‘This summer will define the course for the rest of your lives.’
Ocean yawned. How many times had he heard that in the last month? The lecture theatre was crammed with his year group and he was surprised to see the seriousness and fear on their faces. What was everyone getting so het up about? They were only GCSEs for God’s sake.
Mr Draper the headmaster went on. ‘Whatever the outcome, it will propel you all in many different directions. Some may leave and enter the world of work, others may decide to stay on and do their A-Levels. All I will say is this,’ he paused, took his hands from his pockets and clasped them together like a politician, ‘you have a chance now to build a platform for later years. Seize it! I implore you, with a last push of effort it is within touching distance for all of you. The world needs fine young minds to shape it for the better.’
The staff clapped first, triggering the rest of the lecture theatre to beat their hands together too. Ocean was glad to notice his favourite teacher, Ms Murgatroyd, teacher roll her eyes before she joined in with the clapping. Maybe she saw the “special assembly” for what it was too – a cheap trick to scare the lazier ones among them to revise harder. Some idiot whistled and whooped. Ocean couldn’t wait to leave this place for good, leave the bullshit behind. In front of him, someone had scratched Baz woz ‘ere into the wooden desk with a compass. What was the point in that? If he had a compass right now he might have sunk it into his arm so he could feel something other than boredom.
There were no revision classes that afternoon. When he got home, Andy was in, tarnishing the couch like a spilt drink. Match of The Day was playing back on the TV and the curtains admitted enough light to turn his fizzing lager to luminous orange. In an ashtray, a cigarette gasped out the last of its grey breath. One of Andy’s hands was down his trousers, cupping rather than scratching.
‘What are you doing home?’
Andy didn’t take his eyes from the screen and lifted up a hand in a cast.
‘Wow! How did you do that?’
With his good hand Andy reached for his lager, saw it away and belched.
‘Rather not talk about it. Get us another would you?’
No, fuck off… was what he wanted to say but he went to the fridge and fetched a can like a good boy. After all, he had promised to make more of an effort with Andy. If that meant fetching more alcohol to speed his demise then so be it.
Ocean felt a perverse sort of pleasure at Andy’s discomfort, but then…
‘Andy, how are you going to work with your hand like that?’
‘Can’t put up scaffolding with a broken paw. Got to wait for it to heal haven’t I?’
‘And for money you’ll do what exactly?’ Anger sparked up inside him, threatening to catch.
‘The boys will keep the business going and your Mum’ll tide us over if need be.’
He clenched his teeth.
‘I’m going for a swim.’
Shoreham Beach was a two mile-long peninsula with the river Adur on the north side and the English Channel on the other. As a child, Ocean had often imagined it as a floating island that had drifted in until it had head-butted the main land. With sea views, the houses on the south side of the peninsular commanded million pound price tags but their own place on the north side was a different story. The house itself was ok; a sixties-built terrace with tired plastic cladding on the front. At the back was a view of the river, which sounded better than it was. Across the water was a strip of corrugated warehouse-type buildings: Screw Fix, tile merchants, plumbers and a Travis Perkins. If you craned your neck you could also get the pleasures of Shoreham power station’s massive smoke stack; about as welcome on the skyline as a fart in a lift. But all in all, it was a two-minute stroll to the sea and how many places could boast that?
Towel slung over his shoulder, Ocean cut through the residential streets that made up the nucleus of Shoreham Beach. The blue sea glinted at the end of the road like a promise. A couple of kites were in the air, the breeze too light for the windsurfers. The beach was pebble and shingle, perforated here and there by wildflowers and lunar cabbage-like vegetation. He took in a lungful of salty air, lowered his goggles and ran at the sea, diving in only when the weight of water rugby-tackled his legs. The cold stung, refreshed him and scrubbed his mind clear of Andy, of GCSEs, of his sodding school.
He was a strong swimmer and fell into an easy rhythm that took him farther out to sea. After twenty minutes of front-crawl, he reached the yellow buoy that marked out the shipping lane for the nearby harbour. He trod water, catching his breath and pulled his goggles up on his forehead. He loved the deep heady vertigo the water offered. In return he gave himself to all he couldn’t control; the current, the tide, the wind, the waves, the marine life that ghosted around him. He was just another piece of matter in an unfathomable mass of sea that could turn on him in a moment’s whim.
The people on the beach were irrelevant dots. Overhead he heard a droning sound and then spied it: a Tiger Moth aircraft. Ocean leant back, letting waves lap over him as he watched the plane cut through the sky above. Then he noticed a dark shape on top of one of the wings. He righted himself to see better, it was a wing-walker, arms outstretched, whooping with joy over the sound of the propellers. So free, so daring. He wished he were up there, that he was the daredevil wing-walker. The plane swooped down and performed an elegant spin, levelled out and swapped the blue of the sky for the lush green of the South Downs. Ocean felt a pang of sadness, an estrangement, as the plane left his field of vision.
Mum might be home by now. He would try to talk to her again about Andy. He slipped down his goggles and set off back to shore.
Ocean had just got out of the shower when he heard the front door. Still dripping wet, he wrapped a towel around his waist and ran down to the kitchen. Mum was unpacking shopping from a Co-op bag.
‘Well hello there. Who’s this hunk that’s come to welcome me home?’
Ocean couldn’t hide his disapproval. ‘Urgh Mum, that is disgusting.’
She grinned. ‘Well, I can’t help it if my son’s handsome.’
He grabbed a cereal box from the bag and put it away. ‘I wanted to catch you before you go to tennis.’
‘Oh I’m not going tonight.’
‘What? You never miss it when the weather’s like this. Not that I’m complaining or anything, it’d be good to have you in.’
She loaded cheese and milk into the fridge. ‘Uh-huh.’
There was something mechanical in her voice, like her mind was elsewhere. ‘Mum, is something going on?’
She shut the fridge door and sighed. ‘Well I suppose you’ll hear about it sooner or later anyway.’
Now he was on guard. ‘Hear about what?’
‘Just a silly misunderstanding is all.’
He folded his arms.
‘Andy got it into his head that Harvey from the club was flirting with me.’
Ocean had long lost track of all the tennis people Mum talked about, each a small piece of a jigsaw in a changing puzzle he had never quite been able to put together.
‘And Harvey is?’
‘The new club coach.’
‘Right,’ Ocean was nodding now, ‘I get it, so Andy’s broken hand-’
He listened for the TV, heard its mumble and lowered his voice.
‘Mum, I know I said I’d stop giving you a hard time over him, but-’
‘Oh shush,’ she interrupted, ‘in a way it’s quite romantic when you think about it.’
‘Romantic?’ he felt his voice rising and checked himself. The kitchen spotlights caught the whites of her eyes and made her look dopey and wistful. She was hopeless and as much as he tried, Ocean just didn’t get it. Andy was so repulsive, so tanned and oily-looking it made you want to wash your hands every time you looked at him. Andy was a worthless toad, why couldn’t she see it too?
‘Well. You know what I think.’ Ocean looked down at the floor and saw a small pool of water had formed under his feet as if the conversation were melting him. He grabbed a kitchen towel and trod it onto the floor.
Mum came and ruffled his hair and planted a kiss on his forehead.
‘You’re such a sweetie, looking out for me. You’ll be a heart-breaker, I just know it.’
‘What an aspiration,’ he meant it as a joke, but it came out petulant.
‘Listen honey,’ her change of tone made him suddenly uneasy, ‘With Andy’s hand being out of action for a while we thought, seeing as you’re finishing your exams next week that you could…’
He saw where this was going. It wasn’t the first time she had suggested he work with Andy’s crew during the holidays.
‘Oh Mum, no way.’
‘Hear me out would you? It would be a chance for my two favourite boys to spend some time together. You’re always outside, you’d like it.’
Ocean could not think of a worse way to spend his summer.
‘I’ll think about it,’ he lied
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