The Beach

By Roseanna Smith

Ireland 2022 

The feel of her feet sinking into the white sand brought Tilly a sense of relief. Step by step, her curling toes grabbed the sand underneath as she walked across the beach to the hard, wet shore. 

Why have I come? Tilly bought the plane ticket to Belfast with the last of her savings. Masked as “helping Ma” as if her ma Mary was some hopeless sixty- plus-year-old woman.

A couple of days ago, while still in Sydney, Tilly came close to flipping a table in a meeting. She had raised the allegations; human resources had not listened. She had thrown the papers on the desk in front of her in the air, scattering them like confetti across the room. 

‘Fuck you and fuck him,’ she said. 

The young human resources lady did not move, just stared with her over-lined lips pursed.

‘You’re just as bad as him,’ Tilly said, standing up so fast from the chair that it bounced off the wall. She yanked the lanyard hanging around her neck and hurled it at the portrait that he, the managing partner, had commissioned; a portrait of himself in a gold frame. His eyes were always on you. No escape. 

She swiftly grabbed her notebook that detailed every single incident and stormed out of the room. The eyes of every other junior associate followed her across the office. She grabbed her Yves Saint Laurent handbag that she knew she could no longer make the repayments on and walked into the lift. When the doors closed, she banged her reflection in the lift mirror with her fist.

In the open air, she had looked upwards to the glaring sun. She covered her face with her hands. 

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ Tilly screamed to the shock of some people sipping coffee but the delight of others. 

She ran through the swarms of people out for Friday lunch, weaving her way to the Botanic Gardens. With her over-maxed credit card, she bought herself a chocolate muffin, sank into a free patch of soft green grass, and sat alone. 

Tilly flicked through her Instagram feed. A picture came up of her ma Mary on the holiday she refused to come home from. Apparently, Mary had made her way out of Belfast to somewhere along the coast of Ireland. Tilly had tried to teach her the location function on Instagram, but it was hopeless. 

‘I’m going to go meet her,’ Tilly said, wiping the chocolate crumbs away from her mouth. 

A wave crashing brought Tilly back. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the negative thoughts that had worked there way into every inch of her brain. Breathing in the salt laden air, she surveyed the expansive ocean, trying to find the path of least resistance. Grey skies cast a shadow over the deep blue water. She placed the surfboard on the sand next to her. Bending down she secured the board strap to her left ankle. As was her ritual, she stood up, stretched her arms high above her head, and then went into some apparent yoga poses. 

Tilly was craving the saltwater. She needed this surf. To be at the mercy of the ocean. She ran into the water with the surfboard under her arm. Her body moved faster than the time it took her skin to register the shock of the icy water. Throwing the board in front of her, it skimmed across the water, and she jumped on top, her body lying flat. Her belly gripped onto the cheap wax. Instinctively, her arms started to dig through the water, legs kicking back and forth in the air. The board was too heavy to duck dive under any of the waves, so she straddled the board, leant back, and tried to pop over the broken water. When she was a little further out, and the waves started to crest, she let them crash hard on her back while she tried to push through. 

While Tilly was paddling through the water, Mary was walking along the beach, her short hair blowing as crazy as the briny air. No sane person would choose to be out here today. 

The white sand, dotted with dark rocks, arched around the shoreline. The rolling sand dunes turning into imposing steep black cliffs. The beach was empty, except for the few cows that had strayed down from the vibrant green fields nearby. Mary made picking a spot to sit on the isolated beach appear unusually hard. About halfway between the cliffs and the shoreline she sat on the sand. She wriggled her large bum in the soft sand, sculpting the perfect seat for herself and watched as Tilly challenged the waves. 

‘You’re just as stupid as me,’ Mary said to the cows. 

Mary picked up the large beach towel. Upon seeing the sunny beach depicted on the towel she started laughing. How odd that tropical beach towels are still used in this part of the world.

Fine drops of moisture began to sprinkle down. Not enough to call it rain, but the black clouds that sat heavily on the horizon indicated that a storm was approaching. Mary shivered and wrapped the towel around her shoulders, the winter chill staying well into spring. 

‘And what’s your name?’ Mary said to the cows. 

When they did not reply, she looked back towards the ocean. 

‘I guess you don’t want to talk either.’ 

Mary began to question whether her earlier glass of chardonnay had already gone to her head. 

Long waves extending as wide as the beach crashed again and again. The force of the water echoed along the stretch of the beach. 

When Mary and Tilly walked over the dunes and down to the beach earlier, the long beach grass had brushed against their legs. Yellow buds had started flowering throughout the dunes, adding the only bit of colour to the gloomy day. 

‘Ma, I promise the waves aren’t that big today,’ Tilly had said in a failed attempt at trying to quell Mary’s nerves. 

Mary was walking in front of Tilly helping her carry the large surfboard. Her slow walk and complaints made it more of a hindrance for Tilly. 

‘I’ll be fine. And if I’m not, you can always save me, right?’ Tilly said with a laugh. 

‘I’m not silly enough to go into the water today,’ Mary said. 

‘Or any day.’

Mary laughed. 

Even though Tilly was now twenty-seven, Mary’s heart was unable to calm, watching her amongst the waves. Each wave that formed and broke onto the shallow sandbank brought Mary a sense of dread. The waves. The fish. The sharks. The seaweed. The unknowns. All potential threats.

Tilly had managed only once to get Mary to come with her for a swim. They had gone for a walk on a searing hot day, where the acrid char smell of bushfires lingered. Tilly had got them somewhat lost but found a small beach next to some shallow rockpools where they could take a dip. With the heat of the day scorching their skin, the getting lost, the privacy of the beach, Mary for once answered the temptation of the ocean. 

Mary clutched onto her Tilly’s hand, taking it step by step from the shallow water into the depths. The cool water brought instant relief on the blistering summer’s day.

Beginning to enjoy herself, Mary released her hand from Tilly and shed the layers of worry. She got up to her waist before she felt something wrapping around her ankle and tugging her downwards. Her scream vibrated across the water. 

‘Something’s trying to kill me!’ Mary said, jumping up and down, throwing her hands around in the water, causing a splash. 

Tilly laughed and swam over to her mother. She dived under to pull the mysterious creature off Mary’s ankle.

When Tilly resurfaced, she was spluttering. Unable to hold her laughter, she had swallowed a large amount of the saltwater. In her hand, she held up a scarlet red octopus about the size of her head. 

‘Ma, it’s the smallest thing I’ve ever seen.’

Mary was already making her way back to the safety of the shore, still waving her hands about. Tilly placed the octopus back into the water. Its tentacles moved swiftly through the ocean, heading for the rockpools to escape the chaos. 

Mary had sat on the uncomfortable, jagged rocks for the rest of the afternoon with no relief from the heat except her overly large beach hat. She watched Tilly dive like a dolphin in the water and search the colourful rock pools as if she was a kid. 

The rain started to fall heavier, the clouds closing in on the beach. Mary pulled the towel over her head. She looked on while Tilly continued to paddle out on the old, beaten-up surfboard.

Tilly had managed to hire the surfboard from the publican of the isolated pub that sat high on the hill overlooking the just as isolated ocean. The publican, an old man, ‘much older than me,’ Mary had said, looked at Tilly as if she was crazy. 

‘You’ll freeze yourself half to death,’ the publican said, standing behind the worn-out bar that looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the seventies. A shrine to wood. Wooden floorboards, wooden chairs, wooden tables, wooden bar. Although tarnished and aged, the pub, like the publican, appeared to have lived a good life. 

‘I’ll be fine. Look at this,’ Tilly said, grabbing the fat around her belly. 

‘As do I love.’ The publican laughed while he wiped the counter with one hand and patted his large beer gut with the other. 

‘I’ve got the same fat as a seal though,’ Tilly said. 

‘Ehh, you could freeze the balls off a brass monkey today,’ he said, pouring himself another Guinness. He watched the ruby-red liquid fill the glass. 

Tilly sat high on the barstool, looking over at the weary old publican. 

‘As long as you come back up for a pint, I’m pretty sure I’ve still got an old board in the back,’ the publican said, pointing towards the back door. 

He sat the freshly poured Guinness down on the bar mat, letting it settle, and walked out the pub’s back door. 

Tilly followed him as he walked to the garage next to the pub. The heavy, rusted door groaned when he lifted it open. Standing proud in the dust cloaked air was a long wooden board. Nine-foot tall. Pale green with a single red stripe down the centre. It was perfect. 

Inside the pub, Mary sat patiently waiting for Tilly to come back with the second round of drinks. Instead, she spotted Tilly outside carrying the surfboard and laughing with the publican. 

‘What on earth is she doing?’ Mary said to the empty bar and wine glass that her fingers had been toying. 

Mary was shocked to see Tilly changing into her bikini out in the open. 

The publican was pointing to parts of the ocean and a trail that seemed to wind down the front of the cliff. 

‘She better get that thought out of her mind,’ Mary said. 

Halfway through changing, Tilly spotted Mary looking through the window and waved for her to come outside. She grinned and raised her eyebrows in excitement like she was a child again.

The Christmas after Tilly had just turned fourteen, Mary bought her a surfboard that towered above her. The board was so heavy Tilly had to hug her arms around the board, dragging it to the shoreline. Mary couldn’t understand how the cumbersome board floated. 

Teenage Tilly spent every weekend and every free afternoon with the board. On the days the surf was flat, she would paddle out and lay on her back on the board, drifting with the currents of the ocean. The days the waves were too large, she would try to catch one, but when defeated, she would sit on the sand next to the board with her knees curled under her arms learning how others managed to trick the waves. 

Tilly never became a great surfer; she was the first to admit she was terrible. However, the ocean was a place of solace, not a place of competition. Therapeutic in a way that was different to therapy. Maybe it was that she didn’t need to talk to the ocean. She wasn’t forced to sit in a chair opposite a stranger and reveal where the pain in her mind came from.

Mary watched in awe at how Tilly journeyed from the beach out to behind the waves. She thought it looked like Tilly had a sixth sense for surfing, that it was second nature to her. She knew how to read the surf, to look for the patterns of the ocean, and to try find the path out past the waves. 

Tilly idly sat straddling the board behind the break point of the waves. She stroked her fingers across the top of the deep blue, glassy water, staring out at the gloomy horizon. Her legs were beating in circles underneath, trying to generate some warmth. 

She spied the next set forming in the distance. The water began to bulge, gathering size and speed as it came towards her. Tilly turned the board around, lying down on to her stomach. She felt the charge of electricity move through her body. Her heart pounding, she violently moves the water, stroke after stroke, until she was on her first wave, charging down the front. There was a moment between fear and euphoria. Not knowing the board, she was too far forward. Too late to stand up, she nose-dived, the wave throwing her off the board. Tilly rolled with the wave, allowing the water to throw her body around. She felt the tug of the board on her leg rope. 

Mary sat on the sand, trying to locate where Tilly had gone. These moments always caused her a minute of anxiety. In that minute though Mary would always go to the darkest place possible. 

Within seconds, Tilly popped up and shook her short brown hair, the saltwater flying around like a sprinkler. She let out a laugh, pulled the board towards her, climbed back on, and went back out again. She would repeat the process until her body was shivering and the skin on her body shrivelled like a date. 

Once she was finally back on the shore, Tilly bent down and pulled open the Velcro strap hugging her left ankle. She noticed that a bluebottle had managed to coil its jelly-like tendrils around her lower leg and peeled it off as if it was tissue. She hadn’t felt the sting, but red dots tracked around her lower leg.

Mary squirmed, astonished by Tilly’s pain threshold. 

Tilly tilted her head to the side, whacking it with an open palm. The warm saltwater trickled out of her left ear. She managed to lift the weighty surfboard and balance it carefully atop her head, clutching either side of the board. Her shoulders back, she stood tall while walking across the sand, the only time she had okay posture. Only two or three successful waves but her face adorned an involuntary grin. The knocks from the board, the rolling amongst the waves, and the saltwater swallowed had replenished her soul.

Tilly trudged back up the sand in her far from elegant heavy gait of a walk, she had never been light on her feet. As she got closer, Mary saw her trembling from the cold. Mary couldn’t help but feel somewhat glad knowing she was right; it was far too cold to go in the water with practically no clothes on. Mary took the towel off her shoulders, stood up and opened it wide like a blanket so she could engulf Tilly. 

Within a few steps of Mary, Tilly dug the board upright into the sand. 

‘Come here Ma,’ Tilly said. Saltwater dripping from her chocolate hair she flung her arms wide open, ready to grab Mary. 

’No. You are absolutely soaking.’ 

Tilly started to run towards Mary. 

‘I swear to God, Tilly if you take one more step,’ Mary said, taking a few steps back and throwing the towel haphazardly in the air. 

Tilly pounced on Mary, tackling her into the sand and wrapping her arms around Mary’s body. Mary felt the sand gather under her clothes and knew she would be pulling sand out of her underwear later that night. Tilly’s wet bikini soaked into Mary’s jumper. Mary managed to squeeze free and push Tilly to the side. The two women laughed as Tilly rolled into the sand. 

Tilly sat up and spat the sand out of her mouth. The cows let out a loud chorus of moo’s and looked on at the women, confused. 

‘Look what you’ve done! It’s drenched,’ Mary said, pulling at the now heavy, sodden knit while trying to stifle her laughter. A thin veil of white sand coated half of Mary’s face. She brought her fingers to her face to brush the sand off, attempting not to ruin her makeup. 

Tilly could do no wrong to Mary, a fact that she was well aware of and so often abused. 

Tilly slowly pulled herself up, her feet sinking into the icy cold sand. Looking like a freshly coated lamington, she casually unpicked her wedgie, making no effort to get any of the sand off herself. 

‘I’m going to dive in, let’s leave after,’ Tilly said as she started to jog back down to the shore.

Like I’ve enjoyed sitting here in the rain for the past half hour, Mary thought. 

‘What am I supposed to do?’ Mary said to the lone cow that had kept her company. She was already getting somewhat used to the grassy smell of her new friend.

Tilly waded to her knees before elegantly diving under the first wave. Mary looked on as Tilly frolicked in the water, the giddiness of diving under and then over waves showing across her face. 

Tilly ran back up to Mary, who again stood with the towel open. Mary engulfed her with the towel and wrapped her arms around her daughter. She felt Tilly’s cool body collapse into her and rubbed her daughter’s back. 

Tilly still hadn’t said why she had come over to meet her. But Mary was just happy to have her daughter back in her arms.