Litro #151: Adrenaline – Playing Games
There were three of us on the family holiday: me, my father, and her. They picked me up from my house and I sat in the back. Then we drove to a small coastal town in Norfolk.
When we got to Seaview Caravan Park, I rubbed the condensation from the window and looked out. There were row upon row of caravans, different only in the colour of their roofs and shutters. Our caravan was cream-coloured, with a flat green roof and matching green shutters across its small windows. My father pulled up beside it.
“Here we are,” he said.
I put on my anorak and got out. The grass was damp, squelched beneath my feet. I peered round the sides of the caravan. The rain seemed to wash its edges away.
“Where’s the sea?” I asked.
“It’ll be around here somewhere,” my father said as he unpacked the car. “Lucky Jennifer’s brought so many board games for us to play, isn’t it, Jenny?”
I didn’t say anything. It was bad enough to have the same name as her. Sometimes I thought my father was calling me but he was really calling her. I didn’t want our names to share a sentence.
On that first night, we ate canned sausages, beans and toast for dinner. We sat on itchy brown seats around the small table that folded out into their bed. I sat as far back as I could and pressed my calves tight to the seat so my knees wouldn’t have to touch hers.
I ate quickly as they talked, and then excused myself. When they finished, we sat in the living room and played Trivial Pursuit. I excelled at Arts and Entertainment but got stuck on a Science question.
“Have they not taught you about photosynthesis at school, Jenny?”
Jennifer said. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor opposite me and had cocked her head to one side. A blond plait sat limply on her shoulder.
“Can’t remember.” I wondered if we had learnt about it. I didn’t like her calling me out, making me feel stupid.
“They must have done. I remember learning about it when I was eleven.”
“What are you learning about in Science?”
“Dunno.” I picked at some skin on the edge of a fingernail.
“Come on, Jenny,” my father said. “She’s only asking you a question.” He looked tired. The lines on his face deepened as he spoke.
“I don’t even like Science,” I said.
“It’s a difficult age, Daniel,” Jennifer said.
That annoyed me even more. Like she knew anything.
The following day, the weather brightened and we went to the beach. Small children splashed in puddles left by the tide, and a few holiday makers sunbathed on the coarse sand. We laid down towels and put up a windbreak. Jennifer pulled out a medical journal from her bag. My father sat by her side and stroked her hair as she read.
“Just think, after all your exams are over, we’ve got a week in Lake Como to look forward to,” my father said.
When he was at university, before he became a doctor, my father had worked summers as a lifeguard, on this very beach. And yet now it seemed he had lost interest in the sea. I had to go in alone.
I ran towards the sea, arms wide. When the water lapped at my waist I did a handstand, kicking my legs straight. Pushing further in, I jumped to be taller than the waves. Then I glanced over to see if my father was looking. I tried to wave but the two of them only saw each other. I watched for a while. I ignored the waves that hit my back, and I wiped the salty spray from my eyes. The water stretched and darkened my hair. They were sitting closer together; my father had put his arm around her. Finally, I turned my back and swam further out. It was exhilarating being so far away from them. I saw the edge of the pier to my right and decided to go past it, diving under a large wave. When I came back up the sea was flatter, and I treaded water for a while, looking at the small figures on the beach. It was quiet. Nothing mattered from there. But then a different current began to tug at my legs, and I wasn’t strong enough to match it. My heart raced. I could feel a thick pulse in my neck. I shouted, “Help!” but I could barely hear my own voice. I swallowed sea water and spat it out again. No one knew. No one was coming. The sea felt colder. It pushed and pulled at my body. My limbs felt heavy as I dragged myself through the water. At times I didn’t know if I could trust them, if they wouldn’t just give up and let me sink. For what felt like hours I slowly edged to the shore, tears spilling down my face.
When I landed on the beach, I flipped onto my back and let the foamy water run gently past me. I wiped my eyes and waited for my heart to calm, staring up at the seagulls and the clouds. I decided not to say anything in case they stopped me from ever going back in. For good measure, I got up and tried to do another handstand in the shallow, but my arms no longer had the strength to lift me and I fell onto the wet sand.
“Did you see my handstand, Dad?” I said, walking up to him. I was shivering and scared, but I tried to keep my voice calm and even. Jennifer was rubbing sun cream into my father’s back. He had fat white stripes like war paint along his forehead and cheeks.
“Yep. Very good.”
“Were my legs together?”
“Looked like it.”
“They weren’t, actually,” I said, and walked off, kicking the sand.
That evening it rained again and the heavy patter on the roof resounded in the caravan. We ate more tinned food and played Cluedo.
“Mum’s really good at this game,” I announced.
“I remember, Jenny,” my father said.
“She always wins, doesn’t matter who she’s playing against. It’s her game.”
“She’d win when we used to play with Grandma and Granddad or Sharon and Paul,” my father said.
“Did you bring Risk? That’s my game,” I said.
“I don’t think your dad’s got Risk, Jenny,” Jennifer said.
“What’s your game, Dad?” I asked.
“Is it the same as mine, I wonder?” Jennifer said.
“It is if it’s what we were playing yesterday,” my father said, smiling.
“I hope you mean Trivial Pursuit?” she laughed.
“Oh for God’s sake!” I snapped, and then ran into the bedroom and slammed the flimsy door shut. I lay on my front on one of the twin beds. My clothes, shoes, books and toiletries were piled on the other one.
A short while later, there was a knock at the door. “Jenny?” my father said.
“What do you want?”
“Don’t talk to me like that, I’m your father.” After a pause, he said, “What was all that about?”
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
“I hardly ever even see you anymore. And when I do see you she’s all over you. She never leaves you alone.” I started to cry despite myself.
My father pushed the door open and sat on the bed. He looked too big and bulky to be sitting primly on the edge with his hands clasped together.
“I didn’t realise you felt that way,” he said. “I’m sorry. It’s not her fault, it’s mine. I’ll make sure we spend more time together, just us two. I promise.”
I looked up at him through stinging eyes.
“You say that but you won’t really. I know you won’t.”
“If I make a promise, I keep it.”
“Oh, we both know that’s not true,” I said. It was something my mum had said and suddenly it was in my mouth.
“What is this really about?” He frowned at me. “Look, I know this past year hasn’t been easy. But you can’t go around acting like that.”
“Why not?” I said. I took one of the pillows from the bed and hugged it.
My father shook his head. “Because it’s not how we do things in this family.”
“Look,” he said. “Jennifer is part of this family, now. She’s my wife. And that’s how it is.”
“But…” I began. I pushed the two edges of the pillow together and then let it spring back out. I knew I wasn’t going to win. “Fine, I’m sorry.”
“OK,” he said. “I’m going to need you to say sorry to Jennifer, too.”
I slowly got off the bed and trudged into the living room.
“Sorry,” I said.
“That’s OK,” Jennifer said. She looked at me pityingly. I realised she must have heard the whole conversation. Her knowledge felt like an invasion. I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid as to let her in on it. She knew how I felt. She knew where I was weak.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” I said.
“Are you sure? It’s only half eight. And you seem to be so good at Cluedo,” Jennifer said. “Like your mum.”
I didn’t like her mentioning my mum. Her mouth dirtied the word.
“I am,” I said. “But I’m still going to bed.”
The following day turned out to be the last day of our family holiday, although it wasn’t meant to be. It was a hot day and we wandered in and out of tourist shops. Jennifer suggested we get ice creams, and I liked ice cream too much to disagree. We found an old-fashioned parlour on the pier.
“Do you remember our tradition, Dad?” I asked.
“You know – the half and half? So whatever flavour you get, I get half of, and whatever flavour I get, you get half of. Remember?”
“Yeah, we can do that if you want,” my father said.
“Cool,” I said, scanning the colourful choices behind the glass.
“But we should split it three ways, now. That’ll be even better. If we each choose something different, we can try more flavours that way,” my father said.
“I’m just gonna get my own,” I said.
“Don’t be like that,” my dad said.
“It’s alright, Daniel. Ice cream is just too good to share, isn’t it, Jenny?” Jennifer said. I forced a smile. I wasn’t going to show her anything, ever again.
I waited for my father to order and chose chocolate like him. The two of them fed each other tiny mouthfuls of ice cream off plastic spoons as we headed back to the beach. Out of Jennifer’s earshot I asked my father if we could swim together in the sea, just the two of us. He smiled and told me not to worry. But when we lay down our towels he said he was too tired to swim. He’d rather relax. That’s when I made up my mind.
“Jennifer, do you wanna swim?”
Jennifer looked at me, surprised. “Um, yeah, sure Jenny,” she said.
My father raised his eyebrows.
“Cool,” I said.
I started to walk calmly towards the sea. Jennifer caught up with me and we walked side by side over the gritty shell-studded sand, me in a navy blue swimming costume and goggles that dug into my forehead, her in a skimpy turquoise bikini.
When we got in, I turned to wave at my father, who waved back. Jennifer was waving, too. It was hard to tell who the wave was for.
“Follow me,” I said. “I know a good spot.” I knew as I was saying the words that I shouldn’t be saying them. With its heavy thumps my heart tried to warn me to go back. Ignoring it, I started to do the front crawl, so we’d get there faster. Half-way, as I turned my head to breathe, I gulped in sea water and had to stop.
“I think we should go back!” Jennifer shouted. She wasn’t far behind me, and was a better swimmer than I’d thought.
I pretended not to hear and continued in the same direction. After a little while my arms started to tire, and I felt the familiar pull. It was stronger than it had been the last time. I couldn’t stay on the edge. It dragged me. I saw her, then, coming closer, a look of panic across her face. I knew she felt it. I heard her shout as a wave washed over me. When I came up I gasped and looked for her. I shoved my hands in the air and waved frantically, kicking out with my legs, but it wasn’t enough to stay above the surface.
I woke up on the beach, coughing up sea water. My father was crouching over me. Jennifer lay to my side.
“Oh, thank God!” my father said. He hugged me with his big arms and smiled as my mouth began to make sounds. He watched patiently, listening to my every word.
“Who did you pull out first?” I said.
The expression on his face turned from relief to disgust. A crowd had gathered behind him. To the right I could make out flashes of yellow and red, a lifeguard running towards us.
My father stood up and took a step back. “Was this a game to you?” he said.
People in the crowd looked at one another. My father paced back and forth in front of me, his hands on his head. “I wouldn’t have got there in time,” he said, finally. He pointed at Jennifer. “She saved you.”
I felt heavy, as though I could sink. My father knelt down and covered his face with his hand. His body heaved. I moved my head slowly, painfully, to the right, and saw he had reached out an arm towards her. I could still taste the sea in my mouth.