Purbeck Journal Winner 2013
The other day I saw a man sitting in a swanky restaurant on the Strand, eating an ice cream from a cone of all things. It made me think of an incident involving my young friend Jonas and his brother Max, perhaps thirty years ago now. On closer inspection I realised the man in the restaurant was Max. Well I never...He sat with another man whose face I couldn’t see. They were deep in conversation. I needed to hurry to the bank but I made the decision that if he was still sitting there on my return then I would go in and surprise him. -
Max was the eldest of us three and boy did he make sure we knew it. We were orphans. Our fathers all died in the War. My mother died of tuberculosis. Max’s mother died giving birth to Jonas. I don’t think Max ever forgave Jonas for that.
Westminster Adoption Association registered the three of us within days of each other. The baby boom made us hard to shift. A year later Max, Jonas, me, and a few of the other boys were told we were going on holiday with our warden Mr. Lennard. We arrived at Victoria bus station and stopped at a glossy blue coach. The coach driver was kneeling at his back wheel with a piece of chalk in his hand.
‘Ok boys,’ he said waving the chalk in the air. ‘I’m gonna draw an arra ‘ere.’ He drew an arrow on the panel above the wheel hub that pointed down to the tyre. ‘How many are ya?’
‘Twelve,’ Jonas piped up.
Max put his hand over Jonas’s mouth.
‘Twelve,’ the coach driver repeated and he started writing evenly spaced numbers around the tyre, so it looked like a clock. ‘Mr. Lennard, if you could give ‘em all a number.’
Mr. Lennard came to each one of us and patted us on the head. I was given the number three.
The coach driver stood up. ‘Good. Now remember ya number. When we get to the other end, we’ll stop and see where the arra is pointin’. If it’s your number then you win a prize.’ He reached in his pocket and brought out a packet of Spangles.
‘What happens if you hit a curb?’ Max asked. ‘Won't some of the numbers rub off?’
The coach driver smirked. ‘I’ve been drivin’ twenty-year son. There won't be any curb hittin’ , don't you worry your young head about that.’ He turned away and muttered, ‘Cheeky bastard,' loud enough for us all to hear.
Max and I led the way to the back of the coach with Jonas following hot on my heels.
I don’t remember us talking much on the journey. We were all in a kind of trance. It seemed the further we got from London the less chimney-choked the scenery became. We eventually saw our first stretch of sand and sea. I looked at Jonas, his head was turned to the window, his eyes out on stalks and his mouth open in disbelief. Max was ensconced in his comic.
The road came to an end and the coach stopped. Ahead was a wide harbour mouth. A small steam ferry was putting down its ramp. A ferryman beckoned us on.
It took about five minutes to reach the other side. Heathland bordered the road; sea surrounded us. Jonas elbowed me and pointed his finger at the window. I saw my first deer.
Mr. Lennard stood up. ‘Boys, hush. We have now reached the Isle of Purbeck in the county of Dorset. It is in fact a peninsular, a piece of land that projects into a body of water and is connected with the mainland by a narrow strip called an isthmus. End of lesson. You are officially on holiday!’
A huge cheer filled the bus. We all started thumping the backs of the seats. Max stood up and sung, ‘Oh! We do like to be beside the seaside.’ Everyone else joined in, including Mr. Lennard and the coach driver.
The coach rumbled along for a couple of miles and then turned off at a bend in the road. I could see a golden sandy beach ahead and an ice cream van, which looked like it had been waiting all morning for us. The coach parked up. I grabbed Jonas and pushed him down the aisle in front of me. Max followed close behind. We jumped onto the sand and took off our shoes and socks.
‘What’s that?’ Jonas pointed at a large block of concrete that looked like a pyramid.
‘It’s a dragon’s tooth,' Mr. Lennard replied.
‘Eh?’ we said in unison.
‘I said I wouldn’t be teaching you anymore but I can see it’s unavoidable. It’s a vestige of the war. They were put up in case the Bosch invaded with tanks.’
‘Cool,’ Max said and ran to the beach. ‘Come on!’ he shouted back at us, eagerly waving his hand.
The sand was cold on the soles of our feet. We ran past sand dunes and beach huts leaving Mr. Lennard and the other boys far behind. The sea, although for the most part calm, was throwing up the odd rogue wave. We stopped at the water’s edge and looked out. Max began whipping off his clothes.
‘What are you doing?’
‘See that buoy over there?’
I looked out at a number of buoys. ‘Which one?’
‘The red one.’
I noticed it was the furthest. ‘Yeah.’
‘I’m gonna swim to it and back. I want you to time me.’
‘Have you ever swam that far?’ I asked.
‘Course not.’ Max took off. He ran as far as he could into the sea and then dived beneath the water. He emerged a couple of seconds later and shook his hair. He began an attempt at front crawl.
In all the excitement I’d forgotten to start counting. I shouted out, ‘Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen....’ I glanced down at Jonas and we gave each other a look that said, ‘Trust Max.’
Max reached the buoy and tried to haul himself onto it but he slipped beneath the waves.
‘Is he tired d’ya think?’ I asked Jonas.
‘I don’t know.’ Jonas looked worried.
I started to remove my clothes and I was down to my shorts when Max suddenly appeared at the shallows. He stood up and ran through the waves back to me, his baggy pants revealing a tuft of pubic hair.
‘How long?’ He stood bent double with his hands on his knees, panting.
‘3 minutes, 24 seconds.’ I lied.
Jonas frowned at me.
‘Your turn,' Max said flicking his thumb at the sea.
‘Me?’ I shook my head. ‘No, I’m not as good a swimmer as you.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake Beresford, I’ve never swam in my entire life!’
I looked from him to Jonas. ‘Really?’
‘I’ve never known him to swim,’ Jonas replied.
I thought, well at least I’d been swimming in the Serpentine with my mother. I couldn’t have said how many times but enough to perfect the art of breaststroke.
'All right.’ I took off my shorts and walked gingerly to the water’s edge.
‘One, two, three...’ Max began.
I was off and pretty soon the sound of my legs splashing in the water drowned out the sound of Max’s counting. I dived beneath the waves and opened my eyes to the mounds of seaweed threshing like green eels. It was much harder swimming in the sea than in a lake. I briefly looked back. I was steering out of the line of Max and Jonas. My ears pounded with the sound of my heartbeat and I wished I were back on the beach building sandcastles with the other boys.
I harnessed my stroke and fixed my gaze with steely concentration on the buoy. I finally reached it and slapped my hand on it. I immediately turned back. A couple of waves toppled over my head but the return journey was easier because I was going with the tide. I was relieved when my feet sank back into the sand. I fell exhausted at Max’s feet, catching my breath in short painful gasps.
‘6 minutes and 43 seconds. Blimey Beresford, that’s crap.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘Right Jonas, your turn.’
I scrambled to my knees and grabbed Max by the arm, my body shivering violently. ‘N-n-no. He’s too young.’
‘What?’ Max looked down at where I held him.. ‘He’s almost eight years old, what you talking about? Jonas you’re not afraid are you?’
I looked at Jonas. His eyes were wild with fright.
‘Oh don’t tell me my poor mother died for a Colonel Custard?
The look of fear on Jonas’s face turned to anger.
‘You bastard, Max,’ I said.
Jonas ripped off his shirt. He dragged his vest over his head and pulled down his shorts wriggling out of them without undoing the button and fly. I reached out for him but he was swift and in no time at all he was running through the waves. I tried to stand but my legs wouldn’t support me. I watched helplessly as Jonas dived into the waves. Max started counting.
'Oh Lord!’ I said and clasped my hand around Max’s leg and pulled him to the ground.
We both watched Jonas’s tiny head bobbing up and down in the sea. The waves were now storm-laden. I looked up at the sky. It was going to rain. ‘What have you done?’
Max looked arrogantly back at me. I clambered on top of him and punched him in the eye. He kicked his leg up, landing a knee in my testicles. I rolled off him in agony, clasping my hands to my crutch. Max stood over me, squinting.
‘He needs to learn to be a man. It’s the only way he’s going to get by in this world. You know that.’
‘There wont be any world if he’s dead.’ I threw a spray of sand up into his face. He dropped to his knees, rapidly blinking. I dragged myself to my feet and looked out to the buoy. Jonas was nowhere to be seen, nowhere. I started back towards the ice cream van, the coach, the others. Tears filled my eyes. I muttered prayers, begging for forgiveness. I passed the beach huts, where I fell face down into the wet sand. I hauled myself to my feet and staggered past the sand dunes, clutching my soggy pants. Mr. Lennard rushed towards me. I collapsed into his arms and sobbed inconsolably on his shoulder. By then I knew it was too late.
‘My dear boy, what has happened?’
‘I didn’t want him to do it. I tried to stop him.’ My heart-wrenching words were cynically juxtaposed with the jolly voice of the coach driver.
‘Gather round. Gather round. Time for the sweepstake!’
I peered over Mr. Lennard’s shoulder. The coach driver was standing to the rear of the coach in front of the wheel. A tyre, I thought. A tyre would have saved Jonas.
‘Beresford!’ It was Max calling my name.
I turned to look at him. He was running full pelt towards me.
‘And the lucky number is...’
I looked back at the coach driver. ‘Three!’ he exclaimed.
‘Beresford!’ Max grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me round. He looked urgently into my eyes. ‘Look!’ He flicked his head to the right.
I followed his gaze.
There, standing on tiptoes receiving an ice cream from the ice cream man, was Jonas. He was wrapped in an old blanket. Jonas took a big lick from the cone, pointed at the coach and looked airily at me. ‘Beresford, you were number three weren’t you?’ -
I walked out of the bank and returned to the restaurant. Max was still there. A maître d’ asked me if I wanted a table for one. I smiled and pointed at Max then handed her my business card. Max looked up and recognition passed over his face. He stood up and waved me over.
‘Beresford! Jack!’ he opened his arms and hugged me warmly. ‘Excuse me a moment,’ he said to his friend. ‘How the devil are you old boy?’
‘Oh I’m fine Max. You look well.’ I glanced quickly at his friend.
‘Yes, can’t complain, can’t complain.’ Max looked at me searchingly.
‘And how is Jonas?’ I asked.
Jonas.’ His eyes filled with pride. ‘Yes, Jonas. No longer with us I’m afraid.’
‘Oh,’ I said, taken aback.
Yes, I’m afraid he had an accident.’
'Accident?’ I asked.
‘Parachute. Damn thing didn’t open. Africa. He was raising money for the orphans. Always the daredevil, my dear brother. Would have made his mother very proud.'