The first thing he notices, when he goes back, is that it’s not the same. The coastline has moved. This is literally not the beach he remembers. He stands for a long time watching the waves crash, hands in pockets, braced stiff against the wind, and he looks from the sea to the single row of coastguard cottages, and then back to the sea again. The white-painted buildings stick up from the land like teeth. Small islands of shingle rise out of the water -- the humped backs of whales, sea monsters. Is there more beach here now? Less? Has the curve of the land changed? He narrows his eyes, trying to judge, to remember. He shakes his head. Perhaps it’s just the tide, and the fog of turning forty. He trudges back to his rented cottage, every step an effort on the shifting sea of stones. He feels like a deep-sea diver. Like the opposite of an astronaut.
They arrange to meet in the King’s Head in Orford, on the edge of the Ness. In the summer, tourists come to the village for the sailing, the castle and the artisan bakery. In January, under iron skies, it’s easier to think of the Ness itself -- the long shingle spit following the curve of the coastline. A nature reserve now, it’s constantly shifting, unpindownable, dragging a grey history of bomb-testing and radar behind it.
Perhaps they should have met at Shingle Street, but there’s no pub at Shingle Street. The Lifeboat Inn was destroyed by a bomb from the labs at Porton Down thirty years before he was born, and if he’s going to do this, he’ll need a glass of beer in front of him. So he leaves the car behind and walks through the afternoon with the sea on his right. After a while, the flat grey expanses of sea and sky and river and stones all begin to merge together, to lose definition. If it weren’t for all these leftovers -- the tank blocks and concrete structures, flotsam left behind by a receding war -- he’s afraid he might get lost here. He sees no one on the walk. Above him, the clouds grow heavier.
In the village, he rubs his frozen hands together in front of the pub’s open fire. It’s winter, he thinks, castigating himself. Gloves might have been an idea. The friendly barman chats as he pours him a pint of Adnams Ghost Ship. Here on holiday? Down for the day? Writing a book, he explains, and the words echo meaninglessly in his head. The barman remembers the rumours, of course, but he doesn’t know anything for definite. Well, as he says, who really does?
When Rob comes in, they’re talking about the weather: rain is on the way. Rain is here. Rob’s in the doorway, shaking the first cold drops from his hair, and he’s smiling.
That’s another surprise, then. The surprise is that this is not a hard thing to do, after all. It’s a cold, wet day in January, and they’re all smiles, he and Rob and the barman. The pub’s yellow labrador comes out and pads among them, wagging her tail, happy because they are happy.
“I don’t know why you’re staying at Shingle Street,” Rob says. “There’s nothing there!”
They’re settled at a table under the window. It’s quiet in here this afternoon; just them and two older women in the far corner, chatting over a late lunch of fish and chips.
“Not true,” he says. “There’s a hell of a lot of stones. And some birds. It’s basically me and a handful of artists. Even the Martello tower’s converted into a self-catering place now.” He tips up the beer and it slides down his throat, herby and golden. “Anyway. It’s great to see you.”
Age has settled comfortably on Rob. He’s filled out a bit; tall but no longer lanky, and the sharp corners seem to have worn off over the years. He nods and smiles, pushing up the sleeves of his blue jumper as he adjusts to the warm room. Rob’s drinking Coke (he drove here, like a normal person). His smile hasn’t changed.
“You look well,” Rob tells him, and he thinks, No, I don’t. No, I’m not. “God, it’s been bloody years, hasn’t it? Why have we left this so long?”
“Oh well,” he says. “You know.”
He said he was coming here to interview people, so that’s what he’s been doing. He talks to artists and dog walkers, and people who watch birds. He questions the man who rows the foot ferry across the Alde, and pays his coins for the privilege. Sometimes the people think he’s investigating, that he’s here to write a book about facts. But that’s not it, really. He just came to hear what they have to say. He wants to record their words, before their voices, like all voices, are lost.
The woman staying at Number Six is a regular visitor. “It’s a wild place,” she says, “Magical. It’s a healing place, I think.”
She has silver hair curling over her shoulders, and a soft smile, and she paints. They walk a little way up the beach as they talk, to where the Martello tower hulks, long since given up looking out for Napoleon.
She speaks about the nesting terns and the clouds of butterflies, the blue of sea lavender in summer, and the giant moon rising on August nights. She says, “It’s just on the edge of everything, isn’t it? Here. It’s wonderful.”
“Don’t you find it lonely?” he asks.
“Well, yes.” She laughs. “That’s what I mean!”
They’d come to Shingle Street that summer because it was someone’s birthday. He can’t for the life of him remember whose. Probably Lou. Or Maria. Anyway, they’d brought cake and crisps and bottles of cheap wine, and someone had stuck candles in jam jars for later, to be wedged in the shingle like fairy lights when the sun went down. They spread blankets on the beach, and ate, and laughed at old jokes.
He was already half away from the place then; a year at university in London had begun the process of severing the strings. He’d volunteered to drive that day, so he was the sober one, the one in control. Back then, for some reason, he’d wanted to be one of the grown ups.
“Oh, I love you all!” Lou announced, tipsy on a plastic cup of pink wine. “We should come back here every year. A tradition!”
He lay back on the shingle, hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. The afternoon sun was hot on his skin. A little way out, the tide rose and fell, rose and fell.
“She’s pissed already.” Rob sat down heavily next to him, laughing.
He blinked up Rob’s silhouette, dark against the sun. “She’s drinking on an empty stomach.”
“Somebody give Lou a sausage roll!” Rob called over his shoulder. “There, that’s sorted.” He smiled. “So, mister historian... how’s student life? Enjoying the big city?”
“Yeah…” He nodded. “Yeah, you know, I really am.” He cast around for something more specific, a story to tell. So often, over the past year, he’d imagined himself telling Rob all about his adventures… but now it came to it, he felt strangely shy. He deflected. “What about you? Good year?”
“I saw the world, and then I got a summer job.” Rob picked up a sea-rounded flint from the beach, looked at it, dropped it again. “Start my course next month…” He shrugged. Yeah, it’s all good. I wasn’t sure if you’d come today, to be honest.”
“No, um. I mean, I always wanted to, but you know what it’s like… Parents and so on.”
“But in the end you just missed us all too much.” Rob had stretched out on his side, head pillowed on his hands. He smiled up from where he lay, his gaze steady.
“I did. I admit it.” His throat was dry. He needed to refill his plastic cup.
Memories of parties like this one -- tents pitched in people’s gardens, parents conveniently dispatched. People passed out blind drunk on the lawn, and strings of lights, and smoking on the patio in the dark. Rob with his dark hair, fringe flopping in his eyes, and his smile. And so many opportunities not taken.
“Yeah,” he said lightly. “Yeah, even you.”
On the beach, he finds things. Small pieces of plastic, smoothed by the sea. Burnt wood. There are great slabs of concrete here, lying in pieces on the stones. He remembers how they used to make him think of Narnia -- Aslan’s stone table, cracked in half. There are twisted lumps of rusting metal, and lengths of rope, and dull sea-worn glass.
He walks the shoreline with a man who is very angry about the sea, and also about the Government.
“The sea’s eating the land,” he says. “Just swallowing it, bit by bit, and what are we going to have left? They don’t care about us, about our homes.”
He has a petition, and a website. “We need better defences,” he says. “You have to help us get the word out!”
“Some would say there’s not much left here to defend. Is there?”
The man sighs, frustrated. “It’s not just here. All along the coast, same story. It’s like 1940 all over again. They didn’t care about us lot then, and they don’t now.”
“You mean the evacuation?”
“All those villagers, they were just told they had to get out. Generations these families had been here and they couldn't even take half their stuff with them. And when they came back, well… what hadn’t been looted, they’d used for bomb-testing. Not a lot left to come back to after that.”
They stand and look at Shingle Street, at what it is now. A thin string of houses. A wide strip of flint and sky. He asks the man what he thinks about all the mysteries and the secrets.
“Lot of rubbish,” he says, and tuts. “Oh, you journos care ever so much about some cock and bull story from seventy years ago, but you don’t give two hoots about the people trying to live here now. And neither does the Government. Not two hoots.”
Rob’s the journalist, though, not him. Has been for twenty years now, still working for the same local paper. Even after they lost touch, he still found himself checking Google every now and again -- Rob’s byline on a piece about an unsolved murder, a feature about local history. Rob never quite fell out of love with the job, he says now, even through the recession, redundancies and disillusionment. “Well,” he says cheerily. “I am a journalist. Not like I had many illusions to start with.” That summer, the last time they came here, was just before he started his training.
There was a car park at Shingle Street, but no shop, no pub. No public toilets. “You’ll just have to go for a wild wee,” Maria said. “I brought wet wipes, if anyone needs them.”
Maria and Andy had collected driftwood, and now they were trying to light a campfire, because Lou wanted to roast marshmallows. They were all laughing, preoccupied. He looked over at Rob as he stood up, catching his eye.
They climbed the heaped-up shingle together and walked, hands in pockets, to where scrubby grass and weeds began to encroach on the stones. They didn’t speak. Their footfalls rang out a dissonant music on the pebbles -- now together, now apart. Just ahead of them, a concrete pillbox rose up, round and squat and weathered, half covered in ivy. Corrugated iron stuck out from under the roof, and the doorway gaped open, a dark hole.
“Ever gone inside in one of these?” Rob asked, looking at him. His fringe blew across his face. He’d caught the sun, a bit.
He shook his head. “Should we?”
“I dunno... might be too scary for you.” A smirk and a sideways glance.
It was dark in the small space after the bright sun, and it smelt damp, like leaf mould with acrid undertones. The tiny slits of windows let in rectangles of daylight and he blinked away neon afterimages in the gloom.
“Ha,” Rob said. “It’s like a tiny, rubbish castle.”
He smiled. “It’s like a hobbit house, after a hobbit apocalypse. Or… you could shelter from the rain in here. If it was raining.”
He stopped speaking then, because Rob had stepped up behind him, and was standing very close. He could feel warm breath on the back of his neck, and his own breath hitched in his throat.
“Hey,” Rob said, softly. “Come here.”
Rob’s hands were touching his hips, and he allowed himself to be pulled round, turned to face him. They were face to face, and Rob was smiling again, and then they were kissing, and he thought, finally. Finally, this is happening.
Her uncle told her, told the whole family. He said, don’t let it get out. It’s a secret. Well, he was getting on by then. But he still had all his faculties.
The woman sits opposite him in the little cafe in Woodbridge. She drove from Ipswich; she doesn’t get out this way much any more, she says. He orders a pot of tea, and she has coffee.
“It hardly seems to matter now, keeping secrets,” she says.
Her eyes are mournful, but he thinks that’s probably just the way her face is. His own does that too, a bit. But then, a lot of the time he is mournful.
“I mean,” she says. “Pretty much everyone who cares is dead, aren’t they?”
“What did he say he saw?”
“Well, he said it was terrible. He said they set fire to the sea -- they had gas in pipes, you see? Under the beach. And the whole coast was littered with them, after. Well. Someone had to clear them all up, didn’t they?”
“They were invading. We had to stop them.” She speaks as though she was there, although she can’t be more than ten years older than him.
“I heard from someone else that there were only three dead found. German airmen.”
“I’m just saying what he told us,” she says, and her sad gaze is steady, full of steel. “Why would he lie?”
It was a terrible sight, her uncle said. Given him nightmares for years. He’d never forgotten it, and he’d never told. Only just the once.
He remembers his back against the cold wall, and the heat of Rob’s body. He remembers… his eyes fluttering open briefly, and seeing a figure in the doorway, a silhouette. The shock of it. He remembers shouting out, and Rob turning round, and the thin fabric of Rob’s T-shirt bunched in his hand. He remembers that he went back to university the following month, and that he and Rob never really spoke after that.
Actually, he finds, the two of them remember it slightly differently.
“No, he said something. I’m telling you!”
“Are you sure? I don’t recall him saying anything.”
“Yes.” Rob is animated, his drink sloshing in the glass as he gestures. “That’s how we knew what he was, who he was.”
“I really don’t remember that. How weird.”
“He was so... sad,” Rob says. “It wasn’t frightening, not really. Were you frightened?”
“No,” he says, and realises it’s true. “Not after the first bit.”
Rob looks into his drink and frowns. “And he was just sort of watching us. I knew he could see us. But it wasn’t, like, creepy or anything. He just looked lost. Like he didn’t really know where he was.”
He thinks about the man. No longer a silhouette, he was standing against the concrete wall, away from the doorway -- although he doesn’t remember seeing him move. He noticed, in the dim light of the pillbox, that the man’s clothes were soaked through. That his face was slicked with wet, and he was shivering with cold, although it was such a hot day. His eyes were like pale lights under water.
“And then he said… whatever it was he said,” Rob went on. “And then he just wasn’t there any more.”
He’s still confused. These memories shift in the heavy sludge of his mind like silt. “Why didn’t we know what he said?”
“Because it was in German. You really don’t remember?”
He thinks back, but it was so long ago. He really doesn’t, despite that fact that that silhouette has been burned on his retinas for twenty years.
“Well,” he says eventually. “You’d know, I suppose. I only did French.”
“Oh my God.” Rob laughs and hangs his head, fond exasperation in his voice. “You’re still hopeless, you know that?”
“Me, what about you? Did you really not get any of it?”
“Nope. Sorry, I really was rubbish at German.”
“It’s just, I’ve always sort of had this idea...” he stops, strangely embarrassed. “I thought maybe he was looking for someone.”
“Yeah. So did I, actually.” Rob nods. His voice is soft. “I never told anyone anything. Did you?”
They are silent for a few moments.
“Weird talking about this, after all this time. I mean… good, though.” Rob looks up at him. “And also just good to talk to you.”
He thinks that twenty years is nothing, really.
“The thing is,” he begins. He needs to explain, but it’s difficult. “Why I came here... I think I haven’t been very well, just lately.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that.”
He thinks that Rob’s face is open, honest in a way his has never been. It makes him thirsty.
“I haven’t been for a while, in fact. I might need to do something about it.”
“Maybe you should come back more often,” Rob says after a moment. “I know your folks aren’t around now, but... I dunno. Nice and quiet out here. Fresh air, and all that.”
“And, you know.” Rob looks away from him, up at the window. The light is beginning to fade already. “I’m still here. So.”
“Yeah.” He smiles. “Yeah, so you are.”
“Do you fancy another drink?” Rob stands to go up to the bar. “I don’t mind giving you a lift back. If you want.”
“Sure. I’d like that, thanks.” He nods, and Rob turns to go. “Rob?”
“You been all right, all these years? I’m not sure I ever actually asked.”
“I’ve been fine.” Rob smiles his easy smile, and it’s as warm as the room they’re in. “But I can always be better.”
On the beach at Shingle Street, someone has laid out a single line of white shells stretching from the coastguard cottages, all the way over the shingle bank, to the sea. Sometimes the line of shells meets a clump of grass, or a tough, cabbagey crambe plant, and then it will circle the obstacle, and make its way quietly on.
He steps carefully over the line as he walks along the darkening beach. The sun sets early in January, though the nights are beginning to draw out. Another year is beginning.
It’s cold and the breeze bites. He stand still in his winter coat and scarf, blows into his numb hands. The road here goes nowhere -- only to the wide edge of the world. The sun, huge and orange, drops slowly out of sight, colouring the sky and the dark water in its turn. It looks, almost, as though someone has set fire to the sea.