Short fiction by Dilys Rose, novelist, short story writer, poet and librettist under World Poetry/Prose Portfolio [WPP], curated by Sudeep Sen
Mabel sits on the caravan steps and blows across a steaming, mid-morning cuppa. Her dragnet glance takes in the entire site, her site, and far beyond: the scruffy dunes, the grand sweep of the shoreline, the silver-plated sea,the islands.
The lighthoose is clear as day, pet.
Cuthie doesn’t see the lighthouse but knows which way to incline his head without his mam jabbing her fag at the coastline and trailing a coil of smoke. What he sees is thick fog pocked with shifting discs of light: a sea fret with floaters.
As ever Mabel reels off the islands, those she can see and those she can’t: Inner Farne, Knock’s Reef, the Wide Opens, the Megstone, Staple, the Brownsman, North and South Wames, Big Harcar, Longstone, Knivestone. She skips most of the smaller islands but can list the lot from north to south, west to east, with every tidal coupling and uncoupling. Today she has a hankering and an abbreviated list is all she can be arsed with.
A lighthoose is a landmark.
When Cuthie could first recite the names of all the Farnes, without screwing up or shilly-shallying, she treated him to a plastic, wind-up toy of Grace Darling in her coble. He must have been five or six, not long started at the school and out at last from under her feet. How he’d squealed with glee at wee Gracie rowing like the clappers around the bathtub. How his eyes had grown damp and round with disappointment when the clockwork ran down and the boat puttered to a halt. He played with it so much the mechanism packed up and the Heroine of the Sea, bobbing about like a rubber duck, just couldn’t cut it.
But that’s water down the plughole. If Cuthie has forgotten a few of the Farnes, if he’s let go of his learning, that’s his lookout. High time he learned to take his bearings from what’s staring him in the face. You teach a kid something once, you’ve done your bit. Can’t always be filling in the gaps. He chose to stick around, to take advantage of a fully equipped caravan of his own, far enough from her own that he could come and go as he pleased, with a wage on the doorstep into the bargain. A bloody good wage she gives him, a fair hike from what other lads who couldn’t be doing with school are taking home.
You need a landmark in your life, Cuth: a goal, a focus, a direction.
Do you have a direction, Mam?
Apart from me stairway to heaven, pet? That would be telling.
She stubs out her fag and kicks the butt off the step. Mabel might keep her van spick and span but isn’t fussed about the state of the site. It rained heavily in the night and the pathways have turned to sleck. As if dog do isn’t bad enough — and she’ll still read the riot act to folk who don’t bag and bin the leavings of their pets — sheep and deer get in through gaps in the fence. Even cows wander off the dunes and drop their plops of muck about the place. Sometimes she’ll get Cuthie to shovel the cow-pats into a wheelbarrow and fertilise the tattie patch but often as not she’ll let them lie. Drainage, too, has always been a problem and after last night’s downpour there’s no doubt about it: the site stinks.
She did try. Back in the day, when she first took on the place, she came down hard on slovens and litter louts but there’s only so much you can do and what, in the long run, is the point? If folk want to roll in their own muck, why get in a stew? If they pay the rent on time, or before she has to fetch Tiff or Nolan to speed up the process, she can sleep easy. Which is good enough for her.
If truth be told, Cuth —
When his mam gets on to truth telling Cuthie switches off. Her philosophy of life is as random as her site maintenance, though the old fella with the sickle looms large, lurking in the lee of the dunes, shielding the empty sockets of his eyes from windblown sand. His mam’s nowhere near old and, despite her bad habits, in rude health, yet something’s forever nipping at her heels: if she doesn’t grab a day by the scruff — except when it comes to tidying up the site, that is — she’s convinced she’ll be jinxed for evermore by missed opportunity.
So clear, she says. Nolan’ll be raking it in the day. They’ll be queueing up with their binocs and tripods and all the other crap twitchers cart aboot. So clear. I reckon you could pick oot Nolan’s boat when it cuts by Inner Farne.
Cuthie can’t see the beach, never mind the islands. A sea fret is all. And floaters. That’s what Kyleen in the optometrist’s called the speckles swimming across his field of vision. Wee and skinny she is, with a pixie haircut, a sparkly nose stud and a name tag pinned to her shrimpy chest. Diamond, she said, when he admired the stud. He reckoned it was cubic zirconium — his mam’s addiction to shiny stuff had taught him to tell the difference — but he wasn’t one to challenge a lass.
Kyleen was nice. Didn’t gawp when he tried to settle his lumpy self on the high stool, or titter when his ears caught in the goggle contraption. She didn’t blather on or ask a heap of questions, just slipped behind her machine and went through the tests with the lights and the numbers, the rings and dots and circles. The last test, puffs of air fired at his eyeballs, was totally freaky.
All done, she said, as he got off the stool, blinking and bumping against the equipment. Not to worry about. But if you start to see a load o them floaters, come right back and we’ll take a closer look. He wasn’t in any rush to have air shot at his eyeballs again, not even by Kyleen.
He’s got a swarm of floaters the day, and a sea fret, and he hasn’t touched any drugs in a week. He’s been trying to lay off. He’s seen enough casualties, doesn’t want to turn into a tottering, toothless wreck before he’s out of his twenties. The floaters are part clear, part cloudy, pulsing like a swarm of jellyfish when a wave nudges them forward a smidge then sucks them back. Not a swarm, a smack. A smack of jellyfish. Uncle Nolan taught him that.
I’m off to see a man aboot a dog, says Mabel. Mind and wave if you see Nolan’s boat oot by Inner Farne.
Nolan couldna see me waving from here, Mam. That’s fancy.
He’d been out in Nolan’s boat with his brothers. His uncle had just started up the Farne Isles trips and had taken Mabel’s boys along for the ride. It was a perfect day for it: sunny, with a light breeze, the water ice blue, the wind dropped to a ruffle, flashes of sunlight, swathes of lilac cloud, the lighthouse blinding white. They’d seen thousands of birds, a dozen seals. Nolan had given them a pair of binoculars to share but by the time you homed in on a puffin or a seal and faffed with the focus, whatever you’d wanted to see had moved out of the viewfinder.
Aidan is in Dubai, making good money in construction. Comes home every other year, with dutiful duty-free treats. Will is in Sydney, skewering prawns in a harbourside eatery six nights a week, still natte about getting the plane fare home together. They Skype, now and again, but it’s not the same.
Mostly the brothers had squabbled about whose turn it was. That day on the boat, they’d chugged through a smack of jellyfish, a dense reddish-orange variety you could tell packed a punchy sting. There must have been hundreds of them, some just below the surface, others deeper down, some small and thin as communion wafers, others big as bin lids. Cuthie had been hogging the binoculars when Aidan and Will grabbed his ankles and made as if they were going to tip him overboard. He’d blubbed and near wet himself. Nolan had laughed. When the boys got home — they lived in a proper house then — their mam was red-eyed, belligerent and bereft.
Inheriting the site from an elderly aunt didn’t turn out to be the golden egg it was cracked up to be but the rent money put food on Mabel’s table and three growing boys could get through a trough of grub. Besides, something to call her own meant she could hold her head high when Derek buggered off, chasing his pipe dream of sheep farming in Oz, and the long-legged antipodean tart who had charmed the pants off him.
Mabel has never been married to the idea of constant maintenance: if there’s a leak, shove a bucket under it and carry on. Folk rent from her because they’d rather put up with rough and ready, with take what you get or sod off, than pay over the odds. And her cash-only policy suits everybody well enough.
If truth be told, there can be value in clart. Where’s there’s muck and all that. Most mornings, at first light, she makes the rounds of the site, a magpie for jewellery, watches, coins: anything that glints. Then she scours the beach, on the lookout for ancient loot as well as stuff dropped by yesterday’s strollers and lollers, trippers and twitchers. It’s a fair bet there must be Viking pins, bangles and brooches buried in the dunes or nestling in rockpools as well as tat. There’ve been plenty of wrecks on the coast, hundreds of years’ worth of wrecks and who knows what sunken treasure might shimmy in on the tide.
Thin pickings this morning: a couple of mismatched silver earrings, a gold-plated belly-button stud, a Swatch watch. Mabel has a Lost Property box in the site office but all she’ll ever consign to it are wind-buckled brollies, crusty mobile phones and mouldy swimsuits which nobody ever bothers to claim.
Mind you keep an eye on them neds with the brindle greyhound. They’ve to clean up after it or they’re oot on their arses.
They do clean up, Mam.
No just when it suits them, no just when they’ve the poop scoop to hand and now else demanding their attention. Rain, hail or shine, Cuthie, or they can bugger off.
Toodle-oo then, pet. You’re me eyes and ears.
Mabel lights up again, checks her watch, wonders what the traffic on the A1 will be like.
When’ll you be back?
Sooner or later. Bugger! she says, and a grin splits her face at the effrontery of it: them bloody gulls have crapped all over me windscreen!
She pads across the grass, climbs into the Jeep and roars up the track, wipers slicing a guano-free arc, wheels spraying sleck as she goes.
So, a Tiff day. Cuthie rubs his arms. It’s warm but he has goose pimples. What he can see has little form and even less substance: pockets of light and shade in muted tints, brick-shaped blobs which he knows must be caravans. His mam’s motor is a dark, dwindling smear on a blur of tarmac.
A bee buzzes close to Cuthie’s right ear then loops over his head and swings in close. He covers his face with his hands and stays very still. He’s allergic to bee stings. A caravan door scrapes open. He hears several pairs of feet galumph down rickety steps then spurts of male laughter. Folk say the blind hear better than the sighted. Cuthie can smell the sleck, the bins, the toilets, the salty rot of the tideline, traces of wildflower sweetness which can’t outdo the bad smells. Folk say the blind have a better sense of smell than the sighted. He doesn’t want to think about having to sniff his way around.
The lads must have started up some kind of game and the dog’s excited barking suggests that something is being thrown around: a ball, a stick, a Frisbee, though Cuthie wouldn’t put the lads down as Frisbee types. Was it yesterday or the day before when he last saw them, when his sight had been clear? Whenever it was, he hadn’t paid close attention; it didn’t do to stare at folk too closely or more to the point, to be seen staring.
Cuthie’s not much of a dog lover, nor is his mam. Tiff is forever on at her to get herself a dog, for some clout when she needs it. Officially Tiff is a dog breeder but makes his real money from pharmaceuticals. The kennels are cover, and insurance. Tiff specialises in Staffies: a stocky, rock-headed breed with a capacity for viciousness, and around Tiff’s bit, a reputation for it.
A couple of years back, when the brothers were still buddies, Nolan and his wife Tammy had gone to eat with Tiff and his current squeeze. Was that Carmen, or Svetlana? Against Nolan’s advice, Tammy had insisted on taking Cream Puff along. Tammy took her toy poodle everywhere, even into the lav. Nobody was going to stop her taking him to her brother-in-law’s. Tiff swears to this day that he warned Tammy that his house dogs, Trex and Marge, were full-on territorial. Perhaps Cream Puff, tricked out in ribbons and bows, was too wired to sit nice on Tammy’s lap, or his scrabbly claws were doing damage to her leather mini-skirt. Whatever, Tammy let him off the leash to nose around. While the four got stuck in to Tiff’s industrial-strength Margaritas, Cream Puff pranced across the shag-pile and out through the open French windows.
It was very quick, according to Nolan, a minute tops, before Tiff’s bruisers accosted the dainty canine trespasser. By the time Tiff had set down his drink on the smoked glass coffee table and gone to investigate the eruption of snarls and snaps and pitiful yelps, it was all over for Cream Puff: his neck was broken and his wee curly head was mauled terribly.
Tiff put the poodle out of his misery with a single shot to the head, gave Trex and Marge a leathering and locked them up for the rest of the night. Tammy was beside herself. Dinner was abandoned. The brothers and their respective women haven’t spoken since. These days, if Mabel needs a heavy hand on the site, one brother at a time is all she can get, which is a deal less persuasive than both together.
The brindle greyhound continues to bark but in a more muted, experimental manner and the laughter gives way to a conspiratorial murmur. The lads appear to have regrouped near the path to the beach, at least Cuthie thinks that’s where they are, but he’s guessing. He can’t even be sure how many they are as their shadows keep overlapping. How could he possibly see to it that they clean up after the dog?
They must have heard Mabel leave. They must know he’s alone. He knows they’re watching him, he can sense it, staring long and hard. What he doesn’t know is whether they’re just bored, daft lads or proper neds. He should have paid more attention when they first arrived. When he could see. He should have watched how they were with each other, checked for signs of weapons, should have eavesdropped on the talk when they were hanging around the barbeque pit. Got the measure of them through their talk.
Mabel pulls into the yard, parks her Jeep around the back of the house. She lights up and makes her way to the barn where Tiff takes care of business. If folk are buying dogs, they might be treated to a snifter in his Poggenpohl kitchen but drug punters rarely get over the door of his home. If they need to take a slash or puke, they can use the outside lav.
As she passes the kennels, a dozen dogs, in a frenzy of barking, hurl themselves against the mesh of their cages. Mabel stiffens, then quickens her pace; she’s always jangled by the dogs. Strains of ‘Voodoo Chile’ escape from the barn. Tiff’s taste in music has always been old school. Mabel grinds the fag butt into the gravel and raps the pass code on the door, eagerly anticipating her big bad brother’s box of tricks.
Getting to his own caravan at the far end of the site is out of the question. Cuthie feels his way up the steps of his mam’s van, goes inside and bolts the door. To prevent a bollocking later for trailing mud across the carpet, he kicks off his trainers then inches through the kitchen area, feeling for the fridge, the washing machine, the cooker. There are times when he’d like a bit more space between himself and the units but today he’s thankful for the snug fit, and his mam’s attention to detail — everything flush, no sharp edges, no obstacles at any level — is close on miraculous. He was an idiot to let her go off and leave him.
In the living area, after checking for anything untoward and feeling only the velveteen upholstery, he flops down on the sofa-bed and buries his face in a cushion smelling of fag smoke and peachy air freshener. It’s hot. He’d open a window but a bee might get in. Indoors, the sea fret has a yellow tinge but fewer floaters. It could be some kind of weird comedown. He should have asked his mam. Should have said something, dreamed up some gambit to postpone her trip to Tiff’s, though he’d have had to come up with a hell of a good one.
He rolls over until he’s flat on his back. The sofa-bed creaks. The fridge clanks and rumbles. His pulse thumps. Do the lads with the greyhound know his mam keeps the rent money in the caravan and only banks it once a week? Do they know she won’t be back for hours — and maybe not until the following morning? His breath crashes against the caravan walls. The Xpelair whirs and clicks. Outside, a bee, buzzing angrily, bumps against the window. And is that the dull thud of a bunch of neds approaching, is it the low growl of a brindle greyhound — muzzle wrinkled, lips retracted, teeth bared?
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