A short story, to be published here in six parts, each Thursday at 17.00, beginning today, 31/01/2013
SOMETHING TO DO
James Ferron Anderson
Harry drives the hired car down the winding track from the coast road to the White Rocks. His twelve-year-old daughter is beside him. The hired car turns and turns, and bumps over a ramp and into the car park. Around the entrance to the car park a group of men in wetsuits stand about or sprawl on the tarmac, eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, surf boards scattered around them, cars with roof racks parked side by side. Harry drives the hired car to the far end of the car park and turns off the engine.
It is a Sunday in January, and very cold, but also very dry and bright. From inside a caravan, the windows clear of mist, this would look like a summer day. Harry has had the car window open coming down the track, and is under no such illusion.
He closes the window, they get out of the car. Their shopping from Portrush lies in bags on the back seat. He and his twelve-year-old daughter, Laura, fiddle with clothes, wrap scarves around their necks, close up coats, pull woolly hats down over their ears. Some of the men in wetsuits watch them and eat sandwiches and look away again and talk to each other. Harry locks the car. The sea is hidden beyond the sandhills. It is sheltered here.
They step across a sagging strand of fence wire, climb up over mounds of pale sand, and through tough grass. As they reach the top the wind bites into them. In front is a long clean wonderful beach, stretching for miles to the left, all the way back to Portrush, and a little way to the right, where the White Rocks begin. His daughter has never seen any of this before. Their breath is literally taken away.
Ahead is the Atlantic Ocean. Harry and his daughter stand there, looking at the Skerries far out, watching the big waves, listening to the seagulls screaming. Then they wade on into the sand like it’s deep snow, making their way to the edge of the ocean, and stroll along together. The wind comes in sharp blasts, the dry sand snakes towards them, bites their eyes, ears, mouths. They watch for sudden waves, step aside quickly.
Twenty years before, and three weeks after his brother Martin’s body was put into the ground, Harry came for a holiday to this beach at the White Rocks. So did his father, mother, two sisters and his other, living, brother. Harry stands there and remembers them coming.
Coast near White Rocks, Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Cecil, his father, drives them up to the Antrim coast from Dunmaddy in the warm and humid mid-July in the Austin Maxi. Some of the spaces around the family are filled with beach mats, a picnic rug, towels, spare clothing. The rest of the spaces are filled with drink. There is a bottle of vodka, a bottle of gin, a bottle of Teachers whisky, Heineken cans, and a tray of twenty-four Harp cans in the boot. There are bottles of Coke, and C&C lemonade for mixers, and screw-top plastic beakers to drink from. There are many packs of Benson and Hedges cigarettes and a pack of Silk Cut cigarettes that run out before they get there. They are all drinking and smoking as they travel. Even his little sister, Heather, aged eleven, puffs on one of the Silk Cuts and drinks a beer. There is no food. They are a family on holiday. An obnoxious, miserable, grieving family. They are here for something to do. They drive through Portrush and out to the caravan site near White Rocks. They have been lent a caravan for a week by Cecil’s brother Ronnie, and his wife, Aunt June. It is to help them get over their grief. It is a thoughtful gesture. They bump over the paths, look out at the Atlantic Ocean below the cliffs, sip from Heineken cans, pull on Benson and Hedges, uncap and re-cap beakers of spirits and lemonade, look for caravan number fifty-six. Cecil stops the car, they get out. The parents have been, until recently, a sniping, dependant, formerly-loving and now drifting-apart couple. They ignored each other, then went out of their way to make each other snacks. The children have been, until recently, a whinging, griping, happy-enough troubled-enough, companionable lot of brothers and sisters. They would hold grudges, do each other favours, deny each other pointless things, give each other food and magazines, then withhold clothes. This has all changed by the time they come to the caravan on the cliffs on the way to White Rocks. Now they are all bound together by mourning and alcohol. The parents enter the caravan and the children follow one after the other. They look around. The caravan is bright and clean and impersonal. The carpets are cream. The curtains are cream and tied back, the seating beige, with arranged beige cushions. There is a jug of plastic roses on the table. There is a handwritten notice inside the caravan door of the things Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June expect of their guests. Cleaning duties, changing bed linen, no smoking. Thomas, thirteen, the other surviving brother, reads the notice and starts to laugh. Then he stops laughing. It is one of only two occasions on this holiday that anyone will remember a member of the family laughing.
Sea cave, Antrim coast, Northern Ireland
The family bring the drinks inside. The soft drinks and some of the beer is put in the tiny fridge. It is packed to the door. There are glasses with hunting scenes on the shelf of the kitchen cupboard and on the dish drainer. They help themselves to the glasses and settle down.
Outside people come and go in the fading evening. Children cry on their way to bed. Boys yell. Girls yell. Someone screams, then laughs. Inside the caravan cigarettes flare up, die, drinks are mixed, poured, sipped. About ten o’clock Angela, fourteen, puts the lights on. The caravan lights are more adequate than bright, in the way of caravan lights. She decides they are too bright, puts them off again. Outside someone starts to sing, is jeered at, sings louder, stops. Silence falls. A dog yaps for a while, stops again. All the time the family sit in darkness, red tips of cigarettes move in semi circles, drinks are finished, bottles and glasses clink. No-one talks. No-one has anything to say. Instead they supportively mix cocktails for each other, pass each other lights. Eventually Cecil, Heather, Thomas, wander off one by one to beds and bunks, and sleep anywhere, in any arrangement, sprawled across the top of the quilts. The mother and Angela sleep side by side on the beige seating where they have been all evening, just leaning a little more against each other. Harry, a big boy of sixteen, goes outside to where he finds the car waiting with two of the doors wide open, and sleeps across the back seat.
In the morning Cecil and Helen take long drinks of water from the tap, and about noon drive back into Portrush. They leave Harry lying on the grass, still asleep. Two hours later the parents return. Heather has vomited in the sink. The other children are just getting up. Cecil and Helen have brought supplies. They have cider, wine, gin and vodka. There are Jacobs Cream Crackers and Tayto crisps and one loaf of bread and a bag of oranges. The bag of oranges will sit on the table until the family are about to leave, and then Thomas will chop off a slice and put it in his gin and soda.
It is also Thomas who finds, while Cecil and Helen are unloading the shopping, three inflated inner tubes under the caravan. When Cecil and Helen have had vodka and Cokes, and breakfast sandwiches of bread and crisps have been eaten, the three inner tubes are tied to the roof of the Maxi. The picnic rug, the bottle of gin, some of the cider, the rest of the Harps, a bottle of Coke and the glasses with hunting scenes are put in the boot, and they drive down the winding track from the coast road to the White Rocks.
Part Four: They cross over the sand dunes on the warm day and settle with their backs to the chalk cliffs, the rug spread out. Children sit around on the sand in the inner tubes. Benson and Hedges are lit. Soon everybody is drinking gin and Coke from the caravan glasses, sucking on Harp cans. No-one does anything else. At the end of the day Cecil drives them all erratically into Portrush. He buys six bags of chips and six battered sausages and they sit in a row on a low wall facing Barry’s Amusements, glassy-eyed, with no appetite, in a mess of greasy sheets of white paper and polystyrene trays. The next day is the same. By the end of the week child drinkers have manoeuvred the inner tubes down to the sea, and bob about in them, but that is the one innovation of the holiday.
The week drifts by, then the weekend. It seems to be understood that they are staying on. On the Sunday Uncle Ronnie and his wife Aunt June come up from Cookstown. They have come to inspect their empty caravan, and do any minor tidying up. They find the caravan unlocked and no-one home. The beige cushions have been thrown out onto the grass. There are pee and vomit stains on the beige seating. Somebody has turned one of the vomit stains into a face by drawing eyes and a big nose around it with a red felt tip. Tayto crisps and drink spills and seaweed have been trodden into the cream carpet. The cream curtains have been used as hand towels. Indignant, Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June set out to find their lodgers and relatives. They spot the Austin Maxi at the White Rocks. The plastic roses from the jug on the table have been tied to the radiator grill. They climb the mounds of sand and go through the rough grass. Cecil and Helen are asleep under the chalk cliffs. Bottles and cans dot the beach around them. Drinking glasses with hunting scenes have been smashed or lie in the sand. Angela, dressed in blouse and jeans, is asleep half in and half out of the sea, and the tide is coming in. Heather and Thomas bob about in the rubber inner tubes in the Atlantic, half way to the Skerries.
Skerries, County Antrim
Part Five: Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June raise Angela from the surf and call the others ashore. They are as lean as rakes, their skin bronzed and peeling, hair bleached and tangled, what clothes they have filthy. Benson and Hedges dangle from their lips. Thomas and Heather hold carefully upright the plastic beakers of cocktails of choice which they have been enjoying whilst at sea. Angela says damn and fuck and shite and then finds a beer after all and pops it open. As Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June stand there wondering what to do, Harry comes back down from the sandhills where he has been watching golfers on the links beyond. He has an open can of Harp in one hand, his pockets bulge with golf balls, he trails three sand rakes behind him. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June wake up Cecil and Helen and make them take the children back to the caravan. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June have no children of their own, but they are loud and talkative and full of authority. They say there will be no more children drifting about in rubber rings. Somebody starts to laugh. They say there will be no more children smoking. All the children are laughing. There will certainly be no more children drinking. Cecil and Helen are laughing as well. Heather laughs the most. She lights up a Benson and Hedge, sucks on her plastic beaker. That is the second and last time there is family laughter during the holiday. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June tell them they have to vacate the caravan. Their trust has been abused. They tell the tale of their arrival and the state of the caravan. They tell it several times. The laughter has long since died. Cecil walks away from them while they are still speaking, lies down on an unmade bed. In moments he is snoring. That is when Uncle Ronnie discovers the toilet door is off its hinges, the bedclothes full of cigarette burns. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June sit outside in the fading sunlight in a huff for twenty minutes and when nobody apologises (the children have forgotten about them by then and are experimentally mixing Babycham and Ribena in a milk jug) they go home. During the family’s time in the caravan no-one proposes anything. No-one objects to anything. No-one annoys anyone. No-one falls out. There is nothing to be annoyed or fall out about. There is enough drink for all. At the end of the second week they put what is left of their things back in the Austin Maxi and drive away.
Part Six: That is the way Harry remembers it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t like that but that is the way he remembers it. He has not been back once in the twenty years that have passed since that holiday. He and his daughter pace up and down the beach, chilled through under all their heavy clothes. His daughter looks for shells for a while, gives up. This place is so pure, wild and fresh, scoured by storms. The men in wetsuits, carrying surf boards, looking determined, troop over the rise and down the beach and past them. They plough on into the sea, stroking their way out through the Atlantic waves, under the hard clear bright sky. Harry and his daughter watch them. The men stroke on, as if heading for the Skerries. They bob, appear, disappear. Harry is very quiet. His daughter puts her arm around him. He puts his arm around her. He looks at the base of the White Rocks. No rug, no scattered Harp cans, no discarded Smirnoff bottle. No glasses with hunting scenes. No Benson and Hedges cigarettes. No parents. His parents are both long dead. No children dragging inner tubes one-handed to the sea, plastic beakers held aloft in the other. Where are his brothers and sisters now? Maybe they are still out there. Maybe the men in wetsuits will find them. Angela, Thomas and Heather still bobbing in the inflated inner tubes, keeping cigarettes dry, sheltering beakers of eccentric cocktails from passing waves, while he himself perches up on a hill watching golfers on the links course, stealing sand rakes, stealing golf balls, sipping Harp from the can, all of them waiting for time to pass, all of them waiting for things to get better. Harry and Laura turn away before the men in wetsuits can climb to their feet and surf back to shore. Father and daughter, their backs to the wind, backs to the Atlantic, they walk hand in hand, wade on up the sand like it’s deep snow. They descend the other side, into shelter. They go through tough grass, climb down over mounds of sand, step across the sagging strand of fence wire. They unlock the hired car, get in, loosen clothing, open the shopping from Portrush. There are sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiche, pastries, ham, cheese, cheese triangles, oranges, apples, dates, grapes, bananas. They eat. It is something to do. The End