Ocean

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It had worked for other writers, she thought, as she looked out over the sea. Tennessee Williams had swum in it every day. And Joseph Conrad had captained ships, hadn’t he? Troubled men, washed clean. But she thought of Virginia Woolf too, drowned, though not in the ocean, her overcoat full of stones.

 

A man was undressing near her, shameless. She watched as he ambulated into the sea in his underwear, his long, thin legs rippling with the effort. She supposed he was about Mark’s age. He even looked a little like him in his lean muscularity, his babyish, almost lipless face and tousled brown hair. He had a small tattoo just below his right shoulder but she could not see what it was of (Mark did not have a tattoo, though had talked about getting one with the frequency and intensity of someone who clearly has no intention of doing something). The man had left on the beach his shorts and thongs, and an unzipped rucksack out of which was spilling a profusion of personal belongings: a book, a can of deodorant, a set of keys, his wallet, a mobile phone, a Fitbit. Wasn’t he worried about being robbed? Perhaps, she thought, he was not planning on coming back for them.

 

He did come back for them, fifteen minutes or so later, by which time she had received a text message from Mark. Going to read it, a temperature warning screen had flashed up: ‘iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it’. The phone, which had been lying exposed to the sun on top of her handbag, felt warm, but not hot. She wondered if it was overreacting, not that there was anything she could do about it except thrust it deeply into the cool dark of her bag and wait. After checking his phone and laughing – quite beautifully, in her view – at something he had found on it, the man had unfurled his towel and shoved everything back into his rucksack. He then laid flat on his stomach, reading. She could still not make out the title, but its cover – oversized text, dark colours – suggested a cheap thriller. Probably, she thought, he had quite sophisticated reading habits really but this was something he’d been saving for the summer holidays. A troubled man washed clean, she thought.

 

She tried her phone again. The screen, dark, would not be coaxed back to life. She had not heard from Mark in a month, and was worried. His mother had been sick – had something happened? Or was she fine, and he was getting in touch to say… what? That he was sorry? That he wanted her to come back to him? Not by text, surely? She closed her bag, smeared some more sunscreen onto her face, and returned her attention to the man. He had turned onto his back now, was using his book to shield his face from the sun. His hair, suddenly, looked to be thinning on the crown, a portent of male-pattern baldness. The tattoo, now that he had moved, suspiciously resembled a Southern Cross. She thought of what Mark would say about the man, the tone of voice he would use. It had exhausted her, that tone, the studied viciousness of it. She had always wondered what it had meant that he had never used it with her, only about other people when in her presence, not even when she did things she knew he secretly scorned like watching dating game shows or eating Kraft Mac & Cheese when he wasn’t around to make dinner. She thought of Woolf, of her overcoat full of stones. She tried to remember what Woolf had written to Leonard in her suicide note, but could not.

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