Second Place

Hook, Line and Ninety-Nines

When Sandra stormed out on Warren’s Whippy, she did me a favour. It wasn’t just the job, or the money, or the proximity of Warren on those induction days with the two of us together in that confined space. Nor was it the easy camaraderie, the jokes, the touch of his arm against mine, and the warmth of those golden hairs brushing across my skin as he leant across me, that reminded me of Mum. She had hairs like that, like spun gold, like finest filigree. It’s one of the few memories of her I have, sitting on her lap, trying to touch them, stroke them, feel their silky texture without making contact with the skin beneath. Like that twisted wire game with the electric current and the metal hoop. The one requiring a steady hand and staying power.

Warren said, ‘You’re a natural’, and Dad had said the same, that first day fishing on the Broads, as I juggled a Ninety-nine in one hand and the rod in the other. The trout dancing on the end of my line, twisting and thrusting in the dappled sun, the water arcing away like shards of glass. And my ice-cream tumbling slowly from my hand.

‘I’ll put him back,’ I said, but Dad said no, this was life. This was the great fat cycle of life. And I’d imagined the life cycle poster on the classroom wall. Rotating in dizzy never ending circles. Like the merry go round when Susan Turner wouldn’t let me off. And the pale faces of the other kids shooting past in an endless vanilla swirl as they shouted stuff about Mum, and me being sick and not daring to ask them what they were talking about and what they knew.

‘Still,’ I’d said to Dad, ‘I’ll put this one back, because there’s plenty more, and we’ve got the sausages I packed.’ But Dad just grabbed the line and yanked him spinning in. ‘Once you’ve got them, you never let them go.’ He whacked him with an empty Stella bottle, the fish jumping on the muddied, melted ice-cream grass. Still bright and glimmering and quivering with life, despite the dirt. Five times Dad had to hit him before he gave up and lay still. And Dad set up my line again and again, and they kept coming, kept taking the bait.

And Warren in the van told me I was a natural too. ‘My wife always hated it,’ he said, ‘But you’ve got the right touch - with the whippies and with the punters.’ He grinned at me with his dimples and his eyes and his gold moustache, his whole face lighting up. He made me light up too, but I played it cool. Played him. Just nodded my thanks and added that flake with an extra flourish. When I finally let it happen, in the van, on a rainy Saturday afternoon it turned out I was a natural at that too. I’ll always remember the thrashing about and the box of cones bursting open and the Whippy theme tune blaring out as my backside hit the switch. And the look on those two walkers’ faces peering through the glass between the Ninety-nine and the Strawberry Mivi transfers. And us laughing so much we hurt.

But afterwards he was serious. ‘I’m leaving her.’ He says, his breath hot against my ear, ‘Sandra’s over. It’s you I want.’

Three times I went on the Broads with Dad. Stopping in villages to buy provisions. The shops dark and tired. The tins all dusty, and me waiting at the till for the Spar lady to finish her pricing with the clicky-sticky label machine. And Dad in the pub and me in the garden with a bottle of coke and a packet of cheese and onion. Learning to eat them slowly and make them last. Each crisp turning to soft potato on my tongue and the ants climbing up my straw bridge to drown in the dizzy sweetness of coke. And when Dad finally came out, driven by hunger, there never were enough sausages. No matter how many I bought, all neatly labelled. Dad always wanted a fish as well. His hands gripping my shoulders too tightly and his beer-basted breath blasting in my face. ‘You’ve got the magic touch, Kathy. You’re not like me, I can never catch a thing.’

I’d flick out my line and hide my crossed fingers in the pages of my book, but still they’d bite. The silly, blind, beautiful things. I’d warn them, hissed words whispering across the print of my paperback, and I’d ignore the jerking, kicking line until Dad grabbed it himself and hauled them flipping, flapping foolishly in.

We laughed all that summer, Warren and I. The kids queuing, red and sweaty with hot coins and damp, folded notes. And the Mums in their bikinis and heels and peeling shoulders, grinning at Warren and sucking and licking their flakes. And Warren, beaming and flirting and reeling them in, but having eyes only for me. And the evenings sauntered by, sitting in front of the van watching a sky swirled with Raspberry Ripple and Orange Maids, and the sun dropping, Mivi red, into the sea. I thought it would last forever. I crossed my fingers, and chanted rhymes as I swirled out the Whippys, and stroked the golden down on his arms as if it were some strange talisman.

The last time we went on a trip, my Dad and I, he told me the truth about Mum. He came stumbling out of the pub with the look on his face, that he gets sometimes, when he comes across me unexpectedly - his eyes widening and startled for a second, and then his face shuttering down. It’s because I look like Mum, I worked it out, when I found an old photo of her he keeps in his wallet. I’d never seen this one before, it was the angle of her face, and the way her nose tipped up. It could have been me.

Dad laid his hand on my shoulder and said I was ready. After a lengthy stint in the ‘Rose and Castle’ it was him that was ready, not me. He told me how she’d left us, one November Friday when we were down the chippy. Me in the push-chair with a wrapped parcel of double cod and chips. And Mum at home, laying the table. Only she wasn’t. She was off to Kent in the Anglia, with Ron from down the road who’d inherited his Dad’s car-lot. Sometimes I think I can remember the warmth of the newspaper against my legs and the smell of the batter and the pale gold of the chips against the green lino as the parcel dropped on the kitchen floor. So she wasn’t dead. Wasn’t that bright star I could see watching over me, when we slept on the deck at night. Wasn’t that voice in my head telling me to be good. Wasn’t the angel in my dreams. I didn’t know whether I hated him more for the lies or the truth.

‘You’re just like her,’ Dad said, ‘you’ve got her eyes, but it’s not just that, it’s the way you look at me. You’re just the same.’

I found her eventually. She’d moved on from Ron, and was living with Dave the plumber. She looked different from the photos I had stuck to my bedroom mirror, and the one in Dad’s wallet, more in focus, I suppose, but not in the way I’d imagined. She invited me in for a cup of tea and said she was glad I was alright, and I was just as pretty as she’d dreamed. She was sorry, but it had worked out for the best after all, as she knew it would. ‘I’ve got itchy feet, you see love, you wait, you’ll be the same.’ She reached over and rested her fingers on my knee for a moment, ‘Your dad’s sweet, I knew he’d look after you. But so - dull. And all that pointless fishing. He never caught a thing.’

It was an Indian summer that year with Warren, the days stretching out slow and weary, flowers drooping heavy-headed, and business trailing off as if the whole world was bored with the summer. The van was as uncomfortable as sun-scorched pebbles and Warren’s hair was glued to his skin with sweat. I suffocated in the hot air and my own skin peeled like shedding scales. When I finally stopped pretending, and realised Mum was right, that I was bored, and it was over, I went to see Sandra. I felt I owed them both that.

It was late one October afternoon. A row of terraced cottages, there was an old lady in the garden next door, dead-heading the Michaelmas daisies with a pair of kitchen scissors. I could hear the slow snip-snipping of the blades as I rang the bell and waited for the door to open.

‘What d’you want?’ She was blond and angular. She looked strong, a stayer.

‘He’s on his own,’ I said, my throat like shingle and my voice high and hoarse, ‘He needs you.’

Sandra nodded, the corners of her mouth turned down in a warped sort of smiling scowl. ‘So you’ve dumped him? Why d’you tell me?’

I shrugged. ‘It felt the right thing to do.’

‘What? Throwing him back?’

I wasn’t tearful anymore, but there must have been something in my expression because she leaned across the threshold and touched my arm, her eyes sharp behind the blue mascara and said, ‘You’re knocked up aren’t you?’

I shook my head and took a step backwards. She stood on the threshold, looking puzzled and I felt her gaze on me as I turned and walked slowly back down the path. As I reached the gate she shouted out, loud enough for the old lady to hear, for her to stop and raise her head, her blades suspended, a wilted flower dropping to the ground. ‘You are, aren’t you? Does he know?’

They’re wrong, I’m not like Mum. I might have left Warren, but I’d never leave my little girl. It’s just the two of us now, eating Ninety-nines and watching sunsets and frying sausages and having coke and crisps in pub gardens. Sandra did do me a favour that summer. Oh, and when we let Dad come along, there’s no fishing, no fishing at all.

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