Twenty-two

Four twenty and the sea is grey. So is the sky, although the sky is slightly lighter and not moving so fast. The sea makes me dizzy – something about the never-ending movement and how no one could stop it even if they wanted to.

‘It’s crazy being here,’ Zoey says. ‘How did I let you persuade me?’

We’re sitting on a bench on the sea front. The place is practically deserted. Far away across the sand a dog barks at the waves. Its owner is the tiniest dot on the horizon.

‘I used to come here on holiday every summer,’ I tell her. ‘Before Mum left. Before I got sick. We used to stay at the Crosskeys Hotel. Every morning we’d get up, have breakfast and spend the day on the beach. Every single day for two weeks.’

‘Fun, fun, fun!’ Zoey says, and she slumps down on the bench and pulls her coat closer across her chest.

‘We didn’t even go up to the hotel for lunch. Dad made sandwiches, and we’d buy packets of Angel Delight for pudding. He’d mix it with milk on the beach in a Tupperware dish. The sound of the fork whisking against a bowl was so weird amongst the noise of the seagulls and the waves.’

Zoey looks at me long and hard. ‘Did you forget to take some kind of important medication today?’

‘No!’ I grab her arm, pull her up. ‘Come on, I’ll show you the hotel we used to stay in.’

We walk along the promenade. Below us, the sand is covered in cuttlefish. They’re heavy and scarred as if they’ve been flung against each other with every tide. I make a joke about picking them up and selling them to a pet shop for the budgies, but really it’s strange. I don’t remember that happening when I used to come here.

‘Maybe it’s an autumn thing,’ Zoey says. ‘Or pollution. The whole crazy planet’s dying. You should think yourself lucky you’re getting out of here.’

Zoey says she needs to pee, and she goes down the steps onto the beach and crouches there. I can’t quite believe she’s doing this. There’s hardly anyone about, but usually she’d really care about somebody seeing her. Her pee gushes a hole in the sand and disappears, steaming. She looks very primeval as she hitches herself up and makes her way back to me.

We stand for a bit looking at the sea together. It rushes, whitens, retreats.

‘I’m glad you’re my friend, Zoey,’ I say, and I take her hand in mine and hold it tight.

We walk along to the harbour. I almost tell her about Adam and the motorbike ride and what happened on the hill, but it feels too difficult, and really I don’t want to talk about it. I get lost in remembering this place instead. Everything’s so familiar – the souvenir hut with its buckets and spades and racks of postcards, the whitewashed walls of the ice-cream parlour and the giant pink cone glinting outside. I’m even able to find the alley near the harbour that’s a short cut through to the hotel.

‘It looks different,’ I tell her. ‘It used to be bigger.’

‘But it’s the right place?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Great, so can we go back to the car now?’

I open the gate, walk up the little path. ‘I wonder if they’ll let me look at the room we used to stay in.’

‘Christ!’ mutters Zoey, and she plonks herself on the wall to wait.

A middle-aged woman opens the door. She looks kind and fat and is wearing an apron. I don’t remember her. ‘Yes?’

I tell her that I used to come here as a child, that we had the family room every summer for two weeks.

‘And are you looking for a room for tonight?’ she asks.

Which hadn’t actually crossed my mind, but suddenly sounds like a wonderful idea. ‘Can we have the same one?’

Zoey comes marching up the path behind me, grabs my arm and spins me round. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘Booking a room.’

‘I can’t stay here, I’ve got college tomorrow.’

‘You’ve always got college,’ I tell her. ‘And you’ve got lots more tomorrows.’

I think this sounds rather eloquent and it certainly seems to shut Zoey up. She slouches back to the wall and sits there gazing at the sky.

I turn back to the woman. ‘Sorry about that,’ I say. I like her. She isn’t at all suspicious. Perhaps I look fifty today, and she thinks Zoey’s my terrible teenage daughter.

‘There’s a four-poster bed in there now,’ she says, ‘but it’s still en-suite.’

‘Good. We’ll take it.’

We follow her upstairs. Her bottom is huge and sways as she walks. I wonder what it would be like having her for a mother.

‘Here we go,’ she says as she opens the door. ‘We’ve completely re-decorated, so it probably looks different.’

It does. The four-poster bed dominates the room. It’s high and old-fashioned and draped with velvet.

‘We get lots of honeymooners here,’ the woman explains.

‘Fantastic!’ Zoey snarls.

It’s difficult to see the sunny room I used to wake up in every summer. The bunk beds have gone, replaced by a table with a kettle and tea things. The arched window is familiar though, and the same fitted wardrobe lines one wall.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ the woman says.

Zoey kicks off her shoes and hauls herself onto the bed. ‘This room is seventy pounds a night!’ she says. ‘Do you actually have any money on you?’

‘I just wanted to look.’

‘Are you insane?’

I climb up beside her on the bed. ‘No, but it’s going to sound stupid out loud.’

She props herself up on one elbow and looks at me suspiciously. ‘Try me.’

So I tell her about the last summer I ever came here, how Mum and Dad were arguing more than ever. I tell her how at breakfast one morning, Mum wouldn’t eat, said she was sick of sausages and tinned tomatoes and that it would’ve been cheaper to go to Benidorm.

‘Go then,’ Dad said. ‘Send us a postcard when you get there.’

Mum took my hand and we came back upstairs to the room. ‘Let’s hide from them,’ she said. ‘Won’t that be fun?’ I was really excited. She’d left Cal with Dad. It was me she’d chosen.

We hid in the wardrobe.

‘No one will find us here,’ she said.

And nobody did, although I wasn’t sure anyone was actually looking. We sat there for ages, until eventually Mum crept out to get a pen from her bag, then came back and wrote her name very carefully on the inside of the wardrobe door. She passed me the pen and I wrote my name next to hers.

‘There,’ she said. ‘Even if we never come back, we’ll always be here.’

Zoey eyes me doubtfully. ‘Is that it? End of story?’

‘That’s it.’

‘You and your mum wrote your names in a cupboard and we had to drive forty miles for you to tell me?’

‘Every few years we disappear, Zoey. All our cells are replaced by others. Not a single bit of me is the same as when I was last in this room. I was someone else when I wrote my name in there, someone healthy.’

Zoey sits up. She looks furious. ‘So, if your signature’s still there you’ll be miraculously cured, will you? And if it isn’t, then what? Didn’t you hear that woman say they’d re-decorated?’

I don’t like her shouting at me. ‘Can you look in the wardrobe and see, Zoey?’

‘No. You made me come here and I didn’t want to. I feel like crap, and now this – a stupid cupboard! You’re unbelievable.’

‘Why are you so angry?’

She scrambles off the bed. ‘I’m leaving. You’re doing my head in looking for signs all the time.’ She gets her coat from where she dumped it by the door and yanks it on. ‘You go on and on about yourself, like you’re the only one in the world with anything wrong. We’re all in the same boat, you know. We’re born, we eat, we shit, we die. That’s it!’

I don’t know how to be when she’s yelling this loud. ‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘Same question,’ she shouts, ‘right back to you!’

‘There’s nothing wrong with me, apart from the obvious.’

‘Then I’m fine too.’

‘No, you’re not. Look at you.’

‘Look at me, what? What do I look like?’

‘Sad.’

She falters by the door. ‘Sad?’

There’s a terrible stillness. I notice a small tear in the wallpaper above her shoulder. I notice finger marks grimed on the light switch. Somewhere down in the house, a door opens and shuts. As Zoey turns to face me, I realize that life is made up of a series of moments, each one a journey to the end.

When she finally speaks, her voice is heavy and dull. ‘I’m pregnant.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘I wasn’t going to tell you.’

‘Are you sure?’

She sinks down into the chair next to the door. ‘I did two tests.’

‘Did you do them right?’

‘If the second window turns pink and stays pink, then you’re pregnant. It stayed pink twice.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘Would you stop saying that?’

‘Does Scott know?’

She nods. ‘I couldn’t find him that day at the supermarket and he wouldn’t answer his phone all weekend, so I went round to his house yesterday and made him listen. He hates me. You should have seen the look on his face.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like I’m an idiot. Like how can I be so stupid? He’s definitely seeing someone else. Those girls were right.’

I want to walk over and stroke her shoulders, the tough curve of her spine. I don’t though, because I don’t think she’d want me to.

‘What will you do?’

She shrugs, and in that shrug I see her fear. She looks about twelve. She looks like a kid on a boat, travelling on some big sea with no food or compass.

‘You could have it, Zoey.’

‘That’s not even funny.’

‘It wasn’t meant to be. Have it. Why not?’

‘I’m not having it because of you!’

I can tell this isn’t the first time she’s thought this. ‘Get rid of it then.’

She moans softly as she leans her head against the wall behind her and stares hopelessly up at the ceiling.

‘I’m over three months,’ she says. ‘Do you think that’s too late? Do you think they’ll even let me have an abortion?’ She wipes the first tears from her eyes with her sleeve. ‘I’m so stupid! How could I have been so stupid? My mum’s going to find out now. I should’ve gone to a chemist and got the morning-after pill. I wish I’d never met him!’

I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know if she’d even hear me if I could think of anything. She feels very far away sitting on that chair.

‘I just want it gone,’ she says. Then she looks right at me. ‘Do you hate me?’

‘No.’

‘Will you hate me if I get rid of it?’

I might.

‘I’m going to make a cup of tea,’ I tell her.

There are shortbread biscuits on a plate and little sachets of sugar and milk. This really is a very nice room. I look out of the window while I wait for the kettle to boil. Two boys are playing football on the promenade. It’s raining and they’ve got their hoods up. I don’t know how they can see the ball. Zoey and me were down there just now, in the cold and the wind. I held Zoey’s hand.

‘There are daily boat trips from the harbour,’ I tell her. ‘Maybe they go somewhere warm and far away.’

‘I’m going to sleep,’ she says. ‘Wake me up when it’s over.’

But she doesn’t move from the chair and she doesn’t close her eyes.

A family walk past the window. A dad pushing a buggy and a small girl in a pink shiny mac clutching her mum’s hand in the rain. She’s wet, maybe cold, but she knows she’ll be home and dry soon. Warm milk. Children’s TV. Maybe a biscuit and early pyjamas.

I wonder what her name is. Rosie? Amber? She looks like her name would have a colour in it. Scarlett?

I don’t really mean to. I don’t even think about it first. I simply walk across the room and open the wardrobe door. I startle the coat hangers and they chink together. The smell of damp wood fills me.

‘Is it there?’ Zoey asks.

The inside of the door is glossy white. A total re-paint. I touch it with my fingers, but it stays the same. It’s so bright it makes the room waver at the edges. Every few years we disappear.

Zoey sighs and leans back in her chair. ‘You shouldn’t’ve looked.’

I shut the wardrobe door and go back to the kettle.

I count as I pour water onto the tea bags. Zoey’s over three months pregnant. A baby needs nine months to grow. It’ll be born in May, same as me. I like May. You get two bank holiday weekends. You get cherry blossom. Bluebells. Lawnmowers. The drowsy smell of new-cut grass.

It’s one hundred and fifty-four days until May.

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