The Weekend Read
By Gabrielle Barnby
8th Jul 2016
Jeanie is listening to her mother with her eyes half closed.
‘They only stock up once a season, so by the time we were here they had run out of Maxibon. We couldn’t come any earlier, not last year.’
Her mother is working a foot pump, she is wearing a printed kaftan over a black one-piece. Mrs Franklin, whose face is the colour of a walnut, is patiently pinching the transparent valve of the blowup dinghy. Satisfied that the sides are firm, the valve is plugged.
‘Could you pass the sun cream, Jackie?’ says Jeanie’s mother. ‘Factor thirty for my two I’m afraid – not everybody has your skin. Come here, Sophia. Hold your hair up.’
Jeanie’s sister Sophia half-heartedly makes a shelf with her arms to lift the fair hair from her shoulders.
‘You’re lucky, Jackie. Arthur’s so dark I doubt you’ll need to put anything on him at all after a couple of days.’
‘I can do it, Mum,’ says Sophia.
‘You’ll need to do your stomach, since you’re determined to wear that bikini. What do you think, Jackie? It’s her first year wearing one. I suppose she’ll fill it soon enough. Come on, Jeanie. You too. Don’t fuss.’
Jeanie is older by nearly two years. She is wearing a modestly cut bright green swimsuit.
‘I want some chips,’ says Sophia.
‘For goodness sake. Can’t you sit for a while or have a swim? I’ve just spent twenty minutes inflating this boat.’
‘I’ll take the boat out,’ says Jeanie, taking hold of the short nylon rope.
‘I’ll come,’ says Sophia. ‘Get some chips though, Mum.’
‘No. You can wait until you get back.’
The sisters carry the dinghy between them and wade into the lake.
When the girls are out of earshot Jeanie says, ‘It’s too hot for chips. Ask for ice cream.’
‘She’s just in a bad mood,’ says Sophia.
The water pinches at Jeanie’s thighs distracting her from further conversation. She glances over at the turquoise sun umbrellas and plastic chairs and tables. The kiosk is open, one window selling drinks and ices, the other frites and light meals.
‘I’m going to climb on,’ says Sophia.
Jeanie wraps the nylon cord around her hand and steadies the boat. It would hold two smaller children, but the sisters are no longer small.
The bottom of the artificial lake turns from sand to gritty silt. Fronds of weeds slide between Jeanie’s toes, brushing her shins and calves. Jeanie dips a hand into the water then sloshes her arms and tummy. The rippling water wets the underside of her swimsuit. She shivers then bends her legs to bring the surface up to her ribs.
The umbrellas catch her attention again. Jeanie recalls a scene from last summer; she remembers her mother’s clipped censorious tones.
‘Really, they should put some clothes on. This is a café. Some people are having meals. They’re only little I know, and it is hot, but I’m sure it can’t be too much trouble to get something on them.’ Her mother had sighed discontentedly, then said, ‘Sophia, don’t lick it like that. Can’t you do anything without making a mess?’
A few minutes later, Sophia’s ice-lolly was teetering on the brink of splitting and falling. Jeanie had been watching the toddler happily banging the table with her free hand and licking a neon-green lolly of her own, when under the slatted seat a few drops then a steady dribble of urine rained down onto the dusty grass. No one took any notice except Jeanie’s mother.
‘Wouldn’t have taken a moment to put a nappy on. We’ll have to watch where we sit from now on. It’s certainly not hygienic. Mind you, she can’t be twenty can she?’ She’d sipped her ice-tea then added, ‘You can have one more swim, then I want to head back to the house. It’ll be too hot for anything this afternoon.’
While Sophia suffered her hands to be wiped, Jeanie had watched the young woman. She was wearing middle-eastern style trousers, pleated and flowing over her hips and gathered around her ankles. Her skin was smooth and rounded, a shade or two darker than the plump leg of the baby that gripped the saddle of her hip. Jeanie noticed how the woman’s bandeau bikini top tucked under her breasts, rising in a gentle curve across her cleavage. The woman absentmindedly pecked the baby’s forehead with a kiss. Without the need for words the toddler squirmed out of her chair and took the young mother’s outstretched hand.
Jeanie had rather liked the way the young woman held the baby, skin-to-skin, and the dark slit of the toddler’s tiny bottom wiggling over the grass. She had wondered if they would see them again this year.
Sophia begins kicking her legs to propel the boat. Jeanie defends herself against the splashes.
‘Stop! I don’t want to get my hair wet.’
‘God, you’re so boring. You just don’t want to get out of your depth.’
Jeanie lets go of the rope and shoves the dinghy towards the buoys marking the swimming area. The boat rocks, water sloshes inside.
‘Everyone’s so boring!’ shouts Sophia, as she kicks and floats away.
Jeanie turns to the shore. It isn’t long before she can pick out the funny black and gold overshirt her mother had taken to covering herself with. She’s standing with one hand raised to shield her eyes from the glare. Jeanie can see the supine tawny body of Mrs Franklin on a towel. Nearby, Arthur is tipping sand out of a bucket.
On impulse Jeanie arches her back and half flips, half falls backwards, skimming beneath the water with her eyes shut tight. She twists then swims in slow even strokes towards Sophia.
Sophia shifts sideways. Both girls lie side by side, tummies pressing into the base of the dinghy, arms folded, legs dangling into the water. The sides deform into a shallow ‘v’ allowing water to lap in and out of the boat.
The dinghy rotates slowly until it faces away from the artificial beach and blue umbrellas, towards the far shore. Orange tent domes can be seen through the trees. There is cool, dark green shade at the water’s edge.
‘Someone could be watching us from the bank,’ says Sophia. ‘You know ‘cos they’re a pervert.’ She pauses. ‘Why did you let mum buy you that swimsuit?’
‘She says it suits me.’
‘Green? It’s…I don’t know.’
‘What does it matter?’ says Jeanie. ‘I don’t know anyone here.’
Sophia lifts her chin. She looks for a moment at the warning triangle printed on the inflated plastic – in half a dozen languages it says that on no account should the item be used as a boat – then she says, ‘D’you know I tried smoking at Clare Hall’s party. Craig was there, even though he’s meant to be grounded. And Shaun Stevens gave me two bottles of Bacardi Breezer.’
‘What’s Shaun like?’
‘Don’t know really,’ says Sophia.
‘He wanted to get off with me.’
Sophia closes her eyes and lets her head sink into the warm plastic membrane. The heat is releasing a strong smell of vinyl.
‘He tried to put his hand up my shirt,’ she says, her eyes still closed. ‘I told him not to bother. God, I hope they get bigger soon.’
Jeanie taps her fingers on the water and hums the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ as they float.
‘It needs more air,’ says Sophia.
‘It’s going soft.’
Jeanie reaches out a hand and pushes away from the rope.
‘Y’know green really doesn’t suit you,’ says Sophia. ‘Leave it somewhere. Make her buy you a bikini. At least it would fit you.’
They kick back to shore. Soon, they come level with a toddler pointing to something in the water.
Jeanie sees the finger length light-green fish schooling together in areas of undisturbed water. They have brownish patches on their bodies and blunt faces with flat black eyes.
A fleeting fantasy passes through her mind, of the fish arranged like stars around her feet, nibbling her flesh. The toddler lurches forward, both hands outstretched. The fish scatter.
Jeanie eases herself out of the boat and walks onto the sand. Her mother is still talking; Mrs Franklin is not replying, she is quite possibly asleep.
‘…but, it’s not about the money…don’t worry it’s not a fight breaking out, all that noise. I think the man must be disabled. They’ve been sensible taking a place in the shade. It won’t be long until the sand is unbearable.’
‘Can I have some Euros?’ asks Jeanie.
‘I want a drink. Can I get anything for you Mrs Fra– I mean Jackie?’
‘No, darling. Arthur might come with you though. There’s money in my sunglasses case if he wants anything.’
Arthur looks up from the sloppy puddle he has been enlarging. Jeanie takes his gritty hand in hers.
‘Actually, I might get myself something,’ says Jeanie’s mother.
‘I’ll get it for you,’ says Jeanie.
‘No. I’ll come and see what they have.’
Arthur’s hand rests placidly in Jeanie’s as they walk along. As they pass the toilet block a man enters the Gents. He is bare-chested, wearing a white flat cap and tailored shorts. The urinals are obscured by a low wall, but from the waist up the man remains visible. Jeanie notices how his shoulders flex and his neck extends as he urinates. It gives her a funny feeling.
‘Do you need the toilet, Arthur?’ says Jeanie’s mother. ‘I’ve brought toilet paper.’
Arthur shakes his head, keeping his gaze fixed in the direction of the blue umbrellas.
They come to a stop at the ice cream menu.
‘I should think they have everything. You can choose whatever you like, Arthur. Really, they are expensive, but there’s nowhere else.’
‘That one? It’s very big. Are you sure? Put Mrs Franklin’s money away, Jeanie. I’ll pay for it. Anything else? What about one of those for Sophia?’
‘She wants chips. I’m getting a coke.’
‘Not very refreshing, Jeanie.’
Jeanie leaves her mother and walks with Arthur to the right hand window. There are balls, inflatables and sets of sand toys for sale behind the counter but no sign of anyone serving. Jeanie moves on to the next window.
‘This is where they do chips, Arthur,’ she says. ‘You can have mayonnaise, ketchup or mustard. You press here and it squirts out.’
A man wearing a white apron and T-shirt steps away from the fryer. A lick of dark hair escapes from beneath his catering hat.
‘Frites, s’il vous plait,’ says Jeanie. ‘Un coke aussi.’
Jeanie feels a tap on her shoulder. It’s her mother.
‘You’re in the wrong place, Jeanie. We’re buying ice-creams.’
She gestures for Jeanie to move.
‘Pas de problem,’ says the man.
Jeanie’s mother draws breath then makes her order.
‘The stripy one, that’s it. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll have one of those. And we’ll get a lemon one as well.’
‘I’ve ordered chips,’ says Jeanie.
‘Really? Well if you–’
The man places the ice creams on the counter and passes Jeanie her coke. The condensation is missing where he has touched the can. The smooth wet metal, buckles slightly beneath her fingers.
Jeanie’s mother peers inside her purse rolling the coins from side to side.
‘How much? I mean, c’est combien?’
‘Neuf et cinquante.’
The man behind the counter turns his head towards Jeanie. He gives her a conspiratorial smile then looks sideways back to her mother.
Arthur pumps on the mayonnaise. The plastic tray is so hot Jeanie has to change hands while walking along back to the sand.
Sophia only pecks at the chips, as if she can be barely bothered to eat. In contrast, Jeanie suddenly feels hungry. She takes the tray and eats chip after chip until they’re all gone.
Afterwards, looking out on the lake and leaning back on her elbows to let her swimsuit dry, Jeanie remembers something else that happened the year before; something she made the mistake of telling her mother about.
It had been around four-thirty during a hot afternoon. Everyone else had retreated inside. She had been writing postcards, lying on a pool lounger in the shade. From her position she could see the shutters of the upper floor of a house in the next street. They had opened and a man, tanned, broad-chested – she couldn’t tell if he were young or old – had stood in the open window. A sheet was wound around his waist. He had leaned on the windowsill for a moment looking down on her. Then he had left the window. It had been quite easy to see into the room behind where he stood. It must have had a skylight or something to make the room so light. She could see the edge of a bed with black iron ends and white sheets. The room had white walls. She saw the man sit down on the edge of the bed. She saw from his movements that he was unfolding the sheet from around his waist. And she had stayed exactly where she was.