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The Most Interesting Day of My Summer Holidays by Ernest Golden

Ernest was wakened by a thought. It hung in the darkness over the foot of his bed, a fragment torn from the grey skirts of morning draped over the chest of drawers, his toy box and the open bedroom door. A horse clip-clopped down the hill and he heard the rag-and-bone man sing “Any-old-iron.” A tram clanged over on Donaldson Avenue. A motor car hummed past the window on rubber tyres and a yellow square departed from the window frame to shuttle about the room where the walls met the ceiling.

Then he remembered the thought. It wasn’t his birthday, but he had been very good lately. He jumped out of bed on the spur of the thought, quickly, before his courage withered. He did not stop to put on his slippers but passed through the door and down the long, black hall as swiftly and silently as an elf, into the sitting room. Darkness squatted in the corners and it was stiller than outdoors. If he turned on a light his parents might wake up. Ernest curled up in his armchair by the window, tucking his bare feet under him, and waited for the daylight.

Nothing happened for a long time. Then there was a thin noise scraping up the pavement. In the light of the street lamp Ernest saw a big boy in a worn blue leather jacket coming towards him, rattling a stick on the railings. The boy was coming from below Norman Street. Ernest could not cross Norman Street by himself. He could go left outside of his house as far as the avenue, or he could cross over to Muriel’s and Jack’s in the other direction, or up the hill as far as the park. He went there sometimes with Father to ride on the swings but he could not go inside the park by himself. Down the hill he could go only as far as the sweet shop on the corner where he got his football cards. Sometimes he had seen the big bad boys standing on the opposite corner. Twice he had seen them cross Norman Street and go into his sweet shop and he had gone back up his street where it was safer. Once he had seen them take a small boy’s football cards. They loved to make fun of small boys and they might even kill one if he didn’t keep out of their way.

Somewhere below Norman Street was where the Teddy Boys lived. Mother had told him about the Teddy Boys and Ernest had been on the lookout for them. He could close his eyes and see them coming out of their cave laughing and shoving and calling loudly to each other. Maybe they would carry clubs. Surely they would kill any small boy in their path. They were called Teddy Boys because they lived in caves like bears.

When his mother came into the living room she found Ernest on his hands and knees peering under the sofa, his bare soles sticking our from under his dressing gown with the pictures of Noddies on it. He was too ashamed to tell her what he had been waiting for. At the end of his radio programme, Uncle Mac always told kids where to find surprises under the furniture in the morning. He had never told Ernest where to look, but he looked almost every morning as soon as it was light enough. It would be a shame to leave a present lying under the sofa for days. But he had never found anything except some of his own marbles. Maybe the cleaning woman found them and took them.

Mother was happy today and they had breakfast together on the balcony. Ernest liked to eat there on summer mornings with the sun warming the table and making his eyes squint. Mother put on the white dress he liked best of all. She looked pretty with her bare brown arms, and she would wear her big straw hat with the flower on it. He knew it was going to be a wonderful day. And tomorrow his father was going to take him to watch the toy yachts race in the lake in the park.

Uncle Tom’s car was dark green and had an extra metal tyre on the boot. It was Ernest’s job to stand on the corner of Donaldson Avenue and Tudor Street and keep a lookout for it, while Mother window-shopped. But she never bought anything.

In the newspaper at the newsagents, there was a big picture of a man sitting in a car and in big black letters, ‘The Mad Axeman’. Mother said he was a bad man, and to go back to the corner and look for Uncle Tom’s car. It was dark green and had a metal tyre on the boot, but Mother always saw it first.

A new bucket and spade for Ernest were on the back seat of Uncle Tom’s car. Uncle Tom was nice because he always brought a present, but he was not nice because he did not talk much to Ernest. On the way to the beach, at a roundabout, they stopped next to a man in an old car. The man looked at him. It was the Mad Axeman. Ernest told Mother. The man saw him pointing. The man looked as though he were going to pick an axe off the seat of his car. But Mother just laughed, and Uncle Tom drove them safely away. Ernest kept a lookout at the back window all the way to the beach, but he didn’t see the car anymore. He saw four other cars with Teddy Boys in them. Was the Mad Axeman the leader of the Teddy Boys?

They walked about ten miles down the beach until the last umbrella was just an orange speck in the distance behind them. Ernest had to put his sandals on because the sand scorched his feet. This was the lonely part of the beach, but Ernest liked it best. If the Teddy Boys came you could see them a long way off, and you would have time to run and hide in the tall dune grass.

The water was further out than Ernest had ever seen it before. He took his new bucket and spade, and Mother told him to wear his shirt because he didn’t want to get sunburned again. Down where the pebbles ended he took off his sandals and walked across the hard-packed sand. It was cool between his toes. There were little squirts of water from animals buried in the sand. They lived in shells and had no claws, but you could not catch them no matter how fast you dug.

At the edge of the water Ernest sat down and began to build a sand castle with his new bucket and spade. This was a castle in which a beautiful princess was held captive. She wore a white dress and she was a sea shell. She had been locked up by a bad ogre twenty-five years ago. The walls of the castle had turrets which were guarded by the Teddy Boys. The Mad Axeman was the ogre. He lived with his moll in a little bungalow in front of the main gate where two dragons were kept chained in the yard.

The castle was surrounded by a moat full of little pieces of black shell which were poisonous cockroaches. On top of the castle was a blockhouse where the princess was kept chained up and a high tower where the Mad Axeman went up with a telescope to keep a lookout for his enemies coming across the plain. He kept a pile of seaweed on a ledge around the tower to throw down at his enemies. If it touched you it would turn you to salt. Ernest placed the seaweed carefully on the ledge with his spade without touching it with his fingers.

He was too hot in his shirt. He stood up. He could see the beach things way up on the sand near the dunes, but he could not see Mother and Uncle Tom. He decided it would be all right if he took off his shirt for a little while.

Ernest mounted his white horse and approached the castle along a ditch he had dug so that the ogre could not spot him from the tower. He parked his horse under a hill and burrowed up through the sand to spy. He could hear the princess singing. The ogre was dropping seaweed on some of his men who were asleep at their posts. A small wave lapped against the first outer wall on the seaward side of the castle.

Then the prince had a plan. He would call up a storm from the ocean to destroy the castle. Then, while the Mad Axeman and the Teddy Boys were trying to patch up the walls, he would throw his spade across the moat, and dash in and save the princess.

He dug a long trench out to where the water was and waited, squinting into the glare of the sun on the sea. Finally the waves began their slow attack. The outer walls were breached, one by one. The waves spilled into the moat. The cockroaches were trapped by cave-ins. Now the waves hammered at the main walls of the castle. A whole section of wall slid into the ocean. Around came a repair crew of Teddy Boys. Some of the Teddy Boys, who were mussel shells, were washed overboard. The Mad Axeman, a dead sand crab, came to investigate. The waters met around the castle and the Mad Axeman’s moll, a chunk of green bottle glass, was drowned in her cottage. The dragons, two charred bits of stick, were carried out to sea. The Teddy Boys retreated to the Mad Axeman’s lookout tower and began building new walls, leaving the princess alone in the crumbling blockhouse. Now was the time to strike. Ernest laid his spade across the moat.

The bottle cap that was the prince had disappeared. His horse, a bit of frayed white plastic, was gone, too. The hill and the ditch had been flattened by the tide. The blockhouse fell, and the princess with it. A giant wave broke over the castle, drenching Ernest. The Mad Axeman lay buried in the smooth ruins, one rigid claw beckoning from the sand.

Ernest stood up stiffly. The sun was too hot on his shoulders. Mother would be angry and he would have to sleep on his stomach tonight. He found his shirt and put it on even though it was wet and full of sand. He was hungry. It must be time for lunch. The hard sand he had walked across was pocked with shallow puddles. Beyond, waves rippled between Ernest and the beach. The dunes had moved about a mile up to the sea. The surf was now breaking above the pebbles, almost up to the striped beach towels. Mother and Uncle Tom were not there. The orange umbrella they had passed was gone. The beach was empty.

The sun had started downhill. It was way past lunchtime. You could not see the line where the sky met the sea. The miles of empty waves crowded in upon him, dying frothing at his feet. But a few yards on either side of him, they rolled on past to slap angrily at the dunes. He was marooned on a low, flat island of muddy sand. Its boundaries were shrinking as surely as the little castle had sunk into the ocean. The castle was now a memory, a smoothed mound revealed by each receding wave, but quickly drowned by the next.

Ernest called for his mother. He didn’t call for Uncle Tom. For one, it was an embarrassing thing to shout. For another, Uncle Tom would laugh and make fun of him as he came striding out through the water to pluck him from the waves. He really wasn’t very nice.

Ernest called five times for his mother. Then he began to walk across the flats, jumping over the little rivers of water where he could, splashing through the larger lakes. He was a giant in a flooded countryside. In one place the water came halfway to his knees.

Ernest stopped at the edge of the deep channel separating him from the beach. Here was a real moat. Sharp-fanged fish and poisonous reptiles might lurk beneath its choppy waters, and there was no drawbridge to span it. He called five more times, as loudly as he could. The birds on the flats heard him, and echoing his squeals, skimmed across the widening trench to strut and peck safely on the shore.

Then Ernest remembered his new bucket and spade. He looked behind him and saw only open sea. He ran back, splashing through knee-deep water, veering off in a new direction each time the bottom sloped downwards. He could not find the place he had come from. The new bucket and spade were lost.

Ernest hurried back towards the beach. The dented landscape the giant trod was now treacherously obscured. Twice the waves pushed him to his knees, soaking him. He could tell he had reached the edge of the moat only because that was where the white horses were rearing. He stopped and called five more times. The sea tugged at his knees.

No one came. Now the birds flew off, chattering without concern. He would have to cross the deep water by himself now or he would drown with the Mad Axeman and the others. He took one step forward, fearful for crabs underfoot and keeping a sharp lookout for fins breaking the surface of the tossing waters. The sea slapped at his chest.

Two more steps and a wave splashed over his shoulders. He hesitated, and his feet were grasped from behind and the green water seized him round the head, blinding his eyes with brine. The ocean floor came up to scrape his face and forearms, and the waves pressed him down, rolling him about, forcing deep swallows of salty water down his throat. Far above, through burning eyes, he glimpsed white breakers. Then somehow, he was up again, coughing, sputtering and running forward in slow motion.

The ground fell away and he shot straight down. The tides urged him back towards the deep caverns of the ocean while his lungs swelled with vast gulps of sea water. Things tangled round his ankles.

Then the sand came up beneath his feet again, his lungs sucked air, and his legs were pushing forward. The next wave failed to throw him down, and soon he was thrashing his knees through the shallows. Crying and heaving and retching, he halted and looked behind. There was no sign in the unbroken miles of waves to mark the island he had left. He wondered what Mother would say about losing the new bucket and spade on the very day he got it.

The beach towels were wet and one of Mother’s sandals was half-buried in the damp sand. Ernest pulled all the beach things up the beach where the waves could not get at them. Had Mother and Uncle Tom been captured by the Teddy Boys? He decided to go for help. He walked along the crest of the dunes with the heavy load of beach things, the sawgrass whipping his legs, his feet disappearing into the loose sand with each step.

He found them in a sandy bowl scooped out of the dunes. They were lying close together. Uncle Tom had his arm around Mother. Ernest skidded down the slope into the little hollow. His mother and Uncle Tom sat up quickly, saluting against the sun. Ernest decided not to tell his Mother how brave he had been. She should have been watching over him.

When they got out of the bath-house Mother did a very unusual thing. She gave Ernest money of his own and sent him into the white-boarded cafe by himself to buy whatever he wanted. He had a wimpy and a lemonade and an Eccles cake. He ate it all, chewing slowly but not really enjoying it, and still there were heavy coins in his pocket. He stood in front of the sweet counter for a while, but decided he should not waste any more of Mother’s money. Afterwards he sat in Uncle Tom’s car for a long time waiting for them to come out of the other restaurant.

They were all quiet on the drive home. Ernest looked for the Teddy Boys in the cars they passed, but he didn’t see any. Nobody said anything about the bucket and spade.

He was almost too tired to walk home. He wondered why Uncle Tom never drove them to the door. Ernest tried to remember if he had ever seen Uncle Tom in their flat.

Mother reminded him to tell his father, if he should ask, that Aunt Catherine had driven them to the beach, and not to say anything about seeing Uncle Tom. She always told him this just as they had turned the corner and could see the front door of their house. Father had never asked who had taken them to the beach. Aunt Catherine never took them. Wasn’t that a lie?

Mother stopped him with her hand on his shoulder and asked him if he had heard her. He did not say anything, looking past her at the lamp post. She made him look in her eyes. Her eyes looked hurt. Then she smiled. “How would you like to stay at the beach for the whole summer?”

Ernest opened his eyes wide. “Right on the beach?”

She laughed. “No. But right nearby. In Westowe.”

Ernest loved it when Mother laughed, but he stuck out his lower lip and scuffed his shoes on the pavement. They were almost new and she wouldn’t like that. “With Uncle Tom?”

“No, but he has a boy your age you could play with.”

Ernest looked down at the rough white scars on his shoes. His mother hadn’t noticed. “I don’t like Uncle Tom,” he said.

She stopped smiling. “Remember about Aunt Catherine,” she said, but he would not say anything. She took her hand from his shoulder and walked away up the street. Ernest was sorry then. He followed along behind her, balancing on the kerbstone.

Whenever Ernest had been bad his mother let him eat jam butties for supper, or bought him ice cream or comic books, and said, “This is for being bad.” It always made him feel sorry for being bad. So, when Mother said he didn’t have to eat in the kitchen, but could put his pyjamas on and sit at his little table in his bedroom, he knew he was being punished. She cooked him fish and chips even though she and Father were having something else for dinner. He chewed his food while the sun poured through the window on his plate bringing the sounds of the children still playing hard outdoors. Ernest listened to his radio programmes. His mother was angry at him for losing his new bucket and spade.

Ernest decided to be bad. Tomorrow he would cross Norman Street by himself. He would not give Mother the change from the wimpy and the drinks and the Eccles cake unless she asked for it. He would tell his father how he had been almost drowned in the ocean because she was not there. And that Uncle Tom was with her but did not help either. And how he learned to swim and save himself. That would hurt her and make his father proud of him.

Ernest was still awake when he heard his father at the front door. His shoulders burned and he had been lying on his stomach for a long time waiting for him. It was quite dark outside. The children had stopped playing and gone home. He got out of bed and went into the living room. He could not see his father’s face in the dark but his mother’s face was touched with the light from the hallway. Her eyes were hurt because he was out of bed, being naughty.

His father hoisted him up in the air and kissed him. Ernest struggled and turned his face away from the whiskers. His father had the strong smell, and he and mother would have a fight tonight.

“I want to tell you something,” said Ernest.

His mother said, “Your father won’t be able to take you to the park tomorrow. He has to go to work.”

Ernest whined. “You promised.” He did not like the sound of his own voice.

“We’ll go next weekend,” said his father. That is what he said when he didn’t want to do something with Ernest.

“The toy sailboat races on the pond are only tomorrow,” said Ernest.

“Then we can go play football,” his father said. Ernest did not like to play football, because his father got angry at him when the ball went between his legs. “What did you want to tell me?” his father asked.

Ernest looked at his mother. He did not feel like hurting her now. “I lost my new bucket and spade,” he said. But that wasn’t what he really wanted to tell him. It was a kind of lie, instead.

His father laughed. “That’s all right,” he said. “I’ll buy you another one.”

His father carried him back to bed and kissed him again with the strong smell. His mother came too and kissed him without saying anything and pulled the pink sheet up.

The strong smell woke Ernest. It was the same smell that came out of Cromarty’s in Westowe if you passed it and the doors were open. Someone was sitting on his bed. His father.

“I’m sorry about tomorrow,” he said. Then, “What was it you really wanted to tell me?” Ernest pretended he was asleep. He could not hate his mother now. If his father asked he would lie and say they had gone to the beach with Aunt Catherine. “Was it something about your mother?” Ernest squeezed his eyes tighter. His bed creaked and the mattress rose, his bedroom door opened and closed and the strong smell was gone. He could hear them shouting in the living room. He heard a loud slap. Then a crash. His mother screamed. His father was killing his mother. Ernest should go and stop him. But she had not come to save him at the beach. He did not move. He would try to see how long he could lie there without moving a muscle. Through the closed door he could her his mother sobbing.

Later, he smelled her perfume. Through the sobs her voice said, “You told him, didn’t you?” Ernest kept his eyes shut, so he could believe he was dreaming. His mother left without kissing him. The door opened and closed again and her fragrance was gone. The shouting began again.

The street outside was busy with traffic now. Ernest lay with his eyes open watching the yellow squares from the lights of the motor cars march around the corners of the room where the walls met the ceiling. He would not tell them how brave he had been. He decided he would not look for presents under the furniture anymore. Uncle Mac would never call his name. He would become bad. He would change his name to Teddy. If anybody ever left anything under the furniture for Ernest it would stay there forever and never be found, like his new bucket and spade.