The family at the other side of the dining room were probably wondering about me as much as I was about them. They would be right to. I felt as out of place here as they looked in place. No, they were not quite in place either.
I was meant to be camping and hitching around Turkey with my boyfriend, Jimbo, but he had chickened out at the last minute, saying he couldn’t afford it. Anyway, he would have found excuses to stay in expensive hotels, then begged to go home early due to the expense
I refused to forego my holiday. I had graduated the year before and now in a boring job I was missing the university’s long vac. I had doubts about hitching around Turkey alone, so I went to the travel agent.
‘You’ll be lucky,’ they said. ‘It’s August. Torremolinos? Rimini?…’
‘No thanks,’ I said, and took the first train out of Paddington.
It was dark when the train hit the coast, so I got off at the next station. I tried several hotels before finding one that wasn’t booked up.
‘We’re only doing weekly deals, full board,’ the landlady said.
I hesitated, then sighed, ‘I’ll take it.’
I woke to the bustle of guests getting up and went to join them for breakfast. I didn’t feel awkward about being on my own; I exchanged pleasantries across tables, but I also had the leisure to peruse my fellow diners, especially that family. There was something unsettling about them.
They clearly were a family: an older couple who must been the parents of the two young adults beside them. The young man was about my age, twenty-two, the girl slightly younger. He was tall, well-built and wore spectacles with fashionable frames, features which make me assume intellect and high esteem. The girl was rather plain and about a stone overweight. She seemed bored. It was clear they were siblings, not a couple; they looked alike, both with fair hair gone mousey and the same opaque complexion. They didn’t seem interested in each other.
I didn’t know why they intrigued me. Why would two young adults come with their parents to a very ordinary British seaside resort? For all kinds of reasons, I assured myself. Wasn’t I just feeling uncomfortable because I was on my own.
The other guests didn’t unsettle me. Most were middle-aged couples. Younger couples were here too: the sort who wore grey suits the rest of the year, commuted along grey motorways to grey offices and could no longer imagine any colour in their lives, or what to do with themselves on holiday. That was why they were here. Like myself, perhaps. Now, that was unsettling.
Over the hum of conversation I couldn’t make out what was said, but the father was relating a tale, rather boorishly, to the people at the next table. His wife nodded and smiled. Sometimes she turned to the girl who might listlessly add a comment. Her more animated brother would interject with some cynicism or contradiction. As brothers often did. But his voice was making me squirm. I didn’t know why.
After breakfast I headed for the sea. The beach was not bad: sand and shingle, backed by one-time fishermen’s cottages which had been turned into cafés and ice-cream parlours. Behind them a once-flourishing Regency resort had gone to seed.
It was really too cold but I went for a swim. I was determined to enjoy my holiday. The waves were exhilarating, their steady rhythm also calming. It was what I needed to unwind after my stroppy departure from Jimbo. He’d known better than to plead with me to spend the holiday in London, but I felt guilty, and annoyed that I felt guilty.
I rubbed my shivering body dry and went for extensive walks along the shore in both directions.
Back at the hotel the family had aligned themselves on high stools along the bar and were watching Police Academy.
The mother beckoned me over. ‘Hello, dear. Come and sit with us. I’m Kirsty, that’s my husband Ray, and these are our two, Matthew and Joy.’
‘Hi! I’m Melanie,’ I called out along the bar.
Matthew and Joy half-turned and nodded, then turned back to the television.
Kirsty smiled apologetically. ‘What you doing here by yourself, dear?’
I summarised my situation.
‘Ah, that’s a shame,’ she said, and turned to relay it to Matthew and Joy. Matthew nodded again. He looked at my chest.
‘I live in London,’ I offered. ‘I work at Mortality Assurance Inc.’
‘Your future is in our hands.’ He was quoting the firm’s TV slogan.
‘That’s them,’ I said, and noticed I hadn’t said ‘us’.
‘What about you?’ I said after a silence.
‘Pratchett & Grimbex, Leics.’
I was none the wiser, but as Matthew had turned back to the television I left it at that.
After dinner I went out. The main thoroughfare was lively. I walked past trashy souvenir shops, rowdy pubs and amusement arcades until I came across a quieter alleyway and turned into it. As the street noise faded acoustic guitar music became apparent. Following the sound up the alley I came to a pub: the 12-Blues Bar, said a sign above the door.
I went in. It was empty apart from two bleached-haired, bronzed guitarists and a few scattered customers. I bought a lager and sat near the players. They performed well; it was my kind of music. Soon I was singing along. ‘Hey Mr Tambourine man—-‘
In the break the musicians introduced themselves: Oz and Al. ‘We’re busking and surfing the summer along the coast towards Land’s End.
‘Come with us.’
That was far too fast. ‘Sorry, I’ve got a life to get back to.’ My words felt flat.
Al walked me back to the hotel.
‘Inviting me up?’
I shook my head. I was not free to do that. ‘Goodnight.’
Before going inside I turned to see him grinning, and just then the family emerged from the car park. Joy was staring at me wide-eyed.
Next morning I awoke to knocking, not at my door but my neighbour’s. Then a man’s voice, low but urgent. ‘Joy!’
I realised then that I had heard Matthew there the first morning too. He tapped again. There was no sound from the room. Matthew was persistent.
It became annoying. Joy was clearly more difficult to wake than me. Were we late for breakfast? No, it was only seven-thirty. Pulling my pillow over my ear, I heard Joy’s door open and close. Then all went quiet. Perhaps they went to church or something.
At breakfast I caught Joy’s eye across the room. She looked bored, or disgruntled. Why had she come with her family when she so obviously didn’t enjoy their company? What kind of life did she lead? I got the feeling she could have fared better. I felt I needed to befriend her.
When her family got up to leave, I followed. ‘Hi, Joy! Doing anything special today?’
‘We’re going in the car somewhere.’
Joy didn’t elaborate. Anxious not to appear to be fishing for an invitation I added, ‘I’m going for a swim.’
‘Have a nice time, then,’ she said, and followed her family upstairs.
The sea was bracing. A vigorous breeze whipped up the waves. I ran along water’s edge to keep warm, the previous night’s music still in my head.
‘… to dance beneath the diamond sky….’ I felt euphoric, wild and free.
Again I walked extensively along the shore. I meant to phone Jimbo, but I didn’t get round to it.
That evening I noticed Joy was dressed the way I had been the day before, in a denim miniskirt, matching waistcoat and white cheesecloth blouse. She looked my way but I failed to catch her eye. I wouldn’t push it. It had been arrogant of me to think she was in need of rescue.
After dinner I went back to the 12-Blues Bar. Al and Oz were there again and I passed another very pleasant evening.
‘Joy!’ Tap, tap, tap … ‘Joy! Open up. I know you’re in there.’ Tap, tap, tap.
What was it about Joy? Was she a wayward child, much younger than she looked? Why was it always Matthew who got her up, and never one of her parents? Why did she never reply? Or protest?
At breakfast, I noticed again that Joy had on clothes like mine the day before; this time jeans and a black/white striped tee-shirt. I felt the family was avoiding me, however. I didn’t mind. I didn’t need them.
My days were getting into a routine: swim, walk, sleep, dinner, 12-Blues Bar, where every evening Oz and Al would say, ’We’re leaving tomorrow. Come with us,’ and I would reply, ‘I can’t.’
As the week wore on this sounded increasingly hollow. I was getting all too used to the unfettered life, with nobody to please but myself, a luxury I hadn’t enjoyed since – well, since I started that job, nor even since, come to think of it, I met Jimbo. For too long, I had been living according to other people’s agendas.
‘Joy!’ Tap, tap, tap. ‘Come on!’ Tap, tap, tap. ‘Joy! Open up!’
I wanted to ask Matthew where they went before breakfast. I got up and opened my door. But Joy had opened hers and I just glimpsed Matthew slipping inside.
So they weren’t going anywhere. But why the silence? I stood pondering.
Then I heard Joy’s bed creak and Matthew groan, and finally I got it.
I felt sick. I wanted out of there. I ran down to the sea and willed the salty spray to wash away my disgust.
I couldn’t face breakfast that morning. But what was I to do? Wasn’t it illegal? Should I tell the police? Wouldn’t they say it was a family affair? Should I tell the parents, then? Did they really not know? Why did Joy let him? Clearly she didn’t want it. Did she feel she had no choice? Surely someone should interfere.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Without giving myself time to think I leapt out of bed and opened the door. ‘Leave her alone,’ I said.
‘What?’ Matthew would not meet my gaze.
I raised my voice. ‘I said, leave her alone. She doesn’t want it.’
Matthew pulled himself up to his full height and stepped forward.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise this had anything to do with you.’ He looked down at my unmade-up face and unsexy nightdress.
‘It hasn’t but…’
‘Then perhaps we should look to our own affairs. Had a tiff with our boyfriend, have we?’
My blood pressure rose. ‘Leave your sister alone,’ I shouted, but it was to Matthew’s back. Joy had opened the door and let him in. He slammed it shut.
‘Please! Keep your voices down!’ The landlady appeared from the lift. ‘What’s the matter!’
‘HE’S FUCKING HIS SISTER! THAT’S THE MATTER!’ I bellowed down the corridor.
The landlady stood with her mouth open, fists clenched. ‘You’ll disturb the other guests!’
‘MAYBE THEY SHOULD BE DISTURBED!’ I shouted, but she had retreated.
I dressed quickly and headed for the beach.
I felt so embarrassed. Matthew had been right. I had no idea what Joy wanted. I should look to my own affairs, sort out my own life.
I ran along the shore. The waves drenched me but I didn’t care. I was a wretched, washed up wreck.
‘Hey! What’s the matter? Look at you! It was Al. I collapsed on the beach. He sat next to me and dried me with his towel while I told him everything.
‘What a nerve I had, when my own life is heading for a vortex! I can’t go back to the hotel now.’
Al shook his head. ‘Course you can. You’ve brought the whole sordid business to the surface. You should be proud. Hey, go back and get your breakfast.’
He was right, of course. I held my head high when I walked back in. Some of the guests gave embarrassed smiles but most would not meet my eye. The landlady made herself scarce. The family didn’t appear, and I never saw any of them again. I could do nothing more for Joy. She would have to sort out her own life.
I had to sort out my own life too. For too long I had been living according to other people’s agendas. I phoned Jimbo. ‘I’m not coming back,’ I told him.
He was dismayed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s for the best, Jimbo. We’re not right for each other.’
‘What about your job?’
‘I’m packing it in.’
I phoned my work and persuaded them to forego the month’s notice. Then I checked out of the hotel. ‘Bye, then,’ the landlady smiled tightly.
Al and Oz were still at the 12-Blues Bar when I got there. ‘I’m coming with you,’ I told them.
‘To Land’s End? Great! We were waiting for you.’