A walk by the sea (41-44)

41.

Despite having laid in her bed for almost a whole day, sleeping fitfully, chasing herself in her dreams, waking up to a moonless sky and a thunderous night, then drifting back to sleep, Mary got up in a stupour. The basic functions that keep a human being in constant motion did work, and so she relieved herself of the tea and whatever skimpy meal she had fed herself the previous day to keep from collapsing, then washed and dressed, drank tea, brushed her hair, fed Marshmallow. Glancing at the paintings she would probably never finish, she turned away in disgust and walked to her wardrobe. Picking the white dress with its magnificent knotted belt, she folded it neatly and placed it into a paper bag.

The fresh afternoon greeted her with the chirpings of a lonely bird and the salty, rainy scent of a late October sea. Mary walked past her garden, eyeing all her withering flowers indifferently: she would have to trim and weed them. Turning her attention to Pete, the obnoxious neighbour who stood by his gate and stared at her curiously, she nodded without any feeling. Let him stare.

Avoiding the sea as she knew that the honest murmur of the waves would be too much for her too handle, Mary walked to the centre of the small town for nourishment and also, to prove to herself and others that she was still alive. Nodding to familiar face-blurs she averted her gaze quickly lest they should look at her with scorn, or worse, with pity. She was certain that everyone knew: smalltown dwellers were not merciful when it came to gossip. Maybe in time the novelty of the scandal would fade.

Breathing the crisp autumn air in, Mary stepped into her friend’s shop with the firm resolution to only stay a minute.

Sara smiled at her and Mary knew that the young woman was doing her best to act, look and sound normal. As if nothing whatsoever had scratched the unstable surface of reality lately.

-So good that you’re coming -she said and produced a terribly elegant skirt with a matching top from behind the counter. -Look. I’ve been saving these for you.

Mary blinked and squeezed Sara’s hand with gratitude.

-Thank you -she said, her face void of emotion. -You’re very kind, but I won’t need them. In fact, I would like to return this dress -she said, placing the paperbag on the counter. -You will sell it easily as it’s as ood as new. I only wore it once.

Sara bit her lip and was obviously struggling with things to say, but she knew she would only make her friend more unhappy with anything she uttered, so she took the bag without a word.

A few people lingered in the shop, discreetly fading into the bookshelves or pretending to look at clothes and different items displayed on the shelves and in the boxes. The air seemed stifling and slow-paced activity floated with the dust, as if stopped by time. Mary’s glance fell on her own hand that rested on the counter. Her nails were too long, she would have to cut them. Her skin was pale and through it, her veins were showing.

-Are you free tonight? -Sara asked in a tone that hurt Mary’s conscience. It could not be helped: Sara was so eager to do something for her that she felt like breaking down on the spot. -We’d like you to come over for dinner. I’m making fowl in a wine sauce.

-Thank you, I’ll think about it -was the reply that would later allow for acceptance or refusal, whichever.

The opening of the door brought in a whiff of crisp autumn, and she inhaled deeply. Her lungs appreciated every scent, every speck of freshness. Breathing everything in, she could feel linked to the world, despite everything.

Sara looked away to grab a chain of keys and place them an inch further from the phone, then took a writing pad and quickly scribbled something that apparently occured to her in that very moment. Mary held onto the counter mentally to keep her balance. To leave, float away into the freshness of the afternoon. Undetected. If only.

-Is eight o’clock suitable for you? -she asked neutrally.

-Eight is perfect -Sara replied quickly, too quickly, then went back to scribbling whatever. Amidst the hateful, impossible frenzy of her whole being, Mary almost grinned at her friend. It was ridiculous, it really was. She wanted to scream, I’m fine, I’ll live, stop worrying, stop laughing, stop wanting to help.

-Fine -she said, forcing a smile. Or its beginnings. Unfinished, it lingered on her face for a few moments before her cheeks got tired and they relaxed back into the impassability of their expression. -I’ll check some books -she added to give her purposeless hovering a meagre justification.

They might have been written in Chinese, as she had no idea what she was reading. She longed to be outside, but running away would have only added to her mortification. Let them see she could bear his presence. In fact, it was easier than she thought.

Until he approached silently and stood a few steps away from her, staring at some books ahead of him. Taking one off the shelf, opening it, reading a little. Or acting as if he was.

Mary stood rooted, scared to move, scared to stay still, wishing she would become invisible. She was also aware of whispering that was, sadly, only almost inaudible, on the other side of the shelf.

-Oh lord. Look at that.

-You’re telling me? You could cut the tension with a knife.

-He’s quite a man to act so nonchalantly after sacking her.

-He did the right thing, you know? They didn’t belong.

-But the face to show himself in public with her around.

-Well, what did you expect? A classic scenario of trust abuse.

-It might have been her who dumped him, though…

-You must be kidding. At her age? She’s happy to have any man look at her, let alone someone like him… no, I don’t think it was…

The book was pushed back onto she shelf loudly, and the whispering voices died out. Mary hung her head and picked a random book, walking to the counter, paying for it, and thanking for the change. Longing with her every fibre to see, feel, touch him. His absence over the past week robbed her of all her emotions: she lived like a piece of wood until his brief presence shocked her heart into a thousand tremors. The desire to hold him again was so strong that she was only able to stumble to the door and force her way into the cold afternoon, away from him. The faster, the better.

Joshua stood at the shelf for a while, leafing through another book, his body bursting with wrath and sorrow and a turmoil of emotions he could not and would not describe.

-I’d like to use the piano sometime -he told Sara when he stepped to the counter, searching his pockets for some change. He placed a book on the smooth black surface and Sara wrapped it into a plastic bag with her heart in her throat.

-Anytime, Joshua -she replied. -This very minute, if you want.

-One of these days, more likely -he smiled, and Sara grew scared of the emptiness radiating from his dark eyes.

-I hope you have some lovely new ideas -she said, trying to break the embarrassing silence in the shop and start a meaningful conversation, for his sake.

-Songs are waiting to be written, yes -he replied.

Sara wished she could hug him and comfort him: he looked so lost, so lonely. She had seen him a few times after she found out what happened, but he seemed proud and strong then. By now his resolution to stay unaffected had diminished; he was not bearing the weight of their separation as easily as Mary.

-How wonderful -she said with a slow smile.

-Yes. I hope to have a few songs done before I leave.

Sara fought back her urge to swallow.

-Going back to the States?

-My manager and my agent keep pestering me for new material -he responded. -It was high time I got my act together -he added, fumbling with his book the title of which Sara was certain he had no idea about.

-This town will not be the same without you -she said, biting her lip, looking into his eyes.

He nodded, taking the book, arranging the scarf around his neck.

Say it, just say it, you impossible, stubborn creature, say it, she begged him silently. Say it for everyone to hear. Say it.

There was uncertainty in his every gesture as he stood there, wanting to go, wishing he could reply, spill the words that contorted his brows into a grotesque mask of resignation and struggle.

-I was very happy here -he finally said, nodding without looking at her.

Sara clenched her teeth and watched him close the door quietly. When the two gossips approached the counter with a knowing look, she checked the price label of their clothes and books and with a steely smile, she added five pounds to the price of each of them. She apologized for misleading the customers but those were new additions and they cost more on the first week of display.

She struggled to stay put and not run after Mary to tell her the horrible news. Mary had to be told. He could not leave like that.

Chapter 42

She knew something was wrong with her son the moment she saw his eyes at the station. A forced, empty bliss resided in them that not even his hearty embrace could dispel. She squeezed him for a few minutes, ignoring the questions that surfaced from her troubled mother’s heart: they would have to wait.

There was a lot to make up for. Since her week in the hospital, she had been even more actively taking part in her beloved charity work. Somehow sensing that her time was running out (between a month or ten years there was no big difference, after all), she strived to do as much good as possible. Against doctor’s orders and Jack’s warnings. She was eager to tell Joshua about her life, about their life at home without the light that he was.

Handing her a cup of strong tea with milk, Joshua sat down with one leg pulled up. He looked comfortable, despite that strange longing in his eyes.

-I told you the market here is great -he smiled. -We’re lucky to have some Frenchmen come over every Thursday to sell the local delicacies. I got you that apricot tarte you’ve been looking at for days now.

-How lovely. A dessert after dinner -Linda smiled, sipping her tea.

-I’m really sad you have to go back so early -he said, a sombre shade passing over his beautiful face. -We hardly had time to talk.

-I know, sweetheart, but my work is waiting -Linda replied sadly. -And you know the boys. If I’m missing in action for on day, the fridge goes haywire. I’ll be happy to not see mouldy cheese and rotten apples upon my return.

-They should try living alone sometime -Joshua smiled slowly. -Not that difficult, after all. Only in the first weeks, before you get to discover all the best restaurants and starving becomes history.

Linda laughed. Her Josh had not changed in many respects. Only his brows were furrowed more often, and his eyes were filled with a kind of mature melancholy. She placed her cup on the small table and decided to make him talk.

-Sweetheart -she said, looking at him with all the gentleness she could muster. -You want to pretend that you’re happy, for my sake. I appreciate it, but I’d appreciate sincerity more. What’s troubling you?

Joshua let his glance fall. The carpet’s dull beige colour was only broken by a minute spot right next to the table’s leg. From the corner of his eye he discerned his mother stare at him attentively.

-Nothing, mom -he said, braving her eyes. -In fact, I’m going back to the States soon. I have drafts to five songs and I’m sure David is on tenterhooks by now. I feel like making music -he finished with a smile.

-That’s wonderful news, honey -Linda replied, genuinely happy. -I’m very pleased and your father will be likewise. Not to mention your fans.

Joshua looked away, making an effort not to blurt out his real thoughts on the subject of fame and fans.

-It will take some time to accustom myself to all that once more -he said carefully.

-You may never be able to -Linda replied simply. -But you have to remember that your greatest gift to them is your voice. As long as you keep singing, you will make them happy.

He looked at her and she saw he was savouring her words. She knew it must have weighed down on him for a long time: the doubt whether he should try again, the fear of hurting someone, the defiance to it all.

She stood up and sat comfortably next to him, squeezing his hand with a smile.

-I trust you, Joshua -she said, stroking his hand with her thumb. -I know you’ll do what’s best for everyone. Your generous heart has not changed in spite of all that’s happened. I’m very proud of you, my love. So is your dad, and everyone who knows what you’ve been through.

He took her hand and kissed it affectionately.

-I really don’t think I could do without you guys -he sighed. -You’re God’s greatest gift to me -he added, and she saw his eyes grew dim.

She was close to tears herself. To have him next to her and be able to see him daily, taking care of his needs- a mother’s eternal craving long after her son had left their nest- it would never be possible. He would have to walk without his family.

-I know that you stopped giving love a chance when you thought you could never trust anyone again… -she told him, stroking his cheek, -but your trust will return and you will make someone very happy, and she will make you the happiest man alive. You’re a wonderful person and when she finds you she will love you and your children so much!

Despite himself, tears came, almost unnoticed. He thought he was staring at his hand holding hers when he noticed his neck was wet, and he quickly wiped his eyes.

-What is it, honey? -Linda whispered, her heart breaking.

He leaned forward and buried his face in his hands for a moment, then inhaled as if to speed up the cleansing of his soul. Propping his head on one hand, he looked at her sideways, and she saw his tears flowed incessantly.

-She found me, mom -his voice was quivering and weak. -She had to let go.

Linda rubbed his back gently, swallowing her sorrow and concern. Seeing her son struggle with words and emotions was almost unbearable to her.

-We can never have children -he said. -Or a future together.

The mother’s tears rolled down her cheeks, right into her heart where sadness grew and became manifest in more tears.

-If she is the right one for you, you have to fight for her -she awallowed her pain at watching her son in agony. -Even if children are out of the question -she added, feeling her heart die at the thought of not having her two sons. -Love is not always perfect, you know? Just like no one is perfect. We miss a leg, or an arm, or teeth, or our circumstances may be very difficult. Love can miss a leg, or a hand, and most of the time, it is very difficult. Maybe the odds are against you… but what is important is how you feel, inside, in your heart.

He leaned back on the sofa and allowed her to wipe the tears from his cheek. Her little boy, with glasses and a tooth broken on a hastily taken flight of stairs, crying desperately before a school singing contest. Your voice will make your tooth grow back, she had told him, and she did believe what she said, too. She had faith in him and his presence, a presence already noticeable when he was seven: his voice, weak but reminiscent of angels, filled the hearts of everyone who heard him. The little tear-stained face and those large, serious eyes were so easy to console. After so much heartache and disillusionment, she knew that his sorrow was probably there to stay. Once forfeited, trust was very painfully regained, and all that pain was trickling out of her own flesh and blood’s beautiful, pure eyes.

-Tell me about her -she said, arranging his tired curls around his face.

It all poured out of his soul then. The desire to ease his conscience for feeling ashamed of his love for an old woman, the pain at realizing she may have been that perfect-imperfect love his mother told him about, the sad truth that whatever he said, or did, would not change the state of the world. He would stay young, she would stay old, and the entangled, messy, difficult emotions they had for each other would stay rooted in his heart, and probably hers, till the end of their lives.

He wept for the wonderful moments they had together, and the smiles he had managed to light up in Mary’s timid eyes, and the joy he felt at making her happy, body and soul. She had resisted him for so long! Perhaps it would have been better to let their paths meander on their own, side by side. Which way to go at a crossroads? A road chosen meant another road lost forever: endless possibilities lost against something gained, and as vile as the human soul is, the things gained would never equal the fleeting bliss that lingers above an unfulfilled dream.

He knew weeping would not change things, but he wept, his instincts struggling to bring relief to the shaking body a mother cradled with all the love a mother can feel for a son. He wanted to undo things, return to that day, and avoid her, never talk to her, let her be a fancy, a lonely figure by the sea. He wished he could have been stronger, he wished he had never fallen for Susie, she may be alive still. If only he had not accepted her offer to paint him- they would still be only nodding acquanitances.

If only he had paid attention to the warnings of the sea.

Chapter 43

Another gloomy autumn morning found Mary sleepily hovering abover her kitchen sink, drinking some liquid reminiscent of coffee or tea, she was not sure which. After helping Sara the previous evening with a new delivery of clothes and various items, she positively felt uplifted. There was something for her, after all: bits and pieces of things to do that made the time pass. Perhaps in a few years she would finally be able to look at an empty canvas and see something other than his smile.

Her son had reassured her that she could visit earlier than Christmas. She might just take him up on his offer, for the simple reason of being in the company of humans who breathed just like her. A change of climate and of scenery was what she needed.

Apparently he was of the same opinion. Sara had told her he was leaving back to the States. Mary found it ironic that they would be in the same country, after all: what if their paths would cross each other? The moment she worded her crazy idea to Sara she knew it would always stay a daydream, a sick fancy of an old woman who had been through hell. Their existences were meant to collide and overlap at the sea, under the sunset, where no one’s watching eyes could see them. The real world had never accepted their union, and she was done trying to fool herself.

She pulled the curtain to look over her small garden. The rosebuds that died before they could bloom looked haggard and vile under the grey, misty light that was descending from the sky. Brushing her hair back and throwing a shawl around her, she stepped outside to trim the rosebushes. She wanted no reminder of a long past summer.

A drizzle stuck to her skin, wetting it with cool drops of uncertain rain, while she stooped and cut, picked and threw withered buds into a paper bag she had carried from the house. She heard some steps approach, probably Pete coming for his daily entertainment. Today’s sensational episode would encompass all the dull emotions of a bitter and lonely old spinster. Maybe he would get a kick out of that, Mary thought, picking up a rosebud from among the dead leaves, suddenly feeling restlessness grow over her: the bud was still alive when she severed it mercilessly from the stem. She had bereaved herself of probably the very last rose she would see that year, but she bit her lip and not giving it a second thought, threw it next to the other, dead ones.

A low rumble of sound reached her ears, and wondering if a storm was imminent, she straightened to look over to the sea. Before her glance could fall on the horizon, Joshua’s eyes met hers from the face of a woman who was her age.

Mary staggered and her hand lifted to hold onto something, meeting the decapitated rosebush. Noticing that the familiar eyes were looking at her hand, she looked too, and saw blood on her skin from an unkind encounter with a thorn. She pulled the small thorn out of her skin and wiped the blood off, then lifted her gaze.

-I apologize for startling you –the woman said. –I… I am not sure this… this conversation should take place at all.

-Perhaps it shouldn’t –Mary replied in a hollow voice. Then, urged by courtesy, nodded and walked back into the house, allowing the stranger to follow her.

She sat down on her sofa and watched his mother follow her slowly, settling on a chair facing her.

Linda prayed she would find the right words. She did not expect- she did not expect someone who almost looked older than herself. The person whom Joshua had told her so little about was not young, or ill, but old. Undeniably so, as her hands were shaking in their endeavour to cover each other. How? How was it possible that her son was weeping over… over her? This was not like her Josh. This was like someone she did not, and would probably never know. She swallowed, wishing she had not come.

Mary stared at her hands, fully aware of the terrible awkwardness of the situation. Those eyes could never lie, and they did not lie now: she was found shockingly old, completely unsuitable for a son, ridiculous and pathetic. The skin on her hands seemed even thinner than usual, showing slow life underneath, reluctant and redundant.

-I’m Linda –came from the other end of the room, and she looked aside.

-Mary –she said, desperately wanting to end the situation, or her life, something. Anything.

-I’ll be honest with you –Linda continued. Mary tried to hear emotions behind the words but either there were none, or her senses had been numbed since he left. –When he told me you could have no future together, I thought… I was misled.

Mary closed her eyes, ordering it all to go away. She would never play with fire again. She would keep to the safety of old age, she would follow conventions, she would never break a rule again, ever, if only she could be spared the humiliation. How was she supposed to bear the eyes of a mother, so reproachful and questioning, when she was hardly able to face herself in the mirror?

-I am not sure what you expect of me –she said, forcing herself to look into Linda’s eyes. –But I know for certain that whatever you or anyone expects is less of an ordeal than what I have to deal with every day.

Linda remained silent, gazing back at her with a calm serenity that was the complete opposite of what Mary was experiencing.

Rain had started its rhythmical pattering on the windowsill and Mary gratefully inhaled the fresh, crisp scent of moist ground and leaves.

-I am not here to interrogate you or… judge you –Linda spoke, clasping her hands, seemingly at a loss. –I came as the mother of a son who has no idea what to do, who is completely on his own and without help.

Mary sank further inside the sofa, if that was possible. There was no need for her to wish for the grace of death: she had been dead for weeks and now she died anew. Through the horrid visions of a broken Joshua she saw the breathing rosebud, the petals slowly dying in the shelter of each other, untouched by sunlight or rain’s soothing hands.

-It is for his own good –she mumbled the ridiculous excuse, her last hope to redemption. She had only done what was best for him. That had to count, certainly. –He’s young, he will live –she added, hoping to fully vindicate herself.

Linda caught a glimpse of a painting half turned towards her and she stood up to look at it closely. Mary let her; in her helpless state she felt like an upturned porpoise, just as heavy, just as slow, just as ridiculous. There was nothing she could say that would sound acceptable. For Linda, for herself.

-When did you paint this? –Linda asked.

When did she paint it? When the hope that he would ever hold her was not even a firm idea in her heart. Long before she realized that he would let her inside his life. Ages before she experienced bliss she had never thought possible.

-At least I was honest in my painting –Mary said, jumping from thought to thought, remembering Joshua by her fireplace, looking down, his wrist arching, his cheek illuminated by the flames. –I knew he would leave. I should never have forgotten.

Linda stared at the painting a little longer, before she walked back to her chair.

-Whatever I say will sound painful to you –she spoke carefully and with a tenderness that surprised Mary. –This is something that… I cannot and should not meddle with. It was wrong of me to come here… but you have to understand that I worry for my son.

Mary thought she heard pleading in her voice and she lifted her tired glance. Was she begging for her understanding, or begging for her to reconsider…?

-I am truly sorry –Linda confirmed her suspicion with tears that were hastily wiped away. –I can’t say more. I… I would only give you more pain, of which you have had your share.

Mary followed with eyes that were blurry, until Linda was gone.

A cat purred by the dead fireplace, looking at the world through eyes half closed, feigning sleep and alertness at the same time. Whatever was going on, she was content. Warmth, food, a stroking of a hand.

Her hand was still bleeding from the thorn. Mary wiped the drops of blood, the punishment of the crime she had committed against the living rose, smearing them on her pale skin.

A deep sigh escaped her torn heart. He was leaving in a few days. What use trying to face him and make him face her? She had caused enough harm for both of them when she allowed the sunlight to blind her on that day by the sea. It had been decided when she had looked into his beautiful eyes. She should have chased him away, like a stray dog that once tamed, will depend on the love of the merciful one who let him in from the rain. Which was the greater sin: walking past the misery of a lonely creature, or receiving them into the warmth only to kick them back into the cold?

As the light shower had stopped, she walked out into the fresh afternoon to breathe in the lingering rain. The grass, wet and cold, tickled her ankles over her shoes.

She missed her stray dog terribly. Hugging herself against the wind, she shed tears of solitude and regret for what she had done and what she had to do. A rebellious free will and the desire to conform to the rules the world, the only world she knew, was working by clashed in her consciousness. Looking up into the skies, she wondered if there was a God after all, and if there was one, why did he allow such horrible doubt and fear to mime the existence of one of his creatures. Recalling the dusty silence of the church and the nauseatingly sweet words of the pastor, she shivered in the cold. If there was a God who resided over everything, she would let him decide her fate, as she was tired of battling the darkness of her own soul. Every alternative, every possibility, every possible outcome she had turned over and over inside her head: there was nothing she could do. She had done the right thing, and she would let him go free. To ensure her own freedom, a freedom that might let her live, that which is more potent than any kind of freedom: that of the conscience.

Breathing out a sigh of endless relief, she stopped to shake the severed rosebuds from the paper bag, and pulling aside the pale ones, she picked up the one with petals still dark red and full of life.

44.

Eleven twenty. Two hours.

He was done packing, he was done checking every cranny and corner of his temporary house. The fireplace was full of ashes and looked terribly forlorn. He knew he should have cleaned it but the sight of the cold grey ashes reassured his restless soul: a tiny detail left unclean, a trace of him left behind. Proof that he had been there.

There was no sign of sunlight on the horizon. He watched the tiny waves fold and unfold in the distance, listening to their quiet rumble. A bird cut across the grey-white sky, a withered twig fell from the apple tree in his garden.

Looking at his luggage hauled into the middle of the room, he wondered what to do. He could spend the rest of the time before boarding at the airport. Among people. Drinking coffee, wamed by the incessant buzz of life. Silence was deafening him: it brought about things that had never happened, and pulled into his consciousness memories that hurt and angered him.

Humming the bridge of a song that he had no time to jot down in the morning, he repeated it over and over to memorise it until his restlessness would allow him to sit down and make use of a pencil and some music sheet. He stepped to his window and closed it, then pulled the curtains and arranged the thin lace material meticulously.

Music, his life, his purpose. He was returning to it, after so many years. New ideas, new melodies strived to burst his brain, and the creative energy infiltrated his being in a good way. Being too stubborn and hurt to analyse his actions, why he was going back, and whether he was ready to do so, he cared about none of his doubts. Sometimes it was best to blindly face a storm and brave all fears that may arise.

He noticed a scarf that had fallen between the sofa and the wall, and picking it up, pushed it into the opening of his suitcase. His mom would be happy to get it back as it was her favourite, the one she had received from his dad on their twentieth anniversary. On their cruise. He smiled, recalling his mother’s clinging arms. She had been so fragile on the last day they spent together. Reticent and vulnerable, despite his efforts to invigorate her spirits.

Eleven thirty-two.

Rubbing his four-day stubble, he wondered if he should have shaved. His hand fell by his side, and his vision got side-tracked by the sea once more. Frothy waves, grey and gruesome blue and white, directed by the wind. The same wind that blew the branches of the tree to his window panes. It howled in frustration, being kept outside, unable to reach him in the solitude of his living-room. Joshua pondered for a moment and he thought he saw the face of the wind: it was spectral and pained. A lonely wanderer who tried to hold onto everything that got in his way, tearing at beauty and ugliness with the same intensity, longing to rule both. Then, letting go, forced to walk on, empty-handed.

He turned away from the window and putting his coat on, he arranged his scarf around his neck. With a last look of farewell that seemed out of place and horribly sentimental, he grabbed his luggage.

The path to the centre was the same path that led him away from something he could not grasp, or face, or think about. Forcefully keeping his chin up and his fingers tight on the handle of his suitcase, he walked with the wind in his face that blew his hair and chilled his skin.

He stopped at a crossing, waiting for the light to change, forgetting to press the button. A grumpy old man pushed it for him and shuffled across while the cars waited patiently. Joshua stood rooted, a sudden thought taking hold of his senses.

What was he doing, walking away, without goodbye? Without seeing her for one last time? It would be painful and he would regret it, but even regret and pain would be easy knowing he had seen her, talked to her. Whatever happened.

His steps were long and rushed, with the wind blowing in his back, pushing him forward, giving him wings. He wished he could throw his suitcase to be able to walk faster. Almost twelve. Only a frugal hour left.

A dog that looked like a tattered ghost followed him with his eyes void of life. Joshua stared into those eyes and shivered in the crisp autumn day, swallowing his premonition.

The loud greeting of the sea exploded in his ears when he arrived to the cliffs, out of breath. He dropped his suitcase and turned around, scanning the beach, the shrubs, the rocks. It was uncanny why he thought he would find her there, but it was an unshakable feeling in his heart.

Walking further up the shore towards the high cliffs, he dearly wished he could be a bird. Soaring high and seeing what no human can see. He would spot her from afar, fly to her, perch on her arm, look at her with raven eyes and brush her with his ebony wings.

The shock of seeing himself, the majestic black bird of his fancy, dead on a cliff stopped his breathing. He stared at the open wings and the tiny pool of blood that looked strikingly and treacherously alive against the granite-shade rock. His mind refused to acknowledge it as reality (it was probably part of his crazed fancy) and he stubbornly turned away, walking in the other direction, braving the wind that this time blew ferociously into his face, drawing tears from his stinging eyes.

Twigs and shells and tiny, mutilated crabs lay scattered in the wet sand. Pebbles of all shapes and colours fringed the shore, shining even in the day that lacked light. Joshua stumbled across some of them, his soles slipping on the surfaces eroded by the waves of time. He was getting cold, and he couldn’t see anything.

Just then, his glance fell on something that did not belong to the landscape.

A knitted shawl, maroon-grey and soaked on the wet sand. Its fringes were floating in the water whenever a wave approached, to rest later on the pebbled mud.

Watching the fascinating dance of the knitted fringes and the waves, Joshua’s perception was blurred for a while and it was only later that he noticed the footprints, leading straight to the sea.

Relief, then shame, then remorse hit him with a sudden gust of icy wind. He staggered and took a few steps back, walking away, telling himself it was all part of his sick fancy that had come from nowhere. When he reached the shrubs, he turned his head to see the trail of steps that led unwaveringly into the water.

The cold drew surprisingly many tears from his eyes. They fell and became cold and useless drops of rain for the muddy soil he was walking on. His luggage pulled him under, making his each step become laden with guilt and sorrow.

Without realizing, he was walking back to where he lived. Where she lived. The familiar path and the tiny garden that had no more roses in it. The one with the dark sky above it, where he chose to love her first. That night.

Standing at her doorstep, he automatically tried her door. It must be a mistake. She always left it open, always. Therefore, if it was open now, it must all be a dream.

His fingers clasped the protesting knob with unearthly strength. Then, his hand fell.

And his eyes that did not know reality from dream, to a large object clad in brown wrapping paper, propped to the locked door. He blinked to chase his stubborn tears away and noticed a single red rose on a short stem, stuck into the corner of the paper. The crimson petals reminded him of the raven’s blood on the cliff.

Picking up what seemed to be something rectangular and flat, he saw the writing on the paper.

“Dear J, you gave me life I never dared to dream about. All my love, M.”

He stumbled off the stairs, walking blindly, trying hard to keep a balance with his suitcase and the parcel in his two hands. The wind was blowing incessantly, blowing his heart to shreds, taking away his will to take that next step.

The mailman approached, ringing on his bicycle. Joshua saw and heard nothing, and if the mailman had not been alert enough, he would have been hit. Thus, only a loud curse and something slamming against a hard surface was heard. And then, silence.

Two birds flew by, chirping excitedly as if to wake Joshua from his daze. He blinked and looked at his feet. The parcel and his suitcase had fallen from his hands. His clothes were scattered, and the brown paper got torn, a sharp wrought iron spike sticking from its belly.

Joshua stooped to pull the paper away. It tore with difficulty and reluctance. When his cold hands grabbed the broken frame to salvage the painting, the cracked canvas gave way and the wound became irreparable. In the painting, he was turning to face a sunset cut in two.

He slowly walked to a nearby dustbin and threw the remnants of his hope away, then closed the lid. Just then, the sun poked through the grey sky and shone down on the world.

Joshua saw the whole day as the fitful mocking of fate. Too many signs, too much sorrow. Why? He did not deserve them. She did not deserve to die. And make him miserable. Just when he was ready to start life afresh.

What life? Where?

Pain strengthened his wilful limbs and he walked back to the centre, closing his eyes to a past that he hoped he could forget. He ignored the awareness that he had not been able to forget his other past, either. In time, he would.

Two gleeful birds chirped in the tree outside the train station, watching him mount the stairs of the train. They screamed their message to him, but his ears were shut to the outside world.

A loud whistle cut the buzzing of humans and birds mingled together, and as the train sped by, Joshua sank into his seat, fighting thoughts and sorrow. He was unaware of the fact that blinded by his fear, he had misinterpreted many signs that day.

He was also unaware of the thin, almost invisible trail of footsteps that circled around the cliffs by the sea and led back towards the land.

(End of Part 1)

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