Monday, 16 July 2012

People Watching (Part 1; first draft)

This is another story for the collection I mentioned last time - it's probably going to have a second part, but I don't know if they'll come together to make one story or if they'll be companion pieces.  It's based, I guess obviously, just on the idea of people watching, and of the weird voyeurism of it, which I guess is similar to any reading experience - you're completely separate from someone, but you still watch them and come to know them and care about them.  It's set on a loose reconstruction (from memory!) of Ballycastle Beach, hence the picture

It's very much a rough-and-ready first draft, so apologies for typos, repetition and just plain rubbishness.  And as ever, opinions and comments very welcome.

It’s sort of snowing, but it’s not quite cold enough, so it’s more like sleet.  It doesn’t lie on the ground in a nice white sheet, but instead clumps in semi-melted puddles which semi-blur into a very shallow semi-lake in the carpark.

If you turn your gaze out to sea (which isn’t pleasant, as there’s a stiff coastal breeze), you’re rewarded with a view which is subtly greyer than the one they put on the postcard.  The sea is stormy, but not as wildly as you might expect, and the waves wash up harmlessly on the long sandy beach which curls away from you to the right, it’s smooth curve broken only by the solitary large rock, which locals will tell you was thrown there in days gone by in a battle of the giants, where the local hero had defeated his rival from behind the headland.  Behind the headland they have a similar but slightly different story, involving a baby cow.

The headland ought to be in sight, but the weather is such that it isn’t even a shadow, as the beach eventually fades into an eerie mist.  It looks completely deserted, but if you look a little closer you’ll see that just beyond the rock there is a figure, swimming in the sea.  He’s too far away to make out clearly, he surely must be youngster to be doing something so ridiculous, or perhaps an old man, who has swam on the beach every day for fifty years, and no winter chill’s stopped him then and it won’t now neither.

The beach itself is deserted, but if you look up beyond the sand dunes which line the back of it (interspersed with steep columns of steps, which in this weather must be more treacherous than the dunes themselves to descend) you can see that one or two golfers were braving the conditions, before this latest downpour drove them to huddle under large umbrellas.  Most of the course is off out of sight, especially today, but there is one green in view, with its flag bending and swaying precariously.

Casting your eye down the golf course, you come to the large club house.  It must have been re-done recently, because it’s all glass panels and steel bars and angles.  Perhaps it looks good from another angle.  Outside the front is a red ice cream stall, but it has shutters across the front, and only the enormous dripping image of a rainbow-shaded tube differentiates it from a giant postbox.

The nearside of the club house is filled with large trees, they might be oaks, but their swaying branches are bare.  The largest of them is enormously thick, but it has a tempting volume of low branches, and in the summer it must be ripe for climbing.  Beneath the trees a slightly overweight man watches a slightly overweight dog sit stubbornly out of reach in the sleet.  He doesn’t seem to mind too much, tentatively sticking his hand out to see if he can feel drops, which he can’t, because he’s under a tree.  A large drip falls on the back of his neck.  He swears.

Once you pass the trees, you come to row of shops which lie only slightly above the sea-front, separated from the near-end of the beach by a patch of glintingly sodden grass.  There are still no chain shops here, with a glossy pink ice cream parlour standing alongside a peeling off-white general store, with a sign that might once have promised beach balls, but if so had lost its beach.

Next to the general store was a small café, with a dropping canopy protecting two metallic tables.  Hunched at one of the tables is a young man, struggling and succeeding to light a cigarette, wincing against the wet wind as he does so.  He has a steaming mug on the table, which he now cups between his hands.  He too looks out across the bay.

Beyond the café, almost directly level with where you stand, is what must once have been a hotel, but the boards in the windows indicate that is no longer the case.  It is a grand stone building, with three columns on either side of the enormous door, to which a wide set of steps lead gently down to the street.

On the other side of the old hotel is a small lane which winds its way up the hill and out of sight.  Appearing suddenly from behind the hotel wall comes a figure in a shapeless dark green anorak, with hood up and head down, hustling round the corner.  The figure wears smart blue wellington boots, but it still takes care to step around the large puddles.

Next it hurries up the steps to the hotel, running up them with slightly splayed steps because of the wellies.  For a second you wonder if they know a way in, if the hotel is perhaps less closed than it appeared, but instead they simply pull up at the top of the steps, pushed back tightly against the shut doors.

They pause there for a second, before looking up for a second into the wind, before almost immediately ducking back down and turning to the side as the small overhang of the aged roof proves inadequate shelter.  In that moment though the hood fell back, just slightly, revealing a pale-skinned girl with dark brown hair and a pained expression.

Huddled against the wall she extracts one glove with her teeth, and rummages into the pocket facing the wall, lifting up the anorak slightly as she does.  She keeps at it for a few seconds, but then turns herself round to repeat the investigation on the other side.  Seemingly unsuccessful once more she painstakingly yanks the remaining glove back onto her hand, and, turning to face the door, pats both her pockets together, her arms flapping almost like a penguin.  She strikes a raised gloved fist against the door, and leaves it there for a second.

With an apparently unprompted motion she turns sharply to her left.  The seated man has come to the edge of the covered area, his left arm shoved as far into his pockets as it will fit, his right arm raised with cigarette between two fingers.  He is saying something to the girl.  He is smiling.

With another quick look up towards the heavens, and a corresponding tug on her hood, she skips diagonally down the steps towards him, taking them two at a time.  On the third from bottom step her left foot lands first, and skids just slightly, but far enough to take her over the edge of the step.  She falls back, her arms go down to break her fall, and there is a splash as her right hand lands in a puddle, just as her bum hits the floor.

The young man is over to her in a second.  At first he is concerned, but after a moment he begins to smile broadly.  Her hood has come down completely now and she looks up at him from her ungainly position.  Her cheeks are redder now, and she too is smiling.

He puts the cigarette to his mouth and offers her his hand, and after a head-tilt and an eye-roll she takes it, pulling herself to her feet, tipping him only slightly as she does so.  She brushes herself down, rubbing her backside as she does.  She doesn’t bother pulling up her hood now, but looks up to the man with eyes half closed against the rain, and says something.  He laughs, and they both duck under the shelter.

He moves as if to go inside, but she calls him back as she extracts the wet glove from her hand, and places it on the table he wasn’t sat at.  He unzips his coat slightly to reach into an inside pocket, and extracts his box of cigarettes and the lighter.  He offers her the box, from which she extracts a cigarette with her gloveless hand, and raises it to her mouth.  They huddle close inside the doorway as he lights it, at the second attempt.

He then gestures towards the table at which he was sitting.  They exchange a word or two; he nods and pushes her back just slightly, and she goes to sit down, picking up his still steaming mug.  He vanishes inside.

She is smiling and shaking her head, still with a hand on her backside.  She moves it into her pocket and pulls out a phone.  She pushes a button or two, and then replaces it.  Next she looks out onto the beach, and smiles more broadly.  You follow her gaze, and see that the man with the dog is now without a dog, and is shouting and gesticulating from beneath his dripping tree as the dog runs onto the beach.

She looks up as he returns, another mug in hand.  She gestures with her head towards the shouting man, and he looks with her and laughs.  He sits down and tries to light a cigarette.  After a few seconds she tilts her head again, and takes the lighter from him and does it herself.

As they sit, the rain begins off.  The whole scene grows a shade or three lighter, and a minute or so later the only drips are those falling from the canopy.  They talk, he smiles and gestures a lot with his hands, she laughs and brushes her hair from her eyes.

They are interrupted as an overweight man walks by, pausing outside the café.  It is the man without the dog, except he has regained it, and it follows on behind him on a short red lead.  He is perhaps not so large as he seemed, but he is broad enough to obscure your view of the younger man, but from his new companions quiet smiling observation you glean it is he that the dog-walker is talking to.  After a moment the dog-walker moves on, pulling the now reticent dog as he does.  He is wearing a black beanie hat and a smile, with his red cheeks nicely complementing his grey stubbly beard.

As he leaves the younger man says something to the woman.  She looks out, leaning away from the window slightly and looking back up the beach.  She returns to her seat and nods, and they both in union lift their mugs to their lips, tilt them back, and then replace them on the table.  Their cigarettes have long since been stamped on the floor, and they get to their feet.  She retrieves her glove from the other table, still holding it gingerly between finger and thumb.  He says something with a smile.  She throws it at his face, and tilts her grinning head.

A glove pick-up later, and they head out across the street onto the grass.  They walk briskly, both of their bodies hunched against the cold, her long hair blowing behind her in the wind.  To begin with they walk side-by-side, but as they reach the grass he comes closer and pushes her playfully, speaking with a smile into her ear.  She jumps away from him, but then with tight lips and grinning eyes she comes up beside him and takes his arm tightly, cuffing his head.

They are walking away now, so you can only see their backs – the bottom of her anorak still has a slightly darker patch on it.  They walk arm-in-arm down onto the wet sand, at which point she lets her hand fall down into his.  All the while they lean slightly towards each other, he still gestures with his free hand, from time to time she shoves him playfully.

As they move down the beach the sun makes an appearance.  It is already low in the sky, just above the jutting headland which has emerged from the gloom at the opposite end of the bay, its silhouette now sharply illuminated.  The brightness of the sun, especially on such a grey day, means that to continue to follow the couple becomes impossible, as your eyes water and you look away, back to the clubhouse with its windows now shining brightly, and the shop-fronts which look in this new light to be slightly more real than before.

By the time you look back to the beach, they are out of sight.

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