The Ladder by Muriel Cooper
She remembered the steep ladder leading down from the cliff to the beach, and the cave where countless fires had been lit, blackening the roof. You could sit in there and watch the sea when it wasn’t occupied by drunken teenagers or drug-affected hippies.
She hadn’t thought about St Paul’s Road beach for ages. Why was she thinking about it now? Then she blushed, recalling the first time she went there. It was with Greta, beautiful, exciting, exhilarating Greta. She’d had no idea about Greta then. All she knew was she was on an adventure with someone who made her feel wild and reckless.
Greta had pulled her over to the ladder and said: “You’ve gotta see this Mare” (short for Mary, who hated Mare but somehow was willing to put up with it when it was Greta). “Come on!” Mary hesitated. She didn’t like heights and wasn’t all that nimble. She didn’t want to be shown up by Greta and looked down the ladder to the ledge below. She was attacked by vertigo coupled with anxiety. Thinking about it, she smiled to herself. Boy, she did not want to go down that ladder, but Greta was so infectious, plus she seemed to have a confidence in Mary that she did not have in herself.
“Here goes!” she had said, turning around backward and grasping the ladder. Slowly she descended one rung at a time her fingers as white as her face. Greta, already at the bottom by now, yelled, “Only two more Mare! You did it!” Mary’s foot touched the rocks, and she felt as though she’d won an event at the Olympics. She leapt up and down and pumped the air with her fists, screaming, “Yes! “Yes!” Greta laughed and hugged her. She saw the cave and gasped. “Wow! I never knew about this.’
Greta grasped her hand and pulled her under the ledge. “Aboriginal people probably camped here, Mare. Can you imagine them around the fire eating shellfish and talking? Not like a lot of people who use it now, druggies and deadbeats.” Greta looked sad, and Mary had to agree, noticing drink cans, used condoms, and cigarette butts. Greta wanted to clean them up, but Mary, being the practical one, objected, saying, “You never know what germs they’ve got on them, Greta. So, they sat looking at the sea, trying to ignore the rubbish.
Greta jumped up, saying, “There’s more!” She grasped Mary’s hand and led her along a ledge around a bend in the cliff, then down to a tiny beach. The cliff had eroded to form an arch. It framed the rock ledges, and the waves beyond that rolled over them and landed on the sand. Greta jumped into the rock pools and started looking for shells.
Mary could see her now, just as she was on that day, her long curly blond hair streaming out in the wind, her blue eyes wide and totally absorbed in what she saw, her slim body and long, tanned legs emerging from her ripped off shorts.
She could see herself too. Brown bob to go with her brown eyes, jeans, and a shirt, sensible sneakers. She remembered how she felt. Dowdy; ordinary beside Greta.
As she watched her, Mary felt emotions that were new and confusing; feelings in the pit of her stomach; feelings she had never felt with any of her boyfriends, particularly the one she had just broken up with. She couldn’t get into them. They were annoying and obsessed with sex.
Greta came and sat beside Mary in the sand on the little beach that, at that moment, was totally their own. She flung her arm around Mary, leaning her head on her shoulder. Mary recalled the feelings in her body intensified, and she felt her heart start to pound. Greta had lifted her head and looked into her eyes. In that instant, everything fell into place, the beach, the wind, the rocks, the sea, and Greta, synchronised into a life-defining moment when Mary realised, she loved Greta and not as a friend.
Mary closed her eyes to the sea and surrendered herself to the moment, not caring what came next, hoping for a memory to keep so that, just for that moment, she might know love, hopeless, but love, nonetheless. She didn’t want to think about her sexuality; she’d never considered herself gay. She didn’t want to think about anything, truth be told.
After what felt like forever, she felt reality creep in. She was grateful for the moment, but that’s all it was. She remembered opening her eyes and seeing the waves start to come closer. She sighed and said, “That was wonderful, but I think the tide’s coming in, we should go.”
She savoured the next part of the memory above all others. Greta’s hand on her cheek exerted gentle pressure, and they were eye to eye. Greta pulled their heads together, and their lips met. Oh, God, the electricity. Mary thrilled at the memory and sighed with pleasure. Then the daydream was interrupted by a mug of coffee being placed on the desk in front of her.
“Time for a break, sweetie,” Greta said and kissed her on the cheek