He'd imagined himself to be alone, the only human being on an otherwise deserted stretch of beach, but when he looked up she was standing there in front of him, her footprints extending way behind her in the sand. She smiled.
"Getting drunk all alone on a cask of wine is not really a good way to spend the afternoon." There was amusement rather than reproof in her tone and his surly response died before it reached his tongue. Instead he reached across and patted Binda, his ugly affectionate mongrel. The dog opened one eye, surveyed the newcomer and then shut it again, as if the effort had exhausted her. Rick looked at the girl again and raised his half full plastic glass in a mocking toast.
"I'm not alone, now. Do you want a drink? Sit down."
She considered, nodded and then sat on the grass against the scrubby hillock. The dog lay sprawled between them and Rick emptied his glass. "I have only one glass. But I don't have anything contagious." He filled it again and handed it to her and watched as she sipped the wine.
She wasn't tall; if he'd stood up he would have topped her by over twelve inches. And she was neither slim nor pretty, really. Most of his mates would have considered her a waste of time. But then Rick had nothing to lose by sitting and talking with anyone. And although her face was plain, when he looked at the grey eyes that surveyed him he decided that, at least, were beautiful. Her hair was fair and curly, but decidedly untidy. She'd go unnoticed against the current beauties of screen and television. She wore a pink skirt that covered her knees and was gathered into a band at her waist, and above it a plain white blouse (not a tee shirt) tucked into it. It struck him as old fashioned, the style of twenty-five and more years ago. In photographs of his parents in their younger (and happier) days his mother had worn something similar. At her throat an enamelled bluebird hung on a silver chain, and matching earrings glittered in her ears, half hidden by her hair. The bluebirds, he knew, were old fashioned.
"You have a reason for drinking alone?" she said. "What's wrong?"
"Everything," he said flatly.
"Everything? Really?" There was gentle mockery in her voice, but neither the unkindness nor the bitchiness that marked so many girls nowadays. At anyone else he would have snapped a sarcastic or rude response but he merely nodded. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
He laughed bitterly. "Why? Why the hell would you care?"
"I care. I really do." Her grey eyes met his and she shrugged. "And sometimes it can help to talk to a total stranger. I know that."
He grunted. Maybe she might care after all. Telling her all his troubles – well, that was certainly one hell of a way to chat up a girl. Then he stopped himself. No, he wasn't trying to chat her up. He certainly wasn't trying to do that. He took out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one. She shook her head almost in disapproval.
"I don't smoke."
"So. You want to know. You really do?" She nodded. "My parents are splitting up. My mum drinks and my old man's always out. At work, he says. My girlfriend's just dropped me. I owe a heap on my car and I've just got the sack." He took back the empty glass, refilled it and drank it straight down. "And the local cops don't like my looks. No one cares about me. No one at all. No one even likes me."
"So you're sitting here trying to drink yourself into a stupor." She tilted her head curiously. "And what are you going to do when you've finished that – " nodding her head at the cask, "– climb back into your car and try to drive home without wrapping yourself around a tree, or –"
"No," he said harshly. "I'm going to go for a swim. A long one. Out there." He pointed to where the darkening sky met the ocean and she regarded him gravely.
"Yeah. That's the general idea." He drank another glass of wine. "And I won't feel a thing. Death by drowning is a very painless peaceful way of going, so I've heard." He pulled a face. "Especially with all this in me."
"Maybe so. But it's a waste, isn't it?" There was a sudden touch of asperity in her tone. "And it's the coward's way out too."
He lifted his head and looked at her angrily.
"Why the hell don't you go away? What the hell would you know about anything anyway?"
She gave him a cool level stare and then rose agilely to her bare feet, patting Binda. The dog rose to her feet, shook herself, wagged her tail and ambled after the girl. Rick blinked. Damn it! Now even his mongrel bitch had deserted him.
"Hey! Come back!"
Ten yards away the girl paused, without turning to him.
"Her, or me?"
"Both of you." He came to his feet, more than a little unsteadily. "I'm sorry. Come back, please. Look, it's getting cold. Come and sit down and have another drink. Or do you have somewhere else to go? Someone else to go to?"
She shook her head, her smile touched with sadness.
"There's no one. And no place I have to be."
They sat together, leaning against the scrubby sandhill as the air grew chilly. He pulled off his denim jacket and offered it to her, tucking it around her shoulders.
They finished the wine, taking turns at the glass, and he talked all the while, spilling out all the hurt and anger and bitterness inside him. He told her all his troubles, all his family problems and she sat listening, gravely and with sympathy but not pity. About her own self she said little, other than that her name was Tina and she was seventeen years old.
Rick's voice slurred and grew sleepy and he leaned against her, hearing her words through soft darkness.
"Drowning yourself won't help anyone. You have to wake up in the morning and start rebuilding your life." She kicked the empty wine cask aside. "You can do that, can't you? You can face the future. It's not as hard as you might think. It really isn't. You're stronger and better than you imagine, Rick. You have to be. Running away and drowning yourself won't help at all. Believe me, I know that."
He wanted to ask her how she knew, but even as he mumbled the question he slipped down into darkness, aware of her warmth beside him.
He woke in the chilly dawn, stiff jointed and heavy headed. Binda was warm against his back but there was no trace of the girl. His head had been pillowed on his denim jacket and it still retained a faint scent. Lavender, he thought. It was familiar; she had been wearing it. He struggled to his feet, visited a clump of shrubs to relieve himself and stared blearily around at the emptiness. There was nothing less alluring, he decided, than a cold and empty beach in a grey winter morning. At least it wasn't raining.
With a sense of shock he realised there were no other footprints on the sand apart from his own. Only Binda's pawprints.
He'd dreamed it, dreamed her, dreamed her understanding and sympathy and solid support?
Impossible. But there was the evidence of his eyes, the smooth and empty beach. So maybe he had dreamed it. He yawned and scratched himself, then headed up off the beach towards where he had left his car. Half way there he stopped and retraced his steps, collecting the empty wine cask and plastic glass and dumping them in a bin. In his mind's eyes he caught a glimpse of her face, shining with approval. He smiled, lit a cigarette and tossed the empty packet into the bin as well.
Half a mile down the road from the beach he stopped at a roadhouse for coffee and fuel. The proprietor regarded him with a surly expression. He could recognise – and envy – decadent youth when he saw it.
"Had a heavy night, young man? Thought I saw your car parked down near the beach. Had a wild party down there, hey, all by yourself?"
"Not quite." He drank the coffee and frowned. "Did you see a girl go down to the beach yesterday afternoon? Not very tall, fair hair?" He went on to describe Tina and the man stared at him, his eyes widening. Then he nodded slowly. Some of the surliness had left his expression.
"I saw her. Yeah. Sit down, son."
Rick became wary.
"Why? Hey, I never hurt her, or anything like that. I –"
"I know that." The older man sat down heavily. "I saw her. She went down to the beach. She had a lot on her mind. Family, friends who weren't really friends. She'd got herself pregnant too. Her mother was dead and her father didn't understand her. And the boy didn't want to marry her. He thought she wasn't pretty enough to saddle himself with her for a lifetime with a baby on the way already."
Rick looked at him, a bewildered frown on his face.
"She didn't tell me any of that. She listened to all my problems, and I never even asked about hers. But –"
The other man shook his head and went on, Rick's gaze on his face as he listened with shock to the man's words.
"Her name was Tina." Rick nodded. "She drowned herself. Twenty years ago yesterday. She was my daughter."