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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, October 1st, 2009
3,100 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 13+

Skinny-dipping

There was something going on down at the beach. Josh overtook me as we biked down the leafy lane, weaving round the parked cars, hopping onto the pavements, and sending the gulls screaming into the cloudless sky.

We shot out from under the railway bridge to see the crowd, the blocked cars, the flashing lights of fire engines and police cars.

“Forget this for a lark,” I moaned. “We’ll never see nothing.”

“Yeah we will,” said Josh. “You’ll see.”

We dumped our bikes in the long grass behind the straggly privet hedge of what looked like an empty house on the corner and scrambled past the cars parked higgledy-piggledy along the coast road. The crowd pressing up against the promenade railings spilled out into the street, blocking access to the beach below. Kids and telephones and video cameras were being held high overhead.

“C’mon,” called Josh, and he darted towards the wooden sheds of the boating sheds over on the left.

He stuck a sandal in the chain-link fence and started pulling himself up. Soon we were both squatting on the sticky, tarry roof overlooking the small beach cove below that lay opposite the harbour mouth.

The fireman were scampering round like crabs across the rocks at the base of the lighthouse opposite, that bristled with blue mussels and spackled with cockles and guano. Most of them had stripped down, their uniforms and protective gear forming black piles on the pebbles like seaweed washed in after a storm.

The tide was coming in.

Only a thin tattered strip of sand was still visible and the waves were already breaking on the shingle beach, splattering into froth and foam and then nothingness before pulling back and rolling back up the slope.

“What’s going on?”

I squinted over at the crowd on the rocks.

“Someone’s stuck. Looks like his foot. They’re trying to get him out before he drowns.”

One of the men in the crowd at the foot of the rocks, his shins already buried in water, stood up and yelled to others higher up the beach. A procession was started carrying what looked like rusty wooden boards down across the stones and rocks. They piled them down like old driftwood, but they rang out like muted bells. Then they ran off for more. The scrum broke open allowing me to see the small figure in bright red trunks, crouching against the black trousers of the firemen who’d stayed with him.

Our mums would always warn us off the rocks and pools when we said we were going swimming. They were full of tales of kids who’d fallen into steep, deep pools and couldn’t get out, or how, when the tide turned, the holes in the mud could change into quicksand and pull you under. But, of course, mums always said things like that.

A wave washed round the figures huddling together at the foot of the rocks.

Someone grabbed a spade and started jabbing it into the water. Another thrust one of the boards upright into the exact same spot, then held it while a third hit down with a sledgehammer. The board gave out a dull chime with each stroke. This became a rhythm, Ka-lung! Ka-lung! Ka-lung! Ka-lung! and a pause as he moved to the next board, then Ka-lung! Ka-lung! Ka-lung! Ka-lung! again.

The human chain that had been carrying down these large metal plates was now busy piling sandbags on the crest of the small pebbled dunes that formed at the high-tide line. Others carried them down, sploshing through the water, and making great jets of spray when the bags were thrown into place.

Waves splashed and boiled at the growing barrier.

“Think they’ll have to cut his leg off?” asked Josh.

“They say a fox’ll bite its own paw off if it gets stuck in a trap,” I said, remembering something I’d read.

“No-o-o…” said Josh, looking more intensely at the still crouching couple at the heart of the action.

Towels were handed down the chain, and draped around the kid’s shoulders like a shroud.

Now they were carrying more equipment down.

A T-shirted figure whipped the cord on a small, portable pump, and then rewound it and pulled again until the chug-chug of the motor joined the percussive beat of the ringing metal plates and the soft cymbal swish of the sea. A dirty grey hose sucked at the water and spat it out in regular mouthfuls further along the shoreline. A man was standing in waders in the enclosed pool. He was holding a metal crowbar. He had been moving around, poking and levering the stick at places under the water around the man and the boy in red trunks.

Then the crouching fireman scooped up the skinny boy and a cheer broke out from the crowd up on the road. An man and a woman in St.John’s Ambulance uniforms dashed down to meet the fireman, wrapping the boy in grey-blue blankets the colour of weathered timber. They busied him up the beach, carrying him in a makeshift cradle that they made by crossing their arms.

Someone switched off the pump and the clanging-banging-clugging stopped and there was only the murmurs of the crowd and the sea, and the cries of the gulls overhead.

The men started dismantling the wall, pulling away the sandbags.

“Bet someone’s gonna get a bollocking from his Mum,” said Josh.

“You really think they’d cut his leg off if they couldn’t get him out in time?” I wondered.

“Nah, I think they’d just given him a snorkel and waited for the tide to go out again.”

The roof was sticky under out feet and knees. Down on the road the crowd was already breaking up around the edges. A siren sounded as a Police car pulled to the side, and uniforms got out to smooth the traffic flow. Soon someone would notice us up here and we’d have to scarper, but for the moment we basked in the sun and the salt and the slight breeze from over the harbour.

“Cally goes skinny dipping,” I blurted out.

“Straight up?” said Josh, looking over at me with eyebrows raised.

Cally was in our year, but not in our class. But we knew all the girls in our year by sight.

“How..?” started Josh.

“I just saw her. One evening. On the beach over the footbridge…”

I’d been looking for driftwood to make a fire, or see if anyone else was thinking of doing the same thing. The fuddies who lived along the beach had got into calling the Police as soon as they saw anything, but there were still a couple of spots where we could congregate in the shallow shingle dunes out of view of both the houses lining the road and the beachcombers picking their way along the shoreline.

“Did she take it all off?” he goggled.

“Think so,” I said. “But it’s hard to tell in the dark y’know.”

“Nah, you’re pulling me leg. Even if you did see her, you didn’t see nothing.”

He pushed at me dismissively.

“Watch it!” I called, pushing back. “You’re only jealous.”

“In your mind mate. In your tiny little mind…”

He pushed himself up, arms outstretched for balance on the sloping rooftop. He turned, leaning over me. “So what colour is she? Down there then?”

“Josh, you jerk. She’s not one of your bottle-blonde bimbos. She’s black. What colour do you expect? Sky blue pink?”

I pushed myself up, levering my hands on my knees. I didn’t want to sink into the sticky roof.

“Doesn’t prove anything,” Josh said, looking down at the fence. It looked higher now we had to climb down. “You said it was dark, could’ve been my Gran for all you know, you idiot.”

I remembered the shape of her breasts and her bottom silhouetted against the sky, the way she seemed to flow and jiggle when she moved, the light catching on her skin when she stood up in the water, the way she shook her long hair, matted like handfuls of kelp.

“If you say so, Josh. If you say so.”

We clambered down, feeling the wooden building shake, scuffing the gravel as we landed. Josh darted off, dancing through the slow moving traffic. A car flashed its headlights. The back of his baggy bermudas was smeared with tar. I supposed I must be in the same state.

We pulled our bikes up from the yellowing seed heads and dry brown thistles, and without saying a word launched along the uneven pavement, past the last stragglers opposite, and on towards town.

The gulls swooped and circled overhead, jeering and mewing and waiting to get the beach back to themselves.

Josh slowed down, then grabbed my arm as I came alongside.

“Race you to the footbridge,” he said.

He punched me in the upper arm, jabbing me sharply with his knuckles, leaving me swaying on my bike to recover my balance as he weighed down on his peddles and sped off ahead. Josh could be stupid sometimes, but he was my best friend.

As we neared the footbridge the tide was pushing up the river. It had already covered the stinking mud flats and the prairies of sea grass, and was licking at the motley collection of houseboats that lined the river bank like abandoned boxes. Without a word we unsaddled and pushed our bikes over. The concrete here was rough and worn, with uneven gaps between the different sections. Besides the risk of a puncture, if you carried on biking you also had to weave round the babies in buggies and the foreign-exchange students who babbled together and strolled as a lump, blocking everyone else and muttering under their breath in languages we didn’t understand when we tried to squeeze past. Josh pushed down on a pedal and scooted the last few meters, using the momentum to carry him out onto the street, hanging onto his bike at a weird angle until he slowed almost at a halt then they his leg over the saddle and rode on to wait for me outside the chip shop. It went without saying. They made the best chips for miles around so we always stopped for a basket. I suspected that they powdered them with sugar and then a sprinkle of salt to bring out the taste. Josh always had melted cheese and mayonnaise on his. In my book, that was close to sacrilege.

Munching chips and licking fingers we pushed our bikes along by the handlebars until we got to the beach.

“Cally lives in one of them houses,” I said, pointing with the greasy polystyrene basket to the row of house on the left that stood on the edge of the beach. Houses here were always being repaired. The storms, the sand, the salt air ate away and corroded everything — paint, window frames and panelling, exposed pipes, even the bricks. This gave the houses a worn, run down, ramshackle air.

“Huh,” said Josh, wiping his fingers round the get the last of the melted cheese. He wiped his hands on the back of his pants adding new marks there alongside the tar and the dust.

We left our bicycles in a clump of waxy sea thistles, frosted with sand, and then kicked stones over the dunes where the tide was now scratching at the high water marks.

Out at sea some brave soul was pulling at the sail of his windsurf and, further out, container ships were waiting to come and dock and offload at the harbour. The sky was a near uniform blue, like a new tee-shirt and just barely creased with a few mare’s tail clouds.

“So you coming back tonight?” asked Josh as for the third time his stone had sunk on the second bounce. The sea was too choppy for playing ducks and drakes.

“Maybe,” I said, looking back towards the houses, trying to figure out which one was Cally’s. But we were all alone on the beach.

“I’ll probably see you then,” he said.

What I hadn’t told Josh was what I had seen that night.

Sure, Cally had come crunching over the stones as I’d been lying on my back, looking up at the stars and hoping to catch a meteor shower, or at least a shooting star. I’d rolled over and watched her progression to the seashore. But when she started undressing it was too late to do anything. I could only watch.

I knew her by sight, of course, but we didn’t really have any friends in common. If I’d have called out when I’d first seen her, we might have chatted awkwardly, maybe not. I didn’t know if she had a regular, but she was real pretty. She had beautiful skin, that seemed to have a velvety feel. And she didn’t try to hide it under layers of makeup like some girls. She had a high forehead, and generally tied her locks back which showed it off. Large eyes with what seemed like natural shading all around that set them off wonderfully. Full sexy lips that half the girls in my class would be paying to have done in a few years time. She had a slightly longer than usual neck, and she was thin, but without being skinny — athletic is what people say. But she wasn’t an ironing board. She had good boobs and hips, and you couldn’t help noticing her when she moved.

I watched her slip out of shoes and walk to where the water lapped at her toes. She came back and pulled off her clothes, right down to her knickers. Then she ran out into the water, diving into the waves. I must have lost her for a while because I didn’t see her head in the water.

I watched the lighter patches where the waves broke, the lights from the ships on the horizon, the stars twinkling over the sea.

At some point there were shouts and a dog barking further up by the old fort, but they stopped just as quickly as they started and no-one came trekking up the beach to disturb my vigil and Cally’s swimming.

When I looked back at the water, I saw not one, but two dark forms bobbing slowly against the waves. Cally stood up, a black shadow against the grey sea. The other form floated alongside, like a ball bouncing on the surface, except she was talking to it, gesturing, moving her hands. Her body stiffened. I imagined she was angry at someone, or something.

The ball seemed to grow larger, but then I realised the other person was getting up. But what was it? It was like a tangle of seaweed, reaching over and wrapping itself around her, pulling her closer. She moved towards it. The arms lifted and moved. She fell back into the sea. I heard the splash. Yet as the waves washed over the spot, erasing the ripples and ruffles, it was like she’d never been there.

I waited for her to appear again, checking out different areas until my eyes ached. Finally, I got up and walked back to my bike.

The last thing I saw when I turned back towards the sea was the small pile of her clothes, silhouetted against the colourless sky.

I waited for Josh on a bench outside the chip shop. The street lights were coming on, flickering orange against a darkening sky with just a blaze of clouds to the West. They turned gold then purple and pink, then dark blue and finally grey as the sun set. On the other side of the footbridge, the bells rang out at St. Mary’s. They were practising long descending peels that seemed to double back upon themselves before tripping down helter-skelter like a kid in a playground shooting down the slide then running back up the steps and down again. As the bells stopped, the last birds flew around before settling into roosts for the night.

Josh’s bike came clanking up the pavement.

“You ready?” he asked, setting a foot down to steady himself.

I nodded and we sped along to the end of the street and the path to the beach.

We left our bikes up against a wall in the shadow and traipsed noisily over the pebbles, avoiding the patches of thistles in the half light as our eyes got accustomed to the dark.

We lay in a hollow and waited, Josh occasionally trying to skim a stone over the shingle. Sometimes it worked. Most times they’d ricochet off in all directions.

The sea lapped at the shore like someone breathing. From time to time a car would drive by on the coast road, or a door would slam and a dog bark, but the calm of the beach would return and then it was just Josh and me, lying under the stars.

“She ain’t coming,” he said. And although he didn’t say it, his tone implied I’d invented everything. And some part of me thought that perhaps he was right.

He stood up against the night sky.

“See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah. Tomorrow then.”

And he was gone, the sound of his sandals on the pebbles absorbed by the cool wash-wash of the waves.

I rolled over and looked over at the sea, at the blinking lights of the buoys, of the ships out on the horizon, or the occasional reflection of the stars. And grey waves cresting and breaking, pulling back and starting over again.

I stood up and walked over to the shore. I undressed, folding my clothes and putting them on my trainers until I stood again and felt the slight sea breeze tickling me. I walked into the water, felt the first shock as the cold waves splashed around my thighs, then ducked down, feeling the bubbles and the roar in my eyes, and then the almost stickines of the surface as I emerged and could breathe again.

I tasted the salt drip into my mouth, burning my tongue before it faded an became fish and crabs and seaweed and sea air and everything I had known.

I lay back, floating on the surface, lapped by the waves, weightless, just listening to the sea breathing all around me, carrying me up. Until I too, became part of the sea.

And so I too, lay there, floating, waiting for the tentacles to come.

THE END

So here is another of the South Coast stories, stories I realised, inspired by the places I knew when I was a teen and the place I lived. It is pretty obvious that a lot of this came back to me when we visited my brother and his family last August, but I have used this setting before. And, my apologies to the residents, I have shrunk Kingston Beach a little.

This was also inspired by an actual incident that I remember, when a kid did get his foot stuck in the rocks with the tide coming in, and the fire brigade mounted a big operation to keep the water away while they rescued him.

This story came to me with a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not unusual, as I generally know where a story should go, although in some cases I just have a beginning and then just write to find out more. Except that this one didn’t go there. As I was writing it, the end changed itself. It surprised me, but my original end seemed contrived where this one flowed naturally out of the story.

Hope you like it.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 France License.

Last edited: Monday, May 17th, 2010

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