I’m playing hooky, skiving, swinging the lead, whatever you want to call it. The sky is black and a stiff wind is getting up, sending frothing waves crashing into the shore. Blobs of foam drift over my head and I paw at them attempting an Ali shuffle ankle deep in shingle. It doesn’t cheer me. I’m still in my shirt and tie, my only concession is an unbuttoned collar and sleeves rolled to the elbow as I kick up the surf and skim stones, desperate for that elusive seventh bounce from the water. I’m alone and there isn’t a soul, not even a solitary dog walker or fisherman, within a mile. The car park beyond the dunes is empty with windblown sand weighing heavy against a sagging fence. Without the steady supply of ice cream and burgers the gulls have given up and sought richer pickings inland. I take a deep breath and suck the salt-air down into my lungs. It’s what my Dad and the Victorians called bracing and it brought them here in their millions. I’m here for a different reason: it helps me forget.
I cheer and shout something rude about Pickering’s parentage but the wind blows my words and a spiteful sting of sand straight back in my face. My feet are blue and my legs pale where I’ve rolled up my trousers like those Mini-Milk lollies we queued for as kids. My skin tingles and burns the way your ear does when someone catches it square with a snowball, but I feel great and I feel free and I shout in a gap between the gusts.
Out in the bay a cormorant takes flight. It’s Monday morning, just before ten. Right about now, I’d be sending out the first of Pickering’s reports and sipping scalding coffee – coffee’s what the label on the machine says anyway – before being summoned into his office.
I grab the flask and take a swig of my own blend and jog back into the dunes. It is still and almost silent here, away from the crash of the waves. I have my own little den far up the beach, protected by millions of tons of golden sand and a forest of spiky marram grass. We once had a Scout camp here and Skip told us that many years ago the grass was harvested by the cartload to be made into mats and other household goods. Skip was an avid reader of local history. But take away the anchoring properties of the grass and the dunes are cast to the wind, he said. And before long the rich and fertile farmland becomes dunes too. I know lots of shit like this; none of it useful. Holidaymakers didn’t put bread on the table back then, so Elizabeth the First decreed that anyone gathering grass from the dunes would forfeit a hand. You had your hand chopped off for cutting grass. I’m sure Pickering would think that punishment liberal.
It’s not the failing that hurts because I haven’t – I’m second for sales this quarter – instead it’s being put ‘out to pasture’ that’s insulting. He wrote our names on a scrap of paper, mine was the only one beneath that heading. Yes, he’d actually written ‘Out to Pasture.’ I’ve got that note somewhere safe, tucked up case I need to use it. I push my toes through the sand and feel the grains fall between them. The note isn’t much, but I think it buys me today at least.