Pollux & Ben

The first time I met Pollux, I was nine.

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1. Pollux & Ben

 

 

 

 

    The first time I met Pollux, I was nine—still too young to try and change myself to fit in with everyone else, but too old to not realise that I was slightly different. Fog blended with the sand until everything I could see, all the way from the horizon to the coloured beach houses that rose like gingerbread structures over the dunes was washed over with translucent pale light. I pulled my jacket tighter around me—the sun had barely risen, and it was not strong enough yet to pierce the mist. A cool wind was blowing and made this beach lifeless.

    I imagined, in my mind, the bright colours of other people who had been there before me—at the height of summer, children with their noses white from sunscreen and their shoulders red with burns would run and chase one another with towels and throw sand at the seagulls. Adults would lie in the shade, or clasp the hands of their sons and daughters, forever in fear of the ocean that they so revered.

    But the beach was silent, now, save for the never-ending roiling and pulling of the grey-blue ocean. My wellington boots left only the barest indentations on the water-hardened sand, until when I looked behind me there wasn’t a single trail to show where I had come from. I knew, of course, that grandfather’s house was only a few minutes away, but I liked to imagine that I was all alone—something that I could never achieve back in the city with my mother and father—too loud, too hot, too present. 

    I folded my arms across my chest—I was skinny, even then. Still only nine years old, my mother had not started fussing over my eating yet, but she would start soon, when the other boys in my class began growing muscle and getting girlfriends, leaving me behind to watch them like villagers watching Mt Olympus piercing clouds they would never see the tops of. 

    I was so caught up in thought—of my life back at home, of whether I should risk trying to make my grandfather pancakes before he woke up—that I barely registered the voice that came from behind me, quiet as it was. I only turned when it spoke again, no louder than before, but slightly closer.

    “Hello?”

    A figure, only slightly taller than me, was standing a foot or so away. Looking at it made me shiver—it was wearing only a thin t-shirt and baggy shorts that stopped just above knobbly, pale knees. Its feet were bare, and as I watched it curled its toes into the sand. Raising my eyes to its face again, I saw that it was a boy, probably about the same age as me, but with long and scraggly tangled hair that the wind whipped across his face. I blinked, waiting to see if he would be friend or foe before I became too welcoming. “Hi.” The wind clutched at my voice, made it softer, and I could see why I’d barely heard him in the beginning. 

    He stuck his hand out to me, clearly pleased with my reaction. “I’m Pollux. I’m nine.”

    My jacket scraped as I unfolded my arms to shake. “I’m Ben, and I’m nine and a month.”

    The boy nodded seriously. “You’re the one who’s staying with the man with all the shells.”

    “He’s my grandfather. He collects them. Sometimes he lets me paint them.” 

    “Is it…fun?” There was something about the boy’s tone that I wouldn’t place until many years later. A distant sadness, a wistful imagining.

    I gave a shrug. “The paint smells funny, but I like it.” I paused. Back in my city school I was outcast, too weird to be funny, not daring enough to be cool. I liked this boy though—I liked his brightly coloured t-shirt and his wide brown eyes. “Do you want to come and paint them too? Granddad would let you, I’m sure.”

    The boy smiled, made to open his mouth, but shut it at the last second. Something about his expression clammed up. “Not without—I can’t.”

    “Why?”

    He shrugged, and raised a hand to flick the hair out of his eyes. The sleeve of his t-shirt gaped open and I shivered at the thought of the wind against his skin. I wondered how he wasn’t freezing.

    “Do you want to go explore the rock pools?” He sounded hopeful.

    “There probably won’t be any. The tide is too low.” I hoped vaguely that this knowledge would impress him. “We could look for dead whales though.”

    “Why dead ones?”

    I paused. That was a good point. “And alive ones. Both types of whales.”

    He smiled, revealing straight front teeth with only a slight gap between them. “Whales wanted—dead or alive.” 

    I smiled back at him. The wind made my gums hurt but I ignored it. “The baddest whale hunters this side of…west.”

    He bent down suddenly and scooped some of the wet sand from the ground, giving me only a mischievous grin before tossing it at me. It splattered on my coat, grainy and wet. He ran off down the beach, and I followed him, laughing.

 

 

———

 

    That was the first time I met Pollux. Two nine year old boys, chasing each other up a foggy beach with sand and hair and high-pitched voices tossed backwards and forwards in the wind. I could still feel it against my skin sometimes, when I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the far harsher voices around me.

    Perhaps I could feel it now. I shut my eyes, feeling my eyelashes scratch against the tender skin beneath my lid. The chattering was blocked out for a single second, and the scribbling on paper transformed into the rustling of the stiff grasses that lined the sand dunes. I smiled\

    There was a giggling suddenly. I opened my eyes quickly, suspicious, knowing that any one collective noise that did not involve me was probably against me. A dozen eyes tore themselves from my face quickly and focused on their own individual sheets of paper, glistening above mean smirks. I frowned and turned my eyes to the paper on the desk in front of me. We had a reliever teacher for the day, which meant that those six school hours would have been better spent painting a grey wall grey, trying to breed mules, or really doing quite literally anything else. Not to say the others didn’t enjoy it—we were fourteen, which technically meant we were too old to be doing colouring in, but old enough to realise not to complain when we weren’t made to do work.

    The instructions were to decorate the black and white figure as a worker in the job you wanted when you were older. I’d recently learnt the word anarchy and had a vague idea that it was something slightly piratical, so had coloured mine with a parrot on one shoulder and budgie on the other in case the parrot died. It was different, though, to before I’d closed my eyes. I leant closer.

    Someone had drawn a deliberate and vicious red pencil line from the side of the figure’s face to just below its cheekbone and next to its nose. The giggles around me increased. I put a shaking hand across my scar and thought about whales. 

 

———

 

    “Hey honey.” My mother smiled up at me from the sofa. I could see the sickly yellow spreading of a new bruise under her collar. I put a hand against my scar again, felt it ridged and swollen under my palm. 

    “Where is he?” She could beat about the bush if she wanted, but I wasn’t risking it again. He could walk through any door at any second, turn up in any corner. He was like a monster under your bed that didn’t go away when you finally built up the courage to look.

    She was silent for a while. I dropped my bag by the counter and rifled through the bread bin, searching for anything that didn’t have raisins in it.

    “He’s gone.”

    If I’d been holding something in my hand, I would have dropped it. I could almost hear the spectral non-existent object shattering on the cold tiles beneath my feet. The tone of her voice—the deep crack at the end, the exhale of relief that formed the words, said more than any long-winded explanation could have.

    I swallowed. “Where? How long? How can you be sure—Mum, you know what he’s like.”

    “Prison. Not life, but I’ve made some arrangements so we’ll be safe.”

    “But he knows where we are, he’ll—”

    She shook her head, dyed-red hair brushing against her cheeks. “We’re moving. Pack your bags, Ben.” She stood, and for the first time since my father had finally given in to his anger and lashed out at her, she seemed to stand straight and tall. “We’ll stay with your grandfather for a while. Figure things out.” 

    “When are we leaving?” I felt excitement already beginning to thud in my chest. The rustling grasses, the silent fog, the ethereal wind—

    She rattled the car keys. “Now.” 

 

———

 

    I should have enjoyed the car ride to my grandfather’s house, but it felt wrong. We’d packed too quickly, left too soon—I kept thinking of things I should have brought, could easily have thrown in the boot. I’d forgotten my toothbrush, as well. That worried me greatly.

    But I would see Pollux again. I tried to focus on that, tried to stay positive, but once again I was tinged with worry and doubt—he may have left, he might have just been there on holiday too. Five years was a long time—not in the infinite eyes of the universe, of course, but to the shadowy creatures that walked the face of this finite planet it was a lifetime. And what about the car? My mother was driving too fast, she could wrap the car around a tree and that would be it. I closed my eyes and bent over in my seat, lacing my fingers over my head like I’d seen in films. After a moment, my mother’s hand rested lightly on my back. I could feel the indents of the rings she’d hastily shoved on her fingers rather than carry pressing through my thin t-shirt.

    “We’ll be fine, Ben. There’s nothing to worry about.”

    She had no idea. 

    “How about this?” Her voice took on a softer tone. “The first person to spot the ocean gets to choose the first ice cream flavour we have, deal?”

    I may have been gullible, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew better than to pass up the chance to choose for once.

    “Deal.” I sat up straight and gazed out the window, trying to remember the roads that the car rumbled down, wondering what I’d been thinking the last time I’d seen that tree, or that mis-placed boulder. Probably about Pollux.

    I blinked suddenly. The dunes had fallen away quite suddenly,  revealing an expanse of grey-blue that seemed to stretch into forever. “I see it! I see—did you—I can see it!”

    I heard the smile in my mother’s voice. “No cranberry and rum ice cream for me then, I’m guessing.”

    “Vanilla is king.”

    “And a vile kingdom he rules.” She laughed. The sound was foreign, but welcome.

    I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt my worries fall away so suddenly. I knew I needn’t worry about Pollux not being here—this beach was a land beyond time, the fog and the dunes and the wind were the exact same as the last time I’d been here. I didn’t need to worry about my toothbrush, either. Granddad had spares.

    

———

 

    “Don’t go too far, Ben! Supper’s in an hour or so, be back before then!”
    I turned and waved briefly at my mother before resuming my previous pace. When I’d first set foot on this beach on that fateful day, I’d walked with the meandering pace of someone who expected to find absolutely nothing interesting. Instead, I’d found a lifeline to store in my memory, to cherish and keep whole and unblemished through the skin-on-skin-hot nights, the cold-sweat days.

    I waited until I was far enough away from my grandfather’s house before calling into the darkening fog and cooling wind.

    “Pollux!” I waited. There was a complete absence of echo that chilled me more than I already was, with the air biting through my hastily thrown-on clothing. “Pollux!” I stretched it out in hope, spun around. I went too fast at one point, nearly tripped over my own wellington boots. They were the same I’d been wearing last time, half a decade ago now, only a slightly better fit this time. Food made me sick. Well, he made me sick and maybe the food sensed that in my body—ridded itself of this vile vessel. 

    I sat to avoid further mishaps, felt the damp sand soaking through the seat of my trousers. I drew canals in it with one hand, scratched hard at my scar with the other.

    “Pollux…” The call was half-hearted at best, cracked at the end. I could have kicked myself for being so stupid. Of course he wouldn’t be here—why hadn’t I asked him for an address, or a surname? The only chance I’d had of making a proper friend for the first time in my life had slipped away.

    The walk back to that squat cabin seemed far longer than it had the first time.

    

———

 

    I’d recently learnt that the words tattoo had more than one meaning. My eyes closed against the thin light that glowed orange and yellow from under the door, I concentrated only on the sounds around me—the rain beating an insistent tattoo against my window, the crashing of the sea, the wind making dead farmers whistle tuneless songs through the drafty cabin. I could hear their voices, too—my grandfather’s was quieter than my mother’s, she so used to arguments and blood-pumping shouting, he so quiet and unassuming.

    “I thought he’d like it here! It’s my fault, isn’t it? It’s because of his father, I know it, he’ll never be happy with anything—”

    “Becca—“ 

    “No, I know it is.” I thought I heard her sigh, but it could have been the wind. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow, try to…I guess now it’ll be easier, without…” Another sigh, more definite this time. Creaking. My grandfather put the kettle on, a whistle that somehow had an entirely different feeling to the wind’s formless melodies. 

    “Is he in bed?”

    “Asleep, yeah. It’s been a long day. I’ll phone the school tomorrow, do something about that…” She trailed off again. I wondered if she was unused to being allowed to finish her sentences.

    “Sounds like you should be too.” There was smiling in his voice. My mother probably replied, but I didn’t listen, instead pulling the duvet tighter around my ears and rolling onto my side, facing the window. She’d drawn the curtains across when she’d said goodnight, but I’d pulled them back again. There were no stars, and at this angle I couldn’t see the sea, but I liked the light outside that seemed to come from nowhere—the fact that it seemed to come from the very water itself. Poseidon’s party, glowing.

    I blinked feeling sleep pulling at me like the ocean I could hear so clearly now. The two sensations blended, until I floated in a quiet darkness and dreamt of brightly coloured t-shirts and damp in the morning mist.

 

———

 

    I’d wondered how it would feel to wake up without wondering whether I’d turn over to see him lying there, feel him breathing on my face, my scar. I raised a hand to it now—habit—picking at the ridged corners, following its descent from the corner of my eye all the way to my mouth. It still hurt, sometimes—not a real pain, like when you stub your toe or trip and scrape the skin off your knee, but the kind when you step on a bug and kill it without meaning to, or disappoint someone and have to watch the expression stretch across their face like a black sunrise. 

    I stretched my arm out across the bed, feeling clean and new for the first time since I could remember. The sun hadn’t risen yet, the window still dark, but it was a slightly lighter grey than it had been, a quiet grey. 

    Swinging my legs out of bed, bare feet landing against the wooden floor with only a slight sound, I stretched out towards it, hand reaching in front of me to slide the curtain aside. I squinted in the sudden half-light, partly because of the unexpected twinge in my eyes, partly because of the biting draft that entered through a gap in the window frame. I reached out to it, covered it with the tip of my finger. It felt like being pricked with a needle. 

    It didn’t take me long to get outside. I’d left my clothes in a pile by the end of my bed—I’d expected my mother to protest, but maybe she thought it was a coping strategy. I knew a lot about coping strategies. I’d been privy to many of them, none of which had worked. 

    The atmosphere on the beach, the very essence of the place, seemed exactly the same as it had that morning almost a whole ago. I took my scarf off, re-tied it, enjoying the feeling of cloth against my skin stopping the stinging sand and sea spray from scratching my neck. I rubbed my nose, felt it cold against my fingers but numb on my face. My mouth split in a grin, and the disappointment of the previous evening seemed distant. Of course he hadn’t come. He didn’t live in the dark. These morning—these misty, distant mornings that weren’t quite earthly—were his home.

    I opened my mouth to shout into the wind, but closed it at the last moment, instead first moving further away from my grandfather’s house, further away from my mother and the memories of waking in beds that were too warm, being touched by hands that were too searching.

    The same place as last time came into sight, the place with the sea-hardened sand and the ghostly ship shape of the rocks that rose through the mist and strained against the ground they were anchored on, longing to rise further into the blank-slate sky.

    “Hey.”

    I turned, and there he was—the memory, the moment, the single life raft suspended in time that I’d clung to for five long years of drowning.

    I smiled back, and the breeze moved through the sand dunes, dipping and dancing, making its own music. “Hi.”

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