Strangers On The Shore

Shutterstock / Christian Mueller © Woman and dog walking along wintry seashore

We pass without any acknowledgement… but I wonder about him

On the beach there is a man in a long, black, woollen coat, looking like a refugee from the City. I often see him wandering along the beach, head down, just walking, walking.

It’s early. The light has that metallic quality you get when the cloud is low and grey.

Lost in his own world, the man seems oblivious to the silvered sheen of water swirling round the rocks and sucking at the shingle.

He must be in his forties like me, because the neatly cut hair at his temples is flecked with grey.

There’s a gaunt look about him as if he’s recently lost weight.

He says nothing to anyone. Ever.

The other dog walkers greet me as we pass, exchanging a few words as our dogs do likewise, bouncing round each other, tails like pennons in the wind.

Benji is a rescue dog, all scruffy ears and soulful eyes. I got him a year ago, shortly after the divorce.

Darren, my ex, detests dogs; Benji was an act of defiance. He loves me unconditionally, without emotional coercion, and sleeps on the end of my bed like a dream catcher.

I doubt if Darren ever truly loved me. If he had, he would have loved me for who I am, not the fantasy wife he wanted me to be.

For years I tried so hard to please him, while he slowly stole the air from my lungs and the joy from my heart.

That lonely man has reached the end of the beach and turned, as he always does, a tiger pacing its enclosure so repetitively he wears a track.

He looks harmless enough, but you never can tell, can you?

I mean, who would wear a coat like that on the beach? Charity shop finery, perhaps.

Out of context, not quite right, he reminds me of a respectable-looking hitchhiker who spun me a tale about how he’d had his money stolen and needed to get to Hull on the train, so I gave him a twenty-pound note. A few days later I saw him in the same place, thumbing a lift.

Too trusting, too eager to please – that’s me.

Or at least, that was me before I married Darren.

If I speak to the man in the black coat, perhaps he’ll spin a similar tale. Perhaps he looks so gaunt because he’s been in prison. Prison pallor. You never can tell, can you?

It’s cold today and I wrap my arms round me to keep warm.

There’s a woman on the beach with a cute, scruffy dog. I often see her, snug in a sensible waterproof coat and a scarf which dances with her hair in the breeze.

Perhaps I should get myself a coat like hers. I would, but the money won’t last forever.

Burnout, they call it. Burned up, like a cinder, ash in the wind.

No one has any use for a sick City stockbroker. Least of all Bernadette.

Burn-a-debt… burn a hole in my life. I wonder who she’s with now. Thank goodness we had no kids.

I’m getting better now. I’m beginning to hope for a future. A job, maybe, but not in the City. They eat souls in the Stock Exchange.

The woman with the dog looks so sad. I don’t like to intrude, so I always pass with a twenty-yard exclusion zone, too far away to need to exchange a greeting.

Today she’s hugging herself as if no-one has embraced her for a long time.

Perhaps today I’ll risk a smile.

He’s coming closer. I see for the first time that he has kind, weary eyes. He must live nearby, and I haven’t seen him importuning anyone for his rail fare.

Maybe he only has the one coat, and a good one at that. Why let that old hitchhiker cast such a long, distrustful shadow? What a fool I was.

But then, I am a fool when it comes to men and impulse, or I’d never have married Darren.

I’m getting over him now, less afraid of being hurt. Or strong enough to risk the hurt – who knows?

Perhaps today I’ll risk a smile.

Matt Baker cover and sub giftWe’re sharing a selection of uplifting winter-themed short stories from our archives, every Monday and Thursday during November. Look out for the next one – and pick up My Weekly magazine for lovely new short stories every week. Subscribe here – and you’ll receive a free gift too!