We first met at Jenny’s Plaice. The local fish and chip shop. I didn’t see her when I entered, swinging open the glass paneled door. Banging the handle into the dent in the wall. If I’d looked to my left, I would have spotted her, perched by herself on one of the two-person tables.
The shop wasn’t that noticeable. Nothing spectacular. No wonder she didn’t catch me straight away. It was always the same. Even more so when you consider that I’d been eating there since I was four and came in at least twice a week. Never changed. Hadn’t since Jenny’s dad ran it. Checked linoleum, six tables, four with two chairs, two with four, all nailed to the floor to stop ruffs nicking them. Even the painted-on sign ‘the best fish in the East’ hadn’t changed. It definitely wasn’t the best fish in the East. Wasn’t even the best fish in town. That belonged to Paula’s ‘The Codmothers’, up the lane, but not by much.
A former seaside resort, everything had taken a downturn. The sky manifested a rotted green tinge. Mouldy and knotted. The sea looked as if it had swallowed a gallon of tar. Gulped and gurgled it down. I still ate the fish at Jenny’s Plaice though. If it hadn’t poisoned me by now, it probably never would. The counter a shiny reflective metal. The type that warped your body, made your hands look fatter as you moved them closer, body longer as you moved it away. Jenny was waiting for me behind it. Smirking as I wandered over.
“Three times in one week. A girl could get ideas.”
Jenny was older than me by three years too. Celebrated her recent 23rd by getting drunk on Frostie’s Cider and kissing me, on and off, for half an hour in a sticky booth seat at the back of The Whelk and Conch. She wasn’t gay, as she constantly liked to remind me, just said I had soft lips and knew how to kiss. A small comfort in a small town. We’d never work. We just did it for fun. That a small and constant comfort too.
“What ideas would they be then?” I asked, but she just winked at me, and said, “it’s on the house, I’ll bring it over. The usual.”
You could always take out the food, as you could any fish and chip shop, but I liked to sit in. Bathe in the tangy smell of salt and soak in the scent of Cif floor cleaner. Jenny occasionally gave me food for free. I never asked why, and she never sought to tell me. I nodded and spun round, headed for the middle two-seater table, the one I always sat at, and slid into the chair.
That’s when I saw her. Directly opposite, one table over, hunched, picking at her fish and chips. I knew straight away that I’d not spied her before. Ever. Never mind missing her when I’d entered. A newbie to the town. Unlucky for some. I never understood why people moved here. It was like playing a spin the bottle game of undesirable locations and landing on the graveyard. The next option being the undersea. Yet, if the shop was ordinary, then she was quite the opposite. For one, she didn’t have webbed hands, and I assumed, webbed toes. She had boots on, so I couldn’t tell. But I could see her hands quite clearly from where I was settled.
Everyone on the coast had webbed extremities. Hands. Feet. She must have been an inlander. Nothing between her fingers. Separated toes. Her hands were bone dry. Ours always with a sheen of moisture on them. Not wet, not to the touch, just waxy on the palm. That’s what happens when you’re born in damp air. I’d seen inlander’s before and paid them little mind. But she drew me in. I observed her hands for a few moments longer, small and dainty, until I saw the way she was eating.
She had her fish on one side of the table, and her chips on the other. Placed on different synthetic plates, with different cutlery. She was eating one chip, then one chunk of fish, one at a time, with two plastic forks. Eat a single chip. Fork down. Eat a single piece of fish. Put that fork down. And repeat. Never the twain shall meet. Each with the same steady poise. Definitely an inlander. They were all ambidextrous.
I watched her in simmering amusement, flicking my eyes back and forth whilst I waited for my food.
Her skin was a deep tan, another sign of an inlander. Dark freckles dotted across her forearm where her jumper was pushed up. We were all basically translucent on the coast. When the sun shone it went straight through us. Hence our pale milk white complexion. But she looked radiant. As though the sun had no choice but to bounce back off her, emitting light from within. I couldn’t see much her face. Spaghetti string hair, rich black, covering her features; I could just make out the tip of her nose, and occasionally the full sight of her upper lip as it closed over a lengthy chip. Apart from that, nothing.
Her clothes were inlander too. We all wore long jackets. Polyester. Stop the splash of sea water and waves from flicking up our trousers. Toggle fastens at the front. She had on a woollen jumper and jeans. Wet in no time.
I kept observing as she carried on her strange eating habit.
She hit a roadblock when Jenny gave me my dinner. Fish, chips, pot of seaweed, cup of black tea. The inlander had run out of her one chip, one piece of fish ratio. No chips left. Still one third of a fish. I waited to see what she’d do, letting the cup I was holding heat the skin on my hand, burning into the crook of the finger I had hooked through the handle.
She stared at the fish for a few seconds, wiped her mouth with her thumb, put down both forks, crossed the knives she hadn’t used, and got up to leave. She brushed her hands down her blue jeans, leaving a small stain of grease. I took a sip of my drink and nearly choked on it when she whipped round sharp and shouted, “you oughta mind your own,” lips curling deliciously as she delivered it.
She swept past the table and towards the exit. Words sinking in the acrid air. Banged the handle of the door the same way I did, into the well-worn dent in the wall, and trudged out of the shop. Jenny laughing behind her hand. Me, a fish, stuck in an orange strung net.
We met again at the ice-cream bar. Alzino’s Ice’s. A staple for the few locals. Another spot I frequented often.
Like most things in the slowly dying town, foundations curling into their last years of life, pavement sinking into the sea, Alzino’s was tired. Stuck in a different time. A realm all its own. The waitresses looked as though they’d donned their uniforms when it first opened, and their dreams had died in an instant. Destined to be grey, leathery, old. For eternity.
The bar manifested the same defunctive energy. It was supposed to resemble one of those American diners from last century. Sleek lines, curved metal, the very essence of space age and chic. Instead it looked as though someone had overdosed on the design and sicked it up. Pastel pinks and washed canary yellows splashed across the counter. Sliding down the peeling walls. You could see the wires of the chrome brushed lamps underneath the paint, like veins on a backhand. Plush raspberry red diner chairs now a dull brick, stitching unfurling out from the seams. Bar stools uneven on the unswept floor. All off kilter.
The ice cream wasn’t bad though. Unlike the surroundings. And I’d been hankering after some all day - tangy and sweet.
Alzino’s opened late on a Friday night, as though the youth of the town would come out in droves to spend their evening at the bar. Instead it was just me, inlander girl, Jeanette behind the counter, and Fish Frank in the corner, called as such because he smelt of it. Nancy, the other Friday waitress, must have taken the day off.
This time I knew she was there. The double doors opened straight onto the bar counter, exactly where she was.
I could have sat pretty much anywhere. On a multitude of unwiped tables. But I wanted to apologise. To explain my staring. Absolve myself of the strange sense of guilt that had built up since I’d watched her earlier in the week. Like a hawk toying with a mouse. I meandered over to her, slid and shuffled onto the bar stool next to the one she was seated on. She didn’t look at me. Crane or swivel her neck. I kept my mouth shut. For now. And waited for Jeanette to reappear from the kitchen, silence enveloping the uneasy atmosphere. The radio wasn’t on. Jeanette hated music. Fish Frank silent in the corner. Inlander girl with eyes for her ice cream only. Three glass bowls with three different flavours. Three spoons too. I wanted so badly to know why she ate everything in separate chunks. It made me feel giddy and slightly nauseous. Intrigue slipping from mild to excessive.
Jeanette appeared three long minutes later. Hair sprayed into a brick like existence. Talons for nails lacquered and whorled. Lips skinny. She never spoke to customers. To anyone in fact. Not that I knew of. Instead you told her what you wanted and she’d either nod, mumble, or grimace depending on her mood. In all the time I’d know her, we’d had exactly three exchanges.
“You alright Jeanette?”
“You doing anything for Sea Solstice Jeanette?”
“Aye, not talking to you.”
“Sea looks choppy today Jeanette.”
“I hope it drowns us.”
I respected her utter commitment in hating everyone and everything. Nothing if not determined. She looked at me with disinterested eyes and waited for my order.
“Two scoops of sherbet lemon, fish scale flakes on top.”
She inhaled once, blinked, grumbled then nodded and went towards the freezer that housed the ice cream. From past experience, I knew I wouldn’t see my order for about 15 minutes, such was Jeanette’s efficient ability in being slow. Half the time she didn’t bother charging anyone either. I welcomed it with open arms, thanks usually, to my near always empty pockets. Jobs were few and far between on the coast these days.
In Jeanette’s absence, the uncomfortable silence returned. I rolled my fingers across the sickly pink marble counter and tried to think of something to say. It was too late for “hello” and I wasn’t ready to apologise for fear of her reaction. Better gauge the situation first. I’d rather not be shouted at again. No matter how strangely exciting the prospect. I looked over just as she placed down the spoon she’d been using, licking the back of it first. I swallowed. Then she went and stabbed a pin straight through the balloon sized atmosphere that had begun to build around us.
“You’re making a habit of this,” she said, face down to the counter.
“Mm,” turning and looking my way, “watching me.”
Seeing her face for the first time, properly, was like coming up for air. Relief to breathe again. In the three days that had passed, I’d imagined what she’d looked like almost hourly. When she’d shouted at me in Jenny’s Plaice, I hadn’t caught a clear glimpse, but now, with eager eyes, I drunk the image in. She wasn’t otherworldly, not like the models I’d seen in magazines whose faces looked as though they’d been carved, sculpted and frozen. Instead, she looked real. Tangible. Sweet. Freckles dotted the bridge of her nose, then down and round bee sting lips, a few spotted across her puffy cheeks. Teal eyes and unblemished skin. Grass after fresh spring rainfall. Lush. The small pocket window of weather where the town didn’t look so dead. Everyone else dipped in sea salt.
“You’re doing it now.”
The apology was on the tip of my tongue, ready to go, but she beat me to it.
“Why?”she prodded, lips pursing.
“Why, what?” it was clear from her reaction she thought me an idiot. I’d yet to give any evidence otherwise.
“Why what? Why,” she paused, “do you keep watching me? At the fish and chip place. I’m sure I saw you yesterday down near the docks. And now. Obviously.”
I didn’t see her yesterday. That wasn’t me. But in moments such as this, it’s hard to know whether to be totally honest, or lie. Risk looking like a stalker, and what we call those who are short of a brain cell or two, a dafty, or simply avoid the truth. A white liar. Offering up a tale of omission. I opted, webbed hands now sweaty, for the former.
“I find you intriguing,” I admitted. “I’ve not seen you round before. Not till Jenny’s Plaice. Don’t see many inlanders this way. And you eat really weirdly.” She frowned. “You’ve got a good face too,” I added. At that, she looked pained.
“Oh thanks,” anything but grateful for my candidness.
“I don’t mean it badly. I just mean you’re interesting. You know. Enchanting in…an odd sort of way.” I was drowning in the sea.
“And I’m sorry too,” finally reaching the moment where I could resolve my guilt, selfishly, “I never meant to upset you.” It didn’t taste as sweet as I’d hoped. Like biting into a sour apple.
“You hadn’t upset me, not really.”
“Oh well that’s go-”
“But you’ve just called me weird. And odd. So now I’m not so sure.” She smiled as she said it though, playful. Toying. Me, surfacing from the depths. Devouring the oxygen.
Jeanette returned well over fifteen minutes later. Without my ice cream. Since going to the freezer she’d disappeared, probably for a cigarette and a cup of coffee, indifferent to my order. I might as well have served myself. In the time that had passed, we’d managed to navigate a conversation that was not, either, based on me being particularly nosey. Or, one which resulted in me answering questions like a fool. I was still stumbling all about myself though, such was her subtle power. I’d hastened to mention I was a sucker for a pretty girl. Fascinated, like a child with a balloon. I’d lost all interest in the sherbet lemon.
I learnt that she’d come to the coast with her father, one of the new boatmen on the docks. He’d worked on rivers and lakes back in the inland, catching various creatures and manning various vessels, but he fancied a change. The cost of living on the coast cheaper. Easier.
“It’s also shit,” I told her.
“I can see that,” she replied.
That was the reasoning for her turning up pretty much overnight. He hadn’t looked at houses, hadn’t even visited our town, just swirled a finger around a map and landed on us. She was also my age. Done with school, but not quite done with relying on her parents for support and shelter. Her mother was joining them in a month’s time, she still had her term of notice to fill. She sounded like all inlanders do, ‘mother’, ‘father’, I called mine ‘pops’ and ‘ma’, or I did, on the rare occasion I saw them.
But that was the background, the filler. The small talk with strangers on first dates. I made a return to my interest in her eating habits. She too, sought specifics on my webbed hands. Turns out that we are both the by-product of our upbringing and environment. I’d hoped her tale would be one of strange custom. Or just that she was a bit odd. But it was her pops and ma, ‘mother’ and ‘father’, who’d simply fed her that way when she was a tot, and it had stuck ever since. Hard to break a habit of a lifetime.
“Are all inlanders raised that way?”
“No,” she shrugged, “just me. That I know of. My friends back home think it’s weird too. They just don’t point it out as eloquently as you,” she prodded my shoulder and I felt the mark for the rest of the weekend.
“So, what about your webs?”
I told her that’s how we all are out here, native to the coast. It wasn’t always that way. But then the odd case would show up. A new baby, screaming into the world, with tiny webs. It happened after the turn of the century. When the air got damper and the sea ate more land. Evolution, or, more likely, thanks to some ruff who’d had an encounter with a sea creature, and well, guess the rest. She grimaced, and we left it at that. She didn’t ask if she could touch them. A silent beat passed. I’d ran out of words.
“I need to go,” she announced, looking back at her empty bowls.
“It’s just, my father, he’s on his own. We’d argued, and I wandered off, but I probably should go see him,” she explained.
“Honestly, it’s fine. I’ll be here, withering at the counter. Awaiting my ice cream.”
Jeanette flicked her eyes over. Daggers.
We mashed our next sentences into one another. Her asking if she could see me again. It sounded very similar. Me, asking if she wanted to go down to Luna Amusements.
“Luna Amusements. It’s a run down but still works mini theme park. Well, more amusement park slash fair. Some rides and a few carnival games. It’s okay though, if you don’t. It’s sort of shit, but-”
“I’d love to.”
“Oh, cool.” Moron.
We decided to meet next Wednesday. She was busy and had to go see her mother over the weekend. Pick up some of her stuff. I told her where it was, the amusements, and that I’d see her at seven under the arch. She got up to leave at that, half slid out of her chair, then turned back.
“Don’t you want to know my name? You want to know everything else.”
I hadn’t realised I’d not asked.
“What’s your name?”
“Ginger,” she said.
“You look like that, and your name is Ginger?”
“Ginger?” I mulled it over, “odd name.”
“Well what’s yours?”
She laughed at that.
“See you at the amusements, Leelulm,” she slid off and out.
I was destined for the undersea.
By the time Wednesday rolled around, the weather had gone from poor to downright abysmal. The rain didn’t fall. It poured. In sheets. So much so you couldn’t see where the sea ended, and the sky began. I hadn’t taken Ginger’s number, no signal on the coast, and decided that whatever happened, whatever the weather, I’d still go to Luna Amusements, for seven, and wait.
At half six I set off, sloshing through the water that was cascading down the cobbled street, heading towards the sea front. Jacket tied as tight as it would go. It kept me dry as best it could considering the sky was crying ferocious tears.
Unlike Jenny’s Plaice, which was situated near mine, tucked into the bend, a warped sort of building, Luna Amusements was directly on the sea. Alzino’s was on the seafront, partial views on a good day. The amusements were suspended on a reinforced pier, over the sea itself. The bigger rides backed onto the beach though, just in case. A fire had burned down the original rickety pier long before I was born and since then all rides over a certain weight were demoted to the beach, perched on wooden slats that covered the sand. Now it was safety first, sort of. ‘The Bike Ride’ was rebuilt on the pier though. A carousel of various bikes from various centuries. It always made me feel sick. The up, down motion. Carnival games and sweet stalls made up the rest.
I could see her in the distance, under the arch where we said we’d meet. ‘Luna Amusements’ backed in metal above her head. The whole pier lit by various fluorescent oranges and reds. Rain blurring them. Like looking at street lights through a wet windscreen. She had on a similar jacket to me. Must have picked it up in one of the coastal shops. I splashed towards her, biting the inside of my cheek. Nervous. We hadn’t said it was a date. Hadn’t said it was anything. But still, it felt like one. I reached her, water dripping off the tips of my fingers. Un-gloved waxy webbed hands now soaked.
“Do you want to leave?”
I knew how to make a lasting impression.
“Why would I want to leave?” she asked, as though it wasn’t obvious.
“The weather? It’s awful. You might need gills to survive,” I pointed to my neck as I said it. As though I had some.
“You coast lot being shagging sea creatures again? Gills as well as webs?” she grinned and sucked her bottom lip between her teeth.
“Shagging sea creatures? You’re nearly as eloquent as me.”
She didn’t give me chance to mention the rain again. Instead, she pulled the strings tighter on her hood, wisps of hair sticking to her skin, and wandered off into the amusements. Me, no choice but to follow.
After three goes on the shoot em’ up, two failed attempts at trying to knock down some cans with a ball and win a sopping wet soft toy, “I want the tiger if you do”, and one bag of candy floss, sugar sticking to the roof of our mouths, we came to ‘The Bike Ride’. I’d tried to avoid it, sweeping towards the Hook a Duck, plastic ducks instead of real, ever since the ‘incident’, but I’d ran out of games to district her with. The bigger rides were closed, due to the weather, and I knew as soon as she saw it that I was about to meet my maker. There or thereabouts.
“We’ve got to go on that. You can’t bring to me the amusements and not take me on the sole ride we can actually go on.”
“It’s a kid’s ride.”
We got the tickets from a sniggering boil, also known as John, my cousin, and stepped onto the aluminium plated floor. Pools of water collecting where it dipped down. The outer bikes covered in polka dots of rain. There was a range of bikes to pick from. Old Peugeot racers, Moondraker downhills, BSA military motorbikes from the last century wars, and even a hover bike that incidentally, never actually hovered. Ginger went for Yamaha racing bike, the ones they used to use in the Moto GP’s, or so my pops told me. Wanting to sit next to her, I had to settle for a penny farthing. An ancient old thing, with one massive wheel on the front and a small one on the back. Sat up wobbly and high, a couple of inches above her at least. Ridiculous didn’t cover it.
With no one else on the ride, and no one else looking like they were about to bother, John started up the motor, the bikes moving up, then down. Slippy hands clinging onto the vertical bar that was stabbed straight through the middle.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, fine,” I lied. Quite pathetic that at my age I hated carousels. I wasn’t about to share that with her though.
We circled around a couple of times in easy silence. Thighs damp. The choppy sea swaying the pier ever so. Creaking in the wind. I’d started to feel light headed. The motion churning me up. Her gloved hand squeezed my knee when we came to a stop.
I turned towards her, sickness swirling. She was mirroring the look I’d given her the day I watched her eat her fish and chips at Jenny’s. Mild intrigue. Strange fascination. I could tell we were about to kiss. That she wanted to. Gravitational. The moon and the shore. She stood a little on the bike pedals and I shifted towards her, closing my eyes to settle myself a moment, leaning down to reach her lips. Left hand holding the pole, right heading for the Yamaha. Just behind where she was perched. Steady.
Our lips met just as my hand slipped from the back of the bike. Webbed fingers now wet instead of waxy. I fell into her, biting flesh as I went. I could taste metallic crimson as I tumbled from the penny farthing onto the Yamaha, avoiding taking her down with me. I chinned the side of the bike and landed between my ride and hers. She was holding her top lip between her gloved fingers, running her tongue along the bloody ridge, giggling at me from above - a soaked heap on the aluminium floor. Maker, met.
We kissed again on ‘The Bike Ride’ a week later. In the rain. On the same two bikes.
I made sure I wore gloves.
@emily__harrisonA young writer from North Yorkshire, Emily has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. She can be found on Twitter , and apologizes in advance for her tweets.