The Essential Guide to Beachcombing

A new beachcomber takes Eric by surprise

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Public Domain

Eric scans the group of expectant faces in front of him, all wind swept, rosy-cheeked and eager. They are the same familiar people of the Broadstairs Beachcombers and he is explaining the same thing he does every weekend.

“And that, too, can be found in our pamphlet The Essential Guide to Beachcombing.” The words are coming out but his head is elsewhere. He knows it all by rote. It is a script and the speech rolls out like a spring tide.

The group’s black sacks twitch in the wind, a flock of cormorants drying their wings. Their grabber-tool tridents glint in the sunlight. The waves gobble at the wide band of seaweed that floats at the shoreline. Its briny smell is already rotten-egg pungent in the warm morning sun.

The beach is filling with day-trippers. Behind the group, Eric sees the visitors arrive; coloured hats and hair bob down the zig-zag steps built into the cliff, like marbles in a game of bagatelle, until they spill onto the sand. A flock of gulls dive-bomb a half-eaten sandwich dropped by the bins. Wheeling and squawking at each other, they kick up a storm with their feathers and claws.

“Off you go then everyone,” Eric sighs, “I’ll be on hand for questions. Watch out for sharp objects, hooks and fishing tackle.”

The group splits up and trudges across the wet sand to start picking their way through the rock pools at the tip of the headland. Eric heads back to the beach hut for a cigarette.

When he pulls open the door, he is surprised to see a barefoot woman standing with her back to him. She fumbles to put the lid back on the cake tin and turns around. With slender fingers she wipes away fruitcake crumbs from her lips. Eric stands, mouth open.

Her white, wavy hair cascades over her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face and a radiant smile. The blue-green sequins of her skirt shimmer as the sun pushes past him to light up the hut.

“You’re not supposed to be in here,” Eric stammers, “you’d better get back to the group.”

She blinks with enormous dark eyes and Eric is reminded of the seal that often pops up near the pier.

He steps aside to let the woman leave the shed. With a frown, she runs her hands over the collection of shells and starfish stuck to the walls. He notices the crescent membranes between her fingers but is distracted when her eyes meet his and she breaks into another disarming smile.

She slips past him and skips down to the shore like a feather caught in the wind. Eric follows her: all thoughts of the cigarette fogged by her slender hips and coy glances over her shoulder.

They stand at the shoreline, foamy water nibbling at her toes and his sandals. A jellyfish lies stranded on the crisp surface of the baked seaweed. Before he can stop her, she scoops it up and releases it back into the water. Its body pulsates as if it is taking great gasps of air and the tentacles linger on her wrists. She peels them off and watches as the creature drifts away in the current.

Without warning, she grabs Eric’s hand and pulls him into the sea. Caught off-guard, he high-steps, then stumbles, trips and belly-flops into the water.

The woman clamps her arms round him so hard he can feel his hips and legs undulate with her movements. Her legs flick and pump in harmony, propelling them both through the water. Eric touches her thigh and his fingers brush the scalloped sequin scales. And then he becomes a torpedo. No, more organic than that – a porpoise.

He has forgotten to breathe or shout. The ringing in his ears has taken on a melody full of sadness and longing. Consumed by the rhythm of her body, as she drives them through the waves, he is soaked in the sound of the sea; the sadness, the loss, the missing, the taken, the stolen, the waste. The sonar message of despair drenches him. She claims him for the sea in retribution.

Through lashes blurred with murky water, Eric looks into her big seal eyes and all his final thoughts rise to the surface like air bubbles, and pop in the sunlight.

Jessica is published in several anthologies. She gravitates to Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

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