Jenny Brown's Point
Jenny Brown's Point
Col settled his hands on the wheel. They were red from hot water. One wing mirror was broken and the black electrical tape he’d used to mend it fluttered from the shattered glass. The windscreen wipers were smearing spray from a lorry. He switched on the radio. There was a local station up here now. 96.9 FM. A woman’s voice sang it to a corny tune. Jason was strapped into the child seat behind. Col had access every other weekend, but this morning Janine had been a real cow about it. You’ve got to make your mind up, Col. We can’t plan anything like this.
Like what? He’d missed a couple of weekends because of work, so things had got a bit out of sync. She’d had another kid – Kaylie – after he left, after shacking up with Simon who’d moved into the house. Simon who still had acne and did fuck-all in the scheme of things.They were supposed to be going to a kids’ party together, Jason and Kaylie who was three now. Janine said it wasn’t fair, expecting Jason to give that up. Col almost told her to fuck off but he bit his tongue because she’d be on the phone to her solicitor slagging him off if he didn’t behave.
So he’d spoken to her quietly and she’d asked Jason and, yes, he wanted to go with his dad. Simon kept out of the way. Just as well. He needed chinning, the soft twat.They’d painted the front door dark blue since last time.You could see the brush marks, like a kid had done it. The kitchen was just as he’d left it when he moved out. Everything fitted tight as a glove, scribed, mitred and joined to perfection, the beech wood surfaces oiled to a deep sheen. He didn’t begrudge Janine that; it was a bit of himself, a reminder.
They set off with rain hitting the windscreen. Kaylie cried on the doorstep as Col pulled away. All well and good, except it was November and grim as hell. Saturday, so the traffic in town wasn’t bad.Twenty minutes to the motorway. He had the radio on and kept turning round on the M6 to see if Jason was OK.Thumbs up.The music was cool, old soul hits. He’d played bass in a band for a bit when he was a teenager, but they’d never done anything. A few village hall gigs with silly haircuts. But that’s why Janine had looked across at him in English. She had shiny brown hair that she hadn’t dyed blonde. Her eyes were grey, green, brown. He’d never figured it out. She wasn’t tarty like the other girls. She wore flat-heeled shoes. Sensible.There was something calm and sure about her. Even his mum liked her.
They’d done this trip when he was a kid in their old Fiesta. Col, his mum and dad, his sister Becky. Following behind, his dad’s brother Pete and auntie Edith.They had no kids themselves.They had a blue Datsun estate with loads of room in it, so Col and Becky got to ride in the back. Sometimes it was Southport or Blackpool, but they’d settled on Morecambe as he and Becky got older.They’d tried the east coast once, but that had been a nightmare. Bloody Siberia in swimming trunks. His dad and Pete worked together at the Post Office.They spent most of that week in the pub, coming back half-pissed for their tea at the self-catering place they’d hired, farting and laughing like teenagers. His granddad had been a postman, too.
Back then they never had much money, but they had jobs and people stayed together. Stayed together and fought. There in the tight terraced streets, shouting over the noise of the TV, over the screams of the baby, and no way out. For Col’s parents marriage meant just trying to out-manoeuvre each other. Like that game: paper, stone, scissors.A form of attrition.A woman in Col’s street had drowned herself in the reservoir one New Year’s Eve. He remembered her husband’s blotchy eyes, the hearse coming down the street, stretching their faces in its shiny coachwork. He thought of the dark hole they’d bury her in. Col wanted more than that. He wanted life, he wanted whatever love was, whatever it meant.
Col pulled in at Forton services to get a bottle of water and some ciggies. He’d just about got enough petrol. He bought a bottle of pop for Jason, a comic and some crisps. Jason looked as pleased as punch. He was good like that. A great kid. It didn’t take much. He looked cute in his blue puffer jacket and trainers that lit up with red LEDs when he stamped his feet. Col was working shifts in a hotel restaurant as a kitchen porter, which wasn’t ideal. He’d trained as a joiner. What he loved was building things. Fitting roofing timbers, architraves, skirting boards so they mitred snugly. He’d been taught to write on wood and gave a poem to Janine written on a length of tongue and groove. She thought it was cute. He’d fitted out the bathroom and kitchen when he and Janine moved into the end terrace.
All that had gone tits-up in the recession. The building trade fell on its arse and he’d been laid off. He’d got a shit job now and most of the wages went into rent and heating. He got housing benefit, but he wasn’t going on the social. He’d still got his carpentry tools. His chisels and power drills and handsaws, the router and folding bench. He knew other blokes who trained with him who’d sold theirs. You were fucked once you did that. You went under and stayed there. He’d seen older guys sitting in the pub over halves of lager staring at the racing on TV. Not him. Fuck that. He got the odd carpentry job, moonlighting between shifts with a cash advance for materials. The rest of the money went on Jason.
He’d got Janine pregnant when she was seventeen and she was still at school. He was an apprentice and she was in the sixth form, thinking about Uni. He thought he’d loved her. Told her he loved her when they’d bunked off school and college to sneak back into her house, taking off her clothes, breathless in her bedroom with her Pop Idol posters and CDs everywhere. The teddy-bear pyjamas he found so sexy, making her put them on so he could take them off again, putting his tongue against her small breasts, wetting them, feeling her through the thin cotton of her pants. His mum had gone mad when she found out. They got married and never stopped arguing after that. All through her pregnancy, then when Jason was waking them up all night to feed. Things had got better for a bit, when he settled down, but then they’d slipped back into it again, struggling to make ends meet, blaming each other for things. Scissors and paper. Paper and stone. Whatever. Then the firm let him go and that was the beginning of the end.
Col changed down and pulled out into a pall of spray to overtake a lorry. He jinked in again, spotting the university campus on the left. That meant he’d missed the first turning, hadn’t been concentrating. The old mental hospital with its blackened stone came into view. Col had a map on the front seat beside him. Jason was spilling the crisps all over the car. It’d hoover. Sod it. Never mind Morecambe, he’d go a bit further, head for Carnforth, then Arnside. He hadn’t been there for years. Not since he was eleven when the family had decided to go somewhere a bit quieter. His mum was bad with her nerves by then. Even Morecambe’s West End had been too much for her. You’d think it was friggin’ Beirut. His dad put on a long-suffering face, winking at him, shrugging on his jacket for a pint.
They were in Arnside by lunchtime and parked up at the seafront. It wasn’t seaside exactly, but a wide sandy estuary with the River Kent running through it, widening towards the sea.The wooded hills came right down to the shore and there were big old houses hidden in the trees, a long railway bridge crossing the estuary on brick columns.The sky was prolapsed, sagging onto the horizon. Col reached back to unclip Jason’s safety harness. He picked up his mobile phone and slipped it into his pocket.A light drizzle spattered their faces and streaked the baker’s window. A row of gulls sat hunched on iron railings. A goods train went over the viaduct and Col held Jason up to see.
– See the train, Jason? Jason didn’t answer but burrowed into Col’s shoulder. – Raining, Daddy. He seemed to find that funny, putting his thumb into
his mouth and making a mock sour face. Col laughed. He loved it when he did that.
– Come on then, lunchtime!
Col put Jason down and reached into the car for his jacket.
– Are you hungry?
Jason nodded. He needed a pee first, so they walked to the conveniences, then wandered about a little until they found a café that sold postcards and souvenirs.
The café was called The Posh Pilchard. They had sandwiches with bits of salad that Jason pushed to the edge of the plate.The woman running the café had dangly earrings and a plaster cast on her wrist and moved carefully between the tables, making a smiley face at Jason whenever she passed. She must have been a looker when she was younger. Her husband – white slacks and a hand- knitted pullover – hovered in the background, helping out. It didn’t look as if he’d ever cut bread before or sliced a tomato. It was expensive, but it was nice.They could have gone to the chip shop and sat in the car with the windows steaming up, but this was better and Janine couldn’t say he’d stuffed Jason’s face with rubbish.You’d think she was a fucking dietician sometimes.
Col poured out the last of the tea and finished Jason’s crusts.The tide tables were posted on a chalkboard.There was a tidal bore at 4.17, when the incoming sea met the river. Col checked his watch, but the face had misted up. It was stuck at 11.45. He’d had it for years. It was probably knackered or maybe the battery had died.
The rain had eased off when they left the café. Gulls were stooping over the beach, quarrelling, calling out raucously.You could smell the chip shop. Last time they’d been here the whole family had walked along the beach towards the sea. His uncle Pete had taken his shoes off and gone into the water. He’d stepped on a flounder and pulled it out of the river casually, as if he did that every day. It was a miracle, the flat fish flopping about in his hands like a fumbled catch in the outfield. Now the water flowed brown and steady. There were a couple of fishermen huddled under umbrellas, a tall woman calling to two red setters that were running free, scuffing the sand beside the waterline. She had a blue plastic bag pulled over one hand.There was a line of cars with people inside, eating fish and chips, unwrapping sandwiches, balancing thermos flasks, listening to their radios. 96.9 FM.
It was half-past two according to the clock on the old town hall. Col decided to drive round the headland and find a quiet spot near the nature reserve. Jenny Brown’s Point. They’d camped out there once on one of those family holidays.There’d been an old barn with tractors and a cowshed where a herd of Jersey cattle trooped in each evening, their udders swaying. Col remembered the way milk and shit had mixed together on the concrete floor and he and Becky had got a massive telling off from their mum for flicking it at each other with sticks. She’d made them take a cold shower at the campsite and smacked their legs. It was bad enough washing clothes at home she said, without them making work on holiday. She wasn’t a bloody skivvy. But she was. She had to be. His dad grinned at them, on his way out for a walk to the village, which meant a pint at the local.
Col drove to Silverdale and then got lost on a wooded lane that wound out of the village.Then there was an old- fashioned sign pointing to the right. Jenny Brown’s Point. Soft rain tapped against the windscreen.The wipers were on intermittent, which Jason always found funny.The way they suddenly set off across the glass to smear it. He was giggling in the back and pointing.The road dipped and turned under overhanging trees until they were entering the village.A studio and café on the right, an old tower with windows that looked Elizabethan or something, then a left turn down a road through a farmyard with a blue plastic feed tub turned over as a kennel for the chained collie. No Through Road. It ended at the sea, or above it. The collie barked at them in the wing mirrors, tugging at its leash. They drove for almost a mile then Col found a layby and pulled in.The rain had stopped.Through the trees they could see the sands gleaming, seamed by gullies.There were seagulls feeding at the shore and some darker birds far out. The sky was huge.To the south were the square blocks of Heysham power station.They looked like a Lego house. Then skeins of mist blew in to blank them out.
Now they were squeezing past a stone stile onto a path that went through bracken until it reached a broken outcrop of limestone above the beach.A long groin made up of rocks and smaller stones tapered out over the sand. The green timbers of a jetty were rotting away. Black seaweed wrapped over white stones. A gulley ran parallel to the shore, almost empty of water. A thorn tree had been bent back towards the land by the sea wind. Col picked Jason up and splashed through the gully, feeling the sand firm underfoot. Mud and sand glinted, bright and flat and level. It reminded him of sharpening a hand-plane and looking down the blade.
Usually you could see the hills of the Lake District. Not today. A grey pall hung over Grange-over-Sands. He’d been there too. There’d been an arcade with charity shops and a line of mannequins dressed in tartan kilts and berets. His dad turned to them and laughed. Bloody hell, the gathering of the clans. That’s posh. You won’t find that in Preston. Then he got told off for swearing by Col’s mum and winked at them when she wasn’t looking. Col reached a stream and had to step over swinging Jason across.
– Where’s the sea, Daddy?
He hadn’t been paying attention. Jason was pulling at his hand.
– It’s there, look!
Col pointed to where the sand and sky seemed to meet. Jason giggled. He had a front tooth missing and covered his mouth to hide it.
– Not there! He looked suddenly stricken. – It’s not anywhere! – Don’t fret.We’ll find it. Col stooped to ruffle his hair. – Was it a nice lunch with Daddy? Jason nodded. – Posh Pilchard! He liked pilchards mashed up in tomato sauce. – Will you tell Mummy? Jason nodded again, suddenly looking serious, as if he
was remembering the tension, the words that arced and sparked between them.
– Good lad!
This would be a good memory.They deserved that. Memories meant a lot.They meant everything in the end. Col hugged him and held him tight for a moment.
– Where’s the sea?
Jason seemed doubtful that such a thing had ever existed.
– It’s there, look!
The sea. It was a long way out, flat at the horizon. Behind them was Warton Crag with its limestone face. Somewhere behind that was Arnside Knott. They saw a deer there once, on that holiday. A small red deer with short antlers, running stiffly from the trees. Col took Jason’s hand and they headed onto the sands ahead of them: ribbed river mud, brown water, the claw prints of scavengers.
When they were kids the sea here had always been a disappointment. Other kids had gone to Majorca or Tenerife where you could swim and lounge about in beachwear. Col hadn’t stayed in a resort hotel before he went on honeymoon with Janine.They’d flown to the Costa Brava and Janine had got so badly burnt that she had to stay in her room for two days rubbing cream on her shoulders. She’d done some Spanish at school but was too frightened to use it.The waiters all spoke English, though they weren’t used to being waited on.There was a tall one called José who’d worked in Bristol and leered at Janine when he thought Col wasn’t watching. Back home he’d have fucking decked him. Janine had morning sickness, too, regular as clockwork. So it hadn’t been much fun, holding her head over the toilet bowl, worrying what it was all costing.
They paused as Jason investigated a mussel shell then a dead crab with the toe of his trainer. Then set off again, hand in hand. There was no one else in sight. No fishermen. No dog walkers. Col looked back to where the trees were turning silvery leaves.An elderly couple in blue waterproofs were watching them.The man was waving at something. Silly twat. There was a steady breeze coming off the sea, the sting of salt in it. The silt was damp and firm underfoot. Jason bent down to pick up a handful. He examined it then smeared his hand on his jacket. Col wiped it clean.
–Your mum’ll be cross. Jason went solemn again. – No she won’t, it’s OK, only kidding. Come on! Rain began to darken the sand and Jason looked up,
afraid that he’d miss the sea, that they’d have to turn back. He pulled away from Col’s hand, ran ahead then screamed. He was sunk in up to his waist, his face gap-toothed, white with terror. For a few seconds he looked almost comical. Col’s stomach lurched. He ran forward, his own feet suddenly dragged by suction. He grabbed the collar of Jason’s puffer jacket and pulled him free with one jerk, then ran backwards onto firmer sand, almost stumbling. Jason was blubbering now and Col bent to wipe snot and tears from his face, his heart hammering. It had all been so quick. One minute he was laughing like any other kid, the next he could have drowned. Jesus. Jenny Brown’s Point. It was lethal. How could he have forgotten that? People drowning trying to save their dogs. Others just losing their way in the mist. Those obituaries in the Gazette.
When Col stood up again he couldn’t seeWarton Crag or the limestone at the shoreline.The houses and trees on the far side of the estuary had disappeared into a wad of mist. He backed away slowly from the quicksand, picking Jason up and holding him tight.
– Want to go home! – I know sweetheart, I know. Col kissed him and pinched him on the cheek. Janine
was going to have a field day with all this. He put Jason down and pushed his jacket cuff back out of habit. Jason was stamping his feet but his trainers were caked in sand and mud and they weren’t lighting up any more. Fuck! He’d forgotten his watch was broken. He reached into his jacket pocket for his mobile phone. It wasn’t there. He checked all his pockets. Lighter, cigarettes, keys, a damp tissue.You couldn’t lose it, it was like a fucking brick. He retraced his steps, walking in a wide semi circle. Nothing. He’d put it on the table at The Posh Pilchard and then got up to pay the woman with the broken arm. She’d said something to Jason and given him a sweet from a screw- top jar. They’d thanked her and walked out. Bollocks. It was only a cheap Nokia, but now there was no way of knowing the time.The sky was a uniform grey and mist had settled in around them, nudging away the whispers of rain.
Col kissed Jason again and swung him up onto his shoulders. He watched the sand for darker patches that might be soft. If he could get a view of that shallow river as it ran though, he could get his bearings.They’d walked between the stone groin and the slime-covered timbers. All he had to do was cross the gully, then walk at right angles to it. But all that was easier said than done. There was no river now, just a flat plain of water that bled out into mist. He made a dozen strides, taking control.When he looked down a small depth of water was streaming around his shoes. He turned and went back over his own steps, except they weren’t there any more. He remembered the way the tide turned here.A brown bore surging into the river mouth, choking it with seawater. He bent down and put his finger in to taste it. It was salty alright, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
– What you doing, Daddy? – Nothing, it’s OK. Just checking something. – Are we going home? No answer. – Are we? – For fuck’s sake Jason, just can it. The child went quiet, stark with fear. He shouldn’t have
sworn. If that got back to Janine she’d go nuts. Col tried to think of anything that might lead them back, but the sand was flat, featureless. It had lost even that vague seam of sky.
Col was sure he’d walked at ninety degrees to the channel they’d crossed. His jacket was covered in seeds of drizzle, his shoes soaked to the ankle.Visibility was about twenty yards. Fuck-all. They began to jog towards the shore, shouting as he went. Jason was laughing with tears on his face.This was all a game. Silly Daddy.They went for five minutes before turning back. Something in Col’s head was jabbering, telling him not to panic. He walked to the left and thought he saw the distant line of the groin. The sea would have covered the tip, shortening it. He steered to the right, rubbing Jason’s legs to put some blood into them. There was a wide section of water and he thought he could see limestone beyond. His feet plunged into a hidden gully and he almost fell forwards. In moments, Col was knee deep in the channel, then thigh deep. He strode through it, dragging his legs against the force of water, hoping to Christ he was going in the right direction.
Jason had gone quiet again.There was a spike of ice in Col’s chest. He was a fucking idiot. Janine was right. He’d put everything he loved at risk because he didn’t sort things out. He hadn’t had his watch mended, hadn’t checked his pockets in the café. He thought of the drive home. How sweet that would be, him and Jason in the car with the heater on and music playing, the windows misting up. 96.9 FM.That stupid tune.They’d be laughing all the way because they were alive. Somewhere, at the back of his mind, he was rehearsing a story for Janine. He stood with Jason on his shoulders, holding onto his legs, the water streaming past them and deepening. He tried shouting for help, but Jason panicked and started jigging up and down, throwing Col’s balance. The current was coming from his right, which must mean that he was facing the sea, that the shore was behind him. It was walk or drown, right now before it was too late. Right or left? Front, behind? He had to decide, he had to go for it.What a cunt he’d been. He turned 180 degrees until the current was pushing against his left thigh, almost waist deep.
Col set off into a brown flood. It was seaming past him, into him with its cold weight. He stepped deeper, then deeper again. Fuck! There was a scream building in his chest. He beat it down like a snarling dog. He took a lungful of pure rage, then three shallower steps, almost off balance, then upright again.
– Daddy, Daddy! – It’s OK sweetheart, it’s OK, we’re almost there. He felt a slight breeze on his face.Two more shallow
steps onto firm sand, the drag of water falling below his waist.
– Nearly there, Jason, nearly there!
There was a tear in the mist. Suddenly, the groin was on their right, a long spear of stone.They were a long way from where he’d thought they were. He could see the shore now: white rock, a line of trees. He took another step and sank deeper. If he got swept away they’d be fucked.The current had reversed, that’s what had thrown him.The tide was dragging at his waist again. It was only a few yards. He was a shite swimmer. Jason was screaming now, punching at his head. He took another step and another, almost lost his footing and then was across, scrabbling the last yards to the sharp rocks on his hands and knees. Col put Jason down and he was lunging at him, hysterical, punching him, aiming for his balls, screaming.
–You,you! Col stepped back, feeling his trainers pump out water. – Horrible! Horrible! – Hey, hey, it’s OK.We’re safe darling. His heart was thumping like a fist on a church door. He
wiped Jason’s face with his hand then scrambled over the rocks, lifting him and scrambling up behind until they reached the path and then a green metal gate that led onto the road. A magpie flew off as they went through and found the car. His chest was tight again.
They were both soaked, covered in stinking mud and sand. Col fastened Jason into the child seat and found him a half a bar of chocolate, kissing his face. He brushed the crisps from the back seat with his hand and sat with the door open.Then he took off his trousers and socks and wrung them out. A middle-aged couple with rucksacks and walking sticks passed and gave him a funny look. He didn’t give a fuck.The couple stopped and glanced back. The woman said something, touching the man’s arm and they went on again.They looked well-off. Fuck them.
Col was sobbing quietly, feeling a great bubble of relief break from his chest.They could have been dead by now, face down in the water. There would have been an inquest, a few lines in the newspaper. His fingers were numb as he dressed himself, fumbled with his shoelaces. He pulled off his watch and flung it over the wall towards the sea. Fucking thing. He thought of his phone, tucked behind the salt grinder in the café, of the woman with the broken arm fumbling with the sweet jar, Jason’s big eyes following her.
He’d explain it all to Janine, somehow. He’d unbuttoned her pyjamas and kissed her, sliding his hand over her belly. She smelled of shampoo, her hair shiny and soft, her mouth wet and yielding. She’d made him feel he existed. There in that hot little bedroom in a nowhere town in the northwest of England, somewhere in the Universe. He’d say he was sorry.What else? It’d all got messed up.
Col checked that Jason was alright. He was asleep in the back seat, his head lolling.There was sand in his hair. Col fished out his lighter and an unopened cigarette packet from his jacket pocket, picking off the cellophane. They were still dry. Janine hated him smoking near Jason. His lighter wouldn’t work so he lit the cigarette from the gadget in the car. He remembered when uncle Pete had got one of those. He thought it was the dog’s bollocks back then. Col leaned against the hatchback, blowing out smoke, picking specks of tobacco from his lip.
There was a gap in the clouds over the bay and light bore down through it, glittering on the sea. It looked like the scales of a huge serpent. It’d turned on them, but they’d survived.What was he going to say to Janine?What would Jason say when she gave him the third degree? It was a mess alright. But they were alive and that was all that mattered now. Other things would matter later, the usual crap. But this was life, for fuck’s sake, life. He flicked the cigarette stub away, watching it hiss and extinguish in a puddle, staining with water, sucking up darkness. He should give up.
When he got in the car and switched on the engine, Bay Radio was playing. 96.9 FM. Col glimpsed a white house though overgrown trees.There was a man in a blue jumper putting the lead on an English sheepdog.Then black and white calves glimpsed in the fields. Jason was still asleep in his harness. Col drove slowly, his hands still gritty with sand. He looked in the wing mirror and the black ribbon of tape flickered from the cracked glass. He changed gear, glancing at Jason as they reached the dead end where he’d turn the car around to head for home.