It started on a Saturday. All the best summer stories do, don’t they? They all start on Saturdays.
Well this one started on a bus. I was living in Canterbury at the time, and uni was within walking distance, so I didn’t need a car. Not that I could afford one, anyway. My name’s Kate, by the way, Kate Newton. I was in Canterbury studying for my creative arts degree. And no, by that I do not mean coasting the easy degree and getting high; I wanted to be someone.
So there I was; on a filthy, groaning bus on the way to Brighton. It was the summer holidays, and I’d finished most of my coursework, so I thought I’d spent a day on the beach. Ice tea, reading some Martin-esque high fantasy romp, and the sun on the cresting waves. It was going to be a good day.
A creepy guy in a leather jacket with oiled back hair stared at me the entire way there. It’s a funny thing, memory; I can’t remember anything about him except his greasy, oiled back hair and his leather jacket. I can’t remember if he was short, tall, fat, thin, ugly; I just remember his hair, his jacket, and the awful sensation of maggots squirming through your veins when he stared at you.
The bus went all the way to the pier, where I got off. I walked for a little while and rolled out my towel on a bed of rocks. I distinctly remember the disappointment when I learnt that Brighton was a pebble beach, not a sand one; right up until I lay down. The uneven yet oddly smooth ground below me, the glowing waves crashing onto stone and spraying rainbow mist into the air, and the sweet oblivion that somehow caught me moments after I lay down. I never did start that book.
I woke up to two huge eyes staring down at me, and a warm smile that somehow made me shiver.
‘Hi!’ She yelped, in the gleeful sing-song voice she had. I can’t believe anyone naturally develops such a frustratingly joyful voice; but she did always call me a cynic.
As I woke up she introduced herself as Emma Lewis: bum, busybody, and layabout. I might be paraphrasing. Or projecting. What’s the word?
I was bemused at first; I was expecting her to start selling skin cream, or a religion of dubious providence, but for some reason I didn’t just tell her to bugger off right away, which is what I’d have normally done. After she excitedly introduced herself and gleefully told me all about the day she was having, I got around to asking if she needed anything.
‘No. I’m good.’ She said. I just looked up at her, staring down at me. It’s difficult to glower when you’re leaning on your elbows and you’ve just been woken up by the happiest busybody in the world. ‘Oh. You looked bored, so I thought I’d come and say hi!’
The sheer joy she injected into every word she spoke simultaneously made me feel positive and made me want to kill her.
‘I wasn’t bored. I was sleeping.’ I like to think I was being curt, but I probably just sounded like someone who can’t handle mornings very well.
‘Oh!’ She said, plonking herself down next to me, on my beach towel.
‘So anyway. You know my name, what’s yours?’
‘Oh, like the scientist?’
‘He discovered the sun, right?’ She beamed at me expectantly.
‘Gravity. And still no.’ I muttered; I was just in absolute disbelief at this point.
‘So who are you Kate Newton? What are you about? What do you do?’
‘What am I about? I’m not a book, with some handy dandy blurb you can read to fill yourself in.’
‘Sure you are!’
It took me far longer to respond than I care to admit.
‘Well sure you’re a book! Look at you, there are stories written all over you!’
‘Feel free to explain at some point, here.’
‘How your eyebrows jump a little bit every time I talk, like you want to stop me, or maybe hit me. The way your nose crinkles each time you yawn, like you were just woken up!’
‘I was just woken up.’
‘Right, right! But that’s my point! And don’t even get me started on your dress.’
‘What about my dress?’
‘That red polka pattern, it’s really retro. A shop in Shoreditch probably sells that dress for a few hundred quid. But you didn’t buy that dress; there’s dust stains on the other side of the fabric, where you didn’t expect anyone to see when you were making it.’
‘My granny’s curtains. The side facing the window had seen better days, but the pattern was too nice to just throw away when we were sorting out her house.’
‘Hah, knew it!’ She actually punched the air. I may have pinched my arm, desperately trying to convince myself I was still dreaming this impossible woman up.
‘And by the way, the red really matches your hair. It’s super pretty.’
‘Thank you.’ I scowled. I had meant to sincerely thank her; but the sun was in my eyes. My awoken-too-soon grouchiness was beginning to fade, I think. She was still infuriating, mind; that never went away.
She just sat there, watching the sea. I was grateful for the brief quiet, but she was still sat on my beach towel, right by my side. Call me a prude, but it felt like a major invasion of my personal space.
‘Did you want something?’
Emma’s head slowly turned toward me, and I immediately felt awful. Her eyes were wide, and tired, and damp at the edges. I snapped out of my frustrations then and there, but what was said was said.
‘No.’ She sighed, and then paused, smiling ‘Actually, yes! Plenty! Loads of stuff! But no, I didn’t expect to get anything in particular coming over here to meet you. ‘Cept some company, I guess.’
‘Fair enough. Nothing to sell me? No good news I definitely need to hear?’ I smirked; I really hoped she knew I was joking. She did.
‘Well I hear the science guys cloned a sheep or something. That’s pretty cool, I guess.’
‘Good old Dolly. That’s a while ago now, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, is it? I don’t know. Hey, you wanna get ice cream? S’on you!’
That’s how most of the day went. We sat, and we talked, and she made terrible jokes. On the bus back home I clutched my bag to my gut and replayed the day’s events in my mind. Everything about strange Emma Lewis seemed wrong; different. You know that feeling when you get halfway through a sentence then don’t realise how it ends; or when you’re at the bottom of a set of stairs but you try to take an extra step? She had an aura just like that.
She’d not given me any of her details. I had no way to call or email her. I’d have felt a little melancholy; like I’d made a one-time-only friend, but she said something odd to me just as I told her I had to go, to get the last bus home:
‘Hey, I’m here pretty much every Saturday. It’d be cool to see you next week, if you felt like coming back down to the beach?’
And then she just walked off; she didn’t stick around for me to give her my number or anything. She was just gone.
The week passed pretty typically. I spent most of it pretending to work on assignments, while actually getting through my summer reading pile and seeing a few friends. I saw my family for a big dinner on Thursday; my dad’s birthday, and in the space of a breath it was Saturday morning. I kind of drifted through the motions; first I was waking up, then I was getting ready, and then suddenly I found myself sitting at the bus stop. The bus was really late; every minute I’d check my phone and get more anxious as the massive blue beast failed to turn the corner. Twenty minutes later it arrived, and away I went to Brighton again.
I always try to go somewhere new, when I can actually afford to go out. Brighton has so many amazing eateries, cafes, and little shops that you’d swear nobody but you could have ever found. I always used to find a different street, a different way to spend the day when I went out. But there I was, on that same beach in Brighton. I looked around expectantly; but Emma was nowhere to be seen. I scolded myself for expecting a stray like her to follow through on anything she said, laid out my towel, and settled into my book.
It took less than a chapter for her to arrive, of course. I’m hardly going to write a story about that time I met a weird girl once and then never saw her again.
‘Kate!’ yelled a shadow that had suddenly appeared across the pages of my book. I rolled over and stared up at her once again.
‘Hello, Ms. Lewis.’ I smiled, ‘I thought you hadn’t come.’
‘You thought!? I’ve been sitting where you were last week for an hour! I was sure you flaked!’
‘How’d you even know where I sat last week? I just chose a random spot.’
‘I know this beach pretty well. Wait, that’s not the book you were reading before.’
I laughed, ‘Well no, it’s been a week Emma!’
She sat down next to me, crossing her legs beneath her small frame and relaxing onto my towel, just as she had before, ‘I think we’re very different people, Kate Newton.’
We laughed, and stared out over the waves. The water was calm that day; the waves were puny things that barely sloshed over the stones.
That morning passed much like the last had. We sat and talked, soaking in the somewhat cloud-stricken British sun, and laughed the morning away. My darling reader, I know I’ve not described her yet; and that’s because I had barely seen her up until this point in the story. Just as the thought of her sent the mind lurching across missing steps, so too did her image seem fuzzy in my mind, as though I hadn’t quite been concentrating on any particular part of her. Having noticed this in the intervening week, I made a concerted effort to memorise this strange girl sat beside me, once again taking up valuable space on my beach towel.
She wore a retro summer dress, reminiscent of the seventies, with inch high shoes and an oversized hat; all very fashionable next to my dull old shirt and jeans. Her hair was black, and shined as though she’d just recently been swimming, though she was dry as a bone. Her eyes were brown, and her nose seemed to curve down gently, before suddenly falling away to her enduring smile.
‘Ice cream.’ She announced suddenly, interrupting a long space of silence in which I realised I had been staring at her nose.
‘No need to apologise,’ She winked at me. Like, a full-on wink from a cheesy movie. ‘I want ice cream. There’s a great little ice cream cart down past the pavilion. Shall we?’
Without waiting for a response, Emma hopped to her feet and extended an elbow at me. She looked a little ridiculous; standing there with her elbow pointed out as I methodically rolled up my towel and packed all my things away. It took until I was standing at her side and ready to walk on that I realised she expected me to put my arm through hers. I fear my open mouth and confused eyes may have slightly betrayed my utter bewilderment at this strange girl’s gestures.
‘Whatever.’ I said, so desperately trying to keep up with what has happening. With our arms linked like some terrible feel-good movie, we wandered down the beach. The waves had started to pick up, and we walked close enough to the edge that water sometimes sloshed around our feet. Emma didn’t seem to mind, and I didn’t want to interrupt whatever mad thing she was talking to me about. Oh right, Star Wars.
‘But it’s all little plastic pieces on strings, apparently. Have you seen it?’
‘Oh, the new one? No. I’ve seen the original six though.’
‘Six?’ Emma asked, more to herself than to me.
‘Yeah? Oh God, you don’t count that awful Christmas special do you?’
She seemed to stumble on her words, spluttering and muttering until she could produce something coherent, ‘Christmas? No, right, no of course not. Obviously. The original six, yeah.’
I tried a couple times to keep that conversation going, but she was silent on the matter. She looked really upset for a minute, like I’d kicked her best puppy or something, but then the ice cream cart came into view and, well, that was that. She broke off running towards it, laughing about something to no-one in particular. I remember the feeling, right then, of just how cold my arm suddenly was.
She did, eventually, realise I wasn’t running doggedly at her heel to keep up with her. She stopped, waved at me to hurry up, and smiled her continuous smile until I arrived. We plodded the short remaining distance together.
‘Hi there!’ Emma announced to the young man at the cart.
‘Hey there ladies. What can I get you?’
‘Mint choc chip. You?’ She glanced over to me. I nodded for the same, and the man got to work serving up two cones.
‘Ernest not working today?’ Emma asked as he worked.
‘You ask me that every time.’ He replied, looking annoyed, ‘My dad died years ago. You know that. Please, stop asking.’
‘Oh, right.’ She shifted from foot to foot, staring at the pebbles beneath her feet.
With our ice creams in hand, we escaped the heavy air that had formed around the cart. As we messily slurped at our treats, I asked her, ‘What was that about? Why do you keep asking him about his dad if he died years ago?’ …Wow, it sounds really accusatory on paper. I said it in a jokey way, I think.
‘I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.’ She grunted, before she saw my surprise at her negativity, ‘It doesn’t matter, really.’ She smiled, her eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun.
We spent the afternoon how anyone would on a warm day at the beach; walking through knee high waves and making stupid jokes. Spoilers – I annoyed the crap out of the bus driver when I showed up all soggy to go home.
As the sun grew low in the sky we were sat on the smooth pebbles looking at the shimmering sea; beach towel forgotten in my bag. Light played across the ocean waves like diamonds; a carpet of tiny sparkling gemstones as far as the eye could see. When I looked over to Emma, she was looking right back at me. I smiled and looked at my lap nervously, before suddenly reaching for my phone and checking the time.
I glanced back up at her, ‘It’s not long until the last bus home. I guess I should-’
Maybe it’s obvious where this is going, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t for me. Dear reader, she kissed me. I can barely remember what went through my head. One moment I’m just staring at her, worried about missing my bus, and the next everything was…loud and quiet at the same time. My eyes bulged in shock, I think, but then I closed them; but I swear I could still see colours. Hundreds of thoughts sparking and jumping through my head all at once; neurons firing then fading in quick succession. The only thing I remember is her lips, and mine.
It sound stupid, but that’s the only way I can describe it, OK? I had a beautiful girl in my arms, and her arms were around me and…
Anyway. Then, suddenly, it was over. She broke away from me, and I just stared at her.
‘You have a stupid look on your face.’ She smirked.
I kissed her again.
We were there another half hour. I ended up having to sprint to catch my bus; but we’d agreed to meet again in the same place next week, so everything was fine.
And everything stayed fine for a while. It became a bit of a tradition; every Saturday we’d meet and spend the day together on that beach in Brighton. But I started to get a little frustrated; every week, the same place, the same times. I wasn’t exactly a relationship guru or anything, but it felt weird. I felt like we were missing out on the dating, and the going places; the seeing each other’s houses and meeting friends. Honestly, it was the summer break – I kind of wanted to see her more than once a week, y’know?
It was about four weeks after our first kiss I tried to convince her to come up to my house. There was this café I knew she’d love just a minute from my flat, and she could meet my goldfish to boot. It would be great, I told her.
‘No, Kate. Please, can’t you just come down here again, next Saturday?’
‘But why? Why can’t we go anywhere else? There’s so many things I want to see and do. It’d be a lot more fun to do them with you.’
‘It’s just, I can’t, OK?’
‘But that’s not a reason! God, you said you live near here, right? I’ve not even seen your house yet! I don’t mind coming to Brighton every week, but why the same place each time?’
She looked down at the ground. Her fist clenched and unclenched, her shoulders were hunched. I let her work through whatever was going on in her head, and eventually she said ‘Not near here.’
‘I don’t live near here. I live here.’
‘Here? Like, on the beach?’
‘Yeah. Right here.’
‘Are-’ I paused, trying to be delicate, ‘Are you homeless, Emma? Is that it?’
‘No, no not at all. There’s a few folk like that up here. I spend time with them some nights, they’re nice. But no, I’m not homeless. But I do live here. Also, kind of Cambridge, but-’
‘Cambridge!?’ I yelped, ‘Have I been getting the bus down here every week when you’ve been travelling even further? God, why?’
‘I don’t,’ She paused, ‘Look, it’s really hard to explain.’
Sighing, I looked up at her. Her eyes were wet, and her cheeks were blotchy red ‘Please, try to explain. I want to understand.’
‘OK. I used to live in Cambridge, but not now. Sorry, that was just more confusion on top of an already confusing mess. Haven’t you noticed that I’m sort of…weird?’
I stifled a burst of laughter, ‘You’re definitely weird, Em. What does that have to do with anything?’
‘No, not normal stuff. Like, saying things that don’t make any sense.’
She was right. I’d noticed it from the start, but I thought it was part of her strange way of being. What else could I have chalked it up to? She let me think in silence for a moment, and then continued.
‘Like, how I didn’t realise how many Star Wars movies there were. Or when I was talking about Callaghan as if he was still relevant. Or how excited I got about the laser pen on your keyring.’
Loads of little moments started flooding my head. Little discrepancies and anachronisms.
‘Kate, for me, it’s 1978. Sort of.’
I just looked at her; blankly, or with a sense of utter disbelief, I’m not sure.
‘So, what, you’re saying you’re a time traveller. Come on, Emma.’
‘No, not quite. I know it’s not 1978 anymore. That was a few years ago.’
‘What do you mean? I’m not getting any of this, love.’
I’d told her I loved her the week prior. Too early, I’m sure, but I think I was being honest.
‘I came here, to this beach, in the summer of 1978. I’d just dropped out of university, and I felt awful. My parents were disappointed, my best friend was moving to New York for a gap year, it was just a bad time. So I came here to forget everything; to just sit in the sun and relax, and do nothing at all for a few days. An old friend lived near here, I was going to stay with her for a bit until I figured out what I was doing with my life.’
‘So what happened? How come you’re, well, you’re still in your twenties now?’ I asked her. I always felt I could trust her. Every word she said sounded so honest, so true. I knew she wasn’t making any of this up, which scared me more than anything else.
‘I went for a swim, but I went too far out. The tide started flowing out and I couldn’t get back to shore. A strong wave crashed over me and I was pulled under, and everything faded out.’
‘ What? What are you saying?’ I stumbled over my words, trying to figure out what I was asking her.
‘I’m not dead. I don’t think so, anyway. Though maybe this makes even less sense in that case.’
‘This! I’m here! Now!’
‘I think we skipped over an important page, there. What happened after everything went dark?’
‘I woke up. I woke up on the pebbles, as the tide rushed out beneath me. I was on the shore; somewhere down there.’ She waved in the general direction of where the sea met the land.
‘It wasn’t the same day, or the next. My head pounded like I had a bad hangover, but I walked until I found a discarded newspaper. It had been a week. It was still a Saturday; just the next one. I was on page twenty-two, under a cartoon about a dog. Missing girl; presumed runaway.’
‘And so…’ I started, putting the pieces together.
‘And so every night when I go to sleep, a week passes. I wake up, and it’s the next Saturday. Every single time. Always in the same place, right here on the beach.’
After a while of standing in silence, I asked her about how it all worked, ‘So, why can’t you leave? If you’re just going to wake up here again next week, what’s stopping you from leaving the city? Having one-day adventures?’ I paused, ‘Like coming to see me.’
‘I can’t. I don’t know why, but I have to stay close to the sea. There’s this throbbing in the back of my head, like that feeling you get when you know a migraine is going to hit you later, but it hasn’t actually started yet. The further I get from the water, the worse it gets. If I’m more than a few hundred metres away it gets so bad that I pass out, and then I wake up by the sea again, and another week has passed without me.’
I took some time to process, then. It explained so much of her reticence to ever leave the beach, or go anywhere with me. It explained everything. At some point, I realised I was crying; so was she. One of us embraced the other; I’m not sure which. We just held each other in silence for a long time, both dealing with what she had just explained.
‘So, for you, we’ve only been dating for a week? Jeez, we might have moved too quickly.’ I smirked at her through my tears.
She gasped out a laugh, and smiled a sad smile at me, ‘Yeah, just a week. It’s been a really good week though, hasn’t it? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I didn’t know how to put it into words, I’ve never told anyone before.’
I forgave her, and we hugged again and again, and eventually the time came to say goodbye. Summer was ending, and the evening was growing colder; I shivered as I whispered to her ‘See you next week.’
‘See you tomorrow.’ She smiled at me.
Reader, I’m sorry. That was the last time I saw Emma Lewis.
I could explain it away a hundred different ways. I stayed out too late the next Friday, and slept through Saturday. Then university started up again, and I didn’t have time between studying to make the long trip to Brighton. These are just excuses though, and I’m really trying my hardest to be honest here. Really, I didn’t go to Brighton again because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to see her, knowing what I knew. It was first love, and I’d been thrust into a situation so much harder than I was ready for.
Given I never saw her again, that’s almost all the story I have for you, dear reader. Except for where I am now. I’m on a bus, slowly rolling its way to Brighton.
If I did the math correctly, it’s five months since she last saw me. For her, that is. For me it’s been, well, a little longer. I have my degree now. My dad died last year, and it turns out since he separated from my mum he left everything to me. Everything, I should mention, being the liquidated return of an old, successful movie studio. I’ve just let all that money linger there, for the most part. I didn’t want to even look at it, so I hired someone to manage it. Apparently, my investments are doing well. I don’t really know what that means, but I’m told it’s good. Yay, I guess?
But none of that matters. None of it matters at all. I can dream though, right? I like to dream of buying a beach front property. Of living right there, overlooking the sea.
I don’t even know if she’ll talk to me again, and I’m thinking about us moving in together. I haven’t learned much in the last few years, clearly.
The bus is pulling up to the marina. I should save this off and close my laptop. Oh god, I hope she’s still here.
Wish me luck.