I did feel special with his little hand in mine; warm and trusting as dough. On fine days we’d cross the coast road to the beach his family owned. He had no idea it was his; each grain of sand, every fish skull and storm broken bird. He’d walk below the tide line singing a little tune he’d made up. He’d walk slow, head down watching the stones. Then he’d see the one he was looking for and pick it up in his chub wee fingers “This one is moon rock” or “This one is gold-glass”. All the same to me. “Just stones, dirty”, I’d say, but he’d have none of it and hold them tight as bruises. Glassels the locals called them. Jewels to his precious eyes when he picked them up wet off the beach. By the time I got him home they’d just be dull stones again. He’d insist that they went in the bath with him, rumbling on the cast iron and chipping the expensive enamel.
I dressed him lovely, ready for his mother’s parties. She’d always keep him up too long, parading him in front of her people; artists and actors. Fur coats and no knickers. He’d be worn out. I’d get him into his pyjamas. He’d wriggle in the soft flannel until I sat down on the bed and he’d curl into the crook of my arm. Then he’d see the stones and try to lick them shiny again till his little tongue was sore with ulcers. That suckling sound all the way through the bedtime story. I tried to make him stop. I even lacquered the stones. But it didn’t work. He stopped eating his mouth was so sore. His heart tired of the persistence dullness was capable of. So I took the caretaker’s mallet and I smashed those stones. Oh, he loved the sand then. Passed it from hand to hand like stardust. I’d rub it out of the creases of his palm with my own thumb.
It was a lovely surprise to be invited back after all those years. To see him grown. I was looking after an Ambassador’s twins but you don’t need to beg for the night off for royalty.
His mother had created some sort of fairytale thing in the garden, tiny lights pinned like frightened eyes in the branches. Horsy girls in fairy wings trying to wand themselves a prince.
He hadn’t changed. He came straight over and hugged me. He was so solid. All that softness gone but he held up his arms like he wanted a carry, the smell of salt and sleep on him still.
I danced with him twice. I used to dance him to sleep on my hip. I was crooked from it. The physio said she’d not touch me again until I got my breathing sorted. He spun me around. I wish I’d dressed up a bit. What was I thinking? Bouclé for a garden party? I was far too hot and must have looked so dull.
Then she arrived. I mean who was she? You had to know the family to get in. No one knew where she came from. Who her people were. Sweet totty washed up from who knows where, I warned him. “Make sure you brush your teeth after.” But he went running after her the way he’d chase a turning wave. The number of times I could have just stood back and watched him drown.
So he married her. This girl who was so careless with her shoes. But she couldn’t keep it up. The fairy sparkle of that first night. How could she? She was just so ordinary really. He saw it. Stopped eating. Ulcers around his bonny mouth. His mother asked me back. I always got him better.
I spooned him salt broth, it stung but it would heal his mouth and he was eating for me. I said “Tell me a story, you tell me all about it.” I took his hand and thumbed the creases where he’d held that wife and he told me how dull she was.
I found her in the garden, barefoot in soot coloured trousers. She was talking to a mouse, telling it she’d made a terrible mistake. I should say so.
When he came down in the morning there was nothing left but a pile of cinders. He passed the dust from hand to hand but it didn’t delight him the way the sand once did.
Carmen Marcus lives and writes on the wild North Yorkshire coast. Her poetry has been commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall, the BBC and Durham Book Festival. Her debut novel HOW SAINTS DIE was released in 2017 with Harvill Secker. carmenellen2013.wordpress.com
Image: Jake Anderson