“Hey, Tony, look, there’s a kiosk open!”
Sure enough, there, amongst the boarded-up beach huts and closed-down amusements, was a shutter up and a sign of movement, an arm placing cups onto a counter. I gazed down the beach. The sand was a dull ochre, covered with sporadic patches of sea shells, creatures that had died heaven-knows how long ago, their little homes washed ashore, then back into the ocean, then back onto this beach for generations. But along the shore and to the horizon in either direction, apart from the kiosk, no one. “Yeah, amazing.”
We approached across sandy concrete to the faded green panels of the kiosk. Behind the counter, bustling around, moving cups and plates and things, a lady with a thin face and grizzled curly hair, the Loreal colour long since faded. She smiled, her teeth falsely white against her brown, wrinkled skin. “Hello.”
“Hello,” Joy said, “it’s been a long time since anyone’s been open on the beach. Me and Tony, er, my husband, we walk along here most days.”
The lady compressed her lips, “Well, it’s exactly a year today since my Fred died, I figured I should do something to mark his … passing.”
“I’m sorry,” said Joy.
The lady made a waving motion with her arm. “What would you like? I’ve got burgers, fried onions, cheese slices, hot dogs, coffee, tea ….”
“Can I have a cheeseburger with onions then please, and coffee? And, Tony, what about you?”
“Yeah, the same for me please,” I said.
Without a word, the old woman turned and busied herself with frying burgers on a griddle. The smell of fresh coffee permeated the air. I looked down the beach once more. In the far distance, palls of smoke. They’d be burning bodies.
I hesitated. “Er, d’you ever open since … your husband died?”
“We were married fifty-seven years … fifty-seven good years, can you believe it? Then … this.”
“I’m sorry,” said Joy.
From her misty eyes, I knew she meant it.
The woman laughed, “I’m hardly the only one!”
Behind us, the waves caressed the beach, as they had done since time immemorial, and as they no doubt would for eternity, until our planet was subsumed by the sun.
I felt the spring sunshine on the back of my neck. “It’s good to see you. What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Look!” she exclaimed, pointing out to sea. We turned to the undulating blue-green landscape. Against the distant horizon was an unusual sight – a ship!
The old woman produced a pair of binoculars and, propping her arms on the counter, gazed out towards the vessel.
“What do you see?” asked Joy.
For a minute, the old woman said nothing, then she stood up and put the binoculars down on the counter in front of us. “Take a look.”
I picked them up and looked out to sea. Then I understood. “Ah, the Black Cross.”
No one spoke. We bowed our heads in respect for the dead to be dumped at sea, ‘buried’ if you like to be proper, but we all knew what it meant.
“They’re ready.” The old woman put down two white china plates. On them were soft white buns filled with steaming burgers, brown-black fried onions and melted cheese. I felt my saliva glands going crazy. Then two large mugs full of dark, pungent coffee. “Do you want hot milk and sugar?” she asked.
Joy smiled. “Hot milk for both of us please, no sugar for me, four for Tony ….”
The old woman began spooning the sugar in, showing no sign of disapproval.
“How much?” Joy asked.
“On the house. Thank Fred.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, thank you … Fred.” A warm breeze blew in our faces. There was a smell like seaweed. Joy looked down, grinding sand against concrete with a toe. “D’you think it’ll ever end?”
The old woman smiled and I saw a gold tooth in her bottom row I hadn’t noticed before. “Come back here this time next year, 2022, and I’ll tell you.”
Behind us, the waves crashed, carving ripples on the sand as they always would, virus or no virus.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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