felt unbearably tired. As the sea claimed the tissue and dragged it away he sank to the ground. All he could do was wait for her to return, as she must. Nothing so real could go forever, that wasn’t the way of things. Yes, she would certainly come back, he knew she would, it was just a matter of time.

As the grasping waves came closer he sank lower onto the beach. Time is all it would take, and just like the sea and sky, time and anticipation merged, heavy and damp as the air.

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