by Susan McLeod
My last ten pee then the holiday is over. Done. Finished. The toy claw machine is a cheat and ate my ninety pee while the skelly gonks grinned away. I’ll get nothing off Mum, she warned us. Ice cream or puggies. Not both.
Over the way, Heather and Sam shove the penny falls and giggle at the coin rattle. The man comes out the office with all the two penny stacks, ‘I’ll kick youse oot. Yir a pair a dirty toerags.’ Puggy man’s eyes go in different directions and he smells of BO, but he shouldn’t speak to them like that, they’re just kids. It’s not their fault.
Mum appears. ‘Here’s the money back.’ That’s her pointy voice, the one she uses with the bad lads in primary seven, and it jabs his gob shut and he grumbles back to his lair. She rounds on Heather and Sam then and slaps their legs, the slaps and words in rhythm, ‘Don’t youse embarrass me again.’ Sam gurns but Heather scowls. A dour one. Never lets you win a fight. I sidle off to find Dad.
He’s feeding coins into a machine and staring at the buttons teasing prizes, prizes, prizes. Dad has a tub of coins and I try to sneak one, but he moves the tub away. He says nothing, eyes don’t even flick, but he never says much nowadays, not now he’s home every day. The ten pee burns my palm.
The horse racing game fills the arcade front. The Derby. Straining necks and flared nostrils, the pretend-posh announcer voice. Place your bets. Only ten pee a go. Five horses in the race—red, blue, green, yellow, white. Blue is my usual bet but that only wins 20 pee. Not even enough for a slushie.
What about the white horse? He’s rubbish but still. One pound sixty pee win. Jackpot. It can happen. Otherwise why is he in the race? I christen him Lightning because he’s going to win tonight, a white streak of pure speed that zooms past all the other horses and gets me a double Mr. Whippy with flake and raspberry sauce. I slide my coin into slot 5.
Light bulbs ripple down the track. At the far end Lightning stares at the long furrow of the race ahead. He looks focused. I hold my breath.
‘And they’re off.’
‘Come on, Lightning.’
Lightning starts slow, stays slow, finishes slow. Last place. He goes back to being rubbish White 5 again. I kick the game, never had a hope, knew it would lose.
Friday evening gone. Just the walk to the caravan and then packing for an early morning flit. The summer holidays over and I’ll have to go to the academy while my mates go to the comp. Not fair. Only swots go to the academy. The secondhand blazer hangs in my wardrobe, left elbow patched, alongside the blouses and stupid too-long kilt skirt. I scuff my sannies on the carpet. It’s rubbed bald in patches and the threads beneath shine through. I wish White 5 is sent to the scrapyard and turned into dog food tins.
Heather and Sam are beside me. Snot runs down Sam’s top lip and he grizzles. He likes to hold onto pain, nurse it for hours until it hatches into something bigger. I worry for him sometimes. Heather sooks a sweetie. Crafty Heather. She always picks minging Fruit Gums because they outlast the Twixes and Milky Ways that me and Sam go for.
‘Right, home time. The match starts at eight and your dad needs to get to the club.’ Mum rummages in her bag for the caravan keys. ‘Siobhan, take the wains home.’ Being the eldest confers some weird unwanted shepherding responsibility, but I nudge them outside anyway.
The air stinks of seaweed and gulls peck at spilled chips. Out beyond the dunes, the sea sighs. I don’t want Friday night to finish, not yet. The wee ones are standing beside the fence and across the park lights are popping on, one by one, in windows. Like a disease spreading, like chickenpox. I run to the sea.
‘Dad’ll kill you,’ Heather shouts, her voice pretend-shocked and I know she wants to follow but daren’t.
Sea grass whips against my bare legs. I don’t mind, my shins sing with blade wounds, tiny but wide-voiced when splashed with salt water. Beyond the dunes, I slip and slide towards the high tide mark.
Treasure hides here. I found purple razor clam shells, crab legs, a finger of bone-white wood, a length of raveled rope, a shiny-jacketed fish and hid them all in a bucket beneath the caravan. But the fish went off and stank. Dad thumped me, a hard-handed slap that burst my lip. I cried then—not because it hurt, no not that, but because my new tee shirt was berried with blood. Dad just marched away. I played Ludo with wee ones, the windows slung wide until the dead smell left. I wished Mum and Dad never came back either.
We were on the edge of the park with the old caravans, all faded paint and perished plastic, leaky taps and blocked toilets. A caravan museum. Miles away from the centre with its play park and pool tables. Cars roared along the road beyond the fence, people going places, people with things to do. Not like us. Later, I lay in my top bunk, nose two foot away from the doming roof, picking at the rubber seal of the window. When uneven footsteps climbed the steps, I turned my face to the wall.
I spot a nugget, a sea glass gem. It shapes snug to my palm and I squeeze. Only blood heat can waken drift glass after all those years sleeping across oceans. Dad told me this when he still cared and was not yet lost, and I’d believed him. The glass is emerald and smoked so its heart is hidden. What could it have been? A wine bottle, a goblet, the window in a ship-wrecked galleon? An infinity of possibilities.
Distant shouts rise from behind the dunes and I run to the breaking surf. Coiled lugworm cities collapse in my wake. The tide fizzes over my toes. I look to the sky.
A kaleidoscope of colour. Splashes of pink. Streaks of purple. Smudges of pale blue. Mottled and bleeding together into colours never seen before.
Yellows, greens, blues and—more than anything else—red, red, red. I don’t know the names, but there are a million hues in the sky this evening and each one is alive. Candy floss and Vimto, skint knees and blushing cheeks, anger and kisses, lullabies and tickled laughter. Life dives from the emptiness of the sky into the sea below and changes it, each wave sings a different song.
At school, I learnt about a man who painted cities and spoke about how they changed with the light. How each picture was unique and captured on the canvas a moment that would never return, no matter how hard you tried to recreate it.
I hadn’t understood. Not really. Can’t even remember his name.
Tonight, I see the brush marks. Sea twins sky, colours swell in each light-painted wave. The sun is half-sunk now and going fast, soon it’ll be under water. I place another bet. If I see the green flash when the sun dies everything will be fine. School, Dad, Mum. Everything. Dad will play with Heather and Sam in the garden. Mum will smile.
The green flash. It doesn’t happen every sunset, just the special ones, the ones that mean a beginning not an end. A ray that appears just as the sun dives below the horizon. Something unique and beautiful that I can carry home with me. I throw my emerald drift glass as a sacrifice. It sails high, sudden dark against the brilliance and for a moment I believe it will keep rising, just keep going until it breaks free and leaves all this behind, never looking back.
The ocean receives it back with a throaty splash.
The sun shrinks to a fingertip, to a tiny spar of orange. I hold my breath. Then it’s gone. The sky flattens and the colours fade. Dead. A cold wind surfs the waves and rushes past me to break against the dunes. I chew the iron-sweet wound on my lip until blood flows.
Susan McLeod was born in Scotland and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for over 20 years. She completed her novel, The Brazen Calyx, as part of her Creative Writing MA studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and is working on her second. She enjoys writing short fiction and has had work published in Crooked Holster, Liars’ League London and The Blue Nib. Susan lives in Macclesfield with her husband, daughter and two lucky black cats.