I’ve come to the cottage to get away from it all. To hide; make myself disappear.
The old place on the coast has been in our family for generations. It’s certainly rundown but has its charm and if you’re handy with a wood-burner and camping gas, and only bring red wine because it is impossible to properly chill white, you’ll be happy enough. And we were. We used to come on holiday, when endless childhood summers eased through sunlit days into hazy nights in that house above the beach. Although, in all honesty, we probably came five or six times. Things from childhood always seem to go on forever, don’t they. Until they stop and everything changes.
I park my car on the lane and walk the last half mile along the track carved through clifftop grasses, passing the sign that states it is, too late I fear, unsuitable for vehicles. The sea is a shimmering blue haze this morning, but I hear it only as I turn the last corner. The way the cliffs fold and rise stops the sound of the waves, until the last moment. Then you’re taken by it, absorbed by it, driven mad by it, until it becomes the only thing inside your head.
The cottage looks more tumbledown than I remember; white stone walls marred by salt spray, the front door desiccated, but never mind. It’s the face of a tired old friend. The key turns easily in the lock and the cottage breaths out the scent of seaweed and brine.
It looks like someone has traipsed sand through. We were always told off about that, Michael and me. I remember, barefoot, up to our knees in the dunes in deep, tugging, shifting sand. Tufts of marram grass sharp, surprisingly so; cold pits where the sun has not made it. Being called in for tea by the ringing of the bell, rusted now, still sitting on the shelf by the window. Michael crouching in the dunes, saying, let’s stay and hide until the tide comes in. And I, terrified, saying no and tearing back up to the cottage.
From the window, I can see another sign declaring that the cliffs are dangerous, likely to collapse under your feet. The sea and the weather have eaten the land away. The other cottage, next door, collapsed one night two summers ago, we heard on the grapevine, the ruins at the bottom of the cliff, the innards of the earth exposed. Thank goodness it happened in winter when no fool would have been sleeping there. Nothing now, between me and the edge; between me and the water.
I take myself off down to the beach, follow in my own footsteps, expecting, wishing, to see Michael’s beside mine.
He said he wanted to get away; he wouldn’t say why, as if I should have known. I, his twin, ought to have done.
I used to know, feeling his back against mine when we bunked up here in the loft, the tiny window under the eaves open to the sea, listening to the grown-ups below drinking wine, sounding like big children playing. I knew, even before that, when Michael and I shared the same space inside our mother. But life hauls us apart, wrenches us out of childhood, into routine, missed calls, busy-ness, priorities. Being driven mad by it all.
I should have known.
The wind whips foam from the waves, the sea rowdy and animated. The beach a long stretch of bone-coloured strand, empty, glorious, too exquisite to bear. I step over bleached driftwood and rags of seaweed; the luminous interiors of shells break under my feet. The roar of the water is like a crowd of voices alongside me. Sand, wet and compressed. And only my footprints.
I wonder what Michael might have been thinking, those last moments. Then again, he might not have known they were his last. How can I say it? Didn’t intend them to be. He, too, came to the cottage to disappear. I glance out to sea, the endless chop of blue and slate, expecting, no, wanting to see him emerging, waving, laughing.
The light changes, as if blinking. A bank of white billowing on the horizon blows in. A sea fret, like a living being in the way it creeps up on me, enveloping me. The milky haze blunts my vision, suppresses the air, deadens it, muffles the waves. The haar has a cold embrace. It stills the land and the sea. Blurs the distinction between the two. Like the boundaries between twins. Between us.
Dead calm. At last, a reprieve from the noise. A seagull’s call cracks the air far away, echoing in another time zone. The gull, invisible, the cliffs no longer there, only myself on a pocket of sand, a wall of mist around me. The beach where we used to run, where we hid in the dunes, where Michael waited for the tide to come in, seems somewhere else entirely.
In the pressing quiet, the brackish vacuum surrounding me, I hear the clang of our old bell. Time for tea. I wonder if I will hear Michael? When he wanted to hide in the dunes and wait for the tide, I declared that I wouldn’t stay. I said no, for the sea will swallow me. And Michael laughed.
I shiver. I feel that I might, that I ought to, try to find my way back up to the cottage through the fog, but my bearings are gone. I might as well be upside down. Inside out. The quiet, the disorientation, is pulling me apart.
Blinded, I sense the mass of the sea moving beside me. Myself, now, disappearing.
Never mind childhood; things for grown-ups tend to go on forever, don’t they. Until they stop and everything changes. Until the sea swallows you.
Catherine Law is the author of five romantic novels set in the first half of the 20th century. Her books are informed by the tales our mothers and grandmothers tell us, and the secrets they keep. Born in Harrow, Catherine now lives in Margate near the sea, also a great inspiration for her writing.