It was what we did that summer. Collect car numbers. Not any old numbers but numbers in sequence. Until you’d got 1, you couldn’t count 2 and so on. Sounds pretty sad and you’d think with the sand and the sea and the sun we’d have had better things to do but somehow we didn’t.
There were six of us – me, Lindsay, Rick, Fraser, Susie and Tim – though Susie and Tim didn’t really count. Susie because she really wasn’t interested and Tim, who was her little brother, because he was too little.
It was me, Rick and Fraser who were really keen. Obsessed, Lindsay said. She always looked at number plates, checked any car parks she passed, that sort of thing. But she wasn’t into it the way the rest of us were. I mean, she wouldn’t spend all day on it.
It was the hottest summer we could remember. We were only thirteen – apart from Fraser who was fourteen and Timmy who was eight – so we couldn’t remember far back but it seemed to me that there’d always been days in previous summers – weeks sometimes – when rain had poured in torrents, splashing down pipes and turning gutters into streams. So that people sat all day in steamed-up cars and the town was clogged with tourists in dripping cagoules looking for shelter and you couldn’t get into shops for damp groups of dismal people fingering things and snapping at their kids.
Even if it didn’t rain, there were always days when the wind blew in off the sea so that no-one went near the beach unless they had no alternative and those who did huddled behind pallisades of windbreaks, wore long trousers and heavy sweaters and bought cups of coffee in polystyrene cups from the beach cafe to keep their hands warm.
My mother did bed and breakfast and visitors often went home early in weeks like that, saying they’d go to Benidorm or Ibiza the next year where there was guaranteed sunshine.
This year was different. Brilliant blue skies from May onwards. Hardly a cloud in sight except for those high-up, traily ones that look as though someone’s run a tractor across the sky and mean it’s going to be fine again tomorrow.
No-one mentioned Benidorm or Ibiza, except to say they were better off here, and Mum had so many b.and b. enquiries that we gave up the bedroom we usually shared in the summer and slept on camper beds in the living room. Lawns went brown, the water company imposed a hosepipe ban and the local papers talked about a water shortage. People saved bathwater to water their vegetables and a man who used his sprinkler at night was shopped to the water company.
In the mornings I had to do the bedrooms, which I hated.
Our visitors were very boring people – mostly middle aged or elderly couples or mothers and daughters – and never left anything interesting in their rooms. Just their dull clothes hanging tidily in the wardrobe, comfortable shoes lined up under the bed and bits of shaving kit, medicines and conservative cosmetics on the dressing tables.
Even the books on the bedside table looked too dull to be worth lifting the covers.
If it was a changeover day we had to strip and change the beds and do a complete clean and vacuum job, including skirting boards and inside the drawers and cupboards. Visitors noticed things like that, Mum said.
Today was a changeover and I was sweltering by the time I’d finished and felt I’d earned far more than Mum paid me but she said I was lucky to earn anything at my age and it was her only income for the two of us and the summer wouldn’t last for ever.
I made sandwiches and said I’d get a Coke and crisps from the beach cafe. Mum made me take an apple and I ate that as I walked to the beach.
Our pavements are really narrow and I kept getting caught behind litte boys with spades and fishing nets sticking out or fathers carting immense cool boxes or mothers with those gigantic double push-chairs so that I had to get into the road to overtake them.
All the gardens were crammed with flowers breathing out hot scent and colour over the granite retaining walls which radiated heat onto the pavements and by the time I reached the top of Seaview Road, I could feel sweat running down between my shoulder blades and the tops of my legs were hot and sticky under my shorts. The sea, at the bottom of the hill under the haze you get on hot days that makes it look as though it isn’t real at all and might easily be a mirage, looked deliciously inviting.
You start to hear the noise from there. Waves breaking. Kids splashing and screeching on the water’s edge. People yelling. Pop music from a hundred ghetto-blasters.
On this day it came blanketted by the heat haze; muffled, as though it might not be real either.
A car passed. H76 JBH. No interest to me. Yet. I was only on 64 and, at the rate I was going, this one would need to stay at least a fortnight. Fraser might need it though. He’d been on 70 yesterday and he might have got lucky.
There were a few cars parked at the roadside. None of any interest. J59 CDR was on the forecourt of the Neap Tide Apartments and I smiled at it. I’d been stuck for two days before that one turned up and I felt pretty affectionate towards it. It was a VW Golf. I didn’t normally notice the make but this one was special.
Nothing of interest at this end of the sea front either but I wasn’t that bothered. What I really wanted – even more, at this moment, than 64 – was to dive into that glorious, cool water and get rid of the sweat and the dust.
Huge queues at the ice cream kiosk and a little kid screaming its head off, its ‘99’, still with the chocolate flake sticking out of the ball of fast-melting ice cream, lying on the path in front of it.
I told you to look what you were doing, its mother screeched back at it. Now see what you’ve done!
Huge queues at the cafe too. All the tables full and people queueing out of the door. I wouldn’t bother with my coke yet.
Our bay of huts was at the far end of the beach – well away from the lines of lesser huts rented by the week or sometimes just for the day. Ours were the elite huts. Slightly larger. Smarter, because they were better cared for. Let to locals for the entire season.
We’d had the same one for the past three years. D3. Before that we had D15 but we changed when D3 came vacant because it was at the east end of the bay and caught the afternoon sun. Fraser’s family had D4. Lindsay’s had D8, Rick’s had D9 and Susie and Timmy’s hut was right over at D21.
The other tenants were either elderly people, who dosed in their deckchairs, complaining if they got hit by a cricket ball or a spadeful of sand, or families with very young children who were just a pain.
It seemed a long way across the beach, which was covered in sun-bathing bodies or flying beach balls. The parched and gritty sand filled and whitened my sandals and raised a hot, throat-drying dust as I trailed across it and I almost tripped over a toddler staggering down the beach, yelling its head off with its nasty, disposable nappy slipping down its legs.
Grab ‘im dear will you, this woman yelled and, much as I didn’t want to, I held onto its horrid, soft, chubby arm while she heaved herself out of her deckchair.
Kids, she said, swinging him up, dirty nappy and all. Who’d have ‘em, eh?
Not me, I thought, smiling politely. Not ever.
The others were at the huts already. Fraser and Rick were in D4 with Rick’s Gameboy. Lindsay was with her mother, eating a pasty. Susie – who’d obviously been lumbered with looking after Timmy – was busy with his buckets and fishing nets.
We’re going on the rocks, she shouted across. Want to come?
She had a crabbing line in her hand and looked desperate. Probably she’d already asked the others.We all got bored with Timmy and rock pools.
I’ve got to have a swim, I said. I’m baking. Later, perhaps. When I’ve done the car park.
Susie made a face.
Tide’ll be in by then, she said. Can’t you go later?
She didn’t sound very hopeful.
I unlocked the little padlock that secured the hut and pushed open the doors. There was the usual damp-towel and thermos-flask-tea smell you get when you first open up, however hot the weather, and I hooked the doors open, set out the two deck chairs to make more room and went in to get changed.
I did this behind the curtain at the back of the hut and it took me all of a minute to whip off my shorts, pants and t shirt and pull on my swimsuit.
It wasn’t that long ago that we hadn’t bothered, any of us, to undress behind the curtain, just taking off our clothes where we were, and I could remember playing in the sand wearing just my knickers.
Lindsay and I had a passion one summer for playing fashion shows. We would shut ourselves in one of the huts and drape our towels around us in different ways, letting them fall down to reveal bits of our naked bodies – like pictures of Liz Hurley and other stars we’d seen on television.
If we were particularly pleased with a bit of drapery, we would parade outside the huts, for our mothers to fall about laughing and saying what did we look like, for heavens sake.
I wouldn’t do that now I was thirteen. Not that I had anything to hide – two tiny mounds on my chest that Mum said she couldn’t possibly find a bra to fit and a few wiry hairs down below. It just didn’t seem right any more, although I couldn’t have said why. So I undressed behind the curtain, even though there was hardly room between it and the shelf where we stored the crockery and water bottles and I didn’t like the curtain in case there were spiders.
Coming for a swim? I asked the boys but they didn’t notice. Fraser went on punching the buttons on the Gameboy and Rick was too busy watching him.
I waved at Lindsay who was reading a magazine and just waved back .
Ours was the quieter end of the beach – tourists always seemed to cluster around the cafe and kiosks – and I raced down the steep slope towards the sea. It was all shingle at this end but by this stage of the summer the bottoms of my feet were so tough they might have had leather soles and it didn’t hurt at all. It made us laugh, watching tourists hobble to and from the water or wearing sissy plastic sandals which they had to leave at the edge.
Headlong I ran, under the sweltering sun, through the loud air, across the line of seaweed deposited by the last high tide, splashing through the shallow water, then flinging myself forwards into the waves.
That wonderful moment of hot skin hitting cool water. The sudden smack of the surface against my body, raising an upwards rain of spray to catch against the sunlight. Being drawn down into that fluid, enfolding coolness that combed through my hair, filled my ears with a gurgling roar, then allowed me to float back to the surface to lie, buoyed on water, staring at the hazy, overhead sun.
For a minute or so I just lay, absorbing coolness, feeling the salt already drying on my face, the noise of people muffled by the lapping of water against my ears. Once or twice I splashed my feet, watched the sparkling drops rise into the air, hang infinitessimally and then fall back towards me. Then I twisted onto my front and started to swim, front crawl, out, away from the beach, towards the point where blue-black sea met blue-blue sky.
Not too far though. I was a strong swimmer – swimming was something, like walking and talking – I couldn’t remember not being able to do. But out too far and you were with the sail-boarders, standing in their wet-suits, spreadeagled against their butterfly-winged sails, or the power-boats with their skiiers towed behind within their swerving walls of spray.
Mum had strict rules about how far out I could go but I didn’t need them. The dangers were too obvious.
Anyway, I was cool now and keen to get down to business.
Turning, I swam back inshore and ran back up the beach, shaking my head as I did so to start to dry my hair.
By the time I reached the hut Rick and Fraser had finished their game.
72, Fraser said, waving his notebook. I got 70 last night and 71 down town this morning. How about that!
Brilliant, I said and told him about the 76.
Rick was looking smug, I noticed. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days – he’d been out with his parents. On Monday we’d been on the same number. I had a nasty feeling he’d got further on than I had.
How about you he asked before I could ask him and I said 64 as casually as I could.
Not bad, he said. Not bad at all. So I knew he’d done better.
Come on then, I said. What about you?
77, he said, looking smug. We went across to Newquay Thursday. It was packed over there. I got six in one day! Then yesterday we went up the A30. Look at that! He thrust his notebook under my nose and there they all were. Numbers and places all written in, with his dad’s initials next to them to confirm the sightings.
I could see the look on Fraser’s face. Rick’s dad was one of those competitive men. It was just like him to spend a day on the busiest road in Cornwall to help him beat Fraser. I went back into the hut, drew the curtain, got out of my still-damp swimsuit and pulled on my clothes.
I felt pretty fed up really. It almost seemed as though Rick was cheating. We never went anywhere in the summer holidays because of the b and bs and we didn’t have a car anyway.
I poured out some water and drunk it – it was warmish and had that stale smell bottled water has when it’s been hanging around. Then I got my notebook and sandwiches and went joined the others. Lindsay had come over and said she’d come for a bit. She was only on 28.
Susie and Timmy weren’t back from the rocks.
I liked going along the beach with the others. The four of us were a group.We belonged here, which made us better than all the emmets, here for a week or a fortnight, burning themselves to a blister to have something to show off at home and spending their money on rubbish like raffia sun hats and plastic crocodiles and games of bat and ball.
We belonged here and we were on a mission and that made us feel good as we jostled our way past the windbreaks and sandcastles and inflatable sun beds.
I ate my sandwiches as we went. They were pretty nasty as they’d got squashed in my bag and the cheese wasn’t improved by the heat. I ate three and gave one to Fraser, who was a known dustbin.
I suppose I liked Fraser better than Rick. He had a nice grin and although his hair was a bit reddish he’d had it cut with a sort of tufty bit at the front which looked rather good. You don’t take much notice of people when you’ve known them for ever but I suppose I felt we were real mates – more so than Rick, who could be moody, and Lindsay, who was getting very silly and girly.
We stopped by the cafe, where the queue had thinned out, and bought Coke and crisps, then we walked up the slope that led off the beach and onto the sea front.
Cars parked, nose to tail, and only an hour’s waiting. Which meant that by the time we’d walked to the far end a fair number would have moved on. There were cars passing along the road as well, in both directions, and some of the hotels had parking areas, so you needed at least six eyes to be sure of not missing anything. Which was why we were better off working together.
We were after 70 for Fraser, 64 for me, 77 for Rick – although I wasn’t going to make much effort about that – and 28 for Lin. We could look for 11 for Susie but even if we told her she probably wouldn’t bother coming to see for herself.
We didn’t talk much – the line of cars was more or less continuous and we needed to concentrate. Lindsay went on about some girl’s hair and another one’s dress but the rest of us ignored her.
I hoped I wasn’t going to get like that. There were girls at school who talked about designer jeans and eye makeup all the time. It all seemed very boring.
D28 HVS was in the Bay View car part which pleased Lin. Then we saw G77 JAF for Rick, which didn’t seem fair. We saw 72 at the far end of the front, which was frustrating for Fraser.
That often happens. When I was looking for 11 I saw three 12s in one day.
I hoped I wasn’t going to get stuck on 64 the way I had with 59. I knew where there was an 65. It belonged to someone who must work in town and both Fraser and Rick had caught it in the long term car park so that should be easy enough – unless the owner went off on holiday. And there’d been a 66 in the station car park for weeks. I just needed wretched 64 first.
Fraser and I decided to go on round the headland. There were a couple of laybys along there and a parking area on the point and cars drove pretty slowly in an almost continuous procession so it was easy enough spotting.
Lin and Rick decided to go back along the front, have a quick look-in at the main car park, then back to the beach. Rick to his Gameboy, no doubt, and Lin to her magazine.
At the first layby we saw LRL 70 and I initialled Fraser’s notebook for him.
I wish it was your 64, he said, which was nice of him.
It was pleasantly cool on the headland, because of the trees and the inshore breeze, and when we got to the car park on the point there was nothing we needed but Fraser said he’d buy me an ice cream to make up and I sat on the grassy area below the car park looking out across the bay where there were a dozen or so dinghies racing. You could hear the helmsmen shout lee oh as they went about and see how easily some crews brought the sails across so that the boat stayed almost upright, while others made a complete pig’s breakfast of it.
Fraser bought me my favourite, a vanilla cornet with chocolate sprinkles, and an orange Mivvy for himself and we sat watching the dinghies, licking fast because of the sun.
I’m getting a Firefly next summer, he said. You could crew for me if you wanted. I thought it seemed like a great idea and watched the race with new interest.
It was nice sitting there together without the others and I wondered when this had started to happen. Not long ago it was always the four of us – five if Susie was with us and six if she had to look after Timmy.
Or just me and Lin, playing our daft games.
Now, quite often, it was just me and Fraser and it was ok. He was a comfortable person to be with. He didn’t giggle like Lin or go on about how great he was at football or Nintendo like Rick. We just talked about nothing much and it suddenly seemed as if I wouldn’t mind going on like this for quite a long time.
When we got back to the beach car park, we saw 78 right by the entrance but decided Rick must have seen it earlier, then, almost next to it, a grotty little Fiat that was C71 so Fraser said he’d go and see if 72 was still on the front.
I said I’d finish off the car park, then go for another swim.
It really wasn’t my day. Not a 64 in sight. I trailed up and down the lines of cars and coaches getting hotter and hotter, smelling melting tarmac, petrol fumes, hot rubber and – from one car that had obviously not long arrived and had hot air rising above the bonnet – over-heated plastic.
This was a stupid idea, I thought crossly. Really stupid.
Only a couple of years ago we would have spent all day on the beach. Building boats out of shingle or castles to hold back the incoming tide. Playing cricket in front of the huts or clambering over the rocks, being spies or escaped prisoners or hunting for shrimps or crabs in the pools.
Why, I wondered, had these things suddenly seemed boring and childish?
There was a line of pine trees along the far side of the car park. Some cars were parked close in under them and I went across to check. There was a big, old camper van which cut off several cars from view and as I got round it, there it was! N64 JMS! A smart blue BMW.
I looked round for Fraser but he was well away, which meant fetching Lin or Susie to initial my book. I just hoped the car wasn’t about to go.
Then the driver’s door opened and a man got out.
Nice afternoon, he said, smiling. Wondering, no doubt, why I was spending it lurking in a car park. I agreed that it was, then thought I might as well ask him if he’d do the initialling. He looked ok. Youngish. No beard or anything sinister like that. Neatly dressed in shorts and a lemon coloured polo shirt.
I could ask him, I thought. No problem.
I’m collecting car numbers, I explained, holding out my notebook. 64 was the next one I needed. Would you mind putting your initials to prove I’ve seen it?
He grinned and said he supposed not and took the book and my biro.
Doesn’t seem to work, he said, shaking it a bit. Hang on, there’s one in the car. Come and sit in the shade a moment, he added, opening the doors. You look baked out here.
The seat felt cool against my thighs and the car smelt pleasantly leathery. The man took a pen out of the glove compartment, scrawled something next to the number and gave me the book. Then he leaned back against the car door and he must have knocked the central locking device as I heard the doors lock.
Silly me, I’m always doing that, he said but he didn’t do anything to unlock them.
What’s your name he asked instead, turning towards me and smiling again. He had large, very white teeth and greeny-blue eyes. And fair hair that fell in a floppy fringe across his forehead. He was about thirty I supposed, although I wasn’t good at ages. He might have been older.
Amanda, I said, although no-one ever called me that. Thanks very much. I’d better…
That’s a pretty name, he said. Pretty name for a pretty girl, he said, letting his hand fall onto my leg just above the thigh. Casually, as if he hadn’t realised what it was doing.
It seemed suddenly very dark in there, almost under the pine trees. And because of the camper van I couldn’t see the rest of the car park. Just two other cars next to the BMW and the people from them might easily be staying on the beach all day.
I thought of all those things they’d told us at school and that Mum had told me too. About never getting into cars with strangers.
But I’d always imagined the strangers would be ugly or at least sinister-looking. Probably dark-haired and dark-eyed and wearing odd-looking clothes; perhaps even one of those macks that flashers wear in cartoons.
This man was nice looking and wore perfectly normal looking clothes. He spoke nicely too. Slightly posh-sounding.
I ought to get back, I said. My mum’ll be wondering…
I didn’t like to try the door. It seemed rude and anyway I wasn’t sure if it would open. I didn’t understand central locking.
Oh, just stay for a minute, Amanda, he said. I’ve done you a favour, after all.
Which was true and I felt embarrassed.
You’ve got lovely brown legs, he said, glancing down at his hand and then moving it so that it was stroking my thigh. Beautiful legs, he said, and the hand moved up and in under my shorts and I felt his fingers fiddling with the bottom of my pants.
Don’t! I said. Loudly. Frightened now. Don’t do that!
The inside of the car was suddenly intolerably hot. Full of my fear and my over heated breath as I hunched my legs in against me. He was breathing heavily as well, I realised. That was something they laughed about at school. Heavy breathers. I had never been sure what it meant but I knew now all right.
I’m not going to hurt you, he said, and suddenly he sounded sad rather than threatening. I promise I won’t hurt you. Just stay a few moments. Please.
I didn’t want to stay a few moments. I wanted to go. Now. Back to the sunshine and the beach and the row of beach huts and my friends and the safety of my childhood.
And yet he made it sound as though he was asking very little. Nothing that a well brought-up girl could possibly refuse.
I had my eyes closed, I realised, clenched shut as my legs were. And then I felt him, very gently, take hold of my hand.
It’s nothing much, he said, and I felt him pull my hand as I instinctively tried to draw it back. Nothing at all really, he said in the same gentle, almost caressing voice, and I heard the sound of a zip fastener being drawn down and felt, against my hand something that was hot and swollen and, at the same time, extraordinarily, almost babyishly, silky-smooth.
That’s all, I heard him say. But his voice sounded very different now. Distant, somehow. That’s all. That’s all. That’s all…
Afterwards he unlocked the car and I got out. There were people coming back from the beach now. Hot and red-looking and there was a little girl who ran on ahead of her parents and fell over so that they dropped their bags and ran to pick her up. She was screaming and there was blood on her hands and knees.
I crossed the road and walked back through Coronation Gardens towards the beach.
An old couple were sitting on a seat looking at a bed of yellow and orange flowers. They had a grey fluffy dog, which ran up to me and started to bound around. The woman called him and said it’s all right, he won’t hurt you, and I stroked him and his coat felt all warm and rough.
He’s called Smokey, the woman said and for a moment I thought I was going to tell her what had happened but I didn’t. They were sitting in the sunshine and the flowers were so bright and cheerful and their little dog was so cute. It seemed wrong to spoil it.
Back at the huts the others were gathered in the shade outside D21 looking at Timmy’s crabs. There was quite a big spider crab and Rick was holding it in Lindsay’s face, making her scream.
Any luck, Fraser said. Which was when I realised I’d left my notebook in the BMW.
It didn’t matter though. I was never going collecting numbers again.
I’ve given up, I said. It’s a stupid, babyish game. I’m going for a swim.
And before anyone could say anything, I ran across to our hut and shut myself in.
Fraser and Rick were waiting in their swimming trunks when I came out and we ran down the beach together.
You didn’t get 64 then, Fraser asked and I said no, I didn’t.
The tide was much higher now and the waves were breaking heavily against the shelving slope of the beach. I flung myself forwards, in and under the cold, clean, churning water, and emerged, gasping, on the far side of a wave.
N64 JVS I thought. Blue BMW.
And then Fraser splashed up beside me, spitting water, and I dived again.