This was before we all started worrying about skin cancer. If you got burnt early doors the rest of the holiday you’d slowly turn brown. It was a holiday rite of passage, something to anticipate and dread.
There’d been talk of a bloom of jellyfish what with the warmer waters. Colin was standing in the sea up to his knees poking at them with the sharp end of his metal spade. It’s easy to say with hindsight that there was something vindictive about the boy. You read people backwards, fill in the gaps, squeeze the facts to fit what the present throws up. I can’t help recalling what I saw in the boy, seeing him with a magnifying glass burning ants in the sunshine. He’d capture crane flies in a jam jar, seal the lid and watch them flap frantically against the glass before collapsing still and exhausted. Only then would he lift the lid and slowly pull off their wings and legs before rolling the body into a ball between his thumb and forefinger. Jim says that lots of kids did that sort of thing but you still wonder.
The die was probably cast before he was born, back when the improbability of that sperm meeting that egg became a reality. By the time we reached that beach during that long hot summer when the whole world baked parents had already started to complain about him. It was fists and fury and long defiant stares when challenged. There’s something not right about that boy people said behind their hands. The other mothers relayed stories from the inner circle. It had been a difficult birth they said. Forceps might have been involved. Sometimes if you looked at him you could see his head was misshaped. That must tell you something they said.
The less said about his mother the better though. Her name was dirt from the off. She had a raft of nicknames none of them repeatable. Her husband was as soft as. That was part of the problem. He sat back and watched things ride when what that family needed was a bit of firmness. It’s terrifying what conjunctions of people with innocuous enough failings can produce in the next generation when those failings collide.
That day during that summer before all the worry began the boy’s mother was leaning up against the rocks in her bikini. It was a narrow little beach, hedged by tall granite cliffs and when the tide came in it did so at pace. Doug’s nearby but he’s trying not to notice his wife, flirting and flashing herself at all and sundry. Doug’s having one of his chats, furrowed brow, nodding, probably saying something about the unions and the state of the economy. Doug runs a cycle shop but is three times the size of every father in our circle. They always said Doug chose not to notice what was right beneath his eyes. It was how he kept his sanity but you had to wonder what it was doing to the lad.
Don’t take any of this the wrong way. I’m not excusing anything, just saying what I know about the man when he was a boy and what he had to live with. We all make choices though don’t we ? It’s not as if me and Jim or any of us had it particularly easy.
I’m two years older than Colin. I knew them from the caravans. Every summer the same families travelled down for the same two weeks. I can’t necessarily trust my memories because whenever I think back to those days it’s always sunny. If we rubbed anything in to our skin before venturing into the sunshine it was usually greasy. Sun-tan lotion they called it back then, sold on the basis of how brown it would turn you not how much protection it might give. Protection from what ? The sun ? Don’t be daft, the sun’s good for you isn’t it ? As I said, that was before we all started worrying. By this stage in the proceedings we’re all red and blistered. Your arms and legs would be red raw, then they’d be itchy and then in the evenings when the temperature dropped you’d feel as if you’d been laid out in a chest freezer. Then your skin started to peel. Mid-week we’d all be flaked out and lobster red peeling back ribbons of skin. Whenever you read the latest scare story about skin cancer and how the ultraviolet seeps through all those holes in the ozone layer you try your hardest not to remember. Stick to the sunshine, and the narrow bit of beach, and those high rocks and all the fun we had. When the sunburn subsided you felt fearless. It was like chickenpox, once you’d had it you couldn’t get it again.
Except that day something wasn’t right. I was sitting on the rocks watching Colin jabbing at the jellyfish, he’s muttering to himself and his stabs are getting more vicious. He looks furious, as if he’s annoyed they even exist. Up the beach I see his dad deep in conversation with another bloke, his mum playing with her hair looking in every direction but at Colin from behind her sunglasses. My own mum talked about her that night more than she did Colin;
“It’s like watching some kind of sex show,” she said and my dad told her to be a bit more discreet in front of me. “She’s not a little girl anymore,” said mum. I felt pretty small though. I was thirteen, two years older than Colin whose spade was cutting through the water as he rotated his body this way, then that. People in the sea are moving out of the way, little kids are being dragged back onto the beach because Colin’s got the fury in his eyes. Someone’s dad stands on the shoreline just up from Colin. He’s got his hands on his hips. He’s wearing nothing but a tight pair of 1970s trunks, hairy chest, hairy legs and a moustache. And he says, son, what the hell do you think you’re doing?
Colin didn’t say a word, he just scooped up his spade beneath a jellyfish, lifted it from the water and threw it at the man. It landed flat on his chest, the man dropped his stance a look of sheer panic on his face. Soon he’s flapping about, trying to brush the thing off which looks like it’s tangled in his chest hair. It flies off his chest, lands on his arms, then drops onto his thigh, all the while he’s flapping and screaming before the jellyfish flops onto the sand. The waves ooze on shore a little further and gather it back in. The man staggers for a bit before collapsing backwards.
Suddenly there’s chaos, people are running down the beach, others are standing and watching from a distance. Colin who’d been as still as anything, his spade in his hand now starts to move away slowly through the water. He’s coming in my direction but I’m glued to the rock crippled by fear and guilt. I don’t want to know him but I do. I think you’d call what I was feeling a panic attack, but back then we didn’t make those excuses so I knew I needed to get a bloody grip. I look down at my feet to avoid making eye contact with Colin. I start picking sand from between my toes. I’m good at this. I sometimes run dirt out from beneath my fingernails when I’m feeling awkward.
There’s the sound of some woman screaming so I look up, she’s crouched over the man who’s flat out. It’s then my eyes meet Colin’s. He sits down next to me. I want to get up and leave but the way he looks at me leaves me disabled. Jim was telling me about psychopaths. He says those at his place have this way of looking at you as if they can see right inside you and are taking what they need, what might come in useful at a later date. I can’t describe what that looks like but if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean.
“Hello Heidi,” says Colin. He’s smiling now. Grinning at me as if he’s proud of what he’s done. His right hand has landed on my left leg, it’s working its way up towards the bottom of my shorts rubbing up along my burnt and blistered skin. Still I can’t move. He’s only eleven but he looks younger. Stunted. It makes it creepier when I remember it. As if he was a dirty old man in the body of a little boy.
“Have you got your period yet ?” he asks.
I put my hand on his and push it off my leg. I say nothing.
“They all say you’re stuck up.” That grin, that bloody awful grin of his. He’s banging his spade rhythmically on the rock. Now two men are walking across to us trying to look purposeful but in their trunks the effect is ridiculous.
“Was it you who chucked that jellyfish ?” one asks.
“What jellyfish ?” replies Colin.
The other man is looking at me trying to judge my reaction.
“I’ve just been sitting here with my girlfriend,” says Colin. An ambulance must have arrived at the top of the beach because the prone man is now being carried off at speed on a stretcher. Groups of people stand around, kids are back with their parents seeking consolation and the whole mood on the beach is ominous. The two men look at me waiting for a response. I can’t make words come out of my mouth. They’ve gone completely.
“Must have been someone else Harry,” says the younger of the two men book ending the silent pause. The older is still looking at us for some sort of give-away but Colin keeps smiling as if butter wouldn’t melt.
The men wander back down the beach approaching every male child in the vicinity. Colin looks at me, raises a finger to his lips and goes “ssshhhhh…”
I never told anyone. Others must have seen but no one said anything. Too shocked or scared or polite not wanting to ruin their holiday or anyone else’s by bringing the matter up. I’ve still not told anyone all these years. Except Jim.
So no, I wasn’t surprised when I heard. There’d been other rumours reached my ears before now of course, the stuff that the papers are all digging around in. I was just a girl. I didn’t know what any of it meant but I can’t stop asking myself if things could have been different. If some of us had spoken up back then would the shock of the punishment have altered his course in life. Would the parental shame have made them take more notice. I can’t begin to think that my place in this story matters.
I return to that beach with Jim and the kids because my memories are mostly sunny. I rub factor thirty into all three of them despite their complaints. You’re certainly not too old I tell them, especially you Jim. I’ve never once seen the kids blister but we sometimes spot jellyfish.