The Messengers

If you could change the future, where would you start?

“We’re drawn to each other, us messengers. We must be. I remember the first time I saw him, down by the beach huts. How could I not go over?

Frances is sent to her aunt’s house for the summer to escape difficulties at home. Soon she meets Peter, a man unlike anyone she has ever known. Peter is a messenger – but his messages never bring good news.

Peter believes that Frances is a messenger too.

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We’re drawn to each other, us messengers. We must be. I remember the first time I saw him, down by the beach huts. There was something about him. The look of him. How could I not go over?

You might even say it was fate, but I don’t believe in that.

I’d been sent to Helmstown for a little break. Back home, there’d been all sorts of trouble. My brother, Johnny, had punched an off-duty policeman during a pub brawl, and the guy was in intensive care. A few days later, some shady characters had thrown a brick through the window of our flat. Johnny, scared about what the police might do to him, was on the run. Mum had gone to stay with her boyfriend (who I don’t like), so she’d given me some cash and sent me down to the coast to stay with my aunt and uncle, and my cousin, Max. It was the summer holidays.

My name is Frances, but they called me “Fraaaancers” in Helmstown, because of the accent. It was like a different name, and Helmstown was like a different world.
So there we were, me and Max, walking the path above the sea wall as the night came down. The day had been muggy, but the wind was fresh now, and when it came off the sea, you felt like you’d been slapped. The beach huts were on our left, and almost all of them were dark and padlocked. They looked like
cold little men in hats.
“Where are these mates of yours then, Maxi?”
“By the Coffee Shack probably,” he said.
The Coffee Shack! Back home, we didn’t meet our friends

for coffee after dark.
Max was a year younger than me, and the last time I’d seen

him he was a chubby little boy in shorts who collected beetles and watched cartoons. He’d had a growth spurt since then. Now he swished his hair to one side, and wore geek-chic thick-rimmed glasses with thin lenses and low-rise skinny jeans with the bum hanging down. He carried a skateboard. It was nice: I’d turned up expecting a little squirt to hang out with, and I’d found a proper friend. Maybe.

Further up the path, I could see that one of the beach huts was lit from the inside. Lamplight spilled out beyond the open red door.

“So, what did the doctor say about your fainting? You’re hardly a delicate flower, Frances,” Max said.

“He said it was your mum’s cooking,” I said.

It wasn’t. Auntie Lizzie’s a great cook. The truth was, I’d been having these funny turns for a while. The Helmstown doctor was as clueless as the doctors back home. It was a mystery. Basically, every now and then I had a blackout. What the doctors didn’t know – because I never told anyone – was that when I woke up, in a daze, I started drawing. I liked to draw, in normal life. I kept a little sketchpad, and a tin of Berol Venus green cracked-varnish pencils. In normal life, I drew what I’d been taught to draw: bowls of fruit, a knackered trainer, a collection of glass bottles. Typical art class stuff.
But the drawings I did after these blackouts were different.

Usually, they were just a jumble of geometric shapes or swirls. They were crazy, more like the slides our art teacher showed us of the paintings of Pablo Picasso and his mates. Except my drawings made less sense. In fact, until that morning at Auntie Lizzie’s, the drawings had never made any sense. Until then, they’d just been random scribbles, incomplete pictures. Of course, the reason I never told anyone about the drawings was because I didn’t fancy being locked away in a mental institution.

Recently, the blackouts had started to get more regular. They used to happen about once a year, but now it was more like once a month. The doctors thought it was to do with my period. They thought I was anaemic.

Anyway, I’d blacked out in my auntie’s kitchen that morning. The usual: tiredness, a smell of smoke, colours going weak, and then the world closing in from the sides. I fell off my chair, which probably looked quite dramatic. Auntie Lizzie took me up to my room, and – when she’d gone – I did my drawing, still in a strange sort of trance.

But this time, the drawing made sense. The sketch contained people, buildings. It was a street scene. A place I recognized. The clarity of the image was amazing. It was still my style, but way more sophisticated. Like a photograph, almost. And what the drawing showed ... well, I didn’t want to think about it.

As we got closer to the open beach hut, a man stepped out, long and lean. His face was calm as he smoked. His jaw was strong, the lips thick as they blew. He wore dusty, sand-coloured workman’s boots, jeans with paint stains and a tracksuit top with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was blond and cut tight to his head. He was oldish; late twenties. The unusual thing about him was that he had a small magnifying glass above his right eye – the kind jewellers use to study diamonds – with a strap around his head to keep it in place.

I couldn’t stop looking at him. It’s difficult to explain why, to separate all the feelings. Thinking back, perhaps I recognized something in him. There was an attraction too, although I might not have admitted it at the time. His body seemed to be wound tight with power, and I found myself staring at the wiry muscles in his lower arm. He took a draw on his cigarette, and adjusted the magnifying glass on his forehead. Then he nodded to me as we passed, like he knew me, as if he was thinking the same things I was.

I looked back and took in the innards of the beach hut behind him, which was lit up by a big desk lamp. I could only see a fragment of it from that angle, but there were paints and brushes in cups, and daubs of colour everywhere. We walked on, me and Max. My heart beat fast, but I tried to laugh it off. “Did you see that guy?” I said. “What did he have on his head?”

“No idea,” Max said. “He sells postcards, I think.”
“You know him?”
Max looked at me, surprised by the questions. “No,” he said.

“I’ve just seen him around.”
I shot one last glance over my shoulder, but the man had
gone back into the hut, and his fag end was rolling on the concrete of the path, the tip like a hot grain of sand.

It was almost completely dark when we saw the group of boys huddled by the light of the Coffee Shack, a small building with a serving hatch that backed on to the beach. A man was walking away from the Shack with a coffee in one hand and a slim dog held on a lead in the other. The boys behind him had skateboards. One of their phones glowed white.

“Are they your friends?”
“Yeah,” Max said.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel like being in a crowd. “I think I’m
going to head back to the house, Maxi,” I said. “They’re not that bad,” Max said, with a grin. “It’s not that. I’m just a bit tired, you know.” “Be careful,” he said.

“You southerners are all soft.”

Max laughed. He put down his board and rode towards his mates, and I went the other way.

I knew where I was going, and it wasn’t back to the house.

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