Longlisted for 2020/21 Flash500 Annual Short Story competition
A 7 min read
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Jack has cadged the loan of a jeep. Elsie is crushed in the back, thigh to thigh with Ted. The ruts in the road are hard as concrete and deep as trenches, and the growling jeep jerks like a Fifth of November jumping jack. Elsie clings to the door frame, grabbing from time to time at her hat, which is desperate to give in to the tugging wind despite its tied ribbons. In the front, a dark-haired girl whose name Elsie has forgotten, clutches a rug and picnic basket to her chest and jolts with the jeep. She elbowed Elsie aside, at the start, gloating as she settled in beside Jack, who is, of course, driving. The gloating lips have thinned into a grim line.
Elsie is constantly flung against Ted who presses his shoulder into hers to save both of them from an ignominious sprawl into the dust. When the jeep takes flight over a bump, Elsie lurches into Ted’s lap.
He eases her upright, ears pink. ‘Careful there, Elsie.’ He lets out a shrill giggle. ‘Folks’ll talk.’
‘Nearly there,’ Jack shouts over his shoulder.
He winks at Elsie. She flushes, annoying herself, and flaps the hand not holding the hat.
‘Eyes front, soldier,’ she calls, unable to stop her flush deepening at the memory of last night’s kiss. His lips warm on hers, taking advantage of the covert shadows of the shrubbery behind the nurses’ block.
The jeep skews sideways in a drift of sand and Jack hauls on the big wheel while his passengers sway wildly like Noddy’s Mr Wobbly Man. He accelerates through, shouting his victory over both vehicle and sand.
The road ends at a headland. To either side and behind them the heath is green and yellow with lumpy gorse, sharp-edged in the clear morning light. Ahead, a smooth sea glistens silver where it’s touched by the spring sun. Gulls wheel and shriek, perhaps anticipating handouts, and so early in the year too. Elsie stands on unmoving ground, sucking the wind into her lungs, tasting salt and sunshine.
‘Here, take this.’ The dark-haired girl shoves the basket into Elsie’s hands. ‘Don’t dawdle, let’s get onto the beach.’
The path winds down to a sunlit calm. The dark-haired girl spreads the rug on dry sand between rocks. She plumps down with her wide skirt tucked beneath her.
‘You deserve a break after that.’ She smiles up at Jack and pats the space beside her.
Jack grins his perfect white smile, but casts a quick look at Elsie, who finds the business of setting the basket down takes all her attention. Ted fusses, levelling the folds in the rug to keep the basket upright. When his hand brushes Elsie’s, he jerks it away as if she’s a venomous spider. He laughs his high, embarrassed laugh again. Elsie grins. He’s so sweet.
She doesn’t bring the food out. It’s too early for spam sandwiches and sugarless cake. Besides, the reckless drive, the blustery clifftop, the hustling gulls, have stirred their blood. No one can stay still.
‘Let’s walk to the headland.’ Jack jumps up and waves to where the cove ends in a curve of gunmetal grey rocks and sheer umber cliffs. A red and white lighthouse surveys the sea for potential wrecks. Elsie imagines its bright light cutting the darkness to save the lives of imperilled sailors. Like the lights which cut the darkness above London – except London’s lights herald death to those they reach.
They wander the yellow beach under a sun which heats Elsie’s cheeks despite her hat. She ties her cardigan around her waist, rolls up the wide legs of her trousers and gives her shoes into Ted’s outstretched hands. He stays out of reach of the waves, watching over Elsie as she paddles in the shallows’ lacy froth. A balmy breeze promises summer.
‘Almost warm enough to swim,’ Elsie says to the air. ‘If you’re brave enough.’
Jack swings around from where he is striding ahead with the dark-haired girl slip-slopping in the sand beside him.
‘Plenty warm enough,’ he says. ‘In fact …’ He grins at the dark-haired girl, at Ted, at Elsie. They wait, hanging on his next words. ‘I’m going in. Da da!’
He yanks down his khaki trousers to reveal red bathing trunks which flatter his olive-skinned slim legs. His tie and jacket have already been abandoned to the picnic rug, so he only has his army shirt to remove. A hairless chest, well-muscled, Elsie sees before turning away. Heat rises to her cheeks. She keeps her eyes on the glittering blue water, chiding herself. After all, she’s seen any number of chests, hairless and hairy, always muscled, these past two years.
The dark-haired girl openly stares. She raises precisely pencilled eyebrows, touches the tip of her tongue to her red lips.
‘Coming?’ Jack challenges Ted. He winks at the dark-haired girl who slips Elsie a sideways lift of those red lips.
Ted snorts. ‘Too cold for me, bud.’ He wraps his arms about himself and shivers. ‘Besides, might be sharks.’
‘Call yourself a soldier?’ Jack shrugs hugely, smirks now at Elsie, and runs towards the sea. He waves an arm in farewell, lifting the scars which streak like pink lightning across his back.
The tide is out and he splashes a long way, arms flailing, legs kicking up shimmering sprays before he dives into the water. His dark head emerges, seal-like, then one arm and another. He swims on, in the direction he was running, towards the horizon.
‘Is he going to swim home to the good ol’ US of A?’ the dark-haired girl mutters.
‘Going in the wrong direction,’ Elsie says. ‘Could end up in France though.’
Ted’s eyebrows lift. ‘Last place he’d want to go back to.’
Jack keeps swimming, a black dot against the silver water.
The dark-haired girl shades her eyes from the glare. ‘He should be heading back.’ She makes it sound proprietary.
Elsie thinks Jack should be heading back too.
‘Silly bugger.’ Ted shakes his head. ‘Hope there’re no currents out there.’
None of them knows about currents. Jack swims on.
‘Heading off into the blue, just like that.’ Ted snaps his fingers. ‘Does what he likes, no thought for what might happen, who’s gonna worry.’
‘That right?’ The dark-haired girl looks Ted up and down, then returns her scrutiny to the tiny figure out in the water.
‘Look.’ Ted points. ‘He’s stopped.’
Elsie squints. Jack has indeed stopped. Is he resting? Or in trouble?
The three of them stare across the sun-streaked water.
‘Come on,’ the dark-haired girl urges. ‘Let’s walk along the beach, pretend we never saw him.’ She puffs out a breath. ‘Pathetic, showing off like a stupid kid. He needs to grow up.’
She tosses Elsie an ‘all yours’ look, and marches towards the headland with long, impatient strides.
Elsie stays where she is, her hand to her forehead, gaze fixed on the water. Someone needs to make sure Jack isn’t in trouble. Ah! Here he comes, swimming, slowly, to the shore.
‘He’ll be all right.’ Ted stands a little way ahead, calling to Elsie. ‘He won’t drown. Jack’s a lucky bastard.’
Elsie glances at Ted, and back to the water.
Ted’s feet are poised to follow the dark-haired girl, his diffident stance competing with the coaxing tilt of his head.
‘Coming?’ He lifts his chin.
Elsie kicks at the gritty sand. She’s angry at herself for letting Jack’s silly antics trouble her. What’s one kiss?
She shrugs her shoulders high, waves at Ted, and laughs.
‘Coming,’ she calls, and turns her back on the sea.
(Those who have read Keepers, may recognise snippets borrowed from the novel.)