The blurry figure belting up the beach is probably Mark about to say thanks to me. There was a time I could see the clouds of sand kicking up behind his feet when he ran. I grab the binoculars for one last scan. The tower shakes and his feet slap on the ladder rungs.
Mark launches himself into the seat beside me; he’s hardly out of breath. The metallic tang of his sweat drifts to me.
He says, ‘You can go now. My eyesight test went OK. I’ll cover for you when you get tested tomorrow.’
My stomach knots in despair. I pass the binoculars to him and give my handover report. ‘Right, Mark, there’s probably a drunken beach frenzy happening later on.’ I point. ‘In among those rocks. There’s a bunch of people pulling firewood and bringing disposable barbecues and booze. Nothing else much happening. There’s a girl over there who’s been lying for ages. I don’t think she’s been drinking water or anything. I’ll check on her as I go. If I wave it means check on her again.’
I grab the metal ladder of the lifeguard tower and slide, my hands and feet either side. The touch is cool now, almost cold. Four hours ago it would have burned skin.
I hate walking over sand in trainers but you can cut your feet if you can’t see what’s buried.
The girl must hear me approaching. She sits up, hugging her knees and beaming at me.
I’m not very good at judging people’s ages. She’s probably somewhere between fourteen and sixteen. You know, the gawky age of elbows and knees.
She’s wearing a skimpy bikini that she probably thinks makes her look older. Other than that, she only has some sunblock and a towel. That smile is going to be a killer when she gets older. As it is, it makes me beam back.
‘Hello, you,’ I say, squatting beside her. ‘You OK?’
‘Hello to you too. I’m fine.’
‘I’m Craig, one of the lifeguards. I noticed that you’ve been here a while in the sun and not drunk any water.’
‘No, I’m thirsty.’
‘You must be a bit cold now too.’
There’s a simplicity to her answers, a directness. It’s throwing me. I don’t know why. ‘Where are your parents?’
‘I don’t have any.’
Ah … I wasn’t expecting that. ‘Is someone coming for you?’
‘Someone always comes.’
There’s that smile, now a toss of the hair. There’s something about this girl that makes you want to pick her up, whirl her around into a giggling screaming mess and buy her ice creams.
‘Can I phone them?’ It’s nearly six and getting colder.
‘No, there’s no one to phone.’
‘Where do you live?’
This conversation is like being sucked into quicksand. Why do I believe everything she says? What should I do? I can’t bloody leave her here if she has nowhere to go. She’s thirsty, probably hungry and, above all, vulnerable. The beach can be a bit dodgy when it gets dark. This is probably my last act as a lifeguard. I’ll fail my eyesight test tomorrow. At least I can try to get this last job right.
What the hell do I do? I could wave at Mark and he would probably check on her but what if he gets tied up in a rescue?
Think. There’s no procedure for this. Bottom line then – the police.
I phone them. They give me a social work number. Phone social work … after nine numbers I get an address. All this time the sand is biting into my knees. The girl is patient, smiling and waiting like her life is all up to me.
All up to me. That’s a bit scary. I’m a loner. I’ve never even had a family. I’ve never had a sister and this girl seems to want an older brother that sorts things out for her. I’ve never had a girlfriend – I’m ugly: there’s no other way to put it. This girl is so pretty and … so trusting.
I just realised that I don’t trust myself. Right now I think I hate me.
I ask, ‘What’s your name? I’m talking to social work and they want to know.’
‘Home address, parents, children’s home … give me something.’
‘I don’t know how to answer any of that. I’m cold now. Will you take me somewhere warm? I’m hungry too and very thirsty.’
Daggers in my heart. I saw her on the beach ages ago. I didn’t check on her. Maybe I’m a crap lifeguard – it’s not all about people drowning.
I finish the call. ‘Hey, Angie … will you wrap your towel around you to keep warm and get into my car? There’s a place they say I can take you.’
She’s in my rusty car. I’m embarrassed and a bit frightened – my driving isn’t all that good. If I drove in glasses and someone saw… I’ve carried mates from time to time … not much … but Angie seems delicate, someone you need to treat with kindness. I drive slow and safe, especially after I accelerate from starting to twenty and she screams, crying out, ‘This is too fast!’ Like she’s never been in a car before.
Shit. I had to show her how to put her seatbelt on. That took a tangling of my fingers with hers. I touched her waist by accident. She didn’t seem to mind.
Why doesn’t God just twist me in half and kill me now?
I get her to the social work address – a children’s home I’ve never heard of. She’s at the front door with me. Wearing my flip-flops to protect her from the usual cigarette ends and the blotted chewing gum, though surprisingly there isn’t any of that here. She waits shivering in her towel.
I want to hug her to keep her warm.
I keep my distance. But it hurts to see her so cold.
The woman I spoke to on the phone answers the door. Slim, black and with long braids of hair, she smiles and nods to me. ‘You must be Craig.’ She nods to Angie too. ‘And you must be Angie.’
She looks from Angie back to me. ‘Craig, you are so kind to have helped a girl alone on a beach.’
‘You have a room for her, some food, some clothes? She needs to drink something too.’
The woman shakes her head. ‘We have no room. Can you look after Angie tonight?’
It takes me some moments to grasp this. I know social work; I know procedure and this isn’t it: just no way.
The woman gives me a big smile. ‘Look after Angie. We’ll review in the morning.’
‘This can’t be right; I only have a bedsit. Angie needs clothes and stuff that girls need.’
The woman pushes the door nearly closed, moves behind the glass and opens it again.
Shoving an envelope into my hand, she says, ‘This will pay for some clothes; you may get a takeaway with it too.’ The door closes. A bolt clicks.
Angie is shivering but smiling at me with those glittering starry eyes.
‘Angie… Oh my God … things don’t work like this, honest. I should know.’ I tear open the envelope and gasp at the contents. ‘Jesus, let’s get you some stuff to keep you warm.’
There are still some shops open in the arcade. I can’t cope with the way Angie wants to show me all the stuff she’s trying on. She’s so attractive and so staying with me in my room tonight. I really want to die.
Pizzas and lots of cups of tea later and she wants to have a shower. No problems. I’m getting arrangements all sussed. I’ve laid my sleeping bag on the floor and made a sort of blind of clothes and towels hanging on a rope from the wardrobe to the windowsill. I even changed my sheets for fresh ones so she doesn’t have to put up with my body odour when she goes to bed.
I give her my big towel and send her on her way with a smack on the bum. Why did I do that? Two of me did that. Only one of them is nice.
I get a shout from the shower, ‘How do I get this to work?’
I open the door and she’s naked, her back to me. ‘Get some bloody clothes on!’ Oh God, I frightened her. ‘Sorry, Angie, I’m really sorry.’ I mumble through the closed door. ‘Can you put the towel round you? I’ll show you how everything works.’
Now I’m on the phone to that bloody children’s home. I get the same woman again. ‘Look, this is crap. She was naked. I had to show her how the shower works.’
‘So I told her to put a towel round her.’
‘So she did, and…’
‘So everything is all right then.’
‘What?’ But the phone goes dead. I try the number again but I get, “This number is not recognised”.
Angie doesn’t want to sleep and my laptop is too ancient for videos. She gets out my photo album.
‘What’s this?’ she asks.
‘How on earth did you find that under all the mess?’
‘It was just there.’
In children’s homes you build up a book with photos of you at school and camps and stuff. Some people are lucky and have pictures of parents too. We go through every photo with me explaining them all. Angie never stops asking questions. She doesn’t mind me crying a bit. I haven’t had the guts to look at all this in years.
She’s really like a sister. I’m a bit more sorted out now like I know who I am and who she is. She says I was cute as a baby.
She gets up and goes to my TV.
‘Angie, it doesn’t work.’ I’m too broke to buy a new one.
She switches it on and says, ‘Come and learn about me.’
The screen comes alive to a news report. ‘A girl was pulled into a car on Tuesday at eleven at night.’
I gasp, not that the television’s working but at the security video footage. ‘Angie! That’s you…’
The report goes on. ‘The car crashed and the three male occupants were seriously injured. They remain in hospital under police observation and charged with…’
‘Was that you, Angie?’
The sound goes a bit but I catch, ‘The police are asking for the girl, aged around sixteen and with long fair hair, to contact…’
The screen dies.
Angie flicks her eyes at me then down to the floor. ‘There are two sides to me, Craig.’ Her hands go together, clasp and clench. She writhes as if in discomfort.
Not making eye-contact she says, ‘Will you walk me down to the beach?’
She holds my hand all the way but doesn’t talk, just squeezes my hand every time I ask a question. We crunch onto the sand and the hissing surf soaks my trainers.
To our left the dying embers of the beach party flicker sparks in the sea breeze.
The lifeguard’s tower is always empty at this time. By habit I go towards it and climb. I went first but Angie is already seated as I get to the top. I don’t know how she did that.
She clutches my hand again. ‘Craig.’ She points. ‘That’s my star. Look hard. Know where to find it.’
My blurred vision seems to have cleared. I can see stars again. I can see every last shining ripple that they illuminate. I gasp.
She wraps her arm round mine and hugs it. She’s so warm. Hot. I’m brushing my face over her hair. I have no idea how that started.
‘Craig, I can heal and I can hurt. You can see better now. That’s me saying thank you for your kindness and all the torment I put you through. But I have to go and it’ll be a while before I can come back. I have a job to do. If I can do it right I may find a way to be human like you.’
She presses her face into my neck. ‘I’ll grow older too, I promise. I’ll be grown up enough for you one day. Will you promise not to be so scared of me then? And still be lonely?’
She disappears. I had an arm wrapped around bony shoulders. My hand flops onto the plastic seat, still warm from her.
To the south, her star winks at me.
© Gary Bonn: 2012