This is the flesh we ignore: brown and crenelated, hanging in wrinkled folds over the straps of waistbands, stockings, bras. Sunbaked. She appears sixty or seventy, approaching the age where people start using the word dignity. Wearing a headscarf at the beach. Headscarves are fashionable, headscarves are illness and pride, headscarves are dignity.
She knows the ridges of this beach. Knows where to plant her legs so the crest of pebbles sits just beneath her knees and stops them from getting stiff. She digs a small furrow at her side before planting her bag inside it. Ribbons tied around one handle are frayed now, and they wave softly with the wind. From the bag she unravels a thick satin towel and spreads it over her lap, and anyone looking knows to look away as she shuffles onto one hip and then the other. Not grimacing exactly, merely the pursing of the lips which accompanies a task which is unpleasant but quotidian.
After a minute she holds a piece of fabric which is obviously, unmistakably, a pair of knickers. Made precisely for the aged and flabby, a common object, but one which has been thoroughly erased from the collective psyche. For a second she holds them in the air like a flag of pride.
Then a second shuffling, and then she is complete. Only now does she cast her blue-tinged eyes across the pebbles to the young couples, the scrawny boys and the speedos encroached by middle-aged stomach. There’s a certain satisfaction to her in the clusters of people dotted like anomalies across the beach. They are manifold, but not too many. A low rumbling makes her turn — a Boeing jet sweeps over the bay, before descending rapidly towards a distant promontory. The Nice flight path clings to the coastline, turning it grey-pink with fumes. Now her eyebrows arch into an almighty scowl, and beneath the roar of jet engines, another, deeper rumble seems to emanate from her, jaw clenched, gravestone teeth prised together. Yet a fragmentary epoch passes and both sounds are gone: only two girls splashing in the waves.
A seagull lands nearby, and pecks at a shell. She watches it lovingly.
There’s a shout, and pointing. Heads turn, hers too. Stretching necks around to beyond the sweet-shop pastel promenade, towards Nice-Ville station, where the silver lines snake towards the mountains. They’re obscured in places by wiry plumes of smoke.
The tracks are alight. Most watching don’t realise that it’s the seventh time this summer. But she does, she knows. It’s only June.
Her sunken cheeks sag with worry. The trains will be delayed, rerouted. A microcosm of lovers will not be reunited tonight. A smattering of fathers not making it home from their business trips. And a lonely boy of just nineteen will reach his hostel twenty-five minutes late, find its doors locked, and wander the luminescent streets until he finds a quiet park to rest, where at dawn he will be mugged at knifepoint. She feels for him as she feels for them all.
But there’s more; there’s something deeper which unsettles her to the core, something she knows they cannot grasp. The smoke-stream climbs higher into the azure, that sky so vivid and yet somehow stretched, blanched.
She stands, rocking slightly backwards beforehand. Her thighs are pockmarked and spotted with freckles, and transform into gooseflesh as she steps into the sea. She doesn’t go deep: she doesn’t need to. Facing the featureless horizon, her back to the fire, she can almost imagine herself three million years ago. Then the coastline was four hundred metres away, with heavier rocks, and a trilobite inching along unspoilt earth.
Kneeling, with difficulty, she places both palms into the water, down to the sand. On that same sand thirty miles away, a Canadian woman on holiday feels her right leg give way as she clambers up the beach, the first concrete indication of her multiple sclerosis; on that same sand in Italy, a boy of seventeen meets the eye of the man he will lose his virginity to; on that same sand in Israel, three friends sit down for lunch and realize that none of them brought anything to drink; on that same sand across the sea, in amongst an outcrop on an Algiers beach, a man grabs his lover’s neck and ejaculates into her, the first step in a chain of events which will lead to their son bringing a semi-automatic weapon to school on the third Thursday of March 2034; on those same beaches which were so much longer so little time ago, the tears and blood of a thousand brawls are absorbed, but not without a trace, not while the silent pools of consequence threaten to boil over, not —
She lifts her palms, heart pulsating heavily. It is, as ever, too much.
Water trickles now in jagged streams between her tendons. She knows each stream contains hundreds of minute scraps of plastic. Knows these plastics will suffocate ten thousand three hundred and twelve before the decade is out. A terrible thing to know.
Climbing carefully out of the water, she watches the groups of people watching the fire on the hillside grow. Its flames were visible now — soon, the plume of smoke will meander over their heads and dull the sun’s rays for a minute or two. A much needed respite for the pale-skinned bodies, so unused to this heat, so unaware that this heat was anodyne for so much of the earth. Oh, this baked earth.
She watches them watching it, and knows they will do nothing. What could they do? What are they supposed to do? Go running to the nearest fire station, and demand they help fight it?
There are people who are responsible for dealing with the fires. There are other people responsible for supplying the water to the people responsible for the fires. Still others supply the pipes for the water. There are structures and systems in place for all of this, so much control, so many cogs in this machine, all of which can blame each other.
Old, tired, she watches them point, photograph, laugh and murmur in shock. Watches them do nothing.
The murmuring begins again, only this time it isn’t a plane. It starts from the waves, reverberates through the pebbles, echoes from palm tree to palm tree and shakes the wine in the thousands of glasses which smatter the promenades in glittering earthly ley-lines.
A crash: like waves.
Those closest jump, grab the arms of their partners, look to where she had been, where the pebbles lie damp where her towel had been. They’re confused. Had she left, quickly, unseen?
One by one they forget. Turning back to the fire spreading up the hill, not realising that she is there now, one with the inferno, striding through like a wight of flame, casting her fiery glare to the pinpricked tourists below.
Rage? No, she is not angry. When she swallows them all, it will be with the most kind and tender indifference. She is the flesh we ignore, but she cannot be ignored forever.