Ruby’s neighbours raised a collective eyebrow when she told them that not only was she ‘not doing’ Christmas, but was also going away. Some seemed affronted, as if she were criticising their own usual plans. Some cautioned against making rash decisions, but she was only talking about a week in the Canaries, for pity’s sake, not emigration to the Antipodes.
Everyone queried “By yourself?”
Going solo wouldn’t have been her first choice, either, but she supposes she will get used to it. Her brother invited her to squash an extra chair around his Christmas dinner table but Ruby didn’t trust herself to make fake-merry. And she didn’t want to sleet on anyone’s holiday parade by having them tip-toe around mentions of her late husband.
So, here she is, on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Normally, she and Stuart would rent a cottage in the Lake District and snuggle up until the festive madness was over. Just the two of them. Together. Their non-traditional tradition.
Stuart is not just late: he is never coming again.
“Won’t you be lonely?” they asked.
Yes, but no more than she was at home, surrounded by scratchy, distorted, familiar things.
Ruby shuffles along the quayside, eking out each step. She is in no rush to return to her hotel’s marble lobby or her single room. She threads her goose-fleshed arms into the sleeves of her cardigan. The winter sun is not as hot as the brochure would have you believe. Fat fish om-om at the surface of the iridescent water. Her stomach rumbles. She is looking forward to eating tapas at the little restaurant she has spotted down by the harbour.
So far, she has managed to avoid all but the most perfunctory of interactions with her fellow guests. Ruby is tired of small-talking.
Right now, her hotel is serving a gala dinner. Here, they celebrate the Eve, rather than the Day. Eight courses. A magician and a reptile show. Fizz, fizz, fizz.
The Atlantic churns and foams around stray clusters of dark volcanic rock. A pewter-coloured cloud dangles out at sea. It is hard to tell whether it is blowing over or creeping in to batter them. Ruby pushes open the door of the tiny fishermen’s chapel. She is admiring the nativity scene fashioned from pale shells when she senses someone next to her. A weather-beaten woman in a thick navy-blue coat and a thin black headscarf is genuflecting before the crib.
Ruby backs out into the eye-watering brightness. It must be good to believe. She has found it hard to believe in anything since no babies came along for her and Stuart. People liked to soothe them with “At least you have each other.” Not any more.
“At least it was quick,” they have been consoling, recently. Brisk and numb-shocking like sticking plaster being ripped from her entire body. Taking her the full thickness of her skin and the tips of her nerves with it.
The restaurant is closed. Its silvery tables and chairs are stacked on the crazy-paved patio. Abandoned. For a horrible, thrilling few moments, Ruby thinks she might cry. The temperature is dropping as the sun prepares to pinken and plummet.
She scrambles down to the expanse of pebbles below the low sea wall. Ruby picks up a stone. It is solid like the knot she has had in her gut since Stuart… She wants to smash it. She hurls it against a giant smooth boulder, then a jagged chunk of hardened lava, but it bounces back at her, with barely a mark on it.
She is crying. Ruby is scared it will never stop. A wrinkled hand reaches out from a navy-blue sleeve and lightly touches Ruby’s wrist. Ruby’s sobs slow to the rhythm of the woman’s hushing. The woman places Ruby’s stone on the ground, then lays another on top of it. She signals to Ruby to do the same.
The sun is setting. They take turns in balancing their stones until the tower reaches its limit, silhouetted against the fiery sky. They stand back.
Silently and together, they have made some kind of monument. Even if the storm comes and their cairn is toppled, they will know that it was there.
Ruby recognises the woman’s words from the Christmas music they pipe in the hotel lift. She mimics the woman’s soft consonants as closely as she can as she repeats the words back to her, meaning them in her own way.
Helen Victoria Anderson has an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from Teesside University. She won First Prize in the People Not Borders Short Story Competition 2017. Author of ‘Piece by Piece: Remembering Georgina: A Mother’s Memoir’ (Slipway, 2015), she is a bereaved parent and a widow.