He pulled into the services off the motorway. It was one of the days that happened once or twice a year in England, when the temperature seems to rocket and travel becomes uncomfortable without air conditioning. Even with the windows open the car boiled, his old Jaguar had a heater that would barely keep you from freezing in winter, and did nothing to stop you roasting in summer.
He pulled over at the far side of the car park, where it was quieter, parking facing the green slope of grass that people walked their dogs up for exercise. Idly he watched as a family took their dalmation for a walk up the hill. The hot breeze was blowing across the car park and up the hill, lifting the young girl’s skirt. She would smooth it down and then forget almost immediately and her flowery, light summer dress lifted again. The inevitable flash of white panties happened and he knew that he shouldn’t be interested. The girl was, maybe, twelve or so. Too innocent to think about the view of her white covered bottom from below. He wasn’t excited, just idly watching a pubescent girl’s rear; in a few years this view would have the boys flocking. He got out and went to buy a coffee to wake up and a Coke to cool down.
It had been a long drive, all night from the North of Scotland where the ferry from Orkney had dumped him at 11pm at night. He was tired, tired of the drive and tired of his family. Mostly he was tired of his brother; locked away on Mainland, Orkney for the last 20 years, out of communication, not wanting to talk to his family. Now, with their mother dying he had made a final, desperate effort to bring him round. It hadn’t worked. His mother had begged him to try; not really, he thought, because she cared, more because she thought she ought to care.
Well, he’d done his duty. He had driven his car, his Dad’s old car, all the way to Orkney and his brother had taken exception “Why do you get the car?”
“Because I was bloody well there when he died, because I needed a car, because I dropped my job to be more available to help. Because ... because you didn’t care one fucking bit!” He apologised, he always did; but the resentment stayed close to the surface. His brother would get half and yet he’d done nothing. Max didn’t really mind about that; he minded that his parents both left him with all the responsibilities and used him to do stuff for them and yet still treated his brother John the same in the will. It wasn’t the money, it was the love. Damn it! Why didn’t they love him more than his brother when John cared so little? What was it his father had said to him two weeks before he died? “Sorry about your job Richard, but it’s not like you were a director or anything. You’ll get another developer job I suppose; but isn’t it a young man’s game these days?” Yeah, thanks Dad, downgrade my sacrifice by telling me I was just in a shitty job. Actually it had been little loss, he hated working for Dogbert Enterprises (not their real name, that was what they all called the mega-engineering company with the caring soul of Caligula), but his Dad didn’t know that. He was, had been, a project manager on the new dyno-bit development; it was just weeks away from success when he left, now Tony Smith was getting all the credit. He enjoyed his work, just hated the shits you had to work for. His mum and dad were the only people to still call him Richard. Even his gran had switched to Max, she had been cool. Richard Mackintosh, he hated his name: Richard, Rich, Dick. Nothing made it better, and there were four Richards in his class at secondary school so he became Mack; by sixth form that had become Max and it stuck. He liked Max – he even liked it when the occasional drunken student had asked if he gave Max-imum Dick. Occasional drunk girls nearby would look interested at the prospect.
Back in the car with his coffee and Coke, he watched with a smile as the same family returned and the young girl now showed him the front of her pants. Her dress protruded slightly at the front where her small breasts had begun to show; to some perverted people she was a wet dream, unaware of the lust she could create. He drank his coffee, stepped out to put the cup in the bin and stroked the dog as it went past. The family smiled at him and he smiled back. ‘Ships passing’ he thought. Storylines that had no connection and made no sense.
At Woking he turned into his mother’s drive; washed, changed and went to the hospital. “Oh, Richard, what kept you? It’s been ages since you left. Did you find him? Did you get the call on your mobile?”
“Oh dear. His doctor called. He was found in his garden by the neighbours, massive stroke they think. They called your mobile to tell you.” She had given them his old work mobile which had been dropped when he left. He’d told her several times to use the new number, but she wasn’t interested in anything but herself these days.
“He’s ... he’s dead?”
“That’s what I’m telling you. So your journey was wasted, even if he’d come back with you he wouldn’t have made it” She cared not one jot that he had made such an effort, or might feel guilty, only that her plans had failed. His thoughts were less charitable ‘the fucking bastard! Now I’ll have to sort out his affairs too!’
Technically, he knew, half John’s estate went to his mother and half to himself; unless John had made a will, which he doubted since John was the least practical man in the whole Universe. No, he would have ignored the problems he’d create by dying intestate. Max had read up a lot about this when dealing with his father’s affairs which had been complex enough even though he had left a will.
John had never married, there had been rumours of girls, and rumours of boys, but as far as Max knew he was virtually asexual. He just had no desire to know people. Max had married and seen his children nearly reach adulthood before his wife buggered off with the deputy head at the school she taught English at (‘at which she taught English’ his ex- would have corrected him). Then he’d seen them every other weekend. Still, Terry (Teresa) had been a good mother and Terry (Terence) had trod the delicate line between step-father and ‘friend’ pretty well. Max prided himself on being responsible, not throwing a wobbly and cursing his wife (their mother) in front of them. The kids had turned out okay really. Now they were adults their relationship was easier – Simon had even asked why he’d been so reasonable, saying he might have liked to have heard his (real) father slag off his (step) father occasionally, but that he respected Max for it.
It didn’t hit him until he was alone. He’d had this alter-ego, John, around all his life. The one who got on easily with girls, the one who could tell jokes, the one who was caught at the school dance with Tracey Bannister behind the chemistry labs with her knickers round her ankles (so, maybe not asexual then) and still managed to talk his way out of expulsion (Tracey was pregnant a year later, at 16; it wasn’t the hardest to get inside her knickers). John was the easy going, devil may care, laid back, smooth talker. Max was the hard-working, studious, boring (oh yes, even he thought he was boring) one. The one consolation was that John’s friends had been as ephemeral as his nature, they had evaporated like morning mist and John had been left working in the job his Dad got for him in the town he grew up in while his friends vanished around the world and lost contact; Max’s few friends were still his friends, they even had occasional reunions. They had been staunch in supporting him when his Dad died, three came to the funeral; the three who were in Britain at the time, though two had to drive 200 miles or more to be there. But it was still his brother. He had lost his brother. Quietly, in the privacy of his own apartment, he poured a large whisky, played Simon and Garfunkel and cried.
His mother made an unexpected recovery and opted for a longer, slower decline rather than the hoped for (at least by Max) sad but rapid death.
“I’m going to have to go up to Orkney to start sorting out John’s affairs”
“Okay dear, you go. See you Saturday”
“No, mother. That’s what I’m saying. I’ll be up there for a couple of weeks I expect. I won’t see you next weekend”
“Okay, dear. Well, if you do get the time to call in you know I’ll be pleased to see you”
“You do know where Orkney is don’t you? It isn’t just round the corner you know”
“No, I’m sure it’s very hard. I’ll be fine on my own, don’t you worry.”
“Bye then love, see you next weekend”
“No ... oh, nevermind”
It wasn’t that her mind was going, just that she was only focused on herself. Even the request to see John had been simply for her own comfort and satisfaction rather than to see John reconciled.
He flew up this time. He would check how much of John’s stuff was junk and how much might be transported south.
He had contracted a funeral director to start the arrangements so they were able to schedule it for the first week. There were three mourners, himself, the neighbour Sandra, and her daughter. It seemed too few to arrange a wake, so he asked them out for a meal.
“Thanks for coming, and thanks for looking after the animals”
“Well, we were neighbours, so it seemed only right, but I can’t pretend we had much to do with him. He was very ... private”
“You mean he was a difficult, cantankerous old git” he looked at Sandra’s daughter “Sorry, I don’t mean to offend, but I’m his brother and if I can’t say it who can?”
“S’alright. I said the same to mum recently I’m afraid”
“Don’t worry” Max responded.
“As for the animals” Jacie continued “well, we couldn’t let them go hungry could we? Patch is a lovely dog, but he’s not ever going to run feral. He makes friends with sheep rather than chases them. I think the cats would survive, though the rabbit population might not”
He spent the remaining days sorting through junk; some of it was interesting junk – like the stamp album John had when he was 10, it had a load of stamps that his grandfather had given him from Germany in the great crash, stamps overprinted with unfeasibly large values as inflation just took off – most of it was just the ephemera everyone collects and no-one wants: old cutlery; cheap china; saucepans; books that no-one will read a second time; clothes that were never in fashion so will never be collectable. He found his brother had an interesting collection of Victorian porn postcards. That was a surprise. Not of interest to himself, but he was pretty sure he could find a buyer. He put an advert on eBay and sure enough the bids started mounting up. Most of the stuff he sorted into ‘garage sale and then dump the rest’ or ‘straight to the dump’. He began to get maudlin at how easy a person’s life was disposed of.
“Hi. Come on! Come Patch!”
“What? Hello Jacie. Are you talking to me or the dog?”
“Both, Patch needs a walk and you need a break. I’ve made a flask and some sandwiches and you’re driving us to a beach I know. Stop looking like a rabbit in headlights, come on!”
“Wellllll I could do with a break it’s true. Okay, tell me where we’re going”
It was sunny, and (for Orkney) warm. It hardly seemed there was any wind and the sea in the bay was flat. Weather can change rapidly in Orkney but at the moment it looked like a perfect day. He drove the hire car along small roads – all roads are small on Mainland, Orkney – then smaller and finally onto a gravel track. Half a mile further on the track became impassable for anything by a four wheel drive.
“We walk from here” said Jacie “You can carry the food”
“Why Jacie? No, I mean why are you called Jacie? Not why should I carry the food”
“Same reason you’re called Max, I was called Jaqueline. I mean come on! I’m not a Jaqueline! So it got shortened to Jackie which makes me sound like a 50’s comic! And I dropped the ‘k’. It made sense to switch from hard ‘c’ to soft and so Jacie was born. Don’t you like it?”
“No, no. No I mean yes. Yes I do like it, and no it isn’t that I don’t like it” He was getting tongue tied. She was a pretty eighteen year old and he immediately wanted to make a good impression on her even though he was forty. ‘Men eh?’ he thought.
The dog sniffed rabbit and launched after it; he came back wagging his tail, but without a rabbit. Max liked Patch, he liked Patch better than he liked John that first time he’d come up. On his return he had debated what to do. Initially, he thought, the cats and dog should be put down. Then he thought of adopting Patch and taking him down south. Then he thought of the dog trying to fit in to a flat and daily walk to the park when he was used to roaming far and wide at will. Now he didn’t know what to do. The people up here were practical, not sentimental, few would blame him for have the dog put to sleep. Most dogs here were working animals; when they were not needed, they were a needless overhead; but he was a southern softie and Patch was a lovely dog. His rough coat looked like a pan scourer but was soft to the touch. He was affectionate to the point of being a natural for a southerner like him. In the ten days he had been here he had seen the dog chase lots of rabbits, and a couple of hares. There was no doubt he ran faster after the hares. He didn’t really want to catch the rabbits it seemed. On the one occasion he did bring one back to the house, it was a young one and still alive. Patch dropped it at Max’s feet and licked it, confused. Max picked up the terrified creature and released it under the shed at the back, near the vegetable patch. Patch the dog generally kept the rabbits and birds off the vegetables, but took it to mean that this rabbit was allowed. The rabbit was often seen quietly munching a cabbage leaf; seemingly unaware of the birds of prey that flew over. This rabbit was unlikely to survive, Max decided, he was a bit thick.
They reached the bay. It was more a sandy outlet for the rivulet that ran out across the sands. Like a child’s picture, the stream ran straight out down the middle of sandy beaches extending to the rocky mouth of the V-shaped bay. The effect was of a series of Vs, first the grassy, rocky shore, then the yellow sand, then, in the distance, a blue V of water.
“Low tide, the water comes in quite fast, but it’s safe. The sand stays firm; we can walk directly to the Knoll. A quarter of a mile down the bay, on the far side of the stream was a rocky outcrop breaking the regularity. On top a couple of low trees grew, then the grass grew down to the rocks and sand. The bay was protected from the worst storms. If it had been dredged it would have made a wonderful harbour; but since there was no need of a harbour here, it had been left in its near pristine condition. Fishing communities had come and gone numerous times over the last two thousand years; at present the area was deserted though there were rumours of a fish farm development further out just in the mouth of the bay.
The dog raced happily across the sand, reached the island and then raced back. He was in heaven. Yes, Max realised, he couldn’t bring him to the living hell of the city.
At the stream they took off their shoes and socks and paddled across. Then they continued in bare feet. “This is idyllic” said Max
“Yes, make the most of it. When winter comes it’s not quite as pleasant. The people are great, they organise stuff, but it’s dark for most of the time, windy for all of the time and freezing as well. The only benefit is we don’t get much snow.”
“So no skiing! That’s no benefit!”
“I’d love to try skiing. It looks great. Have you done it? Is it hard?”
“Like riding a bike. The first few goes are a nightmare of uncoordinated mayhem. I skied off the edge of the dry ski slope the first time I went. I couldn’t stop. Then you get it! And it’s fun, and you improve by leaps and bounds and then, like cycling, if you want to be really good you have to practice, practice, practice. And that’s where most Brits stop. We haven’t the opportunity to ski every day. But I do enjoy it. I did enjoy it, I should say. I haven’t been for a few years what with one thing and another.”
They carried on talking, he told her about his father dying and his mother being ill and his brother being so remote and uncommunicative. She told him about her father the artist who had fallen over the cliff trying to get the perfect painting. She told him how she had a painting of his. Then she admitted she didn’t think it was very good and that made her feel guilty, somehow disloyal. She told how she wanted to leave, like her brother had, but again felt guilty. She couldn’t leave her mother, Sandra had made her life here after Jack had died, she was member of the community. She wouldn’t want to leave.
They lay on the grass in the sun and both gained release by unburdening themselves. If he didn’t express himself as fully and vehemently as he felt, at least he found some satisfaction in the talk. She understood much of what he was saying as she felt some of it about her brother in reverse. He had left to get into the rat race from the backwaters of Orkney; John had fled that same rat race. The grass is always greener elsewhere, thought Max. I can see the attraction of this life, she can see the attraction of bright lights and big city, but she couldn’t leave the front door unlocked down south, she couldn’t walk home safely in the middle of the night after a party. Well, she probably could but it would definitely be riskier.
They lay on and drifted towards sleep. Looking up Jacie noticed the tide had reached The Knoll; it had curled around and turned the outcrop into a peninsular connected to the land by a higher ridge of sand curving away towards the inland end of the bay. Soon the peninsular would be an island, but even then it was possible to wade ashore along the ridge. The Spring tides covered it to 3 feet but the Neaps only barely covered it. Today the tide would cover it to a foot or so. Below, in the mini-bay created by the ridge and the outcrop, the water swirled and had excavated a deeper pool already deep enough for swimming.
“Come on, let’s go for a swim.”
“I haven’t got a costume, won’t it be cold?”
“I haven’t got a costume either” she laughed back “and yes, it will be freezing”
“I’ll be frozen stiff”
“Well, that could be an advantage” she replied coquettishly. She let her summer dress fall to the ground and revealed sensible pants and bra, not revealing ones. His mind went back to the young girl in the services, he didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because of the seemingly innocent nature of the girl who had stripped to her sensible bra and pants, large, white cotton pants. She started to the water and he realised two things. Firstly she was coming on to him, and secondly he’d be dismissed as a wimp if he didn’t follow. But she was eighteen and coming on to him. Was he exotic because off-island? She was way too young. Oh, well. He stripped to his Y-fronts and ran to catch her up, slapped her playfully on the bottom as he passed her gingerly putting her feet into the water. Should he have done that? What if he’d misread it? What if she screamed assault? What if he hadn’t misread it and she thought he was keen? He wasn’t keen, she was young and pretty, but she was also the daughter of the only other friend her had made on the island so far. He continued on and threw himself into the water ... and forced himself not to scream like a girl. He gasped audibly and tried to shout that it was lovely, but his breath was gone as the cold water started trying to give him hypothermia.
They swam, they splashed each other and finally agreed it was time to get out (‘hurrah!’ he thought). Jacie stood facing him and he realised that she had planned this far more carefully than he had given her credit for. The sensible white all covering bra and knickers had hidden all her assets until they were wet. She had sexy underwear, she could have worn them and he would have been excited immediately on viewing them. But he had to prove himself by entering the water. Now, as she stood up, the cotton was translucent. Her red-brown discs showed plainly through the bra material, which was stretched at the tips by two very prominent nipples. As she rose like a sea god from the water, she let his eyes travel down her body and take in her breasts, stomach and then the triangle of curly brown hair plainly showing through her pants. She turned just too early (or just in time) and missed the erection the view of her gave him. With her back to him, he reached in and re-arranged his penis so it pointed up not straight out. He thought of staying in the water until it receded but realised that he was in imminent danger of losing control of his legs which felt like lead weights already. He staggered towards the shore and she turned and saw the bulge in his pants. She smiled, this had definitely been part of her plan.
Then, just to cement the erotic nature of the experience, she lay down on the grass again with her legs pointing towards him, slightly open and displaying that thin scrap of cloth that hid her sexual organs from his view. He deliberately lay on his stomach beside her to hide his. The dog lazily wagged his tail, he hadn’t moved when they had gone in; he wasn’t as stupid as humans.
After half an hour of drying off in the sun she simply said “Sandwich?” The dog leapt up as if she had said “Squirrel!”, he just loved all this company. Max wondered if she had been lying, waiting, hoping he would roll onto her and make passionate and prolonged love to her. He figured he had to control himself, even if she was willing. She was too young and he had to be responsible. Like the girl in the services, she was pretty to look at, but not meant for plucking. He wondered, briefly, about her mum and mentally slapped his own face for being so disgusting. Anyway, Sandra had shown no interest at all, but then, he reminded himself, he was a man and men were awful at recognising body language and subtle clues. They needed a woman to have an arrow point at their groin labelled ‘fuck this’ to get the idea something might be on offer. Still, he thought, I don’t think Sandra fancies me.