There was a large group of school children on the beach that afternoon. Year Six, guessed Helen, who had taught that age group herself before her recent early retirement. Wrapped against the elements in brightly coloured scarves and hats, cagoules and wellies, they raced up and down on the wet sand, laughing and yelling in a mixture of English and Welsh, before being corralled by their teachers and organised into groups to build sandcastles.
Helen stood with her back to the sea and watched them for a while, but it was too cold to keep still for long, even with her hood up, so she walked back up the beach and along the dunes. She pushed her mittened hands deep into the pockets of her fleece, and drew in long slow breaths of damp salty air. She was beginning to feel much calmer than she had felt on the drive out from Birmingham that morning, and an awful lot calmer than she had been the night before, when Tony had confessed everything and begged her forgiveness.
Angry gulls wheeled and screamed above her head. The sky was greying and Helen still hadn’t unloaded her hastily packed car. They had owned the little timber chalet on Dyffryn Seaside Estate since the girls were toddlers. They had spent many summer, Easter and half-term holidays there until Charlotte and Lauren had reached their late teens and began to prefer spending time with friends and boyfriends, rather than their parents. The holiday park was well away from the main coastal road, and was set just behind the dunes, about two hundred yards from the beach. It had a shop, launderette, restaurant and bar, as well as a swimming pool and children’s play areas, and had always felt like a relaxed and safe place for young families to be.
Helen and Tony had rarely stayed there since their daughters had left home. Tony preferred going somewhere reliably hot. The Welsh weather was too unpredictable, and a week of rainy days in the chalet made him sarcastic and unpleasant to be with. Helen had missed Benar Beach, and had been looking forward to spending more time here once they retired, but somehow it hadn’t happened. Tony seemed busier than ever, with golf, fishing, and various business ventures with friends. She realised this was the first time she had ever been here in late September, as she had always had to fit in with school holidays when she was teaching.
Edging round the double bed which almost filled one of the two tiny bedrooms, to get some clean but rather musty sheets out of the overhead cupboard, Helen was also struck by the realisation that she had never slept in this bed on her own before. The sudden tears prickling her eyes and the warmth rising to her cheeks caused her glasses to steam up, so she took them off and curled herself up in a tight miserable ball on the bare mattress. She rocked, sobbed, kicked the headboard, screamed through clenched teeth, and cried until all her strength had gone. Later, she made cheese on toast in the chalet’s kitchenette, but the smell made her nauseous, and the bite she took turned to papier-mâché in her mouth. She left the toast congealing on its plate, and spent the evening wrapped in a soft blanket on the sofa, the electric fire on as high as it would go, watching S4C. She didn’t understand Welsh, but found the poetic lilt of the language comforting and unobtrusive, as she thought over and over again about Tony, and what he had done to their marriage.
She didn’t sleep well that night. The bed was cold and lonely, and every time she tried drifting off to sleep she was bothered by thoughts and anxieties no longer content to remain in her subconscious. She was aware of the rural silence of the Estate far more than she ever had been before. Sudden noises outside, and the wind gusting across the low flat roof of the chalet, startled her awake. Her mobile phone beeped several times, with concerned text messages from her daughters and Tony. She replied to Lauren and Charlotte but not to him, then turned her phone off and pushed it under her pillow.
The next day was warmer, but still gloomy and damp. She took the musty bedding to the park’s launderette, and watched it spin hypnotically through the glass door of the washing machine for a while. A young woman came in dragging a bag of washing behind her, and Helen vaguely recognised her as a fellow chalet owner. They nodded a greeting to one another, then to avoid conversation Helen left the launderette and strolled down the wooden boardwalk which led through the dunes towards the beach. The boardwalk was slippery and dark with water, and the vegetation on the dunes was looking soggy and autumnal. In the summer the ragwort flowered yellow, and was heavy with yellow and black striped caterpillars – Helen had once counted over fifty on one plant alone, whilst Tony strode impatiently ahead, bags slung over his shoulder, The Times under one arm. She thought about how she liked watching the caterpillars crawl almost right off the end of a stem, then hold on with their very back set of legs, heads and bodies flailing until they caught hold of another stem. Silly things, she thought now, holding themselves out so vulnerably, blindly trusting that what they were reaching for would always be there.
* * *
By mid-October Helen had settled herself into a comfortably solitary routine. The Estate shop was closed out of season, so once a week she would drive to the Co-op in Barmouth to stock up on food.
‘At first I was buying all the same things as usual,’ she told Lauren on the phone one evening. ‘Then it dawned on me that I was choosing things your Dad likes. So I’m suiting myself now… and I haven’t eaten meat for nearly a fortnight.’
‘My God, Mum!’ said Lauren. ‘I know what Dad thinks of vegetarians. He doesn’t think a meal is complete without something’s flesh!’
‘Well I don’t miss it. I’m enjoying trying some new things.’
Helen cooked in her kitchenette and ate alone, reading a magazine or listening to the radio. She didn’t mind. She remembered the awkwardness of silent meals with Tony. Once they had worked their way through an entire shepherd’s pie and apple crumble without a single exchange of words beyond ‘Could you pass the custard please?’ She wondered when they had stopped talking, thinking back to their early days as newly-wed trainee teachers – long earnest debates lasting half the night, lying on Liberty cushions in candlelight, drinking wine from tumblers they had bought in a French hypermarché on their honeymoon.
She often drove up into the Rhinog mountains. Along steep climbing lanes that terrified her in a way that the wide dual carriageways and crowded city underpasses she was used to never had. She would hold her breath as she crawled the car nervously round a blind bend in the single track road, although she rarely encountered any other vehicles. The beauty of her surroundings were worth the terror of the drive. The land opened out in the mountains, and she would park the car on a grassy verge and look at the view, which changed dramatically depending on the weather. The cloud often hung below the mountain tops, but on clearer days she could see for miles along the coast, from Barmouth in one direction, to Harlech in the other, and Abersoch across the sea on the other side of the bay.
She bought herself some proper walking boots, and began wandering further and further away from her car, rambling across fields separated by grey stone walls, finding pretty streams and rock formations amongst the stretches of moist, bright green grass. There were sheep and wild goats roaming in the mountains, jumping across the rocks, and grazing in the grass and the patches of brown bracken, which were dripping wet and concealed small black slugs and tiny spiders with long hair-thin legs.
She spoke to Tony a few times. He was clearly shocked by Helen’s reaction to his infidelity, and seemed unable to believe her when she told him that their marriage was definitely over. Whenever she spoke to him she felt jittery and upset for several hours afterwards. He could be so persuasive and charming when he wanted to, and going back to him would be so easy. She dreaded seeing him in person.
The nights gradually became easier. She discovered the advantages of having a double bed to herself, and began sleeping sprawled diagonally, rolled up in the double duvet. She missed the warmth of Tony’s body next to her, but wore socks to compensate. She had always been prone to occasional nights of insomnia, but even these proved simpler to deal with alone, as she could switch the radio or a reading light on without worrying that she was disturbing and irritating Tony.
On a dry afternoon she climbed the Nantcol waterfalls, behind a small group of American women, who had arrived in a minibus and shrieked happily and flapped at every slippery step and muddy puddle. She had only seen the falls in the summer before, and at this time of year they looked sinister – jagged wet rocks overhung with dark leafless branches. There had been a lot of rain, and the water level was higher than usual. Someone had drowned there earlier in the year, so there were several new signs warning of the dangers of going too near the edge. It would be so easy just to let go and end it all now, thought Helen looking down into the ferociously churning river, and the mental images of her daughters weeping at her funeral were enough to make her straighten up and grip more firmly to the handrail.
As the days grew colder, the beach grew quieter. Helen would see occasional well-wrapped dog walkers, or small groups of teenage boys sharing cans of lager or clumsily smoking cigarettes. Some of the dog walkers were beginning to recognise and greet her, which made Helen long for the anonymity of a big city. She didn’t want to be the subject of speculation in the Dyffryn Ardudwy post office. She began taking her daily walks in the other direction, where dogs were not allowed and the chilly autumnal beach was often gratifyingly deserted.
* * *
One cold calm day she found a dead seal lying washed up on the strandline. At first she thought it was a large rock, but as she walked closer intending to sit down on it for a while she recognised the shape, and the deep pools of shadow where the seal’s eyes had once been. She took a few shocked steps backwards, and sat down instead on the pebbled slope between the sand and the dunes. The carcass was covered in a thin layer of sand, but there were areas where its skin flapped open, exposing a hollow framework of ribs.
Just like my marriage, Helen thought. Going nowhere, rotting slowly from the inside. She took her phone from her pocket and called Charlotte. ‘I don’t think it’s actually about losing Tony,’ she told her. ‘He hasn’t been that man I fell in love with for a long time. Somewhere along the line we both changed. It’s the humiliation, the fact that my feelings are hurt. I’m worried about what people might think! And I’m worried about how I’ll cope with reaching high shelves, or finding spiders in the bath.’
Walking back along the boardwalk she allowed herself to think a little bit about the future. Maybe I could do an evening class, she thought. Pottery. That’s what single middle-aged women do, isn’t it? I could learn to make jewellery, and sell it on a market stall. I could do yoga, and start wearing kaftans. Tony would be disgusted. She chuckled out loud, and the sound it made in the still silence of the dunes, and the muscles it worked in her cheeks, seemed alien to her. I need to face him, she thought. The first time will be the hardest, so I have to go and get it over and done with.
The next morning she got up early and took a cheese sandwich and a flask of tea down to the beach. Then she put her suitcase and a carrier bag holding her muddy walking boots into the boot of her car, and drove carefully along the mountain roads of Wales towards the wide open roads and the wide open future of home.