Authors: Isabel Ashdown
For my father Jules (1940–1990)
‘Little islands are all large prisons:
one cannot look at the sea
without wishing for the wings of a swallow.’
Sir Richard Francis Burton
Met Office report for the Isle of Wight, 31 December 1970:
Minimum temperature 26°F/–3.3°C
As 1970 gives way to ’71, a hard frost settles across the ground, its icy fingers reaching out over town and farmland, cloaking houses and gardens from one end of the island to the other. Out on the gravelled driveway of the McKees’ seafront home, white mist settles on the bare branches of the cherry tree, freezing the water of the ornamental bird bath, sending a frosty chill through the mirrored hallway as
guests collect their coats and make their merry way.
Joanna understands how this night will play out; Marie explained it to her carefully at the start of the evening. When midnight has rolled by – when only the most steadfast revellers remain – it’s the women who will pick the keys from the bowl. It couldn’t be simpler. Up here, in John and Marie’s candlelit living room, the last dozen guests gather on the sofas, champagne and anticipation shining in their eyes. Beyond the glass of the balcony doors, the moon reflects brightly over the clawing drag of high tide, the view clear and crisp from this warm bubble of New Year cheer, high above the icy shingle and shoreline below.
Thrilled, and yet anxious, Joanna draws up her stockinged feet, tucking them beneath her as she settles against the velvet cushions, leaning into Richard, linking her fingers with his.
He squeezes her hand, pushing away tendrils of tawny hair as he kisses her ear. Simon and Laura sit on the sofa opposite, a fist-sized gap between them. Laura is engaged in discussion with the older woman to her left, who extends a sinewy brown leg, turning it this way and that to illustrate some yoga position or other. Laura attempts to mimic the move, laughing freely at her own failings, as Simon runs forefinger and thumb across his upper lip in a self-soothing motion. Someone changes the record over, and the sounds of the room are softened by Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’. Richard glances back at Joanna and smiles, a shared intimacy, before returning to chat with the guests to his other side. Joanna wants to make conversation too, to break down the tension that’s rising behind her ribcage as the reality of the moment grows ever nearer. She wants this evening to happen more than anything, and yet her every instinct tells her she should be at home now, tucked up in her marital bed with Richard by her side, her son asleep in the room next door. Across the coffee table Simon is silent too, and, as she observes this, their eyes meet and linger and she recognises his shame. With a jolt she looks away, unable to return the steady gaze of one of her oldest friends, and, fleetingly, she considers her escape.
In that moment, their hosts breeze in, bringing with them the scent of pine needles and Paco Rabanne. White-haired John holds another bottle aloft, looking suddenly youthful and alert in the twinkling light of the Christmas tree; Marie bends to stoke the fire, mischievously running her hands over the seat of her trouser suit as she turns and smiles at the gathered friends.
‘Are we ready?’ she asks, her neat little palms coming together like a prayer.
When Marie conjures up the glass bowl, there’s applause. She places it on the coffee table with a flourish, and firelight dances in the crystal-cut surface, casting shards of
over the balcony doors and out into the darkness of the night.
‘I think our new guests should go first, don’t you, John?’ Marie slips out of her sandals and pads across the room to lean on the sofa-back between Simon and Laura.
John eases the cork from the new bottle and circles the room to top up glasses. ‘Of course! Let the youngsters kick it off. So who’s to be first – Laura or Joanna?’
Joanna suppresses a gasp as Laura springs forward, unhesitant, to plunge her hand into the bowl of keys on the table before her. With her free hand she pushes back a lock of shiny black hair, boldly eyeing every male in the room before pulling out her chosen key with a challenging jangle.
A younger man at the end of the sofa raises his hand like a schoolboy, and amidst claps and murmurs of amusement Laura leads him from the room, directed along the corridor by Marie, who smiles after them like a proud parent.
‘So, Joanna?’ she says, gesturing at the bowl of keys as if it were nothing more than a plate of canapés.
Joanna feels the soft tread of the carpet beneath her feet as she lowers her legs from the sofa, and she turns to look at Richard. He nods, gently urging her forward, his fingertips tender in the small of her back. She can’t raise her eyes, can’t brazen it out like Laura. So instead she slips her hand into the tangle of keys and searches it out. Time slows as her fingers fumble around the contents of the bowl, trying to locate a particular key fob, panic flooding her veins when nothing feels familiar. At last she finds it, recognises the spongy texture of the little orb, and she wraps her fingers around it, pulls it from the bowl and raises it like a question mark.
Met Office report for the Isle of Wight, early May 1976:
Maximum temperature 75°F/24°C
There’s a taste of things to come in early May, when soaring temperatures create a mini-heatwave across the country. Standing in the sunlight of his front drive, Luke Wolff wipes his oily hands on the back of his patched-up jeans and stands back to admire his new scooter. It’s a 1969 orange Vespa – a little rusty around the bodywork, but it’s his, bought with his own money despite his mother’s anxious complaints. In the quiet heat of afternoon, white sunlight spreads over the driveway and out across the small lawn at the front of the bungalow, reflecting brightly in the polished chrome of the scooter’s headlamp. There’s a breathless quality in the air, a comforting sense of being here alone on his front drive, while the rest of the neighbourhood is absent, working or at school.
Luke gives the vinyl seat a final polish with his new chamois and pulls his T-shirt over his head, flinging it on the doorstep and absently wiping a smudge of oil across his sweaty brow. As he starts to clear up his gear, the familiar pop-pop-sputter of Martin’s scooter bounces along the avenue, growing louder as he draws up on the path beyond the open metal gate. Luke watches as his friend turns into the drive and heel-steps towards the house, looking as if he’s riding a kiddie bike, with his pale bony knees bent up too
high. He’s six foot five and thin as a rake. He really shouldn’t be wearing shorts with those legs. It’s not a cool look.
Martin unclips his helmet and untangles himself from the seat like a grasshopper. Tucking the helmet under his arm, he steps around Luke’s new scooter, rubbing his chin with his large hand, his shoulder-length hair hanging sweaty and dull where the helmet has pressed it against his head.
‘Like it?’ Luke asks, automatically stepping back on to the doorstep to bring himself closer to Martin’s level. ‘I’ve been working on it all morning. You know, checking the oil, polishing the chrome and all that. Took her along the seafront earlier on. She goes like a dream.’
A slow smile passes over Martin’s face and he runs his fingers around the globe of the front lamp. ‘Very nice.’ His hand rests there for a moment, while his pale green eyes travel over the bodywork for a second look. He nods appreciatively and turns back to his own bike to unstrap a stack of LPs held together in a plastic carrier bag.
Luke picks up his T-shirt and pushes open the front door. In contrast to the bright glare of outdoors, the cool, narrow hallway renders him momentarily blind as he makes his way through to his bedroom, where he pours them both a glass of lukewarm lemonade. Luke eases himself up on to the window ledge, resting his feet on his desk as he studies the sleeve of one of Martin’s LPs, running his finger along the curling white smoke trail of David Bowie’s cigarette. Sunshine pours in through the open window, heating his back and filling the room with the honeysuckle scent of the front garden.
this album. This is officially my favourite record of the year. I’ll get it myself when I’ve got a bit of spare cash again. I put just about everything I’d saved into getting that scooter.’
Martin is lying on Luke’s single bed, air-drumming, his feet hooked through the bars of the headboard and his head hanging over the edge of the divan. His hair dangles like dull tassels.
Luke turns the album cover over to scrutinise the playlist on the back.
‘“Young Americans” is the best track. No contest.’
‘Agreed.’ Martin hits a final air-cymbal and swings his long legs up and off the bed, rucking up the yellow candlewick bedspread as he brings his feet to the floor. He picks up a dusty book from the bedside cabinet and starts to thumb through the pages, not really looking at the words. ‘Any good?’ he asks, holding it up.
‘Dunno. I can’t seem to concentrate on reading at the moment. I was meant to be revising today, but it’s too hot.’ Luke rests his chin on the album cover. ‘So, whaddya know?’
‘Not much,’ says Martin. ‘It’s all work, work, work at our place. The only time I get a break is when I’m revising. But we’ve got swallows nesting in the eaves of the workshop. I’m surprised they’re there at all, with all the noise we make, but still, they’re there. I think they like the long grasses in the garden; plenty of insects for them, I suppose.’
‘Have they laid eggs?’
‘Think so. I’m keeping a close eye.’ Martin gazes past Luke, out through the open window. ‘You know, the Egyptians thought swallows were the souls of the dead.’
Luke drops off the desk and starts thumbing through his album collection. ‘Maybe that’s my grandad you’ve got in your eaves.’
‘Or my mum,’ Martin replies, his eyes vacant. ‘Imagine that. If your soul really was separate from your body? So even when your body stops working, your soul could fly.’
‘Deep, man.’ Luke smirks, pulling out another record and stretching across to pass it to Martin. Martin looks up and takes the album from him, flipping it over without interest.
‘It would be good, though, wouldn’t it? To fly?’
Luke looks at his strange friend, trying to see him as others do. He’s been around him so long now that he just sees
, not the giant they all see, broken-nosed and
Even his hands are giant, like long, elegant shovels. ‘Tell you what would be good, mate. A girlfriend. It’s been bloody ages since I went out with anyone. Surely we’ll get to meet some nice girls this summer.’ He picks up a pencil and lobs it at Martin’s lap.
Martin’s eyes zone back in and he gives a slow nod. ‘But you’ll meet loads of new people at college, won’t you? Don’t know what chance I’ve got, stuck in this place.’
A static image of Martin at the workbench seeps into Luke’s mind, like an ageless photograph, trapped in time. ‘You’ll be fine, mate,’ he says.
Martin links his fingers, cracking his knuckles loudly. ‘I’m starving. D’you think your mum’ll let us have something to eat?’
‘Yeah. Come on, then.’ Gesturing for Martin to get off the bed, Luke straightens up his covers before lifting the needle off the record and lowering the perspex lid.
As they reach the kitchen, Dad calls out from the living room, ‘Is that you, Luke? Get me a beer from the fridge, will you?’
‘What did your last slave die of?’ Luke shouts back.
‘Nothing! She’s in the kitchen!’
Luke groans as Dad’s laughter trails away, and the lads enter the light-filled kitchen, where they find Mum and Kitty making dough babies on the floury table, poking in eyes and bellybuttons with the end of a paintbrush.
‘Mart-eeee!’ Kitty screams, waving her floury hands above her head.
‘Hello, Martin,’ Mum says, handing the brush to Kitty, who frowns hard at Luke.
Martin tucks a strand of hair behind one ear, a pink tinge rising in his high cheeks. ‘Hello, Mrs Wolff.’ Kitty bashes the brush on the table, still trying to get his attention. ‘Hey, Kitty,’ he replies, raising a hand.
Mum looks up. ‘You get taller every time we see you, doesn’t he, Kitty?’
?’ Luke rolls his eyes and opens the fridge, tutting as the door of the tiny freezer compartment falls open with a crack, scattering ice dust.
Kitty presses her thumb down on a dough baby’s head, squashing its face into the table. ‘I’m
,’ she says, assertively waving four fingers in the air.
‘Nearly old enough for school,’ says Martin, accepting an ice pop from Luke.
Kitty smiles proudly and returns her attention to the dough babies.
‘Phewee! What about this weather, then, boys?’ Mum pinches her loose smocked shirt and wafts it at the neckline. ‘Just look at Luke – he’s already so brown you’d think he’d been to the South of France! Who’d imagine May could possibly be as hot as this?’
Martin holds his arm up against Luke’s, comparing his pale skin to his friend’s chestnut tan, as Mum stretches over the sink, filling the kettle and setting it down on the side. She looks at Luke and sighs.
‘You ought to do something about your hair, Luke. It’s getting a bit long. Although I’d kill for dark shiny hair like yours. Look at it – straight as a poker.’ She rakes fingers through her own wavy hair, drawing it over one shoulder. ‘Your dad’s was just the same as yours when I first met him.’
Luke ignores her.
‘Your hair’s lovely, Mrs Wolff,’ says Martin, staring at his ice pop. ‘Sort of honey-coloured.’
‘Pack it in, Mart.’ Luke grimaces and loads up two plates with roughly made sandwiches and crisps. Martin looks away, rubbing a thumb down his long crooked nose.
can come again,’ Mum says, twirling her hair into a bunch. ‘Although this weather is playing havoc with it. There’s so much static.’ She reaches into the cupboard for a mug.
‘How many cups of tea do you drink a day, Mum?’ Luke asks irritably.
She flicks the switch at the wall. ‘I don’t know. Six? Maybe eight?’
‘What d’you mean, “urgh”? What’s wrong with tea all of a sudden?’
Luke hands a plate to Martin, and looks back at Mum, pushing his fringe from his face. ‘I think you’ve got too much time on your hands.’
Martin, clearly uncomfortable, takes a special interest in Kitty’s dough babies, scanning the table with a fixed expression of concentration.
‘Goodness me, Luke, it’s not like I’m drinking gin all day long, or smoking pot. You are a strange boy sometimes.’ She turns away to get on with her tea-making. ‘So, how’s your dad, Martin? Is business good? I haven’t seen him in the town for months.’
Martin clears his throat.
‘He just got another big order in, so we’re really busy. I’m going to be working for him full-time when exams are over. Some of the new frames he’s making are really big – the biggest is six or seven foot tall, so you need two men on that kind of job.’
Mum reaches into the low fridge to fetch a beer for Dad, handing it to Luke, along with the bottle opener. ‘I hope you’ll have a bit of a break, Martin, before you get stuck into all that work. You’ve been studying hard too – harder than old slack-chops here.’
Martin grins as Luke pushes him. ‘Yeah, well, I need to – he’ll get good marks whatever he does. I’ve got a weekend off soon, so we’re gonna go round the island on our scooters, aren’t we, Luke?’
Luke rolls Dad’s beer bottle from one hand to the other. ‘Uh-huh. We’ll take the tent, make a weekend of it. Martin wants to do a bit of bird-spotting.’ He smirks. ‘He’ll be busy looking up in the sky with his binoculars, while I’ll be trying to spot birds of the mammalian kind.’
Mum purses her lips. ‘
. I hate it when you say that.’
?’ He laughs, putting a saucy accent on the word.
mammals, aren’t they? So, strictly speaking, they’re mammalian.’
She scowls harder. ‘And “birds”. It’s sexist.’
When Luke notices Martin’s awkwardness, he laughs even louder. Mum flicks him with the teatowel and turns away to clear the washing-up. Martin’s eyes linger a moment on her small waist. Luke frowns at him to let him know he’s noticed and gives him a little shove towards the door, making a point of pulling a face at Kitty as he goes. She squawks, throwing her paintbrush to the floor.
‘Oh, that reminds me,’ Mum calls after them before they disappear into the hallway. ‘Any chance you could babysit on Saturday night, Luke? You’re more than welcome to come over too, Martin.’
Luke shrugs. ‘Alright, but only if we can have a couple of drinks.’
‘Deal.’ Mum flashes a bright smile at the boys. ‘There you go, Kitty. You’ve got your favourite friend Marty coming to babysit.’
Kitty reaches above her head and claps her floury hands, sending white dust clouds billowing, and Martin laughs, giving her the thumbs-up as they leave the room.
In the living room, Dad’s sitting in his armchair with his feet on the footstool. He’s got the newspaper on his lap and he’s carefully folding it back along the crease to make it easier to handle. Luke’s seen him do it a thousand times before. ‘Ah!’ he says, slapping the paper down on the side table so he can stand, taking the beer from Luke with his left hand, simultaneously offering Martin a handshake with his right. ‘Just the ticket.’ He raises his bottle. ‘Cheers! It’s a hot one today, eh?
? Feels more like August. Look, I’ve already got the old legs out.’
Luke cringes at his father’s faded denim shorts and Jesus sandals. He’s not even wearing a shirt.
‘Not bad for forty-something. Look at that!’ He pats himself on the stomach, indicating for Martin to do the same. ‘Go on, feel it. My abdominals are as tight today as they were twenty years ago.’
Martin stretches out his arm and gently prods Mr Wolff’s stomach. ‘Wow,’ he says, sincerely. He looks at Luke. ‘That really is firm.’
‘So, I suppose you two have come out of your pit to watch
Top of the Pops
?’ Dad says, dropping back into his seat and reaching for his newspaper and ballpoint pen. He points his biro towards the television. ‘Flick it on, son. We don’t want to miss the dancing girls, do we?’
Martin sits on the sofa as Luke switches programmes, giving the old television set a smack on the side to make the picture settle. ‘He means Pan’s People,’ he says, waggling his eyebrows. ‘You know they’re not on any more, Dad.’
‘Of course they are. It’s
Top of the Pops
‘Really, Pan’s People aren’t on any more. I saw their last show a few weeks back.’
‘Typical!’ Dad says, throwing down his pen. It’s just about the only thing worth paying the licence fee for these days! This’ll be down to that harridan Mary Whitehouse and her bloody decency laws.’
Luke and Martin eat their sandwiches, chatting over various songs until Noel Edmonds introduces a new act, a mixed dance troupe, who come on to ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ by the Stylistics.
‘Who’s this?’ Martin asks.
‘I can tell you one thing – it’s not bloody well Pan’s People!’ Dad shakes his head, shifting to the edge of his seat where he stares intently at the screen. ‘Good God! They’ve even got men at it!’