Soon after dawn salt-air awoke the seagull. It hovered above the water for a while then, distracted by movement on the cliffs, changed its course. But six, seven, eight o’clock all passed without a mouse on the grass or a fish in the sea presenting itself as breakfast. Tourists would arrive with food. The cheap ones would offer bread. The expensive might have fish pate to steal. But nowadays the expensive ones went to Eastbourne or Lewes.
Roger had driven down on his motorbike with Doreen as pillion. Jimmy had borrowed his father’s coupe. Margaret, his current ladyfriend, had expected to travel down with Jimmy, but had been disappointed at the last minute and had instead caught the bus.
It had promised to be fine from sunrise. Mr Gormley, Jimmy’s father, had risen early and had heard the forecast. Mr Gormley had always risen early on a Saturday. Nowadays, there was no reason to, but then again there was no reason not to, so at seven every weekend he left his wife snoring in bed and went downstairs to listen to the forecast and make some toast. On this particular Saturday morning, Mr Gormley ate with a furrowed brow. There was something on his mind.
Mr Gormley saw his boys not with the pride that often accompanies fatherhood, but as the potential for nuisance. Growing up, Peter, the youngest, was the more spirited of the two and his parents’ early favourite. While Jimmy had to cultivate generosity and charm to gain friends, life was easy for Peter who simply scooped up the younger siblings of his brother’s friends. At an early age he noted Jimmy’s aggression and his frequent tantrums and used them to emphasise his own meekness and good grace. But, aged eleven, Peter had suddenly grown quiet and withdrawn and had stayed that way ever since. He had not told his father the cause of this shift in character and his father had not asked. But Mr Gormley now saw nothing of himself in his youngest boy and so he turned his attentions to Jimmy who had taken to adolescence with gusto and, in doing so, had capitalised on Peter’s introspection. He was an early-developer and, while many of his colleagues were still trilling girlishly, Jimmy was speaking with an impressive contralto before his fourteenth birthday. A ladder of hair climbed from his waist to his sternum and his shoulders broadened hurriedly. For a while, he was source of some hilarity amongst his male peers but his interest in the opposite sex was at once voracious, an interest which he had pursued with stamina in the nine years since.
Which explains why today Mr Gormley, knowing full well his eldest’s intent on wooing that poor Margaret Patterson in the back of his saloon, ate his breakfast despondently. But as it went, Jimmy drove his father’s car to the Beachy Head without mishap and he completed the foursome which sat picnicking on finger-sandwiches and admiring the Channel.
“Good thinking to bring the dog along, Jim. But what will your father say?” Roger, a friend of Jimmy’s since their heady days of puberty, was jocular if somewhat nervy.
“I thought he’d be good for cricket. If the weather keeps up, I thought we might go down to the beach later on and play a bit. Argos umpires impeccably.”
Margaret Patterson was quite exhausted. She had left her house that morning brimming with confidence and unperturbed by the failure of Jimmy Gormley to provide her with a lift. But, sitting opposite an aloof Jimmy on the cliff-top, her poise was waning. He could be a real brute, sometimes. When it was just the two of them and he looked with big brown eyes into yours – well, that was different. Windows into the soul – well, who’s to know? Girls say they know Jimmy Gormley. Really
know him. Well – I know him too. Better than they do. Or at least as well.
Roger was getting hungry. “Jimmy, go and fetch another packet of crisps, will you?” he asked. “I would go myself, but we know how protective Jim is of his coupe.” He looked at the others, grinning hopefully.
Jimmy smiled briskly. “It’s not a case of being protective, Roger. But it’s my father’s coupe. It’s his pride and joy. He calls it a saloon. One scratch and I’d be dead meat.”
“You know we’d be careful though, Jimmy” Doreen told her boyfriend’s best friend.
“I’m sure you would, Dor. I’m sure you all would.” He glanced cursorily at Margaret. “Actually – I’m not sure you would, Mags. You’d try
to be careful. You’d try
not to scratch it. But you know how you are. Terribly clumsy sometimes. Silly girl Margaret!” Jimmy laughed mannishly. “First time I met her – first time we went out, wasn’t it?” He appeared to be asking the sea as much as Margaret. “Well, she had a knock on her. Looked like a burn. Really - ” he searched for the right word - “purulent
. Turns out it was a wall.”
“A door.” Margaret said blankly.
“As I say – terribly clumsy.”
Roger grinned at Margaret and she warbled with a giggle that tried to suggest she was enjoying herself. There was a brief pause as the warm breeze gathered pace and flattened the longish grass on which the four lovers had made their picnic.
“I’ll go and get the crisps.”
“He’s a funny sort, isn’t he?” said Roger once Jimmy was out of earshot. “Ever so reckless, loves the sauce, real bounder when he wants to be. And yet he’s so particular when it comes to that car. Fancy making Mags catch the bus down here! All the way from Ramsgate! I mean, really!”
“You could have come with us, Mags” said Doreen kindly. “I’m sure you could fit two in the sidecar.”
“Or I could ride on the back with Roger!”
“Steady on, old girl! That privilege is enjoyed by Doreen only!”
Doreen took another bite of her tuna sandwich. “You can ride in the sidecar on the way back to Ramsgate if you like.”
“Oh no. Thanks anyway, Doreen, but three’s a crowd. I wouldn’t want to be a gooseberry. And I bought a return ticket anyway.”
The three of them carried on chatting. Margaret relaxed a little as Roger made daft jokes and Doreen smiled kindly at her, and in no time she had forgotten about that beast Jimmy Gormley. After making Margaret laugh for a fourth time, Roger grew bored and walked back to the car in search of his friend.
“Jimmy’s a real sod,” said Doreen, once Roger was out of range. Margaret emitted a prudish gasp. “He should treat you better. You’re a lovely girl, Margaret. What are you doing with him? He’ll have moved on to someone else soon. He always does.”
Roger had reached the car but, expecting to find Jimmy filling his arms with picnic goodies, he instead found his friend hunched in the front seat of the car. Roger walked round to the passenger door, found it was open, and sat down beside Jimmy.
“That Margaret’s a lovely girl, isn’t she Jim?” Jimmy stared at Margaret and Doreen talking shop, while Roger continued. “She’s the belle of the ball. A real knockout. Better than all those other girls you wasted your time with, anyway. Could she be the one?”
Jimmy grew a little red and straightened his tie in the rear-view mirror.
“The one? Don’t know about that.”
“She loves you like mad, I bet. Don’t know what they see in you, Jim, I must say, but all these girls – well, you seem to be quite the catch.”
Jimmy turned on the radio. They were playing a song from last year’s chart. It was their song – him and Margaret. Or one of those girls anyway.
“Have you - ” Roger, never the best judge of propriety, was winding his friend up.
“What?” asked Jimmy.
“Have you – you know - ” He was jutting his elbow and making provocative movements with a balled fist.
“Oh, really Roger!”
Roger was smiling stupidly. “Sorry, Jim! But she is a funny one, Wanted a ride with me and Dor earlier.”
Jimmy opened the car-door abruptly, stepped outside and marched imperiously back to the girls. Roger watched, bemused, and wondered what on earth Jimmy and Margaret ever did
Mr Gormley had been in the garden until early afternoon but a nascent drizzle had developed into quite a downpour. As he put his fork and weed-tray back into the shed, he thought of Jimmy and that poor girl and sighed. He walked back through the kitchen and, seeing Peter in the sitting-room, went upstairs to sit on the bed.
The rain was coming down heavily and Margaret had run for cover to join Roger in the car. Blotches of rain beat down upon the windscreen, obscuring the Channel. The rainwater hammered down incessantly upon glass and metal but still Roger and Margaret kept their voices lowered.
“Quite a storm brewing.”
“Doesn’t seem to put them off though does it?” said Margaret. Roger murmured in restful agreement. “I wonder what they’re talking about.”
“Must be important to get this wet about. I’d rather be in the warm.”
Over the din of the rain and the occasional distant rumble of thunder, Roger and Margaret continued chatting in an understated monotone. The radio was still on and Gene Pitney sang over the lulls in conversation.
“What were you doing when this got to number one?”
“Number one?” Margaret pulled a face. “I can’t remember, Rog. I remember hearing it on the radio. I was in the kitchen with mum. We were baking a cake.”
“Yes, for Susannah’s birthday. She was 17 and I was going to be 20 the following week. I did like that Gene Pitney. Still do. I’ve got a poster of him on my wall.”
“I like him too.”
They stared out to sea and sang the song’s chorus.
“But I was only – twenty-four hours from Tulsa
They both laughed.
“So where is Tulsa?”
The rain was proving persistent. Jimmy, ever hardy, was unruffled by it, and Doreen actively enjoyed rain, and they continued with their picnic.
“What do you and Roger talk about?”
Doreen let out an unpleasant laugh. “Oh, Jimmy! Talk
about? Cricket. His dad, the Lance-Corporal. The Shadows. That sort of thing.”
“No, I mean really
“Really, Jim! That is what we talk about. You should try it. It’s riveting.” She gazed unwaveringly out to sea.
“I talk to Roger about those things too.” Jimmy said.
“Then you’ll know how fascinating it is.” Doreen finished the last sausage-on-a-stick, bit her tongue and raised a sandwich to Jimmy’s mouth like a mother feeding a small child. Jimmy took a bite while Doreen held it up for him.
“So what else do you do?”
“Well, sometimes Roger tries to get me pregnant. And other times we go on picnics to the seaside with you and your various girlfriends. Speaking of which, when are
you going to settle down with one girl?”
“When I find one I like.”
“Girls are not toys, Jimmy.”
Doreen was getting a little acid for Jimmy’s liking.
“I’ve got girlfriends who have been with you. You don’t treat them like ladies, that’s your trouble. I’m not sure I’d
stand for it. I suppose - ” Doreen paused for effect as thunder clapped overhead. “I suppose if you were worth the effort, I might put up with it.” Jimmy looked back towards the coupe. “But I’m not sure you would be. I think you might be a timewaster. There’s a lot of men out there, Jimmy. A lot of men to try and get me pregnant. I don’t think I’d have the time to waste on you.” She paused, then smiled. “I’m speaking hypothetically of course.”
“I wonder what Roger and Mags are doing?” Jimmy was getting fidgety and wished he was no longer on this soaked piece of cliff-top. “I hope they’re taking care of the car.”
Doreen unbuttoned her cardigan, took it off and handed it to Jimmy. “It’s soaked right through, Jimmy. Put it in your bag, will you?” Jimmy obeyed. “So how about it then? You and me? Would you be worth my while?”
“I – I – oh, Doreen – do stop it! You’re pulling my leg!” Jimmy was laughing weakly.
“Up to you, Jimmy.” Doreen’s wet blouse clung to her as she ran a hand through her dripping hair. Jimmy suspected she might not be wearing a bra.
“I wonder what they are
“Roger and Mags? Jimmy, they are doing exactly as us probably. Except that they are dry and we are wet.”
The rain poured down on them as the grey sky glowered overhead.
“You really shouldn’t do this, Doreen.” Jimmy said quietly, looking down. “It’s just not on.” Jimmy looked out to sea like a little boy, the rain teeming through his hair and over his body.
Doreen looked on inertly. “I know, Jimmy.” She paused. “It’s getting awfully wet. I’ll put away the things.”
The seagull had circled the cliff-top a hundred times and Argos the dog was driven mad by courting couples. He had been shut in the car all day, but had now pawed apart the knot which tied his leash to the toe-bar and freed himself to make light with the mocking bird. Roger and Margaret sang along to "Long live love" by Sandie Shaw while Jimmy stood at the edge of the cliff watching the lighthouse and Doreen cleared away the picnic. The gale was rough and the seagull had surrendered all sense of direction to be swept along by currents of wind and rain.
Argos bounded over the grass. He loved Beachy Head: the ships, the sea, the stories from newspapers. That sickly, salty wet air. He had felt it in his fur before, but not on a stormy day like this. No, this was special¸a one off. All he could see ahead of him was grey – grey skies full of grey clouds separated from the grey sea by a grey horizon – and all of it beckoning him, willing him in. Running towards the edge of the cliff, he leapt past the kneeling Doreen towards the swaying gull, taking Jimmy with him. Dog and master flew through the air, the rain driving into their wet faces as they watched the rocks and the foam hurtle thrillingly towards them. They shut their eyes one final time while Doreen packed the picnic into the boot and Roger drove slowly home.