She turned around to me and said plainly, It’s not death that I’m afraid of, you know. Not exactly. It’s the dark that comes after.
Myself and Lilith each had a crisp, cold ice-cream cone clasped in one hand. We were sat on a bench outside a small, white seaside shop. The blue of the sea and sky seeped into the yellow of the sun and sand. The air pitched with the yells of children as they ran between the land and the water. My knees were bare and warm.
I had been catching runs of ice-cream with my tongue as they tried to track down the cone when she said this. She had a bundle of napkins crunched up in her free palm and was using that instead to dab at the melting trails that she couldn’t catch.
I looked over at her. She examined her cone and took a huge bite of the soft-serve as she gazed out across the buzzing mass of people.She was dressed in in black to hide her thin frame, with three-quarter length pants and a loose woolen jumper.
Thanks for the ice-cream by the way, she continued. I’ve always loved these things. Mostly, anyway. You can have the cone part when I’m done, if you like. I’ve never cared for it. Even when I was a child I’d always either just give it away or dump it. Never liked it.
Thanks, I said.
I didn’t exactly know what else to say.
No problem, she replied.
Lilith took a deep breath and stamped her feet a little, like she was testing the ground beneath.
I’ve got this monster under control now, she said, gesturing to the cone. Come on, let’s stroll for a bit. I want to take advantage of the sugar rush while it’s still young.
Using the wrought-iron armrest she hoisted herself up onto her feet and turned around to check that she wasn’t leaving anything on the seat behind her.
I should have everything, I said.
I rescued my faded orange backpack from beside the bench and slung it over one shoulder.
We set off across the road and out onto the wide stretch of beach that ran down the shoreline and into the distance. Once on the sand she kicked off her sandals, bending straight over at the waist to hook them up into the grip of her free hand, and then burrowed her toes deep into the grains.
Fucking sand gets everywhere, she said. I’ll be picking bits out of my socks for the next few weeks because of this. But, so help me, I do love how it feels. God help me, I do. You can’t beat it.
I like it, I replied. It’s like a memento that keeps the day alive.
Balls, she said. You would say that.
She indulged herself in silence for a few moments. Some children tore past us in the direction of the shop.
Take it easy, she snapped. Mind that road.
They slowed down without stopping. The taller child nodded meekly to her as they moved off while the other two little ones hid behind, giggling.
Goddamn water-rats, she said. It would be all howling and misery if someone had to scrape them up off the tarmac, wouldn’t it? But they look at me like I’m the crone.
Kids are stupid, I said. They think they’re invincible. I did.
She threw her hands up.
They’re not kids, she said. Jesus! Goats have kids. I’ve told you this. Goats have kids. People have children. How many times? It’s not that difficult. Use the bloody language as we gave it to you! Honestly.
She stalked off ahead down the beach and I had to hurry to catch stride. We walked in silence, veering slowly towards the water as we picked our way between clumps of bathers and half-built sand castles. She finished the ice-cream and passed the cone over to me. For a while I took turns in nibbling one from each hand until I got full. A trio of dogs came trotting up on their way to the water. I stopped and fed the remains of the cones to them.
By the time I’d finished she had moved on a good distance and made it to the edge of the water. I kicked off my shoes and jogged over to join her. She was letting the lazy swell lap over her feet, watching as they sank slowly into the muddy sand.
I never expected how small things would take on such importance as you got older, she said. It’s the small things that no one tells you to expect that catch you out. They’re the ones that get at you.
She dug at the inner curve of her ear with a long finger as she said this, briefly examining whatever it was she found before flicking it out onto the water. It floated downwards softly in the breeze.
You’re young, she said. You don’t spend your entire waking life acutely aware of your body’s every last little creak and moan. I miss that obliviousness.
The sounds of the sea and the hubbub of the people behind us began to fade as familiarity soothed their presence into the background. Silence spooled out between us for a while.
And sex, she said. I miss that too. Greatly.
I blushed and looked away. The memory of the week gone by were still too fresh. I still couldn’t believe myself. Embarrassment and fear were now violently hammering at my eardrums. I must have begun to shuffle, just like a boxer’s dance trying to avoid the blows, because I drew her attention.
She glanced sideways at me and laughed.
Stop that, she said. Don’t be so fucking coy. I’m alive too, you know.
She chuckled again.
Just because you qualify for a bus-pass doesn’t mean you surrender your libido in return. We all do it. In our ways, at least.
She studied me closely while the red burned hot across my cheeks.
Don’t worry, she said. I won’t pry. I’m doing the talking here. Your secrets are your own today.
I flushed deeper. She looked back out across the water.
The problem is…
She trailed off.
The problem is that I’ve never stopped feeling like a creature of sex, she said. They always said…
She stopped herself.
They, she spat. It’s always they. Who the hell are they?
She kicked at a wave as it enveloped her toes, sending beads of water and thick daubs of sand arching out into the sea.
I don’t know, she sighed.
My stomach had that fearful pit slouched deep and tar-like right in my gut.
I’d come to know Lilith through one of those Meet the Elderly programmes they ran at school. Over time we’d become friends. Genuine friends, I mean. I knew her. She knew me. The programme finished but I kept up my visits at the regular time.These conversations tended to go anywhere but I had not been prepared for this. It didn’t matter that she would not seek for explanation from me today. She would eventually.
I couldn’t think about that now.
I took to studying a small sailboat that was tacking against the wind way out in the middle of the bay. It was a tiny white triangle fluttering against the haze-shrouded headland that lay behind on the opposite side of the bay.
They always said you’d lose that sex drive as you got older, she said. That is would dissipate. Become less important. You won’t care about that, Lilith, they said to me.
She fished a half-finished packet of soft mints from her pant’s pocket, offered me one, which I took, and popped one into her own mouth, carefully folding the top of the packet back over before she returned it to her pocket.
These aren’t the same as cigarettes, she said. I’ll tell you that.
She began to move off down the surf simply expecting that I would follow.
William saved the big one for the last time we made love, she said. Can you believe that?
William had been her husband. He was gone some years before I’d come onto the scene. I remembered him only as this unreal person that I had pieced together from a selection of photographs littered about the house - youthful and sepia-toned in some, technicolour radiant from middle years in others, finally depicted in digital and decline. He never smiled outright in any of the photos that I had seen. He always wore this knowing smirk instead, like he had some fundamental secret that no one else would ever know.
These fragments and the woman before me were the only pieces I had to put together of the man. It was a tangle of contradictory and partial information. It melted together to form an ever changing shadow of somebody long past.
We’d made a big deal of the day, she continued. Treated it just like a date from when we were younger. We had gotten dressed up in all the finery we could muster. He brought me flowers. Orchids. Not roses. We went out to some low-lit restaurant with small portions and no tablecloths and made eyes at each other. It was…
She paused and her eyes glazed like she was looking in at herself, back at the projector reel that spun inside her head.
It was nice, she finished.
We moved off again.
That night we had sex in the means that were left to us, she said. We tricked ourselves into feeling young and attractive again. It was slow and awkward. But it was good. I remember he looked at me through the dark and told me he was happy. Nothing more dramatic than that. I fell asleep holding his hand.
We’d come to an outcrop of rock jutting up through the line of the tide. She moved over to it, selecting a suitable spot and sitting down. I picked a place on the wet sand by her feet and leant back against the rock.
By the next morning the bloody fool had gone and popped his clogs, she said. I’ll never forgive him for that. He made a complete jackass out of me.
She laughed again and took out another soft mint. I could hear it click off her teeth as she rolled it around her mouth.
His eyes were open when I woke up, she said. That was the thing that upset me the most. I wondered if he’d been scared in the dark while I was right there, not two feet away. I hope…
Her thought lapsed into the break of the waves. I waited. I didn’t want to say anything. What could I have said? I dug my hands deep into the sand and kept quiet and still.
I’ve always hoped that his eyes were open because he was watching the dawn come up, she said eventually. That it was light outside. That the room wasn’t dark. At least that wouldn’t seem so… Fearful.
We sat there for a long time, not speaking to each other. I heard her sigh once or twice, but I did not look around.
Eventually she stood up.
Come on, she said. It’s getting cold and I’ve been bloody maudlin enough for one day.
I gathered my things and we set off.
You can take me for a drink up in the town, she said. Talk to me about other things. I’m going to get drunk tonight I think. Yes. I think that’s the only thing for it.
We moved off back along the beach through the thinning throng of people, past families that were slowly packing up their small settlements and retreating homeward for the day.
We did the same.
Written by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2016 Project Bowes
Illustrations by Stephen Galvin / ©2016 Project Bowes