Almost but not quite shielded from view by the rays of sunlight reflected by the glassy sea, the woman in pink bent over and stroked the chest of her man under his blue Berghaus T-shirt, neck bent double, his jaw, in profile, showing just softly the movements of his tongue, and of the closing, opening, closing of the space in between the insides of their two wet mouths. Beyond and behind them the waves crashed immensely onto the steep rich bank of pebble, sending showers of salt-white sea up into the low sky with each arhythmic thrum and drum, thrumming mightily the broken earth.
Further along the beach, a group arrived. Not large, perhaps six or seven. Mostly young men. Juveniles––with a fully-fledged adult as their leader––each of which walked like a different kind of animal: stalk, flamingo, moose. As soon as they reached the top of the bank, the man at their helm, definitely a Bertie, stripped down to a pair of tight bathing briefs and looked meaningfully at the water, sensing in the danger it posed an opportunity to teach his unworldly and betrousered retinue a vague lesson about bulls, horns and grabbing.
At the northern corner of the beach, a sandbank dulled the power of the waves such that they broke less violently. And there, enjoyng the seclusion of an artificial dune, were a young woman and her elderly grandmother, or an elderly woman and her adult granddaughter, sunning themselves in resplendent toplessness and giggling over a bowl of olives. The elder, white-haired and white-skinned, wore dark sunglasses. Her tummy and pendulous breasts shone palely in the mid afternoon sun as the pair sat and laughed on a blanket of light blue, before it was decided that they, too, would approach the water.
The younger of the two plunged in, dolphinlike, cheered on by her companion, was lost momentarily beneath the warm glint and ripple of the Mediterranean, and reappeared with a soft whoop, pushing the saltwater from her eyes and blinking in the sunlight. She hurried out and the twosome returned to their blanket, whereupon the younger, again, receiving a phonecall and deciding to take it standing, strolled directionlessly on the soft sand of the dune. Applying lotion with one hand and holding the phone in the other, her brown skin glistened with reflected sun.
Meanwhile, further south, a bald man was recording a video: the spectacle of wave crash; wearing thick black knee-length shorts and very sporty sunglasses, he eyed the blue depths with caution, perhaps even reverence. He had on his shoulder a tattoo of a cross, small but ornate. The water intimidated him, and so, or perhaps to avoid a bout of vertigo, he lay on his front at the top of the bank, safely distanced, with his camera held before him. The man in briefs, however, our Hero (or, at least, champion and guardian of that there posse), he strode down the bank like a soldier on parade, entering at a sharp angle water that had been encroaching and exploding steadily since noon.
We furrowed our brows. The stage was set.
It was, however, at this moment that Martine, Jean-Claude, Jean-Pierre and Marianne entered the scene, or the beach, from the south side, and in that order. Except, before long, their foursome was disarranged: Jean-Claude and Marianne both stopped to take off their shoes, filled as they were with sand, rendering them Martine, Jean-Pierre, Jean-Claude and Marianne, and Jean-Pierre, now finding himself walking ahead with Martine and oh too well aware of the fact they hadn’t anything to talk about and tended, when they did find themselves together, towards uncomfortable, thumb-picking silence, well, Jean-Pierre paused too, to squint at a parapet above a clocktower that overlooked the bay, feigning interest in a tidbit of local architecture.
Had she noticed this performance, Martine would have seen through it at once: Jean-Pierre cares about nothing, least of all architecture. But she was oblivious to it all and marched on, holding her too-large hat onto her head against the persistent easterly wind.
Equally oblivious was she to encroachment of the water upon the land, or at least to the irregular way in which it lunged and receded, never revealing until the last moment quite how far up the bank its tentacles would spread. She was therefore surprised to find one such tentacle had sucked off her sandal, and let out an impassioned shriek. She pointed wildly at the water, accusing it with her most French finger, while her compatriots came up alongside her. Jean-Claude, dutiful Jean-Claude, stood next to his wife and followed the imaginary line from her outstretched hand to the sea and, seeing nothing, stared for too long. The abyss had reached him. Another wave. It soaked him up to the groin, and shrieking Martine’s thighs.
Jean-Pierre and Marianne, a few steps higher, smiled listlessly, almost without using any muscles at all, as Jean-Claude ran up towards them. But Martine kept on staring, and Jean-Pierre, feeling responsible for the loss of the shoe, as if he ought to have been there to warn Martine of the tricksiness of saltwater, decided to do what he thought must be the right thing.
Red shirt billowing in the wind, he handed his tote bag to his wife, and stepped down to meet Martine. She frowned at him, ever confused, but took a step or two back up the bank. And it was in this formation that the quartet stood for some minutes: Jean-Pierre, longish hair buffeted constantly by the wind, looking blankly at the water in the hope that the accursed sandal might at some point reappear; Martine, watching him watch the water, somehow tenaciously nonplussed; and Jean-Claude and Marianne, also not knowing exactly what they should say to each other, rearranging the bags between them so as not to get anything sandy, agreeing to eat a grape or two, or perhaps a shade of camembert while waiting for whatever was supposed to happen to happen.
But before any of us had time to make any sort of meaningful predictions about how the Jean-Pierre and Martine saga would unfold, bold Bertie dived headlong into the sparkling torment. His black and tan briefs showed just momentarily above the water’s surface before disappearing again, and he popped up for air a short way out, exclaiming triumphantly. His boys cheered, but all along the beach, eyebrows were raising: a large breaker loomed behind yon Bertolt, who seemed caught unawares.
Then, at the last second, he leapt up, angled his body in the appropriate way, and vanished beneath the blue-white surface, emerging like a seal puppy on his belly, having ridden or ‘surfed’ the wave on his front and crashing, probably quite painfully, onto the wet sand. But he was undeterred, and went in for more. Those of us watching became one, tantalised by this spectacle. The bull, horns well and truly grasped, barely moved.
One of Bertie’s boys had taken out his phone and was recording the stunt on his camera. The rest of us were doing the mental equivalent. We were at the circus. Suddenly there was something to look at. And boy did he give us a show. Time after time he went into the silvery rush while Poseidon foamed and spat in whorls around him. And each time more triumphant than the last, beaming from ear to ear, he would reappear in the shallows.
He frolicked and played, jumping like a flying fish from the shallows back into the deep with apparently boundless energy, but what seemed most remarkable of all was his complete lack of self-consciousness. He we were, a dozen or so strangers, all doing nothing save or watching him, and there he was, the only thing happening in our entire field of vision, and not once did he look at us. He was like an actor, acting, or a wild animal. Or, I suppose, a regular human.
Up behind their dune, the two women ate their olives and drank their wine until they had had enough, and sidled caravanwards. Martine, Jean-Claude, Jean-Pierre and Marianne had settled by now into a picnic of the Corsican persuasion: wine, cheeses and almond biscuits with fig. The couple, closer to me, were still engaged in their subtle act of foreplay, juxtaposing, for those with the vantage, the promise of carnal delights with the possibility of roaring, awkward death. The bald man was still recording the space where he had been, although it was hard to tell if he was doing it with any degree of concentration. He was like a puppet abandoned by its hand, unable to move.
I don’t know who noticed first––one of Bertie’s younglings or a menber of the audience at large. Someone tapped the arm of their companion. ‘Look,’ as if to say, ‘he’s gone.’ Just like that. All it took was a blink of an eye, a momentary lapse of attention. There was no sign. It was uncanny.
A flurry of agitation overcame the boys, but not knowing what to do with it, and feeling watched by those of us who were still hanging around, they only talked among themselves. One approached the water with tentative steps but scurried back as soon as it touched his foot. The others mostly stared and played with their thumbs.
The sea calmed down after that, and as the sun began to set, his limp body reemerged, caught in an eddy, periodically rising, waving and smashing into the red rocks, painting them a more vibrant hue than the mixture of iron oxide and potassium feldspar that gives them their colour. The bald man had stopped recording by this time; he might have returned to his camper van stationed on the municipal campground not far from the beach. He might even be enjoying a cool glass of Vermentino, or else tucking into moules mariniere at a nearby restaurant. The intimate couple might, it’s true, be deep into their postcoital daze, hazily murmuring nothings into each other’s blood-flushed ears. I drank imported German lager while the sun went down, having cheersed with a woman sat a few metres from me, who was oblivious to the afternoon’s drama.
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