The Red Skateboard
Photograph by Phil Fisk, Story by Susie Mesure
Joe had forgotten about the photo. It fell out of an old book when he was packing up his flat, landing face down next to his balled-up pyjamas and last night’s dirty dinner plate. He lent against the wall, steadying himself a second, before bending down to retrieve it.
How young he looked.
He hadn’t been back to Brighton. He wasn’t sure about Jack. That day was off limits. She was off limits. He still remembers getting her letter inviting them. All those years, nothing, and then, bam!
“I’m sorry. I’d like to talk. I need to talk. Please can you ask David if you can visit? I’ll be waiting for the mid-morning train.” That unfamiliar scrawl. He remembers, years afterwards, tracing the indent of each letter with his finger, feeling the tracks of her biro pressing hard on the paper, sensing her urgency.
They were more than old enough to travel alone but David had insisted on driving them, dropping them off in Brighton well before the train would have got in. Joe had stared out of the window, his breakfast sitting all funny in his stomach as the road twisted over the Downs. “Don’t fuss,” he remembers snapping at David.
Even Jack had been quiet in the car, fiddling with the radio, unable to settle on a station. It was like they were little kids all over again, David worrying about them so much.
Joe had been four when they’d moved in with David; Jack two years older. Always two years older. Being only four had messed with Joe’s memories, blurring the faces of the men she used to bring home, smudging even her own features. There was the odd photo but Joe didn’t think any of them looked much like he remembered her. Thinking about it now, they should probably have been encouraged to talk more about her. Wasn’t that what they’d do with kids like that today? Keep them talking to work through the memories?
They wouldn’t let David park, jumping out where the taxis wait, telling him they’d be back at 5pm. The air felt damp although it wasn’t raining. Seagulls squawked overhead. Joe glanced up, watching one dive for a sandwich crust lying on the street.
“Do you want a tea? I want a tea,” Jack said. “Come on. We’ve got ages to kill.”
Joe trailed after him.
Neither boy would admit they were nervous but Joe could see his brother chewing the edge of his polystyrene cup as they stood under the station clock.
She was late. Five minutes. Ten minutes.
“Typical,” Jack grunted.
“Yeah, right.” Joe rocked from foot to foot, getting cold despite his zipped up hoody. “But she’ll come, won’t she?”
It was too loud to hear the hands tick but Joe imagined each second like a slap from the back of her hairbrush.
Until, who was that? Hair dyed a bleak black, jeans blue and ripped, her sweatshirt hanging low down her thighs. On her back, an oversized rucksack stuffed tight with something red poking out of the top. She approached slowly, her pale forehead furrowed, her thin lips pressing together. Joe stared. Was there something familiar about how her fingers pushed back her overgrown fringe ?
The three of them stood there, no one getting too close.
Slap, slap, slap, ticked the clock.
The boys glared at their shoes, Joe glancing across to her trainers, which were nondescript Nikes, the type JD Sports sold cheap in the sales like the ones they usually wore.
“You came.” She sounded unsure, despite the proof. It was chilly for early May but she suggested the beach. “We could get fish and chips, I was thinking.”
Their talk was small and stilted, the boys mainly monosyllabic as they drifted down the greying high street towards the sea. They hadn’t been to Brighton before, only Hastings to visit David’s parents.
The beach was almost deserted; the sea a dirty brown to match the pebbles. They sat in a line, Jack pelting the waves with stones. Joe felt like he might never be able to talk again.
“I was too young. Like just a girl, really. Barely older then you now, Jack. You know that, don’t you? And my mum didn’t want to know. She kicked me out, I had nothing. I fucked up, right?”
Joe wondered why she was bothering.
“And your dads. The fuckers. God knows where they are now. Or the others. But David’s alright, yeah? He kept you. He must be. I couldn’t, like… I couldn’t do it. You weren’t safe. That’s what they said. And when Jack fell….”
Joe barely remembered. Just more strangers and his brother disappearing for weeks, it had felt.
She reached for her backpack, struggling with the drawstring neck before pulling out a bright red skateboard. “Here. This is for you. Jack always wanted one, remember? Jack?”
It lay like a gash across the pebbles.
There had been fish and chips after that, eaten on a bench with chip-shop forks, the hot potato burning Joe’s tongue, and the arcades on the pier. And later, the photo. She had insisted, hoisting her jeans up to hew knees and wading into the sea to take it, swearing at the shock of the water and the pain of the stones. “Smile,” she’d said. They hadn’t. Jack wasn’t even looking at her, he hadn’t even touched the skateboard, leaving Joe to lug it around all afternoon.
More stories had followed, tumbling haltingly out of her. Men who had made broken promises. Grotty flats in London, Brighton, nothing that had lasted. She’d stopped herself having any more kids, she had needed them to know that. Back at the station, an awkward embrace; her body fragile in her sons’ arms.
It was only two weeks after that that the news came she was dead.
Jack never did touch the skateboard but Joe had hung onto it, boxing it up each time he moved.