HOLEY STONES By Anita M Hall
It feels like bone against bone. The passive push of pebbles into flesh. It feels like I’m a part of the beach.
No. Of course it doesn’t. I just want it to feel like that. Instead, it’s bone against bone. No blending. No yielding. The beach is itself, and my presence, leaning down across the pebbles, is nothing to it. No more than flotsam and jetsam, beachcomber stuff. Less than that.
I love it here though. The not-mattering is therapeutic. It’s the reason I’m here. The reason I’m sitting on stones, knees tight to my chest, while the wind flings my hair taut across my face and dusts my lips with salt. That constant hush-cush and suck of tide on pebbles. Each time a few yield and shift, but you can’t really see them. It’s a microscopic movement hidden by the tugging water. The sort of barely-happening motion that wears holes through stones and shapes the beach’s curves.
Despite the wind, the sea is quite gentle today. Gulls sit like ducks on its flattening waves. The sky, though, is that blank canvass that precedes snow. And it’s cold. My fingers feel raw as they pick pick pick through pebbles, sometimes plucking one into my palm, cupping, stroking, gently replacing. It’s those long-worn holey stones I’m really looking for. Not in an active, let’s-comb-the-beach way. I pick with the blind fingers of a Scrabble player selecting letters. Or I let my eyes drop and pin-point contenders with my gaze. It really is that simple.
When I was a child I wanted a stone with a hole through the middle. I should clarify here that we’re not talking about stones with little holes in their surfaces, or even ones with little caves that almost go right through. My stones, the ones I steal from the beach, are the ones with holes all the way through. Anyway, anyway, little girl me wanted a stone with a hole through the middle, and I did find one. But it took a long time. It became a kind of quest. For the duration of that particular childhood holiday, at any rate.
Then I forgot about all that for twenty years, until I moved to Brighton. Now I am always finding them. Or, rather, they find me. Like I said, my eyes are drawn to them, or my fingers pluck them intuitively from the mass.
The other thing that’s happened, is that I’ve discovered I’m not alone in collecting these stones. I read somewhere that holey stones are considered lucky and should be strung on a red ribbon and hung in the house. I pile mine randomly around my flat. Miniature landslides on my windowsills, by the phone, on top of my computer. I like the way stones make things real. I like the way they make me real, paper-weighting me to my life. And the way they also, like today, make me disappear.
I’ve probably been sitting here, stone-sorting, letting the sea into my head, trying not to exist, for about an hour now. Or maybe it’s only half an hour. Or ten minutes. Or a lifetime. How many lifetimes does it take to wear a hole through a pebble? If we are all made of stardust, then we are all made of stone too. I wish I could wear away in the cool sucky kiss of the tide. I want the chill to soak into me. To make me invincible. Bar, I suppose, that tiny, near-invisible flaw that will, one day, centuries ahead, become a little dent, and then, centuries more, a hole, that will, eventually (patience, now) worm through to the other side.
I hold a holey stone to my eye and squint through it at the sea. Something heavier than the wind, the spray, the salt brushes my face. I look up and it’s snowing. Before I realise, I have got to my feet, adjusting my balance against the slipping pebbles. I had planned to sit there for ever. Or at least a while longer. Until I had decided what to do. But somehow snow makes you get to your feet. However frozen you think you are or want to be, sitting in snow… well, it wasn’t the way I had seen it happening. I almost feel annoyed as I start to walk back across the beach.
Strange. It’s snowing but there’s still the faintest blur of sun somewhere behind the white. And the snow’s not the defined snowshaker-type snow, but interference on a television screen. I feel its damp weight settling into my hair and clothes and misting my skin.
It’s so quiet here. As I near the pier, though, the energy shifts. Through the snow the lights of the fairground smear out across the slow-motion waves. There’s the distinctive tug of loudspeaker music and arcade machines, chips in paper cones with wooden, two-pronged forks. Stuff that helps you forget yourself. As I blink up at it all, the snow melts softly off my eyelashes, and I realise just how wet I’m getting.
I climb the steps up from the beach, my wet boots slipping slightly on the wood. At the entrance to the pier, a group of teenagers are pushing hotdogs into their mouths between shouts of laughter. They are always here. Or groups like them. Three girls, five boys. The boys wear those baggy-crotch skateboarder trousers and parkas, and their voices have that just-broken gruffness. The girls remind me of pony-tailed storks, with their short skirts and skinny black-clad legs. It feels as if I am watching from behind glass. A spectator. A voyeur. I make up my mind, and walk briskly past them onto the pier, my eyes following the flicker of the water below through the gaps in the planking.
The pier has the gaudy familiarity of an eccentric relative. It is the lovable tart, brash, bright and ever welcoming. Stacked, striped deckchairs and poke-your-head-through ‘saucy’ picture boards flank the blare and bustle of the amusement arcade. Despite the weather – or because of it, I suppose – the arcade is busy. The heat and sound hit me as I walk in past the grab-a-prize machines, stocked with second-rate imitations of the latest soft-toy fads. It smells of wet clothing and coins. I side-wind between rally cars and slot-machines, shouldering past kids that look like they should be in school and pensioners feeding their pensions into slots.
A man pushing an empty buggy slams into my ankles as he passes, and I feel tears well foolishly in my eyes. It’s not that it hurt. It’s the sense of not mattering. Yes, I know I said I welcomed it before, but that was different. It was on my own terms, somehow. Now I am merely overlooked.
Back outside, it’s a cheesy, pound shop Christmas card. The sleety snow has metamorphosed into fat, picture book flakes. And it’s starting to settle. Already there’s a fuzzy layer over the pier’s boards. I cross to the railing and look down and across at the beach. It has been smoothed white and alien. The sea is that same still grey. The sun has gone.
Smudgy footprints have followed me. My hair is wet enough now to plaster itself to my face with each gust of wind. An icy droplet breaches the neck of my jumper and slips down my back. I’d like a coffee - maybe a hot, frothy cappuccino - but there’s no point digging in my purse. I know I haven’t got enough money left. And, anyway, they’ll be wondering where I am. I’ll have to go soon.
I never wear a watch. Life strapped, ticking, to your wrist is so… I don’t know. It depresses and stresses me. Or maybe it’s just the aching responsibility of trying to be ‘on time’. Having a watch to confirm you’re late just makes the whole thing worse. This way, there’s something else to blame. Missed a train? Oops, didn’t know it was that late.
Here on the pier though, there’s a clock tower that is hard to ignore. It says it’s three o’clock. What time am I supposed to be there? I’ve pushed it so far to the back of my mind that it’s hard to reclaim. I blink hard to stop myself crying.
“Are you all right, dear?” The voice, so close and warm, makes me start. It’s one of the pensioners from the arcade. She’s got a green woolly hat pulled down over her forehead, and her crinkly eyes are the grey of the sea and brimming with friendly concern. When she lays a gloved hand on my sleeve, I feel fresh tears spring in my eyes.
“It’s just, well, you don’t look too well, if you don’t mind me saying so. I don’t mean to interfere, but you remind me of my granddaughter…” She trails off, but pats my arm gently. Her breath smells of peppermint. When I don’t reply, I sense her awkwardness and wait for her to move away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interfere,” she murmurs, lowering her gaze.
Suddenly blood flushes my cheeks, and I feel ashamed. She’s just an old lady, after all. “No, no,” I say, clutching her hand. “I’m sorry. It was kind of you to ask.”
She smiles and waits for me to explain, but I don’t know what to say. The silence spins out and the snow darkens the green hat. The old lady smiles again and gives my arm another kindly pat. “Well, you look after yourself, love.”
I give a little nod and make myself smile back, as she moves away down the pier. She waves, and I am about to wave too, when I realise she is looking past me to an elderly man, standing, waiting, in the doorway to the fish restaurant. They link arms with the easy affection of long-time lovers and go through the door together. Now I really am going to cry. Stop it, stop it, stop it. I start to walk again.
The women’s toilets are empty and a little warmer than outside. The floor is marbled with muddy footprints, and there is a damp cigarette end in one of the basins. I lean in so my face is inches from the mirror and my breath mists its surface. My skin is bluish with ruddy highlights on my cheekbones and the tip of my nose. I look waxy and unreal. I stare into my own eyes and wish I knew what to do.
They have painted away the sign for Raj the Indian Palmist. But if they hadn’t, and I had some money… I play scenarios in my head. They all involve someone giving me the answers, telling me what I should do and what would happen. It doesn’t even have to be happily-ever-after. It’s just about going one way or the other. Making that choice. Or rather, someone making it for you. The age-old abdication of responsibility.
The gipsy caravan is empty too. But it has been as long as I have been coming here. Blocks anchor its wooden wheels to the pier. Every now and then, you see someone climb the steps and peer through the panes in the window. Helloooo? Anybody home? I would cross palms with silver for an answer.
There are, of course, other places you can go. There’s everything here in Brighton. Just behind us in the Laines, you can have your aura photographed or your Tarot read, your anxieties dissected and discussed for half an hour or an hour. Whatever you can afford. I’ve tried it all, and, junkie-like, I crave further fixes each time my life veers in a different direction. But, like I said, I don’t have the money. And I know it’s a cop out. I just hate deciding for myself. Especially this time.
I can’t see the clock tower properly from here, but I know I’m going to be late now. I walk on.
The fair is only half-alive this time of year. Of course, it’s a weekday too. Some of the rides are closed. The children’s roundabout has retired half its animals. I suppose they’re getting fresh coats of paint. There’s nobody to notice. It’s deserted at this end of the pier. The snow has sent everyone inside. I wander around for a bit, and it has that ghost town feel to it. At the far end, I lean on the rail by the No Entry sign. The contained busyness of all those people pushing coins into machines or chomping fish-and-chip specials makes me lonely. No, not really lonely. There’s a freedom to it too. I’m out here and it’s wet and white and beautiful, and there’s this wooden rail and the sea and the sky and the snow and me. Just me.
I turn my face up and snow trickles down onto my skin. I stare out to sea where the horizon knits grey to white, and I feel my spirits lifting. That ancient exhilaration when the soul resonates with the elements. It dwarves me and gives me perspective. Child of the Universe stuff. I love the sea. Did I mention that?
As I stand here, the weight of my decision seems as insignificant as that of my wet clothes. Best of all, though, I realise I’ve finally made up my mind. I know I’m not going to the appointment, and that it doesn’t matter. Something inside me has decided.
I stride back along the pier with a new purposefulness. Now that I know I’m not going anywhere, I seem galvanised into motion. The pier is choked with snow now, but my boots tread with new confidence.
This time I skirt round the side of the arcade and break the fresh snow like a child. The beach looks unfamiliar. There’s something incongruous about snow on a beach. I decide to walk back that way, and tug my jumper sleeves down over my hands, balling up the ends in my fists. The cold matters less now though. That numb don’t-know-what-to-do feeling has gone. In its place, a gentle flame is kindling.
Okay, I tell myself, as I scrunch over the snowy stones, it will be hard. But I will manage. There’s something about talking aloud to yourself on a beach in the snow. It makes me smile. I am giving myself the sort of pep talk my mother would have given me if she’d been alive. Or so I like to think. It will be hard, I tell the grey and the white, the snow and the sky, the sea and the stones. It will be hard, but I will be fine. It doesn’t matter that I will be on my own. Lots of people are on their own. Other people manage. So can I.
I’m walking so arm-swingingly fast now, that my breath is puffing in hot clouds from my mouth. Sometimes a snowflake flutters onto my tongue. Past the empty volleyball courts and all the boarded up beach shops and cafes and bars and clubs. I don’t even need that coffee anymore. I’m glowing from within like the Readybrek kid.
Past the children’s play area with its hulking climbing frames and frozen sandpits. The paddling pool has been drained for winter and the ice cream kiosk is closed. I’ve never been in the playgound before, and it’s certainly not the weather for it now. But I find myself going in anyway, through a child-sized wooden gate that springs back behind me. Of course, the place is empty. Who would bring a child out to play in this?
I meander slowly round. I run my fingers down the bumpy back of a crocodile-shaped seesaw, touch the roped scoops that hang from a wooden climbing tower, spin the clogged steering wheel of a toy ship. Everything is thickening with snow. It’s ridiculous to stay here, I know, but I clear a miniature bench with my sleeve and sit down. The sky’s growing darker, and I realise it will soon be dusk. I want to sit here for a bit though. The urgency that propelled me across the beach has subsided. But it’s left behind a sort of residual contentment. The new warmth inside me is comforting, and I feel safe and almost sleepy.
I said I’d never been in here before, but I’ve been past lots of times. And I don’t just mean past on the way to getting somewhere else. I mean walking lingeringly past, watching the mothers and children. Some of them have that soft, harassed air. They are the ones whose kids always seem to fight over plastic spades and get sand thrown in their eyes. You can imagine these women at home serving chilled beers to their slobby, Match of the Day-watching husbands. I think of them as old-fashioned mums. Stereotypes, really. Like mine was.
Then there are the mothers that sit together in little groups on the narrow ledge by the rope fence. They always look faintly bored as they recline with their polystyrene cups of coffee and low-tar cigarettes. They wear crop tops that showcase their flat bellies. Their kids are usually the ones doing the sand-throwing. But they don’t notice. Or care.
The mothers I most like to watch, though, are the ones I think of as the ‘Brighton Mums’. They have that unconventional look about them. They wear colourful scarves around their cropped or dreadlocked hair, and their charity shop clothes somehow embody the best of Brighton chic. Their children are junior hippies with unkempt hair and mismatched outfits. The younger ones run naked, browning in the sun. No-fuss children that can land face down at the foot of the slide without running to their mummies. The Brighton Mums have this relaxed, no-sweat style of parenting that fascinates and enthrals me. When I walk slowly past the playground, or sit at the café behind it, they are the ones I study. And, yes (say it, say it), they are the ones I try to imagine myself being.
I stretch my legs out into the sandpit in front of me and my boot connects with something hard under the covering of snow. I scuff gently with my toe. It’s a stone. I bend to pick it up, and, of course, it has a hole through it. I laugh, but I’m not really surprised. Like I said, holey stones find me. And this time it seems like an especially good omen. I believe in things like that.
The snow continues to patter onto my hair and face, and I focus on the warmth inside my belly and clutch the holey stone to me. I close my eyes, and flakes kiss my eyelids. Yes, it’s a good omen. Confirmation of my right decision. I’m going to have this baby.
Anita M Hall won the BBC's Tales of the City of Brighton & Hove short story competition with 'Holey Stones', which was subsequently published in two
different magazines and broadcast on BBC Radio.
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