a short story
On the odd Sunday, when he’s not starring in a rugby match, or winning a race, or messing about down the sands with a girl, Toby will hang out with me. He lives opposite. If I was a girl, he would look into my bedroom window at night through the National Geographic binoculars I got him for his birthday five years ago. As I’m a boy, he doesn’t, but occasionally, we do exchange Morse code messages with our laser pens. It’s not much of a conversation. He only really knows SOS.
Today, Toby’s mum has made him hang out with me because my granddad died and Mum won’t stop crying.
Granddad’s gone and left me his metal detectors. I think it’s only fair, to be honest. He is the Keith I am named after, and I reckon he owes me one for that.
There are two of them – metal detectors. One is ancient, but the other is a Garrett Ace 250 with its own headphones.
Me and Toby are going down the sands to try them out. I’m wearing appropriate metal detecting gear: camo combats from my army cadet days (I went three times in year seven), and a khaki t-shirt. Toby’s wearing sunglasses and jeans, and his t-shirt is bright white. The sleeves don’t flap at all. He slows at the corner shop. I stop, thinking he’s going in to buy something, but, no, he glances at the window, lifts his chin and nods to himself. Next to his reflection I see some kind of stone and realise only when we start walking again, that it’s me.
On the sands, Toby removes his faded converse, ties them together and hangs them round his neck. Even his toes are golden. Perhaps I should take off my trainers. My combats are too short. Several centimetres of sock are showing, and I know it’s not a good look.
If I take my socks off, there’s the odour issue, plus excessive toe hair, and I feel enough like a hobbit walking next to Aragorn as it is.
The sea’s a long way out so there’s a lot of sand to go at. Toby takes the old detector. ‘It’s, like, vintage, innit.’ He gestures at himself. ‘Completes the look.’
That, and he doesn’t want the Garrett Ace 250 headphones to supress his quiff.
Anyway, treasure here we come.
Ring pull, ring pull. What’s this?
A beer bottle lid.
Toby’s attention is straying already.
I see why. Like a mirage, standing in front of us, are girls.
Chloe and Willow.
Toby and Chloe both act like they’re not embarrassed to be seen with social inferiors, although I notice Toby drops the vintage metal detector onto the sand. Almost as if they’ve planned it, he and Chloe turn and walk towards the sea, sunlight bouncing off them like they’re diamonds.
I’m left with Willow. Freckles, like milk chocolate sprinkles, cover her nose and cheeks. She’s taller than me and has curves, you know, in all the places they should be.
But, there’s this.
Last year, she was rushed off in an ambulance. At first, everyone said it was her appendix.
But, it wasn’t.
The Greymouth Gazette headline read:
LOCAL GIRL ATE TWIN
Mr Pepper, Head of Pastoral Care, explained in a ‘special assembly’ that, of course, Willow did not eat her twin. She had a medical condition. It was a private matter and we were not to discuss it with anyone. Obviously, it was the main topic of conversation. At least until Stacy Lowman ran off with her trumpet teacher.
Anyway, we had it on good authority (someone’s mum’s cousin’s aunt who worked at the doctors) that a growth had been removed from Willow’s abdomen and it would have been her twin if it had developed properly. The growth had fingers, toes and teeth, a bit of hair and even a sort of face. And, it was the size of a nail brush.
After that, Willow went weird.
She acts like the ‘twin’ is real. She calls it Fern. Even talks to it apparently.
I flop down on the sand and take off my headphones. As I do, there’s a whiff of the stuff Granddad Keith used to smooth down his hair with, and a hint of his tobacco. He rolled his own cigarettes in a tiny machine. I’d pass him the thin papers and watch him sprinkle in the tobacco strands. Then, I’d turn the handle with my fingertips and make the perfect cigarette. I can hear him laugh, warm and husky, like porridge.
Think I might have got something in my eye, it’s watering a bit.
‘You okay?’ says Willow, stretching out next to me. Her legs are the same colour as the sand.
‘My Granddad just died,’ I say.
She squints at me. ‘Tell me something about him.’
So, I tell her the story of the lost engagement ring. How Granddad and Grandma Caroline were having a picnic down here on the sands, before they were married. Caroline suddenly realised she didn’t have her engagement ring. They looked through the folds of the red tartan rug and inside the scrunched greaseproof paper their sandwiches had been wrapped in. They combed the sand with their fingers but no luck. As the tide came in, they gave up and went home.
‘That evening, they came back to the sands for one last look and … ’
‘Don’t tell me they found it?’ says Willow.
And I don’t tell her. Even though that is the end of the story. I’ve heard it a thousand times, but this is the first time I’ve told it and suddenly, it doesn’t make sense. I’ve got this feeling that Granddad had the ring all along and only pretended to find it.
I want to ask him. But I can’t.
‘Did he?’ says Willow.
‘Did he find it?’
‘Yes,’ I say, because how else would the story end.
‘And they got married?’
‘And lived happily ever after?’
‘Yeah,’ I say, even though Grandma Caroline left him a few years later to move in with Antonio above the ice cream parlour.
Toby and Chloe are messing around in the shallows. The spray’s made their clothes wet. They’re like an advert.
Then Toby leans in to kiss her.
I look at Willow. Her eyes are the colour of the sea. She smiles at me. I see the pink and turquoise fixings of her brace.
Oh God. She’s going to kiss me.
But, no. She turns away.
‘He’s nice,’ she says. ‘You should have him, Fern.’
That’s about right. Toby gets Chloe. I get invisible conjoined twin that never was.
I get to my feet.
‘Do you wanna do some detecting?’ I say to Willow.
‘Yeah.’ She jumps up.
‘I only have two detectors.’ I hand her the Garrett Ace 250. ‘Are you okay to share with Fern?’
And that’s when she kisses me.
Willow, not Fern.
Odd Sunday was placed third in the Flash500 Short Story Contest 2018.