We’d been in Sea View on the Isle of Wight for almost two weeks and we were going home in a couple of days. Dad had been out late and had one of his headaches and he and Martin looked like they were about to kick off. ‘I’m almost eleven – all the other lads are allowed.’ My bother said with that face on him. So maybe Dad wasn’t looking – I dunno, but instead of going through the usual rant, he shrugged and walked off, turning at the bedroom door.
‘Mind those tides’, he said, ‘and take care of your sister – anything happens to her and you won’t what know what hit ya.’ He would have though… he wasn’t stupid, our Martin.
Rocks were stacked like tower blocks along the sea-front and we gauged our leaps from one to the other with care – one false move and we’d break our ankles. The beach would have been easier but neither of us wanted to brave the sand, which hid invisible tar gnocchi like the Italian sold in the High St, and they oozed between our toes like black treacle and wouldn’t ever come clean.
Priory Bay was wild and magic. It had none of the hotels that our beach did. And no one went there, not much anyway. It took us a good hour to get round the headland, and we were hungry and hot. We changed into our swimmers, ate the bread and butter sandwiches like half-starved wolf cubs and scooped water to drink from the stream.
Scrub willows grew right up to the sand, which was rippled with blue-green clay and the flat sea which went on forever, was a marine miracle, Martin said, groaning with shoals of sleeping whales, or at least that’s what we called the sandbanks. We paddled from hump to hump towards the horizon, where the only pucker in the milky sheen was the tiny ticks of coloured sails like butterfly wings.
We were so busy digging a network of waterways on the fattest sandbank we never noticed how the tide had rushed silently past and sunk the banks behind us. I was seized and paralysed by certain knowledge that I would drown. I knew this, because instead of twenty humps between us and the shore there was only this glassy sheen and I could barely see the strip of ice coloured sand in the distance. Feeling sick I began to sob and run on the spot. Martin took my hand and began talking. I tried to snatch it back – if he thought I was going to follow him he had another thought coming – I would rather drown. Which of course I surely would if I stayed where I was, for my feet no longer thudded on the bank but splashed in water. In the end, all of a minute later, the irony of my words must have sunk in for I began to listen urgently.
‘Look’ he said.
I looked at death by drowning.
‘See the pale bands? We’ll be able to stand in those places – it’ll be just like swimming from the shallow end to the deep end and back to the shallow end again – it’ll be fun,’ he said, ‘it’ll be our adventure’. And as he was talking he was pulling me gently into the water, not once getting impatient or cross as I threw my head back in panic when the sand dropped away from me – as I spluttered and gasped and choked as tiny waves began spilling into my open mouth.
I remember even now the tender coaxing he gave me. ‘Kick. Come on Jen; kick, pretend you’re in the swimming pool – you’re nearly at the shallow end, just a few more strokes.’ But I couldn’t get my feet up: I swam from bank to bank standing straight-up like a sea horse, and as my toes skimmed the first ripples of sand I’d start choking again, but this time with relief and a rush of tears and the desperate struggle to get me breath back as we waded and pushed our way to the other side before slipping under again.
I remember it all now with longing not fear: a craving for a Martin I once knew.
Neither of us told our parents what had happened that day – we were too afraid of what they’d do.
Nor did we return to the island for several years. And by then the magic had gone – the giant world of boulders had shrunk to a straggle of rocks; Priory Bay was an exclusive resort with signs about the fast incoming tides and the dangers of wading too far out. And it wasn’t just the boulders that had diminished and shrivelled, we all had somehow. It was over a year since Martin’s first girlfriend had died of leukaemia, it had hit him hard and he’d taken up drinking in secret.
Dad caught him at least twice: heard him heaving into the flowerbeds outside his bedroom window the first time and a few days later in broad daylight with some local lads outside the Spar. The more enraged Dad became the less Martin seemed to care, completely ignored Dad’s rules for getting in at night, treated him with scorn and condescension. The holiday divided us in two, mum and me watching, as Dad and Martin went at it, hardly stopped.
And that was how it was from then on. I don’t know if they spoke about it. Mum seemed to accept Dad’s ways, always smoothing things over, like everything was okay, like it might all go away. I don’t think she should have – I don’t think it was right; she should have got more involved. She should have done something.