There are basking sharks in the upper layers of the water – prehistoric things, nightmare-mouthed and harmless. Plankton-eaters, the way all seeming monsters are. They fill the coastal waters in the summertime, rising up to trawl the krill blooms. Puckered with barnacles, blasé as window-shoppers, they can grow over a lifetime to twenty feet in length.
There are warning flags along the wrack line: sharks – swim at your own risk. The threat is actually minimal, basking sharks being liable to give you little more than a bump on the knee, but the effect of the signs is still an odd one. There are no barriers, the water is open, creating the sense of a curiously lackadaisical approach to public safety. Danger, but do what you want, we’re not the police.
Around the rock pools, paddleboarders nudge the backs of sharks with oars and suffer no retaliation. Mackerel fishers follow the oily cut of dorsal fins, heading home with lockboxes full of tiddlers, waxing mythical about the one that got away. Tall tales abound, swimmers reimagine close calls and teeth where none existed. A story that seems to crop up every year sees a woman snorkelling for sea glass swimming right down into the open mouth of a basker, where she has a good look at the contents of its stomach before coming out again, unscathed. Ridiculous, of course, but in truth about as likely as anything else.
On the beach, Alice turns the truck at the wooden groyne which marks the end of the so-called pleasure section and idles the engine, considering the view. The afternoon has been bad, toothy with chill, no one buying much.
‘Six Fabs and a Mint Cornetto,’ Min recites, checking seven items off on her fingers. ‘Slim pickings, Captain.’
‘It’s the weather,’ Alice replies, gesturing at the window to encompass the wanness of the day. ‘Who wants an ice cream in a funk like this?’
The afternoon is only an attempt at itself – fretful greyness, minnow stink of gutweed. Overhead, the vulture wheel of hunting gulls, a white-lipped, murderous sky. At the wheel, Alice squints towards the headland, the tidal band of beached sargassum running out before her like the rising of some long-backed creature from the sand. In the back, perched on some stacked boxes of Cadbury Flakes, Min kicks her leg reflexively against the wall. ‘Bummer,’ she nods, pulling a serious face but snorting when Alice glances back at her. ‘Bummerama. What are you staring at? Don’t act like you’re not impressed by my urban vernacular.’
‘You talk such shit.’
Alice finds she says this a lot, usually while smiling. Min laughs. Lit by the neon glow of the Polar slush machine, she is like something pulled from ice. Alice can imagine her, defrosted and on show in a museum – an artefact preserved for history, academics pointing to the places on her body where the cold has marked her, the diamond stud in her nose.
‘That girl is headed nowhere,’ Alice’s mother likes to say. Going over the house with a Hoover after Min leaves, ‘I don’t know why she has to be here every hour of the day.’
Her objections are routine: Min’s tacky nylon glamour, the street where she lives, the father who won’t get out of bed. Her hair is bleach-fried, wilting in natural light. In the presence of Alice’s mother, she has a nervous habit of fluffing it out like a mammal inflating its fur.
‘You’re such a clever girl,’ Alice’s mother will say whenever Min has just departed. ‘Can’t you find a cleverer sort of friend?’
At school Alice is streamed into all the hardest sets, and it seems that the friendships she is expected to cultivate are also the hardest and dullest, the ones that come with the most supplementary work. Last year, she had been involved in a punishing sort of best-friendship with a girl named Pam who had won several prizes for debating, and talked droningly about their relationship as though they were husband and wife. They had spent their Friday evenings locked in a revolve of interminable sleepovers, Pam insisting they watched movies of her choice and then talking over them. If Pam stayed over at Alice’s, she would mention all the things it was a shame they couldn’t do that evening: it was a shame Alice didn’t have Sky or a real computer, it was a shame Alice’s mother only made normal toast, unlike Pam’s mother, who made it French. By the end of term, Alice had started hanging around with Min after art class, and it was only via a protracted period of passive cruelty that Pam, waiting doggedly for Alice outside the science laboratories or at the back gates at four o’clock, had finally been shaken off. These days, Alice only sees her occasionally, hanging around with another girl named Karen, who is apparently a big deal in choir.
In the back of the truck, Min pushes herself upright, clambering forwards over the gearstick and into the passenger seat, giving Alice a chuck to the head as she goes. Her silver hair is straggled back into a ponytail, acid bunch behind her ears.
‘Cut our losses, I would,’ she says, chewing gum and planting her feet on the dashboard. ‘Take her on a victory lap and then get out of here.’
‘Victory how?’ Alice grumbles. ‘Six Fabs and a Mint Cornetto does not a victory make.’
‘Cheer up, honey pie,’ Min rubs her hands vigorously on her polyester shorts before leaning over to touch Alice’s cheek. A jolt of electricity. ‘Magic finger.’ Min laughs and Alice wriggles away from her, jerking the clutch into first.
The music starts automatically, the ice-cream jingle, ‘Que Sera Sera’ on imitation chimes. Gulls scatter as the truck eases forwards, trundling towards higher ground. The tourists, for the most part, tend to keep to the safety of the dunes, bracketed behind canvas windbreakers, hunkered grimly over sandwiches and picking sand from the spines of overambitious holiday books. Every year, the coastguard finds on average six copies of Anna Karenina abandoned on the flats between April and high summer. The council has plans for a small exhibition.
Alice aims the truck inland, a crunching movement rumbling through the fabric of her skirt. Plastic cups and discarded tennis balls everywhere, cigarette butts stamped down and forming shapes like lugworm burrows in the sand. Manoeuvring up towards the dunes, Alice notes a bright scrim of shiny paper – a crumpled Fab wrapper – and feels momentarily guilty. The back doors of the truck are panelled with warning signs, painted on by Min’s uncle in thick black bitumen: litter makes the future bitter; keep it nice, don’t drop your ice.
Wondering whether she ought to stop and scoop up the wrapper, Alice glances at Min, only to find her bunching up her chewing gum in a paper napkin, preparing to throw it out of the window.
‘Oh, don’t,’ Alice says, regretting it almost immediately – the mumsy tone. Min raises an eyebrow at her, though she does withdraw her hand from the open window, throwing the napkin instead in the cupholder beside the gearstick.
‘Fair enough,’ she nods, and while her tone is light Alice feels she can detect the faintest note of mockery. ‘Mustn’t be bitter with my litter.’
It can be like this, sometimes. A sudden quirk of the lip. Alice biting back the wrong words. Sitting together in History, passing notes until Alice writes something stupid or uncool, underlines the wrong thing, and Min crumples the note in her fist.
‘Fair enough’, this stock phrase, its cringing detachment. The sudden removal of camaraderie and Alice clawing after it.
Alice opens her mouth to speak, but Min is now gesturing ahead to a group of teenaged boys who have wandered down from the slate flats that border the bank of seagrass. They are flagging down the truck. ‘Thank fuck,’ she exclaims. ‘Passing trade. Pull up.’
Alice squints through the windscreen. The boys are their age or a little older. Of the group, three are in swimming trunks and two in wetsuits, all of them clutching preposterously at surfboards which collide as they approach the truck. The sea is still as pondwater.
‘What are they going to do,’ Alice grumbles as she brings the truck to a standstill. ‘Build a fort with those things?’
‘Who cares?’ Min is already clambering back over the gearstick into the back section, sliding up the serving window and leaning almost all the way out. ‘Well, aren’t you boys a sight for sore eyes?’
The boys cluster like geese. One of them, wet-lipped with a tongue piercing, asks Min what she’s doing selling ice cream on such a chilly day. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a truck like this. Min’s reply comes out static with the same electricity she discharged against Alice’s cheek.
‘Well, what are you doing buying ice cream on such a chilly day?’
Over her shoulder, Alice sees her friend as though beheaded; green shorts and a silver thread in her sweater, leaning elbows on the serving ledge, resting her chest on her folded hands. Her legs are coarse as soap and chicken-skinned with a two-day growth of hair. At the back of one knee she has a small tattoo, a Russian doll with its top removed and another, smaller face peeking out. Alice was with her when she got it, held her hand and watched the anxious sweat soak into the back of her T-shirt. I contain multitudes – the tattoo seems to say – or at least five or six. Afterwards, the two of them had gone for burgers, Min with her bandaged leg elevated and her foot on Alice’s knee. Smearing ketchup, sharing a lemonade, Min leaning over to lick a daub of mustard off Alice’s wrist. They had wandered up to the arcade at the end of the pier and Alice had spent all her money buying them games on the Mortal Kombat machine until Min had decided she was sick of playing because none of the female characters ever won.
Alice doesn’t realise she is scowling until she catches her expression in the rear-view mirror. The boy with the tongue piercing is talking, brassy glint of unprecious metal, and Min’s laugh is the same upside-down thing it always seems. He is asking whether the truck belongs to her and she is weaving him a series of stories: her family inheritance; driven it from one end of this country to the other; the things you see from a serving hatch, you wouldn’t believe.
‘She can’t drive,’ Alice wants to call over her shoulder. ‘Her uncle did his knee in playing five-a-side and she’s roped me into driving his truck because I passed my test.’
‘Because she knew I’d have nothing better to do,’ she also wants to call over her shoulder.
‘I don’t know what I want,’ the boy with the tongue piercing is saying now, in a voice which fairly communicates that what he wants is probably not included on the menu. The serving side of the truck is panelled with pictured offerings in frantic technicolor; Zooms and Magnums and Soleros, pre-packaged ice-cream sandwiches on which Alice has experimented, leaving them out on paper plates for hours, coming back slightly disconcerted to find that they have failed to melt.
At the window, Min hangs even more precariously outwards, shifting sideways in a way which suggests she might be pointing at some item on the menu.
‘Take your pick – little bit of what you fancy,’ she says in her Mae West leer.
‘How about you surprise me,’ the tongue-pierced boy replies, and his friends chortle in a weird tandem. There is a sudden, queasy rocking of the truck, as though several people have leant up against it at once.
‘Earl Grey and sardine ice cream it is,’ Min replies, and Alice grins despite herself. It is a sleepover game they play, dreaming up the most disgusting of possible flavour combinations: lemon curd and spare ribs, duck and Parma Violets, tinned pilchards and strawberry jam. A strange pretence at early teenhood, despite the fact that they are both nearly eighteen – nights spent sleeping top to tail in Alice’s bedroom and playing stupid games, inking outlines of the constellations on one another’s arms in biro, tweezing eyebrows and talking on and on about kissing, Min’s little moonstone teeth in the dark.
At the serving hatch, Min hooks one bony ankle over the other and Alice wills her to retract her head and wink at her, give some sign that they still share ownership of the joke she has just hurled unthinkingly away from them. But Min remains where she is and the joke sails away over the head of the boy whose fingers now appear on the edge of the hatch.
‘Whatever sounds good to you,’ he says. ‘What’s your name, anyway?’
Min draws back a little, though only to open up the chest freezer and root around inside.
‘You’re sweet, Minerva.’
Min snorts, kicking back one leg as though the knee has just been swiped out from under her.
‘Nah, you’re just all hot at the thought of ice cream.’
She hands something over – bright red wrapper – and there is a renewed sound of butting surfboards.
‘What’s this?’ the boy with the tongue piercing asks, an anticipatory tone which has no business being used for ice cream.
‘Your heart’s desire.’
‘Good going for two quid, yeah?’
Alice has no enthusiasm for boys, except as they appear in the abstract – the fictional approximations that people the books she reads, appealing only in silhouette and with the meat cut out of their middles. In reality, boys appear to her like plane trees in a photograph, sudden and ugly and always just in the centre of things, giving idiotic answers in class and telling boring stories about how drunk they got the night before. Exactly where this distaste springs from is unclear to her. She isn’t gay – she’s pretty sure. She’s tested it, stared at the women in her brother’s magazines. In truth, it is something she thinks about only seldom, usually as an afterthought to the late-night recollection of old humiliations – the time Toby Waters had been moved next to her as punishment for talking in English class and had told everybody afterwards that she smelled; the time she announced to a group of friends that her favourite character in Grease was Marty when everyone else was saying Danny; the way a girl in sixth form had once looked her over and told her, apropos of nothing, that she had a straight girl’s way of doing her hair.
She has only been kissed once, by the stock boy at the cafe where she worked for most of the previous summer; a nineteen-year-old with a shining ham of a face, who ate egg-salad sandwiches on his lunch breaks and sweated dark crescents into the armpits of his shirts. He had trapped her on the galley steps that led down to the meat freezer one day when she was running back to fetch something, bracketing her head against the wall and telling her how cute she was. His smell like egg and perspiration, soft sour note of Glacier Mints and his teeth too big and scraping against her own. She had let him do it, and afterwards slid into the meat freezer and stood there wondering what it was she had come to fetch.
Min likes boys, although always the wrong ones, too loud, bad-smelling or encumbered with long-term girlfriends. She is the kind of girl stitched together by brief liaisons – ‘Bad-news girl,’ Alice’s mother says in her hands-up church voice, ‘shakes herself out like sheets.’ In the wind-down days of the summer term just gone, Min had dragged Alice out almost every weekend to a seafront bar bizarrely named the Credenza, where they had flashed their fake IDs at an indifferent bouncer and danced until Min found a boy to kiss. On the dance floor, a chalk-smeared stretch of glittering malachite, they would shimmy to nineties music, Min’s hair lit up like a chemical spill by the disco lights. Most of the time the boys came easily, sloping over the way one approaches a dangerous dog, wary but still irrationally keen to touch. Occasionally, when the music was sluggish and the attention not forthcoming, Min would loop her arms around Alice’s shoulders and angle down through her hips, winking solemnly as she did so, a complicit little change of rhythm. This never failed. The boys were usually ones they knew from school, although sometimes there were tourists or boys from inland towns down for the weekend surf. Min would disappear with whoever approached first for half an hour to forty-five minutes, emerging always smeared and alone to find Alice drinking fizzy water, grabbing her hand and demanding that they leave. She would give these boys a phone number when they asked for it, though it would always be Alice’s number rather than her own.
‘It’s like you’re my protector,’ she would say, after Alice had spent another Saturday morning fending off calls from boys with names like Gus and Sam and Timbo, ‘fighting off the vagabonds who would do me wrong.’
By the end of term, Alice had perfected a fair approximation of Min’s voice, brushing off the boys who called her up less delicately than she would care to admit. It was a kiss – move on. I have herpes. I’m in love with the girl you saw me dancing with before.
At the serving hatch, Min is handing out Cornettos in a wide circle; clattering of surfboards like a racket of seagulls being fed.
‘Calm down,’ she says, clearly enjoying herself, ‘plenty to go round.’
‘Animals,’ the boy with the tongue piercing agrees, prompting a grumble of insult from his companions. ‘Grabbing at a girl like that.’