I was standing in the kitchen, back to the window, about to begin slicing garlic. Oliver came into the room, and asked if we could go down to the beach. I was making a roasted red pepper tomato soup, as I had forgotten about the peppers, only to find that they had become soft and wrinkly. It was a long time since we’d last gone to the beach. It felt as if it belonged to a former way of life, when it used to be part of our daily walks. The last time we had gone was with Oliver’s father — and my longtime partner — before he became sick. I wanted to tell Oliver no.
I wanted to tell him it was getting too late in the day, or the weather was still too windy and cold. That there was probably nothing to see, and too late in the year for puffins, too early for seals. Instead, I looked down at the garlic I was holding and put it to the side. “Let’s go,” I said. Just like that. Like it was easy. He already had his boots on, and together we piled on jackets.
We walked out, turning to the left. The path which leads down to the beach had become overgrown. That was what told me how long it had been. Oliver stayed closer to me than was usual. In every other respect, he was behaving as always. Except staying close. Typically, James and he walked far ahead of me. I typically arrived late to the group, finding the two of them huddled around a collection of rocks on the beach, ready to be skipped out. I usually meandered about, picking flowers and just breathing in and enjoying my solitude.
But not now. I didn’t want to seek that solitude. Staying on the overgrown, slightly damp path close behind Oliver felt more important. I looked up at Oliver, just a few steps ahead of me, and I began to walk a bit more quickly.
Oliver turned around to face me, a smile on his face. He picked up the pace and when we reached the crest of the hill, we saw the beach down below. He ran down to it but stopped for a moment. It was full of stones and small tidal pools. Rough cliffs with tufts of grass. Large rocks just offshore, isolated from one another by the water.
Walking down and looking at the cliffs facing the sea, I could just see the new burrows dug by puffins. The peeping and guttural chainsaw-like calls were swept away in the wind. Suddenly, a puffin’s white and black body emerged from a burrow, and he took flight to the open ocean and horizon.
As soon as my boots touched down to the beach I saw the most perfect stone for skipping. It was flat, oval, and as big as my palm. Bending down to pick it up, I wondered if James would have noticed it right away, too.
I glanced over to Oliver. He was standing motionless, turned towards the water. Gazing at him, I began to wonder what he was thinking, how he was feeling. Making my way towards him, I held out my hand and showed him the stone. A grin lit up his face as he took it. He sent it out into the water. One, two, three, four, five skips. It was a good throw. I hadn’t realized how strong his arm was getting. Without speaking much, we began to comb the beach for more skipping stones. We found some, along with a feather and a piece of smooth sea glass. We took turns skipping them out, seeing how far past the large boulders we could get them.
Our arms eventually became so sore, we couldn’t throw anymore. My muscles were warm and smarting, my hands dry from the sea salt and stones. Oliver pointed at a puffin coming back from fishing, a beak full of silver tails. He was returning to the very same burrow I saw him fly from.
It wasn’t until later that night, after walking back home on the path and eating the soup, that I reflected on it. That the first time back was done. I don’t think either of us knew how painful it was for the other. Or how it was so desperately needed. I felt for a stone I had pocketed, and placed it on the mantelpiece, tasting salt on my lips.