It was getting dark as the minibus pulled off the main road and onto the cart track that led to the centre. To the left, the North Sea lay out majestically stretching to the horizon. A deep blue green hue, the occasional white fleck as waves created whitecaps as the sea crashed over the dangerous rocks beneath the surface.
The sunlight that had been there for most of the day was fading and a yellowish light was seeping across the sky. Some called it the golden hour, that time when the sun was the lowest on the horizon. Autumn was a wonderful time for colours. Everywhere the trees were in that transition from being full of leaves to being bare wooden twigs reaching for the sky like legions of soldiers surrendering. In between we have this glorious outbreak of colour as if God has opened his paint palette and used the entire collection of oranges, yellows, reds and browns to daub over the world below. The golden hour accentuates the colours making a very special time.
The centre was an old farmhouse high on the cliffs. It made me wonder what it would have been like here in the past, and more especially what it would be like in the winter, when the wind would howl and try to grasp the building from it’s stone roots in the ground and toss it aside like flotsam in the air. The minibus spluttered to a halt outside the main entrance and everyone jumped down dragging their bags with them.
‘Twenty minutes until tea’s ready,’ Miss Spectable said to the departing throng.
I doubt anyone else but Mai and I heard them as they screamed their way through the doors. We didn’t follow them but headed for a bench that overlooked the sea.
‘Not going in?’ Miss asked.
’No Miss, it’s quieter out here,’ I said.
‘Ah well sorry that they were so noisy last night. I hope Phil, I mean Mr Jones, keeps them under control better tonight. Are you two OK? You seem to be a bit lost, not part of the group?’
‘You mean, that lot?’ Mai said jerking her thumb towards the centre. Her look of anger was not the usual charming self. Obviously being with Billy was a real strain to her usual cool exterior.
‘I’m sorry you had to come with this group and not your usual one, but there wasn’t even numbers. You two drew the short straw, I’m afraid,’ she said, ‘they’re not all bad though, Millie and Sophie are a bit like you, out on a limb… Well if there’s anything you need, let me know.’
She left us and we sat down on the bench. It was getting perceivably cooler as the sun dropped below the horizon. Mai shuddered by the side of me.
‘Cold?’ I asked concerned.
‘Yeah, it’s getting chilly. Not used to this extreme cold.’
Mai was Malaysian, her parents were studying at our local university and Mai and her sisters were all at our school. We’d been friends from her first day, having met in the school library at lunchtime. We both had a deep love of literature and were amazed how much our tastes matched. That lunchtime we took the first steps with our friendship, one that had grown and blossomed over the past three years to where we were now, comfortable in each others company. There had been no romantic attachment between us, just this deep heartfelt, mutual attachment. We both dreaded the day she went back to Malaysia, time ticking away on her parents degree course which was moving the day closer and closer.
If it was anyone else than Mai I would have hugged her, but she didn’t like physical contact, in fact she practically discouraged it with an intensity. Many thought we were somehow romantically entangled but they were wrong. Mai and I were just really good friends.
‘So Tom, lets have a look at those photos’ Mai asked turning to me.
I extracted the phone from my pocket, tapped in the code and handed it to her. I watched as she expertly zoomed in on the content of the picture. She scanned each face meticulously, searching for a clue that might explain why our photos had apparently been taken in 1940. She shook her head as she looked at the photo of her. It was the first time I’d seen her without her hijab on and her long black hair framed her face, her features though were unmistakably asian and undoubtably Mai. I remembered the time that she’d had Billy and his mates on that she had blonde hair, I don’t know how I’d managed to keep a straight face.
We were all wearing clothes of the time. It was as though we’d been to one of these photographers, you know the sort that take your picture wearing period style clothing. We were all smiling towards the camera, seemingly happy. I tried to make out the background, as a clue as to where the photo was taken. It was a nondescript beach, the sea behind us, not much clue as to the actual location.
I was wearing a v necked jumper which looked as though it was grey, but on a faded black and white print it could have been pink, although maybe that wasn’t right for the time. Under the jumper there was a shirt of undeterminable colour and a striped tie roughly tied at the neck. Some dark coloured trousers made up the rest of my outfit.
In contrast Mai wore a light coloured dress that went down to around her knees. There appeared to be little flowers on it but the image wasn’t sharp enough to make out any sort of critical detail. Millie stood at the other side of me wearing a darkish jumper and a skirt. The skirt looked as if it was made of a heavy material. Millie’s hair, red in colour looked light on the photo. Unlike Mai and I, Millie wasn’t smiling, her facial expression was one of sadness.
There was a distinct pecking order at our school. Up at the top were the ‘A listers’ like Billy and Destiny. Then there were the camp followers, as I liked to refer them to, those who orbited around the stars that were the A list. They swirled around them making them shine brighter and more radiant, lifted further by the reflected light the followers gave off. Then there were us ‘C Listers’, the dregs that floated far from the light, making sure we didn’t come under the gaze of those near the star. We were happy though, stuck in our own orbits, hunched together in clusters.
I didn’t really know Millie that well. She’d come from another school to ours and kept herself to her small group of friends. Thats’ how we all existed in more or less harmony, all knowing our places in the scheme of things. Millie was a quiet person, whose friendship group included Sophie. Millie had beautiful red hair which hung down almost to her waist. She wore her hair forward so that most times it covered her features. At times when it was tied back I noticed a scar running from just in front of her ear done to the top of her neck. Her pale complexion made the red jagged line stand out more. I guess that’s why she covered it with her hair whenever she could. I didn’t know the story behind it, there were rumours she’d been attacked at her last school, others that she’d been in a car crash which killed her parents. She never talked about it to anyone, although I suspect Sophie knew the story behind it. Sophie was smaller in height than most of us and looked a lot younger than her fifteen years. Quite a contrast to Sophie who was almost six foot tall and with a frame to match.
‘Why are you holding hands with Millie?’ Mai said
I hadn’t noticed, but yes either I was holding Millie’s hand or she was holding mine.
‘Look this can’t be us though can it?’ I ventured, ‘this was took seventy odd years ago, it must be a coincidence.’
‘Yes, I mean you and Millie?’ Mai said laughing.
‘Shut up,’ I said blushing. Mai knew I was very unsure around girls. Somehow it never bothered me with Mai. I guess friendship knows no boundaries of gender, instead it was our common interests that kept us friends and made us stronger together. I never looked as Mai as a girl, and I think she did the same with me.
‘Look under the picture, there was something there, you can just make out a darker area’ Mai said zooming in on the phone.
She was right, but then Mai always was, she never wasted time lying or joking. Under the picture was a square of darker paint as though a label or something had been at one time, protecting the paint from the daylight which bleached the wall around it.
‘I wonder what was there’ she said looking at me.
‘Tom, Mai, tea’s ready’ Miss Spectable shouted from the door of the centre.
I looked at Mai, she shrugged knowing what I was about to say, the telepathy between us at times was extraordinary or was it just we were on the same wavelength.
‘Come on,’ Mai said, ‘lets go in, maybe Billy has calmed down by now.