Three weeks earlier. Madeleine steps off the train and sees her grandparents, expectant smiles across their faces. She feels a weight in her stomach. Stepping into the hugs, she tries to swallow the feeling down. Every year she spends the summer at her grandparents’ holiday chalet by the sea, and every year she looks forward to it. This year is no different. Except it is, and she knows it. This year, as she rides away from the station in the maroon Ford Escort, she sees everything with newly fifteen-year-old eyes. The mountains of floral cushions surrounding her on the back seat. The pebbledashed terraces lining the roads. The faded sign to the Sunshine Centre, fun for all the family. But is it her eyes, or the eyes of the girls at school? She knows what they would call it. Provincial.
Her gran, chirpy as ever, fires off questions. She finds herself batting them off. Yes, she’s had enough to eat. No, she isn’t tired. Yes, she showed her ticket to the conductor when he’d asked. No, her bags weren’t too heavy for her to carry.
Why is she irritated? She loves her grandparents. She loves it here.
Her granddad eases the Escort over the last hill, testing its brakes before the slow descent to the caravan park. The sea appears in the windscreen, shimmering.
‘And how are your mum and dad?’ asks her gran.
‘Fine, I guess.’
‘Too busy to bring you, I suppose,’ interjects her granddad. Her gran throws a sharp look sideways.
‘We decided I could go on the train,’ says Madeleine. ‘I go on the train by myself all the time these days. It’s no big deal. Anyway, they left already, there wasn’t time.’
She sits back, surprised at herself for sticking up for her parents. Her granddad shifts his weight in his seat.
‘Well, you’re here now, that’s what counts,’ says her gran. ‘And we’re going to have a lovely summer.’
They turn into the entrance to the caravan park, passing the donkey paddock.
‘I’ll take you for a ride later, if you like,’ says her granddad, the cheeriness back in his tone.
‘Or we could go down to the beach and collect shells. There’s been some lovely ones lately,’ says her gran.
‘Or we could get the board games out, have a go at Monopoly.’
Madeleine doesn’t say anything. They pull up to the chalet, its wooden front gleaming in green and white. She climbs out of the car, lifts her bag from the boot and walks towards the gate. Glancing to her right she notices, on the lawn of the chalet next door, sitting in a deckchair with a book in her hands, a girl. Or a woman. Madeleine isn’t sure which. She wants to stop for a better look, but she can feel her gran behind her. Inside the chalet, her curiosity gets the better of her.
‘Who’s what?’ says her gran.
‘Who’s the girl next door?’
‘The Taylors’ granddaughter. She’s staying for a few weeks while she does a university project. Don’t go bothering her, she’s busy.’
She didn’t look busy, thinks Madeleine. She goes to her room to unpack. Afterwards she lies on her bed, the bottom of a twin bunk, the top a permanent reminder of the second grandchild that never came. Her mood settles. She will enjoy herself. It doesn’t matter what the girls at school would think. They aren’t here, anyway. She doesn’t have to worry about not being invited to the parties they’ve started talking about. Or about being invited and feeling like she has to go.
Here she can be herself.
She peels potatoes for her gran, and the three of them eat dinner on the drop-leaf table overlooking the garden. Afterwards they sit around the portable TV in the corner of the room. Just like they always do.
In the morning she walks with her granddad into the village. In the newsagents she blushes when they say how much she’s grown. In the greengrocers too. Back at the chalet she tries the crosswords in the newspapers. She helps her granddad in the garden, carrying barrowfuls of weeds to the compost heap. After lunch she reads. She exhausted her grandparents’ shelves years ago, even the Reader’s Digest condensed novels. She brings her own books now. Once, she overheard her mum describe her as bookish. From her tone it sounded like something to be approved of, but Madeleine didn’t think the girls at school would agree.
Sitting on a deckchair on the front lawn, she sees the girl/woman from next door approaching down the path. Shyly, she lifts her book closer to her face, but after reading the same sentence three times, she can’t help herself. She looks up just as she is passing, and finds her looking right at her.
‘Hi,’ says Madeleine. She is struck by her appearance. Her skin, pale and smooth, is pulled taut over her cheekbones. On one side of her nose, a single gold stud sparkles in the sunlight. Her hair is dyed red, short at the back, with a fringe angled across her forehead, stopping just short of clear green eyes.
‘I’m Madeleine.’ She’s beautiful, thinks Madeleine. But not like the girls at school, the ones who wear their skirts short and their shirts tight, the ones who get the boys. She’s beautiful in a different way.
‘It’s okay,’ replies Madeleine, covering it with her hands and hoping she won’t ask what it is. Why didn’t she pick a more grown-up book to read?
‘Well, I bet it’s more interesting than mine,’ says Sarah, showing her the cover of a large hardback book in her left hand. Madeleine takes in the title. Something to do with geological strata.
‘Are you at university?’ she asks, deciding she has to say something longer than two words.
‘Yeah. I’m doing Geology. As you probably guessed. I’m here for a few weeks to study the cliffs. What about you?’
‘I’m staying with my grandparents. For the summer holidays.’
‘Well, nice to meet you, Madeleine. Hopefully see you around. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to.’
Madeleine watches Sarah walk away. With her printed dress, her Converse pumps, the silver bangles on her wrist, she reminds Madeleine of the women inside the music magazines she sometimes sneaks a look at in the school library. She looks down at herself, her jeans the wrong shade of blue, cut off at the knees like nobody did any more, her supermarket trainers because her mum and dad didn’t believe in brand names, her shapeless T-shirt. “Okay”? Possibly the coolest person she has ever met just said it’d be nice to talk to her, and all she could say was “okay”?
In the evening, Madeleine pushes pieces around the Monopoly board. The next day, she walks with her granddad into the village. She does the crosswords in the newspapers. She helps in the garden. And she tries to read. All the while, she thinks about Sarah. She can’t help it. She wonders what she’s doing, down at the cliffs. Imagines her striding around, studying rocks, recording observations in her notebook. She sits in the deckchair at the front, her book in hand, waiting for her to return from wherever she is. When she does, finally, Madeleine puts the book down. This time, she makes sure she has something to say. She has questions. She wants to know about geology, about university, about what it is that Sarah does. She wants to know about Sarah. Sarah replies, taking her time, looking her in the eye. Madeleine feels, possibly for the first time, as though she is being talked to as an adult and not a child. And then, after a second’s silence while Madeleine thinks of another question, Sarah asks one of her own.
‘Do you want to come with me tomorrow?’
‘You mean, come with you while you work?’
‘Yeah. You could help me out, take measurements and photos. That’s if you want to, of course.’
‘I’d love to,’ says Madeleine, a little more quickly than she’d intended.
‘As long as your grandparents don’t mind. Make sure you ask them first.’
‘Can you wait a second?’
Madeleine shoots into the chalet and locates her gran in the living room, reading the newspaper.
‘Gran, Sarah from next door has asked me to help her with her project. Down at the cliffs. Can I go? Please. It’d be good for school.’
Her gran is silent for a moment.
‘Well, as long as it isn’t dangerous. Is she outside now? Let me speak to her.’
Back outside, Madeleine watches Sarah as she speaks to her gran, reassuring her that she’ll take good care of her. She notices how she modifies her expressions and tone of voice. After her gran returns inside satisfied, Sarah discusses plans with Madeleine. She feels as if Sarah was speaking to her gran how she imagined her gran wanted to be spoken to, whereas now, to Madeleine, she is speaking like her true self. She is surprised how happy that makes her feel.
Madeleine wills the evening and night to pass. At nine in the morning she is walking alongside Sarah, away from the chalet and the caravan park, onto the coastal path and finally, with a scramble down the slope, to the shore at the base of the cliffs. They spend the morning observing the layers of rock formations. Sarah shows Madeleine what to look out for, what to record in her notebook. At lunchtime they lie on the pebbles, eating the sandwiches they have prepared together, watching the waves roll in. Sarah speaks first.
‘What’s it like, coming here every summer?’
Madeleine hesitates. ‘Well, I used to enjoy it, but this year I’ve been kind of bored.’ She adds, quickly, ‘Not today, of course.’
‘Is it always just you and your grandparents? Your mum and dad never come?’
‘No. They go to France. A writer’s retreat, they call it. They go every year.’
‘They’re writers? That’s cool.’
‘Kind of. They’re actually English teachers. But they try to write books in their spare time. I think they’d like it if they wrote books all the time. They don’t seem to like teaching very much.’
‘How do you feel? About them going away without you, I mean.’
Madeleine hesitates for a moment, thinking. ‘It never really bothered me. I knew it was a bit weird, like none of my friends’ parents would do that. Sometimes I used to complain about it, but only when I was annoyed at them, when I wanted to make them feel guilty. Actually I kind of liked it here, without them. This year they said they would try to take me with them, but children aren’t allowed, apparently.’
‘So they stick you on a train and wave you off?’
‘Yeah. Well, this time they did. They used to drop me off and stay the night. They said they didn’t have the time this year, and that it would be exciting for me on the train. But I don’t think they wanted to see gran and granddad.’
‘They don’t get on?’
‘They argue. Like, all the time. My dad’s always fighting with them. They’re his mum and dad. It used to be better with my mum, before, but nowadays it’s just as bad with her.’
‘What do they fight about?’
‘Writing, mainly. They think it’s a waste of time. And they think they’re bad parents for disappearing to France without me. I’m not supposed to know this, they send me outside when they fight, but I can always hear. I hate it.’
‘Yeah, parents can be a fucking nightmare.’
Madeleine giggles in surprise.
‘Sorry, bad language,’ says Sarah, laughing. ‘Anyway, your gran and granddad seem like nice people, and I bet your parents are too. Life’s complicated.’ She laughs again. ‘God, what a cliché. I should shut up. What do you think, anyway? Is writing a waste of time?’
‘I don’t know. I used to think I wanted to become a writer.’
‘But not any more?’
‘Well, sometimes it can seem a bit pointless. A bit made up. Not like what you do, studying real things. I’d like to do something like this.’
‘Do you like school?’
‘Sort of. I like most of the lessons, but sometimes, well, sometimes I kind of wish that I didn’t do as well. In the tests and things. I wish that I didn’t stand out. And I wish that I knew how to be more cool. Like some of the other girls.’
Sarah looks at her sharply. ‘Madeleine, you should always be proud of yourself and how clever you are.’
Madeleine feels herself blush. She has a sudden urge to be direct. ‘But you’re clever, and you’re cool, too.’
Now Sarah blushes. Madeleine looks down, embarrassed by what she’s said.
‘You’re cool, Madeleine. I could see it straight away. Why do you think I wanted to talk to you?’
Madeleine shakes her head. ‘You’re just saying that to be nice.’
‘I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. You just can’t see it yourself. Nobody can when they’re fifteen. And those other girls at school? Trust me, in a few years’ time you’ll realise they weren’t cool at all.’
Madeleine keeps her eyes to the ground, rolling pebbles around in her fingers. Sarah leaps to her feet.
‘Right, come on. No point us both being cool if we don’t get any work done.’
They spend the next six days together, like this. Madeleine helps Sarah observe and record, talking to her in their breaks and their journeys there and back, about university, school, music, parents, friends. On the seventh day they’re both quiet. Madeleine knows it will be their last day together. Sarah has enough data now. She has to start writing up her project in the library in the village. Madeleine tries to react to this as the adult she feels Sarah treats her as, but that evening she knows that she’s behaving bad-temperedly to her grandparents. To make matters worse, her parents have scheduled a call from France. At five minutes to eight, her granddad tells her to put on her shoes for the walk to the phone box.
‘I’m not going.’
‘Yes you are. Come on, hurry up. They’ll be calling in five minutes.’
‘I don’t care. Let them call. I don’t want to speak to them.’
‘Madeleine, what’s got into you? They’re your parents. You have to speak to them. They won’t call again for a week.’
‘So? They don’t care about me. All they care about is their stupid writing.’
‘That’s not true. It’s important to them, yes, but not as important as you.’
‘Then why would they rather be there than with me? You know it’s true.’
‘Look, we haven’t got time for this. Get your shoes on, now.’
She senses her granddad’s growing impatience. What has got into her? She decides to pull herself together. But in the phone box by the campsite reception, after her granddad has passed the receiver to her, Madeleine holds it to her ear and feels her emotions welling up. Her father speaks.
‘Madeleine, are you behaving yourself for your gran and granddad? It’s nice of them to look after you, you know. You should be grateful.’
This is the provocation she needs. The resentment towards her parents, the sense of abandonment, the emptiness of the days to come, the banality of her grandparents, and Sarah, of course Sarah. The feelings, new and confusing, need release.
‘What do you care?’, she shouts. ‘You just dumped me here so you could go off with your stupid writing friends and drink wine all day. You don’t care about me. You just don’t want to feel guilty.’
‘Madeleine, that’s enough’, interrupts her father. ‘Don’t speak to me like that.’
‘I didn’t want to speak to you at all. Granddad made me. I hate you.’
‘Madeleine, put your granddad back on. I’m not speaking to you like this.’
Madeleine opens the door, hands the phone to her granddad and stands outside, shaking. She sees him looking at her as he speaks, the disappointment in his face. Tears well up behind her eyes. But she’s too angry still to feel guilty. She doesn’t want to stand there and cry like a child.
So she runs.
Away from the phone box, away from the campsite, up the entrance road, right at the junction onto the main street, running as fast as she can, on and on, into the centre of the village, past the newsagents, the bookmakers, the post office, the greengrocers, the ice-cream shop, and onto the promenade. The exertion dissipates her anger, the urge to cry recedes and she slows to a walk. Remorse can wait. For now she feels only liberation and exhilaration. The evening is still light. She walks along the promenade for a while, turns onto the pier and then, halfway towards the end, steps inside the amusement arcade.
It is near-deserted. She wanders aimlessly around the machines, looking into the trays for forgotten winnings. She sees four kids standing around a fruit machine. Two boys, two girls, probably around the same age as herself. Three of them watch while one boy feeds ten-pence pieces into the slot. She stops a little to the side of them. The boy presses a series of buttons, egged on by the others. There’s groaning and swearing. Madeleine recognises the local accent. One of the girls catches sight of her, and Madeleine overhears her saying to the others,
‘What’s she looking at?’
The four of them turn their heads.
‘Yeah, what are you looking at?’ says the other girl.
‘Nothing,’ replies Madeleine.
‘Nothing,’ echoes one of the boys, imitating Madeleine’s accent. The others laugh.
‘Where you from, posh girl?’ asks the other boy.
‘Cheshire,’ replies Madeleine, trying not to blush.
‘La-di-da. What you doing in this shithole?’
‘I’m staying at my grandparents. What are you doing in this shithole?’ she replies, surprising herself.
One of the girls, a scowl on her face, makes as if to move towards her, but the boy laughs.
‘Not much choice. We live here. Got any money?’
Madeleine shakes her head.
‘What about luck? You must have some of that, I reckon.’
‘Well, I’m stuck here for the summer, so what do you think?’
The boy laughs again. ‘We’ll see. Come here, you can press.’
Madeleine steps warily towards them. The two girls part reluctantly, allowing her inside the circle.
‘Just do as I say, okay?’ says the boy.
He continues feeding the coins, pointing at the buttons he wants Madeleine to press. She can feel the tension behind her. She isn’t getting anywhere. Then, on the seventh coin, the wheels roll round and stop. Three identical strawberries.
‘Yes!’, shouts the other boy.
‘Right, that’s 50p,’ says the boy with the coins. ‘Now you need to gamble on the cards. Higher or lower. That’s a two, so it’s gotta be high.’
Madeleine presses the High button. Lights flash up and down then stop, illuminating the queen of hearts. Another cheer comes from behind.
‘Okay, now low.’
Madeleine presses again. A four.
A ten. There is only silence.
An eight. She hears an intake of breath. The winnings display shows five pounds.
‘Collect,’ shouts one of the girls.
‘Yeah, collect,’ says the other boy. ‘You can’t gamble on an eight.’
Madeleine looks at the boy with the coins. He smiles at her and shrugs.
She turns back to the machine. She’s played enough cards with her grandparents to know it’s fifty-fifty between high and low. If she guesses right, they win the ten pound jackpot. Wrong, and they lose everything. The sensible option is to collect the five pounds. Madeleine punches the high button.
‘No!’ shouts one of the girls.
Up and down flash the lights. Madeleine holds her breath. The movement stops. It’s a nine.
‘Yes!’ comes the chorus from behind her.
Madeleine hits the collect button. Coins spill out into the tray, more than it can hold.
‘Nice one’, says the boy, stuffing them into his pockets. ‘Knew you were lucky. What’s your name, posh girl?’
‘I’m David’. He looks to the others. ‘This is Rhys, Bethan and Tracy. Right, let’s go.’
He turns away. The others follow, but Madeleine hesitates. David stops and beckons her with his hand.
‘Come on, you want your fair share, right?’
They walk away from the pier and the promenade. Madeleine’s exhilaration begins to recede. She listens to them talk, hears how familiar they are with each other, by turns harsh, funny, crude, mocking, defensive. She feels separate. They approach the off-licence on the main road.
‘Let’s get some cider,’ says David.
‘Who’s gonna buy it?’ asks Rhys.
Bethan glances inside. ‘It’s the old man. He won’t serve me any more.’
‘He won’t serve any of us,’ says David. ‘He knows us now.’ He looks straight at Madeleine. The others, who have been ignoring her presence since the arcade, now stare at her.
‘Except posh girl,’ says Tracey, a smile curling up her face.
Madeleine feels a panic rising, a sense of being out of her depth. The bravado of the arcade is gone. She is herself again. She doesn’t belong here, with these people. She turns her head, looks up the road, back towards the campsite. She can walk away. It would be easy. She could say she has to get home, that her grandparents will be worried. They might make fun of her, but they don’t know her. It’s not like the kids at school. She turns her head back, ready to make her excuse, then her gaze flits past the pub across the road, and she’s aware, almost without realising, of something out of place, something familiar.
A face, laughing.
Sarah, sitting at a table in the window, next to an older-looking man. Smiling at him. Her hand on his shoulder.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, she feels a flash of anger, of recklessness. She looks David in the eye.
‘Okay, I’ll do it.’
David smiles, and begins to empty his pockets.
‘Get two big bottles of White Lightning. And just act casual. The old man doesn’t care. It’ll be easy.’
Madeleine nods and walks into the shop, her jeans bulging with coins. She feels as though she’s watching herself from above. She locates the bottles of White Lightning and carries them to the counter. The man stares at her. Her heart pounds. She focusses on his missing front tooth, trying to steady herself. He drops his eyes and punches buttons robotically on the cash register.
‘Three pounds ninety-eight.’
Counting out the coins, she is surprised to see her hands aren’t shaking. She picks up the bottles and walks out of the shop. David was right. It had been easy. When the others see her, she sees them, sees their reactions, sees within them, even from the girls, admiration and gratitude, and she doesn’t recognise her own emotions. There’s a satisfaction, from being accepted into a group, from being able to become someone other than herself. But stronger is a pleasure, a pleasure that feels daring, that rises up with she sees David smiling, his eyes lingering over her.
They drink the cider down at the beach, by now deserted in the half-light. When the bottle is passed to Madeleine she swigs it back confidently, like she’s done it a thousand times before. She feels the effects quickly. At first light-headed and giggly, reminding her of when her parents allowed her to try some of their wine, then something deeper, a wave of excitement, a force taking her over. Time changes quality. People get up, go, come back. Suddenly she is alone with David, and when he kisses her she gives in, automatically, intoxicated in ways she can barely comprehend. Afterwards, when the others are there, she sits in silence, and wonders if David’s smile is different now. It’s almost dark when something makes her stand up and say that she’s leaving. They come with her. When she turns up the road to the campsite, the others move away while David kisses her again. Then she says goodbye.
At the chalet she is aware of a knowledge that she didn’t know she possessed. Of how to cry when her gran lets her in. To apologise like she means it. To run to her room and shut the door before they can smell the alcohol on her breath. The knowledge that they will be relieved enough to let her be. In the morning she apologises again and her contrition, even though she doesn’t know herself if it is real, is enough. Her head hurts, though, and her mind and heart are whirling. Last night seems so fantastical that she begins to doubt if it even happened. Being in the chalet, hanging around with her grandparents, feels torturous in its insignificance and after lunch she announces that she’s going for a walk. On the road into the village she sees Sarah coming the other way. Instinctively she knows she can’t face her. That everything has somehow changed. She ducks into an alleyway, hoping that she hasn’t been spotted. Pressed against the wall, waiting for Sarah to pass on the other side of the road, she feels a mixture of defiance and shame, and underneath, a nagging sense of loss.
She wanders through the village, along the promenade, onto the pier, into the arcades, down onto the beach, and eventually she finds them, picking crabs from rock pools. When they see her they open up and she falls in, easily, into their jokes, their arguments, their whiling away of time. She is aware of putting on an exterior, a hardened version of herself, but any disquiet she feels is easily willed away when she looks at David, and he looks at her.
She tells her grandparents she’s met some friends, boys and girls like her. She senses their worry but also their relief, their acceptance that their company and entertainment are no longer enough for her. She knows they trust her and that makes her feel guilty, but not guilty enough. She spends every afternoon now with David and the others, and occasionally the evening too, if she can invent an excuse. She tries to get David alone, under the pier usually, kissing him with the same abandon. But as the days pass he becomes more and more elusive and she begins to get a sense of panic, of something slipping away.
Occasionally, around the chalet and in the campsite, she sees Sarah, but she does what she can to avoid her. Then one morning she’s in the camp shop, running an errand for her gran, when Sarah walks in. Madeleine tenses.
Madeleine wonders if it’s her imagination, or whether there’s something accusatory in Sarah’s tone.
‘Oh, hi,, she replies, trying to sound casual.
‘Haven’t seen you for a while. Everything okay?’
‘Yeah, everything’s fine. I thought you were writing up your project in the library?’ Madeleine is aware that now she’s the one sounding accusatory.
‘I am. Well, I will be, later.’
Madeleine picks up a box of eggs and takes it to the counter to pay. As she walks out she says bye to Sarah, waiting in line.
‘Madeleine, will you wait a second? I’ll walk back with you.’
Outside, Madeleine is half-tempted to walk away, but knows she won’t. Sarah emerges and they walk together, side by side. It reminds Madeleine of the days they walked to the cliffs. Suddenly she misses the simplicity of her feelings then.
‘What’ve you been up to?’, asks Sarah.
‘Nothing much. Just hanging around.’
The silence dwells for a moment, then Sarah speaks again.
‘I miss those days with you, you know. Down by the cliffs. It was nice to have someone to talk to.’
Madeleine hesitates. ‘Me too,’ she says. Suddenly she wants to tell Sarah everything. About winning on the arcades, about the cider, about Bethan, Tracy and Rhys. And of course about David.
‘You really helped me, you know?’, says Sarah.
‘It – it was fun,’ says Madeleine. She wants to tell her but she can’t. They walk in silence for a few paces. The chalet is in sight.
‘Madeleine, be careful.’ Sarah’s tone is different, more urgent. Madeleine feels herself bristle.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve seen you hanging around with those other kids. With that boy, David.’
Madeleine feels her face burning. How has she seen them? How does she know his name? She stares straight ahead, incapable of replying.
‘Just take care of yourself. Those kids might get you into trouble. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.’
Madeleine wills the chalet closer.
‘Look, I’m not going to tell your grandparents, okay? But if you ever want to talk about anything, I’m always here for you.’
Madeleine gives the slightest of nods, then turns into the gate of the chalet, through the door, and straight into her room. She lies on the bed, her mind racing. There’s still the part of her that looks up to Sarah, sees in her what she might be able to become, sees her ability to be herself. But is that the part of her that struggles for friends at school, that blushes when someone looks at her, that hasn’t, until now, properly kissed a boy? Here, now, she is liked, fancied. She is part of a group, she belongs. Anyway, Sarah left her. Sarah has this man, she can go to pubs and drink with him. Easy for her to talk.
She gets up and goes out, resolved, sure again of who she is. She searches all the usual places but there’s no sign of them. Eventually she returns, disappointed. She takes it out in sullen responses to her grandparents, then goes to bed early, feeling remorseful. The next day she hunts again, and at the end of the pier she finds Rhys and Tracy. She’s surprised to see them holding hands.
‘Where were you yesterday?’ she asks. ‘I looked all over’
‘We went for a walk’, replies Tracy. ‘Down to the creek.’
‘Oh’, says Madeleine, trying to disguise her hurt at not being invited. ‘Where’s David?’
Rhys and Tracy look at each other. Sly smiles cross their faces. Tracy turns and stares at Madeleine, her eyes cold and defiant.
‘David’s going with Bethan now.’
Madeleine feels herself start to shake. She mustn’t cry, not now, not here. She tries to harden herself.
‘Where – where are they?’ she says, her voice rising.
Rhys motions downwards, indicating the beach under the pier. Madeleine turns and walks, then, when she’s sure she’s out of sight, runs, back down the pier, along the promenade, and down the steps that lead to the beach. There, among the half-rotting beams that hold up the pier, she sees them. Lying on the sand, their mouths locked together. David’s hand on Bethan’s leg.
Madeleine stands, staring, unable to drag herself away from her own betrayal. Slowly she turns and walks. She wants to run, but the energy has drained from her body. She is alone. She wanders along the promenade, oblivious to the people strolling and children playing. She thinks of Sarah. She must find her. She will tell her everything and that will help, she doesn’t know how, but she knows that it will. She turns off the promenade, away from the sea, down the sidestreet that leads to the small, squat sixties-built library.
Inside, she walks past the rows of bookshelves, deserted save for a parent and two young children, and into the reading area. All the tables are empty. She goes back to the reception desk, to the elderly lady sitting behind it.
‘Excuse me,’ she says, breathlessly. ‘I’m looking for a girl, a woman, she has red hair, bright red hair. Has she been in today?’
The librarian looks up at Madeleine, her eyes surrounded by huge, round glasses.
‘No, dear. There’s been nobody in like that today. Mind you,’ she says, looking down for a moment, ‘there was a girl like that, bright red hair, quite something, I remember, she came in for a day or two, what was it, a week ago, maybe more? But she’s not been in since.’
Madeleine thanks her and leaves, deflated and confused. Where is Sarah? Where has she been every day? Why did she lie to her? Even though she’s been avoiding her, she’s kept herself aware enough of her movements to know she hasn’t been at the chalet. She walks the narrow streets blindly, turning corners unthinkingly, more despondent and alone than ever, the wind of her intention to tell Sarah everything knocked out of her sails. And then, almost without realising, she is looking at her. Ahead, on a nondescript street of pebbledashed houses, walking in the same direction as her, on the other side of the road. With a man. The same man as in the pub. They’re carrying bags, bags that look full and heavy, blue plastic bags that Madeleine recognises, the same bags that the old man had offered her, that she’d refused when she’d decided, for maximum effect, that she’d rather carry the two bottles of cider outside in her arms.
Madeleine decides to follow them. They’re too occupied with each other to notice her. They stop and turn into one of the houses, past a gate hanging off its hinges, through a bare front yard, where Sarah stops while the man fishes out a key and lets them inside.
Madeleine should go back, but she doesn’t. She stays there for an age, then she walks onwards, past the house, staying on the opposite side of the street, careful that nobody can see her from the front windows, then, at the end of the road, she crosses over, past the back of the end terrace and down inside the alleyway that divides this row of houses from the row it backs onto, the alley that all these streets have. She walks, counting the back gates, one, two, three, four, and then she hears voices and stops. Men’s voices, harsh, crude tones, and amongst them, out of place, Sarah’s voice, Sarah’s laugh. Madeleine finds a crack in the fence. She crouches, peering, as these men, shirtless and crop-haired, swig from cans of beer. One of them has a piece of glassware. It reminds Madeleine of the flasks she uses in her chemistry class. He holds it over a cigarette lighter, watching intently, then he raises it to his mouth and inhales from one end. His head rocks back and his body relaxes in his chair. He passes it on to the man next to him. She sees Sarah watching too, like she is, as it is passed around the circle, each of the four men sinking back into their chairs. And then it reaches Sarah.
Madeleine pulls back from the fence, unable to watch. What she thought she knew about Sarah is a lie. Sarah who told her to keep studying hard, to be herself, not to worry about being cool, about what other boys and girls thought. Sarah who had promised to be there for her, who had warned her about getting into trouble, who she was going to confide in, who would have made everything okay. Sarah who she looked up to. Who she wanted to be like.
Perhaps Sarah is just doing what she wants, thinks Madeleine. Perhaps she should just do as she wants, too. Right now, she wants to feel as she did when she drunk the cider, when she first kissed David. She wants that rush, to be overpowered. She walks away, slowly at first, then her pace quickening. She heads back to the promenade. She doesn’t know what she’ll find or what she’s going to do, but she’s about to descend the steps to the beach when she hears her name called out. She turns to see David, leaning on the railings on the pier. He comes toward her.
‘Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking for you,’ he says. ‘I missed you.’
‘That’s a lie,’ retorts Madeleine. ‘I know you’re with Bethan now. I saw you.’
‘Bethan’s just a stupid girl. I didn’t want to go with her, she wouldn’t leave me alone. She’s not like you. You’re different.’
David steps towards her, places his hands around her waist. She stiffens. She feels his eyes penetrating hers. His face comes closer and they kiss. She banishes thought from her mind, and instead sinks into the warmth. Eventually he pulls away for breath. She is lightheaded.
‘Let’s get some cider,’ she says, urgently.
He smiles. ‘We can do better than cider. Something that’ll really make you feel good.’
Madeleine feels her heart quicken. She tries to push any warning signs away. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Come with me, I’ll show you.’
David takes her hand into his and they stride across the promenade and away, into the side streets. He tells her of all the things they’re going to do together, how he’s bored of Rhys, Bethan and Tracy, how he just wants to spend time with her from now on. She listens, she wants to be as excited as she thinks she should be, but she starts to recognise the streets, and she gets that feeling in her stomach.
‘David, where are we going?’
‘To a friend. Someone who can sell us something nice. When we get there, I’ll give you the money, and all you need to do is knock on the door and ask for a rock. I can’t go because there might be somebody there who doesn’t like me. But I’ll be with you, watching from the side. It’ll be easy, just like the cider.’
‘A rock?’ asks Madeleine, her heart pounding.
‘Yeah, a rock. That’s all you need to say. Like I said, easy.’
‘I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right.’
‘It’s fine,’ says David, taking both her hands into his. ‘All the kids round here do it. But look, if you don’t want to, I can ask someone else instead, like Bethan. It just wouldn’t be as much fun as with you.’
Madeleine turns and looks up the street. She knows now exactly where they’re going. She can see the gate hanging off its hinges. Deep down, she knows everything is all wrong, and yet when David pulls her hands gently and sets off up the street, she follows. They walk in silence. Just before the house, David hands her some folded notes and tells her again, it’ll be easy. Then he kisses her. He stays at the side while she walks past the gate and into the front yard. Her steps feel weightless and again, she feels like she is watching herself from above. She stands on the doorstep and looks to David for the last time. Then she knocks, and waits.
I told Madeleine, much later, that when I saw her I felt like she had come to save me. I’d said no that first time, when the pipe had been passed to me, but I don’t know if I’d have had the willpower to keep saying it. Seeing her, so out of place on that doorstep, made me realise that I too was out of place, made me see the men I was hanging around with, the things I was getting mixed up in, for what they really were. The vulnerability I saw in her eyes made me ashamed. I had to push past him to get to her. I grabbed her hand and just said to her, let’s go. She told me afterwards that she knew, then, that everything would be okay. We marched past that boy, David. All the guys in that house knew him. He looked stunned, at first, then I saw the anger in his eyes. I whispered to Madeleine, just throw him the money. Don’t look at him. And then we were gone.
She was confused and angry. I tried to explain. I told her about Karl, how I’d met him one evening when I was walking on the beach. How I saw in him something that I was craving. Adventure, I guess. A touch of danger. How I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to meet him for a drink. How I felt I needed to live a little. University hadn’t been what I’d expected, I hadn’t really fitted in. Then one thing led to another. When I was on the cliffs with Madeleine I was fine, I felt like myself, but afterwards, trying to work in the library, I was just bored and lonely. And Karl was always around. Madeleine couldn’t understand at first, how I could give up on my project, but I wasn’t sure it was for me, geology. I felt lost. I told her that even as an adult we’re rarely sure about the choices that we make, that sometimes it’s hard to tell the good from the bad.
We talked and talked that afternoon, and it felt like we told each other everything. I didn’t see Karl again, and Madeleine didn’t see David or the other kids. We both avoided the village and stuck to the campsite and the cliffs. It was too late for me to try and save my project, so for that last week we spent most of the time together. When she came to say goodbye before leaving for the train station, I saw the tears in her eyes, and I just let go. I didn’t know then if we’d see each other again, but when she wrote to me later, it made me so happy to open the envelope and read her handwriting. By then I’d quit the course, as I would quit many other things I tried later, before I finally found something I was happy with. I knew, though, that Madeleine would become a writer. I saw it in the letters she wrote me, and in the stories she sometimes sent me. I told her, I encouraged her, through school, through university, and afterwards, when she was lost herself. And when she handed me her first book, and I saw my name in the dedications, I cried again.
Years later we went back together, our partners and her children left at home. We visited the chalets, still standing, our grandparents long gone. We walked on the beach, down the promenade, along the pier. She showed me how to win on the arcades. We walked the sidestreets until we found the house, now freshly painted, children’s toys in the front yard. We went into the pub, sat at the table in the window, and drank together. She told me how she felt when she’d seen me there. We both told each other that we’d never spoken to anyone else about that summer, not beyond the surface. That it belonged to us. It was ours, it is ours, and we share it.