September Salt

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In with the New

Chapter Fifteen: In with the New

JOEY

Freddie’s fingers were on my face, and they were cold.

Freddie’s lips were on my lips, and they were cider, and they were salt, and they were cold.

Freddie’s tongue didn’t wait long before it was in my mouth, grazing my own, and it was more cider, and salt, and pizza, and the ocean, and not all that cold, but more so than mine.

More cold.

And it was after I realised all this that I noticed my eyes were closed. A hand was raking past my ear, through my hair—growing out—cradling. Another slipping between arm and waist, settling on lower back—arching in—gripping skin-tight material and pulling forward. Slow heat (impossible though that might have seemed) pooled as frigid fingers found the nape of my neck. Shivers tumbled down my spine, and I found my lips parting wider, gasp escaping, and how the hell did this begin?

F-fuck. Joey.” He sighed into my mouth, and I could feel the fuck too. Felt it like a shiver in my very core; barest of bones, because I opened my eyes then, but could only manage to lift the lids half way. His hair had a way of gathering to form rivers down his face, wet waves determined in their downwards spiral. This close, Freddie had what looked like faded freckles, just three, scalene, between the bridge of his nose and his right eye.

No. My eyebrows snaked closer together even as my eyes slipped shut again. Fuck, stop, “I-”

I lifted my own hands to his chest, meaning to push away, but shit; my fingers were ice, and they found warmth trapped between both of our beating hearts as Freddie crushed us closer.

It was different.

Different to kissing Courtney—made plainly obvious when his hands, so much larger than hers in my hair, held me tighter—hands were different. He ground his hips, dick, more specifically, against mine, and I recoiled having released an unexpected groan.

Freddie froze, and then he detangled himself from me, movements stiff. My heart jammed in my chest as our eyes met briefly, and my right hand whipped over my sore mouth, covering the guilty candidate. Fuck that groan. Fuck the fact that it had only partly been out of panic, because the other half of that fucked up sound was pleasure.

“I’m sorry,” Freddie whispered.

I didn’t reply as I sank down into the sea, eyes tight shut. The wetsuit did nothing to hide any possible evidence of the fact that I might have enjoyed what we’d just done, but the water could.

The cold water would.

That hadn’t just happened.

Fuck that.

I scoffed and shook my head, lowering it into the sea so that I could be completely submerged—if only forever. Fuck that. That was how this shit began. Mrs fucking White and her fucking lesson—

My head rose just above the surface again as my teeth began to chatter. Freddie was on the shore, walking jerkily towards Curtis and Jay, both looking as if they were fully dressed, and anywhere but in our direction.

I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t walk out there- what the hell was I going to say? They’d just seen everything, and right after all that shit Curtis had said too.

All the shit I’d said.

I’d reacted positively.

Courtney could say whatever the fuck she wanted now—how the hell could I reply knowing what I’d done- and enjoyed?

When I finally rose, it was less to do with having readied myself mentally, and more to do with the fact that I was losing sensation in parts of my body that I still valued the use of.

I also soon understood why Freddie had walked as he did; even though I could have sworn my feet were numb with cold, upon taking a step I found that tiny explosions of pain were working their hardest to convince me otherwise. Reaching the sand didn’t help, but cursing did (psychologically, at least), and I staggered my way to the hut, expletives murmured all the way. I hadn’t wanted to look at any of them, much less speak, planning to hurry into the beach hut and change before mumbling my goodbyes and leaving.

“There’s a Uni party, Saturday night,” Curtis said as I hobbled nearer. I’d been fully prepared to ignore the statement, fairly sure that I was not the one being addressed, but then he followed it up with Freddie’s name, and mine.

I glanced at him, shocked. He was smoking another cigarette, leaning against his hut, legs crossed at the ankles. Jay was lying down, arms supporting his head, and Freddie was hopping up and down next to him, trying to get his Converse on.

“I don’t think I can make it,” I told him, just as Freddie got his left foot in.

He said, “Maybe,” and moved onto the next one. He didn’t even look at me. I averted my eyes.

Curtis raised an eyebrow, but I offered him a smile of some sort and motioned to the hut. “I’ll just change and then disappear.”

“With those feet?” Jay laughed. I probably would have blushed if my face wasn’t frozen. “Curtis can give you a lift home. Can’t you, Curt?”

I didn’t want to agree—I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being stuck in a car next to Freddie, even if it would only take about ten minutes to get to mine. But my feet were killing me.

“Thanks,” was all I could say, then I stepped into the hut and changed with great difficulty.

Curtis turned the car on five minutes before we all got in, having pity on Freddie and I, so after we’d packed everything in, we piled in ourselves and it was toasty.

So fucking good.

There was only space for two in the back though, considering the fact that one seat had been folded to cater to the surf boards in the boot, so Freddie and I were closer than I’d hoped we’d be. Not that it seemed to matter to him. He kept his face towards the right window, unless he was speaking to Jay or Curtis. After I gave them the directions to my place I remained silent. I huddled up by the door of the car and stared despondently out of my own.

I couldn’t even entertain myself with that; it was so dark that, whenever I looked out of the window, it acted as a mirror. I was only looking at myself, image occasionally interrupted by street lamp lights that took the place of stars.

Physically, I’d barely changed since I was a kid- besides the obvious areas. Everything about me was round, plain, and average, whether it was my 5ft6 (or was 7?) height, my undefined build, or my unremarkable features. Too scared to stand out. My face, my nose, my pale blue eyes. Lips couldn’t be called thick or thin. Hair short, blonde, but growing out in inches. Even my ears, on the way to sticking out, had seemed to get cold feet half way through the process.

I winced and attempted to wiggle my toes.

No good.

But who was it? Both were blonde as I was. My father’s face was round—that was mine. But his ears stuck out, characteristically, mum had always said, and his lips were fuller, and his nose tilted downwards where mine tilted up. Mum’s face was angular, her ears petite, her lips so thin –but always ready to stretch into a smile- and her nose tilted up, though it wasn’t quite so round, and her eyes… Well, they were mine.

He was a coward, and she was strong.

And they had made me, and I was lukewarm.

You needed him to be a hero!” she’d shouted, and then as I’d pushed past her and descended the stairs, “You both put these pressures on yourself that nobody is holding you to- you need to love yourself, Joey!

Love myself? Who said I didn’t? And what the fuck did that have to do with what he had done? Except for the fact that if he hadn’t left us behind, it might have been easier to do so—

Bullshit.

I was making up fucking bullshit now- but so was she. What pressures? And how did my not loving myself now relate to the fact that my father had killed himself ten years ago?

“Joey?”

I looked up. Freddie was looking at me, as were Curtis and Jay, who was twisting in his seat to blink at me.

“We’re here now,” Freddie continued.

I looked outside of the window and squinted. So we were. “Thanks,” I said.

Curtis offered me a friendly quirk of his lips. “It was cool meeting you.”

“And it will be cooler seeing you at the party on Saturday.” Jay smiled in a feline way that I hadn’t imagined could sit on his face so perfectly. I could only offer an evasive sound in return as I opened the door and got the fuck out of there.

As soon as I shut the front door behind me, I could hear mum’s footsteps on the landing above, and then she was stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at me.

I could think of nothing to say. “I’m going to have a shower,” was what I decided on.

“You’re wet,” she said.

I repeated, “I’m going to have a shower.”

Mum disappeared after a moment of silence, and I blinked at the space she had just been stood in. Thought, that’s not like her, but then frowned. Neither was lying to me, but she’d done that for the last ten years. What the fuck did I know? And I climbed the stairs, taking them two at a time. Before I reached the top, however, my mum reappeared, a beige towel in hand, and a quiver in her bottom lip.

And I felt like an absolute arsehole.

Was one.

She met me halfway, and she placed the towel on my hand, then left it there. I raised it to start rubbing my hair dry as she took the other one and lead me to her room.

The pictures I’d scattered in my absentminded rage had been gathered together and placed on one side of the bed—my father’s, I now realised.

She’d kept to the same side as she always had; always slept on the left.

I’d been looking through his drawers.

Mum sat on her end of the bed and patted the space beside her. I sat, and before I could voice the apology I wanted to make, her hands were rubbing the towel against my hair gently, but firmly.

I decided that she already knew.

“You’re so cold, Joe,” she murmured. I didn’t feel that cold anymore. My previously numb limbs were tingling with appreciation at the current room temperature.

“I’m fine. Honestly.”

“Of course you are,” she sighed. “You swam in the sea, as if you’re a bloody mad man.”

“I surfed too,” I told her, unconcerned by the disapproving tone of her voice. The towel over my head paused, then fell away. Her eyes were wide.

“Lord above, why? How?”

“I ran into a friend.”

She pulled the towel into her lap and sniffed. “Whatever the case, this is pointless. You’ll need to wash your hair and have a shower.”

“I think I already told you that,” I began, tone on the border of teasing. She smiled back, sadly.

“First things first.”

My father’s name was Jack Michael Hartman. I knew this, of course, but my mum was miles away, lost in her consciousness, and I didn’t want to interrupt. He had been depressed since he was nineteen years old, but it hadn’t been common knowledge. His parents had known, his best friend had suspected, and that was it—until my mum had found out a few years later.

She’d known him since he was twenty (and she was sixteen), and she said you’d never have been able to tell. He was popular, charismatic, funny and he looked alright. A guy couldn’t ask for anything more. That was what he’d always told himself, but he still wasn’t satisfied.

It was all fleeting, to him. It lacked substance and meaning. He wanted something real, and something of his alone. Amidst it all, and despite how it may have seemed, Jack was lonely. His parents were well-meaning, but not always successfully so, and Jack decided that that was what he was missing; family. He wanted one of his own.

He had met my mum when she was sixteen. He’d been twenty, living with his best friend, Read, but mere months later Read had started spending more and more time at his girlfriend’s place, and soon enough, Jack was, more or less, living alone. He didn’t particularly like living alone.

Mum and dad rarely saw each other, but whenever they did he always had a kind, or flirty, word for her, and a joke to tell. They met again, three years later, in a pub. Mum was out with a group of her friends from work (“A call centre, at the time. Horrible. Hated it”), and dad had just started at the local fire station, so he was celebrating with Read and his girlfriend (“Who’s name I just cannot remember. They got married though. They had a little girl, not long after we had you”).

When they saw each other (and here mum blushed, eyes misting over), it was honestly like nobody else existed. Their friends were forgotten as they caught up (as she’d moved out of the flat she’d lived in with her parents a few months before), and they joked about their jobs, and they spoke about life, and they spoke about love. About family—wanting large ones, a lot of kids, as they were both only children, and then (mum blushed again, harder) the drink did what drink does and he took her home with him.

She started seeing him once a week, twice a week, three. They were very different—she more quiet than he was, he more idealistic than she, but that difference broke down a wall that neither knew they’d contained –built up—before. They each brought to the other something new, and something they didn’t want to let go of.

The day mum found out about dad, they hadn’t seen each other for a week. Really, it was nothing, but the way they’d been going of late, she’d missed him. A lot. And he’d missed her too.

They’d been dating seriously for just under six months, and it was a Sunday. She’d popped over to her parents’ for a roast, made excuses to avoid Mass later on, and instead decided that it would be rude, really, not to poke her head round Jack’s (“Though I never saw reason to do the same for my parents whenever I saw him. Funny, that”).

He didn’t reply when she knocked on the door, but she had a key. He didn’t reply when she called out either, after stepping inside, and guessing that he must not be home, she made herself a cup of tea and went to the living room with the thought that, if she finished it before he came back, she’d go.

The cup never touched her lips.

The living room was connected to a small balcony that Jack often stood on, thinking and smoking cosmopolitan nights away.

My mum wasn’t (and still is not) a practising Catholic (to the dismay of her parents), but on that Sunday afternoon she prayed hard to God, Jesus and Mary Magdalene as her teacup fell from her hands and broke almost effortlessly just before her, kitten-heeled toes splashed by milk-less Earl Grey.

The sliding doors were wide open, and my father was hunched over in a corner of the balcony, trying to throw a leg over. Only alcohol and an exhaustion that mum had always pinned down to his depression contested his intention—to topple over the edge and die.

Mum said it was stress— “A kind of restlessness.” But that was what she thought. He had no idea, and grew all the more frustrated and agitated not knowing where the source of the problem in his head lay—and why it was that a cloud of emotion so malevolent liked to follow him and, worse, affect him so strongly when he was the big, tough bloke that he was- or should have been.

They spoke that afternoon, until night fell and morning came. Mum couldn’t remember what about, beyond the obvious, but it must have been good, she said, because that following week he arranged for her to meet his parents, and a mere month later they were engaged.

Five months after that, they were married, and not quite a year on, I showed up.

He was happy. He could not have been more so. Mum said it had been his idea to have me named with his initials, and so I became Joseph Martin, and he was chuffed. He talked about how he’d take care of me. The things he’d teach me, the places we’d go—and then, one day, he simply fell off the edge again. Metaphorically speaking.

Something mum hadn’t been aware of was that firefighters did not only deal with the fire around London, they also dealt with the bodies of those who leapt in front of trains. The underground.

Something my father hadn’t been aware of was that seeing the barely recognisable body of a seventeen year old would be too much for him to handle.

He had some sort of breakdown. His workplace granted him a couple of weeks to recover, but those were not enough. The resting period became more permanent, as did his mental state.

He sank further into his depression. He wasn’t providing anymore, and barely stepped out of the house. Thought himself a bad husband, a bad father, and a bad friend.

“It doesn’t matter that you’re imperfect, just that you are,” mum had told him. “That you are here with us.” And sometimes it would settle him. Sometimes it would not. When he eventually started seeing a psychiatrist, he felt weakened by the fact.

Mum decided a change of scenery might help. No more fire brigades in the area seemed to be hiring, and she thought that best anyway, so she looked elsewhere. Finally, she found a seaside town in Dorset with an opening that looked lovely, and a job for dad at a local brigade. She picked a house (never having been able to feel at peace in a flat since that Sunday on the balcony), and they moved down here with a nineteen month old baby in tow.

It wasn’t as alright as mum thought it would be.

Years went by, and, sometimes, everything seemed as though it was alright. It was never the same, but mum had given up expecting that it would be. Despite Jack—dad—enjoying his job, he still fell victim to poisonous thoughts more and more often. Nothing anybody said could bring him around. He loved me to death- that’s what he said. But even I didn’t seem to raise his mood anymore.

There was a huge fire in town—a block of flats. Mum remembered worrying he’d gotten caught up in it somehow.

He never came back from that one.

“How? Mum. What did he do?”

She didn’t want to tell me. The hesitation was obvious, not just in the tone of her voice, or the hitch of her breath, but in her rigid actions too.

“He overdosed on pills. That’s what the hospital said. Someone found him near the gardens in town the next day, thought he was homeless.” Mum’s hands were shaking, and when I took them into my own, the tremble became mine too. “It was too late. He was gone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“There is nothing you should be sorry for.”

“I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with it alone. That isn’t fair.”

Mum shook her head. “I could have told you. That’s my own fault.” There was a momentary quiet, and then her hand squeezed mine. She smiled. “It’s over now. It’s been over for a while.”

“What did you mean by my needing him to be a hero?”

Mum stood up. She rewrapped her dressing gown and looked down at me.

“You’ve never believed yourself capable of doing anything. Even as a kid you doubted yourself on the constant.” Mum shuffled closer to me and placed her hands on my cheeks, raising my head as she wiped dry the liquid leaking from my left eye. “You looked to your father or to Ryan for everything. You look to me. You didn’t seem comfortable—well, ever. I… I imagined if you thought your father one, you’d believe the same of yourself.”

“But it isn’t the truth.” I muttered. “Turns out we’re both as weak as each other.”

Mum flinched, and then her hands dropped from my face. I think she’d have smacked out at me if she could—it’s she’d had a little less control. Anger and disappointment were so evident in her eyes. I felt both sorry and bitterly raw.

“You’ve missed the entire point. Your father was clinically depressed. He needed help that I—” her voice was fragile glass and her throat a clumsy hand, closing tightly around it. “I did not know how to provide. You are strong. You have the potential and every bloody opportunity in the damn world, Joey. And it disgusts me that you settle so easily into cowardice. You don’t try.”

That was enough of a slap to the face as she turned to walk out, but she left me with even more before walking out of the room.

“Fucking pull yourself together.

I think I needed that.

Anger didn’t often touch my mum the way it did just then. I was in shock among her and my father’s things in her bedroom. And then later in the shower. And then sleepless in my bed.

Eventually, other thoughts filtered through.

FREDDIE

My head was pounding, and the bags under my eyes were as heavy as the ones on my shoulders. The night had been hell—not only because of my own foolish unthought-out action towards Joey, or because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not only because Curtis had asked what had happened between us and I had no answer, nor because Jay murmured that Joey was really cute. Not only because I could also feel my body already succumbing to the common cold and a sea of regret.

My father had fallen dangerously ill in my absence, and I'd watched the ambulance scream its way down the street as I turned onto it.

Lou slept in my room that night, and cried her way through it. Nothing I could do or say consoled her, but I held her tight the whole time anyway, ignoring my own aches.


END; Volume 1
September Salt
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