The Thirteenth Summer
Unlucky thirteen, Callum thinks as he stomps along the crowded beach. Nothing will ever be the same now Gran’s gone. This is the first birthday he can remember when he isn’t staying with her. He shivers despite the heat of the day. Of course, his mother hasn’t remembered. She never does, unless Gran calls to remind her.
The afternoon heat turns humid. The beach hums with activity, noise and confusion. Holidaymakers fly kites, splash in the sea and play in the sunshine. Their obvious bliss only deepens his mood.
He chooses a spot in the shade of the pier and drops like a sack to the ground, stretching his legs in front of him. He misses his Gran. He imagines her smiling face, creased in all the right places and the laughter in her eyes. He tries to recall the softness of her skin, how she smells of talcum powder and roses, her voice calling him her precious dumpling. He remembers endless summers joyfully spent in her company, the outings, and the parties. How different this summer has been. He picks up a pebble and flings it angrily against one of the wooden pier supports.
The summer days drag with stifling heat and misery. He notices a girl standing by the water’s edge, gazing out to sea, her quiet demeanor at odds with the noisy confusion around her. He watches her, as he mindlessly tosses pebbles at larger stones in front of him. She turns her head and smiles at him, a dazzling smile, bright as the morning sun. The icy misery in his heart begins to melt.
China-blue eyes, framed with the darkest of lashes, regard him and he feels a fluttering in his chest like a bird trying to escape the confines of the cage formed by his ribs. She wears a simple floral frock. Ebony curls tumble around her porcelain face and he is lost in the intensity of her gaze. She reminds him of a picture he’s seen in the small Art Gallery by the harbour. His lips curve into a smile and his heart lifts.
He screws up his courage, tells himself he’s nothing to lose, gets up and moves towards her.
He tries to speak but his voice deserts him. His hands tremble. He coughs to clear his throat. ‘Do you live round here?’ he asks, trying to look nonchalant.
‘I used to,’ she replies softly.
‘I’m Callum,’ he says, thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his shorts in case one should spring out towards her.
‘Dorothy’ she says. A smile dimples her cheek. ‘My friends call me Dotty.’
‘Dotty.’ he repeats, feeling a tightening in his chest. He’s desperate to prolong the moment, wishing it would last forever. ‘We could go paddling if you like, or go for a swim.’
‘Oh no, I hate the water, but I love the pier,’ she says. ‘Shall we go on the pier?’ She spins round and runs lightly up the beach not waiting for an answer. His heart sinks for a moment, then he follows, scrunching his way across the stones, gouging out dents that mark his path as he struggles up the slope.
The pier pulsates with life. Neon lights flash, noisy hurdy-gurdy music from barrel organs competes with disco music from the arcades and the sickly sweet smell of doughnuts and candy floss fills the air. Overhead, seagulls screech and the crashing of the slot machines vies with the call of the showmen inviting them to try their luck on the various amusements.
As they stroll along in the sunshine, Callum tells her about his life with his mother, moving from place to place. ‘My mother sings in the clubs and pubs through the season,’ he says. ‘She comes to a holiday resort every summer. I usually stay with Gran, but she’s passed away.’
‘You looked sad on the beach’ she says ‘Are you unhappy?’
He recalls his sombre mood of the morning. ‘Unhappy, no, just a bit lonely. I miss my Gran that’s all. It’s my birthday today and she always made it special.’ He bites his lower lip to stop it trembling.
They walk on in silence for a while. Dotty is easy to be with, it’s as if she reads his mind and understands everything. He notices that she laughs a lot, a gentle, tinkling, irrepressible laugh and when he looks into her eyes he sees the colour of the sky and sunlight dancing on the water.
They walk on past the tea rooms and the aroma of fresh baked bread gives way to the salt and vinegar smell of fish and chips. They watch people at the shooting galleries and the various stalls lining the pier. When they reach the end of the pier they stand leaning on the railings. Callum gazes out over the water. A light breeze caresses his face. ‘It’s lovely here,’ he says. ‘Peaceful despite the noise.’
‘It’s my special place,’ Dotty whispers, her eyes misting over. Time stands still.
Suddenly she springs away from him. ‘Let’s go on the merry-go-round,’ she says brightly. ‘I love the merry-go-round.’
Before he can say anything she’s up on the carousel moving between the brightly painted horses, hand over hand along the candy-striped poles with their gold and silver trimmings. As the carousel starts up she sits next to him and together they go round and round to the music, up and down like boats tossed on the waves.
They go round, again and again, then stand and watch the people on the Ferris wheel, the Waltzer, the coconut shies and the rifle range. Children sit spellbound in front of the Punch and Judy Show. Callum can’t remember when he’s had such a wonderful time. The afternoon flies and people head back to their hotels for their evening meal.
‘I have to get back,’ he says, reluctant to leave.
‘I’ll walk with you. Where are you staying?’
‘A small place up the hill.’
They walk together and he wishes he felt brave enough to hold her hand.
On the way, they have to pass a cycle shop. Callum stops and stares at the Silver Phantom racer in the window.
‘Wow, look at that’, he says, his face glowing. ‘I wish I had a bike like that.’
He stands transfixed, taking in every detail of the gleaming frame. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘One day I’m going to have a bike like that.’
Dotty seems enchanted by his enthusiasm.
Nearing the boarding house he comes quickly back to earth. The euphoria of the afternoon evaporates, his happiness disappears like smoke in the wind.
‘Will you be okay?’ Dotty asks noticing his change of mood.
‘Oh, yes, fine.’ He dreads his mother being in one of her moods.
The door opens and a cold chill sends his heart plummeting. His mother appears in her dishevelled dressing gown, her straggly hair falling over her face. He smells alcohol on her breath. She ignores Dotty. ‘Where have you been,’ she says. She grabs him roughly and pulls him into the house, slapping him as she slams the door.
The next morning Callum gets out early, while the air is clear and the sky a tranquil grey. He watches two young lads carelessly kick a ball around the deserted beach, envying their easy friendship. All night he has hugged the secret to himself, thinking of nothing but the joy of seeing her again.
All day he walks up and down the beach, scanning the faces of the crowds. He scurries along the pier, around the amusement arcades, the carousel. He can’t stop thinking about her. Now and then his spirits soar as he catches a glimpse of her, only to lose sight of her again.
Every morning the freshness of the earth renews his hope as he searches for her. Every afternoon he weaves his way between clusters of holidaymakers on the beach, on the promenade, on the pier. Every evening he returns home defeated. Every night he prays that tomorrow he will find her.
The days melt into weeks and he feels a hollowness around his heart. Desperation alternates with excited anticipation. Dotty, Dotty, where are you, he thinks, cursing his stupidity for not having found out where she lived or more about her. He must find her, must see her again. It becomes his obsession. Memories of the magical time spent with her haunt him. His loneliness deepens as he retraces their steps, always searching. He fears he has lost her forever.
On the morning of his last day he skulks wearily around the deserted town. It’s the end of the season, although the remains of summer linger, soon autumn’s chill will bring the cold winds blowing in from the sea.
He ambles along the sea-front, his hands deep in his pockets, his head bowed, his heart heavy. Then he hears a sound that makes his heart race and almost leap out of his chest.
‘Hi,’ Dotty says, dancing gaily around him, ‘I’ve got something for you, come with me.’
It feels as if the sun has suddenly risen, warmth flows through him like melting butter. Love fills his heart.
She runs towards to the pier, he puffs along behind. The pier is empty and eerily silent, a few showmen are setting up, but it’s too early for the remaining visitors, still enjoying their breakfasts.
On the pier, Callum sees the Silver Phantom racer leaning against the railings. He can’t believe his eyes.
‘Where did you get it?’ he asks. ‘How? When? This is amazing.’
Dotty jumps up and down in glee, ‘Ride it ‘ she cries, ‘Ride like the wind along the pier. Come on.’ And she’s off, running along the wooden boards. Callum sits astride the bike, and soon he’s riding along beside her.
‘Faster, faster’ she calls. He rides faster and faster. No matter how fast he goes, Dotty’s there, running along beside him, her gleaming coal-black hair streaming out behind her.
Faster, faster he rides, the pier seems endless. The wind is in his face and he’s never felt so good. He rides on and on. He doesn’t see the end of the pier. As Dotty reaches the railings, he hits them and somersaults effortlessly into the air. His feet are caught in the pedals of the bike. Together they somersault over and over until they plunge into the water. Down and down they go, the bike dragging him down further and further. Over and over he tumbles, until strong arms grab him and lift him to the surface.
Everyone agrees that if it hadn’t been for the deafening crash when a freak gust of wind blew a stack of deckchairs over no one would have seen him running along the pier and taking a header over the railings. The noise attracted the attention of a group of divers in a nearby boat and when they saw him fall two of them dived in to rescue him.
A few of the older stallholders recall that a young girl, about the same age had fallen from the pier at that exact same spot some twenty years before. Dorothy her name was. A pretty girl, pretty as a picture.
Back on the pier, wrapped in a blanket, confusion fills his mind as he waits for his mother. Callum is amazed to see his Gran standing with Dotty. ‘It’s not your time yet,’ she says. ‘Go back to your mother. She’s had a shock, she’ll look after you better now.’
He stares. ‘But Dotty…’ he says.
His Gran smiles. ‘Don’t worry about Dotty, she was lonely and thought you were too. I’ll take care of her.’ She takes Dotty’s hand and together they walk back along the pier. Dotty turns to wave at him. She’s smiling.
(first published in Take a Break Fiction Feast in July 2014)
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