Title: The Saddest Girl in the World
Author: Alyn Fenn
A fishing village. A small stone pier, drab and grey in the early morning, worn and weathered, its pillars continuously washed by the tides, and without a person in sight. A single fishing boat departs the harbour, its engine a faint rumble that gradually fades away; around the pier piles of nets and a few small boats drawn up on the shore. It is cool and damp, the end of summer. Walking up the road from the pier and looking back one sees the endless sea, stretching horizontally, gun-metal grey, pressed flat by the weight of sky, and in the far distance several islands inhabited only by seabirds and rabbits, dark slivers on the leaden surface. Seagulls fly over the head of the pier, scavenging for fish guts. Continue up the road into the village and come to the church, with its cross that lights up at night. The villagers are proud of their church and go without fail to Mass on a Sunday where they plead eternal salvation for their own souls and for the souls of those already departed.
A red bicycle appears, ridden by Roberta Elizabeth Baker, the only child in the village fortunate enough to own a new bicycle but unfortunate enough to be a heathen. Sr. Immaculata wasted no time in telling her that since she was not baptized her soul would go straight to hell. Her father said Sr. Immaculata was being was ridiculous, but since none of their family had been baptized they would have the comfort of all going to hell together. He gave Roberta a choice. She decided she would rather go to hell with her parents and Alan and thought of it as a trip they would all take together, like a family holiday. She brakes and turns down the road to the pier.
The funfair arrives today. It always comes the last weekend in August. She sits on a bollard scuffing her toes on the pier wall and daydreams of swingboats and merry-go-rounds, fun and laughter, ice creams and sunny days.
The sea, the sea…the gulls wheel, the sun rises up the sky and it seems to Roberta that never before has the sea been so endless, so monotonous, the waves slap the edges of the pier and wash over the rocks opposite and the smell of fish guts and seaweed lingers in the air and the heron stalks the big rock pool. Roberta is not in the habit of feeling sorry for herself but now, fighting loneliness, she wishes she had someone to talk to, someone who might understand. And she feels hungry and empty inside as though a giant wave has swept over her and on retreating has sucked all the flesh and innards from her body, leaving only skin and skeleton behind like the remains of a filleted fish carelessly thrown down on the pier by the fishermen for the gulls to tear apart.
She is thinking she will perhaps go swimming in the afternoon, even though she does not often swim anymore, when a rattling and rumbling of engines and machinery breaks into her thoughts; the funfair has arrived!
Last year Alan took her on the swing boats, his trick – to pull the ropes so hard she was afraid they were going to go over the bar and her stomach would swoop making her feel sick and excited at the same time while she screamed at him to slow down.
She stands up and crosses the road to get a better look; several children have come out of the caravans and are playing barefooted in the dust. One boy stands apart from the rest. He is outside the most ancient looking of the caravans, it is scarred with many dents along the side and a yellowish dog with a ripple of corrugated ribs crouches underneath. The boy is tall and thin, looks older than Roberta, thirteen or fourteen, pale faced with short dark hair, slightly greasy, dressed in dirty brown trousers and a too large green shirt. The door of the caravan opens and a man’s voice calls out. As the boy turns to go inside his eye catches Roberta’s in a faintly sorrowful glance.
She makes her way slowly home for lunch, stopping halfway up Station Road to eat blackberries, careful to check for maggots. Her father is home. The three of them sit at the table and have their soup. Nobody speaks. The dining room is dark and chill. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, thickest in the corners where they dangle like grey thread cities and cast shadows on the walls. She swallows each salty spoonful with difficulty. After a few half hearted mouthfuls her mother lays down her spoon, pushes back her chair and leaves the room without explanation.
Roberta digs her bathing suit out from under a pile of Buntys at the bottom of her cupboard and cycles back to the pier. The strand, composed of grey and unattractive sand, slopes gently down to the sea, and scattered over it are small pebbles, broken shells, sea tumbled glass, and here and there a rocky outcrop with a covering of brown seaweed and a few limpets clinging. A flock of seagulls wheels, screeching and diving in their endless quest for food. At the far end of the strand a small river flows over stones slippery with green weed, carrying sundry scraps of rubbish into the sea.
As Roberta goes down the strand, a vivid image comes to her, unbidden, of her brother diving off the pier wall, his graceful body arching out, suspended a moment in the air, slicing into the water with a neat splash, bobbing up moments later, laughing and shaking drops from his golden hair before climbing up the pier ladder, diving again and again. Thinking about the deep water at the end of the pier always makes her feel afraid, a fear that sometimes fills up her whole being and blocks out everything else. And yet at the same time the dark depths, full of who knows what strange fish and eels and seaweed tentacles, exert a powerful attraction.
She sits down on the sand, makes a tent of her towel and begins the struggle to get out of her clothes without letting the towel slip. While she is doing this some children run down the strand.
‘Last one in’s a sissy!’
‘Race you to the raft!’
They ignore Roberta. Their cries fill the air as they leap and splash about. Finally, she discards her last item of clothing, wriggles into her suit and secures the straps over her shoulders. She keeps the towel around herself.
The boy she saw earlier crosses the strand and sits on a rock beside where she crouches in her towel tent moodily digging in the sand with a piece of sea smoothed glass. The girls in the water let out loud shrieks of pretend fright as the boys splash water in their faces and seize them by the arms and drag them through the water while a single gull standing on a rock glares warily at them out of one eye before taking off. The boy looks at them and then at her with his solemn expression. She squints up at him, beyond him she can see the swingboats in action, back and forth they go, bright bursts of red and yellow against the sky, past that the distant spire with the cross, stark against the sky. To guess what he is thinking from his expression is difficult. He smells of motor oil and chips. She tugs the strap of her ruffled bathing suit further up her shoulder.
‘Are you going swimming?’ he asks, putting his head on one side.
She stands up, still clasping her towel around her, doesn’t look at him and rubs the sand nervously with her toes. ‘Yes,’ she says finally.
He tells her his name, Billy, and asks hers. Then, right there beside her, he strips unselfconsciously to his underpants. Roberta pretends not to look. She shivers, not from cold but because of a feeling of dread which for no particular reason comes over her. The boy notices.
‘Someone walked on your grave,’ he says.
She says nothing. He leaves his clothes in an untidy heap on the rock and picks his way down the strand to where the boys are now playing a game of throwing the girls off the raft. He seems not in the least self conscious to be going swimming in his underwear. He stops at the sea’s edge, dips one foot in the water and, lifting one hand to shade his eyes, looks back at Roberta. The sea that has been calm begins to show small waves caused by a gradually rising wind. Roberta walks down the strand still wrapped in her towel, carefully avoiding some shards of broken glass littering the sand. Billy waits with folded arms, squinting into the sun.
‘You’re like me,’ he says when she reaches him.
‘How’s that?’ asks Roberta. She discards her towel in what she hopes is a nonchalant manner and steps into the sea.
He turns and walks into the water, reaches waist height, the sun behind him comes out from behind a cloud and shines across his pale back, making his jutting shoulder blades look sharp as knives. Then he puts his arms out in front of him and dives under the waves, disappearing and resurfacing a few seconds later, blinking the salt water from his eyes. Roberta just stands there in the water up to her calves, watching his head bobbing above the waves. He is not a very good swimmer, doing a ragged front crawl with a lot of splashing, during which he does not put his head in the water but flings it from side to side and keeps his chin up and his mouth gasping. He returns to the shallow water and stands up, spitting and panting. She watches him wade towards her. He has his mouth open, she thinks he is about to ask why she does not come in. A gust bears down the beach and then passes over the water raising a series of jagged peaks across the surface. Instead of speaking he bends and reaches into the water, when he straightens up his face is whiter than ever.
‘My foot,’ he says.
He reaches the shore and stands one legged on the sand while blood pours from a gash on his left instep. It is a long slice from which a flap of whitish skin hangs loose – he must have cut it on a piece of broken glass; it reminds Roberta of the slit you’d make along the white belly of a mackerel from head almost to tail in order to rip out its guts. She turns away from the sight, the blood makes her feel queasy but she also feels an uneasy fascination with the wound. The blood continues to leak onto the sand, soaking into the grey dampness and leaving a slight dark discolouration on the surface. The other children gather around, casting uncertain glances at one another, no one sure what to do. While they all stand in this frozen indecision Billy calmly picks up Roberta’s towel and wraps it around his foot.
There is a shout and the children turn to see an angry-faced man with short grey hair and a beard of stubble come striding down the strand, on each step bringing his feet down with unnecessary force. He wears a pair of oil stained grey trousers held up with a length of rope and is bare chested and brandishes another length of rope with knots in it. He is shouting something unintelligible, his face distorted by rage. He keeps whipping the rope with the knots back and forth through the air and it makes a cracking sound. The children part from their huddle and the man begins to strike Billy across his bare back with the rope, the skin still glistening with salt water, using tremendous force with each blow.
‘I’ll teach you to go swimming when you are meant to be working!’ he roars.
The other children back away in fear but Roberta stays rooted to the spot. Each time he strikes, another huge red welt, complete with circular knot marks, appears across Billy’s back. Then, as suddenly as he began, the man stops and without another word he turns and marches back up the strand. Roberta wants to offer words of comfort but can’t think what to say. Billy has been silent during the beating but now he cries out, a sort of half choked sob, drops Roberta’s towel and sets off hobbling up the strand leaving a trail of small dark stains on the sand where the blood continues to seep from his wound.
‘Wait,’ she calls, ‘keep the towel.’
But he does not turn around. Even from a distance, the red welts stand out sharply against the white of his skin. Then she is running, grasping her towel and running to her bicycle, pedalling up Station Road at full speed. She does not want to go home but there is no where else to go.
What does she feel? The worst thing is that as she pedals up Station Road forcing her legs to pump, one after the other, without the energy or desire to keep moving them, grinding down, winding down, she feels nothing for Billy, only sorrow for herself at the loss of her brother who had been alive and was then, in an instant, dead; all her life and energy is sucked out of her by the weight of it, a burden larger than the universe and one of which she suddenly realizes she will never, not even for an instant, really be free, not while she does her homework, plays patience in her room, pedals her new bike, eats her dinner, all these things that she must go on doing because life goes on, even after a boy slips on the pier ladder and cracks his head on the wall and falls in the water and his own sister, further up the pier, hears the splash but thinks it’s a seagull diving for fish and goes away home, and he never comes home for his tea and the divers find him that night, under the pier with only the grey-green, sharp-fanged conger eels slipping in and out of the pillars for company, and his soul already gone straight to hell with none of his family to keep him company, with all this to weigh her down, is it any wonder she is the saddest girl in the whole world?
It isn’t until she is at home, in the bathroom, putting the towel to soak in cold water, that she remembers her pile of clothes, next to Billy’s, two abandoned heaps upon the strand.