The beach is my haven, where I can go to remember. I go when my home becomes too full of melancholy memories. Usually they build up slowly, but today the thoughts are unrelenting. Because they’re the impossible ones. The if-only’s, continually questioning me.
I stare at the rectangular box in my hand, the engagement photo of Diana and Charles faded almost completely on the lid. It’s our old flimsy biscuit tin; seemingly light to others, but for me it’s weighted down, as heavy as a rock and filled full of love. I feel the tears welling in my eyes. Patting the lid, I take a deep breath of the salty air and look out to the grey, crashing waves. ‘We’re here, my love. We’re here at our beach.’
A beach is timeless. Things around it can change, but the smell of the salt; the sound of the seagulls screeching; the feeling of the sea spray on your face will always be constant. Here, I’m not seventy-five anymore but eighteen; the year, 1948. I remember that night I met Donald so vividly, I could almost trick myself into being eighteen again. I wish I was, just to see him again, to hold him again.
I turn to see the dilapidated amusement arcade, once the vibrant dance hall where we first met. I remember I was disgusted by the incessant jazz music which filled my ears the moment I opened the door; the smell of cigarette smoke, and the synchronised swirling of ladies skirts as they whirled, assaulted my senses. Girls were linked arm in arm like comrades advancing in the late war, but were armed with alluring glances instead of guns. I took a seat on the perimeter, trying to block out the music and stop it from giving me a headache.
In between the dancing couples, a man caught my eye on the opposite side of the floor. He was engrossed in a small brown book; his eyes flicking up sporadically to survey the room, a cigarette limp, almost forgotten, between his lips. He was about my age; handsome, with brown hair and green eyes, impeccably dressed in a navy pinstripe suit.
We locked eyes for a moment longer than necessary and he smiled subtly, nodding his head ever so slightly. I returned the smile, feeling butterflies flutter in my stomach, which heightened as he closed his book, rose slowly, and began to cross the dance floor towards me.
‘Not dancing, then?’ he inquired, taking a seat beside me.
I smiled awkwardly. ‘Not much of a dancer, I’m afraid.’
He gave me a wink. ‘Well, that makes two of us.’ Thrusting his hand out to me, he said, ‘Donald Jackson; how do you do?’
I shook it, my grip considerably firmer than his. Father had told me that you could tell an awful lot about a man from his handshake. But his was soft. ‘Richard Walker,’ I replied.
‘Do you come here often?’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘I hate these types of events. They’re too loud – I’d much rather be at home.’
He looked amused. ‘Doing what?’ He smiled curiously, as though trying to figure me out, and I felt myself return the smile rather awkwardly, taken by the suave sophistication which seemed to permeate around him, like the smell of his intoxicating aftershave.
Bashfully, I admitted, ‘Writing. My mother wanted me to come.’
Donald suddenly seemed inquisitive, alert with interest rather than merely polite. ‘You’re an author?’
‘No, poet – well, I try to be. I hope to read English next year at University.’
Suddenly something caught Donald’s eye, and an emotion not yet recognisable to me flashed across his face, something I was not yet privy to the meaning of, only knowing him for such a short period. ‘You see that man over there?’ I leant closer to him to see whom he was nodding towards, and a thrill of adrenalin pulsed through me like Morse code, sending a telegram to my brain which explained the reason my heart was beating quicker.
‘Yes,’ I said, following his gaze to a man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, dressed in a rather fetching suit and dancing with a pretty blonde girl around the same age.
‘He was my art teacher at school. And he shouldn’t be dancing with her.’ Donald didn’t look at me when he spoke, his face expressionless except only his eyes which moved in time to the twirling couple, like a young child watching a ballerina on a music box.
‘Don’t you feel – as a creative yourself – that a male writer or artist is more likely to be… friendlier to each other than the average man? At least that was the case with him.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said after a pause. But I knew exactly what he meant, and I could tell that the blush on my face gave me away to him.
He leant closer and I could smell his aftershave again. ‘Let’s get out of here. What do you say?’
I nodded, a smile growing on my lips.
We exited the music hall, and I felt relief flood over me as the jazz evaporated into the cry of gulls. We walked down the promenade and then to the beach, an almost unnatural distance apart, uncertainty stalking our every step. We chatted hesitantly – he was nineteen, home for the summer from studying accountancy at university. ‘Although, do understand that numbers are not my passion, Richard.’
‘What I really want to do is become an artist, yet my father wants me to go into the family business.’ He sighed, evidently frustrated.
‘Is that what you were doing back there? Sketching people?’ Donald nodded, and I was suddenly curious. ‘May I see?’
He produced from his pocket the small, battered, leather sketchbook, and I thumbed through an array of unknown faces and landscapes. Turning to the latest drawings, I observed pencil sketches of dancing couples, and marvelled at how Donald had captured the twirl of a skirt or movements of the dance so eloquently.
I saw a study of his previous art teacher – his dance partner not in sight – but the pencil’s marks were less hurried in comparison to the others, and he was drawn with such care and gentility that I soon understood that his feelings towards him were something more than just fleeting.
Then, to my surprise, I saw myself, sketched incredibly well; the same level of detail and care applied to my portrait. I couldn’t decipher whether it was for the same reason, or if it was because I was merely sitting still. The caption underneath read: Man At a Music Hall, July 1948.
Although flattered, I felt a pang of sadness tinged with injustice as I remembered what Donald had just told me.
‘So… you’re restricted from doing what you wish in all respects,’ I said.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, your father doesn’t allow you to peruse your artistic desire, and society restricts you from… having a… friendship with the person you most desire.’
‘It’s 1948, Richard; we’ve just had another world war which we’ve won again for God’s sake – things will definitely change for people like us soon!’ By his zealous tone, he clearly hoped for it just as much as I.
‘Except your art teacher…’ I didn’t quite know what phrasing to use.
He shook his head as I spoke. ‘There’s no point; with him it would never work.’
I looked around to find that we were the only ones on the beach within the general vicinity, the people strolling on the promenade distant and silhouetted against the moon. The crashing of the waves engulfed me; calming juxtaposed against the crass jazz music, and when I looked at Donald I found him smiling at me, causing butterflies to escape the net they were carefully restrained in. We looked at each other for a moment, and I sensed an urge which I had wanted to do since I saw him. Yet I observed a couple strolling behind Donald, arm in arm, and instead I shook his hand. He nodded silently with a smile, yet I still felt adrenalin surge through me as if I had kissed him.
That night a close friendship began. It was so frustrating having to hide our affections towards each other, and I couldn’t understand why the government criminalised the love of two people. The lengthy correspondences between us, the drawings and poems we shared, and later our home together as two friends to the outside world, were our sanctuaries from persecution.
And we were happy. Until the fifth of December 2004, when Donald died of lung cancer from smoking unremittingly. He knew it was coming, as did I, yet it didn’t make the parting any more bearable.
He wanted his ashes to be spread when I felt ready; today seems fitting considering it is significant, not only for me but for the world. Headlining the news: the fifth of December 2005: the legalisation of civil partnerships.
Donald had always said things will change, and now they have. Although too late for us, today is the day that I can say Donald was my partner, without judgement or secrecy. Taking off the biscuit tin’s lid, I hurl his ashes into the sea. ‘Goodbye, my dear partner. You were right. I love you.’