The sea. Rough today, and grey, getting ever closer. Yesterday was calmer. I cannot speak for tomorrow. Today, though, the sea is not for swimming. The sea.
Jessica did not shiver when the rain started falling. She did not move as the sea drew nearer. It was still too far away for her to worry. On this deserted beach, miles from home, she at last began to relax.
“No one here knows me,” she assured herself. In fact she had not seen another soul for hours. Occasionally she would hear a train fly by, just a few feet back but ten meters higher.
Though tempted to rest, she never let her eyes close. Jessica simply sat on the soft pebbles with her back resting on hard rock and watched the sea draw nearer.
“No one here knows me,” she said again. She could not rightly say where here was exactly. South of where she started, somewhere before the last station. Not really so far from home, but more than far enough.
Her wrist itched. Jessica tried to ignore the urge to scratch until it faded away. It never did. Her feet had grown numb. Not for the first time she wished her shoes had not been left behind.
“Are you alright there, dear?” asked a nearby voice. Jessica’s head snapped to her right. An old woman stood close, her hands gripping a leash. She smiled patiently at Jessica, who looked back down at her feet.
“I’m fine, thanks,” Jessica murmured. For a brief moment she considered running. No one here knows me. She reasoned that she was in no danger. This was just some old woman, walking a dog.
She looked back at the woman. There was no dog. There was nothing at all attached to the end of the leash. The old lady still had the same patient smile etched on her face.
“Do you mind if I sit with you a moment, dear?” the old lady asked. Jessica did not respond. The woman walked over slowly and sat down. She made almost no noise as she moved. She placed the leash on the pebbles to her left, between herself and Jessica.
“I am looking for my old companion,” the woman said, inclining her head towards the leash. “At, I called him. Short for Atlantis.” She sniffed. “I never much liked the name, but my daughter insisted. I never could refuse her anything, not when she was little.”
Again Jessica considered fleeing. The woman spoke as though she had known her far longer than thirty seconds. Her voice was too familiar for Jessica’s taste, too pleasant. She spoke as though she and Jessica were friends.
“No one here knows me,” Jessica whispered to herself.
“What was that, dear?” The patient smile was back.
“Oh, nothing. Really. I was just humming,” she lied quickly.
“Of course, dear. I rather like humming. I rather like anything musical, really, though I never could sing.” She tittered. “Whistling, now that I could manage. He used to like my whistling, At, yes he did.” She sighed and stared at the sea.
A long moment passed. Eventually Jessica could not bear the silence any longer.
“What happened to At?” she asked. The old lady smiled briefly, then turned her face away from the water.
“I woke up one morning and he was gone. I must have left the front door unlocked. My daughter helped me search, but he had simply vanished.” She sighed again. “This was years ago, you understand. I never saw him again.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jessica, and was surprised to find that she meant it.
“Thank you, dear.” The old lady smiled warmly. “I live near this pebble beach, you see. We used to take walks here, me and him. For the longest time I told myself At would come running through the tide one day if only I was there to greet him. That’s why I always brought the leash.”
“And now?” Jessica asked quietly.
“Habit, dear. It is still a place worth walking, even on a day such as this.”
The rain started to ease. The tide had not drawn closer for a long time. The sea was just as rough. Her feet were still numb.
“Do mind if I ask you a question, dear? After this one, of course.” She tittered again.
“Forgive me for being nosey, I just wondered. Why aren’t you wearing shoes, dear?”
Her wrist itched harder than ever. She took one breath, then another. No one here knows me. She saw no reason to lie.
“I lost them,” she said. “I mean, I forgot them.” Her wrist begged her to scratch it.
“And you can’t go back for them.” It was a statement, not a question. Jessica nodded. The old lady looked back out at the sea.
They stayed that way for a long time, sitting in silence and watching the water.
She glanced at the old woman, examining her appearance for the first time. Her coat was long, furry and black. Her hat was purple and plain. She was not wearing glasses, but Jessica guessed she usually did by the way she squinted. Her face was round but kind.
Jessica started to cry. Quietly, at first, and slowly, for a little while. Soon the tears were streaming down her face. Her whimpers turned to wails. She shook. The old lady wrapped her arms around her and Jessica sobbed into the furry coat.
“Let it out, dear. Let it all out.” Her voice was soothing. She gently rocked Jessica back and forth. “Let it out now.”
She clutched the old lady and sobbed even harder.
“I know, dear. I know. I was your age once. People my age always say you young people have it easy.” She shook her head. “I have never found that to be the case. We were too busy to spend much time thinking, I reckon, back then. I wonder how we would have felt if we had. Thought more, I mean.”
The sobs grew quieter know. Though still crying, Jessica’s breathing was returning to normal. She clutched the woman tighter.
“That’s not the problem here, is it, dear?” Jessica shook her head. “No, I thought not. You are not the problem, dear, it’s the rest of them.” This time it was the old lady’s turn to clutch tighter. The tears had finally stopped flowing.
They held each other until the rain started falling heavily again. They let go of each other, wordlessly, and climbed to their feet. Their eyes met for the first time and the old lady smiled.
“You are not the problem, dear,” she whispered. Slowly she walked back the way she had come. Jessica watched her leave. She was tempted to follow, to call out, but did nothing. Eventually the woman slipped beyond the horizon.
Jessica had never even learned her name. She did not know her daughter’s name either. She did not know where she lived exactly, or where she had grown up. She did not know if she had ever found At.
When she left that pebble beach, not long after the old lady, Jessica did not go home. Her wrist no longer itched. She found the last station and took another train west. She worked a couple bad jobs before she found a decent one. She shared apartments with every kind of person. Bit by bit, she built a life for herself in a modest south-west town.
A year later she had made enough money to afford a dog.
Sometimes, when her weekend was free and money was not tight, she liked to take the train back to that pebble beach and walk along it with her dog. She never saw the old lady again. Jessica hoped she was okay. She hoped that she had found At.
On a clear day, some three years after first setting foot on the beach, she sat on her old spot by the cliff and stared out to sea. It was calm today, if not quite blue. Georgie, her faithful companion, chased his tail nearby. With her back against the hard rock she finally closed her eyes.
Jessica smiled. Someone here knows me.
Bríon Hoban was born and is currently living in Dublin, Ireland. He has a BA in Journalism from Dublin City University and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing in University College Dublin. He works part-time as a court reporter and has been published in national newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Irish Independent. His creative work has been featured in Caveat Lector and he is currently Deputy Fiction Editor of HCE Review.