Their journeys were two hours apiece, one made theirs from the north, the other the south. This was where their path intersected: a run-down second-hand shop on the east coast. It was a yellowed place facing the promenade, weathered at the edges where the salty breeze of the sea had whipped at it over all those years.
It was a curious little spot, thought the young man, Heath, peering over the rim of the box he carried. The shop was a monolith of time, carrying a procession of ten years past on its draughty haunches. Even the mannequin at the front, that patron saint of the charity shop, could display nothing of newness on its perfectly neutral, limbless form. Early 2000s ladies’ tunic, Dorothy Perkins, undulating pattern of black, white, fuchsia. Dazzling camouflage against the brown mires of history. The box threatened to slip from his hands and spill over.
But the clothes didn’t matter: not the tunic, not old tweed coats, not tatty, suspiciously-stained lingerie. Neither had come for clothes. Heath found Marlowe in front of a table display, between the door and his destination. Decorative candles sat there, still wrapped in plastic, and they accentuated the air with the scent of cheap lavender, the kind that vaguely scratches at the insides of one’s nostrils.
Marlowe had been considering the candles—not necessarily considering them for a purchase, but just considering them. She found it funny that they could be so old, and yet so hardly touched.
And Marlowe, looking through a suitcase of postcards and love-notes, had been funny-looking to Heath, so he stopped. Not bad-looking, it was more that this strange woman dithering over candles seemed to operate entirely outside of the spheres of ‘good-looking’ and ‘bad-looking’ that he had been taught. When he looked away from her face he saw her legs, which were tanned, freckled and patterned with peeling plasters that revealed a smorgasbord of strange wounds, bruises and bites. It made him wince.
Heath was less surprising to Marlowe, who had been dithering for about an hour, and making an occupation out of it as she looked at all sorts of things beyond candles. She noticed one of the fingers he had curled around the corner of his box had a profound case of eczema. Just the one, though. Left ring.
And Heath, in his brief arrest, had said, “Excuse me—do I know you?”
It was exactly the thing a sad, expensively-dressed man would have said, Marlowe thought, if he was trying to justify his staring at you as to not seem gauche or predatory. There was a flicker of anxiety in the young man’s eyes, a flash of light on his flat shining surface. Like polish wearing off furniture, she thought. Something perhaps stemming from the eczema on the left ring finger. Very pervasive eczema. A plight worthy of some sympathy.
She had said, “Oh, maybe. Maybe you do.”
At the very least she had finished her evaluation of the candles, and had started to evaluate this person holding this box in front of her too, coming to a similar conclusion. Lonely, dusty, untouched. The box, on the other hand, looked like it got a lot of use.
He laughed without smiling. “Strange. Sorry, I could have sworn I—it’s really just that you—you—how do I…?” In his storm of stuttering she levelled at him only a flat, sleep-like gaze, which in some ways was worse than a glare. “Dreadfully sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said, and watched him stumble forward, with his box, to the door at the back of the shop marked ‘Staff Only’. It was closed, but one could hear the gentle nattering and ruminations of plastic bags from within it.
With this last turning away from Marlowe, the box’s threat finally came to fruition: a bundle of pearl necklaces slipped from a bitten corner, leaders of the revolution, and dropped to the gum-stained carpet. Marlowe could notice how beautiful they were even in this dim yellowish light The sort of light that could suck the life out of anything, she thought. They were faintly translucent in Heath’s hands as he picked them up, like fallen tears. She should have loved to own anything nearly so pretty. Perhaps he was a jewel thief, she speculated, and was trying to cover his tracks through Norfolk’s least-popular charity shop. That was exciting. She had never been apologised to by a jewel thief before.
Heath was not a jewel thief, though on this day he certainly felt like one. And as for apologies, he was doling them out to everybody today, except seemingly the one lady who deserved it the most. This would be a quick trip, he told himself, and then he would drive another two miles to the graveyard where she was buried. There he would apologise. Maybe she would have understood, and he wouldn’t need to apologise. But it was a bad thing to do, to steal, since they weren’t technically his.
Illegitimate child committing illegitimacies. But then—but then—wouldn’t the others have done the exact same thing in an auction house? Not even a dignified auction house, but one on the television, where it didn’t matter that these pearls had once hung around the neck of the kindest, loveliest woman to walk the earth. Well— more like to be wheeled on the earth, in her later years, but the loveliness stayed the same. No, it was because they had been worn, because of that tarnish that came from her powder and her perfume, and they would be scrutinised on live television, daytime television no less—
He had forgotten that Marlowe was standing behind him. She stuck her head out. “You’re really donating those?”
If he said yes, he then had to open that door and give them the box. And if he said no, he would have to turn away and put the box back in the car and let his future-self deal with the ramifications. Which had been the plan. It had been the plan since he woke up this morning and since the evening where the entailment was discussed. The problem was now that he didn’t want to do that anymore.
“Because, you know,” she said, tapping the side of her nose, “they could still find it here.” In her head there were huge dark helicopters flying over Norfolk as she spoke, and black-clad snipers training their sights on the door of the St. Helen’s Hospice Charity Shop. God save the next poor old biddy who finished her shift and popped out for a tea and scone. “You need to find a better hiding place, I think.”
“You’re right,” he said, with a completely different image in mind, but one that pressed on him regardless. “I should go somewhere else.”
Marlowe’s life at that point was almost entirely comprised of somewhere else’s— Cornwall, Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and now Norfolk.
And yet she had never been apologised to by a jewel thief. More to the point, she had never met a jewel thief who wore thick knitted cardigans, or a jewel thief with hair like— what was it like? She had to know a better word for orange…
Now he faced her again. His eyes were curious colours, too, now she had bothered to look, the kind of deep oak of heartwood. “Well, I should. I will.” He took a step forward so that he was beside Marlowe (and the candles) but hesitated. “I must know you. I really feel like I do.”
But his hair wasn’t orange, was it? Not completely. These little words made all the difference. It wasn’t as if the poor sod had a traffic cone on his head. It was a darker, fermented kind of orange. Thick orange marmalade in a jar. Even then…
Marlowe had not been accused of being known by anyone for a long time.
“Where would you know me from?” she asked. She passed a finger over the shrink-wrap encasing the candles. It seemed tight, unpleasant.
“I have no idea,” he said. “But you talk like—as though you know me.”
“Maybe from a dream,” she said, half-joking.
“Maybe from a dream,” he said, not-joking. And he took another reluctant step. The cloud of fake-lavender was loosening its spell on him.
For a long time, Marlowe’s dreams had been without people in them. They had many rolling hills and sweet green English fields, briars and bracken and gorse. The odd squirrel, perhaps, but no people. Whenever she looked for company in her dreams she found only a narrow, woozy void. A drainpipe into nothingness.
“I know a place,” she said. “I know somewhere else you can go.”
The marram grass was blowing about wildly when they approached, and it caressed the pink cuts on Marlowe’s legs with its long, curled fingers. Before them was a sprawling mass of grey-brown sludge.
“Yeah, this bit’s kind of a marsh,” she said, “best take your nice shoes off.”
They reached the sand, and it was soft and pale as flour. The mud that was caked on their feet rolled off as they walked with their shoes tied by the laces and slung around their shoulders. Heath’s box rumbled the whole way, and it made him anxious to think of all the various objects in there being disturbed, jostling against one another, as though the Fortnum and Mason tea-plates were tectonic plates about to cause an earthquake. He would have to be careful, he would have to be so careful.
Marlowe had stopped walking, so he stopped walking, and looked up again to see the water. The tide was gentle today, and the waves crawled more than crashed, soaking the same, even strip of shingle. Up above, some gulls flew, cackling. They beat their wings against a pale, powdery blue sky, thickened with all sorts of clouds. The dying September sun cast its rays like gilded veins through the haze.
“Are you telling me,” he said, “to throw my dead mother’s jewellery into the sea?”
The only other people on the beach were a pair of dog-walkers, and a group of children playing on the distant side of the shore. Despite the lack of tide, their game of chicken was going ahead with full aplomb. The smallest had the ball of his ankle licked by the saltwater and shrieked with joy loud enough that it filled all the air.
“Just a suggestion,” Marlowe said. “You don’t have to.”
The wind blew and blinded them both, stinging Marlowe’s eyes with salt and dislodging Heath’s hair from behind his ear. In this lighting, Marlowe decided, it looks more like amber than marmalade. Heath then placed his box on the ground, in an attempt to fix this new disarray.
And his shoulders felt so much lighter.
“Maybe I should throw it all in the sea,” he muttered. “That would really show them. That would really show everyone.”
“You should do whatever you want to do,” Marlowe said, shouting above the wind. “After all, this is Norfolk. Throw it in the sea! Who cares?”
“You don’t know what else is in here,” he said.
“You didn’t tell me,” she said, shrugging.
“Like you haven’t told me,” he said, pointing, “where those wounds on your legs are from.”
“Are you going to ask where I got them from?”
“No.” And then, “Are you going to ask me what’s in the box?”
“Good,” said both.
And the breeze settled, stirring the sands around them before curling asleep at their feet. The children on the other side of the beach were running back over the mud, back home. One last Border Collie leapt over the horizon into the unseen.
Then all was still.
Heath sat down next to the box. Marlowe sat down too, tucking her knees into her chin. Heath turned to her, and said, “I don’t know who you are at all, and I’ve never met you before in my life. But does that matter?”
“I suppose it doesn’t, after all,” said Marlowe, and she dug around in the pocket of her jeans. She offered him the colourful end of a battered paper tube. “Would you like a fruit pastille?”
“I would love a fruit pastille,” he replied, and took a green one furred with paper fibres.
Marlowe took a purple one for herself; it was sweet on her weathered, bitten lips. The gulls alighted on buoys and groynes. Somewhere in a lay-by, Heath’s car received a parking ticket, and the lights switched off in St. Helen’s Hospice Charity Shop for the day. Both he and she felt they should say something, or exchange some kind of glance, but they said nothing, and only looked into the rolling blue expanse of the sea.
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