This is a tale told in floating swirls of curled seaweed . . .
Mattie’s first week at Scoresby passed: school and laiking about with Tommy and fishing with Granddad. Seals following their coble right into the bay, and always Grandma’s cooking.
Saturday morning and whistling came near Nab House then stopped. A knock rattled the front door and Grandma called out from the pantry.
‘Postman? I weren’t expecting owt. Hang on –I’m covered wi’ icing sugar.’
Mattie left off stacking the delivery basket at the back door.
‘I’ll go fetch it, Grandma.’
The postman leaned against the doorjamb. He held a parcel under one lanky arm and studied it through half-moon glasses. Mattie’s feet crunched on the ash-path and the postman turned slowly.
‘Mornin’. How’s your eyesight then lad?’
He held out the parcel.
‘See if you can make that out.’
Mattie put his finger under the blurred address. Ink had bled into the brown paper turning letters into scrawny caterpillars. Henshaw was clear enough but…
The postman bent down and fiddled with his glasses.
‘I reckon that’s Master. That must be you – Master M. Henshaw.’
‘I can’t think who-.’
The post man pushed the parcel at him.
‘You’d best have it then. Tell your grandmother I’ll have three curd-tarts and a cut-and-come-again for Sunday. Ta-ra.’
He pushed his glasses up his nose and left. The whistling trailed off down the road. Mattie stared at the parcel, then gave it a shake. It made a couple of dull thumps.
Grandma’s voice came round the back.
‘Ev’rything all right, our Mattie?’
He left the parcel in the back porch. It could wait.
She stood all smart with gloves on and the basket over her arm.
‘The postman wants three curd tarts, and…,’ he thought a moment, ‘A cut-and-come-again for Sunday.’
‘Bob that down in the book, will you love?’
‘Before you do the deliveries.’
‘Now then, I’m away off to Strenshall. Those won’t take you long and then the day’s your own. There’s brawn I’m saving for your Grandfather’s tea on the cellar-head steps – but there’s plenty more in, if you’re peckish.’
She set her hat straight in the mantelshelf mirror and set off.
Uncle Joe’s café was his last drop. Right on the seafront behind the promenade, joined onto Ice Cream Joe’s Sundae Shack. Daytrippers always clustered round unless the weather chucked it down. Mattie skirted round the small crowd and squeezed between the last gawping tourist and the railings.
A happy noise rose from the beach. Tommy humming to himself, and pulling a trolley full of deckchairs. It left soft tracks in the golden sand.
‘Want a hand wi’ that?’ Mattie called over the railings.
‘No, ta – I’m done for a bit.’ Tommy let the handle flop down. An old man in a greatcoat like Tommy’s sat in a deckchair next to a list of hire prices. He raised his hand and Tommy belted up the granite steps of the sea wall.
‘I shall ha’ to go back shortly,’ he said, ‘Come see what Ice Cream Joe’s got now. He’s reckoned to have some new gizmo.’
‘What do I do wi’ these then? They’ve to go to the cafe.’
‘Giv’em here and get int’ queue.’
Tommy took the heavy basket like it was paper. He was in and out of Uncle Joe’s in no time. The good-natured line parted to let him in, and Mattie got his first view of Ice Cream Joe.
He was vast – a huge moving mound of smiles and gestures. Gold rings glinted as he talked, his bulky wristwatch flashed across the counter. He patted a baby’s cheek then held the hand of a lady in a bikini. He made sauce do the hula round creamy white clouds of vanilla then dropped sprinkles on cornets with dainty fingers. It fell like Technicolor rain.
He was a joy to watch.
‘Look – there it is ‘
Tommy pointed to a mirror-polished machine. Shiny nozzles and neatly engineered levers sprouted everywhere. A plump woman with false eyelashes pointed at a glossy cut-out picture.
‘One of those please, but no nuts,’ she said.
‘Ah the bella signorina wants-a the chiocolato. No nuts I can do – you like-a extra sauce?’
Mattie put his hand over his mouth. He didn’t dare look at Tommy. What a put-on accent.
‘Yes please,’ she said.
The woman batted her eyelashes. She really did.
‘Hey-a Nico– extra sauce for the bella signorina.’
A skinny lad with hair tucked under a white hat took a sugar cone and put it under a nozzle. He pulled a lever down and swirled the cone round. Layers of soft brown ice cream formed into a loose spiral.
Tommy watched open-mouthed.
‘It comes out like dog-muck Mattie,’ he said loudly and happily, ‘Like dog-muck.’
Mattie guffawed and dragged Tommy away. A mixture of laughter and indignation spluttered from the queue. Mattie pointed at the sands.
‘You’d best get down there and keep away from Ice Cream Joe’s for a bit.’
Back at Nab House, Mattie got down on his hunkers and dragged the parcel close to his feet. Maybe it was Dad’s writing on the address? He opened out a pair of scissors and sliced through the sticky tape with one blade.
Newspapers filled the inside – packaged up like pass-the-parcel. Copies of The Elmet Examiner, all yellow and smelling of cigarette smoke. Lawefield then.
He pulled the package apart. A new smell emerged, strong and chemical, and a layer of tissue like you’d get with a shirt bought for best. He tore it off to reveal his shoes. They gleamed with polish.
Something pale shone, tucked in one heel. Mattie pulled it out and unfolded a time-sheet torn off a pad. One line in ballpoint: You’ll need these for your new school – Dad.’
He screwed the note up and shoved the shoes into a corner. Soon after, the note flared into flames on the fire back and settled into a knot of ash.
Monday roared in hot. Mattie came back from school at dinnertime to find windows and doors wide open. Smells of baking drifted outside, and Grandma’s huffing and puffing. Granddad sat in the porch, eating on a card table in the shade. He went in to get his dinner.
‘Grandma,’ he said politely to one red cheek, ‘Would it be better if I had sandwiches? You wouldn’t have to cook extra then and it’s only a fortnight to the end of term.’
She rolled out a plateau of scone dough thoughtfully.
‘Aye – go on then. Your dinner’s in the warming drawer.’
He ate his dinner quickly and scooted back to school. He’d have a lot more time now.
Next dinnertime, the two pals went to Hob Wyke.
‘Tide’s right,’ Tommy said.
‘Right? What for?’
They snaffled their sandwiches down on the low seawall, then made an easy jump down onto the stones. Dried seaweed crackled and a haze of sand-hoppers popped and dispersed. Tommy poked round with the toe of his boot, then picked up a flat, round-edged stone. Maybe fallen in the sea years ago, a slate from one of the drowned houses.
Tommy held the stone loosely with one edge agin his thumb and kilted over as if listening to the waves. He took his arm back a space and sent the stone skipping over the waves.
‘Three- mmm I reckon I can do better nor that. Your go fust, mind.’
Mattie held up a stone.
‘That the right sort?’
Tommy nodded. Mattie bent and threw. The flat side of the stone hit a wave and leaped up. It fell in the water with a deep per-loop.
One bounce. Pathetic.
Tommy’s next one was a fourer. Mattie’s sliced through the water and sank without a splash. He shook his head like a horsefly was buzzing round.
‘Show me how you hold’em.’
‘Like that, right. Then like this wi your wrist.’
Mattie took time selecting his next stone. He lozzed it low down and tight across the small waves. It felt right. It danced over the surface leaving circles, six little circles.
Tommy gave an appreciative nod.
‘Not bad for a beginner.’
Mattie caught sight of his watch.
‘Crumbs –we’d best shift it. Bell in five minutes.’
They swept up their sandwich boxes and ran up the steps. They got to school panting and laughing just as the bell rang.
Next day, no Tommy. Mattie went down the beach anyroad. No point staying at school – all tother Nab Enders had gone home for their dinners.
He sat on the seawall and unpacked his sandwiches. The baking heat had melted his corned dog and tomato sauce into a pink mush. He put the foil back and started on his apple. Too floury. He ate it down to the conk and then lobbed it out to sea as far as he could.
It landed short in a plume of spray. The tide was coming in and white bar of froth crossed the bay. Nearby, a dark shape bobbed in the water: a float for a lobster creel, or even a swimmer with his back to the shore, hair sleeked down with wet.
High overhead, July sun fried his scalp. No shade and heat bouncing off cliffs and whitewashed cottages. Even the boats were hot, stewing in a haze of diesel, tar and old fish.
Mattie checked the time. A good three-quarters of an hour left before the bell went. Nobody about, not even fishermen. Why not have a dip?
A small cave squinted over the water at the bottom of the cliff: Hob Hole. He stripped off in the soothing coolness of its shade, and left his clothes high above the tideline. Throaty laughter from a gull echoed inside.
Outside, the pebbles radiated heat like Bonfire Night spuds under his bare feet. He ouched and rocked his way on tiptoe to the sand. A wave swished over his toes in a thrill of coldness. They ached with pleasure and his fingers tingled. He waded out to knee depth then fell forward into the sea.
His breath made a fan of ripples in front of his chest. His nostrils flared and drew in the salty air. He grinned and swam to a glistening spread of kelp.
The water felt warmer here. He twisted over and lay on his back with his eyes shut. Sunshine bloomed red through his eyelids. All around, the ribbons of seaweed swirled and jostled: slippery and pleasing on his bare skin.
Something different touched his cheek. It tickled. He ignored it. A bit of fishing line or a different sort of seaweed. There it was again. Like a cat’s whiskers brushing against him. And a fishy smell. A clean, raw, just-caught fish smell.
He kept his eyes shut and flipped out a hand to move away. His fingers touched something firm and smooth jutting out of the water. It felt grainy, upright and – muscular. He turned his head.
Two huge dark eyes looked at him solemnly. The seal’s skin rippled with light grey fur, its neck speckled with a ring of dark spots. Water dripped off long slender whiskers and its nostrils widened then closed into slits. It was smelling him.
He drew his legs in and trod water. The seal made a slow blink then sank. He followed the silvery torpedo of its body underwater till it faded into the grey green distance, then surfaced.
The seal’s sleek head bobbed up by the line of waves that marked the end of the bay and the beginning of the open sea. More seals came into sight and clustered together. They looked towards the shore.
No. Not with those bright, intent eyes. They were inspecting him.