It was hot. Not just ordinary hot, but the oppressive, sticky, stultifying heat that breeds madness. It had been that way for a week, unusual in this harbour city. The beaches were crowded, entire families escaping their homes in the hope of some relief in the cool ocean. The crowds were even bigger today, everyone wanting the best possible spot for seeing the fireworks that would be launched from a pontoon at the end of the pier. The display was scheduled for nine at night, but by five the beach was barely visible beneath a carpet of blankets, hampers and umbrellas.
Reaching into my cooler for a beer, I enjoyed the momentary chill as my hand sank into the rapidly melting ice. I had been sitting out there since three, butt protected from the scorching sand by a pair of folded towels. I pulled the brim of my baseball cap lower as I took a swig of my beer. Just in front of me a large, sweaty woman in an unflattering striped bathing suit was struggling to apply sunscreen to an uncooperative toddler. Each time she managed to get the lotion on the kid, he’d squirm and roll away from her, sand sticking to the cream.
“Jeremy!” she shrieked in exasperation, eliciting nothing but a delightful high-pitched giggle from the child.
I looked away, peering down the beach to where a group of teenage girls sat. Five of them, all in bikinis, giggling as they licked the drips from their ice-cream cones. They were oblivious to me; except for Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, forty-two year old men were not on their radar. Middle-aged men were fathers, teachers, bus drivers, grocers, uninteresting. I’m not a bad looking man, but Johnny Depp I’m not.
While all five were undeniably attractive, only one set my heart racing, pounding in my chest as if making an escape attempt. She was a little smaller than the others, blonde, and still carrying a little of that extra weight girls gain during puberty. She didn’t look fat though, just kind of radiant, her hair a halo in the sunlight. As I watched, she turned to look at the sinewy brunette on her right and I saw her profile. She had a little girl’s upturned nose, something she would no doubt grow to hate as she got older. To me it was perfection, especially when coupled with the generous swelling of her new breasts.
Blondie stood up as she popped the end of her ice-cream cone into her mouth. Brushing sand off her legs, she gestured towards the other end of the beach, asking her companions something. I glanced around, catching the eye of the woman with the sticky toddler.
“Could you watch my stuff?” I asked politely. “I’ll be right back.”
“Sure.” She nodded as she followed her son with her eyes, tracking him as he zigzagged through the throngs.
The five girls were making their way down the beach slowly, walking in that uncertain way teenage girls have, hips bumping and arms brushing one another with every step. They paused often, admiring the muscular shoulders of a lifeguard here, sneering at a leathery old woman there. A group of boys passed by, pausing to ogle the girls. The tall brunette tossed her hair and smiled back at them while the other four giggled and shoved one another behind her.
The kiosk on the far side of the beach was mobbed. The usually orderly queue had become a horde, jostling and fighting for position. The two men behind the counter looked harried, red-faced and sweating in the heat. I watched the girls join the crowd, coins being passed between them. I pushed my way in, working my way through the swarm until I was standing near the group. This close I could see the sprinkling of freckles across Blondie’s adorable turned-up nose, could feel the downy fuzz on her arms as she brushed by me. Hair rose on my own arms, every nerve leap-frogging under my skin at her touch.
“Yeah?” Blondie – no, Bonnie – turned to a friend who had managed to push her way to the front of the queue.
Clutching sweaty cans in their hands, the girls dawdled their way back up the beach. I followed, but not so closely that they would notice. A brightly coloured beach ball bounced by me, hopping its way to the gently lapping waves. I walked its erratic path to the water and made my way back to my spot through the soft wet sand, enjoying its gritty ooze through my toes. The sun was hanging lower in the sky now, but had not lost any of its intensity. The crowd was growing, people clustering along the length of the jetty now too.
Back at my spot, I nodded to the woman in front, thanking her wordlessly for taking care of my stuff. I settled back onto my towels, enjoying the faint breeze that was beginning to blow up from the sea. Reaching for another beer, I watched my girls. Three boys had approached them and were gesturing towards the dunes, speaking quickly and earnestly. I watched the dance, the ritual that played out: the girls shaking their heads at first, refusing the invitation. Then turning to one another, questioning, giggling, shrugging; then the nods as they acquiesced, the boys grinning as they stood and swaggered away. Conquerors.
I became aware suddenly of someone watching me. She was sitting on a blanket a little way beyond the girls, young family scattered around her, husband or lover’s arm draped proprietarily over her shoulder. Her eyes met mine for a moment, narrowed slightly, the hint of a frown distorting her mouth and furrowing her brow. I smiled at her, lifting my beer in a casual salute. She didn’t return the gesture, just turned back to her family, eyes lingering pointedly on Bonnie and her posse, the frown deepening.
The sun sank in the sky, lower and lower until the sea seemed to swallow it, belching up streaks of pink and gold. A satisfied silence hung over the beach as the crowd drank in the beauty of the moment, anticipating the excitement of what was to come. In the settling darkness I saw my group of girls get up from their spot and thread their way through the blanket islands to the dunes. I watched as they scrambled up and disappeared into the gloom beyond.
My feet didn’t make a sound as I slipped and skidded up the dune, soft dry sand spraying out beneath me. As I reached the top, I heard voices and smelled the smoke of an illicit campfire. This summer had been so hot and dry the fire-ban was total, even on the coast. I crept along the ridge, sheltering behind the stands of beach grass and other scrub. In the hollowed out space between dunes I came across the group. A fire burned in a circle of stones and the flickering golden light cast weird shadows across the faces of the five girls and four boys who sat around it.
“Here,” said one of the boys, a lanky blonde, as he passed a bottle to the girl on his left.
“Thanks!” She giggled as she took a swig, making a face, swallowing then passing the bottle on.
“Yuck! It’s awful!” Bonnie exclaimed. “How can you drink this stuff? What is it, anyway?”
“Rocket fuel,” replied another boy, this one a little older. “You can’t take a whole bottle out of your parents’ liquor cabinet without them noticing, but you can take a few nips out of each of them…”
“Disgusting!” The lithe redhead took a swallow, grimacing as she tried to hold it down.
“Yeah, it is pretty gross. We usually mix it with Coke or something. We just didn’t have any today.”
Above us the sky exploded into a constellation of red and green sparks.
“Oooh! The fireworks have started!” The kids leapt to their feet and scrambled up the dune towards me, pulling each other up and giggling. I slid a little way down in the soft sand and settled myself in as if I’d been there all night, lighting the joint I’d stashed in my pocket this morning.
“Hey!” I jumped as if they had startled me.
“Oh! Sorry, Mister.” The kids stopped short.
“No problem,” I said mildly, taking a long hit off the joint. “Beautiful isn’t it?” I offered the joint to the boy nearest to me as I stared up at the sky, now sequinned in a rain of white and gold stars.
“Yes. I love fireworks, don’t you?” Bonnie sat down in the sand near my feet, the others settling in around us. The joint made its way back to me, soggy now with their spit. I handed it to Bonnie, not looking at her, but very conscious of her proximity, the warmth radiating from her. She hesitated a moment before sticking the joint between her heart-shaped lips. She choked as she inhaled, but covered it quickly, passing the roach back to me.
“Thanks,” I said quietly, electricity pulsing through me as our fingers met.
We watched the fireworks in relative silence, exclaiming every now and again when the display became especially spectacular. I was aware of two of the kids higher on the bank slipping off into the darkness. The blonde boy and the brunette were crushed against one another, his hand resting on her thigh. Bonnie sighed and leaned back on her elbows, staring up at the spark-streaked sky. Her hair spread over my bare shins in a gossamer waterfall. My breath caught in my throat, my entire body stiffening with excitement and barely suppressed desire. Without realizing I’d moved, I found my hand reaching out to touch that hair, allowing strands to twine around my fingers. She glanced back at me, a half-smile dancing about her perfect little baby-mouth.
“You’re beautiful,” I whispered, sliding down the dune to her level.
“Am I?” Her eyes were wide, reflecting the mushrooming sparks that swept the sky. She could have been thirteen or thirty in that moment, her eyes those of a woman, not a girl.
“You are,” I breathed. As she rested a hand over mine, the feelings inside me became as explosive as the fireworks above, bursting forth in a great rush of sparks. I leaned toward her, breathing in an intoxicating mixture of salt, sunscreen, booze, marijuana and something purely woman. I was drowning in her eyes, sinking deep as I bent to kiss those luscious candy lips, parted in invitation.
“Get away you creep!” The woman’s voice was right in my ear, the sharp sting of a slap rocketing my head back and setting my cheek ablaze.
“Wha….” My head spun, and for a moment I was completely disorientated. As my vision cleared I saw bunches of young people standing around me, backing away into the darkness. I turned, searching for Bonnie, and found her standing just behind the woman I’d found watching me on the beach. Her eyes were huge and frightened in her pale face, arms wrapped around her body as if she were cold.
“Bonnie…” I couldn’t think what else to say. She didn’t look like a woman anymore, more like a scared child as she cowered behind this interloper.
As the fireworks arced through the sky, raining impossible coloured stars, I fled, allowing the darkness to swallow me. Disappointment and shame burned my face. It was still burning when it broke the surface of the summer-cool sea, the waves whispering its dirty secrets against my skin.
Kate Larkindale is currently a Wellington based writer, cinema manager, film reviewer and mother to two boys. She is constantly amazed that she has any time for writing, but she doesn’t sleep much. She has just completed her first novel (or at least, the first she’ll admit to) and is busy submitting it to publishers.
© 2010, Kate Larkindale