They sat apart on the cliff. Though not so far that they couldn’t throw glances when they thought the other wasn’t looking. Ed was hunched over his book like a buzzard over its kill. He spreadeagled his legs in front of him. Scrawny and like talons gripping the rocks Paul thought. Ed was dark, squat with his body. Paul was more lithe, a shock of brown thick hair tumbling onto his forehead. He sat back from his book, there was an air of concentration but one thought he was not totally oblivious to his surroundings, he was aware, slightly on edge, he felt the breeze, the hard slate beneath him, he felt Ed’s presence like a pool of warm liquid washing over him. There was something between him and Ed. Whenever Paul looked over at him it presented itself as a three dimensional triangle. Ed was always turned away, musing over Paul and thinking what to say. But he did not feel his presence. Ed was shut off to him, if he had been a horse he would have whinnied up and tossed his head impatiently at him.
The sun was setting, throwing a phallic gaze, Munch like, across the waves but neither Paul nor Ed were stirring. Then Paul couldn’t stand it.
Ed, he said, I’m going down.
Ed, he said again when he didn’t look up, I’m going in.
Sure, replied Ed, not even raising his eyes. Have a nice time, he added vaguely.
Paul stared a moment. He stared at Ed’s thick upper lip and the drop of sweat just riding its peak and ready to slip in between his white teeth. Paul sighed but Ed pretended not to notice.
OK, I’m going! Paul said loudly and turned on his heel, slipping off down the rocks.
It was chilly and him and Ed were wearing hoodies at last but he was determined. He couldn’t back out now that Ed was watching. He could feel his eyes boring into him and resisted the urge to look round. But Ed wasn’t watching, he didn’t look up until Paul had slipped out of sight. Ed craned his neck. He was aware the sea was going out faster than normal, it was in a rush. He knew there were rip currents. He strained to see Paul, then he appeared below him, seemingly far away, slipping on the rocks.
Christ, thought Ed.
Paul jumped triumphantly onto the sand, glad to leave the hard barnacled rock behind. He looked up to Ed but Ed immediately ducked his head into his book. He wasn’t going to let him see he cared he thought.
Let him bloody break his neck, he thought.
But Paul was at the water’s edge. He shoved his feet in, the cold hitting his body in a shock. Between his toes hermit crabs, retreating into the safety of their stolen shells, desperate to evade the sea’s divorce. And snapping prawns and sand hoppers jumping up and down.
Look at this life, Paul wanted to say to Ed. Look at all this!
But Ed was too far. Paul could only raise a hand in a wave. Ed looked, hesitated, then raised his hand in acknowledgement. Ed was looking now. Paul would have to do it.
He’d have to go in, though he hated the water. Ed knew he hated the water. Why did he let him go? He stripped off, turning his back on Ed. Then he waded boldly into the oncoming waves and flung himself down, belly flop, chest first into them. The shock of the water. But then it was over quick if he started swimming. If he just swam he could get warmer he knew. Then it was strange. The sea was flat, he was looking at an endless blue disappearing into a horizontal line. Beyond, far away, was America, but to him it was the edge of the world. He wanted that edge. He wanted to swim suddenly. He was the only one in the water, the life guards were too lazy to shout at him to get in between the yellow and red flags, although one was watching him from the shoreline. But he turned back towards the blue haze and the sun setting and wanted to go out into it. In fact, he decided, to go out into it was not enough, he wanted to be it. Be the sea, be the air, be the sun. He was swimming now, like he’d never swum before. Damn everyone he thought as little choppy waves lapped into his face and he was drawn out by an invisible force into it.
Strong arms grabbing him, a rush of noise.
Are you fucking stupid, Ed was shouting and grabbing Paul. Ed was a good swimmer, he’d caught up with Paul in no time.
Leave me alone, Paul wanted to say strongly but could only gasp. Out of the corner of his eye, the life guard waving a megaphone and jumping up and down on the shoreline. Paul pushed Ed away with his arm but that meant a wave came over him. Paul gasped, choked, swallowing sea water and spitting it out. Ed took his chance, bowled Paul over and grabbed him under his chest.
What the fuck? Fumed Paul.
Shut up, said Ed.
Ed was strong, he kicked back all the way to the shallows. Paul wanted to fight but at the same time he liked lying on Ed. It was nice to feel his body kicking beneath him as he stared up at the blue sky. In the shallows Ed heaved and sat down suddenly, his legs around Paul. They stayed around him as the life guard ran up.
Don’t you know there’s rip currents out there? He shouted. I mean strong, you know? It’s dangerous.
Ed and Paul gasp for breath and cannot answer. The life guard walks away, he’d rather be in Australia. Ed begins to laugh.
Idiot, he says but gently, grasping Paul’s shoulders.
Not, says Paul and flips around, pushing Ed back.
You can’t force me to do anything, says Paul. If you do, I’ll swim like that again.
They gaze at each other and then Paul is up, running over the rocks. Ed runs after him. At the top of the cliffs they sit again, reading their books, but this time together. Each still privately thinks his experience of the world is the most accurate but they do sit closer together now.
For the two young men sitting apart on the cliffs at Polzeath beach 9th Sep 2014 and for 8