Shore Leave

The wind was bitingly cold. It always was here at the beach where even the fairest of summer days inland could find the seafront smothered in a cold, damp haar that clung to your face and hair. Waves rushed the sand like kids out the school gates at half-past-three and foolhardy owners, wrapped up as for a polar expedition, coaxed their dogs along the shoreline. Some brave animals chased taunting gulls into the freezing water as sailors before them had pursued the sirens of myth before being lured to a watery death. The dogs were more sensible than the old tars, however, and gave up when out of their depth.
In the air the familiar salty-sewage smell from my youth was losing the fight against the fast food aromas wafting over from the line of concession stalls that lined the seafront. Gulls screeched as they circled the bins in search of lunchtime’s leftovers and an electronic din sporadically oozed from the swinging funfair doors.
I walked along the Beach Boulevard, hands rooted deep into my pockets and looked out to sea. Tankers and supply ships slowly crossed the horizon, sailing to and fro between the port and the rigs far out in the North Sea. Mike was out there, doing whatever it was that drilling engineers did for a living. He never volunteered any details during his four weeks at home and there were always more pressing topics for me to initiate a conversation in: the kids, the car, bills, holidays.
For the first week Mike was home, conversation wasn’t high on our list of priorities. With the kids in bed and the TV off, we’d head upstairs where we’d seek the old familiarity of our bodies, searching for what we’d been missing during the previous month. Our lovemaking would be hurried at first, grasping and desperate like starving men at a banquet. Slowly, we’d relax and take our fill of each other in an easy manner with no stress, no expectations, luxuriating in the knowledge that we had time to spare.
All too soon we would fall back into the routine of married life: I’d take the kids to school, Mike would pick them up from football practise. We’d shop, go for a burger, take out the dog, do all the normal things that normal families the world over take for granted. But for us, these weeks were special, a blanket to keep us warm during the long weeks apart.
In the early days we’d be like newly-weds, enjoying a honeymoon period where neither of us could do any wrong. Then all the old frustrations would begin to seep back in.
I’d resent picking up Mike’s trousers from the floor, he’d complain about having to tell me when he’d be back from the pub; I’d miss watching the soaps on TV, Mike would miss…. What did Mike miss, I wondered? The company of men? The food laid on with no nagging to do the dishes? The knowledge that all that was expected of him was to do his job and sleep?
“Do you miss me when you’re on the rigs?” I’d ask.
“Of course I do,” he’d reply.
“What do you miss most?”
“You know, just… you.”
“Do you miss sex?”
“Well, what kind of question is that for a wife to ask her husband?”
“You tell me.”
“If I say no, that what we do when I’m home is enough, you’ll get the hump. If I say yes, you’ll wonder if what we do when we’re together is enough to satisfy me. I can’t win, whatever I say.”
“Why do you feel you have to win?” I’d ask and Mike would just swear under his breath and walk away.

The last week at home was an especially tough one for us all. Our sons would start to play up to get as much of Mike’s attention as they could before he left again. I played the role of the bad cop and dealt with the strops as best I could. I’d try to give Mike everything he wanted for the last few days: his favourite meals; footie on the TV; nights at the pub with his on-shore buddies; me…
Whatever I gave, it never seemed to be enough and by the time his shore leave was over we were both glad to get back to our single lives.
I walked down onto the beach and headed towards the breakwater, crunching through seaweed and sea-polished pebbles. The salt water had pitted the old wood and the uprights wore seaweed toupees, the strands waving in the quickening wind. Dogs barked at gulls, owners shouted at dogs and in my pocket I fingered the small yellow post-it note I had found in Mike’s trousers pocket when I picked them up from the bedroom floor.
“I’ll miss you, call me. Rebecca x x x”
Mike, it seemed, wasn’t living the single life on the rig. I wondered how it was for them when he went back to the rig after leaving me. Did they rush together, exploring each other as hungrily as we did? Did she know his body as well as I did, each muscle and blemish, perfection and flaw? Did she know about the kids and me? Was she beside him at the dinner table? The TV? His bed?
The tide was coming in and crashed noisily on the beach before stretching its watery fingers up towards the high-tide mark and slinking back, momentarily failing to reach its goal. I took the note out my jacket pocket and reread the words. Each one cut like a cat-o-nine-tails lashed against my back. I walked down to the water‘s edge and looked out to sea where a supply ship crossed the horizon, loaded with the steak and juice and ice cream Mike and Rebecca would be enjoying during their time off shore. I couldn’t feel the thin, yellow paper through the rough wool of my gloves and I wondered what it would take to stop my broken heart from feeling the betrayal in her words.
I held the post-it up to the wind and opened my fingers. The note was snatched from my hand danced through the cold air as it soared out to sea with the salt spray and the call of the sirens.
Back up on the Boulevard, burgers were flipped, fish fried, jackpots won and lost and families on shore leave were getting on with their lives.
I turned my back on the sea and walked up to join them.

©Nettie Thomson 2009

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