Henry ran his fingertip along the driftwood. It was smooth like bone and bleached white by the tide.
‘You’re not bringing that home,’ Mum said. ‘I can tell you that much for starters.’
She rattled a bucket full of razor shells to hurry him up. The bucket also held the quartz pebbles and the rusting coins they’d found in the silt beneath the harbour wall. Even at nine, Mum said, Henry was a compulsive hoarder, just like his Gran.
Once, Henry had found a buoy snagged in nets and seaweed. It was turquoise and pitted with scars and dimples where it had been dashed against the rocks. Somehow, he’d smuggled it between the travel rug and the windbreak in the boot. When they got home he hung it in the shed with some broken lobster pots and cork floats he’d found in a rock-pool. He stared at the buoy, running his hands over it like a fortune-teller. When he closed his eyes, he heard the cry of gulls and the scent of salt and ozone. But what Henry prized most on the shoreline, he’d never found.
He told Mr Jessop, who ran the campsite, what he was looking for and Mr Jessop winked and said it was all to do with tides. You had to pick the right spot. Mr Jessop was on his knees scraping cakes of wet grass from under his mower. He was using a bread knife and paused to wipe it clean on a rag. ‘Something’ll pitch up sooner or later,’ Mr Jessop said, ‘you mark my words.’ He took a pipe from his jacket and tapped it out on the dry-stone wall. He struck a match and Henry sniffed at the spark of sulphur. ‘Do they teach you about the saints at your school?’
Henry shook his head. Mr Jessop lit his pipe, drawing deep and puffing out plumes of grey smoke. ‘St Patrick set sail for Ireland letting the tides carry him,’ he said. ‘But no one really believed that.’
‘They didn’t?’ Henry said.
‘So, one day our history teacher set up a little experiment. Do you know what he did?’
Henry said he didn’t. Grown-ups liked it when you didn’t know the answers. ‘The teacher told us to put messages in bottles and throw them into the sea.’
Henry’s eyes lit up.
‘And what do you think happened then?’
‘Days, maybe it was weeks, later he came into class holding a letter in his fist. Two old ladies had been walking the shore over in Northern Ireland when they’d noticed a bottle bobbing in the water. The bottle had been drawn by the same tides that carried St Patrick.’
‘Round here?’ Henry said.
‘You won’t go far wrong round here, boy.’
Henry wanted more time, but Mum complained it was getting chilly.
‘It’s all to do with the tides. Mr Jessop said so,’ Henry told her.
‘Did he now?’
‘We should be getting back. I’ve tea to get on,’ Mum said.
Henry stared at the sea. Men and their fishing rods were cast as silhouettes against a fading sun. The cliffs threw lengthening shadows across the rippled sand.
‘Come on, it’s getting cold,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll look again tomorrow.’
When Henry frowned, Mum said, ‘promise’ and squeezed his hand.
She jiggled the car keys and made a show of shivering into her cardigan. She hadn’t even tried, Henry thought.
‘But you said there was no rush. You said-’ Henry began.
Mum threw her hands up. ‘Fine, I’ll see you in the car. But, Henry-’
Henry climbed onto the rocks, stepping around clusters of sharp barnacles. The incoming tide crumpled his castle and moat. He ran along the shoreline, feeling the blood tingle in his toes. A car horn tooted. Henry’s mum raised her arm, pointing to her watch.
‘Alright, I’m coming,’ Henry shouted.
He vaulted a rock-pool and landed wobbling on a ledge. A swell surged against the rocks, fizzing and foaming. Henry gripped the rock and steadied himself with one foot wedged either side of a narrow channel of seawater.
His heart was pounding. The channel beneath him was deep and the water swelled, rising and falling like sheets on a washing line. Henry was steadying himself to jump when a glass bottle bobbed into the narrow space, clinking against the rocks. At first, he stared at the bottle as if it wasn’t there. He crouched and saw there was a note coiled inside, warped with damp. He hung from the ledge and prodded at the bottle with his toe until it became snagged in thick brown seaweed. He couldn’t reach it, so clambered back across the rocks and begged a shrimping net from a boy fishing for crabs in an Everton shirt. He clambered across the rocks and stretched out as far as he could. The bottle was still caught in the weeds. Henry’s arm shook with the strain, but eventually he caught the bottle. The bamboo shaft bowed under its weight, but Henry hooked it and snatched it.
‘You took your time,’ Mum said.
Henry took the bottle from behind his back, holding it in his palm. Mum’s eyes widened.
‘Now don’t get your hopes up,’ she said.
The bottle was shaped like a bell. The label had been scrubbed or picked off. He unscrewed the top. There was a faint whiff of something like medicine. Sand had been trapped in the thread and the grains slid down the inside of the bottle. Mum said, ‘hold on a tick,’ and rooted about in her handbag. She handed him tweezers and Henry swallowed as pinched the note and eased it free. He unrolled the damp paper and began to read. ‘Congratulations!’ He raised an eyebrow. Had he won some sort of prize? Henry cleared his throat and continued. ‘If you’re reading this it means you’ve found my message in a bottle. So, you’re probably standing in the sea and your feet will be getting wet-’
‘Proper joker, isn’t he?’ Mum said.
‘He’s called Thomas and he’s nine,’ Henry said, ‘same as me.’ Henry pointed at the note. ‘There’s a phone number.’
‘There’s no address?’
Henry shook his head. ‘I want to call him,’ he said.
Mum fiddled with the heater, so the hot air was angled at her face. ‘I don’t know about that,’ she said. ‘You get all sorts of people these days.’ By the time they reached the caravan Henry had persuaded Mum to let him call. There was an old red box at the crossroads. Henry had the ten pence pieces ready, warm in his palm.
When the phone rang, Margaret was mopping the kitchen floor, wiping slick S’s across the tiles. It was an early evening ritual. She sighed and dropped the mop with a splosh into the bucket, but she didn’t rush. There were too many timewasters phoning these days and she didn’t need new windows or solar panels.
‘Yes,’ Margaret said.
She ran the duster over the hall table as she waited. There was a ruffling of paper.
‘Can I speak to Thomas Pool, please?’
Margaret’s heart skipped. She thought she heard seagulls. ‘He’s not here,’ she said. Even now there were still calls from journalists. The line became muffled. Words were exchanged at the other end, but she couldn’t hear what was said. Another voice came on, a woman’s.
‘I’m sorry to bother you. I think we’ve got the wrong number,’ the woman said.
The phone clicked. Margaret balled her blouse in her fist. She almost let them hang up. ‘You haven’t got the wrong number,’ she said.
‘Oh, I see.’
Margaret picked at her thumbnail. ‘I get funny calls. You can’t be too careful.’
‘True,’ Mum said. Henry held up the bottle. He was doing a little jig on the spot, stamping his feet for attention. Mum rolled her eyes and shushed him. ‘My little boy has a thing about the sea. We’ve found all sorts on beaches and brought most of it home.’
Margaret remembered building sandcastles and making a mermaid, using coal-black pebbles for the eyes, shells for the dress and lush seaweed for her cascading hair. They took a photo with Dad’s disposable because Thomas got upset saying the tide would take her with it and they’d lose her forever.
‘Are you still there?’ Mum said.
Margaret swallowed. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry, I’m rambling. My little boy Henry found a bottle washed up on the beach. He’s so happy because he’s been looking for ages.’
Margaret sat down on the stairs. She was light-headed, perhaps because Doctor Ross had changed her prescription.
‘He’s had a thing about it as long as I can remember,’ Mum said. She waited, thinking the line connection had been broken. She heard the faint sound of breathing and continued. ‘Well, Henry wanted me to call you and tell you. The bottle had a note with your phone number written on it.’
‘Where did you find it?’
Mum told her the name of the beach. ‘Is everything alright?’ she said.
Margaret had grown used to holding tears. For a time, people understood, but they soon grew tired with grief and expected you to make an effort. They told you ‘time’s a great healer’ and offered to make tea so they didn’t have to meet your eyes. ‘I’m fine,’ Margaret said.
‘Henry wondered if, well he wanted to write-’ Mum’s words trailed away.
‘He would have liked that,’ Margaret said.
Mum covered the mouthpiece. The past tense struck before she’d interpreted the words. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘You’ve nothing to be sorry for.’ There was a long pause, before Margaret said that Thomas had died. Mum stroked Henry’s head and listened. The pips went and Mum had to tell Margaret it wasn’t a problem as she fed more ten pence pieces into the slot.
‘It was a few years ago, now,’ Margaret said.
‘But we found the bottle today, drifting in the sea.’
Margaret crooked the phone in her elbow and stretched the cord so she could see the mantelpiece. Next to the carriage clock was a gold frame. Thomas was staring straight ahead, immaculate in his Guard’s uniform.
‘It must have been floating out there for two or three years,’ Mum said.
The pips came again. Mum fumbled around for change and fed more coins into the box.
‘Let me phone back,’ Margaret said.
Mum told her not to be silly.
‘It’s not a few years, it’s nearly twelve,’ Margaret said.
‘Thomas was killed in Afghanistan. He was a soldier.’
‘But the note says he was nine,’ Mum said.
‘He was when we dropped that bottle from the cliff. He nagged me for hours and pestered for his Dad’s scotch bottle.’ Margaret sniffed. ‘What does it say?’
‘I’ll send it to you. It’s yours really.’
‘Can you read it?’
Mum had an idea and handed Henry the note. He read it without making a mistake and Mum was proud of him. Margaret heard Thomas’s voice and Thomas’s mischief, especially the bit about getting your feet wet. Afterwards, Mum hugged Henry tight. ‘You did a good thing,’ she said. ‘You made Thomas’s mum laugh and remember.’
Henry pushed twelve years back into the bottle. Mum ruffled his hair, said there’d be ice-cream after tea.
I’ll be sharing a short story called ‘Bottled Up’ on this site tomorrow morning.
Although I’ve been busy writing and submitting stories to magazines and competitions I’ve mainly been publishing poems, notes and non fiction on this blog so this is the first short story I’ve shared for a while …
Our polystyrene floats had teeth marks in them, like the impressions you do at the dentist. I don’t know why anyone bit floats, but they did. We had to grab a float (the uneaten bit) and kick and thrash our way across the width, like wind-up tadpoles. When we could do it without the float, and without drowning or emptying half the pool with our thrashing legs, we got a strip of red cloth cut from a roll for Mum to stitch to our swimming trunks as reward. When we did a length, we got the green bit of cloth. It was suspiciously like the colour of the polo shirts staff wore.
Lifted, dripping, from the bucket Carnations wrapped in cellophane Stalks and browning petals for his Mary With kisses on their anniversary Cut-price, stickered, diesel-tinged. It’s the thought that counts Snatched from a garage forecourt, all of it amounts To biting nails and wondering, counting the hours She gave her a life to a man who gave her garage flowers
Vets in itchy tweed. Doctors in white coats Cousins in tracksuits at each other’s throats Diamond geezers wave a double-barrelled History hour. One in the eye for Harold Blokes from Accounts are laying gravel paths A former weatherman flogs walk-in baths Comics in golf gear telling cracker jokes Three-bed terraces for auction in Stoke Washed-up bands reunite to do covers ‘Uncle’ tells audience he’s your brother Cops in visor helmets putting in doors Housewives mopping S’s in sparkling floors Shouty DJs trekking charity miles Freckle-faced kids with glinting gleaming smiles Posh pricks rowing oceans in a bathtub Perfect wives with perfect lives who don’t scrub Bundles of cheap data to stalk your ex Car park doggers talk multi-storey sex Judge dressed like Santa decides junkie’s fate Bloke puts on ‘lucky pants’ before his date A tattoo parlour with leftfield designs Bailiffs in boots collecting unpaid fines Baking Victoria sponge, tasting hock Gameshows at teatime with a ticking clock You could turn it off but they’d only frown Mind’s playing tricks, no such thing as Closedown