by Sarah Brooks
First Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017
We are grown from the dunes and the marram grass, the bladderwrack and mermaid’s purses. Grown on candyfloss and coltsfoot rock, swaddled by windbreaks, sand in our teeth, sand pattening our lungs, sand beneath our feet in the bathroom and the smell of the sea through open windows. We grow up longing to leave but we keep on coming back. On tired February weekends or long warm bank holidays we sit in the dunes and talk about the summer we discovered alcopops, or the summer we were overrun by ladybirds, picking them out of our hair and crushing them beneath our skin as we lay on the sand.
Here, then. In the sand dunes, again. A long August afternoon, partners and children at home with our parents, wine bottle stuck in the sand. We raise our glasses.
‘To the beach gods,’ says Rachel.
‘May they procreate and thrive,’ says Hannah.
‘May they watch over us. May they reward our faith and punish our transgressions, may they send us many ladybirds.’
The beach gods are the gods of the pebbles and seaweed. The gods of the sand and the shallow water, their presence signalled by a seam of quartz, by clouded glass, by smooth wood twisted into the shape of a child. We found them much in evidence when we were growing up; ‘Look!’ we’d pounce, our eye caught by a glimpse of brightness, ‘this one’s super holy.’ Or it would be triple super holy, if we found a hagstone or jewel-like glass. We offered these gifts to the beach gods and we asked them to give us good-looking boyfriends, spotless skin, lucrative jobs in exotic places.
Don’t blame us. We grew up sorely lacking excitement.
There is a story we’ve been telling for twenty years. It’s a story about the beach, and about the people who come from this town. Other kids — kids who lived in cities, who had interesting, edgy lives — had colourful horrors to tell themselves on street-lit nights. But here there are no legends of murderers, no myths of home invasion. At the seaside there are only stories of flotsam and jetsam, of lost and found.
There are many different versions of the story. Here’s one of them:
It is their shining hair that people notice first, then their bright eyes and the warmth of their skin. And lastly their little white teeth, that they show when they laugh, which is often, because they are happy and sheltered and loved.
Amy, Katie, Danielle. Sugary names, names with lots of vowels, names written in looping handwriting with little hearts above the ‘i’s. Sometimes it’s other names but this time it’s Amy, Katie and Danielle. Skating down the promenade, trying to eat their ice-creams before they melt, bouncing on the trampolines, running to the park after school to dare each other to swing higher and higher, to kick their legs as high as the clouds. The townspeople smile to look at them.
Amy makes them promise to always be friends. Being friends means sharing their things and their secrets and always, always keeping their promises.
They go to the beach and build a driftwood shrine in the hollow of a sand dune, bringing their favourite possession as an offering.
‘I promise’, says Katie, laying down her red plastic bangle from her holiday to Spain.
‘I promise,’ says Danielle, taking off the ring her step-father gave her for her birthday.
‘And I promise,’ says Amy, putting down the pearl necklace that her grandmother left her. Then she takes out a brooch, and pushes the pin into her thumb. Katie and Danielle suck in their breath. A red pearl appears, and Amy squeezes until it drops onto the shrine.
‘There,’ she says, ‘now the gods will listen.’
The gods, as far as we can tell, are disinclined to listen. Our jobs are not the jobs we expected when we were fourteen, when we sat on the dunes and told our futures in pebbles and twigs; our hair did not become lustrously smooth, our lives have been sadly lacking in handsome Spaniards. Perhaps we didn’t pray hard enough. Perhaps we made the wrong kind of offerings.
The sea is always far away, here. You can walk for half an hour until you meet the waves, which creep to the shore with a gentle sigh that suggests they’re not really sure why either of you made the effort. We’ve always liked the dunes better, with their hidden hollows for drinking and touching.
The gods might not be listening, but when we were younger we were sure they did. I remember making offerings to a little idol — a twisted branch, washed smooth, two knots for eyes, misshaped limbs. We kept him in a sheltered hollow in the dunes, nourished him with drops of coke, and later alcopops bought with fake id cards. We whispered all our secrets to him.
The beach is long and clean and golden and you can walk and walk until you finally reach the sea. Amy, Katie and Danielle like to take off their white sandals and walk to the water’s edge. They shriek at the cold then stand with their feet under the water, feeling the pull of the sand and admiring the painted toe nails that their mothers have only just allowed them. Pink, blue and green. They watch as the colours ripple in the shallows. They dare each other to walk further and further out, up to their ankles, up to their knees, all the way up to where their dresses float around them on the water. They always carry out their dares. That’s what friends do.
The homeless man likes the beach, too. He shuffles over the sand every day, picking up what the tourists or the tide leave behind. He picks up the shiny things, the things that catch the sun and wink amongst the pebbles. His name is Gus but nobody in the town knows it. Like everyone else, he always smiles at the three girls.
‘I dare you to go and give him a kiss,’ says Amy.
‘Eeew!’ shriek Katie and Danielle.
‘Shake his hand, then,’ says Amy.
‘We’ll catch something nasty,’ says Katie.
‘Gross,’ says Danielle.
Amy marches up to him herself. She always carries out her dares. She holds out her hand like she’s seen her dad do to people he’s trying to impress. The homeless man slowly stretches out his hand to hers. It shakes, a little. Amy’s is almost touching it when she screws her eyes shut, snatches her hand back and dashes away, giggling.
Amy’s mother tells her not to go near strangers, especially not ones with dirty clothes and untidy beards.
‘The police should do something about it,’ she says, ‘It’s not safe. This is a nice town.’
Amy bites her lip. She doesn’t say anything. She remembers the homeless man’s hand and the sand trapped beneath his long fingernails.
‘Why did we make this bit up?’ says Hannah. ‘Seriously, the older I get the more I worry about our younger selves.’
‘We didn’t,’ says Rachel. ‘He always hung around the pier, you must have seen him. He looked kind of like a professor, always wore this long coat, and glasses without any lenses. Remember?’
‘Oh, god, I’ve killed off too many brain cells. Give me more wine.’ Hannah grabs the bottle, splashes some more into our plastic glasses.
‘I can’t believe you’ve forgotten him, he used to give us nightmares. The boys used to torment him.’
‘He gave me a fossil, once,’ I say, suddenly.
The other two stare at me, then start laughing.
‘So that’s how he lured young girls.’
‘Didn’t your mum ever tell you not to take fossils from fossils?’
He’d held it up to the light, grasped delicately in his thick fingers, and said, ‘Look how it glows. Millions of years old. Just look at it.’
‘A belemnite. Or something like that,’ I say. ‘Like, a fossilised squid tentacle or something. He must have got it from somewhere else, though — it’s the other coast that gets all the fossils.’
‘Um, that is… really weird.’ Rachel frowns at me. ‘You never mentioned this before.’
‘We could have put it into the story,’ says Hannah. ‘Things could’ve got very strange.’
‘When you hold one up to the light it sort of glows pink. I think he liked that. Light passing through millions of years, he said.’
I took it from him and said thank you politely and afterwards I threw it away on the beach. It was late August by then.
Amy, Katie and Danielle grow tall in the sun. Their eyes drink in the colour of the sky. They steal flowers from hanging baskets and wind them into their hair. When autumn comes they jump through piles of leaves on the pavements.
‘Hey, I just swept that!’ their neighbours say, but they would smile when they say it, because they still remember what it is like to be young.
The days grow shorter. One day, it snows. Amy, Katie and Danielle make snow angels in Amy’s back garden. They look up in amazement at the sky transformed. The snow keeps falling and falling and all the neat bungalows and prize-winning gardens disappear.
Their school closes, so they take trays from Amy’s mum’s kitchen and walk to the beach. There are no cars on the roads and the people they pass smile at them from beneath their hats and say, ‘Don’t get lost!’
‘As if,’ says Amy, though the town has turned unfamiliar and the roads have lost their shape.
Reaching the beach, they choose their favourite sand dune, the very tallest, and set off up to the top, giggling, as every few steps they slip down to the bottom again. By the time they finally reach the summit they are pink-cheeked and out of breath, snow already over the top of their boots and soaking into their socks. They stand, trays beneath their armpits, breath freezing on the air, their words as lost as the landscape.
‘Cool,’ says Danielle, at last.
‘Where’s the sea?’ says Katie.
Amy says nothing. She finds it hard to catch her breath. ‘There’s nothing to see’. She blinks snowflakes from her eyelashes. ‘Nothing at all.’
Nothing but white. The sand and the sea and the sky each as white as the other, with nothing between or above. As empty as if the world had disappeared completely. The snow falling in front of her eyes makes Amy’s head feel strange, as if the snow was on the inside, too.
She thinks she sees something move — a shape in the snow, just for a moment, then gone.
‘That man-’ says Amy, and stops.
‘You know — the homeless man. He lives on the beach, doesn’t he?’
Danielle laughs, ‘Well he won’t be here now, will he? He’ll have gone somewhere warmer.’
‘I thought I saw him. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere warm.’
‘Everyone has somewhere warm,’ says Katie.
They trudge back home, Amy’s feet aching with the cold.
‘How about building a snowman?’ asks her dad, when she gets in.
‘How old do you think I am?’ says Amy. She goes to bed early and dreams about white flakes falling onto her pillow.
The next morning, the snow has gone.
‘What a shame,’ says Amy’s mum. ‘You could have had such a nice time playing out again.’
‘Global warming,’ says Amy’s dad, reading the paper at breakfast, and shaking his head, ‘It’ll be plagues of locusts next.’
Amy goes to get her cereal and finds a patch of melting snow underneath the cornflakes. She closes the cupboard quickly, and dries the bottom of the box with a tea towel.
‘Are you all right, sweetheart?’ asks her mother, ‘You’re looking peaky.’
‘I’m fine,’ says Amy.
At school, Katie and Danielle chat about the snowy beach.
‘I hope our shrine’s okay,’ says Katie.
‘Whatever,’ says Danielle. ‘All that stuff was fake, anyway. The necklace, and the blood and everything.’
‘Yeah,’ says Amy. ‘It was fake.’
‘Kids’ stuff,’ says Danielle.
It never snowed like that again. That’s why the snow got into the story — it was an anomaly. Bits of the story change, disappear, more are added. But some things don’t change: the girls, the shrine, the snow, the beach vanishing. And the old man, somewhere on the edges of the story. Sometimes he’s a friendly presence. Sometimes he’s a bogeyman beneath the pier, waiting for teenagers in the dark.
‘I wonder what happened to him really,’ says Rachel. ‘Maybe we actually did make him up.’
Years ago — he held a fossil up to the light. ‘I thought you might like it, for your shrine.’
Sometimes he’s kind. But whatever he’s like, he has always vanished by the end of the story.
I don’t say anything. We didn’t go to the beach as often after the winter it snowed. We got weekend jobs in hotels and old people’s homes, in cafes with frilly tablecloths and novelty teapots on shelves. In the evenings we went to Blackpool, to clubs where the ceiling dripped and we piled up our coats in the corner and danced in a circle, the better to madden the boys who edged towards us. We left our little idol to the sand.
This is how the story ends, give or take a few details.
Amy walks down to the beach after school. Everything looks so normal that she begins to wonder whether they dreamed up yesterday’s landscape. Their shrine is still there, the driftwood a bit wonkier than before. But when Amy crouches down she notices that there are unfamiliar things in the shrine: a strangely shaped pebble, flecked with pink and gold, a silver key-ring, a piece of metal twisted into the shape of a man, or perhaps a dog.
She reaches in and grabs the piece of metal but it is sharper than it looks and when she snatches back her hand a pearl of blood wells up on her finger.
Then she picks up the pebble. It is smooth and heavy and feels good in her hand, although she leaves a smear of blood on it. She imagines the homeless man finding it on the shore, thinking that it is treasure, placing it in their shrine for safekeeping.
A noise makes her turn, and a little landslide of sand and tiny stones tumbles down beside her. The tall scratchy grass at the top of the dune rustles.
‘Hello?’ she calls. But there is only silence; even the seagulls are quiet.
Amy shivers. She doesn’t know why she’s here, when her coat isn’t warm enough and she isn’t wearing gloves, and she’s by herself. Amy is never by herself.
Quickly, she throws the pebble back into the shrine, where it knocks against the pearl necklace her grandmother left her. As she watches, the pearl necklace melts away, just melts into the sand leaving a little puddle of white, as if it had been made out of snow.
Amy wraps her coat around her then runs away from the beach, and keeps running, all the way home. That night as she brushes her hair drops of water pool on the floor behind her. Her nightshirt clings damply to her back. When she looks in the mirror, her skin is pale. She leans forward and puts her fingers to her cheeks. They are cold to the touch. She blinks. Leaning closer, she can see tiny flakes of snow falling in the clear summer blue of her iris.
The ending is a problem. When we first started telling the story, everything always ended in blood. We were, after all, looking for excitement. It was only later on that things got blurry.
‘Thing is…’ begins Hannah. ‘Thing is, we knew what we were, back then, right? We knew we were, you know, becoming who we were meant to be. Sort of. If you see what I mean.’
Back then, we knew the beach gods were listening.
I lean down to pick up a piece of smooth glass that’s caught my eye, and when I hold it up for inspection there’s a general murmur of approval.
‘We give you our flotsam and jetsam’, says Rachel, quietly.
‘Our seaweed and stone.’
We empty our glasses. The sun is getting lower.
‘I should head off,’ says Rachel. ‘Promised my mum we’d help her out with dinner.’
‘Mmpf,’ says Hannah, ‘suppose I’d better go and make sure the little monsters haven’t murdered each other. Or anyone else.’
‘You coming back at half term?’ I ask.
Of course. We never do quite leave. Even miles inland I sometimes open the door to the smell of the sea, and feel as though someone is twitching a line caught in my chest.
I hug the others goodbye. ‘Don’t stay out here too long,’ they say. ‘See you soon. See you in the sand dunes.’
Away from the dunes, on the great expanse of sand, the sun makes the edges of my vision flicker. This is a flotsam and jetsam story, the sea a bright line in the distance. I walk towards it, eyes on the sand for things that are shiny and smooth or oddly shaped, to offer to the beach gods in the hope that our sins may be forgiven.