I dreamed Kelly one morning in that half-asleep state just before I woke up. She was older than she is here, but no less battered. Like seems to often happen to my characters, I wanted something better for her

I studied my reflection as I waited for the water to heat up, and frowned at the faint crows-feet that I’d once have called laugh lines.

I found a new grey hair, then a second, and sighed. It was clearly time to visit the hairdresser again – to make another vain attempt to stave off Father Time’s greedy paws for a little longer.

For what that was worth.

I climbed under the jets of steaming water, and let the warmth sluice over my neck and shoulders. I spread my lips and probed myself with my fingers as I began to to wash the dregs of the night’s poorly-thought-through decisions out of me.

He’d been pleasant enough and clean. I’d been able to put up with him for the promise of an hour or two of fun, a brief rush of endorphins, and a small bit of afterglow to keep the loneliness at bay for another day or so. Letting him come inside me had been unwise, but neither of us had had a condom to hand and I’d had too great a need to be touched to let prudence have much say in the matter.

I sighed.

It hadn’t been all that bad, really. I’d enjoyed it. He’d smelled nice, and he had felt good inside me, and he’d made amusing noises as I’d ridden him to his second climax. Better than some times I could remember from my recent past.

I’d left early enough for it to still be called late – before the fairy godmother L’Oréal’s magic totally evaporated and betrayed me for what I was rather than what the blurring of alcohol, makeup and club lights had no doubt made me.

I briefly wondered if he’d think of me again.

And then I grinned mockingly at myself. Of course he wouldn’t. I was a notch on the bedpost, one for the lads down at the pub. An easy and enjoyable lay.

That was what he’d remember.

Not me.

I spun slowly under the shower head and reached for my body wash.

It would be six soon. If I was quick I could squeeze in my routine before work.

And that would salve the bitterness and keep me going for the day.

At least my body hadn’t betrayed me. For now at least.

The thought came unbidden, sliding past my layers of armour without so much as an if-you-please.

I tried to ignore the sudden bitter ache it woke in my heart.


“Ms Marshall?”

My assistant waited patiently for me to finish reviewing an email. I sighed and looked up at him. “Hey, Graham. What is it?”

“It’s pub’o’clock. Do you need anything before I head out?”

“No, thanks Graham. I’ve just got some stuff to finish before I head home. Go enjoy yourself and have a lovely weekend. See you on Monday.”

He paused, looked as if he wanted to say something more, then elected for the safer option of “See you on Monday, then.”

I watched him collect his coat and bag. Graham. God bless whatever whim of fate had sent him my way, young, babyfaced, and almost-but-not-quite straight. He hid his youth well, soaked knowledge up like a sponge, and always quietly stepped up on the days when I was drowning.

I was both sad and relieved that he’d left without trying to say anything to me. I didn’t have the energy spare to pretend that I was okay. Not to someone as perceptive as him.

I took off my glasses and set them aside, slouched back into my chair and stared up at the plasterboard ceiling above me.

I was miserable. Lonely, cut off from what few friends I’d made in my years here by the acrimony of divorce and by the long slow erosion of time. Those who’d kept in touch had had children and moved into a different stage of their lives as parents.

I had… not.

I’d passed through bitterness into acceptance years before, back when we’d done the all the tests, spoken to the specialists, and discovered that, for me at least, the half-formed dream of a family was over before it could ever become real.

Peter had not taken it well. A middle child from a large family, he’d always had a firm view of what he felt he deserved. My inability to provide it for him had been a severe blow to us both.

And then the long years of sneaking and deception had started. The overheard conversations, the strange growing coldness, the business trips, the weekends away for work…

I wasn’t sure of the final tally on the wall of shame. One for me, of course – a moment of lunatic need for human touch that I still regretted. At least three for him, though I was relatively certain he’d fucked a former friend of mine as well. He’d lapsed first, but mine had been the death-blow, since it had changed me from victim to conspirator.

And after that, all roads had had only one destination at their end.

I hadn’t fought that hard. I’d waived my interest in most of his assets. I had enough, and earned more than enough that I’d not want for anything. And better a clean break – we’d wasted enough time on one another.

I’d kept the flat in Barnes and had used some of my share of the proceeds of the sale of the beautiful house in Kew to buy a small cottage in Dorset, a few miles from Lyme Regis and a stone’s throw from the sea.

It was there, to that sanctuary, that I had retreated in the aftermath of our divorce and the ruin it wreaked on me and the relationships with the people who I’d made the mistake of thinking were my friends.


I closed my laptop and locked it into my desk. It was growing dark outside, and the Square Mile would be starting its slow transformation into a mausoleum. I didn’t like walking empty streets, so it was time for me to head for the flat – for home, I pretended to myself.

‘Home’ – a beautifully finished and almost spotless shrine to what might have been for another me.

I couldn’t say that I was looking forward to a weekend of echoing silence in which I could almost hear the dust-motes falling. The thought was claustrophobic – another nightmare of long walks along fume-drenched streets and overcrowded parks, trying not to look at the young mothers; trying to hide from the silence and waste of a life not lived.

Stuff that.

I pulled out my phone and checked the weather in Dorset. It looked like it would be a beautiful couple of days down south.

Suddenly the urge to sit on the sand and watch the waves came upon me. It would be a two hour drive at least. Probably three. But my cottage was stocked with the basics and I could pick up what fresh stuff I needed at one of the service stations on the M3 motorway… all I needed was clothes. And not even very many of those; I had some stashed there just in case.

And, just like that, I made use of the one positive aspect of my life – complete freedom of choice – and decided to just go. I waved goodnight to the security guard at the front desk and walked to the nearest tube station with something an onlooker might have mistaken for a spring in my step.

An hour later, I was nearing the motorway, with a tog-bag full of whatever clothing had been easiest to grab on the Mini’s passenger seat and Tracy Chapman’s smokey voice crooning comfort to my weathered soul.

The stars were glittering high above the faint ocean haze when I arrived at my sanctuary. I parked the Mini right up against my wall, taking care to leave plenty space for any tractors or trucks to get past if they needed to traverse the lane. I carried my bags into the cottage and dropped them by my bed. I lit my two favourite oil lamps, wedged the sash windows open in the bathroom and kitchen, and spent a moment staring out with complacency at the rich, beautiful night that blanketed my garden in velvety darkness.

I poured myself a double gin from my booze shelf and added tonic water from the bottle I’d bought en route, then kicked off my sneakers so that I could enjoy the texture of the uneven slate tiles under my feet.

And once that was done I had a quick shower, snuggled into my fleece pyjamas and enjoyed a small, simple meal with another G and T to wash it down and help get the week’s kinks out of my back.

The wind shifted and brought the faint sound of surf to me. Slowly the warmth of my cottage enfolded me like a mother’s protective arms.

It was good to be back.


The pre-dawn sky was pink and clear; punctuated only by the last few fading stars in the west.

I shimmied into leggings, pulled on a sports bra and long-sleeved thermal vest. I dug out one of my three season jackets from the lopsided cupboard and struggled into it. I snatched breakfast of a banana and some raisins, pulled on my socks and walking shoes and set off on the mile or so lope to the little beach that I’d come to love.

I reached the eroded bluffs overlooking the bay as the sun crested the south-eastern horizon and threw the world into a rich riot of colour. I paused, just breathing, moved by the beauty of the place; this little slice of heaven on earth that had become my haven. I breathed in the ocean tang, letting the salt scour my thoughts clean of the patina of the city.

Three figures were milling around near the gravel car park at the western edge of the beach. I watched them as they staked out claims on the sand and began unpacking equipment from the bowels of a small white van. Boards of some sort followed, and I realised that it was a group of kite surfers, here to take advantage of the gentle onshore breeze.

I negotiated the descent down to the beach below and sat on a large flat rock, part of some long-ago fall from the strata above. I sat, crossed my legs and studied the group as they began the laborious process of inflating their wings.

A tall, athletic, blonde-maned woman wound up nearest me. Her two middle-aged male friends faffed and chatted to one another while she simply got on with things. I watched her and her alone, envious of her calm, competent grace as she arranged her kite and slipped into her harness.

She wore a three-quarter-length sea-grey neoprene suit trimmed with pale blue flashes that played to her already lovely figure. I watched as she pulled her hair into a careless ponytail and positioned it under her day-glo-yellow helmet. She turned, saw me watching her, and gave me a long, level stare in return.

Something about her gaze set off a frisson deep in me, and even as I flushed I found that I couldn’t look away from her.

She turned back to her wing, dismissing me with a gentle shake of her head. One of her friends helped her with some complicated process involving lines and a clip on her harness, and then she pulled her wing up into the air above her.

She squatted, picked up her board and shuffled out into the water. In almost no time at all she was racing out towards the foamy line of what could charitably be called breakers.

I watched her as she carved languid curves on the ocean’s face. I watched her as she worked her way upwind and then sped back downwind to begin the process again. And I was still watching her as, an hour or more later, she rode the dying gasps of the breeze back inshore to the beach some scant few metres from my perch.

She deflated her wing, bundled her kit into a manageable ball, and started back towards the carpark. Her hair was soaked, her skin pink from the cold, and she was smiling in artless exhilaration.

As she passed me by, she gave me another long, direct stare. This time, though, she smiled at me, and then brushed a strand of soaked hair back from her face as she looked away.

“Jack!” she shouted. She waved to one of her friends as he made landfall.

“Aye, Ash!” came the faint reply.

“Need a hand packing?”

“Aye, that would be grand, love!”

She gave me a thoughtful glance over her shoulder as she walked away.

I shivered.


I ate a small second breakfast, staring out at my garden and the unkempt hedge behind it; both needed care. But first, I thought, I’d make for town and see if I could find any more ‘antique’ tat that I could clutter my cottage with. Peter had hated clutter, so as a psychic ‘fuck you’ to him I tended to buy small items from antique shops that I knew would have infuriated him. Of course it was petty, but it was something I permitted myself.

The road down to Lyme Regis had almost no traffic. I wound down the long hill to the foreshore and turned into the first parking lot I found. I pulled to the side and watched in growing amusement as a middle aged man in a tarted-up Range Rover spent five minutes trying to fit the vehicle into a bay that was obviously too small. In the end he left in a fury, wheels chirping as he stamped down on his accelerator and abandoned the space and victory to me. “Serves you right, prick,” I said, uncharitably.

I breathed the cool, salty air and smiled. It was busy but nowhere near as bad as it would have been in high season. I dawdled, soaking in the sun and the bustle, watching the people flowing around me. Dogs gambolled in the gentle waves and small children claimed waterside fiefdoms under the watchful eyes of their parents or grandparents.

Just beyond the breakers was a gaggle of stand-up paddle-boarders – I laughed softly at the distant screams as first one and then another of them fell off as a larger set of waves rolled through.

I stopped at a cafe’s ice cream counter and bought myself an indulgence; a decadent double scoop of Madagascan vanilla and a single of my favourite mint on a sugar cone. The bitter cold froze my brain, and I fumbled my card and phone back into my pocket as I squinched my eyes closed against it.

I took a few steps down the promenade, bonding intimately with my treat.

A woman called out behind me.

“Hey! Excuse me!”

I ignored it, a London reflex honed by long years of practice.

“Excuse me, excuse me, sorry, hey, you dropped this!”

Someone touched my arm.

I turned, and found myself confronted by the stunning blonde kitesurfer.

We stared at one another for a heartbeat, and I imagine my expression very closely matched her own wide-eyed surprised.

She was the first to recover. “Well,” she said, grinning. “That’s certainly one for the books. Anyway. Hello. You dropped your credit card. Here you are. ”

She handed it to me; her fingers were delightfully cool as they brushed my palm.

“Oh God, thank you,” I said, flustered. “I didn’t even notice. That would have been a disaster. You’re so sweet. Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome,” she said, with a warm smile. She half-turned, paused, looked back at me. “You’re not… from around here, are you?”

“No,” I answered her. “I’m just down from London…”

“Mm. It shows. Well. See you around, then…”

“Um… bye…”

I stood, forgotten ice cream beginning to melt and run down over my fingers, watching her as she loped away. Then, confused by my reaction to her and irritated with myself for dropping my card, I shook the cobwebs out of my head and got on with my morning.

I spent an hour or two roaming the foreshore and the bric-a-brac shops and the boutiques. Then, feeling strangely unsettled, I sat on the seawall and watched the incoming tide as it displaced families and their dogs and erased the history of the various lands and territories that had been briefly staked out on the sand.

I glimpsed her once more.

She was young. Confident. Beautiful.

Everything that I was not.

I sighed.


I woke before dawn as usual, yawned, stretched and dragged on my leggings, vest and a fleece. Dew clung to the grass and my feet and calves were soon soaked; I made my way to my beach, reaching it not long after the sun had risen.

I perched on my rock and quietly contemplated the waves, content in the tranquility around me.

Slowly the day lightened and a faint breeze woke. As the sun softened the hard edge off the pre-dawn chill I removed my shoes and socks and waded out a few metres into the ocean, heedless of the bitterly-cold salt water that soaked my leggings. I dug my toes into the sand beneath them and closed my eyes, grounding myself.

I stood there for some time, doing nothing, just breathing, feeling each ebb and flow of the waves that lap around me, wishing that they would wash away the dents and stains on me and leave me smooth as one of the pebbles on the shore.

Then the moment passed – I took a breath, sighed it out and turned back to shore.

She was sitting on my rock, arms around her legs and chin resting on her knee as she watched me.

We stared at one another over the ten or so metres between us. A gentle breath of wind stirred her fringe, and she shifted and brushed it out of her eyes. She gave me a hesitant smile then hopped down off the rock and slowly approached me.

“Hey there. You looked like you were contemplating going deeper,” she said, by way of greeting. “So I thought I’d keep an eye on you in case. The waves can be really dangerous here.”

I turned and looked back at the lazy sea, then turned back to her, eyebrow arched in amusement. “I can see that.”

She had the decency to grin, but didn’t look away from me.

“I was just enjoying the clean sand under my feet,” I said, flushing under her scrutiny. “It’s the nicest beach near my cottage, so I like to come here when I want to think.”

“Mm. It’s my favourite beach for that too. There’s not much in the way of broken shells or glass to cut your feet on here. And it’s wonderfully secluded – tourists don’t come here because there’s no ice cream vendors or coffee shops. I’m Ashleigh,” she added.

“Kelly,” I answered, unnerved by the warmth of her pale blue eyes.

“Nice to meet you,” she said; her mouth twitched up at one corner.

“Where are your friends?”

“Oh, there’s not enough wind so they’re sleeping in. They’re foul weather friends,” she added, with a pained wince at her own joke.


“So… Kelly… if you don’t mind me asking – what’s a city girl like you doing out here all alone on this particular remote stretch of desolate Dorset?”


That amused me.

“I’m in hiding from life for an all-too-brief weekend,” was my flippant response.

“Fair enough… it’s a good place for thinking when you can get a moment alone.”

“Until you wind up making conversation with friendly locals…”

“We’re a social bunch,” she agreed. “We’re also very nosey and terribly bad at picking up on cues and sarcasm,” she added with a wink.

Despite myself, I grinned at her.

“I’m going for a walk along the sand while the tide’s still out,” she said. “Might find some fossils. You’re welcome to walk with me, if you’ve got nothing else on…”


“This entire region’s rife with them. Mostly ammonites, sometimes other things.”

“Sorry… what are ammonites?”

“A kind of pre-historic cousin of the octopus.”

“And they’re just… lying around here? For people to just pick up?”

“Oh god, yes, common as muck, relatively speaking. Didn’t you go and see the big ones in the rocks at Lyme Regis?”

“Um… no.”

She laughed at that. “You must be the first tourist in history who hasn’t, then. Come on. We’ve got a little while before the tide will become dangerous.”

“Well, alright,” I agreed. “It sounds much more interesting than weeding my garden.”

She picked up a small backpack and waited patiently while I pulled on my shoes.


“So what are you hiding from, if you don’t mind me asking?” she asked. She rummaged in her bag, and pulled out a hammer and some clear plastic goggles of some sort. “Stand back, this might throw up some shards.”

“What are you doing?”

I watched as she positioned a grey pebble and raised her hammer.


“That’s a rock,” I told her, helpfully.

“You don’t say. More precisely, it’s mudstone, which around here means that it’s probably part of an ancient seafloor, and there’s a high chance…”

ping. ping. clonk.

“… that there might be something in it. Though, in this case, that’s clearly a vain hope.”