Most Saturdays, Kevin didn’t bother to get up all that early. Most Saturdays, he started his day with a glacial slowness and was only lukewarm and moving about by late afternoon. Sometimes it was because of a hangover, sometimes it was just because the slow start was a little luxury when he could afford so few.
Not today, though. Today he was up, showered, shaved and dressed while the sun was still shouldering its way above the horizon. Today he was in the car and driving while the sky was surrendering the deep blues of night to the riotous pinks and oranges of morning, because he didn’t want to be late even by a minute. He paused to buy a cup of coffee, making it with too much sugar and too much milk because it was a treat and he had no familiarity with the volume of a venti cup.
The warmth, sweetness and caffeine put a little fire in his veins and he found himself singing along to the radio, making up his own nonsense lyrics to the songs he didn’t know, which turned out to be most of them. There was something joyful in that, as the city stirred to full wakefulness, making his way across town to a cacophony of mis-remembered songs: Kevin, in his battered brown car, wailing at the world for the fun of it. It felt like freedom. Kevin decided it had set the stamp for the day and a wild idea seized him.
Sharon was waiting at the door when he pulled up, her long dirty blonde hair pulled back into a severe ponytail and her, actually his, bathrobe pulled about her to keep out the chill. She squinted into the light, making her sharp features appear harsher than they really were.
“Are you ever going to wash that car?”
She couldn’t dampen his mood.
“I have washed it. That’s its natural color.”
She did the little nod, the upward tilt of her head that said she was prepared to accept his nonsense without argument because it was clearly nonsense, leaning against the frame of her front door. It was a nice house, a new build when they’d bought it in a mad rush of nesting. Sharon had been almost six months pregnant when they finally took possession of the house and immediately it had become cozy with two people in it. It was a first step on the property ladder, which he’d been ejected from, and was clearly not being allowed back into now.
“Is it OK if Matty’s little friend comes with?” Sharon phrased it like a question, but he understood he was being told rather than asked. Kevin hid his disappointment. He’d planned, hoped for, a little time with his son’s mostly undivided attention.
“Course,” he said and smiled.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to take them where Dad used to take me.”
“Not the bloody allotment!”
“No, not the bloody allotment.” That had been Sundays, when the Old Man would be up and into his “comfortable” working trousers (“with the arse out of them they’re that old!”, as his Mum always said) and the gardening boots, that clumped spectacularly on any hard surface so the Old Man sounded like a soldier on parade. He’d fill a thermos with tea, pack his baccy in a tin and sneak off with the kitchen matches. Hand in hand, father and son would walk to the allotment, the Old Man talking about seasons and growth, weeding and working, the boy comfortable in this adult litany without needing to understand any of it.
“Not the seaside, Kevin! It’s so cold!”
Kevin leaned against his car.
“There’s no such thing as the wrong weather, Sharon, there’s only the wrong clothes. Has Matty’s little friend got wellies and a coat? I bet not. I’ll fix that when we get there.”
Sharon turned to go indoors. It was understood between them that Kevin wouldn’t cross the threshold without a clear invitation. It was understood by Kevin that one wouldn’t be forthcoming.
A squeak and an excited babble of voices and footfalls heralded Matty’s arrival. Suddenly effervescing across the doorway, a confusion of dufflecoat and bags, fair hair and excited chatter made a brief circuit around the equally brief front yard before disappearing inside again. Kevin couldn’t help himself; he grinned and let that grin sit comfortably awaiting his son’s return. He didn’t have to wait long. Matty’s second appearance was slower, a little more considered and it wasn’t hard to see why. He was almost towing a pale haired, dark-eyed boy who seemed reluctant to approach. Kevin leaned back against his car.
“Who’s this, Matty?”
“This is my friend Oliver,” said Matty, blinking up at his dad through a tousle of hair that seemed golden compared to Oliver’s platinum.
“Hello Oliver,” said Kevin, amused to see Oliver extend his hand. Kevin shook it with all the solemnity he could muster, and this seemed to help Oliver relax a little.
“Where are we going, Daddy?” Matty tugged at him.
“We’re going to see the sea,” said Kevin.
Matty seemed pleased with this.
“I like the sea, Oliver,” he said to his friend. “It’s big and blue and goes up and down.”
Oliver nodded solemnly and Kevin opened up the car.
Getting kids set for any journey was really a process of installing them. Kevin had done this with Matty often enough that he knew his son needed to make a game of it, and so today they were getting ready for a trip to the moon with Matty taking the role of Britain’s newest astronaut. There were pre-flight checks, there was buckling into seats. There was a constant, calm, mission control, voiced litany from Kevin about what was going on. With Matty secure, Kevin turned to Oliver to find the quiet boy already sitting on the back seat with his seat-belt firmly attached.
“Thank you for getting ready so quickly, Oliver,” said Kevin, as much to cover his surprise as anything else.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Ridley,” said Oliver.
Kevin watched his face for a moment. The boy had the same placid expression he’d been wearing the whole time, with no sign of excitement or any emotion. Kevin had seen shy kids like this before and he didn’t push for a response. Something about Oliver was familiar and he wondered whether he’d ever met the boy’s mother or father.
Children secured, Kevin walked over to Sharon and stood just a little out of her reach.
“When do you want them back?”
“No later than seven” said Sharon.
“Oliver staying the night?”
“Is Oliver staying the night?” Kevin frowned. Sharon, normally locked on details like a particularly unforgiving smart bomb, seemed confused.
“Yeah. Probably. I think. I’ll see you before seven, then. Right?”
“Yeah,” said Kevin, “before seven.”
The road stretched grey and long, and when you’re six any distance further away than the local kid landmarks – parks, shops, school – is a distance so vast as to be incomprehensible. At first, Matty kept a running commentary on what he could see from his child seat. He counted cars and colors of cars, he counted traffic lights and dogs being walked. He opined that blue cars were probably the best, because blue was the color of the sea and that was where they were going.
Oliver seemed content to let the hypothesis stand, even when a few minutes later Matty decided that green cars were best because you didn’t see so many of those unless you were an army man, and even then, so because they were rare they must be more special. Kevin kept one eye on the cheap sat-nav. If he didn’t, the sat-nav had a distressing habit of demanding attention by falling off the dashboard and wedging itself somewhere inaccessible whilst chanting, “Turn left! Turn left!”
They’d just left town and were heading to the motorway when Matty asked the inevitable question.
“Is it far to the seaside, Daddy?”
In the U.K., you’re never more than 70 miles from the coastline, but how to explain a mile to someone for whom “the shops” is sometimes an insurmountable distance?
“We’re going to be in the car for a while, Matty. More than an hour. So what shall we do to pass the time?”
It was a game handed down from father to son. When you spotted a pub, you worked out whether the pub sign featured legs. Every leg was a point. If it had no legs, you were “Out” and it was someone else’s turn. A counting game that kept kids looking out of the car and concentrating on the world as it went by. Kevin smiled, remembering the times he’d argued with the Old Man about whether a pub called The King’s Head meant that the head was connected to the body and therefore had legs.
“Cricket might have to wait a bit, Matty, we’re going on the motorway for a while.”
“OK, Daddy,” Matty understood there were no pubs on the motorway. “Can we have songs instead?”
They could. The car was too old for plugging iPods or phones into, so no playlists. But Kevin had a small collection of CDs, three of which were mixes made with Matty in mind. Songs he loved, songs he could sing – the two sets did not always intersect, but the boy loved to make noise and would happily sing along to songs he wasn’t all that interested in – and songs that Kevin could sing badly for the sole purpose of amusing his son.
So they had songs. The cramped plastic interior of the awful brown car filled itself with the uncertain small-boy soprano and only occasionally awful tenor of father and son duets. Oliver sat, patient, quiet, occasionally seeming to sing along. His lips moved, but his expression remained neutral. Kevin shrugged mentally. If the boy was embarrassed or concerned he gave no sign of it and that was fine by Kevin, who was having to remind himself now and then that the other boy was there at all. He wanted to quiz Matty about who Oliver was and where they had met but couldn’t do so with the kid sitting there. It wouldn’t be right, and he wanted Matty’s friend to feel welcome.
The motorway brought the steady hum of tires on tarmac, the monotony of countryside, the movable walls of vehicles; trucks and traffic interleaving and interweaving to form a constantly shifting block of primary colors containing freeze-frame people. Mobile vignettes, scenes from family life. Here a small family in the midst of an argument, a parent half-turned in the passenger seat to face uproarious kids in the back, the phrase “I’ll turn this car around” in the air. There, a woman staring blankly at the outside, face turned from the driver who grips the wheel with white knuckled intensity while he barks who knows what disagreements at the radio.
Insulated from this, only momentarily curious at the new faces and the movement of color, Matty dozed. With his silence a deeper quiet settled over the car; the road noise faded into silence and Kevin found himself staring at the road ahead as if he had never seen it before. He blinked, shaken by the presence of the steering wheel, his feet on unfamiliar pedals, and bit back panic as he struggled to find meaning in the actions of his suddenly strange body.
A shaky breath later and it all came back: the sound, the sense of rightness as his muscles remembered how to drive. Kevin blinked away the strangeness, shook himself, and paid attention to the road signs. He sipped coffee – now little more than lukewarm – willing it to sharpen his actions.
“Just a bad moment,” muttered Kevin.
“It’s alright, Mr. Ridley,” said Oliver, the boy’s voice distinct against the background noise and clear in a way that nothing else was. Kevin relaxed. After all, nothing bad had happened.
The motorway monotony ended with Kevin turning off onto the network of minor roads as they got closer to the coast. Everywhere now was awake to the day, shops a-bustle with people about their weekend business and intent on being, going, doing. The roads were busier and the stopping and starting woke Matty. The game of cricket began, with Matty going first and eagerly examining every building they drove past in case it was a pub. Kevin was glad of the distraction. It gave him time to plan a route into the destination.
He wanted to give Matty the view he’d always loved as a child; when your dad turned a corner and all of a sudden the streets and houses gave way to the sudden sweep of the sea. When the breath caught in your chest because you were there, at last, and also because suddenly there was a defined border to the world. One that could be seen and perhaps touched. The implacable and somehow inviting sea. Memory, and technology, worked hard to bring this little piece of showmanship together and as the car twisted and turned through streets and lanes Kevin kept up a little running commentary to build the anticipation for his boy. And there it was.
“The seaside!” said Matty, a delight ringing in his voice that almost brought Kevin to tears.
There it was indeed. The sky, a hesitant white-streaked blue like terrified eyes peering through a window blind, met the undulating expanse of the grey-green sea, the line between them demarcated by a comparatively pitiful wrought iron barrier, painted white, that marked the edge of civilization.
They parked, close to the seafront, and went hunting for a specific kind of shop. Coastal towns with any sort of beach have at least one on the seafront, and Kevin knew he’d find one open any day there was blue in the sky. Some places call them ‘grockle shops’ and people local to the town never shop there. They exist for one purpose: parting tourists from as much of their money as is humanly possible. They sell things that have a half-life consisting of a weekend. Plastic sunglasses, boonie-type hats with fleetingly amusing slogans in unappealing colors, postcards that go from bland to questionable and terrible, terrible tacky souvenirs.
The grockle shop that Kevin found was wedged between an open-fronted arcade that had been home to the height of gaming technology in the previous century, and a place that would have been selling donuts if it was open. Stepping into the cave-like shop, which was festooned with nasty plastic gimcrackery, was to step into a vision. Kevin knew the purpose of everything here: to be worn for a day or two, to be forgotten in luggage and stored in a box on a dusty garage shelf “for next time.” It would be found years later and provoke a burst of memory, perhaps some laughter, and that would be it. He bought sunscreen, he bought sunglasses for both boys, some bottles of overpriced water, some kid sized buckets in the shape of castles, some spades, three unhappy looking nets on plastic poles and a disposable camera. Thus armed, they went out and crossed the road that ran the length of the sea front, descending steps down to the beach. The wet sand made their footfalls sound like the slap of a hand on unprotected skin, but this was soon drowned out by the enthusiasm of a small boy and his equally happy father as they went looking for a spot on which to build sandcastles. The sea, a graying line somewhere just out of reach – between tides, Kevin decided, suddenly unable to remember whether the sea had been a lot closer when they arrived – looked cold and uninviting enough that even Matty didn’t want to go swimming. Instead, they built sandcastles.
Matty attacked his with enthusiasm, using the bucket to form a slightly sagging central keep and then surrounding it with concentric circles of moats and walls into which he dug further channels and tunnels before expanding his construction still further with another keep – to fool attackers, he claimed – and more walls and tunnels. Kevin built a mound, a wall, filled his bucket with sand and set a keep, then dug a moat. The simple construction, and his son’s non-stop commentary on his own civil engineering project, took his time and concentration but there was something restful in it. Here, beneath an indifferent sky on a deserted beach at the wrong time of year, there was peace. There were no bills to be paid, no ex-wife to placate, no disappointed family being patiently supportive even though they told you so, no gap in that family where the Old Man should be standing, having a crafty roll-up and chuckling with that low, earthy rumble of a laugh. Kevin pushed the memory away and went to help his son fashion a bridge over his latest moat.
He looked around to find Oliver sitting on his bucket, his spade across his knees.
“Not building a sandcastle, Oliver?”
“Do you miss him very much. Mr. Ridley?”
“Miss who, Oliver?”
“Of course. But you get used to people not being there, eventually, and then it’s more about wishing they were still around to experience things with you.”
“Is that why doing things with Matty is so important to you?”
Kevin nodded. Oliver was perceptive for someone so young. He smiled at the boy who sat so very still on the empty beach.
“I think it’s important to try to be a good dad, Oliver. I want Matty to have the fun I had, to have the happy memories I have of my Dad. I think it helps. What’s your Dad like?”
“My father is very like you, Mr. Ridley. He wants me to experience things and understand them, and have good memories just like you want for Matty. It’s getting cold.”
Kevin looked up. The sky had turned grey, grey as Oliver’s coat and jumper, which were a sort of battleship grey. He looked at his watch.
“Me!” said Matty immediately. They gathered up the buckets and spades, and made their way off the beach, pausing only to drop everything off at the car.
They ate at a seafront cafe, all plastic chairs and scratched Formica table tops on a checkerboard tile floor presided over by a bored woman wreathed in steam from a hot water urn and fryer vapor. Lunch itself was a burger, slightly too slick with hot grease and made palatable by the presence of fried onions in quantity that the three of them wolfed down before dawdling over salty fries and an oddly sweet cola that had the peculiar effect of making Kevin feel thirstier than when he’d started drinking.
Bathroom breaks happened. Kevin listened intently to Matty’s week at school, trying to keep track of the important comings and goings of his life as the narrative ducked and dived around him. Familiar names rose and fell, and he tried to ask pertinent questions about them. He asked about what was currently cool and made inroads into his son’s constantly shifting collection of likes and dislikes. School was never cool, although Matty allowed that he sometimes liked science and reading, and sometimes liked football, but never liked maths very much because it was too hard. He found it hard to remember whether his life had been as complex at Matty’s age.
“Is everyone ready?” He asked. Matty nodded.
“Then, gentlemen, we have a choice. We can risk the weather and go somewhere else interesting, or we can call it a day and head home. What do you think we should do?”
Matty went to the window and looked out at the sky.
“Can we go to the rock pools, Daddy?”
It was the answer Kevin had been hoping for.
“Yes, Matthew, we can.”
It was a short drive to another cove, another section of beach, but this one bounded by rock that stretched to the water. There was very little sand, which made for a difficult and slightly treacherous walk over wobbling, dark and slimy rocks. Into this alien landscape the three picked their way, slowly and carefully, hunting rock pools. The excitement lay in the investigation of each tiny habitat, the careful observation of what it might contain. There was the sense of a wrapped present about them. From the surface, they might contain anything and you had to carefully move aside seaweed or wait and watch quiet as mice to see whether anything stirred.
Often, nothing did. You moved on to the next and the next, hopeful for some treasure. Kevin was perched over what he hoped was a promising pool, wreathed with seaweed that he was carefully moving aside, when he heard Matty’s voice. The boy was trying to be quiet and excited at the same time, which came out as a hoarse stage whisper.
Kevin picked and wobbled his way the few feet to where Matty was sitting, entranced, net in hand. Oliver, standing straight and watching in his detached way, stood close at hand.
“I found something!”
“Well, let’s have a look,” said Kevin and peered at where Matty was pointing. There was definitely movement.
“Well spotted, Matty! What do you think it is?”
“Is it a fish, Daddy?”
Kevin gave his son a brief hug.
“Don’t know. Shall we find out?”
The trick was to dip your bucket into the water slowly, and to let it fill slowly so as not to disturb what you were trying to catch. Sudden moves might panic what you were chasing, so everything had to happen in stages. Kevin whispered instructions to Matty, who had charge of the bucket. With the seriousness and focus that only children seem to possess, Matty followed his instructions and after a few moments that must have been agony for the excitable little boy, he could haul the bucket slowly forward from one side of the pool to the other. The reward for his care and effort was immediate.
In the bottom of the bucket, something scuttled nervously for a moment and then was still. Matty and Kevin stared at the tiny, purplish brown crab. It was no more than a centimeter or three across.
“It’s a baby one,” said Kevin with a confidence he didn’t feel, “so we’ve got to be really careful.”
They counted legs, they spoke in whispered tones about the shell color and whether you could eat them. Kevin knew you could eat some crabs and Matty decided he didn’t want to eat this one because it was so well-behaved.
Kevin returned the crab to the pool, slowly and carefully, so as to barely ripple the surface of the water. The crab disappeared into cover, apparently no worse for the experience, and they moved on to other pools. There were limpets which couldn’t be shifted from their position, assorted other shells and crustaceans, but no fish or anything more exotic that afternoon.
Eventually, Matty started to tire and sigh, so they went for a walk along the shore and paused to learn how to skim stones into the sea. It became colder and Kevin checked his watch.
“Boys, time to go back to the car,” he said, expecting at least one voice raised in protest, but there was only a shrug of assent so back they went.
The road home was quiet. Matty slept almost immediately and woke only briefly as they reached the motorway. Kevin found a talk radio station and the low mutter of other voices kept him alert as he drove. He thought about the day, about how his boss would regard it as one wasted since nothing had been ticked off or accomplished, about how Sharon would have been bored and baffled by it, about how much he’d enjoyed simply being Dad for a day, and this lead him to the sharp pain of knowing it was nearly over. He tested the edges of the pain, wondered whether that need to be in Matty’s company and watch him grow and change was selfish. He wondered whether he ought to try to challenge the custody decision again. He wondered if he trusted himself to get through it intact if the court turned him down. It was a hard thing, to turn over part of yourself to a person you no longer really liked or entirely trusted. Even if that person was more present in the boy’s life and could provide the continuity and routine the boy needed.
“Just be there as often as you can,” Kevin muttered to himself.
Pulling up next to Sharon’s house, he checked the time and smiled. Not much after 6pm. He woke Matty and had a very wobbly moment when the little boy wrapped his arms around his father’s neck, muttered, “Daddy” and went back to sleep.
He carried his son to his ex-wife’s door, waiting a minute before eventually pushing the doorbell, and literally had to hand him over.
“Oliver’s parents want to know if you can drop him home,” said Sharon, “and I said you would.”
“Oh,” said Kevin, but the front door was already closing. He went back to the car, to find Oliver already in the back seat.
“Where do you live, Oliver?”
“A few doors from you, Mr. Ridley. Please take me to your home and I can walk from there.”
Kevin shrugged. He’d walk the boy home himself when they got there. The drive across town was uneventful, the sky becoming fully dark now. Kevin wondered that he’d missed the sunset, but of course the sky had been grey and clouded all afternoon so there’d been nothing to see through the clouds. The outside noise of other cars faded into a hum, their lights merging into orange and pale blue glows. He stopped the car outside his building – where his flat was on the third floor – and stepped out onto the pavement.
The pool of light cast by the streetlight didn’t quite reach to the car somehow because he could no longer see it. Just himself, and Oliver, and a faint background sound like machine noise. Kevin stared at Oliver.
“Thank you, Mr. Ridley, you’ve been very co-operative,” said Oliver. “This has been so easy and pleasant because you were co-operative. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” said Kevin, blinking at the little grey clad boy with the dark, solemn eyes. “Yes, of course. My pleasure.”
“I am sorry if any of your experiences have caused you distress, but you should know that we must understand these things. It is important to us.”
“It’s fine,” said Kevin, looking around him. He couldn’t see the street, couldn’t remember it being this dark before. Had the pavement been made of slabs or one long strip of grey concrete? “Only…where do you live?”
“We’re home, Mr. Ridley,” said Oliver. “You should lay down now. You can sleep now.”
“Of course” said Kevin, nodding. This was the sensible thing to do, to lay down on the pavement in the light from the streetlight and just sleep. Everything would be perfectly fine if he just relaxed. So he sat, and then lay flat and folded his arms across his chest. The light became blue and there was the faint sensation of movement as he drifted down and down, watching the ceiling of his bedroom ripple so gently it was almost as though it had never been disturbed at all. Kevin settled into his bed once more, closed his eyes and, as the light faded, he slept.
David Webb, who prefers to be called Dave, and prefers that sentence to start, “Would you like a cup of tea,” is a Brit. He lives in Leicester (pronounced “Less-tah”), where his day job constantly gets in the way of writing, but he’s willing to live with that since it means not being homeless. When not writing, he reads. When doing neither of those he can be found on twitter as @dococcupant. He has a fiction blog on that Internet thing, which you should absolutely read and tell your friends about.