My feet dug into the powdered sand where the sloping path ended and the dunes began. I could feel it sifting up between my toes. I stepped between patches of coarse sprouting grass, then down onto the firm, clean sand of the beach, case-hardened in the morning sun now the tide had receded. I had done this every day since I arrived. It was a moment of exultation, guaranteed.
The cottage I’d hired was a remnant. A community, I understood, had once fished from the beach it overlooked. It was now the only building left, although several patches of flat, weed-ridden stone lay in patterns around it. I guessed they marked other plain dwellings, long since robbed of their walls, probably reconstructed elsewhere. I soon realised the local people threw nothing away.
The owners of the cottage lived in a small town, three miles south along the coast. They inherited it from their parents, who, they explained, had refused to leave until eventually death obliged them. I had travelled five hundred miles to stay in it, hoping everything I found would be okay, and it was perfect.
I stood and looked out at the North Sea, in the absence of wind as level as the beach. Some forty miles to my left it would blend with the Atlantic and become an infinity of water. There was nothing to impede my gaze, to restrict the possibilities before me.
‘I heard about this strange man scratching at the sand, so I thought I’d come and have a look.’
A jolt went through me. The voice came from nowhere, and I’d heard no footsteps. A young woman stood a few feet away, eyes shining with amusement. Her skin was as pale as you’d expect this far north, almost translucent, but her hair was a colour I’d never seen before, a red so dark it was almost black. She came forward stretching out her hand.
‘I’m Marie,’ she said. ‘My parents own the cottage. They told me about you. Sorry I made you jump.’
I passed the rake I was holding from my right to left hand and took the palm she offered. It was small and dry.
‘I’m Joe,’ I said. ‘It’s just that I didn’t hear you coming. And you’re the first person I’ve seen for nearly a week.’
‘You haven’t come for the local colour, then? We’re not that unfriendly round here.’ She had the level, candid gaze I’d seen in everyone since I arrived.
‘In a way that’s exactly what I’ve come for.’ I looked around me then back at her.
She looked round too. ‘I heard you were some sort of artist. Are you?’
‘Some sort,’ I said. ‘I make patterns in the sand. You could call it ephemeral art except I take photographs before the sea washes them away.’
She looked out across the light yellow beach, darker near the ebbing water, as if trying to picture what I was talking about.
‘Why make something that only lasts a few hours? It seems such a waste.’
‘For exactly that reason – they’re here then they’re gone, so I never do the same thing twice. But the context has to be right because for a short time they become part of what’s around them. It really helps that this view is so stunning.’
‘You get used to it when you live here,’ she said. ‘You forget it’s special.’
‘I hoped it would be.’ I found myself staring out again: it was impossible not to. ‘But you can’t be sure until you actually get to the place you’ve decided on.’
‘You must do research, then. What do you look for?’
‘A lot of it’s practical. You have to find a chart of the tides. That gives an idea of how much beach will be exposed and for how long. Then you need to know how much of that’s likely to be clean sand.’
‘Well in that case I’m glad we’ve met your needs.’ Her eyes were still shining.
There was something unguarded about her, as if because I was in her territory there was no reason to feel unsafe. It wouldn’t be so in my neighbourhood. I realised I was still leaving the city behind.
I’d been keen to get started, but it was obvious that manners were different up here. No-one, it seemed, rushed. And she showed no sign of wanting to leave. I thought I should be tactful.
‘I have a window to work in,’ I said. ‘You’re welcome to stay and watch, although the first part is mainly geometry.’ I took a few steps back to the dunes, and reached into the sand for some sticks and string I’d buried there overnight.
‘Are they your tools?’ she said. ‘They don’t look very technical.’
‘They’re all I need apart from this rake. String and one stick for a circle, string and two sticks for an ellipse or a straight line. I map out the design on paper then scale it up. The knots on the string are spaced at half-metres.’ I put down the sticks, pulled a folded sheet from my top pocket and opened it out.
She came and stood beside me to look at it. Our shoulders touched.
‘You’ve got shaded bits – how do you do that?’
‘That’s where the rake comes in. You rake the top layer to expose the damp sand beneath. That creates a contrast in the colour and texture.’
‘That’s clever.’ She continued to stare at the plan. ‘But what do you do about footprints?’
‘That’s why you need a stretch of firm sand. There’s no real problem here, but if there are areas where the sand is softer you can only stand in the spaces you intend to rake.’ I folded the sheet of paper and put it back in my pocket. ‘Now you know as much as I do.’
She moved away slightly and frowned for a moment.
‘Could I come and do it with you one day?’
I paused. She was very fresh faced, probably in her late teens, but perhaps early twenties; at least ten years younger than me.
‘Do your family know you’re here?’ I felt embarrassed to ask.
‘There aren’t many secrets in a place like this.’ She seemed unoffended. ‘I’m surprised the whole town hasn’t followed you up here.’
‘I’m really glad they haven’t.’ I thought for a moment. ‘You’re welcome, providing you’re willing to do exactly what I say. I’ve worked with someone else before, but it’s vital to use the same method. We both have to rake to the same depth and in a consistent direction to catch the light uniformly. Is that okay?’
‘Yes boss,’ she said. ‘Got it. I’ll come and find you tomorrow or the day after.’
She turned away and walked off towards the coastal path that led back to the town. She was very slender, and I noticed her dark hair fell down her back unevenly, as if she or someone else had taken scissors to it at random. That image stayed with me.
I found it hard to focus when she’d gone. My sketches were a template but I gave myself latitude, and it was important to concentrate and make decisions as the patterns evolved. I wanted whatever I finished up with to look as though it had always been there. Somehow that was part of the joy of watching it dissolve in the tide. I worked as carefully as I could for the next four hours, but when I climbed back to look down from the top of the dunes the result disappointed me, and I decided not to photograph it.
I returned to the cottage and quickly prepared some food, then took it out with me to watch the tide come in. Cloud had blown across from the west and the light had changed. I knew by now that it was rarely the same for long: blue, grey, purple some evenings, even silver in the midsummer night. It was a crucial factor, but of course I couldn’t control it. Now the light seemed wrong as well.
I sat on my own that evening in the deep quiet, sipping a glass of whisky. I’d taken the precaution of buying a bottle after stocking myself up with provisions. I had read that there was a specialist whisky shop in the town, but the shop front was so unobtrusive I had to be pointed towards it. Inside, although whisky was the only visible stock, surprisingly few bottles stood on the bare slatted shelves behind the counter. I asked the proprietor for something local.
‘How local do you want it to be?’ he said. ‘We have three distilleries near here.’
‘What would you recommend?’ None of the labels I could see were familiar to me. ‘It’ll be my nightcap.’
He pulled down a bottle with dust on its shoulders.
‘Peaty, smoky and ten years in a sherry cask. This will give you sweet dreams.’
‘That’s the one, then,’ I said.
He nodded and bent to bring up an old newspaper from beneath the counter, then began to wrap the bottle in sheet after sheet, while speaking unhurriedly.
‘People come up here and fall in love with it.’ He broke off a piece of tape. ‘At least they do if they come in the summer when the heather and gorse are out. You have to be careful to see things for what they are. Especially you artist-types. It’s not like that all the time.’
It seemed that word of my arrival, and its purpose, had preceded me, and I hadn’t even collected the keys to the cottage yet. I supposed he was referring to the seascape and scented hills. It was easy to see why people fell in love with a place that possessed such things, less so why he felt the need to warn me.
But his whisky gave me sweet dreams, as he said it would. Or perhaps I’d have had them anyway. Each night, sleep came with images of the sea, as clear as if the hours of looking had imprinted them on my retina.
The morning following Marie’s visit I woke soon after dawn. There were no curtains on my window, and the early light flooded in, irresistibly.
I washed and ate a hurried breakfast, then headed straight for the beach. I’d only been there a couple of minutes when I sensed a presence behind my left shoulder. Marie was standing there, holding a package, grinning at me.
‘Can you just materialise?’ I said.
She laughed. ‘You’re so involved in your thoughts you don’t hear people coming.’
She was wearing dungarees, bunched and dirty at the knee, and sandals which she flicked off when she stepped down to the hard sand. Her feet were very white and sand immediately stuck to the soles. She saw I noticed this.
‘Factor thirty,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t have thought you’d need it up here.’
‘This place has its own laws.’ She looked at me mischievously. ‘The sun hides behind the wind, but it’s still there. I’ve known plenty of people burn their feet.’
She walked towards me and handed me the package. ‘My mother’s made us a pie. She said to put in the fridge so it stays fresh.’
‘That’s very kind of her,’ I said. ‘It’ll make a change from lentils and rice.’
‘Suffering for your art?’
‘No, just on a budget. I’ll take this back now and pick up a rake for you. I wasn’t sure if you were coming today or tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow it might rain,’ she said. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’
Back at the cottage I unwrapped the pie. It was covered with a thick crust of pastry and crimped evenly and carefully at the edges. For a moment I found myself inexplicably moved by that detail. I collected the other rake – an identical standby with a narrow head and shallow tines – filled an additional water bottle, and made my way back.
Marie, unselfconsciously, was performing a small dance, as if freed by the space and rich air. I stood watching, until she ended with a mock curtsey.
‘That’s me warmed up.’
I tried not to smile. ‘I’m glad you’re taking it seriously.’ I pulled a design out of my pocket. ‘This pattern’s bigger than the rest. I’d wondered if I could complete it between tides, but with two of us doing the raking it should be possible.’
She came to stand beside me again.
‘I took it from a mandala then simplified it and distorted it into a teardrop shape. The tapering part leads down to the water. What do you think?’
‘Cool,’ she said. ‘Better than all that bogus Celtic stuff they try to sell in the craft shop.’
‘I’m glad you approve.’ And I realised I really was glad. ‘We’ve got six hours, so I suggest we set it out, have lunch, then fill in the spaces that need raking. That’s usually the slowest part, because we have to be very precise.’
‘That’s the bit I’m looking forward to.’ For a moment she frowned at the pattern, then smiled up at me.
‘Let’s go,’ I said.
The setting out went well. Surprisingly so. Once we started she became very focussed. Like everyone I’d met so far she seemed able to clear herself of distraction at will. Several times I noticed her smiling quietly as first the outline then the inner pattern emerged, and, perhaps because the process was new to her, I also began to view it afresh. When finally we marked each of the areas to be raked with an x, the first stage was complete.
‘Feel like lunch?’ I said.
‘I think we’ve earned it.’ She looked around at the pattern approvingly. ‘I can see why you love doing this.’
‘It’s great when it goes to plan.’ I saw her frown. ‘Like today,’ I added.
We began to walk up to the cottage. She shuffled her feet back into her sandals and I left our tools on the beach, just below the dunes.
‘I’ll fix the pie,’ she said, once we were indoors. ‘I know this oven.’
I began to put together a salad, grateful the ingredients still seemed fresh enough to eat. Meanwhile she set the table – she knew where the cutlery and plates were kept as well – and filled two glasses of water. When the pie was ready I noticed she cut herself a very small portion, and then only seemed to pick at it.
‘Are you studying at the moment?’ I asked, partly to fill the space and partly because I was curious.
‘Not right now,’ she said. ‘I had to take some time out after my first year at Uni. I was struggling a bit. I’d never been as far as Glasgow before.’
‘Uni’s not for everyone,’ I said. ‘I hated it. Do you think you’ll go back?’
‘I’m not sure.’ She poked at the salad. ‘It’s been difficult since my twin died.’
‘I’m sorry.’ For some reason the uneven slices in her hair came into my mind.
It was very different being indoors together. She had obviously sat at this table many times before, and I wondered what memories it held for her. As if she picked up my thoughts she changed the subject.
‘Dad says you’re planning to stay for another few days?’
‘Yes. I’ve hired this place until next Tuesday. Some sites are quite limiting, but here there’s no end to what I could do – the conditions are so ideal.’
‘Right conditions to thrive,’ she said. It sounded like therapy-speak.
I found myself nodding. ‘Absolutely. It’s what we all need.’
We ate in silence for a while. At least, I ate and she pretended to.
‘That’s enough for me,’ she said, when I’d cleared my plate.
‘Let’s get back then,’ I said. ‘I’ll wash up later. Please tell your mum the pie was delicious.’
‘You can heat it up again.’ She was already standing, ready to go. We left the cottage and walked back down to the beach, both, I think, relieved to be outside once more.
I picked up a rake to show her the effect I’d imagined, a freehand curve framed within a narrow margin skirting the perimeter of each section, and we began to work alongside one another in adjacent areas of the pattern. She worked silently, drawing her rake with great care, frowning occasionally, completely absorbed. The patterning she achieved was flawless. Two hours passed as the sun moved overhead, a breeze coming in off the sea. I had the impression we were each retreating into our senses, absorbing peace from the landscape.
Eventually I stood and watched as she completed the last segment. She hardly seemed conscious of me, appearing to give her whole being to the task, as a child might. When she had completed the final sweep with her rake, she spent a moment gazing down at what she had done, then looked up at me as if I was slightly out of focus, and smiled.
‘Great work,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’
‘It’s wonderful, isn’t it?’ she said. There was surprise in her voice, as if she was describing something she’d just come upon.
‘I’ll go and get my camera.’ I could see the tide beginning to turn.
‘I’ll come with you and freshen up,’ she said.
When we returned I took a dozen photos, then we settled down to watch the mild waves as they approached. I let myself become lost in what was before me. The sea and sky had turned aquamarine, fusing together as one entity. The sand had lightened in response, almost glowing, making the pattern stand out. To the north, where the beach curved forward, a single gull flicked and hovered on thermal currents, as if flight was a gift of the air itself. The image brought back the shopkeeper’s words. Anyone could be seduced by such a place. The tranquillity, the easy sense of distance, the perfume of the sea and hills, the people who looked at you steadily and seemed to take you at face value – who wouldn’t want that?’
Within minutes the tide began to wash back and forth across the tip of the pattern. With each pass the markings grew less distinct. I glanced at Marie to share the moment, and immediately realised she was becoming distressed.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘It’s beautiful.’ She began to weep. ‘It shouldn’t be lost.’
I felt a fool, as though I’d betrayed a trust I’d failed even to perceive. For me these moments were a culmination. It had never occurred to me that she might feel differently.
Suddenly she scrambled up and began to run off towards the coastal path leading back to the town, clumsy in her sandals.
‘Marie!’ I called after her but she didn’t look round, and I was left gazing at the ragged cut of her hair as it spread across her back. Soon she was out of sight. I sat down, suddenly drained, to watch the remains of our pattern succumb to the tide. By the time it was fully covered I had decided to leave the next day.
That night I dreamt of patterns twisting and distorting, and spaces that were empty rather than beguiling. At first light I packed my car in preparation for the long drive home. Before setting off I wrote a careful note to drop in quietly with the keys, not wishing, or perhaps fearing, to wake Marie or her parents.
It didn’t work out like that. A few minutes later, as I walked up their front path, the door opened and her father stood before me. Suddenly, the candid gaze I’d grown used to felt disquieting. I found it difficult to meet his eye.
‘I hope Marie is okay,’ I said. ‘I’ve decided not to stay any longer.’ I held out the keys and he took them in his palm.
‘She’s been fine these last few months. Now she’s back to where she was.’ He spoke very quietly.
‘I’m so sorry.’ I stood there for a moment, but he said nothing else, so I turned and walked back to the car. When I reached it and looked round the door had closed.
Driving away, my mind was full of images, all conflicting, and I could find no distraction in the plain, empty roads. As best I could I tried to give myself to the journey. Gradually, as I weaved a route south, the carriageways started to broaden and fill with traffic, a larger world encroaching again. I recognised the feeling this brought – it wasn’t entirely new. It told me that everything I’d left behind was starting to shrink, slowly but inevitably, into the shape of arbitrary patterns, never meant to withstand an incoming tide.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2