They’d spent last night in a clean and neat little cabin of light wood. James wished he knew what it was. They did this stuff at school nowadays, design and technology, D&T. Making tables and all that. Ed had told him. But it seemed unauthentic somehow. He wondered if they did any woodcutting (probably not). They’d go against the grain. Most amateurs did. As he walked further away from the cabin, the circles molded together into a homogenous mass until he could no longer see them.
Lena had said she’d get the boys to pack, so he went to the café alone to get coffee and sandwiches and to leave the keys with the barman. He passed the white plastic sign nailed to the wall of the café (the same pale wood as the cabins):
‘FILMORE CASSEY LEASURE: LOG CABINS SALES & HOLIDAY. HOT–TUB SALES NEW& USED’
Most places had so many signs now you ceased to see them. OPEN, JUST EAT, No smoking, Mind the step, FOOD HYGIENE RATING–and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. This one looked lonely on its own on the brown wall.
To the left of the café was a small playground stretching over half the lawn in front of the open car park. Two swings were tied to a thick horizontal wooden bar resembling a crossbeam. No wonder Sammy loved these things. They were proper authentic swings like the ones James used to have as a kid. No plastic nonsense around here.
I might get Ed a beer.
Immediately, he remembered he couldn’t. Ed had wanted to drive and he’d said “yes”without thinking. Now there was this, on top of the condoms. Lena still didn’t know and Lena would have a fit, though Ed was seventeen and had a full license. It was funny she was pissed off about Ed–of all things. It was James’ guilty conscience, of course.
He kept wondering whether maybe–maybe–she did know.
“Good luck with your drive.”The barman said as he poured filter coffee. “Where are you guys off to?’
“Geordie women with big hair and yellow fake tan, eh? Why Sunderland?’
“Nephew’s going to study there. We’re from Manchester ourselves.’
“A bit far from home, no?’
“Yeah.” James said. “We think it’s because of a girl. My sister’s having a fit, of course. But I mean, why not? Tony Scott went to the University of Sunderland, did you know that?”
“No.” The barman said. “No, I didn’t.”
On his way back to the cabin, a paper cup of coffee in each hand, Sammy’s bottle of apple juice in his trouser pocket, James watched a young girl loading a Volvo in the sun. A figure–hugging zipper jacket and white shorts. He racked his brain for what the Monday Night Disaster girl looked like–and couldn’t remember. The sheets had felt sort of funny afterwards. The more experienced guys in his position wouldn’t dream of doing it in their own home, but he didn’t know about these things. He’d spent the last ten years going home to Salford from Morson International and back, same time, same route, and now that he was Chief Civil Engineer, he’d thought–why not?
Not that it had been worth it. Men’s Health and Esquire articles hailing sexual “variety” were probably written by graduate females. Nah, you’re all set, mate, he’d thought, and forgot all about it. All had been well until three days later, during an uncharacteristic machete sweep through the bedroom, Lena had found the condom.
Ed had been over for a visit–thank fuck. Lena had never liked him. To Ed’s mom, James’ sister Cathy, Lena would forever be “the new wife’, though she’d been married to James for five years. Maybe that was why.
She’d stormed into the living room with the condom on her red–nailed finger.
“It’s your business to mess around with girls at this age, but I will not have this–” a wiggle of the finger “–in my house and my bedroom!”
Ed had been sixteen.
James had known there was only one girl Ed would mess around with, and she hadn’t offered. His own mind at the time had been going through the Monday Night Disaster’s shenanigans step by step. He’d carried the damn thing into the bin, hadn’t he…
Hadn’t he? The bathroom bin had fallen, he’d gone back to the bedroom to get other rubbish to carry it all outside, bent down to get the empty G&T can from under the bed, put the condom down and… Ah sheeet.
“I’m sorry, Lena.” Ed had said without skipping a beat. Uncles’ wives were Aunties in normal families. But Ed always called her “Lena” to keep his distance–but also to create room for friendship, which James thought was very mature of him. Not his fault that Lena had trust issues. “Ellie has a fight with her parents and she needed somewhere to rest. Won’t happen again.”
“Aren’t you going to say something?’
James had shrugged. “Well. They’re sorry.”
Ed had taken the hour–long verbal beating. Not for free, though. He hadn’t said a thing, of course, but James knew how things worked in their family. Fuck, yeah. Anne’s family, at least–a rundown version of their mother’s. Ed had wanted a car, and though giving him one hadn’t really been the plan, James had had to admit it now was. Something about the way Ed had looked at him had told him Ed was disgusted by this shit, maybe because he was in love. James was lucky Ed wasn’t on Lena’s side, but he could tell in his deepest heart Ed wanted to tell, because this was cheating–of the cheapest kind, in Ed’s hormone–fuelled teenager’s eyes.
Around 4 am. on August 7th, Anne had called, and screamed into the phone about how James was a bribing fucking swine… It was almost as if by saying it, she’d made it true.
Since then, things had happened. Ed had come to live at James’ in Prestwich for good. His stuff would remain even once he went off to uni. Anne and James were no longer on speaking terms.
He reached the cabin. Lena stood behind the open boot of the Volvo, dressed in a red silk shirt and skinny white jeans. He acknowledged her with a nod, and immediately felt like an arsehole. He came over and handed her the paper cup of coffee.
“I don’t approve of this and you know that.”
“Jeez, come on. The kid’s been driving for years, legally or not.”
Lena sipped the coffee and flinched when she burnt her tongue. “You really expect this to reassure me? Having my child in the car with no control over where it goes and how fast it goes–’
“It’s not his driving you’ve got a problem with.”
“The rest isn’t negotiable, that’s all. You don’t know my sister. He’ll be at uni most of the time, you won’t even see–’
The cabin door swung open, and Lena swallowed her reply.
“I can’t find my other sock. Ed can’t either.”
“I’m not surprised.” Lena snorted, and went inside.
The Filmore Cassey Log Cabin Resort was situated in Stanley, a few miles off the Beamish Museum. They’d driven all the way from Manchester before settling down to rest at Filmore, but James had been at the wheel most of the time during that trip. The remaining drive was only about half an hour’s worth, and he decided he’d let Ed have it. Now that Ed owned a car (one he’d earned so ingeniously), he was obsessed with getting enough practice.
“Do you even have your license on you?” Lena said.
“You’re not legally required to have it, you know.” Ed said without getting his eyes off the road. “You have two days to present it to any police station after they ask you.’
He listened to AC/DC while he drove. His own car was still in Prestwich. Lena sat squeezing Sammy’s hand, spreading nervous vibes like wave of perfume. She was passing on her panic to the kid and he probably resented that. But women always did that. Mothers did it. Anne would still be doing it to Ed if he hadn’t escaped her.
James had always wanted kids–more than any of the guys he hung out with. It was part of the reason he’d never had a laddy lad crowd. Maybe that’s why he’d let the whole thing with Anne develop the way it did. He wanted Ed all to himself, because Ed was old enough to be a friend. Sammy still needed his mom, his socks and all that shit.
They got to Sunderland by noon and had an hour to kill before Ellie’s arrival. James noticed the women and the fake tan and everything, but, having been warned about it, he didn’t find it as exotic as he might have. James unloaded the car and left the bags at Mary’s Guest House by the reception desk. The check in only started at three p.m., and they weren’t going to bother with it until after Ellie. The Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter’s where Ed (and she, James thought) would live stood practically on the beach, so they’d found the hotel closest to that. It was six miles away from Seaham Hall (the only landmark James had thought he knew in Sunderland, which turned out not to be in Sunderland at all). Luckily, it had been full by the time Lena called to book.
They went to the bus station fifteen minutes before Ellie’s bus was due and sat on the bench. Sammy distracted them every now and then with observations about seagulls, but otherwise the silence was awkward. James wondered again if Lena knew, and was simply trolling him. She’d been dropping hints. Something about a youth elixir to get men to stick around.
Ellie got off the bus at ten to one. She wore open black shoes with straps and high heels and a red sheepskin coat over her dress.
“Ellie, this is my uncle Ed, this is Sammy and–Lena.”
“Hi. Hi. I’m Ellie.” Her smile made her look much older. “Have you guys heard about that Godzilla thing? I’m starving, by the way.’
“What Godzilla thing?” Sammy said, but no one replied because Lena asked Ellie what course she was doing, and James’ thoughts turned to where they could get food.
They settled on the Indian restaurant called “Delhi Orchid” and then decided to take a walk along the shore. The lunch had been quiet–Lena didn’t care to ruin the lives of Ed’s girlfriends as much as she’d try to ruin those of Sammy’s, though James could tell she disliked Ellie–and once they got to the beach, Ed and Ellie went ahead.
The beach, like the town itself, seemed strangely empty. Not like a ghost town, of course, and maybe it was the time of the day–but still, it was unsettling. They walked down the steps leading to the pebbled surface. James looked down at something funny he’d first taken for a piece of rubbish.
“It’s a starfish.” Lena said. “They’re all over the place.”
“Is it normal?” He said.
“Well, all sorts of things get washed out onto the shore these days, cause the water’s getting warmer, the currents change, all that. At least you can’t see them asphyxiate like with other fish, but they’re still struggling. It’s disgusting how things are.’
The beach was covered in half–dried starfish like a road in the park at the end of an autumn day would be covered with fallen leaves. Ed and Ellie had headed right for the water, kicking pebbles across. James, Lena and Sammy followed behind.
“It’s very… Pure.” James said. “Don’t you think? Almost freaks me out, that.”
“Sure it isn’t.” Lena said. “Doesn’t make it any less sweet, I suppose, but it ain’t pure. On the contrary, ‘s very physical. You notice this stuff more when you don’t have it yourself.’
“You don’t like her.” James said. “Practicing the mother–in–law part?’
Lena said nothing, now fully engrossed in starfish. She liked seafood more than people. James had grown used to it by now. Hell, she’d be pissed off if she knew he referred to it as “seafood” even when it was alive. She bent down to get a broken mussel shell Sammy was trying to dig up, and James walked ahead. The wind carried Ed and Ellie’s voices over.
“…they’ve been thrown out when that Kraken thing surfaced. Have you seen that YouTube footage? It’s crazy. Looks like a giant squid or something, about twenty foot tall, and the starfish was just plastered all over it–”
“Haven’t been online for ages.” Ed said. “Phone’s got no data till September. Anyway, sounds like bullshit. Lena’s a marine biologist. These huge animals like dinosaurs had something called atavism, I think. Couldn’t breathe in our conditions, “cause the air’s too thick for them. Must be CGI.’
“But you have whales!” Ellie said. “It’s not CGI. People here have seen it when it surfaced earlier in the morning–’
Ed leaned over and kissed her, and she fell silent.
The heels of her shoes dug into the pebbles as she walked closer to the water line, sometimes tilting backwards. The pebbles ran through the straps and her toes. She hopped over the starfish, as if she could crush them–and just as James had turned around to try to talk to Lena about something non–Ellie–related (sex?), Ellie slipped and fell on one knee, scraping a starfish.
“Did I hurt it?’
James and Lena had caught up with them, Sammy falling a little behind.
“Check if it’s alive.” Ellie said when they all circled her. “Did I step on it?’
Lena bent over. “No. Put some water on it.”
Sammy got a small stick from a pile of wet rubbish a few feet away and pricked the starfish. It flinched and drew in one of its arms.
Ed splashed it with water.
It began to crawl away with agonizing slowness.
“We can come back to the hotel where Lena and James are staying so you could–’
“Yes. But I wanna take them with me.”
Lena watched Ed scoop up several starfish and help Ellie put them into her bag with disapproval, but, having known her for years, James could tell inside she was glad she’d be able to take a look at them herself.
“Get some water too.”
Bosses him around, she does. Perhaps it ran in the family.
The receptionist who spoke Sunderlanguage, as the guy who rewrote Hamlet called it in his book, saw Ellie and gave them a family–sized room, a bigger one than they’d expected. It cost twenty quid more, but James didn’t protest. It even had a kind of sitting room.
Lena took the kids (counting Ed and Ellie as such at that instance) and went upstairs. James stayed to settle everything at the reception, show his passport and fill in the endless forms they forced on everyone these days, as if it changed a thing. Shit still blew up just as much as before, and just as unexpectedly. Take the Monday night disaster.
He’d kind of wished she’d at least spared him a look.
He had a drink at the bar while the reception idiot was processing his form, and after what seemed like ages got a receipt and headed upstairs. He entered with his card key. It was only quarter past seven, but the whole four hundred square feet were quiet until he reached the dark sitting room.
“I… don’t even wanna go back to c–college. I’m n–not a fucking–an alpha like your aunt–’
“Lena’s not my aunt, she’s–’
“I’m not like her! I w–wish I could meet your mother…’
“No. My mother’s not someone you’d like to meet–’
They noticed James in the doorway and started. Ellie pressed her body closer to Ed on the shabby leather couch.
“Sorry, guys, I was just looking for, err…” he couldn’t think what to say, so he picked up a random book from the heap of Lena’s stuff, and said, “Here it is. Cheers. Is her–how’s your foot?’
“Fine.” Ellie said. “Fine. Thank you.”
He was beginning to feel like an eavesdropper.
He went for a shower and discovered the room had a bath, in which eight starfish were lying, half–submerged in what little sea water there was. They looked peaceful. James kind of envied them. He contemplated a shower for another moment. What had Lena done, gone to bed and not bothered?
Now that the trip was over, she was ignoring him flat–out, which meant she probably knew. James didn’t feel like dealing with it right now. He knocked on the bedroom door, opened it when she hadn’t replied and saw she was asleep with Sammy beside her. She’d pulled the covers tight around and under herself as a sort of mosquito net against him.
For a moment he thought of crawling in, hugging her and making the best of a shitty situation, but he couldn’t.
He went to his suitcase and got his laptop. He tiptoed back into the sitting room where Ed and Ellie were lying still on the sofa, a quilt thrown over them. He sat down at the desk and went on YouTube. They were quiet behind him, asleep or not. He plugged in his headphones.
He found it almost immediately–after typing in “Sunderland sea monster footage’. There were about twenty videos left, but he could tell there had been more. Most of them didn’t play when he tried to open them. A “video removed” message showed in most cases, until he got to the bottom row.
First he got through a few shots of people’s feet to the echo of “fuck’s.
“NASA satellites have spotted what looks like a huge, green “whirlpool” on the surface of the ocean last week and this is our turn, now this thing is in the North Sea–’
This one disappeared on him.
The screen of the phone filming it seemed to be covered with water drops, so the image was smudged. But he could see the giant Kraken thing alright, towering over the water a good fifty feet from the shore like a mountain of overgrown skin with tentacles. Seagulls were plastered over it, a few others circling around and snatching the sea stars off its back. Little of the Kraken itself was visible. People were screaming in the background.
“Drop that shit and run!’
The video cut off. He pulled out his headphones. He should show it to Lena, but she’d say it was CGI, too. And then there was the Monday Night Disaster.
He made to get up and felt a movement behind him. The computer screen had gone black. Through it, he could see Ellie stir and get up behind him.
She headed to the bathroom and he heard her lock the door. No sound of running water came, and as he listened in the dead silence, he heard the plastic shower wall shudder and creak a little at her touch. All these North East seaside hotels were built like huts or worse. No structure.
He sat down on the couch beside Ed and turned around to face the bathroom. He should have gone to sleep, even on the floor, if that’s how things were tonight–but after all, she was a bloody teenager and if she drowned in there, he’d be held responsible… Bollocks. He just didn’t want to go into that room, and the floor wasn’t really an option.
Ellie emerged, hair wet, wrapped in a towel, and he fluttered his eyes near–closed. God forbid she’d know he was awake, how the fuck would he explain all this?
But she paid no attention to him. She pulled on her dress, standing so close her leg was nearly touching his ear on the couch. His gaze fell on her feet. He’d been sure the left foot was where she got cut, but he could see no scratch, not even a scar–just pale glittering skin. She took a step back, looking for her shoes, and her other foot came into sight. No scratch here either. Once she had her shoes on, she walked off again, and returned with the bag, dripping water all across the room. She threw her coat over her shoulders and was out of the door.
James sprang up too. At least he was still dressed. This was all fucking ridiculous, but he couldn’t let her wander off like this. It was just after five a.m. What if she wasn’t eighteen yet? Fuck knows when they finish A–levels these days. He grabbed his MOUNTAIN WAREHOUSE jacket, but just as he touched the doorknob, his curiosity got the better of him. He stuck his head into the bathroom doorway, put the light on and leaned over to glance into the bath.
It was empty again.
Outside, it was turning to dawn. He saw pinky–red the moment he swung the front door of the hotel open. The reception desk was open 24/7, the sign beside it said, but the idiot wasn’t there. James crossed the road and neared the beach.
Ellie was sitting cross–legged right by the water, surrounded by a rapidly building mass of starfish. The stars crawled to her from all around. Where the beach had been littered with them less than twelve hours ago, it was now barren. Ellie picked them up one by one, and folded them one on top of another, so eventually they surrounded her like a crescent–shaped wall of a coral–shaded citadel. The starfish sort of molded together, like over–cooked scallops Lena had made once–or futuristic building blocks, a bio–hacker’s wet dream. Something about this also reminded James of the circles in the wooden cabins in the Filmore Cassey Resort. It was dead–quiet, apart from the occasional hiss of a car passing along the route by the beach.
He climbed over the concrete blocks separating the beach from the road. He thought he could hear Ellie whispering, the way Lena used to whisper to Sammy while he was little until he fell asleep. Maybe it was the sea. But her lips were moving. One of the starfish had sucked into Ellie’s foot, around the spot where James remembered the cut being. Ellie put her fingers inside the pink slimy wall, as if hooking them into the waistband of someone’s jeans, and hugged it with her body.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Lena’s voice said behind him. “What business have you got to be watching her like that?’
There was something dirty and fascinating about watching her–voyeuristic, yes. James admitted to his shit.
“I was just–’
“You were just what? I hope you didn’t fuck her right there, smothering all the fish and wreaking havoc.’
“I absolutely did not–’
“Get inside, for God’s sake.’
Lena climbed over the concrete fence and approached Ellie.
Ellie sat pressing her face into the slimy mass of starfish which had molded together into something like a rock. Lena sat down next to her and reached forward too. It looked like some pagan worship. They didn’t talk; didn’t even acknowledge each other. Just sat there absorbing the starfish mass.
James lingered there for a moment, and then went back to the hotel.
He’d spent days thinking back to it–then weeks. They’d returned to Manchester the day after he’d watched Ellie and Lena with the starfish. He made an attempt to show Lena the YouTube video, but she said she was too busy–and she did have all her laptops and papers around her again. He let it go.
It seemed like watching Ed and Ellie on the beach had re–ignited something between them. Since then, Lena would surprise him by kissing his earlobe from behind in the kitchen, or climbing in the shower with him when she was already late on her way to the lab. After her latest unexpected appearance in the bathroom mirror as he was closing the cabinet door, he’d cut his cheek with a razor and she’d licked off the blood.
In the third week of September, once Sammy started going to school, they were lying in bed, awake after midnight, wrapped in each other’s arms. He was watching Lena’s profile in the moonlight, and when she turned and reached over him for the glass of water on the bedside table, he suddenly thought she was looking younger. He even seemed to remember some wrinkles around her eyes that weren’t there now. He’d never noticed that kind of stuff before, but this just seemed too sudden. He didn’t mention it. Sex rejuvenation, like they said in all these fucking magazines.
“Now that they’re doing this endless construction, that house looks like my neighbour’s house when I was a kid. My friends and I had this joke that he had a cannabis farm.” Lena said, leaning back on the pillow. “He did grow plants that seemed similar, and he’d cover the top with this plastic sheet… And for a while, I really wanted my own cannabis farm. Isn’t it hilarious?’
James chuckled. “Sounds like you.”
She’d always wanted to grow things.
Lena took a sip of water and set the glass down. “Why don’t Ed and Ellie come over for a weekend? What d’you think?’
James stared. “Why?’
“I dunno, just thought it might be fun. They looked starved when I last Skyped with her.”
James rubbed his eyes. “You–Skyped with Ellie?’
“With Ed, but she was there. Sammy’d be glad to see them.’
Ed and Ellie turned up the following weekend a little after two p.m., bearing a box of chocolates and a toy rabbit for Sammy (which he showed an instant liking to against all odds) like a perfect TV–couple. James knew they had just entered the hormone–charged early–days period which didn’t usually last long, but still, it was disconcerting. This entire bombshell of sudden domestic bliss on both ends of his family was disconcerting.
The five of them had early dinner together. By the time they finished, Sammy had run off to play and they sat drinking wine and talking about the Kraken YouTube footage, which Ed was thinking of turning into a film.
“I told you it’s a Godzilla thing!” Ellie said, and giggled.
Ed’s phone began to ring while they all laughed. Ed glanced at the screen and his face fell a little.
He and James exchanged a look.
“Go and talk to her.” James said.
Ed said nothing, just stared at the phone.
“Come on, mate, ‘s not a big deal. Tell her the stuff you told us. Five minutes. Please.”
Ed took his phone and dragged himself outside. It looked like he was a ball someone was slowly kicking.
“I should probably try and patch things up with your sis–” Lena said.
“Don’t bother.” James said. “Not gonna happen.”
Ellie leaned in to Lena and whispered something.
Lena glanced at James, then back at Ellie. “Shall we show it to the boys?’
“Yes,” Ellie said, “why not. But he’ll be ages.” She nodded at the window.
“We’ll just show it to you then.” Lena said. “Let’s take that Pinot Grigio to the basement.’
James picked up the bottle and they all went downstairs to the cold cupboard. It was usually Lena who went–she stored lots of expensive equipment there and didn’t like people touching it. She didn’t seem to remember the bottle. She and Ellie stopped next to the chest freezer Sammy had once called a “refrigerated room” in a popular family anecdote (it looked nothing like a room to James, but he’d already accepted he didn’t get kids, like them though he might).
Lena glanced at him to make sure he was looking, and lifted the lid off the freezer. “I didn’t want to show it to you until I was sure it was doing well.” She said. “My little neurosis, you know. Give me that cheek.’
James didn’t move, so she reached into the freezer, leaned in and took out a little starfish, which she pressed to his cheek. It was cold and slimy, just as he’d imagined when he watched Lena and Ellie press their faces into these things.
He closed his hand over hers and felt his cut smoothen out and the skin around it tighten, as if something small was gnawing at it, like that pedicure fish in Thailand. It gave him a ticklish feeling. He closed his eyes and kind of fell into that peaceful inner hum–and then Lena pulled the starfish away.
“You can’t do this for too long, or it’ll grow you a skin beard before you know it. All the luxury facials use this shit now, but I doubt it’s this concentrated.”
James leaned over into the freezer. They’d turned it into a fish tank, pretty much. The bottom was dark and plastered with starfish pressed into a familiar rock structure. But as he moved away an inch, the thing at the bottom of the tank stirred and began to swim up, flapping its tentacles. As it reached the surface, he realized it looked just like the octopus he’d glimpsed in the YouTube video. Every tentacle was made of starfish.
“I thought I’d settle for a collagen farm instead.” Lena said. “Keeps one young, you know.”