by Steven John

Their raw, pulped feet sink into the warm sand as though into milk. Tall dunes of driftwood, bleached and hard as ivory, curve in a spinal line at the high-water mark, salted bones from ocean crossings, skeletal wooden hands grasping up for a rescue. The young male picks up boomerang lengths and spins them into the returning surf. His female companion kneels and photographs the empty beach and him. The heated wind and jade green breakers hurl at the baked shore and row of scarified wooden bungalows, coating a fine sea fret onto the couple’s sun-reddened faces. Their voices are snatched away by the sibilant forces, up with the seabirds that hang in the air like kites.

‘Look at the camera!’ she yells.

‘Can you believe this place?’ he walks backwards for her, arms outstretched against the wind.

She frames him against the monochrome colours of sand and surf, his red t-shirt the only vibrancy against the pearl sky. In the middle distance, great black boulders lumber into the water, rollers breaking over them, exploding plumes of suds high over their bovine shoulders.

Up close to one of giant rocks, he wades into the surf, his bush-hat pulled down low over his eyes against the sun’s last clang of the day. She packs her camera back into a shoulder bag and feels its strap scald the sunburn on her back and across her breasts. She’d been walking topless in the heat of the day. She’d never bared herself in that way before. Other men she’d paired with would have passed juvenile comment, or groped her. If there had been any other trekkers she wouldn’t have done it, but they hadn’t seen another soul, mile after melting mile. He’d stopped and peeled off his sweat soaked t-shirt, then turned his back to her and pissed. In the time it took him to finish she’d taken off her shirt and bra and pressed them into the top of her rucksack. When he’d turned back round he seemed not to notice. Sharp words on her tongue, dissolved.

‘Come see this.’ He calls to her from the boulder now encircled by seawater.

She takes small steps through the cold swell that drags over her legs, to where he stands leaning with both hands on the wall of rock.

‘Look at the size of these.’

The rock bristles with thousands of mussels, plump as beef steaks, glittering black through graffiti of barnacles.

‘Supper tonight. I need to wade out deeper.’ He strips off, throwing his shorts and underpants to her; laughs when she screws up her nose. For a bag, he ties a knot in the bottom of his t-shirt.

She reaches again for her camera. Through the lens she watches his penis rise and fall on the lumpen sea; his buttocks appear and disappear under the waves as he reaches for the fattest shells.

When the sun was high they’d arrived at a stream that crossed the forest track, cascading steeply into a series of pools, one of them deep enough to bathe in. They’d unloaded their rucksacks and taken handfuls of the iced water to drink, then rubbed it over their faces and mosquito bitten arms and legs. He’d sat on a boulder, taken off his boots and socks then dangled in his bare feet. She’d done the same.

‘Oh fuck it.’ He’d stripped naked and dived in.

There hadn’t been any intimacy since they’d joined up two days ago. They’d shared food, a tent, but that’s all.

‘Are you coming in? It’s heaven.’

She’d slipped off her shorts but not her knickers and walked into the water. She held his eye as she stepped deeper in, until the pool wetted between her legs, then she flattened out and dived under. The snowmelt cold stung her skin and took away her breath. She’d swum underwater to his legs then stood close to him, putting her hands on his shoulders. He’d kissed her on the lips then fallen backwards, taking her with him. She’d fought against it, the temperature had frozen her co-ordination, her legs felt awkward, she couldn’t find her feet. She’d surfaced, shouted at him to stop, then waded out and pulled on her shorts over soaking thighs. Avoiding his look, she’d found a towel in her rucksack and draped it across her shoulders and breasts.

He had followed her out and dressed, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to piss you off.’

‘I’m a crap swimmer that’s all.’

He wades back to where the sand absorbs the waves’ last ripple and passes her his t-shirt full of mussels. She gives him his shorts in exchange.

On the dirt road that led to the beach they’d passed a clinker built general stores. Still open, they buy wine, tobacco, bread and things he says he needs for the supper.

In light that shines gold onto their faces and into their eyes, they collect driftwood for the stove. The great rocks are back out at sea to catch mussels. Bats lift like locust from the forest canopy to feed on insect smoke. The green and white marbled waves peter out in sweeping flows that smooth away their footprints and kiss their toes. The sun cracks into the hot pan of sea, the yolk breaks and runs. Albumen stars spit constellations onto indigo.

The single room hostel has a handful of wooden bunks lined along the clapboard walls. A couple of worn sofas, a stone sink, a cupboard and a wood-burning stove make up the remaining furniture and fittings.

He poaches the molluscs in wine and cream. She lights candles, breaks bread and finds bowls and beakers in the cupboard with small drifts of sand behind the cracks in the doors. The sea cascades into the night-filled room and raises its driftwood. The fastened shells open and reveal their succulent hearts.

Steven John lives in The Cotswolds, Gloucestershire and writes short fiction and poetry and has had work published in various pamphlets and on short fiction websites. He has read from his work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, The Bard of Hawkwood and The Flashers Club. Twitter @StevenJohnWrite.