By the Wayside

Jenny wiped a circle of condensation away with the cuff of her school blazer and peered out.

Through the window of the bus she could see seagulls, assaulted by the wind. Circling, screaming, then falling. Out of sight, behind the worn grassland. Like bugs snagged by a sky-blue zapper.

Where they fell…. The land dropped away out there. And beyond that was the ocean… Summoning such strength in the wind that Jenny had seen even the rocks yield to its reign. What a fuss she couldn’t understand.

The driver was fighting the side-swipes, but Jenny knew now they were nearly home.

She put her book away. Thought of her and Daddy. Out there again on the boat, leaning out, substituting each wave with their weight. He’d be back from Africa with his stories tonight. Flicking through photos. Carnival coloured tales of African fishes.

The bus drew into the small car park of the only supermarket for miles. There was Aunt Katie and her old red mini. Katie gestured earnestly to the driver, but he had already begun to break, and wasn’t going to stop any quicker. The wind took up the bun in her hair, lifting it like a balloon. She snatched it down under a scarf and Jenny smiled.

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Jenny listed wearily against the living room doorframe. She’d only been home an hour.

’This is my niece,’ Aunt Katie announced to her guests. ‘Don’t slouch… posture, Jennifer, please.’

‘Radley Prep,’ she whispered loudly to her new friends – a tiny girl, and her mother who stank of honey.

Jenny only heard them arrive a few minutes ago, but already they sipped from the peony tea set. Hobnobs huddled on its unaccustomed plates.

Peony had been her mother’s favourite flower.

Jenny noticed the vacant chamber in the cabinet above the aquarium. Bright shadows on the wood recalled where the plates once sat. But now in the middle there drooped a plant, one of Aunt Katie’s succulents. Green clumps; nostrils without noses, noses without nostrils. They bobbed over the tank, like earth-bound buoys.

‘You simply must meet my brother Jack. He’ll be home soon…’ Aunt Katie’s attentions had returned to her guests. ‘…always was the adventurer, our Jack…’

‘He takes me crabbing off the jetty’ Jenny said, cutting off her aunt. The party turned.

‘That’s nice’ said Mama Honey. ‘Do you miss your Daddy?’ Her head tipped to the side like a barrow dumping its contents in a ditch.

The trio sat for a few moments in silence.

Jenny stared at the plate on the coffee-table. Only 2 left. But she stayed standing by the door. The Hobnobs weren’t for her. Hobnobs needed to be eaten down the garden. Away from Aunt Katie’s frowns.

Later, she thought.

Aunt Katie rescued Mama Honey and started up again… ‘Cynthia is new around here’ she said. The little girl looked up from brushing crumbs off her smocking and Katie continued, ‘…such a sweetie aren’t you? Just turned 10… you’ll have someone to play with over the holidays, Jennifer’.

Sweetie had eaten four Hobnobs already. She took another. She fidgeted. Her clothes, oddly, matched her mother’s smell.

‘I’m nearly twelve now’ Jenny told them.

Mama Honey’s head tipped again.

‘I’ll go unpack then…’ Jenny continued.

But they didn’t say anything.

Just then, Cynthia looked up from her cookie and burped. She hoisted the faces back to the table and the grown-ups began to flap like gulls picking at a chip butty.

Jenny stood for a moment, watching, then left.

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Jenny thought her room felt strange after the school dorm, so colourful, and quiet. Too quiet maybe. She couldn’t wait for Daddy to get home. Aunt Katie said he would be off again in a few days though, so… probably, they wouldn’t make it out on the boat. Maybe crabbing though and maybe he’d even let her bait the hooks.

He always did that; gripped the bait with nails as tough as sea-shells. If they couldn’t get bait he used to pinch bacon. Aunt Katie would be yelling ‘thief!’ from the kitchen and they’d sit with their lines and toes dangling into the water. Watching crabs explore a bucket. Awkward things. Then they’d always throw them back at the end of the day.

Jenny smiled, and leaned on the window-sill, disrupting the collection of sponges and coral. She could see the lighthouse down the coast; it sat there, on the knee of the Devon landmass, with its toes being tickled by the waves.

‘Hi.’ Cynthia was at her bedroom door; neck drawn up above her prim blouse. ‘That’s a lot of mobiles.’ Jenny’s blue ceiling was strung with shells, twisting starfish and sea-horses.

‘Thanks. My favourite’s hiding though,’ she looked down at the big heavy bags. Cynthia grabbed her wrist with a cold hand.

‘Let me see!’

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The salty smell of sunken treasure met each plimsolled ‘plap’ on the stairs. Daddy’s nautical knickknacks were stowed away in the attic, defended by giant beams, like the hull of an upturned ship. Shining brass in dusty dark… dank coins, divers tanks… lobster-pots, flippers… Twine. Entombed and entangled.

‘So your Daddy’s a diver is he?’ Cynthia opened a tea caddy screwing her nose up at the dust on her fingers, and dropping it with a clatter ‘What about sharks?’

‘Oooh’ said Jenny ‘You never know… even British seas are full of ‘em…’ she pointed into the shadows, ‘There it is.’

Startled forevermore, the pufferfish lantern hung against the highest beam, like a pirate’s trophy.  Mr Fugu Daddy called him. Mr Fugu had a stubbled chin and a big empty round belly.

‘It’s a bit dusty… I think it’s ugly,’ Cynthia said holding her nose with two fingers and screwing up her face.

‘Don’t be silly. Let’s get him down,’ Jenny smiled, moving boxes and coats to find the ladder. It looked heavy. She turned round to tell Cynthia to stop being silly again and help, but she was gone.

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Gone back down to the landing. To Jenny’s room, but Cynthia didn’t go in, instead she peered through the door opposite. A feather boa beckoned from its coils on the swing-mirror. She wandered into a lace-draped room. Petticoat lace. Partly-concealing strange, rubbery plants. She picked up a round box beside the mirror and pulled on a ribbon inside. With a ‘poof’ she drew out its soft puff. It left the shedding of scented butterflies on her fingers, soft and fascinating. As she pushed it back it spilled over Aunt Katie’s dressing-table.

Sweeping the evidence onto the floor, she took hold of a perfume bottle and was viciously pumping its bladder when Jenny came in still wielding her Mr Fugu, and seized the bottle from Cynthia’s hand.

Behind her Jenny heard Katie’s voice boom ‘Jennifer!’ She swung round, and saw Daddy. His body seemed to fill up the hallway, obscuring Aunt Katie completely. Every hair prickled out with the strain of the luggage. Jenny couldn’t move. Calcified. A sponge removed from its reef. The sickly perfume caught in her throat and she couldn’t breathe, or say a thing.

Jack left the bags and stepped forward, lifted her out of the cloud of stink. ‘Hey, hey, shush, sweetie…’ he said and all she could smell was the sea.

He left again two days later. A long trip, this time to Japan, and he hung Mr Fugu in her window as a reminder he’d be home. Jack spent a lot of time in far off places; arc welding underwater with 185amp electrodes. He missed his little girl. But only three weeks passed before this trip was cut short.

And only Aunt Katie met this unexpected return.

Because this time just his left arm had come back. The rest of him was still out there.

With only one arm.

One big arm, like a fiddler crab.

Aunt Katie didn’t tell her that bit. Cynthia had come round. Jenny took her into the garden, they climbed her favourite tree. Waxy magnolia petals hung around them like impatient earlobes.

Cynthia read. As if reading a famous five mystery. From the newspaper she’d stolen from her Mum’s sewing table.

‘…I wonder if he’ll wash up on a desert island? …Robinson Crusoe did!’ she said.

‘Robinson Crusoe crashed his boat.’ Jenny replied, quickly. Without thinking.

‘Maybe he’s inside a whale…’

All at once it seemed an artist spilled her rinse-pot over the sky. Jenny saw nothing but abandonment from the sea, from her cradle in the tree. She dropped down and landed with a shot of pain through her legs, and left Cynthia there.

Cynthia sat for a few minutes to see if she would return, then went home.

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Aunt Katie grew succulents. The plants spread from the conservatory right through the house; their replica pebbles appeared between shoes in the porch and they slipped pokey fingers into the bath.

‘Watch the plants,’ hissed Aunt Katie, that night. As Jenny took a book in the living room, their lip-smacking tongues reached out from the wobbling bookcase. Jack’s library held so many books about the ocean. She settled down with Australian reefs and Aunt Katie brought out her stitching. Jenny occasionally glanced over at her quick hands; their skin resembled the minutest pink patchwork of the softest leather. Wrinkles, but soft, feminine ones.

Fish never get wrinkles, she thought. The ocean never turns to ashes. Never really dies. Its adventures always continue.

She’d watched those documentaries, with Daddy explaining all the words. One of them that talked about ‘sediment… remains… carcases… waves of detritus…’

Death.

But not like horror movies. The creatures that stopped swimming became delicate wet tissues… laying across the sea-bone and forming rugged paper mache creations… chalky clay panpipes, playing ancient harmonies for a beautiful parasitic city.  Where worms sprouted. Worms with tassels on the end like the cord of Daddy’s stuff-sack. ‘Sea Enemies’ seeking food… tickling the current. Then the fairies flutter by in their magically absurd little bodies… pulsing with muscular elegance. They’d suck themselves in, like soldiers in the trenches. Only awakening again once they passed by; fields of silken fibres again, flowing together with no farmer to tend them.

The sea gave death life.

She put down her book and went to her aquarium in the dining room. She pressed her face against the glass… submerged amongst her colourful friends. Daddy used to call her sponge. We all come from the sea, she knew that… could taste it when she cried. Maybe if she’d learnt to swim she could’ve gone on his trips. He must have been disappointed, but she always felt so stupid in those costumes. Chubby. A waddling clown.

One fish seemed to be falling sideways. It made her think of Daddy. Did he lie there, in the seaweed… listing on his side. Or was he part of the paper mache world? Aunt Katie said he was ‘gone’. But the newspaper said he was ‘lost’… So maybe he was still out there somewhere.

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Katie sat embroidering, watching Jennifer; she was lost in the happenings of that tank again. Another one died this morning, second this week. Nasty creatures, picking at each other all the time. And Jennifer’s face, so cold.

She was stirred from her thoughts by the sound of the whistling kettle. As she filled a pot of tea the steam rose up and clung to the post-cards on the wall above the stove. The corners of each card had over time, curled, to reveal their yellowing rear. Once crystalline reefs now carried the sediment left by the grease and steam of past good suppers. Jack’s messages fading on the back. Katie wondered whether to take the tank away when Jennifer returned to school. It was so hard to watch. She knew the little girl was hurting even if she didn’t show it. There’s been enough death in this house, she thought, and drowned a bag of slimmer tea in Jennifer’s Disney mug, ‘Tea-time Jenny!’

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Ten days later the magnolia cast a light shade over Jenny and Cynthia as they sat on the lawn of the wind-battered cottage. Jenny flipped her lazy blonde plait over her shoulder. It swung down by her shorts as Cynthia revealed what she had tucked under her arm. ‘Look isn’t she beautiful… these fairies live in the garden… and these by the wayside… see?’ Cynthia offered her authority along with the book, ‘They look after the flowers.’

Jenny took the pages of beautiful watercolours. Flipping through, she asked, ‘…why are the ones by the wayside scruffier? This one’s darning socks…’

‘I know. I like the ones in the garden best. This ones my favourite – the lavender fairy… she’s the prettiest. Narcissus looks cheeky, you can be Narcissus…’

‘I don’t want to be Narcissus,’ Jenny scowled, ‘Those aren’t real fairies

anyway. Real fairies live in the sea.’

‘They do not! They’d get their wings wet.’

‘I’ve seem them. My Daddy showed me. REAL fairies don’t look like

Tinkerbell, silly.’

‘You’re wro…’

‘…They’re not like people at all. They’re, more strange, more dainty than your pictures.’ Jenny pushed the book out of Cynthia’s lap. ‘Come on – Let’s find some.’ The two pairs of feet pat-patted down the garden path; down, down towards the craggy bay. Soon they were enjoying the adventure of climbing over its gristle. Peering into rock pools. Finally, Jenny cried ‘I found one!’

‘No you didn’t!’ said Cynthia, eagerly clambering over the rocks to see. Cantering feathers were stroking the water with the rhythm of the waves, as a translucent body moved across the pebbles. The creature displayed an elaborate headdress of wobbly hairs ahead of it, like a proud Indian chief. ‘Wow,’ Cynthia whispered. Her body pulled backwards even while her face sneaked in next to her friend’s. Its smooth, unruffled brow, drawing into the first creases of fascination.

The girls watched in admiration as the glassy little shrimp fluttered through its cool, clear pool with the grace of a ballerina and the comedy of a Mardi Gras float. They barely noticed the sun fall, but as it began to hide, Aunt Katie’s calls bounded in over waves. The tide was coming in. Rich blues had turned to dark greys, sands had become browns, and soon the blackening rocks would release their captive friend back to the free licks of the water.

But as the free flowing surface waves broke, a muted violence below toyed with the toes of its land-locked Narcissus. Jenny felt the damp seeping into her cold pumps. Sinking and softening the sand to ease her toward it. Then abandoning again for the sea.

Jenny longed to float away with the Mardi Gras.

Deep away down. To Daddy. Who’d be waving a baton, conducting the waves beneath a bunting of kelp. Clown Fish would tumble between the coral. Avoiding the clumsy pursuit of a burly grouper, who would sigh a streamer of bubbles, from his beaten-down-boxer face. And as the crowds of fairies peeled with laughter Daddy would smile.

But the runaway waves came playing back in on her, teasing her feet. Jenny pulled back and kicked the water with a fury of impatience. She stamped her foot in, then lost balance as it sucked angrily on her movements.

Jenny dropped on her bum in the wet sand, and the water withdrew calmly back to the blackening sea.

Jenny wiped a sandy splodge from her face. She lay like cold seaweed on the wet beach looking up at the black and empty sky. ‘Does seaweed miss its home?’ she mused. How empty her stomach was. She looked back to the house. The cold just felt cold, and Cynthia was calling.

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Cynthia’s Mum picked her up after supper and Aunt Katie went to her room and routine. With a cup of Ovaltine and couple of garibaldi’s on a plate at her side, her TV volume went up, so she could hear her favourite musicals and dream she was Doris Day as she drifted to sleep. As usual Jenny went up to her room, and this time it was the theme from ‘Tea for Two’ coming through the wall. The curtains were open and as the beam went past from the lighthouse Mr Fugu lit up like an empty paper lantern. It made her sad.

Wobbling on a chair, Jenny collected all the dry seahorses and brittle corals around her room. She put them in a bucket and took them, along with Mr Fugu, down to the beach.

Jenny rolled up her pyjama bottoms. As each beam fell across from the lighthouse she waded out further. With her hands full and the tide pulling at her legs it was scary when the darkness returned. She watched again for the light. Finally she was far enough out. Further out than she was normally allowed. But maybe now the tide wouldn’t abandon her friends on the shore. Blackness fell again. The sea pulled at her legs and, as her rolled up pyjamas caught up in the water, she threw Mr Fugu as far as she could, away from the land. The beam fell across from the lighthouse and she saw him floating, bobbing like a buoy. Then black. She stood in the wind with the water tug-tugging her pyjamas. She searched again quickly as the light came. There. His little round shell. It seemed to soften, to exhale, to collapse from the fatigue of a long-held breath, and pull down beneath the tide. ‘Who’s next?’ Jenny thought looking into the bucket in her hand, ‘Who goes next?’

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