Novel extract: Ties That Bind, Catherine Deveney
It does not disturb me as I thought it might, sleeping beside the dead. In the daylight, I watch the visitors and then, in twilight, when the summer blue of the sky darkens and the green trees turn black with the night, I see the votive lights, encased in red glass, flickering on the graves. And then when night falls completely, the lights glitter like animal eyes in the darkness, living things amongst the dead.
In the daytime, I walk. Miles and miles along the undulating country roads, past hedges of creamy honeysuckle and blood-red fuchsia, side by side. Past moorlands peppered with stones and bracken and yellow ragwort, and ditches choked with meadowsweet. Today I walked over the hill that leads from Killymeanan to the coast, only this time I headed west, over the path that winds round the hill and down over the sand dunes. The sand is ivory white, dry and soft underfoot. Clumps of reeds and grasses shoot tall through the sweep of it, tufts of hair on a balding pate. Over the last bump of the dunes the landscape opens out, a vast expanse of secret beach, damp and firm as concrete under foot.
Down by the water, the sand is marked with the tide, the imprint of the waves rolling silver across the shore.
Then I saw it. On the east side of the beach, on the hill above a rocky outcrop, was a beach hut, the outer walls blue-washed like the sea. I scrambled across the rocks and climbed the short burst of hill to the hut. It lay open to the elements, the door missing and the floor carpeted with sheep dung and jagged broken glass from the windows. A small discarded cooker lay on its side, and above, a strip of kitchen paper still clung to the walls, squares of red spoons and kitchen jugs printed on a white background. The proportions of the hut were tiny, a small square for a bedroom, with only the rusting metal frame of bunk beds fitting into the space.
A cupboard-sized area at the back of the house with an old WC, the wooden seat twisted and hanging off the green tarnished porcelain. But while the rooms were small, the windows were huge. Even in the state it was in, you could imagine what it was like to wake here, to come to with the sound of the sea washing onto the rocks below, or to hear the windows rattle in their frames with the wind and look out over the deserted beach, the water clear and blue, and white with choppy froth.
I stood there in the quiet, the June sunshine streaming through the empty window frames, and I looked at it with the same kind of look Alex had all those years ago in the restaurant. A look that knew certain events would unfold.
It was just an old, desolate ruin, with no water or light and a floor that crunched underfoot. But I have never had any trouble imagining how perfect the imperfect could be. And somehow, it felt like coming home.
Scrambling across rocks. Stone hard beneath my fingers, glistening like granite with seawater. Slippy beneath my feet with moss and wet, straggling seaweed. The sun like a blowtorch on my back as I negotiate the warm water pools where tiny fish dart so suddenly I see only their movement.
Concentration. There is nothing to exist for except this moment right now: heat and exertion and the crab-like movement from the beach across rock to the silver-sanded cove in the distance. The light is shining on it in a headlight beam, beckoning me from afar.
By the time I finally jump onto the powdery sand, I am breathing heavily. Behind me, rocky hillside; in the distance, the blue of the beach hut. I stretch out in the sand using my cardigan as a pillow and listen to the whoosh of the waves breaking on the shore. The sea is never completely calm here, even when the weather is hot and there is no wind. A light sweat prickles my skin. Wriggling up onto my elbows, I look out at the expanse of water, white froth bubbling at the edges. Instinctively, I glance behind me, checking the hillside. No one. Completely alone.
Can I? It feels good to slip my jeans off, feel the sun on my legs, but something inside me disapproves. I fold my shirt carefully. Another glance round. Slence. Stillness. What's the difference? My underwear will be like a bikini. Except I would never normally dream of wearing a bikini any more. A towel? My cardigan. A tentative embarrassment when I stand up, a fear that someone watches silently from the brackenstrewn hill. Silly. At the water's edge, even the wet sand is cold and I hop from foot to foot, laughing, though I am alone. Laughing because I'm alone. Water round my ankles. God, it's freezing! Sun burning my back and icy water up to my knees.
Then a rush of emotion, a kind of exultation. Suddenly I run out of the water and up the sand, unhooking my bra as I run and throwing it up the beach to the neatly folded pile, where it lands stretched out like an exclamation mark. The knickers stick on my wet legs as I half hop back down to the water, finally rolling them into a ball and chucking them up the beach. Straight back into the sea, no pausing, no hesitating this time. Embrace the cold, open myself up to it so that it doesn't hurt. Throw myself into the waves, feel them hurl against me with such force that a mouthful of salt water surprises me.
I lash out, spluttering, swimming against the tide. Moving … moving … so that I feel nothing but the movement itself, not the burn of icy water beneath. And finally there really is no cold.
My body is comfortable in the water, timing the waves, jumping against them at their fullest point, the water slapping against every inch of my nakedness.
The hillside is bare. The beach is empty. I am suspended in a world where only I exist. There is freedom and there is loneliness. Only the water caresses me.
The beach hut has become the focus of every dream I have ever had. Everything I ever wanted and never got will be soothed when I finally live inside those walls. It represents peace and security and happiness. Perhaps a little loneliness too, but when it gets down to it, you are on your own in life. I'm used to living on my own. I lived on my own when I lived with Alex.
Michael is coaxing it into life, like he shares the dream, almost as if he knows what this is about. I cannot get used to opening a door when I go to see him, instead of having an empty space that is open to the wind and the rain and the sheep and the smell of wet grass. I walk through the doorway like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole, knowing that transformation lies on the other side. When I close the door, it is another world.
A radio is playing in the corner. Michael smiles at me and puts down his tools. He is master here. "See?" he says beckoning me into the kitchen area. It is yellow as I asked it to be, with deep green tiles, the colours of a Spanish lemon grove. He points out the short kitchen worktop and cupboard next to the tiny sink. The sink is stainless steel and though it has been fitted, it still has the labels from the suppliers stuck to it. The smell of dung and dampness has been replaced by the smell of paint and newly sawed wood.
"It's nice wood," he says, his hands running lovingly over the grain. His fingers are long, thin, sensitive. For all his height, Alex's hands are unusually short and square.
The world behind the door is a miniature world, like a doll's house. And yet I like that, the feeling that life in here is cut to necessity. I left my old life with nothing but myself. Already in my new life I have accum- ulated too many things for living in the beach hut. Some of them will need to go. Maybe I have surrounded myself with things to give a feeling of permanency, of roots, but I prefer it here, in the beach hut, where my living will be an impermanent kind of living. An acknowledgement that life really is temporary.
200 signed copies of Ties That Bind are available from Old Street Publishing for 6.99 (RRP 7.99). Enter confirmation code: oldstreet99 at www.fromthepublisher.co.uk
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, July 11, 2010