Authors: Edward Hogan
We’re drawn to each other, us messengers. We must be. I remember the first time I saw him, down by the beach huts. There was something about him. The
of him. How could I not go over?
You might even say it was fate, but I don’t believe in that.
I’d been sent to Helmstown for a little break. Back home, there’d been all sorts of trouble. My brother, Johnny, had punched an off-duty policeman during a pub brawl, and the guy was in intensive care. A few days later, some shady characters had thrown a brick through the window of our flat. Johnny, scared about what the police might do to him, was on the run. Mum had gone to stay with her boyfriend (who I don’t like), so she’d given me some cash and sent me down to the coast to stay with my aunt and uncle and my cousin, Max. It was the summer holidays.
My name is Frances, but they called me “
” in Helmstown, because of the accent. It was like a different name, and Helmstown was like a different world.
So there we were, me and Max, walking the path above the seawall as the night came down. The day had been muggy, but the wind was fresh now, and when it came off the sea, you felt like you’d been slapped. The beach huts were on our left, and almost all of them were dark and padlocked. They looked like cold little men in hats.
“Where are these mates of yours, then, Maxi?”
“By the Coffee Shack probably,” he said.
The Coffee Shack! Back home, we didn’t meet our friends for
Max was a year younger than me, and the last time I’d seen him, he’d been a chubby little boy in shorts who collected beetles and watched cartoons. He’d had a growth spurt since then. Now he swished his hair to one side and wore geek-chic thick-rimmed glasses with thin lenses and low-rise skinny jeans with the bum hanging down. He carried a skateboard. It was nice: I’d turned up expecting a little squirt to hang out with, and I’d found a proper friend. Maybe.
Farther up the path, I could see that one of the beach huts was lit from the inside. Lamplight spilled out beyond the open red door.
“So, what did the doctor say about your fainting? You’re hardly a delicate flower, Frances,” Max said.
“He said it was your mum’s cooking,” I said.
It wasn’t. Auntie Lizzie’s a great cook. The truth was I’d been having these funny turns for a while. The Helmstown doctor was as clueless as the doctors back home. It was a mystery. Basically, every now and then I had a blackout.
What the doctors didn’t know — because I never told anyone — was that when I woke up, in a daze, I started drawing.
I liked to draw in normal life. I kept a little sketch pad and a tin of Berol Venus green cracked-varnish pencils. In normal life, I drew what I’d been taught to draw: bowls of fruit, a knackered trainer, a collection of glass bottles. Typical art class stuff.
But the drawings I did after these blackouts were different. Usually they were just a jumble of geometric shapes or swirls. They were crazy, more like the slides our art teacher showed us of the paintings of Pablo Picasso and his mates. Except my drawings made less sense. In fact, until that morning at Auntie Lizzie’s, the drawings had never made
sense. Until then, they’d just been random scribbles, incomplete pictures. Of course, the reason I never told anyone about the drawings was because I didn’t fancy being locked away in a mental institution.
Recently the blackouts had started to get more regular. They used to happen about once a year, but now it was more like once a month. The doctors thought it was to do with my period. They thought I was anemic.
Anyway, I’d blacked out in my auntie’s kitchen that morning. The usual: tiredness, a smell of smoke, colors going weak, and then the world closing in from the sides. I fell off my chair, which probably looked quite dramatic. Auntie Lizzie took me up to my room, and — when she’d gone — I did my drawing, still in a strange sort of trance.
But this time, the drawing made sense. The sketch contained people, buildings. It was a street scene. A place I recognized. The clarity of the image was amazing. It was still my style, but way more sophisticated. Like a photograph, almost. And what the drawing showed . . . well, I didn’t want to think about it.
As we got closer to the open beach hut, a man stepped out, long and lean. His face was calm as he smoked. His jaw was strong, the lips thick as they blew. He wore dusty, sand-colored workman’s boots, jeans with paint stains, and a tracksuit top with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was blond and cut tight to his head. He was oldish; late twenties. The unusual thing about him was that he had a small magnifying glass above his right eye — the kind jewelers use to study diamonds — with a strap around his head to keep it in place.
I couldn’t stop looking at him. It’s difficult to explain why, to separate all the feelings. Thinking back, perhaps I recognized something in him. There was an attraction, too, although I might not have admitted it at the time. His body seemed to be wound tight with power, and I found myself staring at the wiry muscles in his lower arm. He took a draw on his cigarette and adjusted the magnifying glass on his forehead. Then he nodded to me as we passed, like he knew me, as if he were thinking the same things I was.
I looked back and took in the interior of the beach hut behind him, lit up by a big desk lamp. I could only see a fragment from that angle, but there were paints and brushes in cups, and daubs of color everywhere. We walked on, me and Max. My heart beat fast, but I tried to laugh it off. “Did you see that guy?” I said. “What did he have on his head?”
“No idea,” Max said. “He sells postcards, I think.”
“You know him?”
Max looked at me, surprised by the questions. “No,” he said. “I’ve just seen him around.”
I shot one last glance over my shoulder, but the man had gone back into the hut, and his fag end was rolling on the concrete of the path, the tip like a hot grain of sand.
It was almost completely dark when we saw the group of boys huddled by the light of the Coffee Shack, a small building with a serving hatch that backed onto the beach. A man was walking away from the Shack with a coffee in one hand and a slim dog held on a lead in the other. The boys behind him had skateboards. One of their phones glowed white.
“Are they your friends?”
“Yeah,” Max said.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like being in a crowd. “I think I’m going to head back to the house, Maxi,” I said.
bad,” Max said with a grin.
“It’s not that. I’m just a bit tired, you know.”
“Be careful,” he said.
“You southerners are all soft.”
Max laughed. He put down his board and rode toward his mates, and I went the other way.
I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t back to the house.
The door of the hut was still open, but he was bent over his work now, the magnifying glass pulled down over one eye. I stood back from the entrance for a moment and took in the tiny heater and the round mirror that reflected the sea, the swaying masts of the boats by the beach, and the dark shape of me. There was a postcard rack behind his chair and a hand-painted postcard on his desk, but he wasn’t painting. He was studying it. From the angle I was at, I couldn’t see the detail.
He must have noticed my shadow because he looked up, his free eye still closed. I imagined how I must have seemed to him through the magnifying glass: warped and blurred and massive.
“You’re back,” he said. He had a faded accent. Scottish or Irish. “I thought you might be.”
“Did you?” I said. “Maybe in your mind, this kind of hovel is a girl magnet.” I tended to lash out a bit when nervous.
He shrugged and I was surprised to see that I’d upset him. He turned back to the postcard and muttered something.
“Anyway, I was just passing and I saw your postcards,” I said. That was a lie, and the look on his face told me that he knew as much. “Do you paint them?”
“Some of them.”
“Can I buy one to send to my mum?”
“Sure. Anything on the rack is fifty p.”
Without stepping into the hut, I eyed the postcards on the rack. They were just the usual rubbish. Seafront scenes, beach huts, pictures of Princess Di, cartoons of vicars ogling women with big boobs.
“I wanted one of the hand-painted ones.”
He sighed and took off the magnifying glass. “I don’t think you do.”
“What do you mean?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll get to that later.”