Cool salty water beneath me, mirroring the sky of dazzling blue above, thousands of shards of blinding sunlight glistening from its softly rippling surface that stretched on and on ahead of me, unbroken. At high tide, all the rocks that would protrude from the water when the sea retreated were submerged. A perfect illusion of endlessness, making me feel like the only person drifting lazily through a world made of bright shades of blue, turquoise and green, crowned by little white crests.
I lay on my back with my arms spread wide and let the waves carry me, relaxing my muscles, sore from a hard week's work, as the sun's warmth caressed my chest.
Grandpa certainly didn't spare me since I had begun working with him in earnest. Our days started early and ended late, and on the rare days the weather didn't allow us to go out in the boat, we had enough other things to do. The bookkeeping had become mostly my responsibility, and apart from the paperwork there were always some little repairs and maintenance required. Plus, Ted, our neighbour, had recently bought an old car and was now teaching me to drive.
Dan had been right in that it was hard physical work. More often than not, I dropped into bed right after dinner and was asleep the second my head touched the pillow. But I thrived in my new life. I loved being outside in the wind and sun, working with my hands. My arms and legs and face were soon as deeply tanned as those of the other fishermen. Some of them had been a little sceptical at first if the son of John's nouveau-riche daughter would really have it in him to become a fisherman, but when they saw that I was willing and able to get my hands dirty and tackle any task at hand without complaint, they were quick to accept me into their quiet little brotherhood.
I wrote my dutiful letters to Mom and Dan, not really missing them, and always made sure to add an extra page for Jess and Janie with a few fanciful lines about wild adventures. I knew that would make them happy, and they sometimes sent me colourful drawings inspired by my stories.
My thoughts wandered to the girls for a moment now, wondering how they were really doing. I wondered if we would manage to keep up our close ties even at the distance without me going back more than once or twice a year. Their eager little feet rushing towards me when I came home, their chatter and wet kisses and cuddling up to me were the only thing I sometimes missed.
I didn't have the slightest regret about not having moved on to college, though. This was real life. This was real work. This was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
After a while, I turned around to face the rocky coast and the small sandy beach below and swam back to the shore with the determined breaststroke I had learned from Grandpa a long time ago. I walked over to the flat ledge where I had left my shorts and shirt, the sand pleasantly hot under my cold feet.
I ran my fingers through my hair to shake out the water and lay down on the warm rock surface to dry in the sun as I often did on Sunday afternoons. I loved to spend those on my own, just the sea and myself and sometimes a book. Hardly anyone else ever went down to the tiny cove, so I didn't have to worry about unwanted spectators. Besides, the ledge where I lay was blocked from view by another, higher rock.
I dozed off in the sunshine and woke up just in time to avoid getting a nasty sunburn. I pulled on my shorts, got up and threw on my shirt as I went, not bothering with the buttons. Seagulls swooping overhead, a nice summer breeze in my hair, I felt elated and contented with my life. I began to whistle a little tune as I walked on with a childish spring in my step.
I stopped short when I saw her as soon as I had rounded the large rock.
A girl, perched on a narrow rocky promontory, one finger stuck between the pages of the closed book she held in her lap. A girl in a simple, sleeveless dove-grey summer dress, with dark brown hair and exceptionally radiant eyes in a pale face. Watching me.
I felt my face go crimson and hot with embarrassment. Had she seen me bouncing around like a five-year-old?
The next thought was even worse. She must have seen me coming out of the water with nothing on.
My first impulse was to just run off as if I hadn't seen her. But I knew she had seen me, so it was no use trying to escape. I would have to walk past her anyway.
And a part of me wanted just the opposite. Wanted to see her close up, talk to her, find out who she was.
There was a strange little feeling tugging at the pit of my stomach, and another sensation, a stirring further down. I blushed even deeper and was glad that I was wearing those dark, baggy shorts.
To play for time, I bent down and inspected my foot, pretending to have stepped on something sharp.
She saved me the effort of thinking up something to say to her by calling out, "Hi there! Are you hurt?" She slipped off her seat and came walking over, leaving her book behind. I noticed that she was barefoot. Her sandals sat on the sand by the rock, neatly aligned. "Can I help you?"
"Oh … no, I think it's just …", I stammered and finally broke off.
"Let me see", she said, hunkering down. The touch of her slim pale fingers sent a shiver down my spine and I hoped she wouldn't notice.
"No, really, it's nothing", I protested, raising my foot to let her convince herself that there was indeed no thorn or pointy little rock stuck in the sole.
"All the better, then", she said, getting back up. I prayed she was busy enough shaking the sand from the skirt of her dress that she wouldn't notice what was really troubling me.
Looking me right into the eye, she asked, "Do you come here often? I've never met anyone else here, and I've been sitting here reading in the afternoons all week long."
"Just on Sundays. Haven't got much time for swimming on workdays. We're usually home late from the boat, you know."
"So you're a fisherman?"
I couldn't keep my eyes off her, although her presence made me a little nervous. She spoke in a calm tone, and the steady gaze of her clear grey eyes was so different from the eyelash-batting coquetry of the girls in my class, although she couldn't be much older.
I could merely nod, not sure of my voice.
"You don't look like a fisherman. In my imagination, they are old and grey with leathery faces and scruffy beards and smell of fish", she laughed. An enchanting laugh, bubbling silvery like a merry little stream. "Silly, isn't it?"
I thought it was but didn't want to say so.
"Well, that's the Boston city girl speaking", she went on. "I'm only here on holiday. My parents are off to Europe. They wanted me to come along, but I get seasick so quickly that it would have been torture for me. So I begged them to let me come here instead and stay with my Auntie Ruth up in the village." She gestured towards the cliff top with a slender-fingered hand.
"So you've only just arrived?" I asked, glad to find my voice sounded quite normal.
"Late last Saturday", she said. "Well, fisherman, I'd like to chat a little more with you, but for that, I'll need to know your name. I'm Eliza. Elizabeth Maureen Ferguson, to be exact, but please don't call me that. It makes me feel like my own grandmother. My parents named me for her."
Her grimace made me laugh. "I'm Mick", I said. "Mick Carpenter."
"Bet that's not your full name", she grinned.
"How did you guess that?"
"Nobody's just called Eliza or Mick or Bill or Joe. Now tell me your secret."
I marvelled at her candidly perky way of addressing a total stranger. She was chatty and a bit flirtatious without being calculating or affected. Somehow, with her I felt no need to hide behind my usual shield of reticence, although I knew next to nothing about her except that she was beautiful in a grown-up, calmly self-confident way. Strange that I didn't find her intimidating any more once we had started talking.
I rolled my eyes and said, "Michael John Henry, if you really need to know. For my grandfathers and my dad."
"Oh well, I've heard worse. Much worse. My aunt and uncle were unable to agree on some normal name, or even any name, when my cousin was born. Now the poor boy's name is Jebediah Franklin Emanuel Gideon McCall Ferguson. His mother calls him Jebediah because that's the name she wanted, his father calls him Frank because that's the name he wanted, and to the rest of us he's just plain old Jeb." She pronounced each of the names with such pompous exaggeration and pulled such funny faces that I burst out laughing.
All the tension fell off me as Eliza started to giggle helplessly, too, both of us doubling over with laughter and eventually dropping down in the sand, still chuckling.
I asked her what she was reading, and we launched into a long discussion of books and poems we had read, of school and parents and siblings and travels and the sea. Whenever she launched into one of her charming little monologues, stressing her point with lively gestures, I took in her face as I listened, grey eyes framed by dark brown lashes, lips that were a bit on the narrow side but beautifully curved, rather strong dark eyebrows and a cute snub nose sprinkled with a few pale freckles.
We were so absorbed that we were very late to realize that ominous charcoal heaps of clouds had collected overhead. A gust of wind, followed by low rumbling thunder in the distance, made Eliza look up wide-eyed. She flinched. "My God! This is looking dangerous!"
"Oh!" I exclaimed in surprise. "Don't worry. If we run, we'll arrive at my grandparents' before this really gets going."
Eliza went to get her shoes, and I picked up her book, a valuable-looking copy of "Jane Eyre" bound in dark red linen. I fell into a steady trot, Eliza close behind me, sandals in hand, suddenly overtaking me. What an astonishing girl she was. Running barefoot, hair flying, not a trace of ladylike daintiness.
She stopped when she reached the end of the rocky path, turning to me for directions. I pointed towards the narrow lane leading to the house, catching up with her.
The wind had picked up. It tore the back door from my hand as I opened it and slammed it against the wall with a tremendous bang. A tin bucket clattered across the yard. Grandma's plants were bending under the onslaught of the wind. I struggled to shut the back door and locked it from inside. I was hardly finished when the rain set in.
"Phew. That was close", Eliza panted, a bit out of breath from running.
"Would you like … a cup of tea?" I asked, not sure what was expected of me now. Grandma would have known but she and Grandpa were spending the day with Jem and Martha.
"Yes!" she said, and I put the kettle on and got the teapot and two mugs from the rack on the wall, then stepped over to look at the majestically menacing spectacle outside the window.
Eliza came over to join me, standing very close but not touching me. Ragged bolts of lightning split the dark skies every few seconds. A formidable thunderclap made her jump, and I laughed. "Are you afraid of thunderstorms?"
"Yes", she admitted sheepishly. "For as long as I can remember." She shuddered.
"I've loved them all my life", I replied. "And we're safe in here."
"Oh, but just look at the trees!"
The branches were waving wildly in the storm, leaves flying off. A small branch of the pear tree snapped and was swept away, landing just outside the chicken pen.
"Oh crap! The chickens!" Whenever my grandparents weren't home, it was my task to lock them up if necessary. Grandma would read me the riot act if one of the birds got killed in the storm.
"Never mind the chickens! You can't go out there!" Eliza was horrified.
"I'll be back in a minute", I said, ignoring her. I hurried out with my head ducked between my shoulders against the rain, kicking the stray bucket out of the way. The chickens had been clever enough to seek shelter inside the henhouse. I bolted the entrance, climbed out of the pen and dashed back to the kitchen door, pausing for a moment to feel the wind and the rain. I loved those all-out forces of nature. Another branch, bigger this time, whirled through the air and crashed down right in the middle of Grandma's vegetable bed.
"Whoa, what a weather!" I said cheerily as I walked back in, shaking droplets from my hair and drying my arms and hands with a tea towel. "Amazing!"
Eliza was staring at me incredulously. "Amazing? Have you lost your mind? This is scary! I thought that branch was going to bash your head in!"
"Hey, don't be mad at me, okay?" I held up my hands in surrender, wondering why on earth she was making such a fuss, fear of thunderstorms or not.
"I'm not mad at you, I was afraid!" she cried, wiping at her eyes.
"No need to be afraid, I've been out in a storm before, even out at sea."
"At sea? Oh my God!"
"Well, a fisherman never takes idiot risks, but sometimes the weather takes you by surprise despite all precaution."
She shuddered again. "I don't even want to imagine that."
I noticed that she had brewed the tea while I was outside. "Come, have a cup of tea, that'll calm you down."
We sat down by the table, and she smiled a little weakly and said, "I'm really a city girl, aren't I?"
"Yes, you are", I said. "But you're quite nice for a city girl."
She said nothing, but her eyes twinkled.
Emboldened, I reached over for her hand. A tingling sensation ran all through my body. Her hand was white and cool and smooth and the most beautiful thing I'd ever touched. I stroked it softly with my thumb that seemed so large and rough against her delicate skin.
She gave me a mellow look and a tiny little sigh.
On an impulse, I lifted her hand up and, very gently, very slowly, kissed it, then pressed it against my cheek for a moment. A sensation I could not have named washed over me, and I smiled.
I kept my eyes downcast, afraid of looking up at her again, afraid I had been too daring.
When I felt her hand close around mine, I didn't have to look at her to know that she was smiling, too.