Throughout the month of November I set myself my first 30-Day Challenge. It took the form of committing myself to producing a short story: writing a chapter/day for 30 consecutive days and supporting it with a single photographic image, which I then published daily on my Instagram feed. [You can read the full introduction here.] What I hadn’t fully realised, when starting out, was the real challenge would be to simply keep the narrative plates spinning without the ability to go back and edit anything!
The challenge naturally drew to its conclusion at November’s close [and some of you may’ve read the slight time-lag version here] with a surprisingly cohesive story which a few people quite enjoyed – and they weren’t all related to me! Surprising, in the sense that in writing every day – come rain, shine, health, mood, lack of tea, life intrusions, work and dog walking commitments – with no retrospective edit, it somehow held together even more impressively than those bookshelves I put up! [Some of the later chapters, on the tougher days, took 2-3 hours to write and edit an image!] I’ve since deleted the daily postings in order to collate the story in one easy-read post here, entirely in its original form, with no further editing [for now].
When autumn comes she falls. Her colour slides and fades to a trickle like softly falling rain. He always watched her. The weight of pain. The tears that tumbled into her pillow and mingled with the scent of loss. And her heartbeat would slow to the fluttering of a winged insect trapped inside. He always watched her.
He watched her sleeping until the dawn unfolded into a lemon sunrise. The new day light softly licked at the peeling paint of the beach house. Uncoiled from sleep she padded across the wooden floor in bare feet before pressing her cheek to the cold glass of the sweeping picture window. The velvet ocean glistened and reflected the sun like a tin box. Cupping her hands to dull the reflection she scanned the smooth arc of shoreline for all that she loved. But all she could feel was the rising tide.
Every morning he would run the liquid curve of the secluded bay; where the land met the timeless sea. Time and tide would swallow his soul almost as efficiently as the shoreline quietly gathered his footprints in their collective wake. What had he been running from? Each day he would wrestle with that thought as the soft sand grappled with his every sinew.
He never saw her… then. But she would sometimes watch him from the confines of the shimmering grass dunes. In hiding. For days and weeks each run would end the same way… prematurely, with head bowed, hands gripping his knees tightly, while his lungs burned with the intensity of the most vivid of sunsets. Tearing at his life with bare hands.
The bay itself could be viewed in all its subtle majesty from the headland at its northern reach, perched high above the ragged perilous cliffs. The rolling expanse of dunes could only themselves be reached by the intrepid souls willing to undertake a significant trek through the dense ancient woodland that clung to the skyline. The more accessible southern end was protected by acres of private land owned by the estate.
The dunes had long been her sanctuary. She would often lie back in the soft folds of sand, her dreams tracing shapes in the passing clouds, while the grasses whispered quiet inspiration.
He watched her sleeping and wondered where her dreams might take her. He allowed himself to softly trace a line across her cheek with a fingertip, before sliding her hair from her face. But couldn’t speak.
She later woke with a start. And felt the uneasy disquiet of being watched. She instinctively reached for his side of the bed. Coldly departed. And the day had barely begun. She searched the half-light room, met mournful eyes and smiled. Was it true that dogs could feel what you were thinking? And did she read its eyes too?
She had lived in the tumbledown cottage a few miles inland from the bay her whole life. Her family had worked for the estate for generations. A time line that seemed as long as history itself. But she was end of the line. Her parents, now increasingly frail, had reluctantly retired and moved to the nearby town. She already knew her time at the cottage was probably limited; soon to be swallowed by the new estate manager.
She was a poet. A struggling poet. But she consoled herself with the feeling that without struggle there was no worth. Her poetry had once been purely inspired by beauty that surrounded her. Then he arrived. And her writing began darkening at the edges.
He was possibly the most successful architect of his generation. Clients and plaudits rained down around him like silver lined clouds choked with confetti. As a young boy, his mother became increasingly exasperated to come home to find her dining table had disappeared under a beautifully crafted avalanche of cardboard. The exasperation completed by the sight of her worktops scattered with random packets and loose food like a famine relief airdrop drop had burst open upon striking her kitchen. It would seem his tracks were laid before him. And now he was the runaway train.
But there was an emptiness inside where his soul should be. Its echo growing louder. Take flight.
As autumn advanced the woodland began to shed its canopy. In the clearing, the stand of silver birch pleaded with outstretched limbs, their leaves now an inverted halo at their feet. Winter would soon become the uninvited guest.
She used to embrace autumn in all her promise; the way its softening light held all its colours in the damp air. Sometimes she would stand and hold her breath, becoming so still she was the silence; thoughts painting shapes in splashes of coloured memories. She held her breath no longer, for fear of never breathing again.
The beach house had been his Rubicon. When you close your eyes, jump and spread those wings. Something begins.
He recalled the precise moment his life changed forever. Standing on the stage at the prestigious Riba Stirling Prize for architecture. Standing in the spotlights’ glare. He felt his empty words of peer acceptance echo within. The hollow man. The whispers had grown to a thrashing roar; a wave had broken right through him. The search for an escape had begun that same night; when fate and desire collided. The beach house had come to him in a dream.
Within a year the land had been acquired and the plans approved. He was learning to fly.
She knelt down and held the dog’s muzzle gently in her palm, planting a tender kiss on its velvety head. Stay, she said. The dog’s expression was a picture of quizzical calm as she rose to her feet and slipped out the door alone. A change to the routine.
The early morning air was a chilled November blue, which swept skyward in a broad brushstroke and on to the horizon where it met the sea; bleeding into one another they became one. She walked to the incoming tide’s edge, sat down and curled her toes into the cool, damp sand. Closed her eyes. And waited. Finally, a broad wave smashed through her hull. Salt water ran through her veins and bones. She gasped for breath. He watched her from the sweep of the picture window. In that moment, they became one.
After the second immense wave thumped into her chest, sending her tumbling in its undertow, she had retreated to the softer sand. Time slid through her fingers. It began with a shiver, but now the November cold crept through her like a bereavement. Her life had begun to feel like breathing under water. She would suddenly find herself gasping for air as if her own soul were dragging her beneath a stampede of white horses.
She heard his voice on the air and turned to look at the beach house now shrouded in mist. She could just make out the sad face at the window. The dog had probably been watching her all along. She turned back to the ocean one last time and tasted the salt on her lips. How many tears would it take to fill an ocean?
It had steadfastly stalked him. A cavernous sense of loneliness eating his insides; a wildebeest brought down by his own pride. Lionised. When he looked in the mirror he saw a face he no longer recognised.
His sanity had begun leaking out. A liquid spill from increasing bouts of insomnia. That night of the awards he’d reached the end of the line. The train had scattered its haunted cargo, while he had floated three stops too far. No return. Heading out onto the streets above he turned his collar against the stiffening breeze and walked the few miles home in accidental solitude. The drying leaves of an avenue of beech trees rustled like a convincing sea. The night had only just begun. Physical exhaustion dispatched the insomnia and his mind surrendered to the dream.
Her loneliness had been altogether different. Isolation sustained her. She had been born in the ivy-clad cottage nearly four decades ago. Aside from the three years she had spent away at university studying English – or The Descent Into Hell, as she once wrote – her entire life was here. As an only child, the adjacent woodland and the crescent-shaped bay beyond had been her playground. Her history. Her future. The flora and fauna lived both outside, and inside her. One.
From a distance she had watched the access road be built and the foundations of what would become the beach house poured. Her tears had poured with the uncertainty of it all. A world once so familiar, turning upside down. Inside out. Her own foundations crumbling. A soul crying out.
During its months of construction he would escape the city tumult, spending increasingly long weekends at the beach house site. He felt the warmth crawl thorough his bones, as he began to rediscover the youthful boy below. He built as much as he could with his own hands. For the first time in many years, lost in the calm, his mind drifted back to the dining room table and his improbable cardboard creations. He smiled at the memory. His mother’s memory. He wished she could see him now, more than ever; a contentment disentangling.
In the softening of each day, he would watch the horizon gracefully dissolve. Twilight would gather around him. And in the last glow of light he would sense an unknown smile.
Overnight, autumn had delivered her first frost from out of a brilliant sky. A sky where the stars endlessly reveal themselves, one by one, pulling you into the unfathomable. Lost. As she had been inexplicably lost in him.
The early morning light now rolled across the bay a pale cranberry, licking at the delicate frosting on the grasses. Inside the beach house she carefully placed another log onto the fading embers. She waited for signs of life. The spit and crackle. She hugged her knees as the flames began to dance, their soft glow bathed her cheek in a tender kiss.
She knew in her heart. She must leave.
The build was well advanced now. She continued to walk the woods and dunes but avoided the shoreline at weekends, when she thought he might be there. When dusk calmly gathered up those days, bringing with it the swirl of bats flitting overhead like her deepest fears frantically in search of a place to hide, she would see him picked out alone in the glow of the fire outside a modest tent. And although the tent was no longer visible, the dancing glow now emanating from somewhere within the growing structure, she would sometimes catch herself wearing a momentary smile; as she did on those mornings she caught him run the corrugated sheen of the water’s edge. He would get further and further before the breathless collapse.
The waiting had become the hardest part. It almost seemed like he was avoiding her as she had clearly been avoiding him.
His success had inflicted significance upon him.
The clouds above opened up, an insidious adagio, leaving him an island swallowed by a vast ocean. He never knew his father. And when his mother died suddenly, her heart torn apart by a veiled genetic weakness, he had been surprised at the storm surge of guilt felt when discovering he’d seemingly inherited his father’s lifeblood. Finally, the silent torment that had powered his achievements had begun to burn out. The flames from the nightfall campfire routine were beginning to reignite his soul. He cast fears and dreams into its heart; where they would escape, embers spiralling skyward, seeping into the darkness like a wave of microscopic lanterns. And as they faded, replaced by distant stars, he embraced his insignificance.
After a while he knew when he was being watched. And by whom. He also knew he had been avoiding her. But now he had the answer.
Standing in the window of the loft apartment his eyes drifted through the familiar view. He felt his old life recede into the distance; a movie script ending. The darkened sky loosened into rain. Droplets formed on the glass, merged and ran, blurring the cityscape like a life sliding away. He became aware of his own reflection.
What makes us who we are? When all our cells either regenerate or die throughout a lifetime. Perhaps a life of truly being should be as fluid as the rain.
Darkness crawled across the city like an animal finding somewhere to die. Streetlights dissolved into pools. He glanced around the empty room one last time. A life without reflection isn’t worth living.
The beach house cut a faultless form into the landscape; its own smooth curves hugged the contours of the surrounding dunes and swaying grasses with a balletic grace.
A thunderous downpour had chased across the bay on a relentless wind; for a while the elements raged. She stood at the ragged margin of the sea, the breeze trailing her hair, face turned to the sky. She hadn’t seen him for more than a month. All around her the glow of renewal; the retreating tide reflecting an ethereal gold. In that moment, inexplicably, she felt hope.
Although she didn’t know it, the waiting would soon be over.
She sat in the beach house picture window for one last time and watched the sun inch into its new day like an insincere apology. Her unfeeling hands wrapped around a steaming mug of tea; his favourite mug. The dog lay curled across her feet; the warmth from its body tracked its way to the vacuum of her heart. She closed her eyes, a silent tear trickled down her cheek and dropped to the floor with a soft tap.
How do you trust your life when it can one day disappear like that? The making of a solitary cup of tea. Being alone. Again. Took constant effort. She felt the mug slide from her grip and crash to the floor, sending the startled dog scampering for cover. The fragments of a life lay around her feet. For a fleeting moment she hated him.
A mellow, milky light whispered into his new life. Light, colour and texture slowly spilled across the fresh room. No longer merely a vision unfolding from a dream, but a reality. A spiritual homecoming. Contentment escaped in an easy sigh. The stress of the old world had already begun to peel away like a snake shedding its skin. He slid into his clothes with a sudden urgency, intent on seizing the day, and soon found his lungs fill with sea air.
A parade of noisy oystercatchers shared his tidal walk. His eyes drifted hesitantly to the dividing line: the reeds that separated the beach from the dunes. He thought how he’d never physically seen her; simply felt her presence. With a renewed sense of purpose, he strode across the great divide.
After traversing the rolling dunes he caught sight of a well-worn path that drew him into the wood. The sun punctured the clouds and warmed his bones. It was spring. The trees had begun to unfurl a luminous haze of green; bluebells jostled under pools of sunlight; the air filled with a heady scent of wild garlic and the soft hum of insects. A beauty that surrounds. Rebirth.
He caught a glimpse of the cottage beyond the trees and sensed a cloud of butterflies rise within him. What was that… Fear? Exhilaration? Or something yet to be defined.
‘If we get half of half a chance…’
The poem dissolved on an echo through the cottage. She swung the door open on the unexpected knock. Underneath a windswept shock of dark hair shone piercing copper blue eyes and a disarming smile. Time stood still. A crowd of spring flowers craned their necks to see. A frozen silence. Something intangible passed between them, like fate and desire playfully bumping shoulder to shoulder, a subconscious knowing. The breathless hush was interrupted by their uncoordinated laughter. In his hands a padded envelope, which he held like a curious feeling.
He sank back in the chair, its arms threatening to imprison him. His explanation seeped into the void between them. A mumble of nervous words. Tears had slowly filled her eyes and smeared her vision. She could still make out her name staring back at her from the cushion of papers: the deeds to the cottage.
He had truly discovered her through her poetry. She was this landscape. And in her words he had found the most precious gift; the part of him he had feared lost. When you let go of what you think you need, life can find you. In his words, she came undone. A light in the darkness. And they continued to float, like hope in the sea that separated them.
What is love?
November unleashed a monster. The storm roared through the bay, gripping the ancient woodland by the throat; roots were ripped through the earth. In its aftermath the ground wore the twisted limbs and colours of the fallen. A battlefield. The mood hung low like a dark cloud.
Autumn hadn’t been the only casualty. Just before the storm had arrived he had watched her gather her things. And leave. From now on, only dust would gather in the gaps they left behind. He made one last attempt to follow her. She didn’t look back. Over his shoulder he saw only two sets of footprints: those of hers and the dog padding devotedly beside her. It was like he’d never existed.
A light dusting of days had passed since their unforgettable first meeting. Her world had joyously burst open like the woodland floor in spring. Although he had gone, she found herself staring at the undisturbed folds in the chair; recalling the creases of his smile. Listening to his unfolding story had felt like discovering some of her own missing jigsaw pieces.
She drifted into the garden of heaven scent and lay down under a canvas of blue and soft scattered whites. The brush of spring’s warm breath, a hummingbird whisper against her cheek. She closed her eyes. Dreams can come true when given to the wings of birds. All those thoughts that cannot be heard. When silence takes flight. Unaware. A tide was about to engulf her.
Days slid into weeks; surrendering to the will of time and tide. The rearrangement of his life stole him away. But upon each return, no longer running, he was coming home. Into the wide open arms of an ocean of missing.
She slipped out of the wood and crested the dunes. The dawn dabbed faint smudges of light along an endless horizon. Rock pools glistened like handfuls of carelessly scattered coins. The scene an envy of angels. She first sensed it in the pit of her stomach. The pulse. The distant heartbeat. The texture of driftwood and shells. Words began to reveal themselves across her poetic page. Missing him had become an art form.
Weeks slid into months. Falling into an easy rhythm. Like the tides. He had begun painting; hurling kaleidoscopic mood at vast canvasses; alongside the unburdened commitments to designing sublime beach houses throughout the world. Her own poetic muse had erupted into an outpouring of sensory discovery.
What made it curiously memorable: he had never phoned her. So when he called from a blustery beach off Vancouver Island his I Love You was so snatched by the wind he’d had to shout it. Twice. They had to wait an entire week for that first kiss. A breaking wave of desire and longing sent crashing through them; bodies dissolving into a haze of spiralling molecules. They would become so much more than lovers.
December 15. It had been a jumble of eight endless months since that day. A low morning sun cast a raking shadow through the single set of footprints. Fresh from sleep she shielded her eyes from the glare, faintly registering a distant seal hauling itself out of the shallows. She sought solace in the coffee he had left brewing on the stove. Beside it a yellow sticky note spilled three kisses, a smile and ‘Save some for me sleepyhead.’ She smiled back and returned to the view with a contented yawn.
Half a mile up the beach he rolled in the turning tide. He shared something with his unknown father: they both died at the same age. He may’ve survived his own ruptured brain aneurysm, but in his collapse into unconsciousness he had slowly drowned. Back at the beach house the dog pawed frantically at the door.
She sat in the hospital corridor. Breathless. Shutting out the world, she closed her eyes and pressed his music to her ears. Inside the bubble her mind blazed with the colour of the year they had shared. She slowly began to believe that love could eclipse even the darkest of fears. She lingered on the memory of his gaze. For the first time, the pain eased and she felt her own smile creep. No one leaves you when they live in your heart and mind. She recalled the happiness she felt on their last walk; the lowest of spring tides. In her mind the arc of the bay mirroring her own hand now tracing the smooth curve of her swollen belly; in that moment her waters broke like a wave.
At the beach house a loose silhouette stared at the ocean and felt something shift. He would always watch over them.