We’d walked down to the beach because of a rumour about a group of mad old women. After dusk on the third Sunday of every August, they left their homes and walked to the sea. Once they were gathered together, they carved symbols into the wet sand and danced like insects as the incoming tide pooled around their ankles and washed their dirty feet. We were too late to see them, but just offshore a derelict looking fishing vessel bobbed, listing badly on one side, and from the shore we could hear their voices, and on the deck of the ship we saw their figures like black flames against a tiger skin sky and a glass sea.
The sand whipped up around us, long searching fingers of bright yellow against the dull dust, dragging along the shoreline, so we found shelter behind a burned out car and sniffed the charred leather seats. We lay, top to toe, her sandy feet close to my head and mine hers. I looked across to the dark ghosts of the old cranes, deformed and still like dead spiders, and to the crumbling old pier that protruded clumsily into the harbour. Along this grey arm the stone had fallen away to reveal the iron bones, rusted and bleeding little copper and brown rivers.
I rolled onto my side and looked at the bone in her foot, just above the heel, casting a curved shadow. I brushed some of the sand from her toes and watched as a ladybird tried to walk a slalom through the little forest of her stubbly leg hairs. I leaned over, kissed the smallest of her toes and bit into the nail.
“One day, I’m going to tell you that I love you. And it will ruin your world.”
Her reply was a languid mmmmmmmmm?
“…because then you’ll have to make a decision. Either love me back or cut me loose.”
She sat up, and lifted her sunglasses from her eyes to the top of her head.
‘This is the problem when I take you out for the day’ she smiled. ‘You get too much sun and too many big ideas.’
In the background, the witches on the boat howled and cackled. We could hear glasses clinking together and then some shattering. The howling and hooting increased.
I ran a hand up her ankle to gather the ladybird and to feel the leg hairs scratch against my itchy palm.
“You don’t believe in love and marriage do you?”
‘There’s no such thing.’
“….as love and marriage?”
She sat up, resting on her elbows. Her sunglasses fell onto the bridge of her nose and she took them off, throwing them over her shoulder in irritation.
‘When you love someone, it’s because you want them. When you marry someone, it’s because you need them.’
She lay on her back and I got up. As the sun shrank away, the sky continued to throb with a pale afterglow. But the beach itself seemed to be draining away the light and storing it deep below. I could see the first planets and stars of the late dusk, millions of miles away, but I couldn’t see my feet in the clawing gloom. I walked to the edge of the tide. The old women had lit a bonfire on the boat. Fireworks escaped in bursts of white gold, dragon green and neon blue. I couldn’t make out the shape of the vessel anymore, so I stared at these strange women who danced on water and found the magic to make the flame hover in mid-air, as the crashing sea beckoned me to walk into the deep and join them instead.