Summer, Nineteen Sixty Four
by Jan Barker
Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015
Can you help me? It’s always the same.
Beneath the harsh afternoon sun, the red plastic football bumps and rolls its way down through the sea-grasses and between the folds of the dunes towards the beach.
There will be other families on the beach. I’ll hear their laughter and chatter, voices competing for attention, the whacking sound of ball-games. I’ll listen to music clashing between radio stations, a backing track of screechy gulls and waves surfing in to scrunch on pebbles and shells at the shoreline.
I’ll play in the grainy sand, mixed with grit and pebbles, digging trenches with a red plastic spade and small fingertips, secretly building a protective moat around myself. In the humid high of summer, every movement feels like wading through soup.
At the edge of my mind, I’ll be waiting for that moment when it’s time to leave the beach. She’ll push on my bright red jelly shoes which won’t feel at all soft like jelly after school. They feel hard like plastic and lumpy where I’m walking on sand inside. When we reach the car-park, she’ll take off my jelly shoes and rub me down with a towel. I don’t know why. I hate that towel, it feels hard and rough. It’s thin and white with orange palm trees. I dread the moment she’ll rub my feet with that towel, she’ll knock my toes which are crooked like my dad’s, and I’ll wriggle and squeal and complain, the rubbing is brisk and sore on my skin, but it won’t make any difference. ‘Please don’t rub my feet, Mummy, it hurts.’ If I struggle too much there will be smack on my legs. I’ll be funny about people touching my feet for the rest of my life.
Then she’ll put on my bright red cardigan, which she knitted for me because I like red, even though it’s too hot to wear it today. I’ll try to explain this but nobody listens. I try not to think about that moment before it comes.
On the beach, Mummy will be singing along to Dusty on the radio. I know that song is one of her favourites but it sounds sad to me. Then into the next song and she’ll take my hands to pull me out of the moat and dance to ‘Doo Wah Diddy Diddy’ because she knows it’s my favourite. And I’ll laugh and sing, I know the words and I try but I can’t really dance in the sand and I fall over and pull Mummy over too, but she hugs me and doesn’t mind too much. The music on the radio is like warm treacle in my ears. I’ll like that song for the rest of my life.
At the edge of my mind, I’ll be waiting for that moment when Daddy wants me to go into the sea with him. Daddy will run in and I’ll follow, cautiously, I don’t like the stones under my feet, they make my feet sore. Daddy will swim around me and splash me and laugh at me and try to teach me to swim. I’ll try, but swimming doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ll panic and Daddy gets impatient when I don’t get it right. ‘I don’t like the water, don’t hold me down, Daddy.’ I’ll be afraid of water for the rest of my life.
Daddy will give up and we’ll go back onto dry land where Mummy is singing along to Cliff Richard, but I don’t understand what the song is about. Daddy will start running about to get dry, playing with the red plastic football, I don’t know if he’s cross with me about the swimming. So I’ll try to join in, running along and catching the ball and throwing it back and Daddy seems pleased and we’ll play together like that for a while. I’ll remember that game on the beach with my Dad for the rest of my life.
Mummy will be singing ‘Shout’ along with Lulu and I’ll join in the chorus while she and Daddy build sandcastles with me with yellow and orange buckets, carefully constructing the turrets on the biggest sandcastle in the world. Daddy will say the trenches I dug around the castle are really good. This is the best thing about being on the beach. I’ll enjoy sandcastles for the rest of my life.
Mummy and Daddy were always telling me not to worry. I heard them say to the doctor that I was an anxious child, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I tried to please them because pleasing adults seemed to be what was expected of me. I remember wanting them to enjoy that day on the beach.
Mummy will say she’s going to fetch ice creams and do I want to come with her. I’ll say I want to stay with Daddy because I’m too hot and I feel a bit funny, everything looks too bright, like I’m watching us on the telly. Mummy will fumble in her little purse for some coins and scramble in the sand to stand up. I’ll watch my mother walk away in her crinkly red swimsuit which is tied behind her neck. I’ll hear my father behind me, singing along to a song that I don’t know. Daddy will say it’s the Swinging Blue Jeans, he’ll be adding a new wing to the sandcastle and he’ll ask me to help him finish it.
In that instant, or maybe in the next, I’ll become aware of the change.
I’ll still see Mummy, in her crinkly red swimsuit with the halter neck, buying strawberry ice creams at the beach kiosk. She turns and waves to me while she’s waiting for our three-penny cornets. Can she not see what’s happening? Why doesn’t she come? I’ll want to call to her but I don’t seem to know how to speak. That’s always the moment when I start to feel really clammy and frightened. That’s the moment when I disconnect.
Daddy will be looking at me with a puzzled expression. Something seems to be terribly wrong. Daddy is speaking to me, I can see his lips, the question in his face, but I can never hear what he’s saying to me. I really wish I could hear him because maybe then everything would be all right.
Then I’ll see, quite clearly, that the sky has turned from its usual yellow colour to something less than black. I’m in a silent storm of nothingness. The sea, a burning orange, will pour into the moat around the biggest sandcastle in the world, I hear it sucking and swirling before it slides away, but I can’t hear Daddy. Daddy will be reaching out to me.
Then Daddy will have disappeared. Well, maybe behind me, but if I turn around and Daddy’s not there and Mummy hasn’t come for me, then my last moment of hope will be snatched away. So I never turn around.
My world will be tilting rapidly and then I’m cold beyond cold and a tiny movement in my peripheral vision will drag my eyes to the right. And then I’ll watch the red plastic football bumping and rolling its way down through the sea-grasses and the folds of the sand dunes towards me.
It’s always the same. I was seven when it started and now I don’t know if it’s memory or nightmare, what’s real and what isn’t, not any more. They say I’ve gone bad but I don’t remember hurting anyone. Can you help me?
Summer, Nineteen Sixty Four was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015, as chosen by Paul McVeigh.