They were late. It didn’t crystallise into words or a thought in his mind, but he let out a dissatisfied grunt. Or perhaps the grunt was a response to some immanent sense of arrival because the prow of the boat immediately appeared, as if summoned, from behind the rocks off to his right. Arrival being no more satisfactory than lateness, he let out another grunt.
He had done his jobs. All was ready. They would sail the boat in, manoeuvre it alongside the jetty that thrust into the natural harbour, and they would tie their lines to the bollards using newly-learned knots. Then the teenagers would grab their rucksacks and jostle down on to the jetty and ashore. Their teacher would follow more slowly, carrying a larger rucksack and an icebox filled with plastic bottles of Coke and Fanta. Then Mark would appear, tidying the deck behind them and running a hand through his hair, before putting his other hand on the rail of the boat, jumping down to the jetty, which would rock, and leading the group to the shingled fringe of the treeline at the edge of the island where a horseshoe of small, grubby wooden beach huts waited to accommodate them for the night. A nice, safe little adventure.
The boat was almost entirely in view now, and he was about to lower his binoculars and retreat to an out-of-the-way ramshackle shed at the centre of the island, when he stopped.
She was standing at the back of the boat, hand on tiller, steering them in, turning the boat towards him now, though still a distance away. He couldn’t see her clearly, the binoculars had started trembling, and he felt uneasy about straining so hard to make her out. She was one of the students, tall for whatever age she might be, but with less to her than an adult of the same height. Her hair might have been black or brown or pink. All he could really see at this distance was her black top under the thin red lines of the life-vest – he couldn’t distinguish whether it was a T-shirt or some other style of top that he didn’t know the name for, but he could see it was black. Except that he was sure that it was not black at all, but gold. He was absolutely certain that if a gold top was at that distance, across water, seen through shaking binoculars, with the sun at precisely that angle, such that it was starting to make his eyes strain and moisten just a little at the corners, then that particular gold top, under a red life-vest, would appear black. He was sure of it.
The sun’s light was dispersing woefully across the horizon behind the sea behind the trees. The tin of chicken and vegetable soup that he had put out on the trestle table at the centre of his shed in the morning was unopened. He stood at the window, but not seeing anything except the boat and her steering it, laughing as she did, calling to her friends. He felt he could see her properly now, although he still couldn’t really distinguish the features of her face or the colour of her hair. But her top was golden, as he had known it would be.
He heard the sounds of teenage boys on the path outside – those deep, low voices jostling in conversation, looking for weaknesses in their friends and trying to disguise their own, even though they didn’t really know what they were yet. He was plucked ungently back to the world before him.
There was a lull in the sound of their voices. He could sense them forget about baiting each other and turn their attention to his home. He dreaded this part, but Mark insisted on sending up a small group of boys – always the boys – to bring him his provisions. Tins, mostly: soup, beans, fruit cocktail in syrup; a loaf of bread, UHT milk, and butter; tea, sugar; loo roll, soap… He slumped below his window, back to the wall, and waited for them to go away.
“Who could live here all the time?”
“We just leave the stuff outside the door, right?”
“Is he there, do you think?”
“We just leave it here.”
“What’s he getting anyway?”
“I don’t think we should—”
“Shit – look at this. I hope we’re not getting this bollocks for our tea.”
“I don’t think we’ll be getting fried chicken, mate.”
“Or pepperoni deep-crust.”
They were rummaging through the boxes and bags. This was normal. Sometimes, depending on the group, they would tip everything out. Throw the toilet paper around. Other times, they’d get bored and bugger off. The bolt on the shed door had always – so far – been enough to put them off trying to come in.
“What on fucking earth are you all doing?”
A girl’s voice. Her voice. Black gold treasure voice. He turned, half-rising, just his eyes above the sill. It was her.
“Shit, he’s there!”
“He was hiding the whole fucking time.”
“Let’s just go.”
He thought he would stand up, turn his back to the window and walk towards the camp-bed on the other side of the shed, taking advantage of the dimming light and the grimy glass pane to fade out of view. But he couldn’t let go of the sight of her, only her, framed between trees with just a few of the brightest stars (though he knew that some stars were actually planets) starting to emerge in the bruising sky behind her.
He knew he was ignoring them, provoking them, these man-childs with their hormonal mixtures of strength and fear and bravado and idiocy. He knew better. He should step back.
“Hey! You gonna come and get your shit, then?”
“Leave him alone, Josh, mate.”
It was only the one kid who wanted trouble. The others weren’t interested and were looking for a way out. She was still on the path that came up through the scrubby trees between the jetty and his shed. Why had she followed them up here? She wasn’t trying to steer them away, but she wasn’t egging them on, either. Her voice had been calm and sardonic, not shocked or scared. Her mouth was twisted in what might have been a scorn or a smile. It was beautiful.
The boys lost interest. They turned away, headed back to the path, to where she was. Josh was still grasping a can of soup in his hand. Did he think he was going to nick it? Or had he just forgotten he was holding it?
“Better go, Josh.” A mocking tone in her voice this time. She knew what was going on here – these boys, they wanted to impress her. They all wanted to impress her, always. And sometimes she was impressed by them. But she was the girl they each wanted to be noticed by. Had she noticed him?
“Fucking loser,” Josh said again. “Here’s your sad fucking loser food.” And he lobbed the can towards the shed.
It’s hard to throw a full can of soup much harder than you intend, but perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Josh had meant to just hit the wall or the door with the can. Perhaps he’d meant it to roll into the threadbare grass in front of the shed. Perhaps it was hard to judge the distance in the evening murk, far from any unnatural light. But perhaps he also meant for it to hit the window – or at least for there to be a reasonable chance that it might. They all ran then, the shits, as the thin glass shattered into his face and the can followed through with its momentum and hit the bridge of his nose, spiking one shard of pane into his flesh.
He peered at himself in the tiny mirror that hung above his tiny fridge. This time the words were fully formed, jangling around his head: “fucking loser”. He had stuck an old and dusty, too-small plaster over the cut on his nose but there was blood on his face and on his hands, too. He looked down, not wanting to see the familiarly odd reflection of his own image any more. There was blood on the floor, too, and glass splinters. Where was that can? The one on the table was the one from this morning, now among constellations of specks of broken glass. He got down on his hands and knees to look for the other one. He hadn’t thought to light the oil lamp and it was almost too dark to see anything but he thought he saw it under the cooker. He reached his arm under, shifting his weight to ease the discomfort of his nose – his whole face, in fact – and lying on the hard flat floor like an idiot, a joke, a fucking loser.
The knock on the door was not unexpected but it was deeply unwelcome. He dropped his head on to his shoulder, still lying on the floor. Couldn’t be bothered to talk to Mark or the teacher or whoever it was had come to apologise for the lads’ behaviour. He really hoped it wasn’t Josh: abuse or apology, either would be humiliating. Fuck off, he shouted into the cavernous vacuum of his head; let me alone.
It wasn’t an adult voice, nor a boy’s. It was a calm, less sardonic voice now. Golden black tones.
“Are you there?” Was there concern in that question? He decided there might be.
Silence without. Was she gone? He couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his heart thumping and the blood blasting scathingly through his ears. Was that the bolt being tested? He put his chin nearer his chest, trying to look back along his prostrate body towards the door. He put his free hand on the floor – he had to get up, but his other hand had just found the can of soup.
The door opened.
Two cold cups of tea. The provisions were stacked against the wall of his shed, inside but not in the fridge or in the cupboard or on the shelf; unwanted reminders of everything else. They hadn’t said much – he never could and she seemed oddly unsure, or sure in uncertainty, testing herself. As if she had dared herself to come, or perhaps someone else had dared her.
If that someone had asked how they had then got to this point, he would not have been able to say. But here they were, in his shed with the oil lamp the only point of light alive on the island, him sitting on the edge of his camp-bed, she dabbing at his bloodied face with the dampened corner of his tea towel. He kept flinching – not because it hurt.
She was close, her face closer than any had been to his for as long as he could remember. Closer than he had ever imagined. Unbearably intimately close. He couldn’t quite look at her face. Her eyes. Their lashes. His fingers tightened on the can still gripped in his hand. He wanted to touch her, gently, almost without touching, as she was touching him with the towel – but he didn’t know how.
She was finishing up. Looking more intently at his face to see, without seeing him, if there were any flecks of blood she had missed. It was over. She was leaving. She was walking away down the path in the moonlight and finding her beach hut and going in without waking her friend and sleeping and getting up and getting on the boat and sailing them all away from him.
“Better go,” she murmured, drawing back onto her heels.
The broken silence was his cue. He pushed his face towards hers and brought his hand round to the back of her head. The soup can jarred against her skull and she flinched away.
“No,” he said, pointlessly.
She stood up.
“No,” he said, stung by rejection, filling with the amplified, multiplied, venomous contempt of the boys and of Mark and of her and of the entire rest of the human race.
He followed her out of the door and into the night and caught hold of her with his free hand. She turned, fast, as if she was going to hit him but her hands stayed down and as her face came in front of his once more, he thought he saw the faintest softening at the edges of her eyes and her mouth, as if there was a smile in waiting, as if this was all part of a plan. He decided it might be.
The tin of soup lay in the mud a couple of metres away. He had stopped her taking off her golden top. He hadn’t stopped her taking off anything else. He pushed at the waistband of his trousers. He heard her say “No”, but as if from a hundred yards away across still water. Had she changed her mind? No, he was in the wrong place, that was all. Ok.
Only now and under the cover of a glittering, isolated darkness could he say something as alien and preposterous as “I love you” and mean it, but already they were dismantling language with their tongues and their hands and before he could say anything, those words and all other words had given up their meanings; their shared, complicit silence punctuated only with the physicality of two bodies in space.
For seconds, possibly hours, at a time, his consciousness was entirely hers – there was nothing beyond the tips of his senses. But sometimes he drifted back into a detached kind of consciousness and saw the scene from above himself. She was on her back on the ground; he was on top. Pushing. Driving. Driving her, deeper, down to the dirt. Her hands were on his back, setting the pace, keeping the rhythm, pulling him down, pulling herself, deeper. They were searching, deeper. Perhaps they needed, deeper, to find one last word, deeper, that retained some element of meaning, deeper, before they could come apart and resurface.
He couldn’t find the word. She sank further into the ground and he could feel the dirt on his hips each time he pushed down, on and in to her. Now he couldn’t see her any more, despite the sky lightening with the dawn, deeper… Deeper, and she was gone. Too far below. He kept on thrusting into the mud, searching for her, for a word, a trace, a flicker of gold. But he couldn’t find her and he didn’t yet know how to call her back.
He was still there, pushing feebly at the ground, when the sun came up. At some point, he stopped and just lay exhausted on top of the earth.
He wondered what Mark would say if he found him here like this, and he laughed at last. There would be strong words; a lecture. Lots about second chances and a decent job and allowances made, and not even being expected to talk to the kids any more, let alone teach them anything, and about being given a place to live nine months of the year and everything he needed like food and loo roll, and about letting people down and letting himself down and so on and on for a very long time. There is nothing so unbearably smug as a successful younger brother.
He pulled himself out of the mud and up to his feet. He pulled up his trousers and walked down the path through the scrubby trees to the harbour. All was ready. He looked out over the water and let out a satisfied grunt. They were late.
This story started as an uncomfortable dream, which I had maybe a dozen years ago. The island, the gold/black top, the sinking into the dirt were all in there. I tried writing it down when I woke up, and kept hold of that draft for a few years before deleting it because it still made me uncomfortable. Earlier this year I thought of it again in the night and got out of bed in the dark to scribble in my notebook. It seemed possible to finish and refine it into a story at last. Having recently seen a competition for short stories, I finished it for that deadline and it seemed rude not to then enter. It did not win.