The Woman in White
It was on the third day of their holiday that Sarah and Brett first saw the woman in the white dress. They’d spent the morning exploring the castle ruins up on the hill. It was something Sarah had done many times as a child with her parents, but seeing it with Brett, through a fresh pair of eyes, was like discovering it for the first time all over again. Afterwards, they’d wandered hand in hand down the cobbled alleys into town, looking in the windows of the art galleries and gift shops as they passed, commenting on the funny postcards and silly souvenirs.
When they reached the main square, Sarah felt as if she’d come home. The old buildings, the cafes and shops were all comfortingly familiar. Highcliffe was one of her very favourite places, one she associated with happy memories and one she could never imagine growing tired of.
‘So what’s it to be then?’ asked Brett. ‘An ice-cream, or tea and cakes?’
‘Um, decisions, decisions,’ sighed Sarah, longingly. ‘How about tea and cakes, then we could always manage to squeeze in an ice-cream later.’
‘Good idea,’ said Brett, grinning.
As they meandered through the throng of sightseers, a peculiar feeling overcame Sarah. Something made her stop and look over her shoulder to the other side of the square. She gasped, causing Brett to stop abruptly.
‘Oh my goodness,’ she cried, her hand flying to her mouth. ‘Look over there, at that woman!’
Brett was already transfixed. He let out a strange, false laugh as he looked from the woman to Sarah.
‘How funny,’ he said, grabbing Sarah tighter by the hand.
The woman was wearing a long flowing white skirt and matching tunic, but in all other respects she was the walking double of Sarah. The same willowy build, auburn hair that fell in soft waves to her shoulders and distinct, defined features could leave no one in any doubt that the two women must be related in some way. Identical twins, even!
‘Well, they say everyone’s got a double,’ laughed Brett, ‘and I think she could be yours. Fancy that, two gorgeous women in the same town. How lucky can one guy get?’
But Sarah wasn’t laughing. The colour had drained from her cheeks and her hands shook uncontrollably.
‘She’s looking at me,’ Sarah said, ‘I think she’s trying to tell me something. She’s pointing at something, over there. What can it be?’
‘Come on, let’s go and see,’ said Brett, taking control. ‘I expect she’s as surprised as you are bumping into her look-alike.’
Sarah stood on the spot, reluctant to move.
‘I’m not sure,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’
‘Oh don’t be silly,’ said Brett. ‘We’ll go and introduce ourselves.’
As he took her by the arm, a caterpillar of school children, the girls in pretty gingham dresses and the boys in grey shorts and blue polo shirts, crossed in front of their path, and for a moment Sarah and Brett’s attention was diverted by their noisy chatter. When they looked up, to where the woman had been standing, she’d gone. They looked all around them, to every corner of the square, but there was no sign of her anywhere.
‘She’s obviously done a runner,’ joked Brett. ‘Can’t say I blame her. It isn’t every day you come face to face with a living image of yourself.’
‘My doppelganger,’ said Sarah, solemnly, before tears fell down her cheeks. ‘And what was it she was trying to tell me? She was pointing over there, towards the sea.’
Brett looked at Sarah and saw the fear in her eyes. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and dried her eyes.
‘She probably wasn’t even looking at us at all. It was probably her friend or boyfriend behind us. That’s where she’s gone, to find them, onto the beach.’
Later when they were sitting outside a café, Sarah found her appetite for cake had vanished. Instead, she sipped pensively at her tea.
‘It’s supposed to be unlucky to see your doppelganger,’ she said, looking up into Brett’s eyes. ‘An omen of your own…’
Brett shook his head. ‘Come on, now, that’s just a silly myth. Besides, I’m sure if we’d got up close to her, she probably wouldn’t have looked anything like you.’
But despite Brett’s reassurances, Sarah was unable to get the woman out of her mind. For the rest of their holiday wherever they went, Sarah constantly looked behind her, jumping at her reflection in shop windows, wondering whether she would come face to face with her look-alike again.
She felt tearful and emotional, snapping at Brett for no obvious reason. In fact, for the first time in all the years she’d been visiting Highcliffe, she was pleased to get to the last day of her holiday, relieved to be going home.
‘This isn’t like you, Sarah,’ Brett said, ‘you’re normally so strong, so positive. Don’t let one little incident upset you.’
Back at home, Sarah didn’t feel any better, she still felt unsettled by the encounter with the mystery woman. So when three weeks later she found out the reason for her heightened emotions, the tears, the irrationality, everything seemed to fall into place.
‘Pregnant!’ Brett said, his face lighting up with excitement, ‘how did that happen?’ Sarah laughed. ‘I’m not really sure, but happened, it has. Are you pleased, Brett?’
‘Pleased? I’m ecstatic.’ He said, lifting her off her feet and twirling her around him.
Certainly, they hadn’t planned to start a family just yet. They’d only recently finalised their plans to marry later that summer, but none of that mattered. Their friends and family were thrilled for them and their wedding went ahead as arranged, the only alteration being to the wedding dress that was let out slightly for Sarah’s burgeoning bump.
‘You know what you said about seeing that women being an omen. I think you were right. It was an omen. Only a lucky one,’ said Brett. ‘Maybe that’s what she was trying to tell us, that you were pregnant.’
‘That’s funny, because that was my first thought too. I’m so pleased as well. I didn’t want to hold any bad feelings about Highcliffe. It’s such a special place, one I hope our children will come to love as much as we do.’
Brett nodded in agreement. ‘We’ll have to take the baby there, maybe later this year. Show the sprog all the high spots.’
Sarah giggled. ‘I’m sure it’ll appreciate that.’
Some months later, their baby daughter arrived, with a shock of auburn hair, to match that of her mother’s.
‘She’s beautiful,’ said Brett, stroking her head for the first time. ‘What should we call her,’ he looked lovingly into his wife’s weary face.
‘How about Destiny,’ she suggested, her eyes bright. ‘After all, I’m sure fate took a hand in her arrival.’
‘Mmm,’ Sarah could see Brett mulling the thought over in his mind. ‘Our little Destiny. That’s absolutely perfect,’ he said, a smile lighting up his face.
As it happened, Brett and Sarah didn’t get to go back to Highcliffe that year. Or the following one. Their first few months, then years, as a family seemed to pass in a haze of dirty nappies and sleepless nights, only punctuated by occasional days out and weekends away with friends.
But with Destiny’s third birthday approaching, Brett insisted that they needed a proper break away as a family. They managed to book into the same guest house that they’d stayed in the last time they’d visited and with Destiny now chatting endlessly, her eager anticipation of her first visit to the seaside made it all the more special for her parents.
As Sarah had always found, the sun shone unremittingly in Highcliffe and despite the advent of time, the town seemed to retain a nostalgic charm, reminiscent of a bygone age.
They spent their days rock pooling, Destiny in her red wellies, endlessly fascinated by the creatures she found in her net. Then they would meander into town for a locally made ice cream, pausing to peer into the shop windows as they passed.
Sarah had never felt happier. They took photo after photo. Destiny in a rock-pool gleefully holding up some seaweed. Destiny on Brett’s shoulders as he paddled into the sea. Destiny attempting her first clotted cream tea.
It was a holiday of magical memories and their final day in Highcliffe was no exception. They spent their remaining time on the beach, close to the water’s edge, so Destiny could chase the gentle waves in and out under the watchful gaze of Sarah and Brett. Brett was a master sandcastle maker and endlessly patient as he made an elaborate fortress.
At the end of the day as the sun was going down, Sarah pulled on a white cheesecloth skirt and matching top to cover up her swimsuit. It was as she gathered up their belongings, packing away the buckets and spades and towels, that she heard the faint calling of her name.
‘Sarah, Sarah,’ the singsong voice called.
As her gaze scanned the beach, she saw in front of her, a little way out to sea, a woman dressed all in white. A feeling of nausea rose in her throat. It was the same woman she’d seen three years before in Highcliffe. Her doppelganger.
A cold chill ran through Sarah’s body as the woman beckoned to her.
‘Brett,’ she cried, turning to grab his arm. But he was totally oblivious to Sarah and the woman in the water. His face was set in panic as he searched frantically around him.
‘Where’s Destiny?’ He demanded, looking up and down the beach. ‘I thought she was with you.’
Sarah’s whole body turned cold. ‘She was here a minute ago, just here. Making sandcastles. She can’t have gone far. Destiny!’ she called, fear ringing in her voice.
Brett and Sarah searched the sands in desperation, called their daughter’s name increasingly loudly, until Sarah spotted, floating on the water’s edge, a pink embroidered sun hat. Destiny’s hat.
‘No!’ she cried, ‘not my baby, please not my baby.’
She waded into the sea, tears rolling down her cheeks, all the time calling out for Destiny.
Just then as Brett returned, flustered and breathless, to their spot on the beach, having searched the area around them, frantically asking anyone in his path if they’d seen a red-headed child, a small figure came running across the beach and flung her arms around her father’s legs.
‘Daddy, Daddy,’ she cried, ‘are we going home now?’
‘Oh, Destiny,’ he sighed, relief flooding through his body. He scooped her up, pulling her closely to his side and showered her auburn hair with kisses.
‘Where’s Mummy?’ she asked, looking around her.
Brett held Destiny tight in his arms as he looked all around him for his wife. He couldn’t see in the distance the vision in white disappearing beneath the rolling waves.
‘Sarah?’ he called. ‘Sarah! There’s no need to worry, we’ve found her. Where are you, my darling?’
– end –