Rose woke early and lay still, listening to the quiet sounds of the village beyond the shuttered windows. She watched the play of light that crept through in ribbons. The peace was like the silken eiderdown she pulled about her, a cloak of serenity to get her through the day ahead. She could just hear her sister Mariena snoring quietly in the room that should have been their mother’s. The faux politeness that had led to this arrangement – herself in one of the narrow single rooms and her sister in the beautiful double – felt gritty beneath her tongue.
Today would be better, she told herself. The Basque country sunshine was already golden with promise.
She rose slowly and made her way to the bathroom, wanting to be dressed and ready before her sister came downstairs. The house belonged to the family of a woman their mum, Margaret, had known at university. It was in a village with a main road few vehicles ever stopped at, and branched with tracks leading to warrens of dwellings – some abandoned and half collapsed in on themselves. Their home for the next three days was set in a courtyard, which they reached by “turning left at the twisted tree, and left again at the donkey.”
Inside, the air smelled sweetly of dust and damp, and it was full of the vestiges of the past. Porcelain Virgin Marys or crucifixes hung above the beds, and the one wardrobe that still opened revealed a stack of albums, each one crammed with pictures of healthy, happy people in sepia. Among them were several of Margaret. In the photos her hair was as buoyantly curly as Mariena’s, and her frame as tomboyishly slender as Rose’s. She looked impossibly young and brimming with joy.
Mariena emerged almost an hour later, complaining of mosquito bites and reminding Rose to layer on sun cream. “Your skin is so fair. Did you bring a hat?”
“Yes, Mum,” Rose retorted teasingly, then bit her lip at her unthinking choice of word.
Marina showed no sign of having noticed, and merely shrugged and grinned. “Oops, old habit.”
Grabbing everything they might want for the day, they headed out, soon seeing a sign that indicated they were three kilometres from Playa de Gulpiyuri.
“Playa means beach,” Rose said. “That’s the one Mum wanted to show us, isn’t it? Let’s see if we can find it.”
“Great,” agreed Mariena, who liked to have a plan.
They followed the road past fields of apricot-coloured cows, a few calves and a large solitary bull gazing at the distant, glittering strip of sea. A chapel with its bell-tower off-kilter stood to one side: the kind of place their mother would have insisted on visiting. The absence of her on this holiday, which she’d suggested and they had booked to please her, felt almost cruel, Rose thought. She watched her sister photographing every aspect of the view, then halting to examine the blister forming on one heel, and tried to issue the sympathy she knew Mariena was craving.
“Poor you. Does it hurt very much?”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I’ll manage.”
The road dwindled to a lane, then split in two. One was far threadier than the other, and they wavered. “We shouldn’t veer from the main route,” Mariena declared. “We might get lost.”
“How?” Rose asked. Apart from occasional hummocks, the land was flat enough that they could see all the way to the shadowy peaks of the Picos de Europa. She looked at the path snaking across the open field, and the tantalising glimmer of water beyond. “Come on, be brave. I want to go this way.”
She set off before Mariena could object, feeling the stinging satisfaction of her older sister’s annoyance blooming in her wake.
“What’s your problem?” Mariena demanded, hurrying after her.
“Problem?” Rose stopped and turned, spreading her arms like wings, hands palm upwards. “I haven’t got problem. Just enjoying this beautiful morning, what’s left of it, and wanting a closer look at the sea…”
“Oh, good, we’re on the same page then.”
“Makes a change.”
“Doesn’t it?” Mariena laughed lightly, a soft, forced chuckle that caught Rose by surprise. Not so long ago this exchange would have been enough to ignite them both into fury, but somehow her sister was rising above it and being a grown up. A burst of shame uncoiled in her throat, and she recalled the bleak glow in their mother’s eyes that day when they’d moved her into the old people’s home.
“Did she make you promise, too?” she muttered, eyes fixed on Mariena’s face, and saw a subtle tightening of the muscles there before her sister nodded, pursing her lips.
“It’s not only that, though,” Mariena said. “Mum getting old, getting frail, it’s made me see how… how little time we have. My kids might not always have their dad and me. Having you around could help.”
Rose felt her eyes widen as she took the words in, and she stared at her sister. “You want me to…?”
“Oh, come on, don’t look so frightened!” Mariena grinned, but her expression was faintly hurt. “I just meant it’s nice for them to have you in their lives.”
“Okay, sorry. They’re great fun; I’m just not that… maternal.”
Mariena blinked. “Want to know a secret? Neither am I.”
They both erupted then, the sound of their laughter climbing through the air to where some hawk or buzzard circled in patient wait.
For a time they walked onwards, skirting areas of electric fencing and drawing ever closer to the cliffs. The sound of waves surging landwards grew clearer, and then they were just metres away. Rose inhaled the clean salty fragrance and smiled, remembering their childhood summers camping in Cornwall. More often than not, the weather had been appalling – churning the sea to green glass and sending down rain that struck their tents as though with rage. She and Mariena had threatened each other with endless whispered calamities in the darkness – of being blown over the wind-torn cliffs and drowning in the boiling depths. Funny, none of these possibilities ever seemed to occur to their unruffled mother – she would wade through sea caves to reach the best and most secluded shores. Her rashness was only tempered by their father’s steady common sense.
Even the ‘old fogies home’, as she referred to it in the most scathing tones, hadn’t fazed her. Instead, she’d taken the opportunity to create scandalous stories about the pensioners she lived amongst, telling tales of Mrs Doggerty, who’d scaled the Pyrenees and shagged every shepherd she encountered, and about Mr Eldritch, who’d smuggled himself backstage at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in a crate of costumes to seduce a well-known tenor.
Rose had never known how much of these tales to disregard, but enjoyed the flights of fancy. It helped to keep her visits just the right side of bearable as she watched her mother’s bones and veins reveal themselves more shamelessly each week.
This trip to northern Spain had been intended for the three of them – Mariena and Rose taking their mum on one last adventure while she still had the strength.
“Hope Wil’s getting on okay by himself,” Rose said suddenly. “It’s hard for us to be apart.”
“Is it?” Mariena raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been together a decade. Please tell me you’re not still joined at the hip!”
“No, ’course not, but you know… We’ve held onto the romance. He brings me flowers most weeks, even now.”
Rose thought of their mum and dad bickering together during those Cornish holidays; how Margaret would rest her head on their dad’s shoulder in the evenings, and the tenderness that would flow between them whenever one extended a hand to the other during hikes. “Can’t imagine how it is for you and Dan,” she said at last. “Kids clamouring all the time…”
Mariena hesitated, then shrugged. “Yeah, well, I miss them like crazy now.”
The sisters strolled along the cliff edge; Mariena snapping endless photos while Rose sought a way down to the exposed sand far below.
“I don’t think it’s possible – this can’t be the beach on the sign,” she said at last.
At that moment a collie burst past them, tail wagging madly, and tore along a barely visible path through the gorse and heather. A man ambled after the dog.
“Buenas dias!” Rose exclaimed, and the man grinned.
“Let’s follow them,” Rose hissed. “They’re local – they must know the good places!”
“You’re so like Mum sometime,” Mariena laughed. “Just as reckless.”
“Why, thank you!”
Man and dog were moving a-pace, sure-footed and confident, while the sisters’ progress was hampered by the stony terrain, spiky plants, and Mariena’s need to photograph every detail.
Moths with red markings on silvery wings caught Rose’s attention. “We saw these in Austria when we went to that cabin in the Alps. I was twelve, so you must have been fourteen.”
“How can you possibly remember that? It was more than twenty years ago!”
Rose shrugged, smiling. “You know how my brain works, all the useless stuff I retain without meaning to.”
They lost sight of the man and dog briefly, distracted by a fissure in the rock that revealed a scrap of shore some metres beneath. Then the collie hared up an unseen trail, soaking wet and ecstatic. The man, Rose saw, was standing a little further along the cliff. He made some cheerful comment, and she giggled politely without understanding the joke.
“Shall we give it a try?” she asked Mariena, and Mariena stared at her, aghast.
“Look how steep it is! No way. We’d most likely fall, and even if we didn’t, there’s no way we could climb back up.”
Rose peered over regretfully, but agreed, some part of her relieved at having the sensible decision made for her. She wondered if that’s how their parent’s relationship had worked, with her dad’s prudence allowing her mum’s spirited nature to run free without peril.
The faint track they’d been following met a wider route suddenly. It veered inland, clearly the wrong direction for a beach, but the thought of walking without stumbling and being scratched was so appealing that Rose let her sister choose it.
After another half hour or so, they saw a huddle of people grouped just ahead. Intrigued, Rose sped up, eager to see what they were all looking at.
“What’s the hurry?” Mariena asked, “Don’t forget I’ve got that blister!”
Rose halted at the brink of the hollow that had been invisible from just a few steps back. It swept down into a small, isolated bay ringed by rock walls. They looked impenetrable, but this was clearly a façade, as the sea rose and fell with the suck of a tide finding its way through crannies in the cliffs.
Rose exhaled, enchanted. “This is it, Mariena. This is what Mum wanted us to see!” She ran down the slope onto sand almost as soft as talcum powder. Within seconds, she’d pushed her trainers off and was wading in the icy shallows. “Muy frío!” she exclaimed to the nearest person, clowning shivering to be certain the meaning was expressed. “Brrr!”
Mariena arrived beside her abruptly, eyes glittering with more than delight at the scene.
“Magical, isn’t it?” Rose hugged then released her quickly as she felt a shudder run through her sister’s body.
“Yes, magical.” There was an odd catch to Mariena’s voice that made anxiety leap inside Rose. “It’s why she wanted us to come. You get it, don’t you? She knew she wouldn’t be taking this trip with us.”
“Why would she…? Why book a trip you’ve no intention of taking?” Rose gaped, frowning.
“There’s no way she could have thought she’d manage to hike all the way to this spot.” Mariena sat on the sand, and began to wriggle out of her backpack. “You must understand that.”
“She wanted us to come, the two of us. Spend some proper time together. It’s been long enough, hasn’t it?”
Rose sat down beside her sister, watching as she undid the toggle at the top of the bag. “Yeah, well, we’re both busy, and life…”
“It gets in the way, yeah. Plus, we’re not exactly…”
“No, for sure.”
“I think she was really aware that after she went, we’d have nothing to keep us… together. She wanted the two of us to at least…” Mariena sighed, then smiled. “…at least make an effort with each other.”
Rose hesitated for a long moment, watching the heave and rush of waves in the little enclosed sea. She thought of their mum in that photo album, and the optimism she’d exuded. “I can do that,” she murmured, nodding.
“Good. Me too.” Mariena beamed at Rose somewhat crookedly, and handed her the small tin containing a third of their mother’s ashes. “Now, let’s wade out and let the sea decide on one last adventure.”