A short story for today’s post.
Ever noticed how those kids’ rides that are supposed to look like smiley dolphins or whatever look dead creepy when there’s no kids around? Or even when there are, come to think of it. Big painted eyes stare mockingly at you and the wide fixed grin stretches from one side to the other – it’s like it knows something about you that you don’t, and it’s trouble.
There was one of these at the pier, outside a seedy amusement arcade. I say arcade, but we’re talking a few machines, a change kiosk and a vending machine. The carpet was big red and yellow flowers and ferns, like something from an old lady’s living room. Smelled of wee too. I didn’t stay in there more than a minute. At least out on the pier the smell of wee was mixed in with the smell of salty sand and seawater.
We’d arrived a day or two ago and Dad was out at meetings the whole time so I could pretty much do what I wanted. The first day I waved him off (“Don’t just stay cooped up in here all day, Mina, get out and get some fresh air, it’ll do you good,”) and went straight back to bed. Spent the whole day reading and thinking; lying there with the duvet kicked around my ankles and the iPod on shuffle, staring at the ceiling. That was cool for a day but I’d go mental if I did that all the time. So today I went for a look around and ended up on the pier.
It’s one of those long Victorian piers with iron railings covered in chipping cream paint. Some zealous committee had decided to try and revive its former glory by putting little flower boxes on the railings but this is the North Sea. The wind had long since whipped the flowers into straggling weeds. It was also March so the only people around were a couple of dog-walkers and a group of kids about my age walking along the seafront. They must have been skiving. It was too early for study leave, even for sixth formers, and there was still a couple of weeks to go until the Easter holidays. One of them, the tallest boy, shouted something I didn’t understand and threw something into the water with an over the top, overarm throw like he was playing cricket for England. I watched them when I came out of the amusement arcade, then figured that since that was probably exactly the sort of place they’d hang out, I didn’t really want to be there. I left the creepy-looking ride with one last grimace and wandered round onto the pier.
There was a sign on the side of the amusement arcade as you went past it – “Jumping off the pier is strictly prohibited”. What a pointless sign. If you’re stupid enough to jump you’re not going to look at that and think “Oh well, in that case I’d better not, I’ll go home to my knitting instead.” I just shook my head and looked down at the beach instead. A man had brought a toddler onto the beach and it was sitting on its fat little bum, scrunching hands into the wet sand and waving them frenetically while its dad stood texting. I wondered where its mum was. Maybe a month ago I’d have assumed the mum was out at work or back home; now I made up wild and tragic stories in my head. The mum had run away with the next door neighbour or gone trekking in the Andes. Or died.
A whoop and a holler made me jump. I peered around and saw that group of kids had reached the amusement arcade and were climbing on the creepy ride. The tall one was balanced on top, surfing some imaginary wave. I headed down to the end of pier till the shouts faded and rested my arms on the railing and my chin on my arms. The water was slate-grey with white foam swirling on the top, making the same ferny, flowery patterns as the lurid carpet in the amusement arcade. It was surprisingly noisy too, battering the legs of the pier rhythmically. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I jumped when I realised I wasn’t alone any more.
The posse had got bored of surfing the psychotic dolphin ride and had come down to my end of the pier. The tall lad was standing next to me; there were a couple of other lads who just looked the same and a girl with bleached blonde hair.
“Hiya,” she said. “Want some?” She offered me a packet of chewing gum. I shook my head.
“You ever thought about it?” the tall boy said. I looked at him, confused. “About jumping.”
“You’re kidding, yeah?” I said, and took a small step away. One of the others, who really looked like clones of each other, snorted with laughter.
“What is that accent? ‘You kiddin’ yeah’?” Tweedledee said in a mock Eastenders accent.
“You from darn sarf?” Tweedledum said. I rolled my eyes and looked the other way.
“Give over,” Tall Boy said, and it took me a minute to realise he was talking to the other two. “You want us to go?”
“Not my pier. You do what you want.” I knew I was being rude when he was trying to be nice but I didn’t really care. I would have preferred to ignore them altogether but his arm was resting against mine, even after I’d taken that little step, and it was all tingly.
“Come on. She wants to be aloooooone,” the girl smirked and moved away with Dumb and Dumber. They started playing at being Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Not in a million years. Twits.
“Don’t mind them,” Tall Boy said. “They’re alright really you know.” I stayed silent. “Adam.” I looked round, and he was sticking his hand out. What, does he think he’s James Bond or something? Who shakes hands at our age? I looked down at it and then up at him. He wasn’t mocking or being pushy. He had these big grey eyes that looked at me all innocently and after a minute I huffed and shook his hand.
“Mmm.” I could feel those eyes still on the side of my face; not saying anything, just waiting. Yet again, I relented. “My mum’s – was – into all that goth stuff. Dracula. They had their honeymoon in Whitby. Then I came along so she called me Mina.”
“Good job you weren’t a boy. You’d have been Dracula himself.”
I smiled tightly. “Jonathan. They were going to call me Jonathan if I’d been a boy. Actually, they… never mind.” Adam quirked an eyebrow but said nothing. I liked that. He was intruding on my space by being there at all but I was getting used to that, and once there, he didn’t push or ask questions.
We stood there a bit longer until the others got tired of shrieking Celine Dion. The girl stumbled over to us and I suddenly realised they’d all been drinking. Come on Mina. How slow can you get, girl? Adam didn’t seem drunk but the other three were obviously starting to feel it now.
“You ok, Shelley?” he asked her while Tom and Jerry wrestled on the pier boards.
“Oohhhhh yeah,” she giggled. “We’re going jumping. You coming, whatchaface?” I shook my head. Ok, so if there was going to be anyone stupid enough to jump, I guess it would be this lot. “Suit yourself. Coming, Adam?”
“In a minute.”
I looked down. Between the boards you could see the sea, dark and cold. “You’ve got to be kidding? Jump in there? It’s freezing!”
Adam laughed. “Come on, live a bit.”
“No chance. I’m not stupid.”
“And we are?” I just looked at him. “Come on! What’s the worst that’ll happen? You’ll get a bit wet and cold. Shelley just lives up there, she’ll lend you some clothes.”
“No thanks.” Like hell am I wearing her stuff. The B&B is right there, I could go and get changed dead quick… What, was I even thinking about it? Mrs Johnson who ran the B&B was pretty soft but I thought even she would draw the line at me trailing salt water all over her carpets and shiny bedspreads.
“A bit of cold never hurt anyone.” That’s all you know. I turned away to walk back up the pier but the Krays were blocking my path.
“Southern fried chicken!” They doubled over with laughter. Shelley stood to one side, scorn dripping off her. Adam was behind me, those big grey eyes still fixed on my head. It was creepy and thrilling at the same time.
“Whatever. Let me through.”
“Can’t you swim, little girl? Aw poor little baby.” Shelley was getting impatient but obviously couldn’t resist the Mina-baiting.
“Yeah, I can swim. I just don’t fancy jumping into freezing cold water that’s all. You want to get pneumonia, go right ahead.” Shelley scoffed and turned away.
“You worried about what your mum’ll say, like?” Adam asked softly.
“She won’t say anything. She died last week.” It’s amazing the effect saying something like that has on people. They just don’t know how to react. The Chuckle Brothers suddenly found their trainers riveting and Shelley went red. Adam never moved.
“Sorry,” he said. “What did she die of?”
“Flu. She had cancer but it was flu that killed her.”
“You’re not going to get flu.” I just gaped at him. What the hell? Just back off! “It’s not that cold when you get in. And you don’t get flu from jumping in the sea.”
“Thanks for the medical advice. I’ll still pass, if it’s all the same to you.” I rolled my eyes and pushed past them all, my cheeks and eyes burning. He caught up to me and gripped my arms. That tingle I’d felt at the railing was still there but it had turned to a shiver. I looked at his face; it was as open and innocent as before but his grey eyes were like steel. “What does it matter? Just let me go.”
“I don’t want to.” This is too much. I want to get out of here now. “I think you want to jump, Mina.”
“Are you thick or something? I told you, I’m not jumping.”
“Yes you are. This is our pier, guests have to do what we say.” He was pushing me, gently but firmly, back towards the railings. I couldn’t break free and soon Shelley, Dastardly and Muttley were around us too. The railing pressed into my back.
“It’s better without shoes,” Shelley said and bent down to start pulling at my feet. The boys all had hold of my arms or legs and they started bending my knee to rest my foot on the bottom railing. My chest was tight and my head was starting to pound. They were ridiculously strong and I had no chance of breaking free. This isn’t jumping. I’m going to be pushed.
“Ok, ok,” I shouted. “Let go. I’ll jump.”
“Good girl,” smiled Adam. “Go on then.” I glowered at him and climbed onto the railing, swinging one leg over. I looked down at the water and tried to swallow but there was a lump in my throat.
“Mina!” A shout came from the end of the pier and I looked up to see my dad sprinting along the pier, his black tie streaming behind him. He hadn’t worn a coloured tie since the funeral two days ago. The gang backed off, suddenly more sulky and silly than threatening and I climbed down, feeling sick with relief. “What the hell are you doing? You weren’t going to jump, were you?”
“Course not Dad. Just… looking.” He put an arm round my shoulders and led me away, looking suspiciously at the gang.
“You had me worried there. It’s amazing, some of the stupid things people will do under peer pressure.”
“I’m fine, Dad. Did you get the permit for Mum’s ashes?” As I half-listened to him talk, I looked back. Shelley and Cannon and Ball were climbing on the railings again. Adam stood stock-still and never stopped watching me until we turned the corner around the amusement arcade.
The children’s ride suddenly seemed much less creepy than before.