The Sloan family from Ottery St Mary packed away their towels, chairs, balls, and kites. They collected their rubbish, bagged it up for the bin by the car park. Edward, the youngest, pointed at the sea. Everybody watched a man, dripping in seaweed, emerge on his hands and knees. His face was dark with mud. He spat out water and sand, shivered, surveyed the people on the shoreline. His eyes widened, pupils bulging and black. He stood, straightened himself, shook his legs, slipped his backbone into place with his hands. When he stretched upwards to become his full self, he must have been eight feet tall, sturdy but loose and agile. A group of young boys and girls screamed and ran to the kiosk, but the owner bolted his door and boarded the windows before they made it to within fifty yards. Two body builders backed slowly away; an elderly woman in a cheap sarong collected her valuables and complained bitterly; a drunken stag-do, so boisterous earlier, began to fight among itself; an American tourist threw his single-use barbecue at the fish-man. Edward put out his hand in greeting. Fish-man tried to speak but green bile spewed forth from his mouth. ‘Do you need directions?’ Edward said. Fish-man nodded. Edward’s mother Anne ushered him toward their SUV. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘We need a babysitter.’ On the drive home, fish-man sat opposite the children in the back. He tried to speak again. ‘I’m hungry,’ he growled. ‘Don’t worry,’ Anne said. ‘We’re nearly there.’ Fish-man smiled. ‘I like children,’ he said.
After counting more than three thousand worms, cataloguing them into their different species and washing our hands thoroughly, we were set fair for cool beer and barbecue. Chloe wanted to bathe in the lake, but Paris and Annaliese persuaded her to take a shower in our makeshift camp. It was basic but with zero chance of barracudas. We ate a lot of trout with lemons, and finished all the beer before sunset. Eric played guitar and the Maguire sisters sang old bluegrass standards. So, in the morning we were disappointed to discover everybody had sunburn. We turned to Kwame for an explanation because everybody knows he sleepwalks. ‘I don’t remember anything from my sleepwalking. I’ve told you that hundreds of times,’ he said. Li Na put the kettle on. ‘Has anybody checked the worms?’ Nobody had, of course, so Manny and Steve went off to do it. ‘Where’s Chloe?’ Paris said. Chloe’s sleeping bag was gone. There was no sign of her anywhere. Steve came back. ‘The worms are fine,’ he said. Randi Maguire, the most assertive of the three Maguires, cleared the trellis table and laid out a map. ‘Chloe’s got a few hours on us. Let’s take a grid each and spread out.’ Eric picked up his binoculars. ‘Stuff this,’ he said. ‘Remember the last time we all woke up with sunburn? I’m not going through that again. Who’s with me?’ Everybody raised their hands except Randi and Kwame. ‘I guess it’s you and me, Kwame,’ Randi said. The two of them grabbed their bags and struck out for the interior. The sky turned grey. It became incredibly humid. ‘Where’s Manny?’ Paris said. Everybody looked at Steve. Steve tried to smile and backed away. Paris reached out to warn him but he panicked, lost his balance, and fell into the bear trap. ‘Shit,’ Eric said. ‘These field trips don’t get any easier, do they?’
A Good Night Out
It was late and I was walking home past the Royal Concert Hall when I spotted Rowena leaning against a wall. The ground around her was littered with cigarette butts and she looked cold. I think she saw me and tried to pretend she didn’t, but I stopped and said hello. ‘Would you like to borrow my coat?’ She lit another Silk Cut and skipped lightly from one foot to the other. ‘I’m fine thanks, Carl. Just waiting for a friend.’ I looked at my watch. ‘Well, if you’re sure,’ I said, and zipped up my Parka. We stood for a second. ‘I only know about three pieces of classical music,’ she said, ‘and they’re from films, so I don’t think they count.’ She inhaled. ‘I think the concert started about an hour ago,’ I said. She stubbed out the cigarette. ‘I’ll give him ten more minutes,’ she said. ‘Ok, I’ll see you tomorrow, Rowena. Have a nice evening,’ I said. A taxi pulled up and a young woman jumped out wearing the same coat as me. As I climbed in the back, I heard Rowena say ‘Carl?’, but I did nothing and we drove away.
It’s such a pretty little station, you say, as we sit waiting for the train to move off again. The guard tells us that we have stopped to meet the express coming the other way. He says the trains swap staff here. Our train helps to replenish the other train’s buffet with food and drink. He says we can get out and walk around if we want because it’s running late, something about an incident on the tracks thirty or forty miles up country. The shrubbery is full of sparrows. It’s quite early in the season and we can see some snowdrops across the station car park. The guard says why don’t we wander over, maybe get a drink at the pub, to give him our number, he can text if we’re not back in time, not to worry because the train won’t leave without us. Things are certainly different out here. We want to believe him. We want to think that everything isn’t a trick.
I was walking into town to sign on for my Jobseeker’s Allowance, when I met Kiki. She stopped and gave me a kiss on each cheek. She put down her 10-litre steel jerrycan and leant against a wall. ‘You all right?’ I said, when she had caught her breath. She pulled out a cigarette. ‘You got any matches?’ I looked at her jerrycan. ‘I don’t smoke anymore.’ She put the cigarette in her mouth. ‘Congratufuckinglations,’ she said, unzipping her jacket and taking a tissue from her pocket. ‘Do you remember Mr Hamilton?’ she said. ‘Vaguely,’ I said. ‘Do you remember him telling me that I was good at Chemistry and that if I worked a little harder I might pass my exam?’ She wiped her brow. ‘That was so disrespectful.’ She took off her backpack. There was a sound like glasses knocking together. ‘He hurt my feelings, Mikey,’ she said. She pulled out some milk bottles and set them down. ‘Nice bottles,’ I said. She smiled triumphantly, pulled a Mars bar wrapper from her backpack and extracted a sticky lighter from within it. ‘He lives up there, behind the park,’ she said. She lined up the milk bottles and stopped them up with long pieces of lint. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘I didn’t know that.’ She packed them back up. ‘Yea,’ she said. She leant against the wall to finish her cigarette. ‘Well, nice to see you, Kiki,’ I said, and quickened my step into town. ‘Yea. See you, Mikey,’ Kiki said.
Mark Russell’s work has appeared recently in Poetry Wales, bath magg, The Rialto and Mercurius. He lives in Scotland and can be followed on Twitter @mark59russell.