Tom loves Wednesdays. Well, one particular Wednesday in every month. It’s the day he gets to hang out with his Auntie Bea. Mad Bea. She’s great. She is everything that Tom’s thinks his life isn’t: happy, interested, excited, funny.
Tom feels bad for his mum for a moment. It passes, along with the thought. Easy for Bea to be those things perhaps. She doesn’t have Tom’s dad for a husband and Tom and Jaqui for children.
Mad Bea is noisily unmarried and smokes fags. She can also eat every golden-wrapped toffee in a Quality Street tin without anyone noticing.
She lives alone in a village five miles out of town. Tom loves it there. It is close enough to the sea to go and hang out and make sand angels, walk about, be weird, whatever, and the village itself is cool.
No-one knows Tom there. Well, not in a way that he’d notice. The village is picture-postcardly small, and the people quiet. They don’t really talk to Tom – but not in a bad way, really.
The cottage that Bea lives in is a ‘big wood timbers on the inside, thatched roof on the outside’ kind of house.
(Tom’s father’s words echo in the back of his mind. “For the last time…It’s a bloody cottage!”)
Her house is just off the end of the Church Lane. It has a pub at one end of the road – The Cheapesake Arms – and the East-gate to the churchyard at the other.
The Cheapesake has an odd collection of Sailors’ pottery mugs on one wall and a quirky room upstairs where they have old toilets as chairs and a front door for a table.
Bea loves a drink ‘on the Cheap’ (one of her favourite jokes to self) and Tom has been in there with her on many occasions.
The owner is mad. When people order a bar snack he shouts “Bridge to Engine-room” down a tube topped with a brass mouthpiece before delivering the order.
The pub smells like Ceasar but Tom is not quite sure as to whether this is due to the Landlord’s permanently damp retriever permanently slumped across the front door step of the pub or the steam coming off the heavy tweed coat of the old man who sits at the far end of the bar.
Bea lets Tom eat pork scratchings and have sips of shandy. She is the youngest person in there by a mile and everyone fancies her.
Inside Bea’s cottage everything is low, and cosy. Tom thinks its a bit Bilbo Baggins, just without the big round burrow door. In the kitchen is an Aga cooking range set into the long wall on the left, tucked under a low beam peppered with cheap looking postcards from around the world. Any light enters the room gingerly through the low leaded windows at the far end of the room. The Aga is always warm and Tom loves to just prop his bottom against and listen to the radio.
Radio plays a big role in Bea’s life. One radio programme in particular more than any other sits at the centre of her whole world. The Shipping Forecast.
At first Tom wasn’t quite sure how it worked: did it forecast what ships there were, where they would be and where they were going? Like a weather forecast tells you what weather, where it is and where it’s going?
Bea had put him straight, eventually, after some quite complicated explanations that he didn’t really understand. Auntie Bea understands stuff. Big stuff. Tom thinks that’s why she’ll understand, more than anyone, the extraordinary thing that he thinks he’s done.
Bea gets the Sea. When he tells her about making sand angels and leathery water, she gets it. When he tells her about the sun burning discs on the inside of your eyelids, she gets it. When he tells her that he wants to be a stuntman because they look so cool when they fall off high buildings, she gets it. When he says that he finds it hard to talk to Kathy because she likes the company of boys who know stuff that he doesn’t, she gets it.
Auntie Bea is connected. The Shipping News is Bea’s obsession, her highpoint of the day or night to be more specific. At first, Tom thought she was just plain nuts as he sat there, hot drink in hand; in the dark.
She was a youngish woman (not a whiff over 30) living in an inlander’s cottage; no boat name, no ship decoration – and oar in the garden or piece of prow or ships timber built into it walls.
Come to think of it, it was kind of weird that, for an old cottage within a hop skip and jump of the sea that there was no association with boats or the sea; at all. Tom wondered whether the cottage had over the years been drawn from its inland home by the pull of the sea.
Anyway. Bea. No sea shoes, no favourite sea film, or song, or shanty; who liked the Shipping Forecast. Nuts.
As far as Tom knows Bea didn’t know anyone who owned a boat, worked on a boat, likes boats, built boats or otherwise. There is no family link to the area the shipping forecast covered. No relation to the North Sea, The islands or Nordic people. Bea had never been on a ship holiday and there wasn’t a North Sea Fish cookbook in the house. Bea was not a member of Save The Whale, Save The Herring, Save The Cod or Save The Fisherman. But she loved the Shipping Forecast.
Tom likes the way the Shipping Forecast sounds. He did so right from the beginning. The way the voice speaks as the Forecast rolls on. He would sit there with his head bowed and a cup of tea steaming in his hands.
At first he never looked at Bea. It almost seemed a bit rude; like when he walked into the bathroom without knocking to find Bea in the bath ( no flannel he noted).
Bea seemed to float about on the voice. It was as if she was a little boat trapped on the high ground until the roll of the forecast released her on to the ocean’s back as the wash of the shipping words rose up around her.
Tom used to think that the way she turned the lights off and listened in the pitch black was a bit weird. He felt silly sitting there in the dark.
After a while Tom plucked up the courage to ask her why. Bea said that she liked to ‘see’ the places. Tom was puzzled.
“I can’t see them you see. With the lights on. But with my eyes shut: when it’s all dark. Suddenly the pictures, the images just flicker up in my head. It’s like the words. Like I get swept out into the ocean. I feel like I’m flying really, really low across the tops of the swells and they’re solid beneath me and dark but I can see. I can see the white tips, the horses spraying across me”.
Tom was starting to get that slightly tight-chested thing that happened when Bea went on one of her flights of fancy: feeling a bit anxious.
“When I used to listen, I always wondered what those yawning stretches of grey black sea were doing as the words poured out into the kitchen, All those words flooding the floor.”
“Have you ever been there?” asked Tom.
“Where? Out there? Middle Dogger in a storm? Crashing the waves in Cromarty crags? Oh no, but up here.”
Bea slapped the side of her head, abruptly and theatrically, which she did a lot and it never ceased to shock Tom.
“…and in here…”
Bea also had the discomforting habit of grabbing her whole chest in a surge-like motion when she said ‘in here’.
“that’s where I’ve been!”
Tom likes her way of speaking when she gets excited. She becomes all lyrical. Or ‘a bit Welsh’ as his dad likes to say. (Tom doesn’t think his dad’s being kind when he says it.)
“So I turn the lights off …and I can see them…big muscular swells rolling in the dark like a giant hand flexing and squeezing”.
Tom looked at her in silence when she said that. But. He wasn’t lost in thought, struck dumb by the power of her description. He wasn’t wrestling a particularly tricky conundrum either. That was the problem. It was the absence not the presence of some chaotic complicated set of thoughts rushing around his head that struck him dumb – not a thought in his head at all. This made him feel quite useless. Something should happen in your head when someone tells you stuff like that Tom thought.
“ Dogger. Forties. Cromarty, Forth, Tyne Dogger South – They’re extraordinary, magical…just, I don’t know, romantic, I suppose, like fire!”
The fire reference threw Tom a bit. But it didn’t fool him. There was that word again. What was it with his Mum and his Aunt and ‘Romantic’?
Tom couldn’t quite see anything extraordinary in these names. He couldn’t see the earthshaking romance in these names. They just made him feel lonely.
“Don’t you…” He pauses: but not for effect.
“Don’t you…feel lonely though, when you listen?”
“Lonely? No, no why lonely?”
Her voice goes all round and soft.
“Well, it’s kind of all about flat bits of sea miles away and in the middle of the North Sea, and people drown there, on their own, and we always listen in the dark and… I suppose it makes me feel…lonely”.
Blimey. Tom realizes that Bea’s eyes do this weird green around the blue floaty thing. He lets out a small breath and feels better. To mark the moment, his foot, previously happily perched on the edge of the chair, pushing his knee up to his nose, suddenly does a jelly thing and falls off the side. Tom’s body folds over like a squeezed tea bag.
Bea looked quizzically at the young boy in front of her.
Tom was sitting fidgeting on the chair, pushed up close to the bottle-blue Aga at the far side of the kitchen. His awkward half-boy, half-teenage self suddenly seemed to her to have been folded badly and hung on the chair to dry, one leg crossed under the other, one elbow crooked into his lap; and the other resting on the Aga with the steaming tea at the end of it.
The special boy who calls the flat, grey swell of morning a ‘leathery sea’ still had a small way to go before he really ‘got it’ Bea had thought to herself; but he was close; maybe already there; she knew it would be soon.
Bea recognized the quite extraordinary thing lurking in Tom’s ordinarily ordinary self: she had seen it from a very young age.
It would, she knew, eventually drive a wedge between Tom and his mother, (she had never managed to remove the wedge in her heart that appeared there two weeks after Tom shone his little light into the world from the rolling sea of the womb).
These days Tom’s mother was so busy trying to keep Arthur (Tom’s dad) happy that she seemed to have lost her ‘sight’ in these things: the ability to recognize when something is special or different: or even when it isn’t but by framing it in your mind’s eye in such a way you make it just a little magical.
The magic dust had been blown out of her sister’s eyes a long time ago: blown out by Arthur’s grinding everyday-ness and his emotional absences Bea wouldn’t wonder.
That was alright. The world and, more importantly Tom, would one day know exactly what a truly amazing woman her sister was, and what sacrifices she made every day for those she loved.
Viv was special in a way that some people could barely imagine.
Special was a family word in the growing up years of Viv and Bea. They had been taught to see themselves as special from a very young age: to see themselves as different.
She loved the majesty and the magic of that as a little girl. Their father would read them delicious stories and tell them tales of fine young men and women pure of heart.
The girls used to love to go with their father to the meetings at the country fairs and church halls. She knew that her father was special; different. The way people were around him. The way her dear Bear, ( ‘big paws’, a soft face and lonely eyes), looked up to her father; the way Bear hung on his every word. Bear did everything for him. She loved her father doubly so because what Bear loved she loved also: and he loved her father: for a while at least until the Great Divide
It was only when Bea grew to fully understand what her father really meant by being special; being different: what that meant to him and his cabal of fine upstanding men – and ultimately what that meant for anyone who didn’t fit into that picture – it was only then that the magic gave way to something else: a mute loathing: creeping at first, but one that grew with every twist of his mind and every rule he tried to inflict on her.
Bea was what was called ‘spirited’ and ‘difficult’. Certainly no man from her father’s perfect little England was interested in a girl like Bea – far to independent; far too opinionated; far too…difficult.
Bea wasn’t interested in just being a conservatory to some English man’s semi-detached castle. She had doors and windows and a fine roof of her own. They were open and glass and they let the sun in.
When she was twelve, Bear had told her that she was made for better things. Before the Great Divide, Bear had told her that she was the special one. It was just that her father couldn’t see it. That was while Bear still spoke gently and kindly of her father: an excuse for his every doing never far from Bear’s big bear-like lips.
Bea’s mind tracks back, hand over hand, along the strings and strands of memory to the present.
The special boy. No, when Tom, at only eleven and a half years old, had mooted his big theory: that the problem with grown-ups was that they grew up and away from the ground, she knew. Tom really was special. Tom was different. In a way that people like her father would never understand.
Bea was especially keen to see Tom this week. She watches the news. She had missed it at first, too stunned like everyone else at the inane enormity of what was happening. She listens to the radio. She listens to the Shipping Forecast, the reports coming in from the ships, like Sentinels now, in every corner of the earth’s waters, listening, watching and ready to sound their horns if they should witness another land mass inexplicably heading off into the sunset.
But, one by one, the layers and pieces slotted and overlapped and sat over each other. The cat’s cradle of events and feelings and memories pulled tight together, turning in on itself to reveal a new pattern: the rolling spume of TV news footage, and the confusions in the Shipping Forecast, the satellite pictures and the madness of people.
And the phone call from Tom. She senses something on the phone when he calls as usual, to say he was still coming, as usual, but also whether she had she noticed anything unusual, which was the most unusual thing he could say.
He was nervous. being extra-ordinary was enough to tighten the life out of anyone. Some never got used to it. Some just pretended they were ordinary.
How easy it must be: how inanely delightful to never once trip over an exception in oneself. How reassuring to know that here is absolutely nothing within or without you that will ever create even the slightest ripple in your little world, let alone a maelstrom of such crashing enormity that perhaps you might drown in the surge of it.
How deliciously…dull thought Bea.
The clock crosses and uncrosses its arms. The day drags on. But that’s fine. Time was doing its ‘can’t be arsed to go too quickly’ thing but today it doesn’t bother Tom. Today Tom is very excited. He’s excited because today he gets to see Bea.
She knows stuff. Like the time he described his own first flight over the dark rolling water of the shipping forecast in the dark. Bea got it.
Tom can barely contain himself. Tom wonders about his stupid idea: about the Tie and the untying.
Bea is the only person he could ever tell but he is nervous of telling her. What if just this once she doesn’t get it. What if she looks at him as if he is some stupid boy?
A small sick feeling pops in his stomach like a balloon: a fear balloon has just gone off in his stomach. Tom is sidetracked momentarily by the thought of the stomach acid being the reason for the balloon bursting by eating through the rubber.
How will he explain; what should be his opening line?
“Bea, I have untied us”.
No. Too obvious
“Bea! We’re free”.
Too prison break.
Yes that was it. Simple yet surprising. Calling Bea’s name out really loud – like a shout – in her face – yes, that is, well, simply the best way to announce to his Aunt a happening of such island-shifting, life-changing, scary–making magnitude as this.
Had he ever mentioned the Tie to her? Had he ever told her about it? He’d told her about the beach; especially the bit where no one else went. He’d told her about the way the sea there seemed to arrive at the beach’s edge in a leathery flick. He’d told her how the sky flashed to bright blue to white phosphorous fizz under his eyelids, so that the world became a big bright negative print of itself when he opened them. He had told her about the way the sun seemed to chase the shadows of the clouds around, surrounding them, closing in on them and making them shrink till the cloud’s shadow disappeared completely: and how at this point, having lost its shadow anchor, the cloud would just float off unfixed and free.
He’d mentioned all of them: but no, he’d never ever mentioned The Tie.
Tom sits staring out of the class window.
The desks around him stand empty and quiet. The class had emptied out five minutes ago. Tom hopes that no one notices that he does not peg it out of the door at the speed of light like the rest. There is method in his madness. He is merely avoiding the predators; by reducing the time between now and the next class he also reduces the opportunity for torment and torture time.
With a bit of luck the fact that most of the people in his class just think he is odd works wonders – for the most part, everyone couldn’t care less or just don’t notice: everyone except the Caretaker of course.
Tom had noticed that he always just happens to be walking past the window or through the gap in the hedge or by the garages or at the rear of the canteen or the far corner of the playground whenever the terror stalks Tom, his crusty muddy leg and his man-made fibre glow.
Speak of the devil.
The Caretaker looks in at Tom, which introduces Tom to the really conflicted pleasure of finding himself feeling both totally safe and totally spooked out at the same time.
The Caretaker. Always watching. Tom wonders for a moment: where does he appear from – and where does he go, this funny man who hibernates in his workroom, his big hands straining teabags?
Tom had been in there once to get back one of his confiscated books. Tom clears his mind of most of the things rattling around in there, apart from the monumental shocker of having potentially untethered the island that he lives on – but the memory of that Kiss is still there. He can’t shake it. It won’t go. Might as well have a re-run then, thinks Tom.
Michael sipped his tea again. The silence through the school runways was to some extent rather perverse given what was occurring in their topsy turvy world.
That the pupils seemed quite indifferent to the fact that the country they lived ‘on’ was floating off into the sunset, literally as well as figuratively, Michael put down to bravado (the fixed geographic context of living ‘in’ a country having being replaced by the transient raft like quality of living ‘on’ one by the ‘expert’ on News At Ten a week previously).
He certainly knew that the young girl that the Davies boy was keen on was not pleased.
He had overheard a slightly hysterical phone conversation between her and what he assumed to be her father while spearing and bagging the rainbow multitude of crisp packets, drinks cartons and cans from amongst the bushes on the school side of the wall by the front gate.
He also assumed that this was not the reaction that the Davis boy was hoping she would have.
His right hand released itself from the mug and drew up to his face, his large fingers, two still hot from the ceramic mug, traced across the lines in the corner of his eyes.
What was it they called them? Laughter lines. Michael could not remember doing that much laughing: not recently anyway.
He did though laugh out loud when the news first broke.
He wondered what The Old Man thought of this. He thought of him again when listening to Jeremy Paxman hold forth on the irony that ‘our being cast adrift’ should have such a powerful and opposite effect in regards to its action: drawing us together with such purpose; generating a heightened sense of shared identity, a sense of kinship and a sense of self amongst a group of people that had for the best part of 50 years been slowly drifting apart – until the day the island slipped its mooring.
Suddenly we felt more like The United State Of Englain – or Great Britland – or whichever dreadful derivative hybrid you chose from any given tabloid at any given time.
It did not seem to matter anymore what colour, creed, religion or persuasion you were. If you were ‘on’ this Island floating towards some random future along with everyone else, you were all indeed special.
You were one of a kind. You were ‘in’, in an ‘on’ kind of way.
The Old Man’s grandson had with one clumsy slip of a knot done more to create a feeling of one-ness; a feeling of what it meant to be ‘Englainders’ (The Daily Telegraph, June 26th, Front Page, Col 3) between every man woman and child on the island than any of The Old Man’s cruel and divisive little speeches and pamphlets.
Michael allows another rich warm smile of a thought to wash into his head.
Wherever we end up – wherever we might eventually pitch our island anchor, we will be the immigres, the guests; the usurpers, the uninvited, stoutly defending our displaced minority culture and spirit in the face of a indigenous populous wondering who we thought we were and when we were going to leave.
One thing’s for certain – having almost completed the big left turn to head south, on the current trajectory the issue of under whose sovereign state the Falklands (Or Las Malvinas) eventually resided would soon become more than just notional and a matter of constitution.
We may end up like some prison ship, thinks Michael, mauling its way through the surf, unwanted, destined to float on until the end of the world or some other cataclysm put us out of our misery.
Mind you, all those people who dreamed of seeing distant lands and traveling to the corners of the earth would be delighted. It might even put an end to low cost airlines! (Michael reserved an utterly random and abstracted loathing for low cost airlines.)
All those people who felt the need to speak loudly about their most recent ‘travels’ in bars and cafes and restaurants up and down the land – all those desperate little itineraries being recited out loud again and again to whomsoever might listen; every one of them screaming ‘please please find me interesting; please find me windswept and exotic; and please ignore the cringing insecure and desperately provincial person hiding inside me’ – perhaps we’d be blessed with their silence.
Now our Island was going places.
No more ‘3 holidays a year’ hidden from our own conscience on six separate credit cards. Just pop across to the closest land mass on one of the re-tasked Sealink Ferries
Life was one big cruise.
Michael looked at his watch again. The mote filled light in the centre of the room shifted.
11 minutes to go.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the process of publishing this story to the blog I am altering the original text of the Kindle Version. The blog published version will be the most up to date edition.