by Billy Cowan

The walk to the nudist part is an endurance test for Jane, especially if it’s hot, and today is hot; more Greek island hot than North Wales beach. For Dougie, who is striding ahead as always with the rolled-up windbreaker and tent strapped to his back like weapons, it’s a breeze. Even the heavy cool-box that contains treats for the day—sea-salted crisps, strawberries, water and two bottles of Cava—makes no difference to his pace. Nor does the beach bag in his other hand, which contains sunscreen, crossword puzzles and his first-aid kit in case of an emergency. They’ve been coming to Morfa Dyffryn for ten years now and there hasn’t been an emergency yet, unless you count that day.

‘Come on, love!’ Dougie shouts. ‘Do you want me to take the towels?’

‘Just keep going.’ Jane snaps. ‘I’m fine!’

His enthusiasm irritates her because she knows why he’s so keen and it’s not the sun nor the sea nor the freedom from the office. Nor is it the chance to spend a few uninterrupted hours with her, his wife. But Jane won’t dwell on this. For years, she’s known why Dougie likes to come here and she’s had plenty of chances to demand they go somewhere else. But she doesn’t.

As Dougie marches ahead, Jane notices how straight his back is, how there isn’t an ounce of excess flesh anywhere on his body. She, on the other hand, has put on weight around her middle making her doughy and middle-aged, like one of the matrons they used to make fun of in the Carry On films. Watching Dougie’s hard, thin and youthful body march into the glare of the sun, Jane can’t help but hate him a little.

She struggles to keep up as the sun continues to burn and her bag begins to feel like a gorilla on her shoulders, even though it only contains her new Jodi Picoult, make-up and two beach towels. Beads of sweat drip into her eyes and her lipstick feels wet like ghee floating on the surface of a curry. Her new M&S sun-hat keeps the sun’s rays off her face but it overheats her head, and she thinks about how everything comes at a price.

Eventually she reaches the weather-beaten sign that tells her nudity is permitted beyond this point and she stops for a breather. In the distance, she can see Dougie already setting up the tent. She takes off her hat, looks out to the sea. It could be the Mediterranean, Dougie said on their first visit all those years ago, and he was right, except the sea is always so far out here. If it were closer, Jane thinks, she’d run and jump in head first. But it’s not and she doesn’t. Instead she dries her face with the towel, reapplies her lipstick and starts back along the beach.

When she reaches Dougie, the tent and the windbreaker are set up, and he’s standing naked facing the sea, rubbing sunscreen into his almost hairless thighs. His penis, slightly inflated like a plump pork sausage, trampolines up and down on his bulbous scrotum in time with the rubbing motion, and Jane thinks it looks ridiculous.

‘Make sure you put enough cream on,’ he instructs her. ‘It’s a scorcher.’

Jane strips off, and even now, after all these years, surprises herself with how easy it is. So different from the first few visits when she refused to take her bikini bottoms off; not out of middle-class prudishness, as Dougie would tease, but out of respect for the sacredness of their marriage. Her body was for Dougie and Dougie alone, and although she knew men couldn’t possess her by looking, she still didn’t want others to see.

It was the disappointment etched on Dougie’s face that finally made her relent. Naturism was an essential part of who he was and she could tell her reluctance hurt him a little. So, she learned to be naked, to be comfortable with her nakedness, and even to enjoy it. Dougie was pleased. That first time he was more than pleased and Jane remembers their love making in the tent while the seagulls squawked outside and the gentle breeze made ripples on the nylon cocoon.

That was then. Now her nudity is taken for granted. It’s become ordinary, as commonplace as brushing her hair, and she feels Dougie doesn’t notice anymore. Instead, he applies his sunscreen and lies down on his towel to do the crossword puzzle while she lies down to read Jodi Picoult and distracts herself in a fictional life.

It doesn’t take long before Dougie is gently snoring. His nostrils flare and contract like a rabbit’s and Jane has an urge to smack him with her book, to jolt him from his peaceful slumber…just like she was jolted on that day. But she doesn’t. Instead she returns to the words on the page and waits for Dougie to wake.

When he does, he pops open the Cava and they picnic while looking out at the glimmering sea.

‘This is living,’ he says, as he always says, and they clink the plastic cups together. ‘We couldn’t ask for more, could we love?’ Dougie smiles and looks into Jane’s eyes. She turns away. A young couple walk by, hand in hand, with a little Jack Russell doing figures of eight around their feet. They have been lucky, Jane thinks, but everything comes at a price.

She lies down to continue her book waiting for his fidgeting to start. At first, he plays with some pebbles, building little unsteady towers of various heights until there is a miniature city surrounding his feet. Next, he gets up and draws geometric shapes in the sand with a stick. Eventually he stops and looks out to sea and Jane knows what’s coming.

‘I’m just off for a little dander.’

He puts on his sunglasses and canvas hat and strides off along the beach. She doesn’t try to stop him although part of her wants to throw herself at his feet and trail him back. Maybe this time when he returns, she’ll calmly tell him she’s leaving. She’ll get dressed and demand he drive her back home immediately where she’ll pack her bags and leave without looking back. And he’ll be heartbroken. And Jane will be glad.

Or maybe this time, she’ll follow him, like she did that very first time, and when she finds him on his knees in front of another naked man, she’ll scream until her lungs burst and she drops down dead right in the baking sun in the golden hot sand while her husband gratifies another man.

But Jane knows she won’t.

Instead, she’ll lie here remembering how she ran and stumbled, ran and stumbled down the conveyer-belt sand dunes back to their tent; where she became paralysed, unable to leave, to move, to think, to plan a response but just sat there losing time until he returned, and then, somehow, by some miracle, acted like nothing was wrong, and got through the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the month without doing or saying anything.

And then she’ll start to think about how attentive and loving he became after that day on the beach, and how much more sexually active he becomes immediately after their trips to Morfa, pleasuring her, sometimes twice in a day, which he’d stopped doing after the first few years of their marriage.

She’ll then start to think about her jealousy and how ridiculous it is that she lets it get to her every time they come here, every time he says, I’m just off for a little dander. And then she’ll think about how it doesn’t matter, how there’s a price to pay for everything and this is her price and it’s not such a big price to pay really, for a man who has never hit her like her father hit her mother, who continues to make love to her even after all these years, who gives her everything she could possibly need. And then she’ll start to think about how the image of him taking another man in his mouth began to fuel her own fantasies; how it awakened in her something that, at first, she found troubling, but now finds exciting. And then Jane will start to relax because she knows how the day will end, how it always ends.

So, she lies back down with her book and reads, allowing herself to again become lost in the plot of someone else’s life.

She’s asleep when he returns.

When she wakes he’s lying beside her, his hand enveloping hers. He squeezes it and smiles.

‘I’m back,’ he says.

Yes, he’s back. And before they leave the beach that day, he’ll take Jane into the tent and make love to her while the seagulls squawk outside, and the gentle breeze makes ripples on the nylon cocoon.

Billy Cowan is an award-winning playwright and senior lecturer in creative writing at Edge Hill University. His plays have been performed all over the UK. His short fiction has appeared in Flash: The International Journal of Short fiction; Flash Nonfiction Funny; The Real Story and he has just been long-listed in the Spring 2019 Reflex Fiction competition.