A Knife and Fork
The thing was, did Grandma have any teeth left? Oscar hadn’t thought about it before. He had never paid much attention to what she ate or anything like that. He touched the rusty knife and fork they had found at the tide line. They were very heavy and beautiful. One of the fork’s prongs was bent inwards, a bit like Oscar’s own bottom tooth. He looked up at Grandma, who was sitting next to him on a blue camping chair. ‘What do you eat?’ he asked her. She was sewing up the part of her mattress where all the stuffing was falling out. ‘This and that,’ she said. She had the needle in her mouth with the thread trailing out. ‘Fish and fat’ is what it sounded like. But Grandma definitely didn’t eat fish anymore – everyone knew that. She didn’t even like to talk about it. ‘And sometimes that ridiculous lady comes round with meals.’ That was where she got all those plastic pots that caught the drips around her bed. With the needle pursed in her mouth like that, it looked like Grandma didn’t have any teeth. But when she took it out, he remembered that she did have all of them, just like everyone else, although hers were browner than his own. It was because she used to only clean her teeth with a toothpick and eat Marmite straight out of the jar and drink nothing but strong coffee. She wasn’t meant to drink so much coffee anymore, but she did, which he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone.
‘Your teeth are all brown,’ he told her. The knife had a carved pattern on the handle. Grandma had given him a bit of sandpaper and he’d managed to rub away most of the rust and dirt from one part so he could see it better. It was a dark, silvery colour and there were leaves and swirls. He wanted to eat dinner with them but Grandma said no. ‘Who lost these?’ he asked suddenly. His bare toes, hanging over the chair, just grazed the cold, damp sand. ‘Someone must have lost them.’
‘People are careless,’ Grandma said. ‘Anyone could have lost them.’
‘Sometimes it’s an accident though,’ Oscar said. He had lost his favourite saucepan because he’d left it on the bus so he was very sympathetic about other people’s losses. ‘It’s an accident sometimes. It was probably a picnic and then a shipwreck. And everything sunk right to the bottom except these.’ Grandma nodded but didn’t say anything. Her hands fiddled with the The beach was empty and quiet. It was a long, pale stretch of sand, with high cliffs behind it that curved inwards like the bit of the spoon you ate with thread but didn’t do anything with it. She was good at fixing things and didn’t even feel the cold. You could tell she didn’t feel the cold because of the fact that she lived outside all the time, on the beach. She was very old and old people did die, Oscar knew, and some that were younger but he didn’t think Grandma had even been ill before and usually you were ill before you died, although sometimes it was sudden. The knife and fork felt very heavy. ‘I think they’re made of silver,’ he said. Grandma broke some thread with her teeth. She was strong. She could crush a whole apple in her fist. Oscar got out of the chair and crouched down to poke at some shells and pebbles with his fork. The beach was empty and quiet. It was a long, pale stretch of sand, with high cliffs behind it that curved inwards like the bit of the spoon you ate with, and they sheltered quieter, crescent moons of sand like this one, where Grandma lived. Dark drifts of bladderwrack had heaped up at the tide line and were drying in the air and the wind.
Grandma watched Oscar while she stitched. He looked like a little owl crouched over like that, with his feathery hair tufting up behind his ears. His ears stuck out like his mother’s, which was a pity. She could tell he was cold but he didn’t like to admit it.
‘I think I’ll get a jumper on,’ she said. He turned round and followed her into the cave, where she kept all her things. He had a spare set of everything there because he visited so often.
‘Well, if you are, I suppose I might as well,’ he said. He was still clutching the knife and fork, and they poked through a loose part of the wool so that one arm got trapped and Grandma had to get it out. ‘What about that cow that fell on the beach?’ he said. ‘Did you see it?’
‘I told you I didn’t see it.’
‘Who did see?’
‘I don’t know. All the people on the beach I suppose.’ Last summer, a cow had fallen off the cliff and onto the beach and Oscar wished that he had seen it. He didn’t know anyone who had. He looked at his knife and fork. He didn’t let go of them all afternoon, then later, before he went home, he laid them carefully down in the corner next to his other precious things.
Grandma showed him how to spot bucca trails. It was important information to know. Buccas had been during the night, Grandma said, although it was calm now and still. It was mid-morning and the tide was right out. There were bucca trails everywhere. ‘Did you hear them, in the night?’ Oscar asked. Grandma nodded. In fact, they had poked their heads right inside the cave to take a look at her. Now that they had gone, you could see exactly where they’d come from and which direction they had left in. The sand was covered in the wide, arcing imprints of their movements. It looked like someone had swept a huge broom in a curve from the sea up to the cliffs and then back again, or someone had rushed across the sand wearing a long, heavy skirt.
Grandma showed him how the disturbed sand was sitting loosely on top, waiting to be packed back in. She bent down slowly and poked at it and said a few things to herself. ‘South-westerly,’ she said. ‘Force four.’ Oscar nodded. He knew about south-westerly and force four. Grandma straightened up and then stared out at the sea. She was very still. Oscar found a stick and started to draw a pattern. Grandma stared out to sea. Her back was very straight and aching down at the bottom.
‘Why can’t we ever see them?’ Oscar asked. This is what he knew about buccas: you can’t actually see them; you can only see what they do to other things. So, if the sand is whirling around and the waves are white and choppy This is what he knew about buccas: you can’t actually see them; you can only see what they do to other things. and your hair is whipped up and around then there is probably a bucca. And if the rain is pushed one way or the other, like curtains. And they like to eat fish, and if you leave a fish on the beach the buccas will leave your boats alone, but if you don’t they get very angry. And sometimes you can hear them, especially when there are hundreds of them rushing in off the sea so that their bodies brush against the waves and the sand and the air rushes through their open mouths. But still, he wasn’t exactly sure why you couldn’t see them. This is what he wanted to know: were they invisible?
‘Not invisible,’ Grandma said.
‘But how come we can’t see them then?’
‘They don’t have bodies like us. You have to see them in other ways.’ Grandma looked down at Oscar, who had started to scratch around with his stick again. ‘We talked about that before.’
He shrugged and carried on scratching. He was hungry. They sounded invisible to him. And if they weren’t invisible how come that thing about Grandpa and Uncle Jack?
‘It’s important to be able to see the signs,’ Grandma carried on. She coughed a few times, loudly and hard and with a wheeze at the end. She really did need to teach him all the signs. She started to explain about the direction of the tracks and what they meant, and if the sea is very calm but there’s a sickly green light then you have to be particularly careful. Oscar was humming to himself. ‘You’re not even listening are you?’ Grandma said.
Oscar jumped up. ‘You’re not listening to me!’ he said. ‘It’s you who isn’t listening to me.’ He ran crazily around her legs, flinging sand onto his jeans.
Grandma didn’t watch him running. ‘You can go if you want,’ she said. He was boring when he was like this. Oscar stopped running and leaned against her legs. He wouldn’t go yet. They ought to follow the trails right down to the tide line and see what happened. But first, Grandma had to cough some more and she rubbed the bottom of her back, and bent her back down and coughed so hard it sounded like she was going to be sick. Then she spat something out.
‘Gross,’ Oscar said.
‘Don’t be wet,’ Grandma told him. She covered the thing over with sand and they followed a line of shells and seaweed and sticks that the buccas had bowled along the beach. Oscar kept stopping and poking, stopping and poking, and Grandma waited for him. The beach leading up to the tide line was covered in purple and grey pebbles, and as the sea pulled back from them, it sounded like a million people were popping bubble wrap all at once. There was sea foam floating at the edge and it looked like bits of old omelette. Oscar thought about throwing some at Grandma but decided not to. She hadn’t liked it before and then she had thrown some back and it smelt like drains.
The buccas had gone away now, but they would be back. They lingered right out at sea and waited. Grandma knew everything about them. She sniffed the air and knew when they’d come back. She was wearing one of Grandpa’s big jumpers. It was dark blue and probably had never been washed because it was salty and stiff when you touched the wool, and smelled of two hundred things, including smoke. He touched the fraying sleeve.
‘This was his favourite,’ Grandma said. ‘He used to wear it whenever . . .’
And the smoke was like the smoke from frying sausages. ‘What’s for lunch?’ Oscar asked. It wasn’t time yet but he was so hungry. Grandma sighed and rubbed her back once more. Then they turned round and started walking home.
Three Feathers and a Pair of Glasses
Grandma’s cough got worse so she couldn’t go out onto the beach. She had to stay in her chair at the mouth of the cave with a blanket over her knees. Sometimes she kicked it off and stamped on it and said ‘damn thing,’ but she always put it back on again. Oscar had brought it with him the day before with the milk, plus some medicine and instructions to tell Grandma that she would die if she didn’t stop being a stubborn fool and move off the beach. It was all from Oscar’s parents, who, although they refused to visit Grandma and hadn’t spoken to her properly for years, still kept her room ready in the house for when she wanted to come back.
‘The doctor says I’m fine. As strong as a horse,’ Grandma said. ‘A cough could happen to anyone.’ They were eating clementines. It was early spring and still chilly. Grandma had to pick off all the pith before she could eat a segment. It took her a long time. Oscar ate his, pith and all, and Grandma couldn’t watch. After a while, Oscar wandered off a little way to investigate a heap of bits and pieces that he had seen. The water was choppy today and the gulls were restless – bickering and not settling down. They would land on a rock and then take off again straight away. They were getting bigger. Grandma was sure they were getting bigger. They interfered with her concentration. Everything seemed damp today as well and cold and sounds had an almost-echo. She felt like she was in a church; she felt like she was constantly in a church. She had thought that winter was over, but here it was lingering like sea mist over the beach. It had been an especially hard winter this year and she was trying not to think about the next one.
She watched Oscar further down the beach. He was stamped darkly onto the wide stretch of sea like a single footprint. After a while he came back up holding a handful of things. ‘It has been a very good day for finding things,’ he said solemnly. ‘One of the best probably.’
‘Don’t rub it in,’ Grandma told him. ‘What have you got?’ Oscar put everything down then picked out his first item. It was a feather. He gave it to Grandma, who inspected it and nodded, confirming that it was a good one. ‘Black backed gull,’ she said. ‘Good condition.’ The feather was shiny and dark with steaks of grey and a white tip at the end. It was big too, bigger than Grandma’s hand-span and she had big hands, maybe it was as long as her feet. The feather was shiny and dark with steaks of grey and a white tip at the end. It was big too, bigger than Grandma’s hand-span and she had big hands, maybe it was as long as her feet. She handed it back and Oscar gave her the next thing. It was another feather. This one was smaller and a purer black. It was slightly raggedy and threadbare – the branches were askew and worn. ‘Chough,’ Grandma said. ‘These are rare. There are only two nesting pairs. Pity it’s not in better nick.’ Oscar took it back and tried to smooth everything the right way. He wanted to know whether it hurt birds when their feathers fell out. Grandma said it didn’t. It was just like when Oscar’s hair fell out – he probably didn’t even notice it.
‘My hair doesn’t fall out!’ he said. ‘Look.’ He pointed at his head to show there weren’t any gaps. Grandma snorted but didn’t say anything else. Oscar looked at her warily and rubbed over his hair a few times, checking his palms afterwards.
‘What else is there?’ Grandma asked. There was one more feather, which was Oscar’s favourite. It was white and small and quite fluffy around the edges. Grandma looked at it for a long time. There was a pale grey streak veining through it. She didn’t actually know what this feather was. She recognised it, but she couldn’t think of the name. She used to know the name. She stroked it and stroked it and struggled to think of the name but she couldn’t. ‘Juvenile guillemot,’ she said, which was all she could think of.
Oscar nodded and took it back. ‘Guillemot,’ he said to himself. ‘Guillemot.’
Grandma coughed a bit and cleared her throat. ‘Is that everything?’ she said. Oscar shook his head and then picked up something else. It was an old pair of glasses. They didn’t have any lenses in them and the frames were thin and black. The right arm was bent outwards and the left arm was bent inwards. It was an excellent find. Oscar put them on and they slid down to the end of his nose. He wouldn’t let anyone else try them on.
Grandma felt drawn to the glasses although she didn’t know why. There was something morbid about them because they were probably a dead person’s glasses but she did very much want to try them on. ‘Can I try them on Oscar?’ she asked. Oscar pretended that he hadn’t heard. Grandma decided to bide her time. After a while she suggested a game of blackjack. She had taught Oscar how to play a year ago so she could win his pocket money off him.
‘Ok,’ he said. He got the cards and another chair and the board that they balanced on their knees as a table. Grandma dealt two cards each. Oscar studied his cards. He studied the coins Grandma had next to her. Then he laid down the gull feather. He asked for another card and frowned when he got it. He counted on his fingers then asked for another. He got an eight so Grandma got the feather. At the next deal he beat Grandma and won two pounds. He lost both feathers after that but he’d counted wrong so it was a let. But he lost them again straight after. Grandma dealt again and Oscar grinned. He had good cards. He put down the glasses on the table. He was confident. ‘Hit me,’ he said. Grandma turned a card over. It was a three. ‘Hit me,’ he said again. It was a seven. ‘Hit me,’ he said. It was another seven. ‘Arse cheeks’ he said and threw his cards down. Grandma raised her eyebrow at him. He scowled and pushed over the glasses. ‘They don’t even work anyway.’ She put the glasses on and wore them for the rest of the afternoon. They fitted her quite well, although the arm dug in behind her ear, and after a while it got annoying so she took them off. She would play Oscar again later and let him win them back.
The important thing to remember when Mr. Rogers came over to argue with Grandma was to stay out the way of his stick because he whirled it around a lot when he thought the conversation was flagging. Grandma said that when he tapped Oscar with it, it was out of respect but Oscar knew better. He and Mr. Rogers had a silent, secret battle going on. Neither of them knew why it had started, but they knew it wasn’t going to end.
This was what happened whenever he came to see Grandma: the first anyone knew of it was when he limped up the beach like a bedraggled seagull, wheezing loudly and thumping hard on his chest. As soon as that happened, Grandma hurried to fold out the extra chair and get out the box of marshmallows to put on the table. Mr. Rogers ate a lot of marshmallows because he said they kept him glued together on the inside. Oscar told Grandma that it was stupid of Mr. Rogers to think that and Grandma said, ‘Everyone has their excuses.’
It was vital to have everything out and ready and then to sit around and pretend that you always knew Mr. Rogers was coming and were waiting for him to arrive all this time. If things were brought out especially for him while he was there he got nervous and thumped his chest and didn’t talk much, and if you hadn’t prepared anything at all he might just carry on straight past and not talk to you for a long time after. Then, while he sat down, you had to carry on talking and not really notice him until he was comfortable and ready to start talking himself. It all had to be done exactly right, which is just what you have to do with some people.
It was the worst of all possible times for him to have come. Oscar had found an entire door on the other side of the beach and was going to surprise Grandma with it after lunch. It was He and Mr. Rogers had a silent, secret battle going on. Neither of them knew why it had started, but they knew it wasn’t going to end. probably the best thing he’d ever found. It was a whole door just lying there on a carpet of grey stones. It was painted white and there was a letterbox and it hardly had any dents or chips in it. He hadn’t even opened the door because he thought Grandma might want to do it, and also because of the angle he probably wouldn’t be able to on his own anyway. But now Mr. Rogers had come and he didn’t deserve to see the door – it was too good a thing. So the tide would take it and they wouldn’t get to see it again.
Mr. Rogers dragged himself up the beach towards them. Apparently he might have seen the cow fall onto the beach but Oscar had never asked him about it. Oscar bent down, picked up handfuls of sand and rubbed them into his shoes. He lifted himself up off the chair with both hands on the plastic arms and swung his legs forward. He kicked Grandma’s knees by accident and she said ‘Jesus Christ,’ and scowled at him, so he slunk right down and picked at his lips. The tide was going to turn soon and take away the door.
Anyway, maybe Grandma didn’t deserve the door today? She seemed angry and annoyed and she wasn’t talking very much. She had forgotten to go and get the box of marshmallows, so he’d had to do it himself, and he’d had to fold out the extra chair. He usually left as soon as Mr. Rogers had sat down and started talking, but perhaps he ought to stay for a while and make sure Grandma was alright.
Grandma wanted Oscar to go away. She felt tired today – too tired to faff about entertaining, but there was nothing to be done about it. Her problem was that she would have to sit and argue with Mr. Rogers. He always wanted to have a heated debate which ended up with them saying things like ‘you jackass,’ to each other, whether she wanted to or not.
Mr. Rogers sat down and he smelt of petrol and vosene. His throat sounded like it was as narrow as a piece of thread and he cracked his knuckles and scratched deep inside his ears so that it looked like his finger should get stuck in there. He had two toes missing and had never even shown Oscar. Grandma called him an old acquaintance, whatever that was. While Mr. Rogers was getting settled, Grandma stared at him instead of ignoring him. She was doing it all wrong, so Oscar had to show her a scab on his leg to distract her until Mr. Rogers was ready to talk. It wasn’t even a very good scab and Grandma probably thought he was showing off about it, which he wasn’t.
‘The boy hasn’t grown,’ Mr. Rogers eventually said to Grandma.
‘He’s sitting down,’ Grandma said. ‘It’s hard for you to tell.’
‘Where’s his purse?’ Oscar had a purse for a while and Mr. Rogers hadn’t seemed to like it.
‘He’s moved on,’ Grandma said.
Oscar swung his legs and thought about the door. He imagined the tide creeping in like fingers and his chest was tight and fluttery.
Something wasn’t right with the argument that Mr. Rogers and Grandma were having. They always argued about the same kinds of things, and they said the same things each time and then they said, ‘it was good to have got that off my chest.’ They argued about boring things like the weather changing, or old films, or about people they used to know. But today Grandma wasn’t sticking to her side of the argument; it was almost as if she was about to agree with Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Rogers was looking nervous and clearing his throat and thumping his chest.
‘They’re just fiddling the stats, fiddling the stats is all they’re doing,’ Mr. Rogers said.
‘Perhaps they are yes,’ Grandma said. She looked tired and distracted and couldn’t seem to remember what part of the argument to take. She should be saying It was a whole door just lying there on a carpet of grey stones. something else now; she should be saying something about how paranoid Mr. Rogers was. Oscar stared at her. Mr. Rogers had angled his chair away from him on purpose, which he always did. Oscar wanted to go away and see the door by himself and leave them to it, but there was a horrible silence that went on and on and on and so, before he really knew what he was doing, he said, ‘I have to show you both something before the tide gets it. It’s very important.’
He took them to the door. It was just as beautiful as it had been earlier. He looked at Grandma anxiously to make sure she liked it. He didn’t want it to be a waste. She was examining it carefully. ‘If we opened it,’ Oscar said, ‘where would it go?’
Mr. Rogers snorted. ‘To the stones underneath I reckon,’ he said. He didn’t deserve the door and he was ruining it, just like Oscar knew he would. He was tapping at it with his stick and some of the paint was chipping off.
‘Under the sea?’ Grandma asked. Oscar shrugged.
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But maybe it would go back into the room it came off, and you could walk in and be inside the room.’ He only looked at Grandma when he said that. Grandma nodded and said that was a better idea than hers because hers was obvious.
‘Let’s open it and see shall we?’ Mr. Rogers asked. He poked at the letterbox with the stick. Oscar’s heart dropped. He didn’t want to. It was his door. He shouldn’t have let anyone else see it. He would have to open it now and Mr. Rogers would be right because it wouldn’t really go anywhere. He walked around the door, figuring out where he should stand to open it.
‘We can’t open it,’ Grandma said.
‘Why?’ Mr. Rogers asked.
‘It wouldn’t be the done thing,’ Grandma said. ‘Would it Oscar?’
Oscar stopped walking, shook his head and glared at Mr. Rogers. ‘It wouldn’t be the done thing,’ he said.
The water was just starting to reach the door. Grandma watched Oscar as he walked ahead with his hands in his pockets. It had been a very generous gesture, him taking them to the door, she knew. She caught up with him. “It was one of the best doors I’ve seen,” she whispered as they walked back.
‘I know,’ Oscar said.
It was going to be a summer of storms and no doubt about it. Grandma could feel it in the air as soon as she woke up. There had been a spate of storms for the last few days and they were going to carry on. They were the sort of storms that came all at once, loudly and hurriedly and brashly, and then burnt themselves out quickly. She went to the mouth of the cave and looked out. The sea looked swollen and dark grey. It was ugly a lot of the time, the sea, if you really looked at it. Ugly and beautiful too, with its muscles and its shadows and its deep mutterings, as if it was constantly arguing with itself. Sometimes she hated it and sometimes she loved it, which was the same with anything she supposed. Once, a storm had blown in hundreds, thousands, of pieces of foam. The white foam had raced in like a flock of birds and each piece glided down and landed on the beach or on the cliff grass like sandpipers landing. Sometimes she wondered whether all she was doing here was waiting for that to happen again. Storms were because of the buccas. They did beautiful as well as terrible things; she could see that. She had to keep an eye on them. That was all she could do.
She needed things for the cave. She needed batteries and milk and camping gas. Oscar was meant to be bringing them this morning; he better not have forgotten. Still, it was early yet. She was always up early. If you weren’t up before seven you might as well not get up at all. The whale had made the depths and the shifts and the floors of the sea suddenly clear to him. The first thing to do when she got up was heat some water in a saucepan for a wash. She had saved just enough gas for that. Then she washed behind her woven screen, one half at a time so she didn’t get too cold. Then layers: tights, trousers, socks, vest, several tops and a jumper. Then she put the water on for coffee and spooned in the coffee and the secret teaspoon of sugar she had now when no one else was around. And in her head she could see the window in her old kitchen slamming shut, and the washing stretching and billowing out and snapping back on the line. She sipped her coffee. And eventually, as it always did now, the movement of the washing turned into a song, or a tune she thought she’d forgotten, and she swept the sand away from the bed humming it.
Everything seemed to need fixing suddenly. The mattress was splitting again and the wind-up light kept blinking. She would need a better sleeping bag for next winter. Maybe she could send Oscar in to the shop to look at them for her. But his mother was bound to find out and she didn’t want her to know about the sleeping bag. Anyway, it was summer first. Summer first so that didn’t matter.
Where was Oscar? He ought to be here by now with her things so that he wouldn’t be late for school. She sat on the bed and waited, then went out onto the beach. There was someone walking but it wasn’t Oscar. She really did need those batteries. And she was going to tell him about what the buccas had sounded like in the storm last night, how they sounded like migrating ghosts.
She started to walk up the beach, following the figure she had seen hurrying past. The figure joined a group of people up ahead and suddenly there was a huge whale lying on the beach like a shipwreck and the people were gathered around it as if it was a campfire.
Grandma went a bit closer but she kept close to the rocks that jutted out from the cliff. It was a fin whale, at least fifty feet long, which must have been washed ashore during the night. It was pale, almost sand coloured but there were also darker marks that crisscrossed one another close to the tail. The tail itself was so big, so powerful looking, that it was hard to imagine there wasn’t any life left in it.
Oscar was there, standing next to his mother, wide-eyed and rigid, staring up at the whale with amazement and horror and wonder. The sides of the whale were taller than his head. He looked at it, then at the sea, then back at the whale as if he had never quite believed that such things existed in there, as if the whale had made the depths and the shifts and the floors of the sea suddenly clear to him.
Grandma kept close to the rocks. Oscar had forgotten her for now – he wouldn’t be coming over today. She didn’t blame him.
Oscar’s mother looked at her watch and then leaned down and said something to him. They took one last look at the whale and then started to walk quickly along the beach, ready to cut up one of the dunes to the road to get to school. They would have to pass the spot where Grandma was. She hid. She wasn’t exactly sure why. She just saw them coming towards her and she hid. She’d always had a knack for hiding. She crawled under an overarching bit of rock and tucked her knees up as far as they would go and then stayed very still. She couldn’t see whether they had gone past or not so she waited there, crouched down, feeling ridiculous, until she was sure they wouldn’t see her when she crawled out.
The story is extracted from ‘Beachcombing’ in the collection Diving Belles published by Bloomsbury.
Photograph © basl