Leaving Home

sunset over Wembury
He left with three days’ worth of sandwiches in his backpack, lovingly prepared by his mother.
“There’s ham, cheese, and some of your favourite…”
“Marmite” they said it together, their eyes meeting as the crowds pushed past them to get a good seat on the ferry.
“Thanks Mum.”

He turned to stare past her through the window, across the harbour, towards the shipyard, the place he’d enjoyed toiling ever since he left school. His eyes were the colour of stormy sea, greenish blue with a lacy edge of white breakers.

“Hurry up Nick,” his friends were waiting. It was now or never, the journey of a lifetime.
“Bye Mum.” They hugged, kissed, held hands, then he pulled back, his fingertips brushing hers before he turned to stride after his three best mates, arms swinging, backpack bumping against the wallet full of cash stuffed into the pocket of his favourite jeans.

The four lads stood on deck, their hair blowing wild in the wind, and watched as their own small world slid slowly out of view. First the harbour walls. They faded from bold blocks of pink granite to distant smudges of pale grey with a hint of a rosy tint. Then the castle, which had always floated in the bay, reminding them of their place in history, hovered above the wispy mist before slowly sinking into the horizon. And their ship sailed out into the endless ocean.

They laughed when they saw they were surrounded by nothing but the familiar, blue-green sea, the sea which had entertained them, frightened them, tossed them and caressed them ever since babyhood. They looked for dolphins; they saw who could spit the furthest over the railings from the top deck; they were on their way.

They were neither at home, safe among family, friends and familiar cliff-top fields, nor at large, buffeted by strangers and foreign vistas. They were held in a limbo of cheap beer, Black Jack and slot machines.

They’d eaten Nick’s three days worth of sandwiches before they reached France.

His mother was at home preparing lunch, her first whisky of the day nestling on the worktop next to her. She took a gulp and placed the tumbler precisely back where she’d picked it up. It was twelve-fifteen. They’d still be on the boat. Would they be feeling sick? Laughing? Arguing? Was he wishing he was at home again, sitting in the kitchen with her, telling her it’s too early to be drinking spirits but joining her for just a small one? She’d never know. She couldn’t keep hold of him, not now he was almost a man.

She heard the car rattle over the cobble stones in the yard, listened for the door to slam shut, took another quick slug of whisky and then hid the empty glass in the cupboard under the sink. She popped a Tic Tac into her mouth and got back to the potatoes just in time for George to traipse his muddy shoes across the black and white tiled floor.

“Has he gone then? Or did he chicken out at the last minute?” He was grinning as he dumped his jacket on the kitchen table, knocking over the breakfast cereal which hadn’t been put away. Coco Pops spilled onto the floor and the dog scampered through the freshly deposited mud to lick them up before she had time to think about getting the dustpan and brush out. She stared at the Coco Pops packet, still on its side, leaking cereal out onto the table.
“He’s gone,” she said.

It was on a train, deep in the Normandy countryside, bound for Germany, then Switzerland, then who knew where, that Nick felt the first whisper of unease. He was staring out of the window at miles and miles of green, of brown, of foreign crops pushing up through unfamiliar soil, of roads leading nowhere and everywhere. There were infinite rows of Poplar trees, stretching straight as masts into the wide beyond. It was beautiful; it seemed to go on forever. It was where the land nourished the soul, but it was never-ending. It unsettled him, this land that reached out as far as he could see.

Every time they reached the top of a hill, he expected to see it there, shimmering blue and cold, glittering its inviting glare of reflected sunshine. His eyes were losing their stormy glint as he strained to focus on the place where the sea meets the sky, on a horizon that wasn’t there.

She had to get out, had to be close to him. She walked along the sand, climbed up the steps worn smooth by generations of footsteps and sat on the granite wall in front of their favourite beach cafe. It was the end for her now, it was just a matter of time. She put her hand in her pocket, but remembered the hip flask was empty. She pulled her coat tight across her chest and stared at the two young mothers playing with their children and chuckling beneath her on the beach. She felt barren. It wasn’t cold, but she was chilled, so chilled she thought she’d never be warm again.

She’d done what she had to back at the house; made the lunch, served it, eaten it, even held up her end of the conversation.
“You haven’t heard from him yet then? He has actually got on the boat?”
“No. Yes.”
“Just us now then, we can do what the hell we like.”
“Yes, I suppose we can.”

Even when she’d been talking to him, dishing out extra potatoes, holding out her glass to be re-filled with a celebratory glass of chilled Sauvignon, she wasn’t there, at home with her future. She was out here, in the sea breeze, feeling her hair whipping across her face as sharp as pampas grass. She’d sit here until he came back to her; safe, different perhaps, but still her boy.

At first Nick didn’t realise what was making him jittery, upsetting his tummy and sending him on frequent trips to the hole in the floor loo. He could see when he looked in the mirror, even with the juddering motion of the train, that his skin was losing its familiar bronze sheen, his eyes were clouding over, losing focus. And every time he went back to his seat and stared out of the window, refusing to play Pontoon because it might make him sick, he felt worse.
“Got a touch of the jimmy riddles?”
“Delhi belly and we haven’t even left France yet. What a lightweight.”

Where would it end? When would they get there? He got off at the next station, his legs shaking and his belly heaving. He didn’t want to lose it on the train, he told them he was coming down with something and would join them in Switzerland, or maybe the place after that. The last thing he heard from his three best mates in the world was a thin echo of them yelling “Mummy’s Boy” out of the train window.

But it wasn’t his Mum he wanted. He got the next train back to St Malo, feeling his body growing calmer with every kilometre that passed. The fields were still green, the earth still a rich ruddy brown, the trees lined up stiffly into the endless distance. But the fields full of unidentifiable crops were getting smaller, the patchwork of green and brown felt more human in scale, the rocks in the distance had a granite-pink sheen.

And then he saw it, shimmering in the farthest corner of his view from the window; glittering like a mirror ball, ceaselessly changing but always the same.

The sea.

This short story appeared in Jersey Now in April 2007.

About Beta Mum

Here you can find the ramblings of a trapeze artist turned journalist who ran away from the circus to join the BBC. Cathy "mine's a Kir Royale" Keir then spent thirteen years working in Jersey, Guernsey and Devon, before downgrading to what you see before you. She has contributed articles to The Guardian, The Stage and Television Today, Junior Magazine and both the BBC and Bad Mothers Club websites. She has two children who think women can’t be prime ministers. She blames herself.
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