Before I get you too confused, I’d better tell you more about Edna. She was sitting on one of those many back-support bench-type seating-arrangements of ribbed solid plank-wood that are plentiful along the promenade looking out to sea. Not that the bench itself looks out to sea, but the people sitting on them. The protruding pier just off to the right.
A middle-aged woman (with no name at that stage). Too young for me, and I didn’t really think it appropriate for me to engage her in talking so I prepared to walk on. But then I heard a helicopter off to the left – outlandish clattering growing louder and louder – presumably the air ambulance or a coastguard patrol. It was so low I feared it was going to ditch, but it eventually clattered off towards Jaywick, with no obvious reason for its manoeuvres in hindsight. I looked back to the bench and Edna had vanished, presumably lost forever in the ocean of strangers with which the world is mainly populated. Some of that ocean is close by in your own neighbourhood, the rest in far reaches of the world you will never ... reach. A literally man-made ocean with its own inexplicable, often dangerous, tides across cockle-beds or shingle or ribbed beach or sieved granulations or rocky coral.
But in addition to that ocean of strangers there are usually local inlets or lakes or rivers of non-strangers. Friends or lovers. Colleagues or drinking pals. People you know or have met however briefly – even just seen in the distance. Like Edna.
Thinking about her, Edna probably doesn’t count as a real meeting or encounter, because she would have had to look at me, too. Just an exchange of passing glances would have sufficed for it to have been qualified as a proper encounter. But, as far as I was aware, I had looked at Edna, but she had not turned to look at me.
As I continued my walk along the promenade towards the pier, I started musing again about Edna. Suppose she had looked at me while I was preoccupied by the noisy manoeuvres of the helicopter? I can’t imagine that would have been the case as I guess everyone was looking at the helicopter at that stage rather than at each other. But that is only a guess. Edna may have scrutinised me closely, even at some length. The incident with the helicopter, I now recalled, lasted at least a few minutes. Time enough for Edna to get as close as a couple of dancers about to embark on a waltz at the local palais. Skin-pore close.
I shook my head and shrugged. I was getting carried away. The relationship with Edna had begun and ended with my pointless glance of appraisal at a nameless middle-aged woman sitting alone on a bench looking out at sea. There I go again. A bench doesn’t look out at sea. It’s the people sitting on it that look out at sea. Watching the tide come in and out across the rattly shingle. Wondering which tide would be the last one. Which cloud in the sky the last one that you would ever see skimming above? Feeling eyes boring into your back, and not daring to look round.
Shingle isn’t like shifting sands. But my lap rucks oh too easily without even daring to move the bent knees within it. Not daring to move is equivalent to being on the brink of it being impossible to move. To move or turn. Ever upon the quicksand of hesitation. Ever on the benchmark of differentiating trial and error. Ever upon each edge of the end.
The tide faintly sweeps in like some soft machine.