by Justin Aylward
The man stood on the hot sand and stared across the shore.
Despite the glare, and the distance between them, he was certain it was her.
The ocean was calm and blue. The sun shone in a cloudless sky on the bathers stretched across the beach.
The warm air seemed to hold everything in suspense.
The man cursed himself. If he just dove headfirst into the water like he intended, he wouldn’t have seen her. They weren’t going to go to the beach that day either, the man and his family. It was a late change of plan when the kids made a fuss.
Now the sun seared the man’s body as crystal pellets clung to the brown creases in his neck. He felt that tight sensation in his abdomen. The spume tickled his toes as his feet sank into the wet sand.
She was sitting up, her skin dark and her hair curly as ever, the colour of almonds. Even when seated and covered with sweat, she had poise that made people stare. But hopping about next to her was an infant, three perhaps, light skinned with plump limbs. And next again was a man lying shirtless, a book in his hand casting a shadow on his square face.
Of all the places, at the beach on a day like this made it seem even more impossible. It was on a beach like this that they first met.
The sea gathered around the man as he looked harder, telling himself it had to be her. He knew it as sure as anything. He wasn’t ready, but no amount of time could have prepared him.
It had been the hottest point of the afternoon. The children were getting cranky; hungry despite the lollies, unhappy despite the sea. It was wise to leave before the crowd. The roads would be impassable, he said. The journey prolonged by an hour, maybe more. His wife agreed.
The man gathered up their towels. His wife strapped the children into the pram as sleep took them. Her pink body was damp, and her thick black hair nestled over her round shoulders.
It felt like the longest day of the year, and still she had that stamina he admired.
The car was half a mile away on the sandy promontory overlooking the bay with the blue marina beyond. Burger trucks and ice-cream vans hummed along the esplanade as bathers sauntered through the steam and spray.
The man said he wanted to cool off before leaving. It would only take a minute, quicker than a shower.
His wife pulled her sunglasses down, pushing the pram away as the children slept under the transparent cover.
It had been ten years since the man last saw the woman. He thought he had forgotten, but seeing her was different than remembering, and now that she was right there, her absence from his life felt all the more regrettable.
He stood still, his head thumping as water steadily flowed around him. It was meant to be, he thought. Anything could have happened but there they were, thirty metres apart ten years later, married with other spouses and different children.
The woman raised her hand to her forehead. The sun was behind her. She should be able to see him perfectly. A thin silver bracelet dangled from her right wrist. He gave her one just like it on the day of the race.
The wharf was only a mile away on the other side of the bay. Maybe he could make it all the way out and back. She would be impressed. They always swam together.
Be a man, he muttered to himself.
Meanwhile, the man’s wife trudged up the grass verge, steering the pram over roots and weeds. The children didn’t stir.
People were moving in every direction. Music could be heard through loudspeakers at the carnival near the harbour.
On the shore, the ocean advanced, water splashing at the man’s waist. His shoulders sizzled, but all he could do was stare. Nothing deterred him, not the growing ache in his neck or the prospect of his wife catching him, and if he swam out now, she wouldn’t even know, and he wouldn’t have to answer questions later.
The woman was watching him now, the man knew it. But did she know it was him? It could be anyone, but if he recognised her, why not, he thought.
A warm breeze swept across the water as waves rushed up against the man’s chest. He might have felt a chill, but his attention was not on his body.
It was the right time to go, if he didn’t want more regrets.
The man turned to the ocean again. He was steady at first, taking smell steps. There was more water than he first thought. It was colder too. Then he was a few metres out, peering back at the beach. The bodies were getting smaller. But he could still see her.
A mile away, his wife was searching the pram for the car keys. They were going to have a barbecue later, if the children behaved.
The woman was still sitting there, her bare heels buried in the sand, hands placidly wrapped around her knees. The child bounced about with a toy racket. The other man was lying supine, possibly napping.
The man looked again at the wharf. It wasn’t that far away. He could make it if he paced himself. But he would only go if he knew she was watching.
The woman raised her hand to her forehead again, shielding her eyes from the glare of the water. She must have known it was him.
The man never felt lonelier.
He turned to face the sun, training his gaze on her for a moment longer when a wave swept over his shoulders, jolting him slightly. He stiffened his core, clamping his lips together, staving off the cold water.
The woman came to her feet, brushing her knees down and facing him.
Did she know? If I can remember, she should too, he surmised.
Now is the time.
He took one final look at the water before committing himself.
Be a man about this, he muttered again, as a cold wave crashed right through him, pulling him under in a second.
Justin Aylward is a writer from Co. Dublin, Ireland. He has published short stories for Fairlight Books, Fly on the Wall Press, Idler Irish Online Magazine, The Write Launch, Route 7 Review, and East of the Web.
In 2020, Justin self-published his debut novel The Daisy Resurrected, a detective romantic-comedy which is available on Amazon.
In addition, Justin has written a feature-length screenplay, three short films, and a three-act play inspired by the current fuel crisis in Europe. He has also reviewed films for numerous online movie outlets.
When he is not reading and writing, Justin enjoys sitting on park benches drinking coffee and philosophizing with anyone who will listen.