When the Sun is at its Highest
This will be our last holiday before Justin leaves for Massachusetts. He won a scholarship at MIT to study advanced computer science, yet you wouldn’t know he was a boffin from the way he acts.
He is sprawled on the sand, naked, thumbing through my dog-eared copy of Hamlet, his denim shirt draped over his head; his skin crusted with a layer of baked sand and seawater. I watch him from my place on the dune. The first time I met my step-brother, he was fifteen and still wore a chain clipped to his jeans pocket, although he wasn’t my step-brother then. He was just the son of my dad’s girlfriend.
Earlier, when the sun was at its highest, we swam through the waves to cool off. Gaggles of kids paddled in the shallows and the sand was crowded with windbreakers. Now, the beach is all but empty.
I was the one charged with fetching the extra Budweisers from the cottage fridge. It’s called a cottage, but it’s more of a chalet, purposely built for holiday-makers. The guest book in the hall has an entry signed by David Bowie, but I don’t think he’s ever stayed in Mullion. It’s a stunted fishing village for the tourists who can’t afford St. Ives. We’ve been here five and a half days already. Sunbathing and drinking beers is really all there is to do. Our parents have gone out to a show at the Minack theatre and won’t be back until late.
I’m not sure if Justin can see me, but I like watching him. He is on his stomach, propped up on his elbows. A folded cushion provides a barrier from the rough Marram grass. He has stopped pretending to read and tugs at a tuft of grass instead. It doesn’t take much to free the roots from the sandy soil. Discarding a clump of dirt over his shoulder, Justin clamps the selected blade between his palms and blows hard to create sound. There is a wet farting noise, but nothing more.
‘Quit your sniggering, Little Fry,’ Justin says, spitting into the sand. Being spotted, I step back sending a flurry of loose pebbles down the bank. The bottles clink in my fist.
‘Wherefore art my refreshments thine busty sister?’
‘The deal was that if you retrieve them then you may have one.’
‘And I let you watch me for a good five minutes.’
I make a show of lobbing the Bud at him, but don’t let go. Then, I sit and shimmy the rest of the way down the dune holding the bottles above my head.
‘I wasn’t watching you,’ I say.
‘So you don’t want my body?’
Justin stands up. I make an effort not to move or look away. He comes towards me sideways, in a crablike motion, and then when he’s close enough he switches to front-facing—his body blocking my path. We are stuck in a game of chicken. He performs a kind of naked tribal dance that is something like a Hakka with jazz hands, and with every movement, he edges forward.
I notice that his dick seems to waggle independently. It lollops around in anti-clockwise circles and then up and down. Justin doesn’t speak, but mouths sound with his lips fully rounded— hoot, hoot. I stand my ground. He is so close I could trace the plum-coloured veins that run the length of the shaft. The dick itself is small and the tip is darker than the rest of his skin. Justin mimes controlling his dick with a fishing line: he pulls at the invisible thread and the thing jerks about like crazy and then relaxes.
He moves so that our bodies meet. We’re facing each other, but I keep my arms by my side, resisting his hug. His dick is resting against the waist of my bikini bottoms. I burrow my toes into the sand. Someway along the coastal path, I can see a walker beckoning his dog and for a moment I think he might be heading in the direction of the beach. Justin’s breathing is laboured and we both stay still. I try to focus on the dog as it weaves through the gorse bushes that line the cliff’s edge. Justin moves away; he turns and heads across to a cluster of rocks that jut out from the cliff on our right. He doesn’t look at me.
Left alone, I wander down to the shoreline. Making sure to move in the opposite direction to Justin, I stand and throw pebbles into the surf. Drawing my elbow in, I catapult each one away from my chest making sure to flick my wrist before releasing it. I select the flattest ones like Justin taught me — he said they’re best for skimming. Most of them fail. On my fifth throw, one makes it over a wave, but only skips twice and then drops into the water. I watch as the ripples of foam around the splash dissipate to nothing.
Long after I’ve grown bored of skipping stones, I feel Justin’s grip on my shoulder. Without waiting for my reaction, he leads me over to the rocks. He’s still naked. As he walks in front of me, I count the notches of his spinal-cord until I reach his coccyx.
‘Come rock-pooling with me?’ he says.
As we draw closer to the pools, I can see the pile of limpets that he’s already pried off the largest rock with his penknife, their suction-cups still pulsing.
‘That’s gross,’ I say.
‘You used to collect shrimps in that pink bucket with the hole.’
‘You made that hole.’
‘That’s slander,’ he says shifting his hand to my waist. ‘Look, I’m sorry. Let’s have a beer and hunt for hermit crabs.’
‘I don’t want another beer.’
‘Sure you do,’ he says.
There’s a long pause and looking out to the ocean I can tell that the tide is coming in, soon there won’t be any rock-pools left to fish.
Justin points to the water. An empty periwinkle shell is being sounded out by a crab. It scurries beneath some seaweed and then back to the shell, feeling all the time with its antenna.
‘See it?’ Justin asks.
He’s crouching and tugs me down to his level. We both watch the crab as it swaps shells, its soft spiraling abdomen is exposed for a second before the whole creature retreats into its new home.
'Can I come and visit you in America?’
When the words come out they don’t sound like my own: they seem to hang in the humid air above the rock-pool. We’re kneeling side by side. Justin doesn’t reply, but dips his hand into the pool and tracks a line of seawater from my bellybutton to my breast-plate. I let his fingers hover there for a moment before brushing him away. He resists and then relaxes. I look back at the rock-pool, speckled shrimps dart across the sand, and the crab has disappeared.
Beside me Justin gets up, his knees are imprinted with patterns from the rock, he opens his mouth to say something and closes it again, and then finally, he walks back up towards the dunes.
At the shoreline, my toes make imprints in the damp sand as I wait for the tide to ebb closer. From behind me, I hear the opening bars of Rock 'n' Roll Suicide playing through Justin’s portable speakers —even though I prefer Starman—I know every word. He used to play the album on loop whenever he came back from his friends. In our old house, Justin’s room was across the hall from mine and with my door open I could see when the downstairs lights clicked on. He used to take the stairs two at a time. If he noticed me watching, he would beckon me over and we’d sit listening together on his bed. I could tell when he was stoned. Sometimes, at the lines he thought meaningful, he’d repeat them and kiss my forehead allowing me to inhale his heady scent of sweet, stale smoke and washing powder.
The second time Justin wails a chorus of ‘You’re not alone,’ I know it’s for my benefit. I don’t acknowledge it, but instead pick up a pile of sand and stones, and hurl them into the sea. The debris rains down and hits the water at different speeds. Each pebble makes a sound like the fizz of a blown bulb. It acts as percussion for the song that Justin has stopped singing.
Keely O'Shaughnessy grew up in the rural Devon countryside, she has been an editor at 101Words.com and is currently a reader for Flash Fiction Magazine. She has an undergraduate and post-graduate degree in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Gloucestershire.
Cover photo: "Justin Reading" by Lady Edna Clarke Hall