— ONE —
The sea surges across the shingle with the clack of a billion ricocheting billiard balls as she – this woman who transfixes me – floats past. I linger, looking through the crowd that throngs the promenade of Brighton beach; admiring her grace, her style, her natural beauty. I feel my pulse throb in my throat – its jugular thrum – and in my gullet sense my half-swallowed heart.
She turns, heads my way. I breathe deep as she passes, inhaling her scent: a mix of lotion, perfume, peppermint and seaside sweat. It stirs chemicals deep within my brain, strikes a primordial chord. She leans on the balustrade; I move to stand behind her, to one side, and pretend to look at a leaflet pulled from my pocket, acting the bemused tourist. Gulls – large, fierce – circle and call overhead. She turns. I take her in with forensic observation: arching eyebrows, naturally full lips, faintly olive skin, broad brown eyes that open wide between sweeping lashes. Stray hairs, escaped from pigtails, blow about her face, and she swats them away like flies. Graceful, but not ornamental.
Ninety-three: the year, the temperature. More than two decades have now passed, yet in my mind it is still the present day. I close my eyes, and it’s happening. I hear strains of music through the fuzzy earphones of her Walkman. I recognise the dark, brooding tune, but cannot place it.
I want to touch her – this total stranger. The urge is incredible. I am moments away from an arrestable offence. But I am not a threat to her safety; just a man who, for a split-second, has the wilfulness of a two-year-old child who doesn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer. Why can’t I have her?
Just because. Just because.
The sea breeze blows a bead of sweat from her shoulder onto my face – a millimetre from my bottom lip, so I trail my tongue to taste the salt: a speck of saline heaven. Perhaps it is sea spray? No – it is her: her taste. I’ve not yet spoken to her, but I’ve already tasted her.
Checking her reflection in a compact, she doesn’t engage the mirror for longer than is necessary; looking for a blemish, rather than admiring herself. She flicks something from her cheek, snaps down the lid. Done. It is at this point that I hear a cry, a strange guttural sob, and mistake it for the call of a seagull. I turn to see a boy standing alone, his cheeks ruddy beneath a blond bowl haircut. Bolt upright, almost statuesque, he wails with hands outstretched at the end of straight, quivering arms. I’m guessing he is six or seven years old, although I’ve never been good at determining children’s ages. Passing tourists ignore his distress, unwilling to investigate a sadness that must have a simple remedy – kids cry, and sooner or later the parents intervene. Or maybe they are the other kind of passer-by, those who simply don’t care. But the young woman is different. She sees that he is alone, and I can tell from her quickly altered expression that she senses a larger sorrow, an all-cutting pain; desolation, abandonment, the things that make us howl. With purpose she moves in, a saintly presence on the shingle. She hunkers down to meet him eye-to-eye; the denim of her jeans drawn taut across her buttocks, small ankle socks revealed as the turn-ups rise upon her shins.
I see her ask him a question. Her head tilts, an ear offered to the boy, but his reply is blurted out – too eager to have his words heard, too upset to do so with controlled breaths. Unable to speak clearly, he vomits staccato syllables. Again, a calming gesture. Again, reassurance. She wipes a tear from his eye, takes his hand. For a moment I think of offering assistance, but worry that I’ll ruin her rescue mission, which she handles with an assuredness beyond her years.
She stands, leads the boy in the direction of the Palace Pier. I am about to move to keep up with the unfolding drama when a frantic mother appears on the scene, and clasps her son with suffocating force. In that second the panic recedes.
This is all it takes to confirm love at first sight. But what is that? Nothing more than lust, coupled with an overactive imagination? I can tell many things from the way this girl moves, the expressiveness of her mouth (I have already seen it turn up at the corners with miraculous geometry, as if elevated by abnormally-developed cheek muscles), the alertness darting from her eyes. It gives me a sense of her inner soul – or what I perceive to be her inner soul. In truth, everything I know about her, beyond the physical, and one single act of heart-warming kindness, is my imagination filling in the blanks. It is easy to experience such heady feelings for someone when instilling in them your every wished-for characteristic. She is merely a blank canvas.
The time: I need to be somewhere. And so I have to let her go –– open my hands to set free the butterfly flapping against my palms, tickling my skin. But an indelible mark has been made on this, a day that will irrevocably change my life. Everything will forever lead back to this morning, when I took a walk along a seafront that would never let me leave.