Guardian Summer Short Story Special

Inspired by the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special, showcasing established writers as well as competition winners, I have dabbled in a summer based work myself. It is influenced by general events in my life, a failed outing this weekend, as well as the short stories on the Guardian website and reading a bit of Hemingway (certainly isn’t as concisely expressed as his work). Being a fan of David Mitchell I particuarly enjoyed his offerings based on characters from Black Swan Green, with The Massive Rat from last year’s entries especially pleasing me. Booker winner Hilary Mantel also has a story entitled Comma and the competion winner’s tale, called Jellyfish, is a very well written piece simply expressed set on a beach, as mine is. Hope it isn’t too bad.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/summer-short-story-special

Summer’s Last Hurrah

“I’m sorry about your parents” said Frank, gazing at a darkening sky and enjoying the feeling of her warmth at the base of his neck.

“You’ve nothing to be sorry for” replied Emma, looking back towards the brightening bulbs of the promenade and twirling her fingers in the soft curls of his fringe. “Things just happen. And I think it’ll be ok”.

He smiled reassuringly and twisted to look up at her, wondering what to say next. He had raised the subject to try and steer the conversation towards them, their relationship, his head in her lap on the sand in the half-light of this August evening. The simple perfection of this moment. To voice his contentment outright would spoil things, possibly scare her off. Nevertheless he had to let her know how happy he was, living a moment sketched in his mind a thousand times.

“I just can’t imagine letting things get to that stage with anyone, like what’s the point in arguing and how could you with someone you felt like that for, someone you loved? I’d like to think I’d stop things before they were that bad. Life’s for moments as amazing this”, he squeezed her fingers between his and ran his hand gently over the flank of her leg in that way he knew she liked, “no point in being miserable when things can be this great, when I can get this lucky.”

That might have overdone it. He knew one of the things she liked about him was his laidback, carefree attitude. She could be sure he wouldn’t get too emotional or demanding like boyfriends of her friends had done in the past. Recently he’d been struggling to hold back this sort of outburst, to tone down his obvious ecstasy in her company. But he needn’t have worried.

Emma bent down to kiss him. First lightly and affectionately on the forehead, a stamp of her gratitude and care, and then a longer, lingering stay on the lips, charged with a lust that grew each day as her confidence increased. She too had been pondering how to express her happiness at the way things were turning out, the way they were right now. Like Frank she tiptoed round the reflection of this moment, careful not to shatter it with hollow, stumbled over words and packaged phrases. Beyond the untameable ripple of her smile whenever she saw him, she was wary of articulating her feelings for him when she did not know what they were. Besides this shared chapter of their lives was closing and to him she might just be a pretty girl, long coveted but quickly ticked off as a summer fling.

Now though as kiss followed kiss and their scents mingled with the sea air lapping in off the waves, Emma felt satisfied that Frank shared the significance of the present, the distance of the past and non-existence of the future. Frank too knew that she understood his contentment and shared it on some level. Happy to be a source of her happiness he lay back and a let a guilty smile detonate an ooze of smugness across his face. Amused by the particular lines and craters left by the aftermath of the explosion in his features, a snorted giggle escaped from her mouth.

“What?” he said, sitting up and grinning cheekily at her embarrassment.

“You” she teased, pushing him back down only for him to snatch a kiss from the tips of her lips.

“I’m happy. Think I’ve lost the knack of sadness.”

“S’pose that’s got something to do with me, has it?”

Emma blushed as Frank parted unruly strands of her hair with his fingers, so his eyes had a clear, brisk march to hers. Frank felt unusually bold, spurred on by the stirring of desire below the belt and cleared his throat to reply bluntly.

“Yeah. Everything. Nothing could make me sad with you.”

Emma felt the tell-tale redness spill across her cheeks, accompanied by a warm glow somewhere inside. At first she tried to check for clues in the lush browns and bright whites of his eyes, signs of mocking or deception. All she found there was light, a light that added to her awkwardness as well as her certainty. She would let Frank be her first by the end of the summer. But all that could come later. For now this sudden glimpse of emotion and her automated response of cynicism made her regret the shy, downbeat reply, inspired by thoughts of her parents.

“Time. Time makes you sad and bitter.”

To his credit he knowingly laughed away her evasion, pulling her to him.

“Good job we don’t have much left then.”

The two of them collapsed in a bundle of kisses and squeezes. Sand painted a dull grey by the frowning sky squirmed beneath their writhing feet and toes. A plodding jogger glanced their way from the squelch of the wet sand at the water’s edge and a family group executed a wide arc to pass the shameless lovers respectfully. Thoughts and memories of lost loves drifted in the minds of the parents like dying waves.

*

Lawrence wasn’t so sure it was time. Sure you needed some, a brief window in which a seed could be planted, germinate and grow and then rapidly rot and fester. But in the grand scheme of things, in the spins and rotations of planets, the rise and fall of governments, the birth and death of ideas, on any meaningful scale, the time it had taken him to succumb to bitterness was a mere blink. In fact emerging from the line of lights of the shorefront, from the flashing and pulsing of colour by the fair to the gentle gloom of the beach, it had taken him just seconds of recognition to be overwhelmed by dark resentment and every negative feeling he had been hiding from.

There was no doubt it was them, immersed in an intimate moment of romance, the sky itself bending into a dome of soft privacy. Away to the right the last embers of the setting sun shone orange behind wispy clouds but here, suspended above them on the beach, the clouds were a deep veil of purple enclosing the space for them and them alone. Or so it seemed to him. The sound of his own rushed, shallow breaths reminded of the present and prompted him to locate little Katie, just now dashing onto the sand, floating with joy, excitement and mischief in her white dress.

Lawrence darted after her, dusting himself down to weave between the crowds, suddenly conscious of a collision he must avoid. A group of pensioners gawped at him as he bobbed by on tip toes, surely marvelling at the relentless boom of his heart that he could feel galloping away in his chest, frightened into overdrive by the horrific hypothetical scenarios conjured in his mind’s eye. Soon there would be enough room to burst into a sprint but Lawrence was mindful of how far the sounds of his beckoning pleas might carry, how self-involved were they during such blissful embraces? Would Emma, or even Frank, recognise his voice as he breathlessly moaned at Katie’s innocent impulses? She was tottering towards the water but then to Lawrence’s alarm veered suddenly away, propelled by a tiny splash of chilly froth, up the beach at an angle towards the canoodling couple. In a panic Lawrence launched himself at full throttle down the last stretch of sloping descent to the beach and did not slow his pace on the sand despite the vast plumes left in his wake and the difficulties of staying balanced on two feet. In seconds that seemed stretched into hours Lawrence was at Katie’s side and firmly guiding her by the hand away from an unbearable impact towards the safety of the sand strewn steps.

“Lawrence! Lawrence! The water’s cold and you can see it’s muddy in the dark. Muddy like Mummy said even when it’s dark.”

Lawrence grimaced as Katie began her chirping flow, flinching in particular every time she brightly announced his name to the entire coastline. In this state he could not tell if she was being especially loud or not, let alone whether Frank and Emma might’ve heard. He could feel his pulse gradually calming as the two of them climbed the steps and set off back in the direction of the hotel, but he was also still clearly transmitting a panic to Katie.

“What’s wrong Lawrence? You said you’d take me, sorry I ran. You like to chase me, don’t be upset.”

Was he upset? Lawrence knew that little shake in Katie’s voice well by now, knew she was on the verge of tears without proper intervention. He steered her to a quiet bench and sat down in readiness to console, only to notice the streaks on his own face, brimming uncontrollably.

“Don’t cry Lawrence” mumbled Katie, the sight of his tears bringing her own closer and closer. She didn’t understand, she’d never seen him like this for the whole summer. He’d only ever been a calm, smiley presence, good at reading to her and helping her learn and she was always angry when she caught Mummy telling Daddy he could be “useless” at looking after her. Lawrence was Katie’s friend.

Lawrence turned his face away from Katie. This wasn’t good, he’d have to minimise the damage now if he were to keep his job with the family. He’d grown attached to Katie and even Ben when he wasn’t trying to drop him in it, and he could think of no better paid way of keeping busy and away from everything. And yet everything had followed him here, everything was curled on the beach beneath the stars oblivious of the depressing ripples caused by their happiness. Lawrence was going to wait till Emma and Frank had parted for university before sending his confession letter, penned over an agonising three nights. He planned to be travelling Europe filling his head with the future whilst she digested the news. He didn’t want to hear her shock or disgust or whatever she would feel, just jettison the feeling and leave it with his old life. Now he had seen her again and his long absence (nearly two months now?) had done nothing to dilute the pain of seeing them together, nothing to convince him of a future without her. Of all he had left behind and had to learn the hardest thing was not hearing from her, sharing their perfectly balanced conversation, even if she was always, forever ignorant of his feeling for her. He had left because he could no longer take the unknowing blows struck each and every day by her as she grew closer and closer to Frank. He had allowed their friendship to become so precious to him that it was toxic.

“I’m fine Katie, I’ll be fine, and it’s nothing honest. Beautiful night isn’t it? All those lights stretching on and on.”

This didn’t help. Painting a picture of a beautiful evening merely reminded him of the romance in progress on the beach, a romance he had never experienced and more painfully never would with Emma. Lawrence stifled a giant sob and spasm of tears, spinning Katie round to look along the front as a distraction.

“Yeah it is nice.” The poor girl rightly wasn’t convinced. Lawrence took a deep breath and kept Katie transfixed by the twinkling lights and a reminder of what fun they’d had that day, whilst he composed himself. Then he scooped her up back to the hotel, sought out the envelope addressed to Emma and left it out ready to post. Before bed Katie had checked Lawrence was definitely alright and she had seemed reassured by his answer.

“I’ll be fine Katie like I said. In time I’ll be okay, time will heal me.”

“Well we’ve got lots of that.”

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