It’s Anthony’s last day in his childhood home before leaving, perhaps forever.
It was his last day on the island. He put his running shoes on while he sat on the doorstep just like always, watching as the horizon gradually turned pale. There were a few lights on in the houses along the road, not that there were many of those – a few old stone cottages like his, barely sheltered against the wrath of the ocean by the undulation of the land. Beyond the fields enclosed by drystone walls were sheer cliffs and then nothing but the sea and the sky. Anthony couldn’t see any of this in the early dawn light, but he knew it was there. He’d known this view since he was a child, and the cliffs had been the edge of his world for most of his life. That was going to end today.
He started jogging down the road. It was late summer, or autumn really, not that it meant much on this little rock lost in the sea. Either the days were mostly sunny or mostly rainy, and occasionally there might be snow or sleet. The trees on the island were sparse and hardy, and the red-orange-yellow bloom of autumn foliage was alien to him: brown, crinkled leaves were blown from the branches almost as soon as they turned here. The sky he jogged beneath was completely clear. Later, it would turn hot, but now his breath was misting and his legs, exposed by his shorts, were chilly. He wore a hoodie and elected not to put his earphones in this morning. He wanted to take in as much as he could of his home right now.
Anthony’s route took him down the road to the bottom of the hill and then up a narrow footpath through clumps of gorse bushes and scrubby heather, into the exposed heathland and then along the edge of the cliffs. It got lighter as he ran and Venus’s bright, steady beacon faded in the sky. His pace quickened as he crested the rise and the vista of the blank, dark sea spread out before him. There was a chill wind blowing in, and he could just make out the crests of waves speckling the surface. In the distance, the sky was light blue, but there was no more than a hint of the sun yet. He was running now, pounding along the rough, stony path, following the line of the cliff. Moths burst from clumps of summer’s last fading flowers as his feet brushed past, and now he was descending, down the steep, narrow trail that led down to a crescent of enclosed beach hard against the white cliffs.
He crunched onto the stony shore and sprinted along the waterline, splashing in the shallow foam as it washed in. His trainers were encrusted with damp sand, like always – that’s why he had to put them on outside every day, not that he minded – and his muscles were now beginning to ache. Finally, as the sun rose out of the sea and washed everything in ruddy-gold light, instantly staining the cliffs behind him a deep orange, he stopped and bent over, catching his breath. His body was slicked with sweat and once he had the strength to do so he pulled off his hoodie and hooked it over one arm as he walked a slow circle, shaking the life back into his legs. He should have brought some water with him. He was always forgetting that kind of thing. Never mind.
The sun rose slowly in the cloudless sky, and the sea reflected gold and silver so bright it hurt his eyes to look in that direction. Everything was turned to liquid glass and he had to turn back to the cliffs. There was a chunk of stone at the base of the ragged wall of rock about halfway up the beach. It was worn smooth by generations of people doing exactly what he did now as he sat down and let his heart rate return to normal. The wind froze the sweat to his skin and made him shiver slightly. It was a perfect moment. The smell of salt in the air and the reek of the rotting seaweed were familiar scents from his childhood and, not for the first time, he wondered what it would be like not to have them around. A handful of seagulls wheeled above his head and cawed out as they rode the rising gusts. From the cliff top he could also hear the calls of warblers as they greeted the dawn and doubtless made short work of those clouds of moths he’d scared up.
The only thing that marred Anthony’s surroundings was a discarded Pepsi can on the ground by his feet. He bent over and picked it up, shaking his head that anyone would come to a place like this and drop litter, but then he dropped it with a start as something heavy inside moved. It rolled to a stop on the sand and a small hermit crab scuttled out. He laughed at his own foolishness, and at the ingenuity of the creature. “There’s a real shell right there, little guy,” he told it, pointing at a seashell just a few feet away. “Stupid bloody thing…”
As the sun rose all the way, something else disturbed the moment: the sound of a barking dog. Probably just someone walking it on the beach. Nothing wrong with that. After half a minute or so, a black Labrador bounded up and started sniffing around the hermit crab. “Hey, leave him alone,” he told the dog and made a noise to bring him over to him. “Don’t I know you?” he said as he ruffled its ears.
He looked up from petting the dog and saw a woman walking towards him. She was dressed in shorts and decent hiking boots with a fleece on that she probably wouldn’t need for much longer. Her hair was a tousle of blonde curls and he grinned at her. “Long time no see.”
Maggie shielded her eyes with a hand as she looked out across the water. “Nice morning for a walk.”
“Ah, so that’s your secret.” She snapped the lead she was carrying and called the dog over. “Come on, Graham.”
Anthony smiled. Maggie and he were old school friends but he hadn’t seen her in months probably. As small as the island was, it was always possible to avoid people, not that he’d been doing that exactly. “How’s life, Mags?”
“About the same as always.” She turned and cocked her head at him. “I heard a rumour about you.”
“Yeah, you’re leaving.”
He bobbed his head. “Guilty as charged.”
“I thought the only way to leave this place was in a box.”
He laughed and it echoed around the curving wall of the cliffs. “That’s the prevailing theory, but I intend to disprove it.”
“And you’re going to live in a city, is that right? To study?”
“Finally going to uni.” He shifted up on his makeshift seat to allow her to sit down and she obliged.
“A little old for that, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, you’re pushing thirty.”
“So are you…”
“But I’m not the one going to university.” She shook her head. “God, imagine it, being surrounded by all those bloody kids.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“And in a city. With buildings and cars and all that.”
“And shops and cinemas and restaurants and bars and…”
“The Anchor isn’t enough for you now?”
Another laugh. “It’s fine. It’s all fine. I just…I have to do this.”
“Leave,” she said flatly.
“Leave.” He looked out across the sea. The gulls were riding high now, swopping out towards the golden horizon. Graham was bothering the poor hermit crab again and Maggie pulled him away by his collar with an admonition under her breath.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to leave this place,” she said.
“There’s more to life than I can find here.”
He didn’t have an answer for that. It just seemed obvious. How did you explain something so fundamental? “Well, do you want to stay here your whole life?”
“There are worse places to be.”
“Sure…but what have we talked about since we were kids? Leaving, seeing the bright lights, becoming someone. I’ve waited this long.”
“Fair enough. If you think it’ll make you happy.”
“I don’t know about that…I just think it’s time to go.”
Maggie nodded thoughtfully. “I used to think about leaving.”
“Uh huh. Even looked at jobs on the mainland. Almost put in an offer for a house. Still by the sea, just not here. But in the end I couldn’t do it.”
“Can’t leave this place, Tony. It’s in my bones.”
He breathed in the salty air and smiled. “I know what you mean. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be hard.”
“I believe we have a …connection…to places,” she went on, “To where we were born or grew up. You’ll go to the city and you’ll do all the things you’ve dreamed of, but when you dream there, it’ll be about here.”
“Sure,” he acknowledged, “but what’s the alternative? Stay here?”
He was starting to get a little frustrated by the conversation. Who was Maggie to just walk into his life again after so long and tell him what he should and shouldn’t be doing? “And what are you doing? Working for your dad gutting fish? Painting? Writing?”
“Yes,” she said simply, “it suits me well enough.”
“But where does it lead? What does it mean?”
It was her turn to laugh now and she threw her head back. It was an uninhibited, joyful sound. He’d always loved her laugh. “What is it with men and assuming life has some kind of upward trajectory? Why does it have to go anywhere and mean something? There’s no plan, Tony. We’re just here, in the places we are, living the lives that feel right for us. Trying for authenticity. Maybe you have some destiny you have to follow, but not me. This is where I fit, doing my thing, not worrying about the future.” She drew her arm across the horizon, taking in its limitless expanse. “I have everything I need. A home, food on the table, this view. What will you find in your city that’s better than this? What can they possibly teach you that you need to know?”
“This place is too small for me.”
“No it isn’t, just look at it: it goes on forever!”
He looked out at the sea, at the sky, at the gulls and the white tips of the cresting waves in the morning light. “It’s not enough.”
“Then maybe you’re the one with the problem.”
He turned to her, but she was smiling. She leant in and kissed him on the cheek. “You should have told me sooner you were going. Would’ve been nice to have one last night out or something.”
“You mean a lock-in at The Anchor?”
She shrugged. “Whatever. We’ll miss you.”
“Me and Graham.” She stood up and called the dog over to her. With just a backward glance and quick wink, she was back off down the beach, Graham trailing after her.
Anthony thought about what she’d said. At his feet the hermit crab was scrabbling around on the sand, halfway between his Pepsi can and the more convivial shell, seemingly caught in panicked indecision.