The woman sat on an outcrop above the rock pool. She had lost track of how long she had been waiting. She could hear the regular cries of disgust and the less frequent shrieks of delight as her son found each new discovery in the pools below. Another few months, she thought, and he would at school and too old for such childish pleasures. The coldness of the rock had numbed her body and she got up to stretch her legs. As she stood, she looked back into the dunes wondering how much longer to wait. Momentarily, she regretted not suggesting they should meet in some pub down in the town. Somehow she wanted to be in the open for the meeting. Besides, her son would be bored and demanding without some activity to keep him occupied.
She let her thoughts drift back to the last time they had been together. She shivered in the cold wind, as she thought of how crestfallen he had been and what she had consequently done. It had started well with a carefully selected restaurant and an expensive meal, or so it seemed to her student sensibilities. Perhaps too much wine, and then a companiable walk back to the student hall. If only he had not given her that present.
‘Rose, I’d really like you to take this on your trip’, he said, as he gave her a small, neatly wrapped package.
‘Thank you – how clever of you to find gift paper with tiny elephants’, she said, trying to keep the concern she felt out of her voice. Surely he had not given her a ring? She slowly removed the wrappings to reveal a small red, leather box.
‘Oh, I really don’t think….’, she said, wondering how to finish the sentence but then he took the box out of her hands and opened it to reveal a small brass compass.
‘I think you’ll find this useful at some point’, he said.
‘I know that when you start in London tomorrow, you only have to keep going south for long enough and eventually you will get to Cape Town, but there are bound to be some twists and turns in such a long adventure so I thought a compass would be just the thing’.
She felt lightheaded for a moment, unsteady from the relief that she would not have to upset him.
‘That is such a nice thing, so thoughtful, and, well, so really nice’, she said. In her relief, she put her arms around him and gave him a squeeze, ready to accept a kiss, something they had never done. But as she closed her eyes and waited, he pulled away.
‘I can’t believe it’, he said. ‘Look, the wretched thing is broken! North is that way, but the needle is pointing the other way’.
‘I don’t understand’, she said.
‘They must have made a mistake in the factory, maybe painted the wrong end of the needle red’, he replied. ‘I wanted you so much to carry it, and maybe think of me - perhaps it would even guide you back someday. But it’s no use now’.
She was not sure what he meant – was it the gift that was broken, or the farewell, or something more?
‘Wait …’, she said but he had already closed the box and with a groan, he threw the box into the street, and turned to walk away. She was not sure if it was compassion, or pity or maybe it was simply the wine, but she found herself roughly catching his arm, and then leading him up the steps of the building.
* * *
She thought she had heard her name, but it was only the grey gulls, wheeling overhead, calling to each other as they danced in disdain over the two figures below.
She in turn called over to her son,
‘Come on, John – it’s time to go home for some tea.’
The boy threw his final catch back into the pool and scrambled up the rocks. She took his right hand in her left as they always did and started to walk slowly back to town. Her other hand found its way inside her pocket and, as it often did, caressed the red leather box, knowing that one day she would give it to her son.