Pearce soon came to realise sleeping on the beach was not as romantic as it seemed, especially when a chill breeze swept in off the sea. The moon above remained bright, piercing the unshielded eye. There was the roar of waves to contend with; the whipping wind that sent a spiral of sand into his face and the ever-present danger of discovery or robbery. A young man out at night presents a tempting target for those aiming to do harm. Not that Pearce encountered any; he was simply paranoid about the possibilities.
For the most part Pearce slept upright, with hands clenched around his knees. A beady eye keeping pace with the changing light. He fell into a light sleep before dawn, jerking awake as the first of several dog walkers entered his stretch of beach.
His presence was inspected warily; first by the dog and then by the human, but he was never challenged. Perhaps he was one of many beach sleepers and was yet to encounter others of his kind.
The beach was a destination, to which Pearce had travelled on a whim, stepping down from the bus at the first sign of an ocean. He had little idea where he was, or why. He was where he was, because…
During the day he wandered, ever hopeful of linking up with like-minded spirits. He eked out the little money he possessed, eating once a day and spent time watching others make use of the beach or by bathing in the sun. He kept clean washing in the sea and tried to catch up on his sleep when it felt safe to do so.
Why he was there was never an issue, and if he felt lonely or isolated he never let it show. But quietly his heart ached for company, and he would have enjoyed a conversation if he’d felt comfortable about approaching others using the beach.
One night, wandering away from his usual haunts, Pearce discovered what he had been seeking. A group of people gathered around a large bonfire. They looked a little like him, but acted friendly as he asked to join the group. Pearce settled in, handed a beer for which no one wanted payment and then passed a joint.
One man, who Pearce learned was called Nathan, appeared to be group leader, laughing boisterously as he strummed a guitar and sang. He had a good voice, and his songs proved perfect company for a night beneath the stars.
A small group of girls gathered around Nathan, each vying for his attention, and from time to time he’d bestow a kiss or stroke a face.
Pearce envied him the attention, feeling certain none of the girls would look at him twice. All he asked was for a little pleasant company and a meaningful conversation.
Pearce discovered some of the group had seasonal jobs in the nearby town while others were drifters, or housed locally on benefits. He told those who asked he was just travelling through, and no one wanted to interrogate him. For that he felt grateful, able to observe the antics from a safe distance as he steadily grew drunk as the night wore on.
He woke as if from a death trance, coming to as the nearby sea broke upon rocks. Around him on the ground those remaining from the night before lay around the dying fire.
Pearce stretched his body. Dawn had broken over the horizon; he felt cold and oddly empty despite the company, feeling even more aware of the missing elements in his life.
He moved into the rocks to urinate, noticing a set of recent footprints leading away towards the dunes. Pearce followed, sure he was on a fool’s errand, surprised to discover the body of girl curled on the ground. He approached cautiously attempting to make sure she was okay, but she sat up sharply as he came close.
“What is it?” Her face was closed from exhaustion. “Leave me alone.”
Pearce maintained his distance, examining her. She was young, but so too was he and he felt certain something was wrong with her.
“I’m Pearce,” he announced, “I just wanted to check you were alright.”
“It depends on your definition.” The girl responded through a yawn.
Pearce had never been good with girls. They were often impatient because of his shyness.
He met her gaze. The eyes presented were hollow. She looked cold.
“Can I sit down?” Pearce asked.
“Do you have a cigarette?” She responded sharply.
He shook his head.
The girl’s jeans were soiled by wet sand; she was barefoot and windblown. He thought of any number of commercials he’d viewed, but usually the girl was smiling. This one didn’t want to smile.
Pearce turned his attention to the sea, watching as the surf curled on top of the waves. He never tired of observing the movement of water, but turned back as the silence took hold.
“What’s your name?”
“Pearce.” He said again, tapping his chest in case she’d forgotten. “Has something upset you?”
She scrutinized him intently. “Someone, you mean.”
She was determined to be awkward. Perhaps it was him. His insecurity around women was clear to see, and she remained prickly.
“Did I see you around the fire last night?”
“Were you looking?”
Pearce returned his gaze towards the sea, wondering what he might do instead of pursuing this pointless conversation. These people, whoever they were, remained strangers to him. Why did he need to get involved? He was better off by himself. They wanted no part of him; this girl was evidence of that, but then he knew he’d been lonely and was grateful for company.
He caught her staring.
“I’ve no money…” she said, speaking bluntly. “To buy anything, or…”
“Where are your shoes?” Pearce asked.
“Over there, I think.” She responded, pointing lamely towards the bodies sprawled around the smoking bonfire.
Pearce got to his feet. “I’ve little money myself. Do you want to get a coffee?”
They found a café which was just opening, consuming buttered toast in silence. Anthea swallowed copious amounts of coffee.
“It’ll spark you into life.” Pearce remarked casually.
She regarded him bleakly, wiping butter from her lips.
“Do we do a runner?” She asked surreptitiously after bumming a cigarette from a man nearby.
Pearce shook his head, paying at the counter before heading outside. He didn’t know what to do with her now the social niceties were done, hoping she’d wander away.
“I’m going this way.” He smiled, attempting to dislodge her. “Perhaps I’ll see you around.”
She kept pace as he walked back onto the beach, intending to head towards a place where he sometimes relaxed during the daytime.
“Is anyone looking out for you Anthea?” He asked.
“You mean, do I have a man?”
She sank down to remove shoes before emptying grit.
“No.” She said eventually. “Nobody cares where I am, or with whom, or what I get up to.”
She faced him with a sullen frown. “Is anyone looking out for you?”
“No.” He answered. “No one.”
He felt old enough to take care of himself, but someone in the family might take him back if he decided to return. It was something for another day. This girl presented an altogether different problem.
They found a place in the dunes, settling down to stare at the sky.
“You don’t say very much.” She remarked quietly.
“I’m generally not very talkative.” He answered, pondering the question. “I can speak, if you want me to.”
She gave no answer, as Pearce took his cue to begin talking about what he had been doing since arriving on the beach. He tried to give it a humorous spin, glancing at her after a time to discover she had fallen asleep.
Pearce sat upright, the coffee working its magic on his bladder. When he returned she’d disappeared and he didn’t look for her. “Problem solved.” He thought, settling down to try to catch up on his sleep.
She was there again when he opened his eyes.
“Where did you go?”
She said nothing, smoking a cigarette from a brand new pack.
“Where did you get them?”
“I do tricks.” She grinned, opening her hand to reveal a crumpled twenty.
Pearce felt shocked, but shouldn’t have been.
She blew smoke rings above her head. “Want a freebie?”
That evening as it grew dark she escorted him back to the bonfire on the beach. The same group of people were present as before, but the atmosphere had changed, and Pearce couldn’t say why. Nathan performed his routine on guitar, while Anthea sat with other girls at the feet of the master, leaving Pearce to observe at a distance as before.
Pearce felt confused by Anthea. He liked her, but also disliked her. She probably would have said something similar about him.
It didn’t bother Pearce as he drank, taking a toke on the joints passing around and became suitably hazy.
Nothing was real. None of it. This freedom vibe. It was all unreal, and he felt convinced to move on. There had to be better people and a different scene happening elsewhere.
Pearce sank into himself, lifting his head only occasionally to witness the antics around Nathan. He had decided not to like Nathan after all. The man was a poseur, and he for one refused to pay court.
Pearce woke abruptly, sitting up sharply as he became aware a scuffle had broken out between Nathan and another man. The two were circling each other like primitives, throwing punches and kicking out to gain advantage.
Pearce had no idea what had happened. Anthea was in the mix of girls attempting to separate the sparring men, but Pearce felt little need to act himself.
When the man attacking Nathan produced a knife it quickly became deadly serious. Pearce stood unsteadily, ready for flight or fight. The two men locked horns illuminated by firelight, kicking up sand as they struggled.
The dust made the fire smoke badly and what with the wind soon both became lost to view. Others rushed to separate the men, and then the screaming began.
Panic set in as people flew in all directions.
Pearce hovered over the bloody body of Nathan too shocked to move. Anthea knelt at his side clutching a hand.
“Ain’t this dumb.” She sighed before collapsing across the body.
Pearce lifted her, aware of the need to get away. There was no one else around. The beach completely deserted.
“Come on, we’ve got to leave. The police will put the blame on anyone they find. Come on.”
Anthea became hysterical. “No.”
Pearce dragged her forcefully, but she fought all the way along the beach. Eventually, exhausted, he dropped her on the sand.
“Who was that man, fighting Nathan?”
She was slow to respond. “Joseph. I don’t know what it was about.”
Pearce stared down at the quivering bundle. “Don’t lie to me. Kill a man over what? It wasn’t nothing…”
“I never said it was.”
Pearce felt his limbs lock up as he realised shock was working its way through his body. He wanted to be angry with her, but more importantly he needed desperately to put as much space as he could between them and the dead man.
Anthea didn’t help; she felt like a weight holding him down. What was her part? And those others who’d fled like scalded cats. He cursed the fact he knew nothing.
What a fool he was, for getting mixed up with this bunch of no-hopers.
She clung to his arm, drooping as she succumbed to tears again. He flung her from him.
“This is stupid. Do you want to get caught? What was he to you?”
Her face remained lost in darkness, her voice small. “He was a good friend. We gave him money to keep us safe. We…”
Pearce felt disgust well up into his throat. “You whored, for him?”
“No, not for him.” He felt her gaze fix itself upon his face. “It wasn’t like that.” She started weeping again, and Pearce lost interest.
Back along the beach he could make out the light from the bonfire. Anthea was staring too; he knew she’d go back if he allowed it. She’d be caught, and maybe pay the penalty. Despite everything, he didn’t want that. He hardly knew a thing about her. Maybe the fight had been her fault, and she’d get him implicated for being involved with her?
She was still shaking as they left the beach, heading towards the bus station where Pearce hoped to board a late night bus to take them out of the area. Beyond that he had no plan, feeling certain he would dump her when he could.
She surprised him however. “You can leave me here. I’ll be alright,” she insisted.
It was exactly what he needed to hear, and he almost let go her arm before a police car cruised into view, its occupants staring hard. He’d seen that look before; weathering the storm.
Pearce smiled and waved. The police car picked up speed, siren wailing as it headed into town.
“They’re not looking for us.” Anthea remarked as they walked on. “Leave me here. I’ll go down the line.” She paused. “Got any money? A loan.”
He chuckled. “That’s a laugh. Never see you again. Besides, no trains out of here until morning.”
She sighed. “No matter. The pubs are emptying soon. I can get what I need.”
Anthea walked away. No thanks and no goodbyes. For the best, probably. Pearce watched as she headed towards half lit streets, her pale skin turning a sickly shade of grey beneath the street lamps.
Pearce felt cold prickle along his skin, heading into the bus station where there was a waiting room. Shock still percolated beneath the surface calm as he took a seat, waiting with a few others in the room.
Once again, life became unreal. It had turned bizarre, and not in a good way. He needed to locate an exit to take him back into a regular routine.
“Are you OK?”
Two middle-aged women were staring. Had he said something out loud to draw their attention?
He grinned. “No, not really. But thanks for asking.”
Pearce settled back, scanning posters lining the walls. He didn’t want the things they advertised. That old life was gone; he was awakening from the chrysalis to discover his true self.
Pearce grinned; it was romantic nonsense to assume he could become different to the person he already was.
The bus was crowded with late night revellers. Some were noisy, boisterous with drink. Others sat, like him, sullen and withdrawn. Reaching the outskirts of town was a welcome relief, but that same relief soon turned to consternation as Joseph and a female companion swung aboard.
Pearce recognized them at once and glanced out the window.
Joseph sat nearby; his body language relaxed as he chatted with the girl, although his head swivelled constantly from side to side whenever anyone got up out of their seat.
Pearce watched his reflection in the glass, maintaining the hope Joseph would get off the bus before him.
No such luck; soon the three of them were the only passengers remaining as they headed towards the terminus.
“I know you.” Joseph remarked, breaking the silence.
“I don’t think so.” Pearce answered quietly.
Joseph was staring. Pearce stood to get off as quickly as he could.
Joseph confronted him. “Yes I do. I know you. You were on the beach. You saw didn’t you?”
Pearce didn’t know what to say. The bus came to a halt, but the two of them stood there riveted to the floor, with the girl watching through frightened eyes.
“Everyone off.” The bus driver called.
Joseph grinned as grabbed the girl’s wrist before exiting the bus. Pearce remained less hasty to get off, meeting the outside air with a shiver of dread.
The sea nearby was clashing violently with a wooden structure he could barely make out in the darkness. Pearce tasted a salty tang on the breeze. This resort was nothing like the beach he’d departed from. This resort was closed up and silent for the most part, as an impenetrable darkness threw a cover over what might have appeared quite ordinary during daytime. Now a sullen menace hung in the air.
Pearce swung the pack onto his back. He no longer knew what to do. He didn’t feel in control. As he walked the short distance along the pavement all he heard was the sound his trainers before reaching the sand and shingle beach. It crunched as he stepped onto it.
Pearce remained there a long time, unable to decide on a course of action. Everything had become unreal again. His life made no sense. And who would miss him if he disappeared for good.
One single light burned in the darkness. He stared at it for a long time before it too faded from view, turning away to look behind.
There was nothing. Nothing at all. He had come this far and it felt like the end of the road.