(1250 words)

“Maximus, Maxie!” Down at the edge of the breakers, I could see my little King Charles spaniel running along with something in his mouth. At my call, he hesitated, looking out to sea, his senses full of the foaming waves crashing on the beach, then he was running up the sand towards me, carrying whatever it was. He reached me and shook his coat, spraying my face with drops of salty water. “Oi, Max!” I wiped myself down and went to look at what he’d dropped on the sand. It was a piece of wood, thin and slender, worn smooth by years of abrasion. “Clever boy!” It felt good in my hand, and I reckoned I could use it as a letter opener, with a little sanding here and there. Something special – a gift from the sea – rather than the spiritless metal thing I used.
“May I see?”
I jumped and turned to a woman, maybe fifty or so. She had dark blonde hair down to her shoulders, windswept now, a pleasant face with skin the colour of honey, and large golden-brown eyes. There was a touch of red lipstick at her mouth, and she wore a thick woollen sweater and long red shorts. Her legs were slim but muscular, and tanned, like the legs of a much younger woman. I guessed she cycled or ran, or both. “You made me jump!” I said, “I thought we were the only ones here. I’m Peter by the way.” I passed her the driftwood Max had found.
She turned it over, giving me a friendly smile. “Oh, I’m Alanis, Alanis Lewis. I’m a scientist, I do seal research along the coast here. I was just over in the dunes.” She gestured to some grassy sand dunes some way behind her. “I like to sit and meditate there. It’s so peaceful on this part of the beach, no one comes here in April, only in the summer season and October. Then there are hordes coming for the seal breeding. Anyway, I looked up and … and there you were! So, I thought I would come and say hi. I hope you don’t mind?”
“No, not at all. I was just taking Max for a walk. He loves the sea.”
She held the wood to her nose and closed her eyes. “What a lovely smell. The scent of the sea. I wonder where it came from? Maybe a piece of a barrel, or a beehive even! A special discovery. Well done, Max!” She handed it back to me and I slipped it into a pocket. “Where are you from, Peter?” she inquired, “not from around here?”
Max had run down to the sea once more and was swimming a little way out. “I’m from Middlethorpe, it’s not far, I come to the coast sometimes. I’m at the uni, doing a degree in music, kind of a mature student, I guess.” I gave a wry smile. “It wears me out, all the travelling. I come here to recuperate. Max likes to run on the beach and there’s no problem with dogs being banned on this bit.”
Alanis set off along the sand and I ambled along with her, pleased to have found a pleasant companion, if only for a while. The sky was filled with fluffy white cumulonimbus clouds against a background of bright blue. Gulls were calling and diving out in the sea. “Mackerel,” said Alanis.
“Ah,” I said, “I like to go to the Beach Bar, just along the coast here.”
She stopped and looked at me with a puzzled expression. “The Beach Bar, don’t you mean the George and Dragon?”
I looked into her eyes. They were like golden pools, pools I wanted to dive into. Then the penny dropped, and I laughed. “Oh, they changed its name recently, just a few months ago, didn’t you know, working so close and all?”
She laughed but her cheeks reddened. “Oh yes, of course, my mum won’t use the new name. Says it was stupid changing it after all these years. That’s why I got confused. Mum doesn’t like going there. Says the hill’s too steep, that they could do with a bench halfway up.”
I hesitated. “Would you … er, would you like to come for a drink and a bite to eat with me, if you’re free?”
She reached out and held my wrist briefly. “Peter, I would love to but, I’ll be honest with you, I’m isolating, I was with a … a friend who has Covid, Louise, actually she’s in hospital with it.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that, “I said, “I hope she’ll be OK.”
Just then I was startled by a deep growling and looked down at Max who was back from the water, glaring up at Alanis and thrashing his tail about. “Max, what the hell’s the matter?”
He began to bark furiously at Alanis, then he suddenly turned and ran away.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, “I’ve never known him do that before, only once with a big Rottweiler, not ever with a person.”
Alanis looked shaken. “It’s OK. Look, Peter, I’ve got to go. When I can mix with people again, yes, let’s meet up. I’ll leave my number at the George and … I mean, the Beach Bar.”
“Sure, I’ll be here again at the weekend …”
But she was already jogging away, back down the beach, the way I’d come. I put Max on his lead, and we walked along the sand and started up the hill to the Beach Bar. I, for one, fancied a pint and a sandwich. As I climbed up the endless steps to the promenade, I noticed that there was a bench, about halfway up. Of course, now I thought about it, I vaguely remembered seeing it before, well, in recent months anyway. What was Alanis on about in that case?
As we approached, Max began to whine. I went over and read a brass plaque on it, feeling an icy sensation sweep over me. To the memory of Alanis Lewis. 4th Feb 1968—27th Apr 2020. I checked the date on my watch, it was the 27th of April 2021, exactly one year later. I had a sudden thought. The woman had seemed serious, but maybe it was some kind of bizarre practical joke?
Feeling shaken, I ordered a pint and a ploughman’s sandwich ‘with home-made mustard’ from a portly barmaid, her face surfeited with half an inch of makeup. There weren’t many in the pub. “Do you know anything about the bench,” I asked, “the one on the steps?”
“Oh, I dunno, duck, I’m new here. I’ll ask Fred,” she said, attempting to be helpful. “Oi, Fred, d’you know anything about that wooden bench on the steps. This fellah wants to know.”
Fred shook his head.
I noticed people staring at me, then an old woman got up and came over. “It was put there in the memory of a lady who worked with seals around here. A scientist, and a lovely woman she was, very ambitious too. She died of coronavirus. Louise, her best friend too. This time last year.” She took out a photograph. “This is Alanis, my daughter.”
I felt hollow inside. It was unquestionably the woman I’d just been talking to, or thought I had.
She wiped a tear away. “Why, did you know her?”
I felt Max rubbing his head against my leg. “I only met her once,” I said, “but, yes, she was lovely.”

Featured in the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural

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