‘That used to be an island.’
‘That bit of rock. It used to be an island.’
Off-white foam charges the beach, wearing itself out before reaching the sand. In the distance, a dog runs tipsy circles round its owner, walking alone. Charlie looks at Eve as if trying to work out a puzzle, then looks away. His eyes rest on a rock being washed and washed again by the advancing tide. Taking a breath first, Eve says:
‘They reclassified everything in the 90s. Now it’s just a rock.’
‘Looks like an island to me.’
After he speaks, Charlie looks at Eve, not sure if this is just one of the things she says because she likes the way it sounds. She stares at the clump of rock and tries to imagine someone standing on it. How big would they be? Every now and then an angry wave makes the rock disappear – trying to tidy it up, to start again – but it’s always still there when the foam has gone.
Further along, they pass the place where they first met, five years ago. Three tank traps have shifted over time and settled to make a sheltered cove. The grey concrete cubes are dotted all the way along the beach; a hangover from World War II when they thought the Germans might invade. As they walk, Eve watches her feet press the wet sand. Every step makes the colour around it lighten, bleaching it, like the last suck on a Slush Puppy. She listens to the sound of her wellies flapping against her calves; it’s comforting but somehow slightly embarrassing.
The suck and pull of the tide labours away with long, asthmatic breaths. Eve looks back over her shoulder at the tank traps and pushes her hand further into her pockets. A gull lets out an anguished cry as they step inside a concrete pill box. Inside, there is an ancient cold. From outside, it appears to slope ominously, as if making a slow, inevitable descent towards the sea. Eve squints through the letterbox slat where the soldiers would have pointed their guns; the sky is overcast but it’s still light. Charlie reaches out, takes hold of her hand. A jag of hard skin by one of his nails skates over her palm, drawing scribbles.
There was a bonfire the night they met, sheltered in the space between the three tank traps. Her friend Heather had asked her along; it was Guy Fawkes Night and she’d rented a small cottage near Dunbar. Eve remembers the taste of gritty red wine from a solid plastic mug and the orange glow from the bonfire on the concrete blocks. When it got dark, Heather’s friends set off fifty pounds’ worth of fireworks that lit up the sky in shrieks of reds, yellows and greens. It took several attempts to light the candle inside a gigantic paper lantern, but then it floated away; a red bauble getting smaller as it headed out to sea.
The first time she saw Charlie, he was crouching by the water’s edge, skimming stones into the darkness. Later, when she reached into his pocket, he still had a collection of smooth, flat stones for skimming. Flashes of light from the fire lit up the back of his head and his scruffy brown hair made him look somehow childish, his ears poking out impishly from a hairstyle that had long grown out. He was wearing the camouflage jacket he later lost in Paris on their anniversary. At the time, Eve had thought he would be upset - he always wore that jacket - but instead he was relieved. He was getting bored of it, he said, now he had an excuse to buy a new one.
He always uses her name when he’s cross with her. Normally, he just calls her ‘angel’ or ‘baby’, although he’s stopped doing that so much lately. ‘Baby’: a name he probably called her, she thinks.
In bed he used to call her all the dirty words he knew, strung together in the darkness as he gathered momentum. Now he just turns on his side, defeated, and falls asleep. She lies awake beside him and curves out her anger in the silence, their cold backs almost touching. In the darkness she listens as the tick from the clock starts up from nowhere, scratching away at the silence, unsure at first, then gaining in confidence.
‘Evelyn? Is this about me working next weekend?’
‘Evelyn’: the name her mother used to call her when she was in trouble. A seagull’s cry cuts through the November air and is answered by a dog barking at the water’s edge. The smell of rotting seaweed from along by the headland carries on the breeze. Beyond the rock, a distant lighthouse starts flashing its warning call. Charlie gives up trying to drag her into the present and his fingers go quiet, now just holding her hand. Eve keeps watching the sea.
Sitting by bonfire Eve had watched, almost hypnotised, as flames jerked manically to the sound of lively cracks. When she looked up, Charlie was still skimming stones. Heather followed Eve’s line of sight and told her Charlie’s girlfriend never came to things like this; she was a law student and didn’t like getting sand in her shoes or smoke in her hair. Eve turned to look at the fire, feeling the warmth on her cheeks. Charlie seemed to hear his name, and came over to ask what they were talking about. He was holding a packet of sparklers and pointed the open end towards Eve. He laughed when she put gloves on before taking one and she felt awkward, not sure whether he thought this was endearing or silly.
She knows he’s looking at her now without taking her eyes off the sea. An angry gust of wind whips across her face, he leans in and bangs her shoulder playfully with his. The light is fading, everything becoming more vague. The beach is empty; the man with the dog has gone. Further north, another lighthouse starts calling out in the darkness, answering the first, the two beams in silent conversation with each other. Faintly, almost imperceptibly, Eve squeezes Charlie’s hand.
When the fire died down and they ran out of dry wood to burn, the boys dared each other to run across the dozy embers, turning the grips of their trainers bald like old tyres. It was getting cold and now everyone was sitting, crowded round the fire. Whenever someone got up, it set off a ripple of accommodating shifting of feet and legs. Every time this happened, and he had to move, Charlie moved a little closer towards Eve.
She was speaking to everyone but him and could hear her voice rising, giddy. When Heather stood up, Charlie reached over and took the cigarette from Eve’s mouth, taking two long drags before giving it back. She could feel it on her lips, slightly damp, and noticed her chest rising and falling in the glow from the fire. Then he opened some marshmallows, and they took it in turns to melt them on the end of sticks, watching as they turned to goo behind dark, sooty shells.
On the walk back to the rented cottage, Charlie linked his arm through Eve’s. The darkness and uneven path made her stumble, and it annoyed her that he might think she was drunk. Halfway through a story about an abandoned bird she’d once rescued, he pointed to the sky and said:
Eve had always thought it looked more like an acrobat or a clown, and Charlie said, ‘Depends how you join up the dots.’
‘Eve, what is it? Tell me, what’s wrong?’
She follows the pattern of freckles on Charlie’s wrist, scattered like a constellation and thinks about touching them. Instead, she reaches down and dusts the sand from her jeans. In her pocket she can feel the folded paper of the email she found amongst the debris on his desk. Slowly, she turns to Charlie. He looks old. Beside his eyes, lines drawn like childish stars crack like ice every time he smiles. She thinks he might have lost weight, but his eyes are still the same. Something inside her catches. A sudden shiver of cold taps her shoulder blades, makes her want to be held.
Eve smiles, nudges Charlie with her shoulder.
It’s getting dark and she can hear the waves break over the island in front of them, but now it has to be imagined to be seen. Squinting, she can just about make out the shadow of the tank traps, but nothing’s familiar anymore.