~~There was no conceivable way of escaping the boat, and yet there was – that was the problem with it. Gracie was all too aware that the only exit route was over the railings and into the sea and, when the ultimatum was so unappealing; it was hard to say whether she would feel happier if there was simply no way out. The doors which led down to the car deck were all sealed and water-tight. Perhaps the greatest source of her distress was that they were not only sealed but corrupted by years of floating on the tide and she had learned long ago that rusty doors had a tendency to stick. The stairs up to the passenger level had been the worst bit; people forming a waterfall which fell in reverse but was no less domineering for this. The slow-moving cacophony of un-orchestrated feet and breathing had beat her again and again until it began to erode her sanity and, before she’d really noticed herself, she was biting her hand in an attempt to override the sensation that her chest was in a garlic press.
Even now, with the passengers diffused around the ferry’s seating areas, she still felt the threat of them all. The air she drew on was solid with other people’s lungs; trying to choke down such recycled air was like trying to swallow scissors, her ribs formed a drawstring bag which had been tautened against them. People became walls; that was how it felt. She was on an interminable quest to find the escape button and occasionally, when her defences had already been lowered by external clutter, this quest was all-consuming. Everything and everyone that stood between her and the exit door was an un-reeled ream of steel mesh against which she pressed her desperation until it cut her to pieces.
Judy cast her an anxious glance. God, once she got started with those anxious glances she never stopped. Other people’s concern was another contributing factor to Gracie’s discomfort; it was like being cling-filmed. Generally speaking, she wasn’t the type of person to magnetise sympathetic apprehension and so – when applied – it tended to be augmented and poorly managed.
“Do you want to go up on deck, love?”
So vehement was Gracie’s response that the whole group of them fell silent in response. She clenched her hands beneath the table and felt her arms wracked by the strain of it. No, she would not go on deck while the water glittered with the promise of freedom. She did not know if she would have the rationality to resist plunging; she liked to think that she would but today’s frustrations, combined with the collective mass of human walls behind her threatened to cloud her better judgement.
“I do,” Sammie announced and, in that moment of tempestuous distraction, Gracie hated her for it. She hated the fact that the things that drove her to the point of retching fear could not faze others in the slightest. Normally she was able to organise her life to avoid this sort of tsunami but today there was no option. Destination Holiday Paradise could be reached no other way.
Gracie was also convinced that Holiday Paradise would fall a long way short of paradise considering that the closest she felt to Elysium was when the moors were wracked with December’s grief and this conviction did not make it any easier to resign herself to travelling there in a small-scale ferry with two hundred excitement-swollen tourists.
“Please, I want to go on deck! I want to go out.” She was bouncing in her seat now, overcome with anticipation for everything that contained and basked ahead of them. “Chris?” she appealed, “Judy?”
“Not on your own, hon,” Chris leant forward in his chair and peered towards the two older teenagers who accompanied them. “Marta? Can you look after her for a bit, we’ll stay down here with Gracie.”
We’ll stay down here with Gracie, how repulsive the words were! They fell into the age-old trap of believing that someone imploding under the weight of walls needed yet more walls to crowd around them. It was astonishing how such care and manufacture could miss the point so completely. If she’d been capable of thinking straight she would have known that she couldn’t begrudge either of them – Chris and Judy were the best of all the foster parents she’d been through – but she wasn’t capable of being more than a nervous wreck and so she had to refrain from swiping at them with her finger nails.
“I’m not looking after her,” Marta said without removing her earphones. “I don’t mind going out on deck – God knows I’ve got to get myself a tan – but I’m not playing baby-sitter. She’s eight, for God’s sake, not eight months.”
“We’re only asking that you keep an eye on her,” Judy intervened, “don’t tell me you can’t bear to peel your eyes off your phone long enough to do that.”
Marta just shrugged, her freckled shoulders huffing beneath the printed crêpery of her crop top and departed. Sammie was too well behaved to follow without a questioning glance back at her stand-in parents, awaiting their stand-in parental approval.
“Oh, I’ll go,” Jack lurched to his feet with a long-suffering air which was, most probably, nothing but an act. Most things about him were; from the effortlessness of his ‘cool’ to the smiles he handed out to girls. Given the fact that a large party of Spanish bombshells had just wafted in direction of the outside door, Gracie doubted that there was any genuine martyrdom to this sacrifice of his.
Sammie scampered after him in the squirrel-like way she often moved and Gracie tried to locate the airspace that their retreating backs must surely have created for her.
“You sure you don’t want-”
“I’m sure,” she snapped. She didn’t like snapping, it wasn’t in her nature. Sometimes it just happened; her tranquillity cracked up like over-wrought clay.
She’d done her research into their destination and had learned that it was a volcanic island infected with deep-rooted local suspicion. The few remaining locals – those who had not been driven away by the armada of package holidays that had wrecked their fishing industry – served the resorts, wracked both with amusement and fear. Amusement at the tourists’ naivety and fear of the hidden people and earth monsters that had been key components in the stories of their childhood. Gracie’s reservations were different. They were confused – not quite based – she was not certain of where they came from or why they’d rooted so deeply inside her but no amount of white-gold beaches and spangled sea could help her to forget them.
Perhaps it was something to do with trying to find the escape button. The idea of a city full of summer carelessness and consumerism seem to choke every part of her. When surrounded by buildings she felt caged – no, she felt like the soil; done away with in the rush to pave the world in concrete. She felt almost as though she was caught beneath it; a grain between two millstones. It was part of claustrophobia, she supposed, but the sort of claustrophobia which still made it difficult to breathe even when it was early morning and the streets were wide and empty.
Around them, just beyond the windows, the sea was vast. It was untamed and blinding with its broken reflection of the sun – rough beauty rippling across flat plains of ocean floor. She inhaled as the churning waters frothed around the dented metal like lemonade fizz – even in the boat’s belly, the water smelt alive. There was a tingling sense of power in the salt spray.
This boat was nothing more than an irksome visitor to the waves and they could throw it wherever they chose. Pulsing and caressing around the metal hull until the metal was crumpled and empty and only the fish would remember the taste of the crowd’s corpses and the flavours of their diluted personalities and the seascape would be unmarred by the ugliness of man and metal.
Nobody else seemed bothered by the strength of the white crests the way she was; they held the view that they were indestructible, or perhaps it just hadn’t yet occurred to them.
The other passengers seemed to have barely noticed that they were on a boat – the majority of them down under decks were tuned in only to their phones, laptops and Nintendo’s. Looking around themselves at the rugged splendour of the sea had not occurred to them. Their world, for the journey, was the internet – the web of petty lives and stories that made up social media.
Her breathing ability receded with vengeance as she watched.
“On second thoughts,” she said as she bolted upwards and set for the door. “I will go out.”
She picked her way between suitcases and staggered to the exit without looking back to clock Judy and Chris’ nerves. The boat took the opportunity to mock her as it pitched and swerved in the paws of the ocean and she nearly overbalanced into a man’s toddler. Whispering apologies to the bristling pair, she found her way out and turned the handle.
It resisted her as far as it could; the weather-crimped slam-door was tight with age, lack of oil and the head wind which had chased most of the passengers inside. The moment that she was exposed to air, it grabbed her hair and flung it behind her in salty knots. It played with her and she could sense that. She could sense how it enjoyed toying with her. Finally out in the open, she realised just how stuffy the indoor seating area had been in comparison and she took a while just to collect herself, leant against the ferry’s external wall until her t-shirt was heavy with its condensation.
The island was visible clearly and the mountain reared up out of it, as beast-like as the locals feared. It was terrifying yet breath-taking in its imposing sweeps and its jagged outcrops. Shrubs clung to the rocks like fingers of a great climber, their roots pressed in to the cracks between shafts and blades of grey.
The door slammed behind her and the metal wall rattled in its bloated hinges. She turned and took the steps up; they were slippery despite the nobbles of paint, rust and bird excrement and she had to hold herself straight on the hand rail as though bent and shrivelled with age.
Marta and Sammie were not alone on deck; some Spanish teenagers were hanging over the other side, laughing and chatting and posing against the railings. They all laughed at each other and took a pouting photo of themselves. Gracie wondered whether they knew that looked stupid. Was that what friends were supposed to do? To take photos so posed they wouldn’t recognise each other?
When she had still had friends they had played with rope swings and rivers and trees and dens. They would run wild all day and come home wearing mud like a second skin. Gracie had given up on friends in Whitby:
“Yeuch – you swam in rivers – that’s so rank.”
“Oh God, that’s, like, kiddy stuff; playing in dens. Who even wants to play in dens?”
“Seriously? Don’t tell me you actually camped out there in the dirt – you’re such a skank.”
Whitby friends liked shopping, and Facebook, and music, and Facebook, and hot boys, and more Facebook. All her “nature hippie stuff” was pathetic to them.
Her elder, sort-of-brother Jack was leaning with a careless swagger against the rail further along. Despite his relaxed pose she knew it was all very staged. She knew that he paid a deceptively large amount of attention to this casual image. The girls in her class would pay to look at him; he reeked cool – whatever ‘cool’ meant. He wore sunglasses to hide his face in them and his shorts were arranged just low enough to show off his boxers. He’s praying for a miracle; thought Gracie, he’s praying that he will suddenly remember how to speak Spanish. She didn’t expect that the girls would mind his overt Britishness hugely – they were already trying hard not to make it obvious how much they were looking at him.
Opposite him there was another boy about his age who was not attempting to hold up the pretence of a certain exterior. He was self-absorbed, not caring about the fit of his jeans, and his hands cradled a camera which, for the interest he was taking in it might as well have been the only other inhabitant in his world.
Marta was, predictably, attached to her iPhone; tall, sixteen, with five-times-dyed hair she was everything Gracie was incapable of and as interested in the world beyond her touch screen as the shallow technology-fuelled kids that filled their school.
Somehow Marta had failed to notice that Sammie was investigating how far she could work herself through the railings. Age eight, she had taken her chance and run with it, free from Judy’s restricting guard she had felt that it was necessary to drag Gracie’s heart into her mouth and cut the bottom of her stomach out.
“Sammie,” Gracie hissed. “Get your leg back through now.”
The younger girl wobbled at the sound of her voice and lurched as the boat twisted in the waves. Gracie grabbed her T-shirt instinctively – anything to save her from plunging into the water.
“I’m fine,” Sammie argued resolutely, regaining her balance but tightening her fingers on the railings as the wind picked up.
“Sammie, climb back through – you’ll fall in.” Gracie hated the way her replacement sister could so determinedly terrify her without even knowing what she was doing. It wasn’t as if it was really Sammie’s fault, it was Marta’s fault for ignoring the child she was supposed to look after.
“I’m fine,” Sammie insisted, resisting defeat in her fearless, eight-year-old way. “I’m only sitting on the bar.”
Sammie was one of those kids who spent their lives trying to prove that they were fearless and indestructible in the hope of convincing themselves. Gracie had seen it all before; these kids were strewn across care homes, becoming more lost the more they sought to prove.
“If you don’t climb back right now…” Gracie foundered for a big enough threat; “I’ll pull you back by your hair.”
That was something else about Sammie; she was strangely protective about her hair. For as long as Gracie had known her, a small braid had hung from a lock at her forehead and she would not permit people to touch it. Gracie felt it would be intrusive to ask why, after all, all scrap-heap kids had secrets. She’d long ago learnt not to pry into the silent tumult that others locked inside them.
Sammie squeezed back between the rails and Gracie exhaled in relief.
“See, I’m fine,” Sammie announced once both feet were reunited with the deck.
“Good thing I came up here,” Gracie responded darkly before rounding on Marta who seemed to still have barely registered her presence.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She exclaimed, shaking the older girl’s arm away from its comfortable position, snaking to her phone. Marta turned slowly.
“You almost made me drop my phone,” she snarled through barred teeth as though Gracie had almost killed a person, not an item.
“Judy asked you to take Sammie out on deck and keep an eye on her! Is this what you call ‘looking after’ someone?” Gracie’s voice went high and shrill as she spoke but Marta only rolled her eyes.
“Oh God, don’t have another ‘panic attack’ Gracie,” she hissed.
“I don’t schedule them on purpose.”
“They’re pretty convenient though, wouldn’t you agree? Nice way to draw the sympathy vote – make everyone forget how much of a bastard you’ve been all week.”
Gracie flushed. She couldn’t deny that her reaction to being told about the family holiday had been brattish and ungracious. She knew she’d been nothing but a steam iron – flattening the joy with which Judy had presented the tickets.
“This is ridiculous,” she countered in an attempt to shift the argument back to its roots, “this isn’t about me it’s about Sammie!”
“I don’t need looking after,” Sammie interjected.
“I’m trying to get signal,” Marta waved her phone at the sky, “But this crappy boat won’t give me anything and we’re in the middle of the bloody ocean.”
This was not, strictly speaking true, Gracie observed, as they were about five miles from the mainland and far less from the island but she knew that it would be unwise to correct her. Marta struggled to admit to being wrong and, if proven to be, she only became more adamant.
“Is that all you care about?” Gracie asked in disgust.
“You’re just jealous,” Marta spat back.
“Jealous? Sammie could have fallen overboard and you’re more interested in signal?”
“Yes, jealous, that’s right. You’re jealous because I have friends to text and you don’t; your only friends are those feral ponies on the moors.”
Gracie scowled. She couldn’t exactly argue because she knew it was true. She would let herself out of the house as often as possible and run until the town fell away and she was left in the heather, attracting the ponies for no apparent reason besides her stillness. Sometimes she imagined dialogues with the urban foxes she saw along the way and considered that they were perhaps a little like her: stared at, alone, polluted and searching for a way out of the maze of buildings.
At school people chose to ignore her at lunchtime. She learnt not to care, she didn’t like them anyway. She didn’t mind that there were never invitations to go shopping or for sleepovers because she was happier away from all that and the expectations and imprisonment of malls. She could not, however, pretend that it did not hurt her to be so utterly alone. Perhaps that was why she had become so close to Sammie and Jet.
“Come on Sammie,” She said, taking her arm and leading her to the other side of the deck. There wasn’t really anywhere to go to escape Marta but Gracie wanted to at least be as far away from her as possible. They had never got on, perhaps it was their differences or perhaps it was just the way that Marta antagonised her on purpose that made it so hard for them to play the pretence of being sisters.
“Marta isn’t nice to you,” Sammie observed.
“Have you only just noticed?”
“No, but she likes me so why doesn’t she like you?”
“God knows.” But Gracie knew why really; everyone loved Sammie and everyone felt sorry for her because she was eight and lost and abandoned. She was young enough to still be cute and to attract sympathy like a magnet. A sob story. She was still young enough to be confused about what constituted a family. The only sign that she remembered normality was the occasional flat line amongst the general freneticism of her junior-school life; she would sit on the staircase and stare through the pane in the front door as though preparing herself to greet the parents who’d take her home.
“Look!” Sammie pointed towards the island and Gracie’s eyes followed her outstretched finger to the wide sandy beaches. They were approaching it now, shrunken by the shadow of the mountain but still far enough away for the outlines of everything to be blurred by heat haze. The glint of windows and glass-fronted buildings flashed at them like cameras and Gracie shielded her eyes against the glare of the reflection s and the sea. The edge of the island was all white sandy beaches, the kind that featured in travel brochures but rarely in real life, and then there was the muddle of old and new buildings just above the shoreline. Modern hotels clashed brusquely with traditional style holiday villas – white-walled and red-roofed – and occasional metal constructions protruding from the ground like needles through green felt.
Beyond the mess of human-kind was the mountain that erupted from the island’s heart. It was cloaked in untamed vegetation to a point and then it merged into sheer pillars of volcanic rock that projected outwards, unclimbable in their gradient. She knew it was impossible but, for some reason, Gracie was overwhelmed with desperation to attempt to scale it. As powerful as her earlier frenzy was the new influence of the mountain’s summit. It was luring her from behind a veil of grey, tempting and taunting and stirring some hitherto undiscovered desperation inside her.
The sky was a stretching canvas field of blue lavender, marred only by the collection of clouds which spilled like paint over the peak.
Sammie’s face had lit up as she stared at it, her eyes roaming along the islands sandy fringes.
“I can’t wait to get there... All the swimming pools and the beaches,” she breathed but Gracie had no time for the seaside. She was drawn only but the mountain which seemed to impose upon the entire horizon. She realised that she was trembling and her fingertips prickled as though they already feel the cool brush of giant ferns that crawled up its flanks. It was so beguiling, so enticing, that she could not turn her eyes away.
“And the mountain,” Gracie added to Sammie’s list.
“The mountain? Why do you want to go there, it looks scary? See; look at those scary rocks like giant fingers, and… it’s all spooky” Sammie said and suddenly the scene seemed to shift before Gracie’s eyes. The mountain became fierce in its dominion over the beach resorts, and she realised Sammie was holding her hand tightly. She no longer wanted anything to do with the place – it was like switch had been flicked and the mountain that had ensnared for a heartbeat her had become a monster.
The island seemed to be pushing her away with the force of a boot in the stomach. It almost deflated her. Only seconds ago it had been reeling her in. She did not know what had happened but the toxic longing the mountain had ignited had been smothered. There was no tug; only a dry, brittle emptiness. Like something had been stolen from her and left her hollow.