Summer Selections: It’s All About Me
by Rufus Craze
The forecast had said scattered showers for the day and the possibility of a thunderstorm later, but they decided to head out anyway and the day had turned out to be rather pleasant in the end, if a little windy. A stiff breeze was blowing across the beach at Porth Jake when they had arrived and the salt tang of the sea and the earthy smell of seaweed mingled together with the sumptuous aromas of the local cafe as they served up breakfasts to early summer holidaymakers. The tide, almost at its highest point when they walked down from the car, slowly receded over the morning to reveal the hidden topography of the beach. The sea gradually pulled back its sheets, under which were hidden living rock pools, an abundance of shells, and broad expanses of white golden sand.
Now, sat out of the wind with her back against the warm sand of a dune, Cesca watches from under the rim of her sun hat as her children, Jack and Ellie, play happily on the beach together. With her notebook in her lap, she jots down some ideas she has been musing on for another novel. Her sixth in fact. The other five languish in the drawer of her desk at home along with her one and only rejection letter. Perhaps in this novel, she thinks she might manage to capture that elusive essence of Cornwall; that strange but welcoming sense of otherness she has felt so strongly since she moved here. Maybe this one will do it justice and redeem her of some of the debt of gratitude she feels she owes the place. She looks round behind her to see if anyone is nearby and then lets the straps of her dress fall from her shoulders so that any tan she gets will be more even. She even allows herself to kick off her sandals to let her feet get some air and sun. Feeling immediately self-conscious, she burrows them into the sand so they are hidden and looks around her again. No one is nearby and she relaxes…a little.
It was a spur of the moment thing to come to the beach, only dawning on her as she suggested a day out. She hadn’t expected Jack to accept the offer so readily when she asked him, predicting instead that she would have to coax him with promises of rewards for good behaviour. Normally she would have left him to his own devices, but not today. Today they need to talk. Today Cesca has decided they must have a family discussion that has been long overdue. Ellie would have come regardless, she is sure. Ellie is the easy-going child everyone hopes to have. The curt smile and nod of agreement Jack had given her when she asked him if he wanted to come had left her entirely flummoxed. Much to her consternation, she expected it had probably shown on her face.
All through the morning though, Jack’s demeanour has been pleasantly nostalgic of the quiet and thoughtful boy he had been as he grew through childhood. It offers a welcome break from the terse, sullen teenager he has become. His younger sister follows him like a shadow across the dunes. The two of them have spent the morning investigating the beach, collecting shells from the shore for sandcastles, and building dams of stones across the little stream that runs down from the hills behind them, bisecting the beach, and disappearing out into the sea. She dares not disturb them for fear of breaking this unusual spell of tranquillity. However, she knows she must, before the day is out. Not yet though. She can allow them to play for the time being. They have all day after all.
Jack stops every now and then to gaze out across the ocean, seemingly lost to the thoughts in his head. His black hair flicks around his ears and he occasionally glances back to where Cesca sits half reclined in the dunes. Glad of her notebook, sunglasses, and large hat, she studies him without him knowing. She acknowledges that he is rapidly maturing into adulthood. His body is becoming thicker set and he is slowly gaining confidence in his deeper, newly broken voice. A look of......guilt, is it? Or maybe just regret, passes slowly across his features. Whatever it is, is a strong emotion that deepens the set of his face and darkens his eyes, making him look oh so like his father that her stomach twists itself into knots. She writes in her notebook; he looks the perfect reflection of a rock pool, knee deep and mirror still. One you dare not put your hand into for fear of what you might discover below the surface. Whom is this stranger walking up the beach toward me? Not for the first time she worries that the changes he is experiencing could push them further apart than they have already become.
She watches her children again. Ellie’s blonde hair and pale, freckled complexion make her look like she’s made of sand. She is pointing out into the waves where a group of surfers are taking turns to try to tame the late spring swell on their boards. Jack, ever the expert after his single surf lesson last year, shows her how to make the turns with his hands, swooping down gracefully to the sand, turning tightly, and then leaping up into the sky. Ellie copies him shrieking with delight and the pair chase each other around in circles.
They continue to play this game for a few minutes. Then Ellie runs back towards Cesca, this time taking the lead, and Jack follows her, loping along behind, and he’s smiling, actually smiling. They’re both breathless and, despite the cool of the wind, she can feel the heat of the sun coming from them, along with the smell of the sun cream she lathered over Ellie’s exposed skin. Jack had refused her help and instead rubbed some onto the tip of his nose and the back of his neck claiming they were the only places he burned.
Cesca drapes a towel around her daughter’s shoulders as she flops down on the sand next to her. Ellie babbles about the beach while Jack stands apart a little listening and gazing out towards the horizon again. The smile fades from his face and the darkness coalesces in his eyes again as he does so and Cesca wonders what could possibly be going on in his head to make him look so pensive.
She is desperate to say something to him, anything to break him out of his reverie, and she thinks she is just about to, when an ice cream van arrives unseen in the car park behind them and the tinkling chimes of Greensleeves spill out across the beach. She relaxes and breathes a sigh of relief, only then aware of how tense she had become. She has little idea of what she would say to him and would probably only have given him a catalyst with which to react. Nice and calm today, play it cool.
Ellie is looking up toward the car park and hopping from foot to foot.
“Can we get an ice cream Mummy? Can we, please?” she asks.
“Of course, darling,” Cesca replies. She reaches forward to grab her purse from the bag and looks up at Jack to see if he wants one too.
The look on his face freezes her in position. She hovers there with her hand reaching out, looking up into her son’s face as he’s silhouetted against the sky. Please no, not that look. It’s one she has seen before, on another face. A face she hasn’t seen for a very long time.
“You know they only play the music when they’ve run out of ice cream don’t you Ellie.” He says to his sister, his voice as dark and malicious as the look on his face. “Only stupid little girls don’t know that.”
“Now Jack.........,” Cesca begins.
“That’s not true, is it Mummy?” There’s a note of desperation in Ellie’s voice. She’s always been quick to descend into tears. “It’s not. I know it’s not because they play it when they drive down the street at Stacey’s house and we get ice cream then because her mummy buys it for us.”
“Of course, it’s not true darling. Jack’s just playing a trick on you. It’s just a game, isn’t that right Jack?” She glares at her son but his gaze is fixed firmly on his sister’s face as her eyes start to fill with tears.
“It is true. They only play it so stupid little girls like you will run after them and when they ask for ice cream they laugh at them because they’re so stupid. That’s what’s going to happen to you Ellie. He’s going to laugh in your face.” He leans back, arms folded. He looks triumphant, pleased with himself almost.
“Jack, that’s enough,” she says using her best grownup parent voice, the one that hasn’t really worked on Jack for the last two years. “Can we carry on having the lovely day we’re having please?” She pulls Ellie into her arms to comfort her as the girl’s body begins to heave with sobs.
“Of course, Mum. Bloody hell I was only joking around.” The implicit threat disappearing from his countenance as quickly as it had arrived. “Look, I’ll go and get ice cream for all of us.” He quickly reaches past her into her bag and takes her purse before she can think of anything to say to stop him. Irritation and relief compete in her, vying with each other to deliver the most suitable response, neither of which she gets the chance to deliver. She’s unhappy he took her purse without asking, but he’s already gone.
He swaggers off in the direction of the car park with his arms swinging dramatically. Cesca suspects that he knows she is watching him and so looks out across the bay instead. Dark clouds the colours of faded tattoos are gathering across one whole side of the bay mimicking the set of her thoughts. She suspects the storm the forecast prophesised will be with them sooner rather than later. As if to highlight her thoughts, a deep rumble of distant thunder rolls across the water. She watches as various people on the beach look up at the sky with apprehension and begin to pack up their things. Cesca subconsciously glances at the sky and then down at her bag, knowing that nothing is in there and wishing she’d bought something warmer to wear. She’s never quite as prepared for things as she hopes. She asks Ellie if she’s ok, and they talk about the surfers. She says she wants to try to learn at some point, but Cesca expects this will be forgotten as so many of Ellie’s fleeting desires are.
After a short while, Jack returns with the ice creams as promised and hands them out.
“Here you go El. See, I was only joking. They did have ice cream. I got you a flake as well. I know they’re your favourite,” he says beaming down at her.
Ellie takes the ice cream with a mumbled, “Thanks,” and turns to face the other way to eat, not as quick to forgive as she is to crumble into tears. Jack smiles, gives an ambivalent shrug as he hands Cesca an ice cream, and drops her purse back into the bag.
“Thanks mum,” he says sitting down next to her. He can be quite the charmer when he chooses to be, though really, she wants to check through her purse. His willingness to get the ice creams is more than suspicious and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s stolen money from her. It will have to wait though.
“That’s alright Jack, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for getting them,” she says while licking off the drips of ice cream that are collecting on the side of her cone before they can fall onto her dress.
By the time they’re finishing their ice creams the wind is picking up and shifting direction. Families are making their way back to their cars with armfuls of belongings and sand is being blown swiftly across the beach. The ocean swell is turning wild and they can see some of the surfers being twisted off their boards by the waves. Out beyond them, swathes of rain can be seen falling from the clouds onto the sea.
“Brrr, I don’t fancy being out there in this weather,” Cesca says, “We’d better make a break for it. Grab your things you two. Let’s get going.” She slips her pen inside her notebook and puts it in her bag along with everything else.
They have left it too late however and, as they’re half way up the beach with their things, the rain sweeps in over the shore. Fat drops fall on the sand creating damp splodges around them, and then, in an instant, it becomes a torrent. It’s the kind of thick summer rain that quickly coalesces into rivulets and puddles on the dry ground.
Suddenly, they’re dashing across the dunes through the rain heading for the car park. Jack holding the bag up over his head as he streaks ahead. Cesca and Ellie running hand in hand squealing as the rain drenches them.
“Quick, quick, quick,” everyone is yelling as they struggle across the sand. As they get to the car, Cesca can’t find her keys, which elicits squeals of frustration from Jack and Ellie.
“Let me in,” Jack bellows theatrically yanking at the door handle.
“Sorry, they must be here somewhere.” She rummages frantically through her bag, tipping half of the contents onto the ground. Bags of snacks and tubes of sun cream tumble out along with her purse and then, thankfully her keys.
“Got them,” she shouts triumphantly and unlocks the car so that Jack and Ellie can jump in as she stuffs her things back in the bag. Then she climbs in herself, slamming the door with a thump.
“Phew, that was close. At least we didn’t get wet,” she says, turning around and noticing for the first time how soaked and bedraggled they all are. The children look at their mother in silence for a second, then at each other, and then they all burst out laughing. The thought that one of her children may never speak to her after today brings tears to Cesca’s eyes and she’s thankful the shared laughter gives her a valid reason for her damp eyes.
The laughter subsides and they sit there in silence for a few moments as the rain thrums on the roof and the windows steam up. Jack is sat in the front watching a family wrestling with their things in the rain, while Ellie is drawing smiley faces on the window in the back. Cesca looks at them both, breathing in the scent of her family as the car fills up with their damp aroma. Can she go through with this today, she wonders, is it even necessary? Ignorance is supposedly bliss. Maybe it would be better if they didn’t talk after all.
“Can we go home now?” Jack says without looking at her.
“Oh, I thought we might go and get something to eat. You know, to make the most of the day. We might.....have a chat.....if you liked?” That’s it. It’s out in the open now, she’s instigated it. So why does she feel she’s committing a sin, like she’s breaking a vow of some sort?
Jack turns to her slowly, eyes piercing, and says.
“I knew there was something up with you today. Is that what this has been about, this little family outing? So we can have a mother to son chat about my behaviour. Butter me up and hope I’ll spill the beans eh?” He folds his arms. “Fine let’s go. Let’s get it over and done with. Then you can leave me in peace.” He turns away from her to face out of the window. She’s taken aback, amazed at his perception and his arrogant insolence.
“It’s not like that,” she says softly, reaching her hand out to him but then pulling it back. “I would like to talk to you though, both of you, if that’s ok?” There’s no response. She looks over her shoulder at Ellie who is nodding off. “Ok with you if we go and get something to eat pumpkin?”
“Uh huh,” Ellie replies, unintentionally reminding Cesca of just how few years remain before her daughter will probably morph into another sullen teenager like her son. Cesca starts the car and turns the heaters up full. Then she starts to pull out of the car park before the windows have really cleared. She only just manages to catch the sleepy voice of Ellie over the noise of the engine and the heater as she mumbles, “...as long as it’s not McDonalds.” Cesca Smiles to herself. At least her daughter shares her taste in moral decency for the time being.
They drive out of the car park in silence, contemplating their own thoughts, unaware of each other’s presence. The steamed-up windows, the noise from the heater, and the drumming of the rain on the windscreen helping to cocoon them in a world of their own. It’s only once they get onto the A30 that the windows clear properly revealing the rain soaked gorse flowering in the hedgerows as it hurtles past in bright yellow streaks.
A lightning flash on the horizon, ominously warns of the worsening storm, but the thunder is reduced to a low rumble, barely discernible from the sound of the road as the car skims through the standing water and the heavy rain.
This is how my day starts. Like an addict, I shrug off the cold turkey of sleep and the first thing I do is reach for my work phone. It’s a fix, my hit. I’m not sure I want to know what I’ll find in there but, like a passer-by unable to resist gazing into the bloody aftermath of a car wreck, I have to see what’s happened. It’s the usual stuff. There’s a text from my boss asking me to come into the office about a couple of potential new clients for me to contact (as if I wasn’t overdosing from my workload already). There’s a reminder from our in-house counsellor that we have our monthly face-to-face this afternoon (a vital service in our profession, but not one I look forward to with relish or think I particularly need). Then there’s a message from one of my long-term clients asking me to call her immediately, URGENTLY! Capital letters, exclamation mark, brief, desperate. And there’s another one, WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?? Shit when was this? 6.20am and it’s already 8.09am. There’s five missed calls as well but when I try to ring her there’s no answer, it doesn’t even ring, instead it goes straight to her answer machine. Shit, shit, shit.
My heart goes cold and I want to turn the phone off again. Maybe I could walk down to the sea and go sailing instead. Somewhere far away from Cornwall and the responsibilities hanging over my head. Instead I lurch into action. This is my job and I’m bloody good at what I do.
First though coffee. I must have coffee or I’m no good to anyone and five minutes won’t make any difference now. I hope.
I manage a slice of toast, check my hair (perfect), and a minute after the coffee is stirred I’m starting the car and pulling out of the car park trying not to spill the scalding liquid over my legs or the dashboard. There’s still no response from her phone. Something is definitely wrong. She’s on the bottom floor this girl, one bad experience away from shutting herself in the checkout lift and hitting the basement button. Drugs, homelessness, prostitution, a history of violence and abuse. It’s more common than you could possibly imagine in the serene beauty of our Cornish wonderland. Some people move here for a better life. Some come to escape from themselves or their family. Some holiday in luxury at the seaside villages that stand mournfully empty in the winter and never see the realities of life here. However, for the people that grow up here or end up destitute on the streets, it has and always will be a desperately impoverished area. Being poor and Cornish go hand in hand (hand in hand to the pub usually) and drugs are rife beneath the surface of the sand swept roads, ready and willing to soak up the bloody tears of shattered dreams. Sometimes all it depends on is whether you’ve come to watch the sunset or the sunrise.
Without any contact from my client I’m affectively driving blind, heading for where I think she’s most likely to be. No home, no address, the only reason she has a phone to contact me is because I bought her one out of my own pocket (way beyond my remit and completely against our ethical code but vital in this case, and anyway it was the cheapest model available, no chance of her selling it for a score). The likelihood of places she could be, places I’ve gradually garnered the knowledge of over our long and protracted history together, slowly condenses as it’s filtered through my overactive prefrontal cortex. She could still be in any number of different places however and guessing isn’t something that’s good for my psyche.
As I pull onto the A30 I begin to get the Audi moving. I’m heading for Newquay. The yellow of flowering gorse blurs past the window and hints of the coconut smell from the flowers infuse the car. I’m doing 85mph when the phone goes. I fumble it out and hit the answer button as I overtake a couple of lorries (guaranteed loss of licence, livelihood, and possibly a life, if I happen to be caught by the police at this moment).
“Tina? Tina is that you?”
A moment of silence and then, “Alex? Fucks sake Alex, I’ve been calling all morning. I need you. My fucking arm’s rotting off. I don’t know what to do. It’s going to fall off, I know it.”
My mind races ahead to the implications of what she’s saying but whoa, whoa, back up there little buddy, let’s get the crucial details down first.
“Ok Tina, where are you? I’m on my way to you now but I need to know where you are.” There are muffled sounds of her crying and what could be gravel crunching beneath her feet.
“It’s gone black and it fucking hurts Alex. What the fuck am I gonna do with one arm?” She’s freaking out. I need to find out where she is before I lose her again.
“Tina, it’s ok. Tell me where you are or I can’t come and help you. It sounds like you’ve got an abscess on your arm. You’re going to be fine but you have to tell me where you are.” It appears that hospitals and explanations are going to be the order of the day.
“For fucks sake, I’m by the garage in town Alex. Hurry up. It’s leaking blood everywhere.” She breaks off sobbing and wailing.
I can picture it now, a loud commotion on the main street in one of the busiest holiday destinations in Cornwall in the height of summer. A local drug addict wailing and ranting about her rotting limbs and train-wreck life. That’s Ok for the seen-it-all-before locals to put up with but once the middle-class families and Thames-valley-surfers wake up and hit the streets there’ll be upset members of the public, calls to the police, a standoff, an arrest. Too much shit to deal with for her, far too much work to deal with for me. I put my foot down.
“Just hold on Tina, I’m on my way,” I say into the phone. There’s no response.
Fifteen minutes later and I’m there, pulling up at the garage and calling Tina’s phone again. No answer. No commotion either. In fact, it’s eerily quiet. I walk round the garage, down the road, track back on myself behind some shops, go up across the top of the cliffs scanning the beach. I cross the path down to the shore, head back past the garage, down the street the other way checking all the alleyways. Nothing, no sign of Tina anywhere. Where the hell is she?
I’m impotent. Empty. I can’t do anything. I can’t even think of anything.
Back in the car I have my first cigarette of the day, breathing deeply to fill my lungs with the smooth smoke. It provides seconds of blessed relief, but will do nothing for my long-term nerves. I need to find Tina quick.
Sitting there feeling hollow in the car, I’m reminded of my first trip to Cornwall and the impotence of an impending disaster I have no control over. The cold dread of what is marching up the hill to meet me as I slide uncontrollably down toward it. But no. Nope, no way am I doing that. Can’t let my mind go back there. Got to get it moving or it’s going to occupy itself with dark stuff, and that is anathema.
Thankfully the phone goes breaking me out of my reverie. It’s not Tina though; it’s my boss.
“Morning Alex. How is everything?” Hmmm, she should know better than to ask.
“Yea, not good Sally. You know the work we do. Tina’s having a bad one and I can’t find her.”
“Ah, Tina, ok. Well, when you finish up there come into the office. We have a couple of new referrals I need you to meet up with.” Sally can appear incredibly uncaring and cold at times, but she does in fact have the biggest heart in the business. It’s been taxed to its limit unfortunately and there’s no let-up in new cases.
“Yea, that ain’t gonna happen I’m afraid Sally. Tina was ranting about an abscess on her arm and if that’s the case I expect I’ll be caught up in hospital for a couple of hours at least. Then I’ve got other clients to see. You know the score.” Shouldn’t talk to my boss like this but, hey, it’s me and I can get away with it. I’m too good at this for them to lose me.
“Well, when you get the time Alex. And make sure you don’t forget about your meeting with Cathy this afternoon.” My nemesis, the in-house counsellor, what a waste of time. As I’m thinking this Tina comes stumbling around the corner of the garage. She’s cradling one arm with the other and I can see from here it’s turning black and looking bad.
“Got to go Sally.” I cut her off quickly. I was done with that conversation anyway, I’ve had it before.
I leap out of the car and Tina sees me. She comes over, staggering and sobbing, obviously in a terrible state.
“Fucking hell Alex where have you been?” Ah the irony. She thrusts her blackened arm in my face. “Look Alex, it’s rotting.” Up close I can see it’s bad. Her whole arm from the elbow down is dark and swollen like a bruise and there are obvious open wounds in which the vivid red of inflamed flesh is visible. Scabs cover some of the openings and there’s a faint whiff of rotting meat. She needs to get to hospital quick or she might well lose it. They’ll have fun finding a good vein to get an IV in Tina’s arms.
“It’s ok,” I tell her, standard response, keep her calm. “Let’s get you in the car eh? Then we can talk about what to do.” If I suggested the hospital to her straight away she’d freak and I can’t legally touch her or force her into the car so this must be done by controlled coercion. Otherwise it’s police and ambulances and that to me is a failed situation. Luckily, because she’s tired and scared, she’s quite placid, with me anyway.
“Ok Alex.” She says and willingly gets in to the passenger side as I hold the door open. I dash round and get in, start the car and drive off quick heading straight for the hospital. Now to break it to her.
“Alright Tina, you know what has to happen now don’t you? The only place that is going to fix your arm is the hospital so I’m taking you straight there. And I don’t want any complaining ‘cause you know that I know you don’t want to lose your arm and I know that you know that I ain’t gonna let that happen”
“Oh no, no, no Alex,” she wails, like a little girl who’s been told to go to bed. “Not the hospital please. They always do things to me I don’t understand and the nurses are such bitches, thinking they’re better than me. Please don’t take me there.” There’s tears on her cheeks and she has the eyes of a puppy that’s about to be put down.
“It’s got to happen Tina. Now, come on, take a tissue and dry your eyes. You know where they are.” As she sobs she opens the glove box and takes a tissue. She also helps herself to a toffee, which is the real reason I suggested she go in there. The toffees always sooth her, she can’t get enough of them. And it stops her talking. They’re my secret weapon. She sits there chewing for a while and I can tell from her breathing she is calming down.
“Better?” I give her a smile. She nods and takes another toffee. Then, she closes her eyes and leans back in the seat, while I race her to the hospital.
Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.