Flat 4A, 12 Ocean Road, 2008
I knew we had been in the car for hours but time blurred. All I remember is the pinch of pain as my teeth bit away the skin on my left thumb. I’d spent the journey from Birmingham gnawing it down, my brother screaming beside me in the back everytime he dropped a book or toy out of reach. Mam’s foot went on and off the brakes – in her hand she held the photocopied map with Uncle Ray’s scrawled handwriting on. The road ahead changed from motorways to country roads, swirling the grey into shades of green. She muttered:
“Where the fuck is this place?”
By the time she hauled us out of the car, my thumb was gushing blood. I balled my fist and shoved it into my parka. At the bottom of my pocket, I felt crumbs hiding amongst a tissue and the squeaky plastic of a Loveheart wrapper. The kind of sweets Dad liked to give on Sunday, promises with each one. Forever. True Love. My Only One.
But just then, it was Mam making new promises.
“Beside the seaside, beside the sea!” she sang in the voice she used only for us. I took Ben’s hand and walked him up the stairs. His sniveling had subsided and at every door, he stopped to turn the handle, smiling at me.
“No, not that one, Ben” I said, as a dog started barking from behind the door. As we climbed higher up the bare wooden staircase, music pounded through each hallway.
“Mam said top floor, so a few more to go yet.”
After he and Mam brought up the last load, Ray looked suddenly scared to see three new arrivals in his flat. The first time she had brought him round ours, he’d sprawled out on our couch snoring off the lunch-time pints. Now we had invaded with our army of scrappy cardboard boxes and suitcases. Mam closed the front door and put down the last box in the only other bedroom.
“This room is for you both. I’ll put Ben’s cot on this side and you can have the bed.”
Ben raced to the boxes and started getting his trains out. He pulled out his favourite red engine and dragged it along the pink carpet. Mam stood in the hallway, showing Ray some of the wallpaper samples she’d collected. His eyebrows rose at the sight of garish red floral patterns up against the yellowy wall.
I looked out of the attic window to the town of streets that led to the promenade. The funfair was boarded up. Little red carriages from the Ferris wheel swung in the wind. Rows of scruffy huts lined up on the beach where the dark honey sand met rolling waves. The white crests led sloppily to the grey blur of horizon.
I wiped my bloody thumb onto the wooden windowsill. Marking it, claiming something just for me.
The Ocean Cafe, 2014
I retreated into the only cafe open. Its fluorescent lights flickered and I felt a hunger. Shaking the rain off my coat, I shrugged, pushing away the thought that anyone noticed me. I have learnt to grow ignorant of scorn and shame. I have myself for that after all.
The boy took my order. Good practice, I imagined his father saying, before sending him to my table. The boy bowed his head – a gesture of shyness or respect, one I didn’t deserve. I noticed a throng of children in the corner, maybe school friends. They chattered loudly, pop cans scattered across the table, neon plastic straws in their mouths.
When the boy brought my order, I squeezed ketchup over the chips. The dark-haired woman appeared out of the back kitchen with a cake. It was smothered in white cream icing with poppy-red hearts. She presented it to the boy and kissed him. Her red lips coloured his cheek. He swept it away with his sleeve as his friends laughed. Their birthday-singing was first in Greek and then in English, a few unsure of the words, following along quietly. Filmed on phones to share with those not here – cousins in Athens, a brother in London.
One of the girls refused the cake.
“No I couldn’t possibly!” Her hand fanned her chubby face and her head shook long dark hair from her shoulders. Maybe she had seen other women do this and practised in her mother’s mirror. The boy looked at his father and rolled his eyes. He was wearing a hoodie many sizes too big. Maybe he dreamed of more; being allowed to play football after dark, his next birthday and being bigger, taller, filling out. Things just out of reach – chasing a hunger that would never be satisfied. Perhaps he and I both know something about this.
By the time I was finished, the rain had stopped. I watched the children dance out of the door, music blaring, posing faces, capturing dissolving versions of themselves. Out under a cloak of clouds that had gathered at the shore. The man leant over the counter and blew her a kiss. She turned her back on him, and left the rest of the cake on the side, the hearts bleeding red trails along the icing.
She walked out, leaving the cafe door to swing open to the wild night.
I followed, jamming the door closed. In this salted seaside air, a handle like that would corrode until it no longer turned.
I had to hurry. My footsteps behind hers. I knew if I looked up, I’d catch a glimpse of winking stars, so I kept my eyes down on the slick pavement. Losing all sense of direction under the acidic orange streetlights.
Cliff View, 12 Ocean Road, 2018
The estate agent didn’t follow the married couple into the house. After forty viewings she was tired and left them to it, keeping the engine of her car running. It wouldn’t take long for them to dismiss it.
Gerard battled with the rusty door handle. The key turned eventually. Penny walked in first and in seconds they were both wild eyed. Exploring the house like a pair of archaeologists discovering treasure. Each doorway was a rib offering itself to them, each creaking floorboard and faded varnish something to fix and restore. The downstairs rooms were plastered with a colour that resembled worn pale skin hung on dark crooked beams. Picking at the seams of poppy wallpaper in the attic with intrigue, he talked Penny round with plans and promises. Cosy fires in winter, a bedroom view across to the sea.
“We’ll knock it back into a family home. Turn the old catering kitchen into a dining room. Maybe even five bedrooms. So much room for us to grow,” he said, placing his hands on her hips and moving them to the place the bump would form in her belly.
In the first weeks, the walls were torn apart. The builders took sledgehammers to reveal the skeletal beams. The architect promised ways of opening up, structure and glass that brought new light into once dark Victorian spaces. In a frenzy of giddy homemaking one weekend, Penny painted the new walls of the kitchen with three coats of blue paint she had chosen from a spectrum of samples.
“Like no duck’s egg I’ve ever seen,” he said
After a bottle of wine they lay on the tiled floor, wrapped in each other’s arms. Each held dreams of what would happen next. Gerard’s breath seemed to slow as if he could hear the ripple of dividing cells.
Escaping from the noise of workmen and the clouds of dust, Penny climbed the stairs to the attic room. She wanted a room just for her – a silent place at the top of the house. Magazines had been consulted and sample paint pots considered. Pale ivory and natural tones, perhaps contrasted with decadent fabrics in plums and golds. Bookshelves to line the walls – it might be time the academic books came out of storage. After all, years had passed since Cambridge and people might not remember.
“Which conference is it this time?” She had asked before he left for another three-day jaunt.
In the dusty sunlight, the attic looked forlorn. Peeling wallpaper and rotten-pink patterned carpets gave off a musty smell of neglect. At the window, she took in its view over the tiled rooftops as the seagulls swooped and bickered amongst themselves – dancing their broad white wings between the chimney pots. Her hand rubbed the window frame, tracing the grain along the bare wood. She looked over the skyline and thought of the panic she had felt handing in her thesis; walking across the streets in the rain with her analysis of an obscure aspect of nineteenth-century literature tucked under the crook of her arm. That blur of sleeplessness after spending the night with Gerard in his little office tucked away on campus. How kind of him to offer advice!
Where did that feeling go? That strange notion that everything that mattered was in front of her. Standing up, a faint stab of pain struck and her womb cramped – both familiar and welcome. She smiled and watched a shimmer of sun strike out across the sea. Tracing one finger along the outline of a rusty stain on the window frame.
It will all have to go.
About The Author
Lindsay Bennett Ford is originally from the North East of England. She works freelance living between the UK and the rocky islands of Greece. Her fiction has recently been published by Emerge Literary Journal, Perhappened and Cabinet of Heed. She tweets @linzdigs and blogs at inthegreekgarden.com
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