Beginning Again by Candy Neubert
Our Short Story of the Month is ‘Beginning Again’ by Candy Neubert. The story will shortly be published in Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing (The History Press).
Candy Neubert lives in Cornwall but maintains strong ties with South Africa where she lived from 1990 - 1996. She has received numerous literary awards, including the Bridport Prize. She is the author of Foreign Bodies (Seren, 2009) and Big Low Tide (Seren, 2012).
She was coming straight up the beach towards him.
Through half-closed eyes, his head propped up against his rucksack, he watched her come. In silhouette at first, the kind of shape you just knew wasn’t English, couldn’t be English, but you couldn’t say why. Hair plastered back slick and wet off her face.
She came right up and stood over him, flicking water over his hot skin. Hey, he laughed. She lifted her towel, shaking it out like a sheet over a bed, lying down with a grunt.
He felt the cool coming from her, saw tiny droplets drying on her neck—Sonya, his mate, his life’s woman.
“Mm … now I’m hungry,” she said, not opening her eyes. He was, too. He sat up slowly, sun dizzy, and reached into the rucksack. Here it was, the container she always filled to the brim—he raised a corner of the lid and out came the smell of food, olives and onion and … just then he woke up, as the small figure of the boy crossed his line of vision, still quite far off, heading his way.
The path went straight up from Porthcurno and he took it two steps at a time. Not really steps but boulders and cliff straight up from the car park, just the way to get going on a cool morning. They’d soon be warm and the mist would clear; it was only a sea mist. He positively sprang all the way, pretty fit for a business man, an office chap.
When the path levelled out, he waited for Daniel. It was an inviting path, gorse on either side, beaten earth sprinkled with rabbit droppings, gulls laughing overhead. But he kept still and waited patiently. He was so effing patient. But Daniel wasn’t in sight.
If shoulders could talk.
If shoulders could talk, the rucksack on Daniel’s back would shrivel up and die. As if towels were heavy. Bulky, yes, but not heavy. He should try the picnic, if he wanted heavy.
Also, Fuller had the surfboard, which was fair enough; his arms were longer. But Daniel was young and strong. They did sports training at school, didn’t they?
The boy climbed the last bit and came to a halt five yards away, his eyes fixed on his shoes.
Patience, mind. Fuller held his tongue and set off again. A fresh scent came from the pink flowers in the grass under the gorse, while the mist ripped back off the cliffs before his eyes—what luck, when it might have come in thick and spoiled everything.
They did sports training and next year Mandarin, of all things. He asked Daniel about it yesterday, about the new school. The boy made a face, sticking his tongue over his front teeth. They’re all tossers, he said. He’d wanted to go to a school in Devon where they taught tractor driving.
But they were going to have a day today, a great day. They were here, damn it. The sun was coming out and everything was sorted.
A kestrel rose and hung in the air, over to the right. Fuller put his fingers in his mouth and whistled, and the boy raised his head.
‘What?’ he yelled.
Now, five hundred yards ahead, a gate—it had to be the right place, the path veering off towards the cliff edge, dipping at the end, there! He stood, breathing hard. Sheer drop on one side and at his feet, far down, two perfect golden discs of sand divided by a bar of pale green water, just like the photo in the brochure. He’d found it. His chest was big and warm and happy. Daniel came up behind him.
‘There it is—great, eh? Looks like the Caribbean. And the sun’s out. Got all my cards in one shoe, boy.’
‘Y’know—got everything I want, all in one place.’
He was twelve.
‘Go careful now. Very careful. Watch it.’
They did have to be careful; it was a real rabbit path, hard on the knees. Fuller couldn’t be sure that this sluggish figure was truly his son; maybe he’d dart ahead the way he always had. He put out a warning arm. Sheer drop. Careful.
The body board was a nuisance. Glancing at the sand below, he saw people down there already. Damn. Not to worry, live and let live, hey.
‘I’ll let the board drop,’ he called. Please let it not break, he said to himself as it slithered from his hand, pivoted on one edge and shot out of sight. Fuller turned around to take the last slope of rock backwards.
‘Turn around,’ he called up.
The boy would figure it out. Let him find out for himself, let him learn from something a bit tough.
All the nooks and crannies and shady spots were taken. Fuller walked the whole beach and back to where the boy had stopped, his bag dumped on the sand. Every cleft and shadow already occupied. A middle-aged couple were sauntering from one of these nooks, and something about them had the boy transfixed. Fuller looked. Not a stitch. Starkers. Perfect mahogany tans all over, their buttocks going concave as they walked, the brown flesh in shallow folds. The man had a hat on.
‘Well, what is the world coming to?’
‘Where are we going?’ asked Daniel.
‘Here’s as good as anywhere, I guess.’
Fuller began to unpack the stuff. He was sure he’d brought everything: shorts, food, sun lotion, you name it, he’d got it. He flipped a ball in the boy’s direction, and it rolled a way off.
‘Bring your water bottle?’
Daniel looked at him.
‘You didn’t, did you? You forgot, didn’t you? Didn’t I say: bring your water bottle?’
‘Well I didn’t, did I?’
‘We’ll be short. Good job I brought mine, but we’ll be short.’
‘What you doing?’
‘Getting the towels out.’
‘That’s my bag.’
‘I’m getting the towels out of your bag, okay? Please Daniel, may I get the towels out?’
No reply. The boy sat down, yanked his cap further over his eyes, and looked at the sea. Fuller pulled his own shirt off and wrapped a towel tight around his waist. Still warm and happy; that sea was calling.
He and his son, racing down the sand.
It would take time. One thing they had plenty of was time. He had sole custody now and the boy’s mother could only have him one weekend in four instead of the other way around; after wrangling over it for years, she’d suddenly let go of her end of the argument, like a piece of elastic. All because she was having another baby, with that jerk.
He felt curiously exposed on the sand in his shorts, out in the air. Diminished, between the two great arms of the cliff. He broke into an easy trot—yes, he was fit all right, he was the most fit parent for his son, given his secure financial status and the fact that he hadn’t mucked about, like she had. She could end up living in a caravan. You’ll be down-sizing, he’d said to her. What do you know about anything? she mocked back. Men, always thinking size matters.
The air blew over him, made his body tight. It was good—exposed and good. Nobody was looking at him. No stopping now. Here it was, here were shallow waves like churned ice on his legs, no good stopping, get in there, throw yourself right in, aaaaaagh.
‘Fantastic,’ he said, towelling his head hard. ‘Absolutely fantastic.’ Everything glowed, shone, right into his heart. ‘I’m a new man. I recommend it.’
The boy still sat, his feet buried.
‘Not even going to change?’ Fuller knew he should leave off, but honestly. ‘The waves are pretty good. Got quite a pull. Take the board, hey—’
‘I’m not using that thing. It’s too small. It’s for a kid.’
Fuller looked at the purple polystyrene board. It had been the best thing in the world last year; they had had just one day at the coast and Daniel had been bounced around by waves too big for him. Now he himself was too big.
‘Why didn’t you say? You could’ve said. I wouldn’t have carried it all the way, would I?’
What was the point.
Daniel said, ‘Can we eat?’
Of course, he was just hungry. It made you go quiet at that age when blood sugar is low. When you grow up you can go all day. A good breakfast, you can go all day.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Have a sandwich.’
The boy opened the sandwich and peeled out the meat. He didn’t eat meat any more.
Since when? Shrug. Since now.
Patience. Leave off.
‘I’ll eat it,’ said Fuller. ‘Waste not, want not. Go easy on the water, hey. It’s all we’ve got.’
‘I need a proper board. A long board.’
‘Now, how are we going to get a long board down here?’
Sure enough, among the ribbon of people threading down the path, two were managing a long board between them. Fuller let out a breath through his teeth.
The boy took the packet. ‘It’s too hot,’ he said. ‘I’m too hot down here.’
‘Go in the sea. Boy, that’s cold enough.’
‘There’s no point without a proper board.’
Fuller didn’t speak. The shining glow in his chest was wearing off. ‘Well, get down by the water anyway,’ he said finally. ‘There’s a breeze there, get you cool. Don’t eat all those; there’ll be none for later.’
The boy sat, coiled up. Then he dropped the biscuits, rose to his feet and made off with a slow, dragging lope, turning his cap around so the peak covered his neck.
Fuller watched him. There he goes, my son, waiting to become a man. Funny to think of that. He thought about calling him back for sun lotion, but didn’t. He watched him go, then set his rucksack behind his head and lay back.
Should’ve brought a paper.
Now who was this, right in front of him, hardly ten feet away. Getting a bit crowded.
Well, it was a blazing day, all right. This lot were foreign, it was obvious, which would explain it. Different sense of personal space. Two men and three women, all plonked down as if they owned the beach.
Fuller studied them as they shed their clothes. Not down to the buff; the men wore tiny white things that looked like underwear but had small belts, so couldn’t be. The women were slower to undress. They wore costumes in two pieces like old-fashioned bikinis. One was dark but otherwise they were pale in a way that northern people are rarely pale, and they all had black hair.
Fuller guessed Italian, but he wasn’t sure.
He tried to hear what they were saying—not that he knew Italian, but he might recognize the sound of it. Maybe it was Romanian or Bulgarian or something; he only had a vague idea of such places. Maybe they were staff from a nearby hotel.
God, it was hot. He turned over onto his stomach and shoved his face into the towel.
Then he rolled back again.
The men were small nippy types; some women go for that. Two of the women lay near the men, close, so he could tell they were couples, and that left one, on her own. She was kneeling, her arms lifted to fix up her hair, showing dark tufts in her armpits. They seemed to be teasing her. “Son-yar!” they said. She laughed back. She wasn’t especially pretty. She finished her hair and stood up, hands on hips, her belly flat and smooth. In his ex-wife’s belly a new child grew, right now, at that moment.
The woman called Sonya set off towards the sea, which was now a long way off.
Fuller closed his eyes.
When he opened them she was coming straight up the beach towards him, hair plastered back slick and wet off her face. Just then, the small figure of the boy crossed his line of vision, still quite far off, heading his way. Had he been gone an awful long time? It seemed so. Fuller sat up slowly, sun dizzy; he’d dozed off for a moment. He watched the boy come closer, watched him trail between the people with the sea blazing behind him.
‘Hi there,’ said Fuller.
‘Any water left?’
He reached into the rucksack and handed over the bottle. The boy drained it and tossed it back.
‘Want to swim now?’ Fuller asked.
‘Dunno,’ said the boy. ‘Might do.’