Neither of them is sure why they’re going on holiday together. It’s not something they’ll admit to, of course, but as they make their way to Paddington Station, where they’ll meet and catch a train to Weymouth, they’re both restive. For different reasons. He is wondering whether something will happen between them on their two days away. She is wondering whether this is…appropriate. It’s mid-June, but the day is damp and grey; it’s starting to drizzle. She’s staring out the window, thinking this is a sign; it isn’t right to go on holiday. He, always an early arriver, is already waiting at the station.
When they meet, they lighten. They’re in Waterstones. They point out books by favourite writers on the shelves—Tóibín, Joyce, Byatt, Atwood. They take pictures, and laugh. He feels this trip might mean the start of something new and wonderful. She reassures herself it will simply be a short getaway with a friend. It needn’t mean anything more. They’ve been friends for two years now, anyway, meeting on and off in Delhi. He’d lived there in the 80s and 90s and returned every winter since to visit his ex-wife and children.
They’d decided impulsively on this trip—over Facebook Messenger, when she texted him, excited, that she’d be in London over the summer for work.
“Will you be around?”
He’d be there, he said, but probably driven a little crazy by the number of tourists in the city at the time.
“I want to swim in the sea somewhere.”
“Brighton?” she’d asked. “I can’t travel out of the UK but happy to go to Cornwall or somewhere nice like that.”
He’d read the message, put it away, then read it again. What was she suggesting…? That they go away together? He knew she was seeing someone, long-term, live-in. Although perhaps things were failing, or had already fallen apart. He was cautious in his reply. “Yes, lovely idea.”
He didn’t bring it up until a fortnight later, when they were chatting online about her London plans. She’d be mostly attending meetings, but was staying on for a while after. She wanted to see a few exhibitions, meet up with some old friends. He slipped it in, tentatively. “Serious about a little trip?”
Something inside him felt retouched, reawakened.
A few messaging sessions later, he asked “Do you like to swim? And do you know when you can get away?”
She wasn’t the best swimmer, she admitted, but she was happy to be near water, even if she didn’t get in. “Also it’s always cold on your island.” She could travel mid-month.
Braver now, he ventured, “I’d really like that. You and me going away somewhere.”
At this point, she replied with a smiley face.
What did that mean? Did she agree? Did she feel the same? He took it that she did.
It took a while to decide where. Cornwall was too far. Six hours by train from London to St Ives, and then a bus or taxi ride to the coast. Too crowded, and expensive, at the Lake District. A friend’s house in the country in Somerset was unavailable. Then suddenly, one evening, a message blinked on his phone: “What about Chesil Beach??!”
“Yes,” he typed happily, “I’d love that.”
Next, he looked up Airbnb places in Portland, found something that promised “sea views and oodles of charm”. It had two separate bedrooms. He didn’t wish to presume.
He sent her the link.
“Gosh,” she said, “so nice. Shall we book it?”
The next day, he messaged, “Good morning. Booked.”
And so here they were on the train to Weymouth.
The trolley woman wheels past and she stops her and asks for a cup of tea.
He refuses, then says, actually, he’d like one too. He is nervous. They share a shortbread biscuit. He wonders whether she shares his joy. She’s been a little less forthcoming this morning; perhaps it was the rain. They’ve brought books along with them, and they read and talk all the way. By the time they’re passing through Dorset, the weather has cleared—sunshine pouring over the wheat fields and oak trees. She looks mighty happy. They disembark at Weymouth, are lost looking for the stop from where a bus will take them to Portland, but there is the sea, and seagulls, and a pier in the distance. He feels they travel well together. It’s a good sign. Finally they’re on the bus; it bumps along the narrow barrier beach—Chesil—and then climbs up into the island. From where the bus stops, it’s a sharp but short ascent to their Airbnb house.
The place is charming, even if the sea view comes from a sizeable distance away through a porthole window. The living and dining space is large and airy, with a fridge filled with breakfast things. On the ceiling, he points out, there’s a door. They stand there looking up at it, laughing. The world is upside down. Why is it there, they wonder? What could lie behind it—an attic space, the roof, nothing at all? They place their luggage in separate bedrooms, freshen up, and then head out, looking for lunch. It is long past 2:30, though, and the island is shut.
“Just like the old days,” he tells her. When people took their afternoon breaks very seriously. Everything would reopen in the evening.
But she is starving.
So in town they find a Co-Op store, pick up some bread and wine and an assortment of deli treats. They’ll do a picnic for now, on the beach.
They aren’t sure of the way, and there isn’t anyone around to ask, so they follow the slope, down, until it ends. The houses sit squat and still that afternoon, fronted with small flowering gardens. Along the way, she stops to smell the honeysuckle. The beach is strangely empty for this time of year; in the distance a man and his dog, playing, a woman jogging, but otherwise it is all their own. It stretches far and long to their right, disappearing into a smoky haze. To their left, the land ends in a cluster of craggy rocks and slopes laden with wildflowers. Beneath their shoes lie astonishingly smooth oval pebbles. They walk a bit and find a spot to lay out their picnic. He has a cap on, she doesn’t. He’s brought his swimming trunks; she has no intention of getting into the water. There is a sea breeze, and despite the sun, she is cold.
“You couldn’t live in this country, could you?”
No, although she’d tried once, years ago, when she’d finished being a student in London. That winter was the wettest they’d seen in forty-six years, and then it snowed in April. She moved in October.
He too had mostly lived elsewhere, because of this. He liked the warm south; happy to be posted in Cairo, and Athens, and Colombo. And Delhi, of course, which he’d once called home.
She says it is still home.
Yes, he says, it still is.
For a while, they eat in silence. Breaking the baguette, picking at the olives, the prosciutto, and artichokes. The Chablis is dry and lively on their tongues.
She begins to say something, but just then he pulls out a towel, he’s off for a quick dip. While he’s in the water, she takes photographs with her cellphone, sending them back to her family and friends, posting a few on Instagram.
He swims far out to sea, with strong, even strokes, growing smaller; she tries to take a picture of him but he looks like a black seal in water. When he returns, he flops down next to her, pulls the cap over his eyes and lies back contentedly on the warm stones.
“That was brilliant.”
“Alright, it was a bit cold.”
She laughs and looks out to sea; it’s the colour of pale silver—the sun has dipped behind the clouds, and the air is bright yet overcast. The sand looks white under the waves. Near the water’s edge, she notices piles of stones in odd arrangements.
“What are those?” she asks. “Some ancient runic altars?”
He lifts his cap, looking at where she’s pointing, and then sits up in a rush. “Oh, I’ve read about them. They’re all over.”
“No, well, yes, I mean the stone pilers.”
“It’s what they do…they pile stones like this, all over the place.”
He looks at her, blinking in the sun. “I’m not entirely sure.”
Then he whips out his phone, and glasses, and says wait, he’d like to show her something. He searches for a video. It’s a few minutes long. Of stone piling arrangements on beaches, in forests, across streams. A careful, precise balancing of pebbles, each on each; graceful bridges, impossible towers, and shapes for which there are no names.
Now they’re inspired and set about collecting stones from the beach, a few to take back with them to the Airbnb. A smooth oval one the colour of dawn, a shiny speckled black, another that’s shaped like half a butterfly’s wing. They’re both also quite certain they’ve read somewhere it is illegal to pick stones from here, a “site of special scientific interest”—possibly there’s a penalty of many hundreds of pounds—but they swear to return the pebbles before they leave. The sun begins to dip, the wind whips up, and they head back. For dinner, they’ll have to be dressed warmer.
They deposit the stones and remaining picnic food on the dining table, look up the list of recommendations their host has printed out for them, and decide on a pub called Cove House, which promises great food, great views, and folk music evenings. She goes to her room to change; when he passes by heading to the bathroom for a shower, she’s on the phone.
“Yes, love,” he can hear her say, and he is stung, and confused, and then annoyed with himself.
On the phone, she is being more than usually attentive. She doesn’t know why, but there’s guilt tugging at her heart. She listens to the voice of the one she loves—he asks questions, and says he saw the photos she sent and the place looks beautiful. “It is,” she confirms. She could say she wishes he were here with her, but she wouldn’t mean it. Their last few months have been turbulent, with him travelling for work too frequently, being absent too often. It felt like she was always the one being left behind. Yes, she was glad to be here on her own. With a friend who she liked, especially for the way they could talk about things. She felt listened to, bolstered, appreciated. It was probably why she’d suggested the trip in the first place—although she hadn’t realised the magnitude of such a gesture until this morning, on her way to Paddington. And now, when night was approaching, bringing with it the prospect of them alone together in these rooms. It makes her more effusive on the phone. “Yes, love,” she says, “wish you were here.”
Down at the Cove House, their moods lift. They are stunned. The views from the pub extend across the beach, across the sea, now richly golden with the setting sun. The people there, locals, perch around nonchalant, but they both opt to sit on the same side of the table, facing the sea. Their pints are pale and refreshingly citrusy; their dinners, their first meal of the day, massive platters of fresh seafood—seared scallops and grilled prawns. “I could eat this every day,” she says happily, and he is thrilled. A seagull perches close by, eyeing their plates. They name him Clive and take pictures. Locals around them say he visits every evening, pinching people’s chips. It is easy to sit there and feel as though they are meant to be nowhere else in the world.
The sky flames, then quietens, darkening rapidly in the east. They move inside for their second pint. There’s a fire, and around them rises the noise of cutlery and chatter. They talk about where they’d someday like to live—for him and for her, it’s by the sea. “But not on the coast and inland,” he clarifies. “I want to be right on it. So I can see it from my window when I wake up every morning.” Her too, she says, her too. It’s warm familiar camaraderie, this exchange; it could be the beer but she’s flushed and delighted. He feels this might be it.
They walk back through dark small-town quiet; it’s colder now, and her denim jacket is vastly inadequate. He offers her his own coat. On her, it is humongous, reaching well below her knees. She doesn’t take it off when they’re inside. Tea will be brewed, it’s decided, and they sit themselves down at the dining table, taking turns to balance the stones. At first it is impossible. They tumble off instantly, skittering across the
One simply will not stay on another.
“How do they do this?” she exclaims. It had looked so easy in the video.
He takes a turn, and seems more skilled than her, getting as far as three or four pebbles high before the pile collapses. Then he gives up and goes off to pour the tea. He sits on the sofa. She keeps trying. “There’s a trick to it,” she says. “There must be.” She palpates the stones gently, gauging shape and weight. All stones fit together, someone had said in the video, but you need to find the point at which it’s right for them to meet. He watches her, and begins to say something, but stops—she has sunk into silence. Slowly, she piles them high, and then higher—it’s five before they eventually fall. They both cry out in disappointment. She joins him on the sofa. Through the porthole window, somewhere in the darkness, is the sea. They sit close, but not too close, their hands wrapped around their cups of tea. They talk quietly, about the day, about what they’ll do tomorrow—a long walk, a visit to the quarry, the cave hole. There’s also a museum, and a walled garden.
“What else?” he asks. She makes no reply, and they both fall silent.
They look up at the door in the ceiling. Why is it there, they wonder? What could lie behind it? He thinks tomorrow they should try to open it, and find out. She thinks it should stay closed.
This story was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.