'When I Was So High And Much Nicer' by Mark Blayney        

‘When I Was So High And Much Nicer’ by Mark Blayney        

The fifteenth instalment of our Story | Retold series takes its inspiration from ‘A Story’ by Dylan Thomas.

 

What’s a bistro anyway, said dad.

Well, you know, said mum.

No, I don’t know. What is it?

She wriggled, as she always does when she gets asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to. There will be no acknowledgement of this, nothing along the lines of, I don’t know.

It’s like a restaurant, she said eventually.

Like a restaurant? dad pressed, flicking the indicator for emphasis and turning the wheel more heavily than he needed to so we nearly went into a bush.

Just – smaller, she arrived at eventually.

I half-listened to their conversation. I had my old iPod but could still hear them. I had Fallout Boy and the Dum Dum Girls on loop and it doesn’t get better than that. I turned up Bedroom Eyes.

Roads got narrower and there was the sense of permanently going downhill, as happens when you approach the sea. Brown signs advertising ducks and farmhouses and all sorts of things you don’t get at home started appearing. There was a warning triangle of a frog crossing a road, and someone had graffitied a little man riding the frog, complete with reins.

Dad pointed at this and laughed. Mum said it was stupid. I couldn’t turn the volume up any higher.

Will gave me a dead leg so I gave him one back. This turned into a competition. Stop that in the back, said dad vaguely, and we carried on.

I forgot to mention that Grandad was with us. He said nothing on the whole journey apart from how nice it was when he got into the car. He breathes loudly. All his clothes are brown, even though it’s summer. They’re made of some itchy fabric from the land that time forgot. I can’t understand why he isn’t permanently scratching. We had to divert some considerable way from our natural route in order to collect him. He lives in a house that’s exactly the same as ours except it’s full of rubbish and smells because Gran died.

On our arrival dad drove up and down Beach Road looking for somewhere to park. Everyone got hot and irritable and opened the windows. We had several exciting moments when it looked like there was a space but it turned out not to be quite large enough, even though mum said there was plenty of room.

Dad said did she want to take over and park it herself and she told him not to be so stupid.

Will made that noise he always makes.

Grandad continued to enjoy the whole experience. I suppose just getting out of the house is an adventure for him.

When we got out of the car I wrapped up the iPod’s headphone wires, in case anyone should see it. The sheer shame of it. I won’t go into what a complete disgrace it is that I’m still not allowed a phone, but there it is – there’s nothing that can be done about it, and I just have to be mature, patient and accept what a complete pair of idiots they are.

They do not have a clue about life. I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have a phone. I’ve tried telling them it’s essential for security purposes, but they look at me like they come from a different century. Come to think of it, they do come from a different century.

The restaurant faced the sea. It’s not even called a bistro on the sign, dad said cheerfully as we walked through the little gate. Mum turned on him and used that low voice she uses when he’s in trouble.

It’s Grandad’s birthday, she said, and this where he wants to go. Dad nodded.

There were waiters waiting for us. Your table is over here, one of them said, although it looked exactly the same as all the others and I couldn’t see what difference it made.

I sat in a chair and was told to get out because it was grandad’s. Again, it was exactly the same as the others. I moved. Grandad eased himself into his chair as if it might collapse at any moment. I was in a better seat anyway. It meant I could look out of the window and pretend to be interested in the sea.

I had to listen to the whole tedious conversation; another reason why I should have a phone. I won’t bore you with it. I can’t even remember it now anyway. Outside, a man dressed as Elvis walked past.

I asked for Chicken Kiev with new potatoes and Will said he wanted beans and chips. You need to have more than that, mum immediately said. Will shook his head. Add some sausages, she commanded the waiter. Will declined again. He won’t eat them, and mum will try to make him until she gets cross.

Grandad asked for a real ale but the waiter said they only had lager.

What? Grandad asked. He conferred with dad, then looked up at the waiter.

Double Dragon?

The waiter shook his head.

Celt?

Another apologetic shake.

You must have some Brains.

The waiter smiled. We have Peroni or Nastro Azzurro. Italian beers, he explained.

Why don’t you try a Perona, said mum with the icy smile that she reserves for public occasions.

It’s Peroni, I said, but this was deemed unhelpful.

Grandad stared at mum. I’m having a proper beer with my birthday lunch, he said. He listed about another twelve beers. The waiter shook his head sadly.

We don’t need an essay, sighed mum.

SA! That’s what I want!

We all groaned, apart from mum.

 

 

And that was that. We had to leave the bistro, full of apologies (well mum was) and head down the street. There’s a ton of pubs along here, dad said, spreading a hand expansively.

What kind of place doesn’t even serve proper beer, grandad declared, for the fourth time.

I thought you wanted to go there, mum said.

No, grandad clarified, you said it would be a good place to go and that’s where we were going.

No I didn’t, mum rejoindered, you said you wanted to go somewhere different and exciting.

This conversation went on a bit. We went into a pub. About half the people sitting at the tables were dressed as Elvis. Dad went to the bar and ordered two pints of SA as if his life depended on it.

Mum put on her posh voice. Can you facilitate a party of five? she asked. The young man behind the bar thought about this while pouring the pints. For lunch? he asked.

That’s right.

Can’t do lunch. A sort of sideways twist to his face that led to one eye closing. It wasn’t a facial disfigurement, he was just expressing an apology which he couldn’t do with his hands because they were busy with the beer.

Don’t worry, said dad, quickly taking the drinks, we’ll have one here and find somewhere down the road. He clinked glasses with Grandad, who made a sighing noise in return.

The children are hungry, said mum plaintively. I winced, in case anyone heard me being included in this reference.

I’m all right, said Will. Can I have some money for the machine?

You’ve got your own money, said mum.

Grandad dug in his pocket and gave Will about three pounds in change. Mum glared at him. Will went off to spend the money on Deal or No Deal.

Dad slurped his pint and drank about a quarter of it in one go. He clinked glasses with grandad again. It’s quite nice in here, isn’t it? he declared, looking round. Grandad made agreement noises and pushed his glasses with his index finger, as if this helped him see the room more clearly.

We squeezed onto half a table. I surreptitiously got the iPod out – I don’t care if anyone sees it now – and mum frowned at me but didn’t say anything, because there were others at the table and I would probably cause a scene.

I looked at the sea. The more I see of the sea, the more I like it. It glittered and shone. It had blue railings in front of it that seemed to say, come outside, jump over me, escape. Just run, you idiot. I stayed where I was.

The pub’s carpet had a red swirly pattern. You could see where people’s feet had kicked it into threadbareness. The smell of old beer hung around us like a yellowy fog. I sensed a shadow in front of me and looked up.

You’d better have this, said grandad. He handed me three pounds in change. But I haven’t done anything, I thought. I couldn’t understand why he was giving me money when it was his birthday. I looked at the coins – two shiny pound coins and lots of silver ones.

That’s a new portrait of the Queen, he said. I stared at the coins blankly, then moved my hand as if to give them back to him.

Say thank you then, for God’s sake, said mum, rolling her eyes. She looked with an expression of hopelessness towards an Elvis sitting at our table. Elvis looked ahead, his eyes made mysterious and intractable by shades.

Thanks, I said. Grandad ruffled the top of my head and made me squirm.

Dad had gone for more drinks. What’s he doing now, said mum; but it was too late, he was coming back with two more beers, Cokes for us and a small white wine for mum.

What am I supposed to do with that? mum asked. Dad shrugged.

Somebody’s got to drive home, mum said.

You’ll be all right on a small one, dad said, nudging her affectionately, but she bristled. Perhaps I’d like a glass of wine with my lunch, she said, adding, if we ever get lunch.

We’ll get lunch, don’t you worry, said dad, patting her arm.

Opposite, Elvis started singing Heartbreak Hotel to himself. I looked out to the sea. I watched the waves. They made me want to wave back.

Drink up, said mum, nodding towards my Coke. I’d had half of it. Dad and grandad touched their empty glasses as if fondling them might refill them. I downed the Coke and when I stood up there was a small disco going on in my stomach.

Will was peeled away from Deal or No Deal where he had done remarkably well, having made his three pounds last a good twenty minutes, although I later discovered he’d put a tenner of his own money in. Still, it entertains him and keeps him quiet, so it’s money well spent in my view.

We walked along the curve of the bay. There was a restaurant that we tried, but it was full. It’s no good anyway, said dad as we all piled out.

Why not? asked mum.

Because it’s not a bistro, he said. Mum sighed. We tried three more pubs, none of which could fit us in for lunch. ‘It’s the festival,’ the last of the three said. ‘You need to book.’

Four Elvises were performing an impromptu Hound Dog outside. We stopped to watch them for a while, then mum hurried us on when they finished, in case they asked for money.

We were at the end of the town now, past the lighthouse, where the stone bus stop marks the end of shops, pubs and the possibility of meals.

Grandad suggested we retrace our steps to the first place we went – the bistro originale, as dad described it. I’ve had enough proper beer now, grandad hiccupped. Don’t mind a Verona.

It’s Peroni, grandad, Will said.

Grandad nodded. We can be Two Gentlemen of Peroni, he said to dad, who looked befuddled.

Too late for that, announced mum imperiously, we’ll have lost the booking. She produced a leaflet with a map on it that she’d picked up from somewhere. Mum always feels a lot happier when she’s got a leaflet in her hand.

There’s one more place here… she said, the leaflet flapping as she turned around on the street and divined the pub. We went into the Waterfront but they said they couldn’t do us a table until after 6. It’s the Elvis festival, they explained.

I know, snapped mum.

It’s not a problem, said dad. We’ll have fish and chips on the beach.

Lovely, said grandad.

It’s nearly three o’clock, said mum.

 

 

We trooped down to the beach. Will kicked over someone’s sandcastles and got told off. We settled in a spot approved by mum but then had to move because she said she could smell donkey excrement, which did indeed waft over from the doleful animals huddled up between us and the water.

The beach stretched seamlessly in both directions, punctured occasionally by an Elvis, the sea curving like an uncertain smile. The donkeys were roped together, trapped in their small, invisible square. I wanted to jump on the nearest animal and ride it into the waves.

There used to be a pier over there, announced grandad. Look, you can see where it used to be.

We all looked politely at the nothingness.

Right, here’s the plan, said dad, when we were established on a patch of sand that mum deemed sufficiently donkey excrement-free. I’ll go and look for –

No you won’t, said mum, planting herself like a lightning-struck tree, you won’t come back. She looked to me, and it was like a turning point in my life: the moment she decided I was old enough to be given the weight of responsibility.

Walk up there, she said, to that… fun-fairgroundy thing… She pointed and windmilled her hand. Not for the first time, I wondered how people get to be so old yet remain so clueless about life.

We want three adult fish and chips and two child’s portions. I winced. Do you think you can manage that? She went through the careful rigmarole of unclasping her bag, unzipping the purse section, taking her purse out, unclasping it, opening the zip that contained cash, and producing three crisp £10 notes.

Mum is obsessed with sealing her cash behind a security blanket of zips and buckles, as she feels she is about to get mugged by a stranger at all times. The fact that this has never happened in her entire life she takes as evidence that it’s more likely than ever to happen at any moment. Watching her is like studying Derren Brown, or perhaps Derren Brown’s mum. You feel if you take your eyes of the £10 notes they might reappear wrapped up in sealed bags inside grandad’s breast pocket.

Why can’t I go? said Will.

Can you get some take-out beers as well? asked dad.

Do you think he needs more money? chipped in grandad.

Mum shushed them all with three variations on no.

And off I went.

 

 

Liberty slid around me like the sand that stretched from here to infinity, or at least Bridgend. I took my converses off and the sand was warm against my toes. A breeze ruffled my shirt. Some Elvises walked past. They had ruffled shirts too.

Freedom, I said out loud. My clothes were tight against my skin. I shivered at a blast of cold, or maybe it was the sense that I could keep walking, keep walking, and go even further, to wherever I wanted, perhaps even Neath.

I walked up the steps. I could smell salt, but wasn’t sure if it came from the sea or the chips. Also to be detected were heady scents of engine oil, candy floss, sweat, beer. A large pub with booming music emerging from its innards had its doors open and advertised, in hastily scribbled chalk on blackboard, quality food served all day and Elvis-oke. Perhaps we should have come here. Quality food is exactly what mum was after.

I nearly turned back, then took the notes from my pocket where I had neatly folded them. Thirty pounds. The Queen looked at me, her thin-lipped expression saying it all. Stuff you, you rich old bitch, I whispered to her.

There was a whoop in front of me and I looked up to see the divebomber taking off into the air like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps there wouldn’t be. How do we know there’s a tomorrow? Everyone else seems confident enough.

I was still holding the notes like Derren Brown about to do another trick. They seemed to point in three different directions – to the fish and chip shop on the right, the fairground to the left and to the sand dunes ahead, the grasses blowing back and forth like they couldn’t make their minds up about what they wanted to do with their lives.

As I was wondering which path to take – as if some Greek oracle had landed in front of me and given three choices, speaking in a low deep mysterious voice as if we were in one of those shit films that dad watches at midnight – one of the notes disappeared from my hand and the Queen, clasped in a stranger’s fist, frowned at me and disappeared off towards the fairground.

Hey! I said, and ran after him. After all this time, mum was right after all. Bollocks to her, I thought. Bollocks also to the Queen’s severe portrait – you’d think she could afford a colour photograph, what’s that cheap drawing all about? – and bollocks to the stranger in front of me.

The mugger – my assailant, I was starting to see him as, my thief – turned round and smiled. Here you are, he said, and I saw it wasn’t a he at all, it was a girl with an almost-shaved head and thick shoulders.

She handed the note to me. I put it back with the others, the magician taking the cards and putting them back in the pack. I wondered what trick I was going to play now.

Why did you do that? I asked.

To teach you a lesson.

Lesson?

What are you spending it on?

I put the notes securely in my jeans pocket. Three choices.

I haven’t decided yet, I said.

Come with me then, she said, and I followed the turn of her heel and thought we were going to the fairground but we didn’t, we went through a doorway and within fifteen seconds I was sitting on a barstool that had foam squeezing out of holes in the plastic cover and she was asking for two large wines.

I’ve never had wine, I didn’t say.

The glasses were enormous. It looked and smelt like fruit juice that had gone a bit off. She took hers and smiled. I took one of my notes out again – Jesus, if the Queen’s expression gets any worse she’ll have an aneurism.

It’s all right, she said. You can get the next ones.

We drank, and then we got the next ones. After that it was a bit of a blur. We went on the Waltzers and then into an arcade where you shot at stuff. We got candy floss, which we put in each other’s mouths. She had perfect teeth. She had black tattoos and silver studs in her ear and nose. Her clothes were in layers, and they were all black: papery singlet, ragged shorts. Against the sea she was a crow, almost-black eyes studying me thoughtfully. If I had a phone I could take a picture of her.

What’s your name? she asked. I told her, and she laughed. I’m called Nic too.

She looked at me questioningly. That means we can’t get married, she said. You can’t have Nic and Nic.

Can’t you? I wondered.

Fish and chips. The vinegar-smelling booth appeared like a flashing red-and-white temple. If I don’t eat soon I’ll fall over.

Fancy something? I said.

I don’t really eat. But you have what you want.

Not yet I don’t, I thought. I reached into my pocket but the Queen was nowhere to be found. Stupid cow. That’s old people all over – you think you know where there are, and then they wander off.

I can’t have dropped them, I murmured.

She looked at me, then slowly went into my pockets and dug around, and when she didn’t find any banknotes she reached into my back pockets and did the same. I think, she said as she put my tongue in her mouth, that you have.

We went back to look, but drew a blank. To fill the gap, she snogged me again. People looked.

I need to go, I said.

Give me your number then, she said.

I felt myself colouring.

What? Gimme your number. She stood with her hands on her hips, one leg slightly in front of the other. I kissed her on the cheek, as if by way of apology, and ran. Slipped on sand on the tarmac. A trio of Elvises slouched past, lips curling.

 

 

There are two endings to this story. In the first, when I got back to the beach Will was perched unhappily on a donkey, mum and dad on either side. Grandad sat on his own, slumped in a stripy deckchair, the type that only grandparents ever inhabit and who knows where they come from; it’s a total mystery.

I explained to him what happened, omitting certain elements, and he patted me on the head. Consider this a one-off, he said, handing me two £20 notes.

Back up the sandy tarmac, remembering too late I should have said thanks. I knew he wouldn’t say anything to mum and dad. Grandparents never do, that’s what’s so great about them; they’ve lived long enough to know the value of keeping your trap shut. I paused at the top to look at the sea, which was blueishly minding its own business under afternoon light.

     Ordering the five sets of fish and chips – bollocks to the children’s portions – I saw her in a doorway.

I knew you’d come back, she smiled, and helped me down the steps with the greasy paper boats. Mum didn’t even notice that I’d been gone – what was it? Twenty minutes or four days? – although dad’s eyes narrowed a fraction.

‘You’ve got a new friend, that’s nice,’ said mum, glassy-toothed as ever, and did not ask to be introduced. I decided at that moment never to take much notice of anything she said ever again.

I saw Nic back to the slope, that led to fairgrounds and sand dunes and the Pacific ocean and Neptune. And I explained that I didn’t have a phone – and she said it didn’t matter, and wrote her number on a piece of paper. And I treasured it, and never saw her again because we never went back to Porthcawl. And I have the paper to this day, each brown corner reminding me of her shoulders.

 

If you want that ending, or one like it, you can have it. All you need to do is avoid the boxes that we place ourselves in. Avoid what people do. Avoid what’s supposed to happen. Avoid you can’t do that. Avoid certain newspapers. Avoid no, because we don’t have any money. If you have children, let them be who they are. Water the flowers in the garden with love, even if it has been raining. We know all this. But, on the other hand, we don’t.

 

In the second version, nobody ate that day. The donkeys were not ridden, because mum said it was a rip-off. I came down the rough steps and she was waiting for me, furious. Variations on: what time did I call it, and why had I come back empty-handed, and how hard is it to get fish and chips anyway, and why couldn’t I be trusted with the smallest job, and your poor brother is starving. I went to explain, but she was so cross with me that I didn’t get the chance and when there was a gap in the noise I couldn’t be bothered.

Grandad sat in his stripy chair, nodding. He suggested we go to the Spar and get some sandwiches, but everyone was too excited to pay him any attention.

The car, in contrast, was silent. I’ll want that money back, was the only announcement mum made on the entire journey, her mouth as pursed as her purse.

We drove past the lighthouse and I saw Nic, standing by the abandoned art deco bus stop, waiting for a bus that had last passed by in the 1930s. I think I caught her eye but the sun was setting over the sea and she bleached out, like those square photos of my parents when they had futures in front of them and looked young and liked each other.

The sight of the endless beach made me yawn. Will and grandad were already asleep either side of me. We drove past the bistro, but nobody noticed. And Elvis rode by on a motorbike, guitar slung across his back, going who knew where, but in the opposite direction to us.

 

 

Image © Mark Blayney, 2016. You can follow Mark on twitter @markblayney