I take the apple. “Thank you,” I say and trot away.
He shouts, “Cheerio!’
The man has tumbled my walk from its natural path and now I have to continue on into the marram grass and pretend that I don’t mind. Soon I am tripping over the things the sea has belched up: barrels, lager cans, a wooden pallet. I stop walking and pull wind into my lungs then let it out. Ducks in chevron flight skim over my head and I watch them until they disappear. I veer down towards the beach where oystercatchers poke about.
In the ladies’ bathing shelter, I sit and look at the apple. I feel like tossing it away whole but instead I polish it with the hem of Luke’s coat and bite into it. The skin is bitter so I eat the flesh and spit the peels on to the ground. Luke’s voice floats into my head: “Spitting women and crowing hens will surely come to some bad ends.”
He always said that and I always answered, “It’s whistling women not spitting women.” Luke would shrug and we’d both smile.
I cannot even put a name on the feeling of missing Luke – it’s too raw, too wide. All I know is that I am in a waiting room and the world has receded. My heart opens and closes like a mouth that wants to speak but can’t form the words. The days carry forward in regular ways – I ink people, I eat, I watch TV documentaries – but I push myself through weeks with a strength that seems to belong to somebody else. Mourning is hard work, it is long work; every 24 hours is a new lesson in learning the proper way to grieve. It’s as though I am swimming through seaweed and just as the water begins to clear I whack into the hull of a boat.
I throw the apple butt on to the beach and the oystercatchers scatter then regroup. The rocks below the shelter are decorated with doughnuts of amber lichen; they bring colour to the grey. Between the rocks, shell caches lie in sandpits – mussels and winkles, empty of meat. I heave myself up and exit the bathing shelter. The man is still at Luke’s bench but now he is standing. I take a wide arc to avoid him. He will think I’m rude but, sure, let him off.
“Ahoy!” he shouts, waving his arms like a man signalling from the deck of a ship.
“Jesus Christ,” I mutter, throwing my eyes up in apology to Stella Maris who watches over the harbour from her plinth.
“Missus,” the man shouts, “wait!” He putters up beside me. “I’ll walk with you.”
“I prefer to keep my own pace.”
“Not at all,” he says. “You have ‘lonely’ bobbing like a balloon over your head.”
He comes with me, his plastic bag rustling at his side, all the way down Walk and Run Avenue to my door. We don’t speak and I feel foolish and annoyed; foolish for being irritated – what harm is he doing? – but annoyed with him too for disrupting my morning.
“Now,” I say, “I’m home.” I fish my key from the coat’s deep pocket.
“ ‘Squidinky’,” he says, craning to look at the shop sign. “Well, if that doesn’t beat all.” He sticks out his hand and I take it; he closes his other hand over mine and I see his knuckles are dotted with ink. “Have a lovely day now, missus. Be good to yourself.”
Once in the quiet of my hallway I am pleased as a peashooter to be alone again. I unpeel myself from Luke’s coat and pop it on to its hook. It hangs like a collapsed cross and I twist it to press my face into the lining, searching for a whiff of him, the smallest scent. There is nothing there.
Luke would disapprove of all the time I spend alone now. It was he who kept up the friendships while I looked after the business. And because he was the one who rang people and greeted and mollycoddled them, after he was gone, I was forgotten. Our friends were his friends, it turned out.
IN THE MORNINGO Sole Mio drifts into my half-sleep. I think it is the ice-cream van come a season early but it’s someone whistling. The whistler trills the rising notes of the tune and drags them out; the sound is sweet wafting up to my bedroom. The words sing themselves in my head: Che bella cosa na jurnata ’e sole. What a beautiful thing is a sunny day!
I peep out the window and see the man from Luke’s bench standing outside. Gulls lunge around him, their cacophony hardly keeping up with their bawling beaks. The man whistles louder to drown them out, then throws his arms up in surrender. He laughs.
When I open the door to the parlour he is still outside.
“Hungry,” the man says, and I’m not sure if he is referring to himself or the gulls.