A walk by the sea (1-10)

1.

The woman stood outside her cottage, gazing at the angry skies above her. All the hues and tints of blue were present, painting the perfect canvas of a stormy summer afternoon. She marvelled at the sight, with her squinting eye following the thin ribbon of silvery light which separated the heavens from the earth, far away on the vast stretches of sea before her. She knew that the sun was struggling to poke through the thick layers of cloud, but apart from the sparkling ribbon of light there was no light to be seen. Tiny seabirds flew across the endless blue, twirling in circles, as if trying to mix the wonderful colours even more. She took deep breaths of the air which was full of salt and depth and all the health that the sea only can provide; she felt her lungs burst with the heavy odour of rain beckoning at her from the distance, and the summer breeze which was loaded with the fresh scent of flowers.

The air was too moist: she could not carry her tools and paints outside today, but she was not inclined to paint inside the house either, trapped within four walls. She sighed, and turned on her heel to walk back in the house. She would call her son, ask him how they were doing in their new apartment in Broyton. She also needed to do some shopping, as she was completely out of fresh fruit and bread. Not to mention that despite her unwillingness to admit it, she was craving for human contact. Just to see someone close to her always made her day. She watched their faces, the strange expressions and features, and locked them inside her head to release them on her canvases much later, when her fertile imagination was ready to picture them in context with the world. She did not have many acquaintances in Bodeford, but she preferred it that way. She knew she was talked about as a recluse, and sometimes she relished the thought. After all, she was a recluse; she liked being alone, and having already gone through her best years, she thought it best to keep to herself, and her art.

Talking to Joseph did never take her long. He usually kept to formalities, mentioning his work, his wife, and their baby but very briefly. He asked about her in a polite manner, as she had always taught him. She was proud of Joseph, even though at times she felt a tingling sensation around her heart, something similar to regret. Had she spent more time with him, instead of her canvases- but that was spilt milk, and there was nothing she could do about it now. She smiled at his strict intonation and demure laughter when she tried to cheer him up with a silly seaside joke. After placing down the receiver, she looked up at the sky to see a tiny ray of sunshine scan the soft waves underneath.

Stepping out of the house she was once more greeted by the wonderful, heavy smell of rain, the tears of the deities and the sea, their everlasting cradle. The strong wind was carrying drops of water to her face, and she closed her eyes when they hit her wrinkled skin. Even an almost withered flower deserved to be watered. Mary considered herself past the age when she deserved anything; nevertheless, the small gifts of nature she would always receive happily. They came free and unexpected, and she did not have to feel burdened by them, or indebted to anyone. They were God’s gifts to one of His flawed creatures, acts of pity towards a fallen human being; as she received these tiny gifts every day, she smiled at herself, picturing the Old man above count her mistakes and trying to save her soul by sending more and more little pieces of redemption in the hope that one day she would finally repent, and change her ways. Well, her ways she would not change, and there was nothing to repent of. She had had a good life, decent and eventful; she had loved many people, and she had been loved, sometimes immorally, but loved nevertheless. She would not have exchanged lives with anyone she knew.

And now she had her solitude in the glorious gloominess of a secluded little haven of her own. A tiny village with hardly a thousand people was where she chose to live her life to the final breaths. Until then, she would have a few good years, she would finish a few dozens of paintings that just may, in the future, become precious and sellable. She did not hanker for fame; she did spend delicious moments envisaging crowded galleries where audiences would stare at her expressionist art filled with awe- but it was as far as she got with her thoughts. She would never be a Picasso, but she never wanted to be one. She had her vision, she had her feelings, and she was happy to try and paint them. After all, there was no road leading to happiness: the road itself was happiness.

The tiny market was a constant source of wonder for her: on several square metres there were squeezed in only a few tables, but there had not been one single occasion when she did not return satisfied, with her basket full of goods. She turned the peaches and smelled the apricots, choosing three apples for her next still life painting. The deep violet of the onions made her mouth water, already thinking of the shades of blue and red she would use to paint them. She bought sweet potatoes for a mash later on that day, and two slices of juicy steak she would grill for herself in her garden, at dusk. She did not care too much for trendy culinary customs of the present; she had always eaten everything, in moderation, and the same diet had kept most of her ancestors alive for almost a century. She lifted a pear in the most maddening shades of yellow and orange and red to her nose: it had such an exquisite scent that she got dizzy for a moment. Smiling, she bought two pounds of them. As nothing else was needed, she waved to the sellers who always saved the best bits for her, and directed her steps toward her favourite place in the world.

On her left, as far as her eyes could see, huge rocks lifted to the skies; black and grey and white and brown spots amidst green patches of moss or adventurous shrubs. The waves attacked these immobile rocks, tiny specks of dust for anyone else but humans. For her, they signified all that she, and humankind as it was, could never be: lasting bits of history, an eternity that will remain untouched by sea or wind or rain or sun. She liked to stand before those pieces of perpetuity in silent acknowledgement of her own mortality. Such a short time for such a long chain of emotions and events! As her years took her closer to that fated moment no one could avoid, she had more and more ideas she wanted accomplished: she wanted a school for the children of families who could not afford tuition for their own, she wanted to create an organization for the Devon area which would help artists in need, she wanted to travel, she wanted to create- well, paint. It was the only type of creation she was granted. But it was creation, and it was satisfying.

The waves came and went, the sparkling white foam of water splashed against the rocks, and retreated, and returned, and gurgled back, and came back once more. The sounds of water against earth and stone were deafening, yet very soothing. She did not hear too much when the waves screamed against the rocks, and it was good. She felt rooted in the sand, part of the landscape, part of a little piece of a momentous present. It was almost painful, but she revelled in the explosion of sound and scent and colour. She saw it all as a vast canvas she could probably never paint, because it was beyond her capacities. There was not enough blue, not enough black and ochre and rust and bronze and silver and alabaster and olive and azure to depict what her eyes witnessed every single time she came to watch the sea interact with the beach, her beach. She had lived in Bodeford for almost nine years now, but never once had she met a single soul on her lonely afternoon promenades. It almost made her believe she was the only living creature left on the surface of the earth; she was uncertain whether the thought should make her happy or scared, but the illusion stayed with her as long as she stood there, immobile and reverent.

That day’s walk by the sea, however, would upset her usual routine, and life, as she knew it, would roll on in completely different grooves. Haha, she thought, laughing at the dramatic idea that popped inside her brain. She was not a writer, and she usually thought in colours, not words. Why did she have this sudden thought that shaped itself into tangible feelings? Shaking her head, she turned to walk a bit further, towards the city. A sudden gust of wind tore the hairpin from her bun- her favourite pin, given to her by her grandmother, such a long time ago. She reached for it in distress, but it had already gone underneath the waves, and they took it with them mercilessly, as accepting an offering, a sacrifice. She sighed and tried to collect her thick braids of hair; she would have to return to the house now.

Picking up her basket and straightening up, she noticed a lonely figure at quite a distance from her. Standing by the sea, with feet already in the water, looking ahead, into the waves, and far away. It was not moving, and it was dressed in black. It must be a man, Mary thought, and she stood to watch him from the safety that the large shrubs were giving her. She even forgot to place her heavy basket down. He was standing there as part of the sea, as a fragile reminder of a rock, very thin and very delicate. She knew that one larger wave would have crushed him to dust and dirt, and the thought gave her immeasurable thrill, not because she delighted in the death of another human being, but because her artistic self revelled in anything that transcended reality. She pictured it all, and already saw the colour of blood and struggle and resignation. Perhaps he wanted to die. She put her basket down, preparing to run towards him in case he did intend to do something stupid.

But he was not going to die that day. He turned slowly, and walked back into the safety of buildings and gardens. When he disappeared, she sighed a sigh of relief- and also, of regret. She may have wanted to approach him, see him from closer. But the sight of his solitary figure rooted in the waves was engraved in her mind, and as she started walking back to her house with briskly steps, she felt gratitude for yet another wonderful painting that was already starting to shape before her inner eye. She knew that it would be ready before the night would fall: she always painted quickly when something attracted her attention like this.

This time, however, she felt it was more. She felt a strange sympathy towards the lonely human being, and despite her self-inflicted solitude, she felt drawn to him, curious of him, and protective of him. As she hurriedly set up her paintstand and grabbed her brushes and paints, she wondered whether she would see him again.

2.

It was getting late, but he never missed his early evening walk, and he was not going to do it today either. The rain had soaked up the world in a mad frenzy of scents and colours and he relished the thought of going out, ambling along the beach, being on his own, not saying a word to anyone, not doing anything but enjoying the landscape. He found that England by the sea was spectacular, yet very restrained; it did not overwhelm the senses, but provided enough aesthetic joy to make him forget the reasons he had chosen to move here, so far from his home.

The curvy, narrow path leading from his house to the main road was ornate with pebbles and flowers, as in fact every single garden in the area. Wherever he looked, there was a group of flowers, or a bush, an exotic shrub, a smaller tree. From all the rain that poured down in every season, the greens were greener than in any other country he had ever been to. He surprised himself by noticing these things: he had never been a fan of nature really, growing up as a city boy, then being hijacked by fame. But some things come later in life, and he knew that one chapter of his life was over. He would have to go on to the next one, even though he had no clue where to start picking up the pieces. There was only one thing he was good at, and that was all over.

The main road ended and he paced forward onto the straight and uneven path that led to the beach, the most perfect beach he had ever seen. The first night he went there he thought he was part of a gothic tale: the moon shone down on him with a blinding, bright face, the stars twinkled and sparkled above him everywhere he could see, and the waves, subdued by the phase of the moon and the night, lapped at the rocks silently, softly, as if kissing them, wooing them and stroking their stone-cold cheeks. He had stood there for hours on end, fascinated by the view. It was so soothing, yet so ominous, that he felt he was living a life completely different from his own. He almost expected a white-robed spectre to arise from the misty waves and come forth to claim his soul. He was not afraid of anything, and therefore, he would have welcomed almost any creature, living or inanimate.

But no one ever came to that beach. He walked out every night, and no one was there. Was he happy? Yes, he was: he had chosen to live alone, and discover the paths he needed to take to move on. Did he miss the company of others? Loosh, Tariqh, his mom? He did. He craved to see them and spend time with them, as they had been his pillars, his soft places to fall. He had always felt safe because of the love he received from them- and now, he felt alone, and weak. Nevertheless, he had to be where he was. He knew he would manage- it just felt very difficult.

The sun was laying to rest on the pillows of the sea, and the sky was soon covered with gloomy clouds, shutting the light off from the earth. He especially loved to walk in a drizzle: getting his hair and his face wet had always made him feel alive. His hands in his pockets, taking step after step on the rocky path, kicking into small pebbles on the way, he arrived to the sea.

It lay vast ahead of him, endless, peaceful, so peaceful, not yet sensing the powers of the storm which was brewing somewhere across over France. The thin ribbon of light on the horizon seemed out of this world; where he stood, there was sunshine, the last bits of it, and in the distance, the anger of the elements was getting ready to lash out against man. He squinted into the glorious view before him, realizing his glasses needed an upgrade, and wondering how strange man was: bathed in sunshine, he viewed the threatening sight as magical, and powerful, and breathtaking, but not scary. He knew that in the eye of the storm nothing would ever be the same, but he was still so far from it. Here, and now, he had the sun, and he was able to look at the dark skies as at something from a painting. He would always have the painting hang on his wall. He would always have the chance to ponder how lucky he was: he had had his share of material gain, of being idolized by millions, of giving love and hope to so many. He had probably touched more lives, in the good way, than many others who strove to do so.

The clouds covered the whole of the sky by now, and as his eye searched the vast grey heavenly fields for a patch of pure blue, he knew that rain was coming. Inhaling, he kept the air in his lungs until his eyes started to see stars and his ears started buzzing. He felt at peace, he felt home. He knew that understanding his place in the world would not be delayed longer than meant to be, and that certainty kept him sane, and kept him from resorting to easy ways of escaping truth.

To his surprise, from the corner of his eye he spotted the shape of a human being a good distance away from him. It was so tiny and slender that he judged it to be a woman. Squinting, he saw that her hair was a silvery grey, and she was staring ahead at the sea like he had been. Just then, a gust of wind rustled the bush nearby, and he saw that she stooped with a quick motion as if to catch something. When she straightened up, her hair was floating all around her in a silvery frenzy. She turned to walk back and he turned to stare at the sea again. For some reason, he didn’t want the stranger to see that he discovered her. She probably was a recluse just like him, and she must have had a good reason to come to this part of the beach where there was hardly anyone. Well, at least up to now. He kept looking ahead, revelling in the sight of sea and skies, listening to the neverending song of the waves hitting the rocks. The sounds were beautiful and ethereal, and he found himself hum a haunting melody, quietly, in a subdued voice, only for himself. He had not sung in a long time, and hearing himself was a strange experience, especially without the magnifying effect of the amplifiers and the microphone, the wild lashing of the guitar, the crazy beat of the drums and Lucia’s demonic dealings with her violin. It had been long years… years he had spent doing nothing, waiting for opportunities, looking for love in the wrong places, letting people get to him and hurt him.

He also ended up hurting people.

He had changed.

The first raindrops fell on his lashes, and he looked up at the sky to wait for the unrestrained weeping of the heavens. Letting his eyelids fall, he parted his lips to allow the cool raindrops free entrance. He swallowed the rain, he became one with it, he was rain. He took his hands out and brushed his long hair back, letting it fall on his shoulders. He washed his face and his facial hair in the liquid of purity, and he did not care that his coat was getting totally drenched. Oh, he loved rain…

A distand rumbling in the sky awakened him with a start. He looked ahead to see clouds black as a raven’s feathers strike the surfaces of the already stormy sea, and as they approached swiftly, he decided to go back to the safety of his house.

Throwing two thin logs into the fireplace, he lit them and poked them around to keep the sparkles from jumping out onto the thick rug he liked to keep right before the mantlepiece. Throwing his coat onto a hanger, he hung it next to the fire, then stripped himself of his sweater and shirt and hung those too. Walking to the window that gave to the sea, he watched with fascination as huge waves climbed up almost above the top of the cliffs and returned to their cradle with equal ferocity. It was glorious, it was beautiful, it was what his soul craved: an unleashing of emotions that would purge his inner being of the turmoil he had gone, and was still going through.

He stepped to the fireplace and sat down to the rug. His glass of wine still rested where he had put it a few hours before, and he gulped it down thirstily. His stomach was signalling that it needed food, but the man was lazy to move. The evening walk had exhausted him in a comfortable way, and as he lay on his back, he felt his muscles relax. He stretched out, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the warmth of the fire on his bare chest. It was perfect, even if enjoyed on his own. The erotic fantasies that came to his mind and the mental images he conjured from his past were but innocent fantasies. He was not looking for anyone, as the relationships with women had been the main reason he had changed so much. He directed his hand to the zipper of his pants and soon embarked on a brief journey of self-satisfaction, enough to release the stress and physical longing accumulating every day.

He sat up panting, letting drowsiness overcome his satisfied senses. It was early for bed, but he had nothing better to do, and he knew that sleep was the best remedy for the body, as well as the soul. Tomorrow would be a new day, with a possible trip to town for groceries, a letter from and to his mom, and the usual evening walk to the beach.

And perhaps, seeing the mysterious grey-haired mermaid again.

3.

She took a few steps back and allowed her hand with the palette in it to dangle by her side. She looked at the painting with a critical eye, trying to forget that she had been working on it for the past day, only stopping for a short early dinner. The picture was coming together nicely; the stormy sea, a little exaggerated (but Mary was always prone to emphasize emotions for the sake of her art), the tiny bit of sunlight poking through the clouds, and the lonely figure standing on the beach. The canvas had a moody feel to it, despite the obvious hopefulness conveyed by the ray of sunshine. It was as if the human figure was rooted between two worlds, one of despair and one of hope, and he could not decide which one to embrace. She contemplated his neutral stance and added a bit of olive green to the shadow he was casting upon the sand.

The sun was slowly preparing to set, and the warmth it was spreading across the land was soft and mellow. Seagulls were shrieking and circling above her house, and one of them even landed right on her fence. His impertinent, bold face made her giggle, and she watched the handsome bird for a while. Through the open window the smell of the sea floated in, causing her to inhale deeply. For a brief time, she felt there was nothing else, and there never would be, but the sea, the waves, the noisy silence of the ends of the earth as she called Bodeford.

And it was calling her, like on so many previous occasions. The sea was tugging at her heart and she had to leave everything and go to her. The closer she got to the waves, the more complete she felt. She forgot her physical needs and the fact that time was running out for her; she forgot that her life had been marred by insecurity and negligence; she forgot that her dreams would probably die with her, very soon. Standing before the mighty sea and watching the waves come closer, almost touching her, sending drops of cold colour upon her skin, she felt she belonged there. She had never experienced that feeling of completion and belonging, not even with her husband Angus, and it scared her, but the bond between the sea and her was stronger every day, and blissful moments of abandon came to her effortlessly. She did not care she was old… the emotions she felt were ageless, and she was ageless. She felt powerful, brave, important.

Just when the sun dived into the sea altogether, she noticed the human figure again. He was standing on her left this time, closer to the steep cliffs, almost disappearing in the forest of rocks and tiny shrubs. He was dressed the same way, and he stared at the sun like he did before. Her artistic eye was fixed on him and she looked and looked, trying to capture him whole, not missing the tiniest detail, trying to focus on him and pulling him closer to her without him noticing it. She wanted to get inside his head and find out what he was thinking of. She thought she felt sadness and loneliness but she could not be sure; and anyway, everyone who came to the sea was sad and lonely to a certain extent. The seaside was the cheapest shrink, they said, and she knew that was right. She was feeling the beneficial effects of the landscape and the wonderful sea every single day.

He moved slightly and half turned towards her. She was not sure whether she should stay, or go closer and introduce herself- but he made the decision for her. He walked away slowly, and she looked after him with a kind of longing that caught her off guard. She had not noticed it before, but she was more and more longing for human contact. The passing conversations she had with the market sellers, Lucy the sweet girl in the grocery store, and Adam who always kept her a copy of the daily papers under his counter did not satisfy her any more. Joseph never listened, and she could hardly talk about anything with him. Her artistic endeavours usually kept her busy from morning till late at night, but there were days when it just wasn’t enough. She wondered if Joseph was right, after all. Maybe she should look for a companion. Or get a dog.

She turned back to the sea, which had changed into its night clothing, almost black, with hues of violet and deep blue, and the promise of a moon spreading its sparkles on the subdued waves. The sea was calling her, luring her, whispering softly to her. She was not inclined to get too sentimental, as she had always despised those who resorted to the easy way out. You only have one life, and it’s up to you to be happy in it, she always said, and she not only meant every word, but also tried to abide by them. She had seen people in the lowest ranks of society living their seemingly insignificant lives happily, and millionaires in high positions feeling lonely and destitute. She knew that happiness was granted to those who were open enough to look for it in places that did not seem promising at first sight. Of course, she had never fallen for flattery, and she felt that with the sea, she got exactly what she saw, nothing more, nothing less. The artist in her received inspiration and breathtaking views, and the woman was given peace of mind and the certainty that she was in the right place.

But she had thoughts she could not communicate; the canvas was a perfect receptacle for her ideas but whenever she let go of what lay inside her, she felt empty. If the canvas understood her, it never showed it. The colours she painted in seemed alien and remote, like someone else’s thoughts and fears. She could always stand back and look at the ready work with objective eyes; sometimes she almost felt cold, like it had not been she who toiled and sweated for long hours to try and depict what her inner eye was painting. It was a lonely form of creation, and she sometimes dearly wished she could share it with someone, exchange thoughts with someone.

As she was staring into the solitude of the sea, she was unaware of the stranger’s glance that was fixed on her. He’d been watching her for a while now, and she seemed so peaceful. Almost part of the sea itself. She stood there just like him, not hurrying anywhere, not being rushed by anything, or apparently, anyone. He loved to be master of his own time, but sometimes he missed the buzz of the touring, the voices of his friends and his family. He did not even have Sweeney any more; he had been a faithful dog till the end.

The evening grew darker and the silvery hair of the unknown woman shone against the background of misty water like a minute lighthouse. It was a beautiful sight, a human being all alone amidst the elements. He felt he understood her; he was also looking for peace and an understanding of his life which seemed to be getting closer to him as the days went by in his small house by the sea. Should he approach her and introduce himself? Would she consider it rude and imposing? He was not sure he wanted to communicate with anyone just yet, but a certain curiosity also fuelled his thoughts, and he found himself guessing at her age, her status, her past, her present. Did she have any family? Was she deserted by her lover, or her children? Did she like to be alone, or was it forced upon her by her circumstances? Did she watch him when she thought he wasn’t watching?

She moved to turn and he swiftly walked away, out of her sight. The wind was blowing hard and he felt the usual hunger take hold of his body. He would satisfy it as he got home, and then, he would spend some time thinking of melodies that had been pestering him for a few days. Perhaps he would even write them down.

No moon shone tonight, but he found his way easily on the path going home. Home… temporary, solitary, pathetic- but his home nevertheless. For now.

4.

The sea was showing her friendly face today. Mary strolled down to the beach only to get a full glimpse of her current best friend in a good mood. The appeased waves played with the cliffs with gentleness and patience; the sun was high in the sky which was light greenish blue where it met with the water, and grew darker and richer as it lifted towards the heavens. Clouds were sprinkled around the vast blueness to keep it from being boring, and Mary stood and stared at the picturesque sight, already deciding what colours she would use to capture their serene mood. She had just finished her lunch and she had nothing else to do the whole day but paint.

She walked back, contemplating the glorious prospects of a day that would probably be wasted, but in a delicious and indulging way. She felt creative and bursting with a kind of energy that only came to her when the moon was full and silvery. There was no full moon, not even approaching, but she definitely felt a change in herself that was a little disconcerting, but also, rejuvenating. What the hell. As an artist, she knew she had to make good use of her creative spells, and not question their whys and whereofs. She picked up her paint stand, her palette and her paints and brushes, with two of the juicy pears that were left from the evening feast of the day before.

Finding a perfect spot to fix her paint stand between rocks and shrubs and keep it stable and protected from any possible winds that she knew could pick up at any time, she sat down on a rock that seemed to have been placed there just for her purposes. The sea was changing with every moment, and every small whiff of wind was blowing the clouds further and closer together and then spreading them across the sky again. Everything moved in front of her vigilant and discerning eyes, which were trained to catch every minute shift in colour and mood. She did not bother too much until she finished with putting the base on, a light blue that could easily evolve into deep and segmented dark blue on the bottom of the canvas, and gradiently blue, then sprayed with clouds on top.

She loved to paint the sea. It was the endless unfolding of a mystery that happened each time she attempted to paint her. She knew that the sea had her secrets as much as she did; they kept each other’s secrets in an unbreakable pact. Mary felt safe next to the sea and her way of thanks was to endeavour depicting her in as many textures and colours as she possibly could. It was her tribute to the forever changing, breathing, living soul that cradled he whole of life, including hers.

The sound of the waves made her drowsy. She eyed the canvas, content with how the sea was coming together, closing her paints to keep them from drying as she prepared to take a quick nap. The sun was already starting his lazy dip into the water, and because his light was not dangerous anymore, Mary decided she could lay back into the sand safely. She did so, and closing her eyes she instantly felt the warmth of the potent sun spread itself more intensely on her than before. She wondered why it was that someone in full possession of all their senses was probably missing out on so many precious details. After she closed her eyes and colours did not distract her any longer, she felt the heat more, she smelled the pears lying next to her as if there was a whole pear-tree by her side. The scent of the sea, salty and heavy, crawled into her nostrils, and the sounds came to her much louder. She was able to picture the tiny happenings around her based on the sounds she heard: a wave was just crashing into the cliffs, leaving thousands of foamy drops of water behind; a seagull was flying over her head; the wind just blew into the shrubs nearby, causing the tiny branches to stir and rub together. She lay on her back in the warmth of sand and sun, feeling the wind tug at the ends of her skirt, blowing the light material against her legs with the delicate sensuality no man could ever evoke.

-Isn’t it risky to be exposed to the sun like that?

It was someone with an American accent. She opened her eyes and squinted at the figure standing directly in the sun. She only saw his outline and her brain already processed it as one of her next projects.

Since after a while it bothered her not to see who she was talking to, she sat up and tried to shade her eyes, looking up at him.

-It’s not so hot any more. I’ve tested it several times-, she replied, still trying to see his face to no avail.

-Alright then-, he said and took a few steps to the side, preparing to leave.

She turned after hi.

-Do you live nearby? –she asked, standing up.

-Just behind that hill – he pointed and turned to look at her. –You live here, too. I’ve seen you before.

-I love walking on this beach, -she said, shaking her skirt to get rid of the sand and any other small things that might have become entangled into it. –I saw you too but only a couple of times. Have you moved here recently…?

-As a matter of fact, yes –he said with his hands in his pockets. –The quietude of this area appealed to me.

-I can understand that –she nodded, mechanically checking to see if her hair had come undone in the process of getting to her feet.

He could not have known that she did that even when she was alone, and he mistook it for a gesture of flirtation, to which he smiled inwardly.

-I’m Joshua –he said, extending his hand with a well-mannered smile on his face.

-Mary –she took his hand, the irony of their names making her giggle. –Mary-Magdalene, to be more precise.

He missed the joke but smiled out of politeness.

She thought his hand was soft, a hand of someone who, like her, spent his time creatively. Maybe he was a writer? She did not see any ink spots on his fingers. His talkative eyes made her think of an actor, someone who could be many people if he wanted to. His hair reached to his shoulders and was wavy as the sea. A dark but well-kept and carefully trimmed beard covered most of his face. He could have been anything between thirty of forty-five, and she was secretly hoping that he’d be the latter for the sake of being able to converse with him freely later on.

-I’m sorry to ask so directly but are you perhaps an actor? –she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

He lifted his eyebrows with his hands back in his pockets. She noted his posture; he was definitely used to being in front of people. He seemed confident and fully aware of his physical attributes.

-No. why? Do I look like someone?

-Not really -she replied, hearing the defensive undertone of his gentle voice. –I’m sorry for my bluntness, it was just a guess.

He didn’t say anything, but glanced at her painting tools. She was waiting for the obvious remark that she, on the other hand, must be a painter, but he only took a step closer to the canvas and looked at it scrutinizingly. She folded her arms, wondering if he was going to offer any kind of polite acknowledgement of her art, or criticise it. He did neither; he only gazed at the sea and then at the painting with a sigh that did not sound particularly unhappy.

-I will leave you to your painting –he said simply, in a matter-of-fact way, and nodded. –See you around.

She looked after him as he walked away. For someone who liked beauty, like her, he was not an unpleasant sight. He had a slender figure, a proud posture and she especially loved his eyes: they were big and dark, and when he smiled, they smiled also. He did not seem to be very happy, but not too miserable either. She preferred people who instead of being a constant reminder of how deceptively perfect the world could be, and instead of wavering on the verge of suicide, stood calmly in the middle, like her, taking one day at a time, accepting the good and the bad alike. What was there to cry about? Or laugh about? It was all inside people’s heads anyway. She drew satisfaction from seeing beauty around herself and trying to portray it as well as her capacities allowed her. She was certain that it was the only kind of satisfaction really: everything else was merely an illusion.

~~~

He was only slightly annoyed at her remark on his profession. She may have seen his face a while before, as, after all, he used to be famous. His self-imposed exile was probably helping him to stay undercover, at the same time pushing back his record sales. Not that it mattered in the least: he had more money than he could have ever spent.

So, she was a painter. And, she was old. Well, oldish at least: her silver hair confirmed it, though her voice as youthful and so were her eyes, light-brown or grey, if he was not mistaken. He did like her canvas but he felt it was not his place to comment on it. She saw the sea just as he did: many-faced, changing, treacherous, yet infinitely generous with her blessings.

He found himself whistling a tune as he walked back to his house; it was a harmony that had popped into his mind a few days before, something that kept eluding him but that now was ready to shape itself into a nicely flowing melody. He stepped to the rhythm of the song, already hearing the piano accompaniment, and perhaps the synth and some percussion. It was a calm song with just a hint of melancholy in it- but then again, he was not feeling melancholy. Apart from his usual life that he was satisfied with most of the time, he hoped to meet his new acquaintance again soon. He had a feeling they would have many meaningful conversations in the future.

5.

-Sara! Hi! –Mary exclaimed when she spotted her friend behind the counter of the Oxfam bookshop. Sara had lived and worked in Bodeford since around the same time as herself, and despite the age difference, they understood each other scrumptiously, as Sara was wont to say.

-Mah Mary! –Sara opened her arms and gave the older woman a hearty hug. –I missed you, old gal.

-Even on top of the pyramids?

-Even there. I tried to look at the scenery through your artistic eyes, but they got soon filled up with sand.

-You’ll have to tell me all about your trip –Mary smiled, putting her book on the counter. –Over tea, my place, tonight?

-Alas, I am unavailable as of half an hour from now –Sara replied, turning the book in her hand. “The waves”. Do you have any clue about what this woman writes? –she asked with a giggle.

-Most of the time, I don’t –Mary smiled back. –But she uses words like colours and impressions. I like to read a few pages before turning in, I let the words sink into my subconscious and in the mornings I usuakky have a brand new idea for a painting. I know, -she continued, shrugging nonchalantly at her friend’s exaggerated shock-, I know it’s basically stealing, but I have my age for an excuse.

-Your age –Sara snorted, giving Mary’s change back and putting the book in a plastic bag. –You’re not a hundred years old, right? Anything below is young in my books. I know you would feel younger if you found a mate –she finished with a wink, leaning onto the counter.

-I’m just a looney middle-aged artist –Mary said, more in self-ridicule than sadly. –I’m old and grumpy, and selfish. Besides, I have the perfect lover. The sea. And the sun, the wind, the sand, the moon, the night sky.

Sara shook her head and then smiled at someone. Mary turned and found herself face to face with her mysterious new acquaintance.

-So you also like to read –she said, folding her arms.

-Nope, I was looking for some… never mind –he smiled. –However, the shop is very nice, and so is service –he added, flashing a smile from under his beard at Sara, who was noticeably affected. Mary giggled inwardly at her friend’s mad attempt to hide her wedding ringed hand behind her back. –That’s a gorgeous piano there –he continued, turning to scrutinize the old-looking instrument lying amidst the shelves and the counter. –What’s it doing in the middle of a charity bookshop? Does it come as a bonus if you buy all the books or what?

-It was a gift from a rich lord to his daughter, I think –Sara replied, frowning. –Or his wife. Or mistress. Whatever. They both died in a tragic fire some… seventy years ago. The piano somehow ended up here.

-Does anyone ever play it? –Mary asked, putting her book in her bag where her groceries were already giving out appetizing scents.

-Rarely. There’s that pleasant old gentleman, Mr Higgins; he sometimes does an afternoon of romances. He’s very sweet: comes to play for a while, smiling to himself, and then walks home. We all love him; he’s obviously living in the past, poor soul –Sara added with a sigh.

-Don’t we all? –he asked, gazing at the tattered piano.

Mary glanced at him and the expression in his eyes instantly drew her closer to him. It was a look of regretful relief: as if he was happy to have left something behind him, and at the same time, sad to let it all go.

-Well, see you around, ladies –he smiled at Mary, then at Sara, and left the shop.

-Why, oh why am I married already? –Sara asked, her stare fixed on the door that closed after the handsome young man.

-Because Robert is the best guy you could find –Mary said, smiling. –Who’s to say what this one’s like? He may be a serial killer. An impossible person. A sex freak.

-God, I love sex freaks –Sara emitted a sigh, and they both giggled. –But seriously, he’s a dream –she finished, brushing back her dark blond hair. –He moved here a few months ago and I sure wish he came here looking for something more often.

-Well, if you are so set on seeing him, just walk by the sea –Mary smiled, enjoying Sara’s youthful enthusiasm.

-Speaking of which: where was it that you know him from…?

-He walks on my beach –Mary giggled. –I only noticed him a few days ago, and we bumped into each other the other day.

-Oh. How- romantic! –Sara exclaimed with her eyes open wide.

-Right –Mary snorted, but her eyes were playing along.

-Right indeed! Don’t debate, dear Mary. I know a… a budding relationship when I see one.

-I guess I’ll ask him to pose for my painting, while we’re still in the budding stage –Mary laughed. –He sure looks like something I could put on a canvas.

-Do ask him to pose naked –Sara said, whispering. –And I’ll need that picture. As the avid art supporter that I am.

Mary laughed heartily, and after a few more minutes of chit-chat, she stepped out into the early evening.

She found the time of day when everything was still alive, yet preparing to rest the most glorious of all. The bronze light of the tired sun, the soft evening breeze, the delicious flavours of the distant rains across the harbour. She walked down the main street, watching people, the sickly and elderly, who came to Bodeford every year in the summer. For the sea, and the sun, in the hope that they would be cured. They were right: even if the sea did not cure, she did offer sympathy and a somewhat doleful, yet serene loneliness for anyone who chose it. A time to reminisce and look deep inside oneself. Wasn’t every sickness rooted in some kind of emotional loss? The sea helped everyone find what they had lost: inner peace, resignation to life’s apparent futility, and love, love for oneself, and love for others. Mary followed a very old couple with her glance. He had a cane in his hand, and she was holding his other arm. They walked so slowly, as if on tiptoes, taking minute steps that took them forward with painful slowness, every small step pushing them closer to the inevitable. Mary though of them, of what their life together could have been. Did they really love each other? Or did they stick to each other out of the sheer need to be with someone? It’s so easy to confuse love with the fear of being alone… And now, their lives almost over- which one of them would go first?

In her case, it had been him. Taken too early, gone too soon. They still had plans together, but fate thought otherwise. He never said goodbye, just left one morning. She heard a few months later that he had been spotted in a bar with a man. From that day on, Mary considered him dead.

The heavy odour of fried cod and chips floating all the way up to the small church situated on top of the main road was taken over by the familiar, salty scent. Seagulls shrieked above her head as they circled around her. The churchbells sang the simple evening song that conveyed a certain ancient and forlorn feel to the place: ding… dong… ding… dong… ding… ding… ding… Mary took deep breaths of the wonderful freshness of the summer evening and was impatient to get home, put her basket down and set off to the sea.

Tiny flowers greeted her, pushing through the minuscule nooks and crannies between the rocks scattered along her favourite path. It led from the church, meandering across the gently tilted hillside, with trees and bushes on the way which only allowed a mere few glimpses of the sea ahead. It was like a symphony, each and every day different: tender overture followed by the awakening of nature’s instruments playing together in fast and slow movements of wind and birdsong and wave, eventually culminating in the explosion of sea crashing against the cliffs. Except that the sense of anticipation continued forever: as if there was more to it, infinitely more.

The sun was a tiny red dot on the endless orange canopy of sky. Mary stared into it, risking her eyes, knowing that with the memory of a serene sunset over a peaceful sea she could happily go blind.

-Hi again.

-Joshua- she turned to smile at him. –Lovely evening, isn’t it?

-Indeed it is –he said, looking into the sun with his hands in his pockets.

They kept silent for a few moments, enjoying the sounds of waves and wind. Mary wondered how strange that she should bump into him so often. Not that she minded the fact. She found him interesting and fascinating in his silent, slightly melancholy way.

-How come I only saw you a few days ago? –she asked, deciding to find things out about this mystery boy. –Sara told me you had moved to the town much earlier.

-Sara…?

-My friend from the Oxfam shop.

-Oh yes. The books –he nodded, and seemed to have forgotten the original train of thought. –What is it about these cliffs that make you want to throw yourself on the waves, so that you can hit against the rocks as hard as possible?

-Oh. A young man who wants to die –Mary laughed, not mindig that he had strayed from their original subject.

-No, not really –he replied, kicking a small pebble across the edge of the large cliff they were standing on.

-Not really wanting to die, or not really young? –she asked, feeeling terribly amused.

-Neither –he smiled, looking at her. His smile, she had to admit, was irresistible. There was endless warmth in his eyes, and his shapely and plump mouth formed into a boat of lips that floated on the crests of his beard for a moment, before fading.

-Well, you seem to be my son’s age, and he’s thirty, which makes you a ridiculously young creature, at least compared to me –Mary said, suddenly feeling an urge to take him under her wings. He seemed lost, and motherly instincts awoke in her heart.

He remained silent for a while, only stood there, basking in the sun. He even closed his eyes, standing in one place, slightly rocking against the wind, to enjoy the full glory of the sunset on his skin.

-I did move here a while ago, but I only recently discovered this divine spot –he said unexpectedly, opening his eyes. –I tried other parts of the seaside, but I like it here most.

-As an artist, I agree with you. This place is endlessly beneficial to the soul.

He said nothing, and she realized she enjoyed his silences. Not only did she not like useless chattering, which always told her novels about the respective person, but also, she liked to make up her own versions of what people might have said, had they spoken. She wondered what he was thinking now, and loved the fact that she felt at ease in his company. He was neutral, polite, and certainly intriguing.

-Listen, would you care for dinner with me? –she asked.

He looked at her not in the least surprised, which almost disconcerted her, but his genuine smile put her back at ease.

-Beside Sara, and my cat, I hardly ever have company –she continued, not sure whether she felt compelled to explain her sudden invitaion, or tell him more about herself. –My son lives in the States, and I tend to get lonely sometimes. If you don’t find dining with an old woman like me repulsive, young and handsome as you are, then I’d love to have you. I’m making turkey in orange sauce.

-It sounds divine –he replied, smiling at her. –I’d love to join you, and thank you.

-You are very welcome –she said, smiling back at him contentedly. –In fact, let’s get going. Marshmallow will be angry if she gets her food late. My cat –she added.

-Will you show me some of your work? –he asked. The questions was just as surprising for her as her own invitation. She hardly had time to recover from the shock that she asked him over for dinner, and that he accepted, and now here was something more to dwell on. His voice was humble and earnestly curious, and she thought she detected a hidden desire to spend time with someone in his tone. He definitely seemed lost, and perhaps even lonely. She was overjoyed that she offered him dinner. Even if he finds her annoying and silly, at least he’ll be able to talk to someone, she thought.

-If you wish –she replied, smiling at him. –They are nothing special, though. Only some impressions I get. It’s a way of passing the time.

He opened his mouth to say something, but decided to keep the words to himself. She was very curious, but left him brood, and started walking slowly back to her house, loving the fact that a total stranger was walking next to her.

6.

-Nice view- he said, turning to look at the sea and the setting sun from her doorstep.

-Exquisite, I would say –she replied, wiping her shoes on the doormat. –I go to bed each day after watching this unearthly glory. For me, living here is is more than I could have asked for.

He followed her in, and stopped in the hallway, curiously glancing at the minute kitchen and the cosy living-room.

-Come in –she told him, taking her shoes off. –Make yourself at home. What would you like to drink?

-Anything you have –he replied. –Don’t bother too much, I’m not a big drinker.

-Tea perhaps?

-No, I didn’t mean I never drink alcohol –he chuckled. –But tea will be fine.

-Green? I only have green tea.

-Sure –he said, slowly walking in and eyeing the contents of her living-room. The floor was wooden, and it softly squeaked under his feet. The walls were made of stone, glorious, ancient-looking, dark and mysterious stone, with intricate patterns of time and rust on them. She also had a fireplace, smaller than his own, and it looked like she had not used it for a while. He went to the window to gaze at the luminous sky before him, soft orange and crimson, turning into pale purple and darker blue. Her large window was open, and he opened it wider to let the wonderful evening breeze in.

-Here you go –she said, placing a tray with a kettle and two dainty cups on the small table next to the comfortable looking sofa. –I will need a few minutes to make the marinade for the meat, and after that, half an hour and I’ll serve the food.

-No problem –he replied, sitting down, enjoying the sound the soft material gave at the contact with his weight. –I’m not exactly starving. I usually eat much later.

-French style, huh? –she asked, disappearing behind the kitchen door.

-I guess. I do have wine and cheese a lot –he said, mostly to himself. He frowned at the image of her long skirt sweeping the floor behind her feet. She moved extremely graciously, he decided, and leaned homily into the back of the sofa.

Apart from the noises coming from the kitchen, there was nothing to be heard but the not so distant waves. He closed his eyes, relaxing into the pose, enjoying the familiar sounds mingle with the unfamiliar ones. The scent of spices floating in from the kitchen, as well as the poignant smell of fresh oranges made his mouth water, and he swallowed with anticipation. There he was, sitting in the home of a stranger, who seemed to be a very pleasant lady, and who could obviously cook. He had missed home cooking, which always rendered a homey feel to any unfriendly environment.

-What do you do apart from painting? –he asked, raising his voice to make sure she heard him.

-You mean, for a living? Nothing. I’m retired. Before that, I worked as a teacher in an art school.

She emerged from the kitchen and smiled in a relaxed way.

-I could have worked ten more years but I started feeling impatient with my pupils. I reckon my expectations were too high –she added, stooping to pour the pale, translucent tea into the white cups. –Honey, lemon?

-Yes, please –he replied, leaning forward to take the cup from her. When he did, he noticed how delicate her fingers were. Tiny, fragile. –Thanks.

-It’s only fair if I can ask you the same thing –she offered, her twinkling eyes looking at him from over her cup. She had seated herself into a rocking chair that stood between the fireplace and the window, a little to his left, so he had to turn slightly in order to face her completely.

-You mean, what do I do for a living? –he asked back, sipping his hot tea. –Right now, nothing. I live off the money I already earned.

-Which you did by…? –she seemed to be relentless, and he wondered if he felt annoyance or a certain pleasant urge to tell someone about himself. She seemed to be genuinely interested in him, and apparently she had no idea who he was.

-Singing. I was a singer.

-Oh –she said, letting her cup slowly fall into her lap. –Did you have a good voice? –she asked, giggling.

-You could say so, yes –he replied with a smile. She found no trace of arrogant pride in his tone, and she started feeling really curious.

-What did you sing? Rock? Jazz?

He laughed openly. Here we go again…

-God knows. A bit of everything –he replied, placing the cup down onto the tray, then rubbing his wrist. –Classical and rock and pop and jazz, you name it.

-Sounds fascinating –she said, looking at him with open admiration. –And you’re so young. You can always do it again.

He looked at her, suddenly more serious. He scratched his beard and squirmed in his seat.

-I’ll see how it goes –he uttered the words that could have meant either „I will probably never sing again” or „piss off, I have no intentions of talking about my private affairs with you”, or both. She acknowledged his altered behaviour and decided to change the subject.

-You said you wanted to see my paintings.

-Yes –he nodded, still serious, but with a notable shift in his voice. He was grateful she had stopped prying into a matter that he himself was unresolved with.

-Come this way –she stood up, and led him through a narrow corridor into a small room. It was jutting out of the side of her house, and apart from a single wall that connected it to the main building, there were large windows around it which allowed all the sunlight to enter. He saw canvases propped against the wall next to the door he was standing in, and also, several paintstands, covered with white sheets.

-These are older ones –she said, lifting the ones from the wall, turning them for him to see, one by one. They were all dark, and full of colour. Dark sea, dark skies, dark table with apples and loaves of bread and slices of orange. The spectrum of colours she used was so wide that after seeing the third painting he felt dizzy.

-Whoah, these are full on –he said, using one of his favourite British phrases.

-I guess they are –she smiled.

-Have you sold any of these? I mean- obviously not these, but others…?

-A couple. I don’t work for money, and if a friend likes one, I usually give it to them. I don’t have too many friends, so my work cannot be that widely popular yet –she finished mockingly.

-What about the ones here? –he stepped to the stands.

-These are unfinished. The one about the sea you saw the other day, and a few more, practically on the same subject.

-You like the sea –he said, looking at her, certain of her reply, and wishing to watch her face when she said it.

-I love the sea –she replied with a sigh. –She keeps me sane and helps me solve all my puzzles.

She was standing with her face to the sea, her hands behind her back. She stood straight, and there was no affectation in her gestures or voice. She did seem to be what he had imagined her to be: strict, melancholy, and dreamy when she allowed herself to relax. Her silver hair was tied in a bun, but it had gotten all messy, which gave her a significantly more youthful look. He noticed how the skin on her neck was as taut as on her face. She wore no make-up, and her eyebrows were gently lifting above her long lashes.

-So do you, don’t you? –she asked, turning to him, catching him completely off guard. Her eyes were wide open, dark, strangely greenish brown with a circle of gold around the pupils.

-Hell, yes –he replied, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. Her eyes rested on him for a moment too long, and he felt a little uncomfortable, like under scrutiny. But then, he was doing the same thing. Spying on her, trying to figure her out. It was an exciting game, and he felt his pulse quicken.

-Time to grill the turkey –she broke the silence, swiftly walking out of the small studio. He turned to look at her artistic realm once again before following her back into the normalcy of her living-room.

~~~

They talked over dinner, and after that, over dessert (fruit salad from everything she was able to find after profusely apologizing for not having anything proper), and finally, drinking the delicious Spanish wine. Gradually, he eased up, and let off his guard. He realized that she had probably shown him her most precious secret, her art, and to be reticent about himself under the circumstances would have been rude. So he spoke more freely, and told her about his family, and his singing.

She watched him talk about the wonderful career he had had, and was amazed at his modesty. She guessed from his not so revealing sentences that he must have been a superstar, and yet, here he was, quietly chatting, drinking wine, behaving politely and in an extremely well-mannered way. He did not touch on the reasons why he had stopped singing, but she knew he would share those too, in time. Perhaps. For now, she liked him with his secrets altogether. He was so unlike Joseph that she subconsciously compared the two men, and found herself wishing she had had a son like Joshua. Interesting, and interested in life. Sensitive, witty. Someone she could talk to on equal terms.

Before they realized, it was pitch dark outside. After thanking her for the delicious dinner, and her thanking him for his lovely company, he left, with the promise that he would come over more often in the near future.

She washed her dishes, staring at them, washing them over and over again, thinking of Joshua. What a nice young man. What a treasure to find on her favourite beach! She had watched his gestures and his whole physical being: he was bautiful in the purest sense of the word. The way his eyes sparkled when he laughed, his teeth which stretched over pink gums, his slender fingers. He had such talkative hands. She pictured him posing for her, and she felt shivers down her spine. Swallowing, she placed the plates into the dryer and decided to ask him what he thought about it. The next time they met.

7.

She did not remember a morning as beautiful as this one, for a very long time. Everythig around her felt soft and optimistic, happy and promisig. She was not usually prone to spend more time in bed than necessary, but the mellow sunrise made her lazy and carefree. She lay on her back, giving her not so young body enough time to slowly wake up together with her mind. The sound of the sea broke her thoughts into brisk little droplets of ideas: gardening, maybe after breakfast- finishing the base of the painting- shopping in town- Sara, visiting Sara in the shop- Joshua, is he asleep yet?

Blinking, she turned a little, wondering if she should get up or stay some more. Then, suddenly, he popped into her mind again. She cherished the memory of their dinner together as if it was a precious item in her jewelry collection. She had not seen him for days, and apart from being unreasonably worried for his health, she wondered if he was avoiding her.

Deciding to finally get started with the day, she stumbled out of bed and started the water to fill her tub. It was a luxury, she knew, to have a bubble bath every morning, especially with the environmental threats, but she had long ago given up trying to live her life in a perfect way. She knew she was probably breaking most social rules anyway- she could not care less about global warming. While water was running, she shuffled into her kitchen to brew some coffee and toast a slice of rye bread. She absent-mindedly started to peel an orange, preparing her favourite cup for the coffee, when she happened to look out through the window that gave to the small garden at the side of her house. Joshua was just passing- she only saw his head hung low, and his dark jacket. He was walking to town, it seemed.

Her orange was not even half as exciting as it used to be, so she placed it down, and poured herself some of the steaming black liquid. She took the toast and the cup on a tray inside the bathroom and set it down on the small chair beside the tub. She was old, but she still liked to pamper herself, and soaking in rose-scented bubble bath, sipping coffee and nibbling at a slice of rye toast was a ritual she would not have willingly given up.

The skies had turned gloomy by the time she dressed up, and she decided to postpone gardening until the sun came out. Maybe better to see to the shopping now, before a storm breaks, she thought, and took her rusty-coloured shawl and her black little coat before stepping out of the house.

~~~

-You must help me –Sara begged, wide-eyed in despair. –Everyone is on holiday and I’m left with the new supplies all by myself. I need to sort them out by tomorrow, I really do! Please!

-When was the last time I said no to you? –Mary asked her friend with a giggle. –What better fun that going through charity clothing and seeing if I can finally find something presentable for that accursed event.

-Oh. Yeah! Great! You’re a genius! We’ll snatch all the good items –Sara grinned and clapped her hands like a little kid that sshe sometimes became. –I’ll definitely find you something that will even wake Mr Coleman from his coma.

-God forbid –Mary shivered. –The last time I met him on foot he was smacking his lips at me and eyeing Su from the butcher’s at the same time.

Sara laughed.

-Exciting! He was probably picturing the two of you… never mind –she added with a giggle. –So. Is seven fine? Or, eight? The sooner we start, the earlier we finish.

-I’ll be here at seven –Mary replied, waving goodbye and directing her steps towards the markets.

She felt a little restless, and had no idea why. Perhaps her bad timing with the gardening. That must have been it: she hated it if things did not go the way she planned them. She hated when she became a victim of circumstances, when there was nothing she could do to change a situation.

The fruit section looked especially enticing this morning, and before she realized, she had loaded her basket with ruddy apples and bright orange tangerines and perfect purple grapes and nature’s most beautiful looking fruit, lemons. She could stare at a lemon for long minutes, admiring the bright, happy colour, the pores on the oily peel, and smelling the sharp, sour scent, rubbing her thumb against the slightly moist skin, feeling the juices soak into her skin, making it younger. She paid happily, sighing when she picked up the basket from the ground. Thinking of walking home with that rather heavy weight on her arm was not a happy prospect.

She turned back one more time to drink in the beauty of the fruit display, and never noticed the human figure hurrying past the shop. He basically almost knocked her over, and her basket flew from her hand, and so did the fruits.

-Oh no. I’m so terrib- Mary! Hi. –Joshua said, smiling apologetically. –What a nice way to meet again –he added with a nervous chuckle.

-Don’t worry about it –she said, touching her elbow which she hit into the heavy wooden doorframe. She did, however, worry about the state of her apples. She knew they must be ruined.

He was already picking up the scattered fruit and placing it back into her basket.

-Leave the apples –she said, frowning. What a waste of perfect apples, she thought, vexed.

-What? Why? There’s nothing wrong with them –he interjected, picking one up and turning it in his hands. –Can I have one?

-You can have them all –she replied, forcing herself to smile. It was not difficult, especially when he bit into the apple he was holding and its juice almost ran down his chin, but he noticed and wiped his lips.

-Thank you- he said with his mouth full, picking the apples from the basket and stuffing them into the pockets of his jacket. –Delicious. And, sorry.

-Welcome –she giggled. –And, again, no problem. I can buy others for myself.

It was the first time he noticed how her eyes were gleaming when she allowed her strict mouth to stretch into a smile. Was he imagining it, or was she really becoming more open with him?

-Now that you’re in such a magnanimous mood, you could invite me to another of your tasty dinners –he said, eyes smiling, taking another bite into his apple. The sound that the meeting of his teeth and the white flesh of the apple created made her freeze and want to listen to it all day. It made her feel a strange kind of hunger, for apples, for things she could eat, and things she could hear, and things she could see.

-Uhm, no- I can’t. It would be a pleasure but I promised a friend I’d help her- in fact, Sara is the friend. We’ll be sorting new supplies of charity items in the shop she’s working in.

-Oh, really? That’s what I call a coinkidink –he said, flashing a smile.

Mary looked at him askance.

-Oh, sorry. I’m used to saying it that way. I meant, coincidence.

-I got that part –she said laughing. Oh, he was such a kid suddenly. And he made her feel younger. –I was expecting the rest, really.

-You’ll see –he said in a mysterious way, and he actually winked at her. Did he? He did. She looked at him and was on the verge of opening her mouth in amazement.

-I gotta go –he blurted out. –See you later!

She walked home feeling even more restless. The sky was changing colour every minute, faithfully following her mood which ran from desperately carefree to seriously worried about herself. She could, of course, deny that it was the young man she hardly knew who was making her feel all these things, but it would be useless, and at her age, ridiculous.

It was lunchtime when she finished arranging everything, and changing into her comfortable running clothes, but her appetite had gone. To be more precise, the butterflies in her stomach were keeping her from being hungry for food. She hungered to be next to Joshua, and drink in his mysterious beauty, store his features in her mind, get inspired by him. She longed to talk to him and enjoy his easy-going jokes, regardless of her age. He treated her as if she was his age, not a withered middle-aged woman.

She sipped some cold tea left over from the evening before, wondering what to do to make the time pass until evening. Her artistic energies were drained by a disturbing sense of longing for a complete stranger. She knew he was way too young for her to even vaguely touch upon any kind of physical relationship, but his presence appeased her, made her feel at home, and told her she was still appreciated. Even if only for her cooking.

The world outside turned into a dull grey, without any sun or rain or clouds or colours. A walk, a walk would be nice. But her legs did not move. She preferred to sit still and listen to the waves crashing on rocks. Wondering how her old heart could still beat faster at the mere thought of a wink.

8.

-You’re early, and so is he –Sara greeted her friend later on that evening.

Mary placed her bag and coat on the counter and looked at Sara with raised eyebrows.

-He?

-Scrumptious Joshua –Sara whispered, pouring some steamy coffee into delicate cups which had peonies painted on them for decoration.

-What, he volunteered to sort out smelly clothing too? –Mary asked, doing her best to dismiss the loud beating of her heart.

-Haha. No. He asked if he could use the piano at some point when he wasn’t a nuisance to anybody and I told him tonight’s the time. He won’t bother us and we won’t bother him, as the storage room is further away.

-Oh. Okay –Mary said, tying her hair securely into a bun. So he was going to play the piano. She instantly felt a curiosity she could not appease: what would he play it like? Was he going to sing too? She would hear him sing perhaps, and with it, get a glimpse of his own hidden self. Fascinating! She sipped her coffee and looked around.

-Where is he now? –she asked.

-He’s right here, ladies –a male voice replied, and both women turned to smile at him.

Mary watched his beautiful eyes light up when he spoke to them and she couldn’t help but wonder at his gentle politeness. She tried to picture his mother, the woman who raised such a pleasant person. Just to be in his presence felt right: she felt drawn to the young man in a way she had never been drawn to anybody in her life. Not physically, though there was definitely something remotely carnal about her feelings, which realization shocked her; but more than that, the bizarre kind of spiritual calling she sensed whenever he was around was dumbfounding. Warmth, and peace. That was what she felt when he was near her, and it was intoxicating and delightful. The moment he was far, restlessness got hold of her.

-Would you like me to help with your task? –he asked. –My music can wait.

-No, no, just go and do your- thing –Sara said, obviously as shaken by his presence as Mary was, but poor soul, she was having a hard time hiding it. Mary almost laughed out loud, again. –And don’t be shy about it, we want to hear you! –Sara added with a wink.

He nodded, still smiling, and walked to the piano. Sara looked at Mary, and motioned her to go into the storage room. They took their coffee and some meringues and disappeared from his sight, leaving the door open of course.

-Where do we start? –Mary asked, forcing herself to think practically and focus on the long night ahead of them. –That bag? This one?

-I want to have the dresses sorted, and then skirts and sweaters. Remember, we need sexy stuff for the dance! –Sara said, opening one of the huge, black plastic bags. The moment she opened it, clothes that were pressed tight inside, fell out and all over the place. –Right. Looks like we’ll need more coffee –she sighed, tossing half of what was already in her lap to Mary.

They worked in silence, occasionally exchanging remarks on an item, or offering useless information on mundane things. What they cooked, who they met, what this and that said. Mary heard her friend, but she was not really paying attention to her words. What she was dying to hear did not seem to be reaching her ears, and after a while, she decided he had probably got tired and left.

Her thoughts drifted while her hands dealt with the monotonous task of hanging clothes up, sorting them according to colour and size. It was late, but coffee kept her alert. She recalled her walk to the shop, the pigeon with one leg, standing at the side of the path, not even moving when she went past it. The scent of fallen rose petals in her garden before she raked the grass and collected the withered leaves. The colour of leaves sprinkled by evening dew, the tiny mirrors of eternity. The sound of bells and waves, waves and bells, birds and pebbles under her feet, pebbles under her feet and birds. Symmetry, chaos, beauty repeating itself, yet never showing the same face. The smell of second-hand clothing and coffee stifled her, she craved to be on fresh air, but looking at her watch she knew they would still need to do a lot more.

Quiet sounds floated into the storage room and the two friends looked at each other, instinctively freezing.

-He’s finally playing! –Sara whispered.

Mary sat motionless on her chair and listened. The piano, a rather out of tune one, sent trembling whisps of melody to her, and it was beautiful. Damaged, scarred, timid, breathtaking. The broken melody of a life that had gone off track. The sad tune of someone who was hiding, searching, uncertain, scared.

Then, a voice joined in.

And the world stopped.

It was hardly audible, as he was probably trying to stifle the noises, for fear he would bother them, or give away too much of himself, but either way, he sang very quietly and Sara moved to the door, opening it wider, and staying there, right next to the door. Mary did not blame her. She would have done the same, except her status did not allow her impulsive things like that. As it was, she sat in her chair with her fingers frozen around some dress, her breath held back, her heart racing.

It was, unquestionably, the voice of an angel. Vibrant, flowing, melancholy and rich in colour. As time passed, it got stronger, braver, and so did the music. Or was her soul opening up so that she would not miss any sound coming from his direction?

She did not expect such a voice. Not in her wildest dreams. She sat entranced, forgetting to think, blink, breathe. She drank in the bouquet of sounds his deep baritone was offering her, and the scent of them was that of cream-coloured rose, purple-and-brown pansy, lemon and ochre daisy, deep red peony, white lily-of-the-valley. It was all the scents of every flower she had ever seen and smelled and painted onto the canvas of her soul. She experienced glory and bliss and serenity poured together into one magnificent, everlasting sunset. She saw perfection meet her halfway to heaven.

-Oh my god –Sara mouthed, turning to her, when silence had set in.

Mary swallowed, lifting her empty coffee cup to her lips with shaking fingers.

They both sat motionless, trying to recover. Silence hurt Mary’s ears; she longed to hear more of his voice. Not hearing it felt like something had ended, and she was not ready to let go of it yet. She had got a glimpse of flawed beauty and the desire to get more was overwhelming.

There was a soft knock on their door and they both started. A bearded, curly-haired, smiling eyed man peeked in.

-Can I help you now, misses? Not much else to do, as I only wanted to hear the unfinished version of my song, but it didn’t really sound right. Needs rewriting.

-We liked it –Sara said and cleared her throat. –Do you do this professionally?

-Used to –he replied, glancing at the clothes tossed all over the floor.

-Can you do it three weeks from now? –Sara asked again, bravely.

Mary looked at her with mouth open in surprise. Sara was a genius!

-We have a charity evening organized, where we sell home-made food and clothes and all kinds of things and we are looking for a live band…

-Do I look like a band to you? –Joshua asked with a chuckle. Mary had an impression he was not very happy about the subject, but she kept silent.

-No, but you obviously can sing –Sara blurted out. –We can find musicians. Or you could play the piano.

He laughed, scratched his beard and looked at Sara incredulously.

-Please consider it –Sara begged him. –We can’t pay you, but think of all those orphans and sick people we are going to help…

-I’d rather just give the money –he said seriously, but seeing the shock on the women’s faces he added. –I’ll think about it.

-Thanks Joshua –Sara said, beaming, as if she had already persuaded him to perform. Mary envied her for her perseverance and optimism. How could she be so sure that everything would go fine, at all times? Never was she depressed or faithless. It must be great to have a self-assurance to demolish all doubt and uncertainties.

-Well, if you don’t need my help, I’ll be going –he said. –Mary, how about a raincheck on that dinner? Tomorrow?

-Wonderful –was all Mary could reply, and his smile came with no delay. –Good night.

-Good night ladies.

After he had gone, Sara tossed a few clothes around aimlessly, apparently not knowing what to do with them, and Mary went to get more coffee.

-What’s his family name? –Sara asked, emerging from the storage room.

-No idea –Mary replied. –Why?

-I wanna look him up on the internet.

-Oh. Well, there can’t be that many singers around named Joshua…

-Right. Will do it tomorrow. Tonight, we need to finish those bags…

9.

The day progressed lazily, without any haste, and so did her painting. She chose her colours in blissful abandon, ignoring what her common sense told her. She knew that the sea needed greens and blues, and dark yellows for the light reflecting on the waves, and that the sky needed to be pale and misty on top, and more vibrant where the sun was plunging into the horizon. Her feelings told her otherwise, though. She messed up the sea and chose brown, purple and red for it, and for the sky, deep orange and sparkling white. The spots of colour were shocking her eyes that were used to soft, creamy, cautious strokes of the brush, but she looked at the canvas attentively, and she had to admit that she felt more alive than ever.

Her pantry was mostly empty, save for a pack of pasta and some home-made pesto she had prepared weeks before. She knew Joshua was coming for dinner but she was incapable of focusing on practicalities. Her mind was set on the painting, the one she was working on, and the one she was hoping to soon start working on, and nothing else mattered really. She also remembered that Sara was probably waiting for her with news on Joshua, but somehow she felt reluctant to find out more on him. He was full of mystery, and there was a mixture of defensiveness and impertinence around him that intrigued her immensely. As if the little boy hiding within him wanted to get out and play, and at times, succeeded too. She recalled his blissful face when he ate those apples, and some of the comments he gave her on her paintings over a glass of wine. He was witty and entertaining, but he could also be sensitive and prickly. He was a lot more than the eye could see, she decided, and she wanted to find him out a little better before she would receive his full profile on a virtual tray.

-Knock knock –she heard, and she hastily wiped her hands in the cloth she kept on the floor next to her paint-stand. Turning around, she saw Joshua in the doorway. He nodded. –I can see the mistress of the house had been abducted by her work and she forgot all about her dinner guest –he added with a twinkle in his eye.

-I apologize –she entreated him with her hands dramatically placed together. –I had you- I mean, the dinner in mind the whole day, but this painting just would not let me be.

-I know how that feels –he replied, stepping into the studio. –When you have to vent your art, there’s nothing that can keep you from doing it. You captured the sea incredibly here –he nodded, pointing towards the canvas. –It looks like a drug-induced trippin’ stuff, and I like it –he finished with a chuckle.

-How do you know? –she asked, trying to keep sober. –Have you used drugs before?

-Oh, absolutely –he said without even blinking. –Sex, drugs and rock ’n roll is what a rockstar’s life is about, haven’t you heard?

His smile warmed her heart and she stood next to him with her arms folded, watching his handsome profile as he kept looking at her painting.

-Can you eat pasta? –she broke the silence, wiping her palm on the cloth. –I’m afraid that’s all I have, and some salad vegetables.

-Pasta’s great –he smiled at her. –As long as it’s not two weeks old from the fridge.

He was cutting a red and a green pepper into long, thin strips, and she was ladling out the pasta onto the plates. From the corner of her eye she watched his hands and his wrists, feeling her throat go dry at the sight of the strong curves of the bone under his skin, and the soft, golden hair that was visible from under his shirt sleeves. It was the first time he had offered to help in the kitchen and she felt a strange feeling of comradeship between them; being in the same kitchen, preparing food with someone is almost as intimate as kissing, and she just- well- she had a hard time concentrating.

-Can I ask you something?

-Shoot –he said, taking the strips and mixing them with the lettuce and raddish and dressing she had put together from sesame oil, lemon and pepper.

-I would love to paint your portrait –she said, quickly, before her bravery had disappeared.

He looked up in surprise. Her eyes were dark and wide, and despite the numerous wrinkles on her skin, she looked like an eager teenager. She held his glance for a moment before she turned away and placed the empty dish into the sink.

-I know it’s- it’s a hassle and you probably never thought about it but since we seem to meet often, I was thinking perhaps you wouldn’t mind sitting in one place for a little while on each occasion –she went on, arguing logically, he admitted.

-Why me? –he asked the first thing that came to his mind.

The question she feared most.

-I haven’t done portraits for a long time, and I need to get back in the saddle, so to speak –she offered the safest reply she could think of. –Besides, I find you interesting.

-That’s… interesting –he laughed, and she thought she heard a hint of embarrassment in his voice. –Can I wear my clothes while sitting for the picture?

She laughed heartily.

-It’s not a nude I’m after –she replied, and he thought her eyes were alive when she was laughing. He saw the sea in them, and the sunset which reflected in her pupils. Her hair was slightly dishevelled, as usual, and as his glance travelled lower, he felt a twinge of shame and regret over the sight of her neck. The large beads harmonized with her shirt, and rested on her soft, wrinkled skin like pebbles on sand. He had a flash of insight in that moment, and realized she was probably trying to capture his youth, recalling her own in the process, making an effort to keep it with her longer. Of course he would sit for her. She was a great person, and she must have been a heartbreaker in her younger days, he concluded.

-Sure –he said casually, rinsing his hand and drying it in a towel. –When do we start?

She looked at him with her mouth open in surprise.

-Today?

-Why not –he said, folding his arms in front of her.

-There’s one more thing –she went on tentatively. –The beard… and could I trim your hair a little?

He gasped and laughed in embarrassment.

-What? You want me to cut the beard off? And, my hair? No way.

-Just a little bit from the end –she said. –You have lovely curls and they would look their best if there wasn’t such weight to pull them down.

-I am not giving up my facial hair! –he retorted, lifting his chin with mock pride, and making her laugh even more. –Okay, if you insist so much –he said playfully, almost in a whisper, and winked at her. His second wink, and she almost lost her balance. –There. Scissors. Cut now. I may fight you the next moment…

She quickly trimmed his hair while he sat on a chair in front of her, and he kept emitting funny whimpering noises, producing them to show what torture he was putting himself through.

-And now please go and wash your hair, my boy –she said, placing both hands on his shoulders. –You can find towels and shampoo in the cupboard next to the mirror.

-What about my beard? Do I scrape it off with my nails?

-There’s a shaving kit under the sink –she giggled, arranging his curls with her hands. His hair felt soft and balmy, and her skin loved to touch it.

-Oh. I can see you have plotted this –he stood up and swept the hair off his shoulders and arms. –Will this shirt be fine? Dotted with some hair, but no matter.

-The kit was my husband’s –she replied softly, then added, -yes, the shirt is perfect.

He turned to look at her for a moment. Her eyes were fixed on him, and she seemed to defy his sympathy, so he chose not to give it to her. Instead, he kept silent and went to the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

She was so lost in thought that when she realized they had not even had dinner, the pasta had already gone cold. She covered the plates with foil and placed the salad in the fridge, then went to her studio and hauled out her stand, then took her paints and brushes and all the tools she would need, and piled them in the middle of her living-room, facing the window. Then she realized the light would be obstructed by the position of her canvas, so she shifted it to have the window on her left. She moved the armchair before the fireplace, and composed the painting in her head, knowing all the while that she had been thinking of it for a long time, and there was possibly nothing she could add to it. Except him, of course. She was impatient to see him there, sitting as she pictured him, and to start working.

-Do I sit here? –he asked, and she looked up. She nodded automatically, and while he settled down, she tried to focus on her canvas, fixing it to the stand, fumbling with her spatula and brush, uncapping the brown paint, then closing it again. She knew she only had a few moments to compose herself, but recovering from the shock his new look gave her was a rather difficult thing to do.

Mercifully, time seemed to have stopped. He was arranging the white shirt on his chest, buttoning it up, then leaving the top two buttons undone, pulling the sleeves up on his arms, combing through his still wet hair with his fingers, pulling one leg up and sitting on it, keeping the other bare foot on the wooden floor. She stared at his face and did her best to avoid gasping. He was clean-shaven, and his skin looked fresh and creamy, with a cloud of dark, still unborn hair visible around his chin. His lips were full and rosy, like those of a child. His eyes were huge and dark, and his hair was curly like Cupid’s. Where had this beautiful man been hiding so far? She stared at the sight, trying to still her heart, knowing the moment would be over soon.

-Please keep the left arm on the chair and the right one in your lap or something. Yes, like that –she said, clearing her throat. He looked at her and those dark, gentle eyes pierced her soul with such efficacy that she had to look away, at her canvas.

-Look down a little. Like that, yes –she added quietly, almost in a trance. He did as she asked and that enabled her to feast her eyes on him again, before pressing some paint on her brush with a trembling hand and applying it to the still immaculate canvas.

10.

She seemed very concentrated, looking at him only occasionally across the edge of her canvas. He saw this trough his downcast lashes when she was so deeply immersed in her work that nothing seemed to be able to distract her. A wandering strand of hair had escaped her bun and was gently touching her cheek. She was biting her lips quite often and her brow was in a constant frown of concentration.

They did not talk; he enjoyed the strange bond that was born between them under the tender grasp of the moment. She was the hunter and he was the hunted, but he had the impression she would never hurt him. Yes, she was stealing a part of him, but she was also capturing him for eternity. He eased into the pose, trying to figure out which part of him she was working on. He tried to follow her glance and the position of her hand on the canvas; if he was not mistaken, she was drawing his arms or his waist area. For a second, he thought he felt something on his skin, just below his left armit. It was a tickling sensation, and he had to stealthily scratch the spot, biting his lip not to break into a wide grin.

He shortly settled back into the pose, but she caught his movement and he caught her furtive glance. Seeing her return her attention to her canvas rather quickly, like someone who had been caught off guard, he grinned inwardly. She reminded him of an embarrassed teenager and before he realized it, a shiver shot across his body and he could not hide his amusement any longer.

-Do you need to stretch your legs? Should we take a break, or stop altogether? –Mary asked, sounding more concerned than the situation would have required. He found the fact endearing.

He watched her face for a moment before he replied. She was looking at him like at a precious, fragile piece of china. It was the way artists saw their source of inspiration, he concluded, slightly disappointed at the realization, and annoyed at himself because of his disappointment.

-No, absolutely not. Go on- he said, casting his eyes down.

Watching her from time to time, listening to the rocks meet the waves with stubborn hospitality, he found himself thinking of his place in life. He felt suspended between what he clearly remembered despite his endeavours to forget, and the present. The difference wasn’t very significant: he used to live for his music, and as the days slowly disappeared in the time-sand of the beach where the waves sucked everything in, he discovered that his passion for music was returning. Playing the piano and singing his new song aloud, in front of people felt good, so good that he ached to do it again. He looked forward to that charity event they asked him to take part in, though he had not even given his reply yet.

His life was a calm, steady flow of water, noisy when his hurting memories disturbed the peace and serene when he had the courage to ease into the simplicity of his present state. Taking each day and savouring it from the first glow of the sun awakening over the horizon to the final shriek of the restless seagulls at the night skies was peaceful and rewarding. He needed no reassurance from anyone. He did not miss the adoring crowds either; he knew he was accepted by the community of Bodeford, and he loved being one of them. The familiarly stunned look on the two women’s faces after he had sung his song bothered him a little, but he hoped he’d be able to control it all. He would have to. Going through the hell of being devoured alive by the faceless masses, figuratively speaking, the feeling of responsibility he nurtured for them, and facing the fact that in the end, there was nothing he could do to avoid a tragedy was not an option. He had promised himself he would not let it happen again.

The melody of that song was haunting him; it was calling him from the depths of his past, promising him a beautiful future. It would change, all would change; he would write songs again, and he would spread happiness once more. He felt all this at times when the moment seemed to be immersed in blissful purity.

He felt it now. The sound of paint being spread across the canvas and an occasional content sigh from Mary, mixed with the appeasing hymn of waves crashing into each other were the perfect sounds his soul was longing for.

Without realizing it, they both owned each other in that moment; he owned her whole being as only a muse can own the artists, and she captured his attention completely, making him wonder and watch and imagine, making him listen to her signals and trying to see who she really was behind the wrinkles and grey hair and sprightly step.

-It’s getting rather late –she broke the silence, placing her brush down. –The light is going and I want to work at daylight with this one. Not to mention that you must be starving by now…

-I am not –he retorted, stretching. –This felt… interesting. Did you make good progress? Can I see it?

-I did, yes. And no, not yet –she smiled.

He pouted playfully and stood up.

-It is quite late –he said, looking at the sea from her living-room. –I think I’ll go home now.

-No dinner?

-Naaah. Too late. Too tired –he replied, buttoning up his shirt.

She stared at his fingers fumbling with the buttons. It was a sight she was entranced by, his hand. It was talkative and expressive to a point where she found herself follow his fingers rather than his lips.

-Shall we continue tomorrow? –he asked, and she looked at him. He was smiling at her indulgently, and she felt a faint blush creep to her cheek. She had not blushed for decades, and the feeling of tender shame and excitement made her stomach jump.

-If you are available –she replied, folding her arms.

-I have nothing better to do, believe me –he chuckled, bringing his hand to his chin. –Crap. I totally forgot I lost the beard. It feels strange, I can tell you!

-You look so much younger without it –she said with a smile.

-I wonder if that’s a compliment or not –he pulled a face.

-For you, it is –she replied with a look he could not decipher. There was sadness and envy and defiant longing in her eyes. Was she sorry he looked younger?

-Have you decided about the charity concert yet? –she asked, suddenly her old practical, factual self again.

-I think I have –he replied, putting his jacket on. –Only for the sake of the orphans –he added with a smile.

-I’m glad –Mary said, and her tone of gentle happiness warmed his whole being.

-Until tomorrow, then. Goodnight –he looked at her for a moment, and then he was gone.

It took her some time to recover and pull her thoughts together. It was late, and she was physically exhausted, but her soul was strangely alert. She stood before her painting and looked at the sketch she had made of him so far. His slim wrists were curving in his lap and over the arm of the armchair, his head was slightly bent, as if he was lonely and pondering. The window with the sunset was behind his back; it was as if he was fleeing the world. She stared at his posture, the one she had made him adopt, and it all clicked in her head. He was elusive, and reticent, and he looked hurt at times. The pose the painting was showing seemed to corroborate her suspicion, but was she right about him, or was she projecting her own imagination onto this figure who seemed to want to leave his past behind?

She sat down with a cup of lukewarm tea, looking into the flames in the fireplace. Her rocking chair nodded softly with her weight in it, and she sat and pondered. Joshua was more than inspiration for her; he was a kind person and someone who was ready to accept her friendship. He was alone and he needed to talk to someone, but why did he choose her of all people: she was old and tough and whimsical, and how did he know she wasn’t only using him for her art? At this point, she wasn’t sure herself.

His soft, creamy skin beckoned at her from the flames; his dark curls, his perfect lips, his slightly large nose, his incredibly big eyes. His neck from under his shirt. The way his trousers creased at his hips.

She placed her cup down. Her fingers were trembling, and she looked at them with a sigh. It was not her age. It was her longing that made them tremble. They were thin and wrinkly, and she instinctively remembered his fingers, young and smooth and perfect. Fingers she will never hold with hers.

The sun had disappeared behind the sea, but she sat in the chair, warmed by the fire, rocking herself gently. His presence was lingering, and she could not think of a happier place to be in that moment.

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