Andy packed his sandwiches and filled his thermos. He had splashed out on new laces for his trusty hiking boots and a brand new pair of gloves to match his bobble hat. He checked his backpack: map, compass, mint cake, water… It was all there. Most of it he wouldn’t need; he knew exactly where he was going and could probably find his way there blindfolded.
He drove to the little town on the coast and parked. He put three hours on his parking ticket and affixed it to the inside of the windscreen. Nice day for it, he gave the sky an appraising look. Powder blue broken here and there with feathery white. Lovely.
He hitched his backpack over his shoulders and, clutching his staff, set off on the pebbly footpath that led away from the town and toward the sea. The path rose and his lungs had to work harder as he climbed. Must be getting old, old man, he laughed to himself. After all, he had been making this trek for twenty-five years.
As he strode, enjoying a light breeze taking turns with the sun on his cheeks, he thought back to the first time he had visited the beauty spot. Sandra had come with him, not quite kicking and screaming, but she had complained with every step. Her new boots were giving her blisters. Her clothes weren’t keeping the wind out. She’d forgotten her sunglasses… and so it had gone on until they had reached the clifftop.
Even then she had failed to appreciate the majesty of the view. The roiling waves far below like molten metal. The seagulls wheeling in the air, their keening cries music to his ears, agony to hers.
It had been the last straw. “There, you selfish bitch!” Andy had shoved her over the edge. She plummeted in silence, too surprised to scream. And when he peered over the edge, there was no sign. The hungry waves had seized upon her, devoured her, erased her completely.
And so, every year, Andy came back. Why? Not to make sure, he told himself. But out of respect. He hadn’t bothered with women since then; he had been happy enough alone. And on his country walks, he could be king of all he surveyed. And he would rather have the screech of a seagull in his ear any day of the week than the nagging tongue of a woman, wearing him down, as the waves erode the rocks…
“Andy?” A voice behind him turned his blood cold. If I turn, he thought, I will see her, pale blue with seaweed in her hair, and little creatures crawling from her eyes.
“I thought it was you,” the woman’s voice continued. “I saw you park the car and asked in the café. They said you come here every year on the same day.”
Andy froze. She certainly didn’t sound as though she had been dead for twenty-five years.
Steeling himself, he turned.
A woman stood smiling at him with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes like grooves in the sand. Her cheeks were ruddy from the walk up the path and rounder than he remembered. In fact, everything about her seemed rounder – she’d put on weight, which is the opposite of what he would imagine the dead to do.
“Yes!” she laughed. “Have I changed that much? Let myself go a bit, I suppose, since the wedding.”
Andy was confused. He looked over the edge at the waves crashing over the rocks as though an answer would be down there.
“Oh, Andy – you’re not still thinking about all those years ago? Look, I’m sorry I stood you up, but in all honesty, it was never going to work between us, was it? You were too outdoorsy for me – not saying there’s anything wrong with that! If it makes you happy! And I must say you’re looking good on it. Trim. Rather good shape for your time – our time of life. Why don’t you come down to the Red Lion for a spot of lunch with us? Trevor will be tickled pink to meet you, and you can hear all about the kids. Donna’s just graduated and Simon’s in the army. Andy? What’s wrong?”
“Sandra…” Andy gaped. “It’s so good to see you, I –”
His mouth worked like a landed fish, and as he traipsed after her to the pub one question burned in his befuddled mind.
Who the hell did I chuck off the cliff?