Everyone loved Whitehaven Beach.
The sea, the rocks, the creamy curve of white sand... No matter how the wind raged in from the Atlantic along the rest of the Cork coast, there was a calmness about Whitehaven Beach and the overlooking Mermaid Peak.
Lou Fielding adored them both. For her entire existence – fifty years now – the beach had been part of her daily life. Dad used to take her there when she was a toddler, taking off her socks so her plump little girl toes could dig into the sand with glee. She’d gone there with her younger sister, holding Toni’s hand as they searched for shells and constructed sand citadels.
As an adult, she’d walked the beach in all weathers, sometimes finding pieces of driftwood she used to decorate the cottage, sometimes trying to make up her steps. There were always friends on the beach: Lou knew everyone in Whitehaven. Despite being allegedly a town, it really was a village. Lou had walked there with her husband, Ned, with their daughter, Emily, and had even jogged along it with her best friend, Mim. They’d decided eventually that jogging was hard, possibly bad for the knees, and no sports bra had ever stopped Lou’s breasts behaving like wayward basketballs. Walking was the answer, they’d decided; only mad people actually swam in the Atlantic.
Since Mim had died, Lou walked alone. Her capacious crossbody bag always contained a hat, a rolled-up rain jacket and a handy bag for rubbish so that seals and sea birds wouldn’t swallow a sliver of plastic bag or get tangled in a piece of junk on her watch. Nobody would ever say that Lou was unprepared or unready to help. But being prepared and being ready to help meant nothing, she thought now, standing on the beach in the wrong shoes, staring at the sea as if she could stop the waves with the intensity of her gaze.
It was Saturday morning, the night after her fiftieth birthday party. Lou hadn’t slept. She’d lain open-eyed on her bed for the whole night. Hadn’t removed her make-up, hung up her dress or worried about flossing her teeth. Why floss? Why do any of it? Where had being a good girl ever got her? Absolutely nowhere.
‘What did I do wrong?’ she said out loud.
The wind was howling now and her words were quiet.
She tried it louder: shouted.
‘What did I do wrong? Tell me!’
The wind from the Atlantic whipped across Lou’s face and she wondered if the rain was going to come in. Rain would be good now. It would match her mood. Or perhaps hailstones would be better. The sharp pain
of a thousand tiny stones hitting her skin... That was exactly how last night had felt as, one by one, the people in Lou’s life showed precisely how much they truly valued her. Her mother, Lillian, her husband, Ned, even her employers - the people she’d worked with for twelve hard years. They’d all shown her that she wasn’t special or a huge part of their life. She was the wife, daughter and employee who’d do anything for anybody and never asked for anything herself. ‘Good old Lou’, the family fixer so desperate to be liked that she’d never noticed that they didn’t respect her.
Lou felt the shame of her stupidity flatten her, just as a cloud burst overhead and the rain finally arrived. Lou let it pummel her, uncaring that she was getting wet and that her dark hair was plastered to her forehead.
The sea was unusually rough and waves threw themselves wildly against the beach, green and brown tangles of seaweed washing in and out.
Her mother had made an art installation out of seaweed once. Her mother... Out of the pain of last night, her mother’s revelation was the worst. She’d taken Lou’s childhood and in one sharp move, smashed the perfect memories.
‘What did I do wrong?!’ Lou screamed at the ocean.
The ocean ignored her and continued its giant swooping of water onto the beach; one sad woman standing in the rain was not on its agenda. Lou kicked at the sand, scattering dark lumps like demerara sugar all around.
‘I. Hate. Everyone.’
She stared at the sea and the dark and frightening thought snaked back into her head. It had been there last night, rippling around in her aching heart, flitting in and out of her brain like a slow-acting poison as she lay in her bed, dry-eyed.
She could gently go, she had decided. She wouldn’t walk under a bus, no. That was not her. But if a bus flattened her when it veered out of control, that would be OK, right? She’d cease to exist and all this pain would go away... Was that a terrible thing to think?
Emily, Toni and Gloria would miss her.
But Emily was grown up, happy in college and living away from home.
A mother had to be there for her child.
Except Emily was a wonderful grown-up now, gentle, kind, loving, funny. Lou could leave her peacefully, knowing she’d done her best. Toni and Gloria would be there for her, and Ned. He was a good father, for all that he thought Lou was a piece of the furniture. Would Lillian be there for her granddaughter? Who knew.
Lillian used people, it seemed.
Like so many of the people in her life had used Lou.
In all her years of fighting depression and anxiety, Lou had never felt the way she did now: as if she was suddenly, frighteningly, teetering on a precipice.
How many times had she been on this beach and felt alone? Yet she’d never in her life felt this alone.
‘Wish you were here, Mim,’ Lou said into the wind.
She’d never have felt alone with Mim around. Mim had been that rare creature: a soul friend who understood everything about Lou. Lou hadn’t had to try to explain
anxiety and depression to her. In general, explaining it was hopeless. People who’d never felt that way rarely understood the fear of the dark hole a person could fall into. They never grasped that anxiety or depression were not things she could ‘get over’, that they were constantly throbbing inside her body, waiting for the right moment to emerge.
Mim had understood. But Mim wasn’t here.
Lou began to cry at the enormity of her thoughts. She couldn’t do it, not to any of them. Lou loved them all too much, but she hurt so much too...
‘I knew you’d come here.’
The shock of the interruption made Lou whisk around at lightning speed, and she rapidly wiped away her tears as she faced her sister. Toni stood behind her, a waterproof fisherman’s hat jammed on her head keeping the blade-like blonde hair dry. Her tall, slender figure was enveloped in a bulky padded coat that also appeared to be rainproof because drops of rain were sheeting off it. Even in crisis, Toni looked perfect.
Toni would never recover if Lou walked into the sea. Or Emily . . . her darling Emily.
What had she been thinking?
She could never do that, not to her family.
‘I came here to be alone,’ said Lou and, almost immediately, her instinct was to add, Sorry – that sounded rude.
Even now, in this dark place, she was ready to apologise. But Lou held her tongue. It took enormous effort, but she did not say ‘sorry’.
‘Course you want to be alone,’ Toni said. ‘But I can’t let you. In case—’
‘In case what?’ demanded Lou, and again she had to shut down the instinct to apologise.
‘In case you needed me.’ Toni’s tone was easy. ‘Don’t want you walking out on us all. I might, if I’d had a night like the one you had last night. It was quite a party.’
Lou stifled a noise and she wasn’t sure if it was a sob or a wail.
Whatever she had been expecting from her sister, it wasn’t that.
Toni was more of a ‘cheer up’ and ‘we’ll cope with whatever happens,’ sort of woman. Not that Toni was like their mother in most ways but in this, she was: neither she nor Lillian did comforting.
‘Where would I go?’ Lou asked.
There was no reply. The ocean in front of them roared. The sisters stared at its welcoming depths.
‘I wouldn’t do that,’ said Lou quickly, but even as she said it, she knew this wasn’t true.
She’d felt the pull of the sea, the nothingness of it all, how easy it could be to end the pain . . . Or was it the hardest thing ever? She’d never felt that before. Never even understood the lure, but her heart just ached so much...
‘I know you wouldn’t do anything silly, Lou,’ said Toni gently, but she put her arm around Lou’s shoulders as if to hold her to the shore. ‘What do you say to a cup of coffee? It’s chilly and we need something warm.’
‘Don’t want to go home,’ said Lou, aware that she was speaking the way a child might. ‘I don’t want to see anyone after last night. The whole town will know by now. I might as well be on the front of the local paper.’
‘I know.’ Toni squeezed her sister’s arm. ‘I know, but—’
‘I’m not going,’ Lou interrupted. ‘I can’t.’
‘Then . . . how about we take off, just the two of us?’ Toni said, surprising her utterly.
‘And go where?’
‘Anywhere we want,’ said Toni. ‘Nobody but us. We just escape.’
Lou felt some of the weight on her heart lift. As if a little light still glowed within her. A spark of life still burning.
‘Just leave . . . ?’ she asked.
She thought of all the things she had to do and how many tasks she normally needed to complete before taking even the smallest of holidays. She organised cover for work, made nutritious meals for her mother, left endless instructions because, without her, who would run things?
‘Let’s just go,’ said Toni eagerly. ‘Everyone will be fine without us.’
Astonished at this notion of simply leaving, Lou scanned her mental list: her mother, Ned, her work. They had all let her down horribly.
‘You’re right,’ she said, holding her head up to face the wind. Her new life would start now: nobody would take advantage of her again, she decided with unaccustomed ferocity.
She thought of what Mim used to say: If you can’t have a good day, just have a day. Get by.
Today, Lou could get by. Today, she would be as strong as Mim had been.
She smiled tentatively at her sister and nodded.