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November 2008
UNBEARABLE BRIGHTNESS

Johnny Fincham
I’m perched on the edge of the crumbling sea wall, absorbing the heat through the seat of my Valu-Mart jeans.

Locals lie stupefied on the shingle, the men’s bodies aspirin-white and scrawled with tattoos. The sun is stuck in the sky, nothing moves, the flaccid sea barely flaps its surface. There’s a reek of rotting seaweed, fish and diesel oil from the docks. Frankie Goes to Hollywood crackles from a sound system somewhere far off, singing Relax, but I can’t relax.

My teeth are a curse, there’s an abscess in my jaw pulsing with the music. I spit yellow pus like a poison serpent.

An orange container ship yaws away from the docks. I could stow away on it, go somewhere where people would find me foreign and fascinating. Anywhere on earth but Grimsby.

Someday soon I’ll leave this town. I’ll get a good job, make friends, meet a girl.

Through strings of shimmering heat, a white smudge on the horizon congeals into the form of a ship. Gradually it grows closer, until it anchors two hundred yards from shore. It looks nothing like the container vessels and fishing boats that plough the local straits. It’s spotlessly white, with lots of portholes and chrome rails around the bridge. Uniformed figures stand on the deck. Now they’re lowering a launch from the stern.

Three figures climb down a ladder and get in the launch, which has a steering wheel and a little windscreen like a car, with a uniformed driver. With a whirr of powerful engines it makes its way towards the beach. Two women and a man are sitting in the back. They’re coffee skinned. The older woman wears a colour-flecked, pleated dress, the young one a red bikini.

The boat burbles to the waters edge and the group come wading through the shallows. The woman’s dress trails in the water iridescent with light and colour. The launch returns to the ship while they bask on a patch of yellow sand near the water line.

The girl is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. Her skin is like the gold of a ‘Twix’ wrapper while her lips are very red, with a pronounced cupid’s bow. Her hair is an explosion of jet coils. Her chiselled nose makes her look proud. She’s a magazine cover become flesh. She fits some template, some vacuum in me that’s the perfect shape of her.

She sprawls on the sand, looking bored and sulky. The older woman sits behind her and drops a wide-brimmed straw hat on her head. I jump down off my perch and crouch near them, feeling invisible.

I ache in her beauty, my eyes hurt and my ribs can’t expand enough, it frightens me. She looks no older than me, only about sixteen or seventeen, but she’s worldly and precocious, a dark and golden ravager of hearts.

If she loved me, I would be different. I’d be unstoppable, would melt mountains with the power of my heart. I never knew there was such loveliness in the world.

Her ripe, full breasts softly push under the bikini top, the halter neck tied only by a delicate bow, easily slid out of. Sex hangs heavy in the air like a spell. I’m jealous of the sand sticking to her thighs in a thin dusting.

They’re speaking a foreign language, lilting and loud; it sounds like they’re arguing. The man has lots of gold rings with hair curling up his wrists under the rolled cuffs of his milk-white shirt. They can’t have meant to come here. These are birds of paradise blown to the wrong shore.

I get closer. The girl wants to be free and her parents won’t let her. This, I’m sure, is the point of the argument. She’s bored with her life, she wants to go off on her own, have adventures, meet someone real like me.

Next moment, a lazy wind blows the girl’s hat off. I see my hand reach up and grab it easily as it bowls over my head. I carry it to them quickly and stand over them, proffering the hat.

They stop talking. The man looks hostile. The girl stares. I swim in her lustrous eyes, see my skinny frame reflected there, my baggy jeans, spotty face, lank hair. An ancient TV advert bubbles in my head: ‘Fry’s Turkish Delight.’ A veiled, hot-eyed beauty in a burnished tent: ‘full of eastern promise.’ No one speaks.

I hold the hat by the rim, so it touches the back of the girl’s exquisite hand.

The older lady (surely her mother) reaches for it.

‘Grazie,’ she says, ‘tank oo.’

I return to the sand behind them, thinking: if I stare at the girl long enough, she’ll feel the strength of my love. If you can only love someone enough, they must surely love you back.

After a long time, the girl slowly turns and squints at me from under her hat. She’s wearing sunglasses now and my smile bounces off the lenses. She turns back the sea, splashing her feet desultorily.

Little fountains of water appear near the girl’s legs. It’s like fish are leaping all around her, she snatches her legs from the water. The man glares at me, then jumps up and faces the sea. He flaps his arms like a bird trying to take off. A pebble skitters to a halt near my foot. Three stringy youths are sitting behind me throwing stones, scooping handfuls from the beach and tossing them in a constant volley. The launch makes its way towards the beach.

I should do something, but I can’t think what. The little group wades in to meet the boat; they climb in with stones pounding the water around them. I stare doggedly at the tangle of the girl’s hair, but she sits in the front of the launch with her back to me.

Something inside me seems to break; I’m falling in on myself as they reach the ship and get on board. The anchor is hoisted and it sails away. I watch and watch, until the white dot of the ship blends with the mist on the horizon. Then I stare and stare at my outstretched hands, my sweaty, futile fingers. It’s like a silent scream.

The abscess pumps a stream of pain into my face. A fog blows in from the sea, steams from the water, up the beach, steadily embracing everyone in its roiling coils.

Walking through the rapidly cooling street, I neck back Ibuprofen that lodge in my throat. I’m thinking about the girl, wondering if she’s thinking about me. I walk past the banks of narrow houses, a pub on every corner, wafting a beery scent. An inexorable longing keeps me from going home, its shadow steps on me, rides me down into the pavement. The foghorn moans long and loud as if the town were mourning. Rows of rust-scabbed ships rock in the harbour to a chorus of squabbling seagulls. Between the boats, evil water, full of fish-heads, stubby beer bottles and cigarette butts.

I mooch into ‘Mickey’s Cafe’ with its mini arcade of games and CD jukebox. The tea is too hot and the ancient ‘Annihilator’ pinball game takes an age to start up.

If the usual gang were here, I’d pretend I was just looking for someone and go. There’s no one around, except podgy Gail with orange hair. She lives on the other side of the estate. Her house has taped-up windows and the hulks of cars rusting in the garden. She hunkers over the table miserably, stirring her tea. One of Deano’s cast-offs. I saw him punch her once, outside the newsagents. There are tears dripping down her face and her shoulders are shuddering. She sees me looking and stares, like she’s daring me to say something. I look back to the machine, carry on playing. I’ll leave after this game.

‘’Ere, it’s Saturday night, why don’t you ask me out?’ she says, indignant, like I’d promised her or something. She’s standing next to me now. I get a replay and the machine pops and bangs like a firework.

‘Ah. I don’t know.’ I feel my cheeks glowing, carry on playing with a beetroot face. I realise my tooth doesn’t hurt now, just a dull throb. She taps idly on the table behind her. Her fingers are nicotine yellowed and there’s a home-made tattoo on the back of her hand, saying ‘true love hem’. At least that’s what it looks like.

Her eyes are on fire.

‘Kevin. Kevin Tyler. Don’t you drink, or what?’

‘Yeah, course, jus’ stay out of poseurs pubs,’ I say, pleased she knows my name.

‘You takin’ me out then?’

I stare at the flashing illuminations of the Annihilator like they know the answer and after a while I dig out some words.

‘Ah, fancy the Hollywood?’ In the cinema I won’t have to talk.

‘’Ow about the Beach house?’ she says.

This is a notorious disco pub near North Beach, brimful of serious boozers and local desperados.

‘OK.’ I can’t say no to people.

‘See ya there, at seven. Right mate?’ she says, taps me on the back, and slopes off.

I’m leaning over the machine in an agony of indecision. She’s a girl after all and she must kind of like me. She must be younger than me but she seems so old somehow, so adult. She’s quite pretty, despite the weight, the crusty eyeliner and mousy roots. What shall I say? How will I know what to do?

Sod it. Something is different. I think I’m going to go.

• • •

Now I’m waiting at home, listening to music. I’m in my bedroom, ’cause mum’s latest boyfriend is here. He’s a complete prat, a stupid face like a lemur and all his front teeth missing. He and mum are getting pissed on cider and eating each other’s faces.

‘What you sneaking around for?’ he said when I came in, as if I didn’t live here. Why doesn’t mum go round his house?

• • •

Now it’s evening in the bar. It smells of stale beer in here and cigars and something sweet, like toffee. Gail was already here when I came in. She was sitting on a table with another girl with panda eyes who walked off when I came over. Gail has put plum coloured lipstick on, she looks OK. We’re sat against the wall opposite the main door. The crowd form a thickening wall around the bar that’s hard to get through but I have two pints inside me already and go up with more and more confidence.

Some of the Wells Street gang are here. Deano’s narrow, feral face sneers as I walk around him, ‘You wi’ that?’, the veins in his neck sticking out like vines. I don’t say anything.

Gail taps me for drink after drink. She just slides her empty glass to my side of the table. I start having halves to her pints. Thankfully, my giro came yesterday. It’s obvious what’s in this for her. The music gets louder and louder, I don’t have to talk or anything, we just drink.

Suddenly, Gail gets up and dances to a Michael Jackson song. No one else is dancing and she closes her eyes. She dances defiantly, throwing out her clenched fists like a boxer warming up. Then she starts talking to a middle-aged man with a broken face at the bar. From time to time, she glances at me through the fug of smoke like she’s checking I’m still here.

After a couple of hours, I relax more. My abscess doesn’t hurt; I’m seeing the dentist Tuesday, I feel good. It’s not so bad being here. Perhaps it’ll be a really good summer.

‘We goin’ then?’

Gail’s eyes are huge, the irises like yellow and blue sea anemones. I kind of want to stay but we get up and go out.

‘Less go down the beach,’ she says, smiling.

It’s the first time I’ve seen her smile, ever, and I’m glad. I must be doing the right things.

It’s dark now and the mist is still here, orange in the lights of the pub. As we go down onto the beach my heart thrums in my throat, my stomach is fluid and everything slows down. The shingle crunches loudly and sticks to my shoes. I wonder about kissing Gail, what it might be like. I think it would be good, kissing and cuddling with her but I don’t feel completely here.

We come to a low concrete overhang where the sea wall looms above us. The sea crashes on the stones, invisible but close. She turns suddenly and kisses me, very hard. Her tongue is big, slippery and alive and our teeth click together. I feel I’m disappearing into her face. My left hand is clasping her wrist between finger and thumb as if inspecting it.

‘Lub me,’ she says. The foghorn moans.

She bumps against the sea wall, frantically pulling down her jeans and leaning forwards. Her bum, aglow in the orange light, has little craters in it and stretch marks like snail trails. I can’t see what she expects me to do, shouldn’t we be lying down? Gail growls, twists around and grabs my trousers, fumbling for my flies. Eventually, she extracts my dick and rubs it frantically.

It’s like I’m watching all this from a high place. I press myself half-heartedly against her and grab her waist. She leans further forwards and arches her back, putting her hands on the wall.

Her knickers are covered with pictures of red-and-blue beach balls. Innocent, little-girl knickers, for innocent little girls.

I continue the empty gesture, shunting rhythmically against her, watching the back of her head which is almost square, flanked by curtains of hair.

She eventually looks over her shoulder and we both stare at my shrivelled bud with the fog wafting around it.

‘Get on with it,’ she snarls.

It’s hopeless. I’m shivering with cold and humiliation.

‘Aw, come on. Jesus!’ She stamps her foot. ‘Fuckin’ lot a good you are!’

She hobbles away from me, pulling up her jeans and cursing. Without turning, she trudges across the stones, back towards the Beach House. I follow like a disobedient dog.

As the distance between us opens, I stop and look up.

It hadn’t occurred to me the stars would be there and I goggle at them, mesmerised. There are millions up there, like the lights of great ships crossing the ocean of the night. The bikini girl is out there somewhere, signalling to me in a language I can’t quite understand.

The lights blaze fiercely across the sky, like white-hot coals.






© Johnny Fincham 2007
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