Cigarette butts and splashed ice cream on the pavement below, screaming from the gulls overhead, a little blonde-haired boy hiding up high in a tree watching the clouds and praying for dinner time to never come around. The island sat in its muddy bed and hardened in the sun. That summer felt longer than the others.
Inside, another argument was booming around the large house. Things were going to be bad around the kitchen table when it came to eating later. Gritted teeth, fists coming down hard on the pine top, me sitting there waiting for death. I never knew what started it. I was just sure that I didn’t deserve it. I mean, what kid really needed to feel that level of terror. None. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances, the spark on the fuse. I guessed it was a hungover adult mind regretting my conception in the first place, but truth is it could have been anything. Sometimes it seemed like there never really needed to be a good reason. Things just happened out of the blue, catching fire quickly, ending up with me being the dog to kick.
Down by the beach the tourists ate cheap ice cream from the grey concrete parlour which smelled of mice and also sold plastic beach toys – nobody ever really successfully played beach tennis. Or made their shitty kite last more than five minutes before the onshore breeze shredded it like newspaper. Beach huts lined up facing the sea and families from London sat in the relative peace of tea brewing old England comfort and made jokes about fat people in bathing suits. The English coast. Tea, tins of lager, sandcastles. Sand giving gritty new meaning to cheese sandwiches. Beat the metropolitan fug of warm summer. Bracing sea air. Happy times for many. Happy faces.
I’d walk along the sand and shells imagining I could go live in a beach hut forever, or leave with another family and take my chances in London. I searched for weird stones or the flotsam on the high tide mark. Fishing floats, old bottles and, one time, some syringes and empty pill packets behind a sand dune. I played on the mud flats when the tide went out. Sticky grey goo, staring out at the nuclear power station across the water.
Back up in the tree I lay on my back on a heavy limb and the clouds hung delicate above. I turned my head with every noise that came from the house. There was no getting away from it. Sooner or later I’d be in there, right in the eye of it all. Confused, scared. Maybe I’d be punished, too. I made a promise to myself that it wouldn’t always be this way. Eventually the sky closed in. I found out years later that I had learned to dissociate in times like these. It dulled the terror. Made survival easier and stopped any crying. Crying got you nowhere.
A door slammed. More shouting. Somebody growled, then screamed with rage.
The holidays. Same format every year for the grown-ups: Time off work. Parties with rich sailing buddies. Drunk. Headaches. Aggressive arguments. Punishment. Regret. The slightest slip-up from me and that was it, bedroom door would come crashing open, followed by gritted teeth, shaking up above me with rage, fists pumping.
The night came soon enough. Dinner had been tough but there were no words, just the normal red-faced anger and noisy crashing crockery. That night, in bed, the house creaked as it cooled. I turned off the night light and stared at the darkness. There was no sense that I’d gotten away with another day, no relief, just the knowledge that tomorrow would come brooding and ready to spark off without warning. When you’re young you think these things will be repeated forever. The drip drip drip of fear. Constant adrenaline and self-protection. Terror. Faithlessness. Suspicion. Hatred. Anger. Sadness. Completely cut off from the positive normal emotions of a seven year old. Sitting alone in the treacherous currents created by fucked up adults who should have known better. On an Island.