Written for the Leeds savages writers meet on April 4th; inspired by a photograph by the documentarist Daniel Meadows
Her husband would scoff if he knew how often she would leaf through the yellowed images which documented her sixteenth summer. If he could see her now, sat on the window ledge with one hand smoking an illicit cigarette like a teenager and the other holding the precious album, he would no doubt shout at her not to be so bloody stupid, to get down and get back to the important business of ironing his shirts.
Sometimes she found it hard to believe that almost forty more summers had passed since that time of ice creams and daydreams, so fresh in her mind were the memories. On other days however she struggled to reconcile the life-worn face that stared at her out of the mirror from beneath hooded eyes with the girl pouting in the photographs. With wrinkles now pursuing a relentless crusade from forehead to décolletage, it was hard to believe that she was carved of the same flesh as that girl who was all smiles and lean brown limbs; that long ago, decades before she gave up on hair dye and perms, she had once spent hour upon hour teasing her hair into those bouncy dark curls that were all the rage. That girl had turned heads; whereas this woman; well, this woman might as well be invisible.
It was to be the last holiday that she would take with her Ma and Pa; her next vacation being her honeymoon with Del on the Isle of Wight several years later. They’d been going to the holiday parks for a good few years; what with Pa usually spending nearly every waking hour at the factory where he was a supervisor; it was the one opportunity that the four of them got to spend any length of time together. At twelve her sister Karen had still been enthralled by the whole experience; donkey rides, competitions, hours spent splashing in the pool. Helen on the other hand considered herself to be past such childish things. What she really wanted to get out of the holiday was a boyfriend; or at least the opportunity to lose the cumbersome burden of virginity before she started at Sixth Form College.
Ma had awkwardly broached the subject of sex with her just a few weeks prior to the holiday. She’d basically made out that it was a thoroughly unpleasant business that a woman would have to endure for the sake of her husband, and under no circumstances should she ever let a boy do anything to her beyond a chaste peck on the cheek outside of wedlock. Helen politely thanked her for her advice, and then promptly retreated to her room to re-read the hot sex tips column in a well thumbed copy of Cosmopolitan. If the contents of her favourite magazines were anything to go by, Ma clearly hadn’t ever done ‘it’ right. Cosmo and its many imitators had informed Helen that a great sex life was the right of every modern, liberated woman, and a wedding ring was certainly not a prerequisite these days. Deciding to follow the mantra of the magazines rather than her mother, she set off to Skegness with every hope that she would arrive there a girl, but leave a fully fledged woman.
Turning the pages of the photo album, Helen considered whether her Ma had perhaps been right all along, and that the whole bedroom business was hugely or, in her Derek’s case, averagely overrated. Fair enough it had given her two sons, but in last couple of decades it had played little part in her life. The screaming and shouting and swinging from the chandeliers type of activity still advocated by the magazines in the 21st century might be all well and good for the young ‘uns, but was not exactly an options with paper-thin walls and children prone to entering the bedroom at any time of night. The boys had both left home now; one at university and the other working; but the distance that had grown between herself and Del over the years was so great that it seemed unfeasible for them to just flick a switch, cast off the ‘Mum and Dad’ personas and rewind thirty years.
The next photo still never failed to send a shiver down her spine. Johnny Fish; oh so cool, oh so handsome, with his fashionable long, slick hair and hypnotic dark eyes. He was probably fat and bald these days, but in Helen’s dreams he would always be seventeen. She’d first laid eyes on him the afternoon that they arrived in Skegness; she’d been reluctantly playing tennis with Karen and he’d been stood by himself watching, smoking a cigarette. Helen blushed as she recalled how she had hitched up her skirt then deliberately bent over slowly to pick up the ball, ensuring that the mysterious stranger got a good flash of her knickers. Later on she’d plucked up the courage to go speak to him at the evening disco; to be honest once he started talking about the obscure bands that he was into and his passion for fishing and cars it was quickly apparently that they had very little in common, but that did little in the way of diminishing her attentions towards him. She remembered hurriedly taking the photo of him at the end of the night, her parents dragging her back to the chalet at 10pm much to her embarrassment. “I’m not a kid; I’m not a kid” she repeated with little effect as they took her by the hand and steered her away from Johnny.
The next day she sat next to the lake reading “Women in Love”; a book she’d borrowed from the library mainly on the grounds that she knew her Ma wouldn’t approve. She was struggling to get into it; Lawrence being a somewhat more challenging read than her usual boarding school or pony club yarns; but was persevering in hope that she would eventually stumble on the promised dirty bits.
“What you reading?”
Helen looked up to see Johnny and three of his friends, all boys of a similar age though none as visually appealing.
“Oh, nothing, just a romance.” Blushes spreading across her cheeks, she scrambled to her feet.
“I’m not really into books;” one of Johnny’s friends replied. “Remind me too much of school.” Helen, in reality a voracious reader, shrugged her shoulders in what she hoped was a cool, nonchalant way.
“Do you fancy a swim?” Johnny asked. “Me and the boys were thinking of going for a dip”
The blush spread further at the thought of Johnny in his swimming trunks; messing about in the pool together, bare flesh touching.
“I’d love to but I don’t have my costume with me. I could go back to the chalet and get it though.”
“What do you think, lads?” one of the nameless boys asked. “We’re kind of in a hurry; places to go you know?”
“You don’t need a costume;” Johnny replied with a wink. “Just take off your dress and in you get!”
Beginning in spite of herself to feel a little uncomfortable with all the attention; Helen glanced around to see if her parents were nearby.
“I think I just heard my Ma calling; I’d better go see what she wants;” she said hurriedly.
“Don’t you go worrying about your Ma, you’re not a kid anymore, are you?” Johnny grabbed her wrist and held her in place. “If you want a swim, you don’t need your Mummy’s permission.”
“Like I said, I’ve not got my swimsuit;” she replied. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
The boys glanced at each other; a silent plan passing between them.
“Oh yes you can;” responded one of the boys who had until now been silent. Before she could even catch a breath to object Helen found their hands on her arms and shoulders, pushing hard. In an instant she was flying backwards through the air towards the cold water of the lake. The experience of freefalling through the air was exhilarating; in that brief moment between land and water the combination of fear and excitement created a sensation of intense pleasure that she had never felt before and, to be truthful, had never felt since. The last thing she saw before she hit the water, screams rising in her throat, was Johnny holding the camera that never left her side, beckoning her to smile as he pressed the shutter.
Pushing soaking hair away from her face and rubbing water from her eyes; screams of protest quickly transformed into shrieks of joy.
“Woo; it’s fresh! Are you boys not going to come join me?!”
“Helen Walker, get out of there this instant!” Stood on the bank with expressions of horror on their face were her parents; her Mum clasping her forehead, her Dad’s arm outstretched towards her. Reluctantly she took his hand and clambered out of the water. All eyes were on her as she stood there, soaking wet.
“You’re a disgrace to yourself and to the family, Helen;” her father shouted. “Go dry yourself off then pack your things. This holiday is over. We’re going home.” Her mother gathered up her things and snatched the camera from Johnny’s hands.
Looking back Helen smiled as she recalled just how powerful she had felt for that minute; every boy and man seemed to be staring longingly at the thin cotton dress clinging tightly to every inch of her body, every woman trying and failing to disguise their envy at her youth. Her father’s anger was of no relevance – all that mattered was the way in which Johnny was looking her up and down.
“Nice knowing you;” he shouted as she was dragged away from him for the second time in as many days.
“Pity I didn’t get the chance to know you better;”she replied with a laugh.
She’d never seem him again, although he was the subject of many a fantasy over the next two years until she met Derek and instead channelled her energies into breaking his resolve to save himself until marriage, a resolve which lasted approximately 4 weeks after their first date.
Oh what she would give to have the chance to feel like that again, to be that person again! Legs swinging from the window ledge, she closed her eyes and imagined letting go, taking flight, freefalling.
Opening them again, she slammed the photo-album shut and climbed down from the ledge. Falling would be easy, sure, but there was a pile of washing to be done and the beds wouldn’t make themselves. She put aside the album and the promise it held, and set to work before her husband got home.