The tide was coming in at Tynemouth and the water-logged sand reflected the cold blue sun, dazzling the handful of hardy dog walkers trudging up the beach, wrapped tightly against the wind. Their dogs ran and leapt and barked at the sea, which crashed and rolled as it advanced.
Jonah and I ran down the steps to Long Sands clutching 99 cones and giggling at the absurdity of eating ice cream in winter. Turns out he’s a southerner too. I’ve lived here most of my life but still can’t get my head around wearing nothing in sub-zero temperatures, like the locals. Eating ice cream in all weathers, however, is fine by me, even if today it proved impossible. The wind was whipping the sand up and throwing it in our faces, so we walked backwards into the wind and ignored the crunches in our teeth.
Jonah was intent on finding out more about me, so I bombarded him with questions and kept him talking. He came to Newcastle to study music at college, then stayed for his band. His aunt Sofia had given him his first guitar after he’d run off one day and scared his mother silly. He was seven. They’d been shopping at the market on Electric Avenue and he was getting bored watching his mum stock up on okra, sweet potatoes and ackee, enough for a feast – her sisters were coming round. His mum gave him a bag of plantain and spices to carry, then got talking to a man with a shiny mouth. That’s how he said it – he had the sun in his mouth. I guessed gold teeth.
Anyway, little Jonah wandered off through the crowds and stalls and around the curve in the street, watching the people and listening to the different voices. It was like a conversation between the whole world. He didn’t sound like his mum; sometimes he would try to mimic her Caribbean cadences but it never felt right. He was a London boy. The sound of guitar music drifted through the bodies and legs, so he followed his ears and found a half-starved old man sitting on the pavement playing blues guitar and singing with his eyes closed, like he was about to be executed.
The hubbub of caterwauling stallholders, people haggling, laughing and arguing, faded into nothing. Jonah was encased in a bubble. All he could hear was blissful music. He sank to the kerb and sat there amongst the discarded chip wrappers and fag ends, the plastic bag stuffed with plantain between his knees, and wept with joy. Half an hour later, although it seemed a lifetime, he thought an avalanche had landed on him when his mum found him, swept him up and dragged him home.
That evening they had their feast and his favourite aunt gave him a replica Gibson hummingbird acoustic made from rosewood. A week later, Sofia took him back to the market in search of the old blues master, and found him the worse for rum in a pub. After some nifty wrangling and more rum, Steve, for that was his name, agreed to teach Jonah to play guitar.
‘Turned out Steve wasn’t that old,’ said Jonah, shoving the last of his ice cream cone into his mouth. ‘He was only about 45, but to a seven year old, that’s ancient.’
Just then, a spaniel came running up to us, dripping sea water and trying to bark with a stick in its mouth. Jonah grabbed the stick and hurled it back towards the water, sending the dog gambolling away, barking with happiness, tail threatening to come loose from wagging. All of which distracted me so well I didn’t see Jonah’s question coming and was completely unprepared for it.
‘What are you hiding?’
My mouth dropped open – not a good idea in a high wind on a north east beach.
‘I’m not having a go,’ he continued. ‘It’s just – I like you, but I have no idea why. And I’d like some clues.’
‘Will you write me a song?’
‘Come on, Zoe. I’m going to smoke you out. Why d’you end up cleaning people’s houses? Why d’you live with your brother? What’s it like being a twin? What do your trances feel like? What do you see?’
I folded my arms in protest and stopped walking. ‘Which question would you like me to answer first?’
I couldn’t understand why I was being so perverse. Surely this was what I wanted. Here was someone genuinely interested in me and I was pushing him away. I didn’t have anything to lose, so why was I building a wall around myself? Did I want to end up like Danny, whose only friends were his dealer and Big Davinder, the Sikh who ran the chippy. I took a deep breath and prepared to kick out a couple of bricks.
‘I clean people’s homes because I’m not qualified to do anything else. Did psychology at uni but I dropped out. I live with my brother because I can’t afford my own place. Being a twin means you’re never really alone, even if you want to be, so – a pain in the arse. The trances…’
I looked at my feet. Two tiny heaps of sand had piled themselves onto the tips of my trainers, like mini sandcastles. I stared at them feeling disoriented. Warm fingers touched my cheek and I looked up. Jonah was smiling at me with such kindness I almost told him everything.
‘It’s not easy to talk about, you know,’ I said.
He shoved his hand back into his coat and we continued along the beach.
‘Why d’you drop out of uni?’
He was obviously as stubborn as me and I couldn’t hold out forever. I took a deep breath and tried to decide what not to tell him.
‘I left early in the third year. Couldn’t concentrate. There was too much going on in my head.’
I nodded. ‘And some other stuff. There are some things you can’t tell someone you’ve known less than 48 hours.’
‘Now I’m even more curious.’
‘Look, I’m just a nobody, probably insane, who knows how to get a wicked shine on a mahogany table,’ I said, wishing the sand would quicken and swallow me whole.
‘I don’t think you’re crazy.’
‘Based on what evidence? You saw me the other night. I’m useless. No good for anything in the normal world, full of normal people and their normal lives. I can’t live like that. I’m broken. I’m caught in the grip of one of the biggest, scariest monsters and I’m not strong enough to fight my way free.’
‘There are three.’
‘I’m serious.’ I counted them off on my fingers, ‘Love, Death and Madness.’
‘Love’s not a monster,’ he said, frowning and looking ready for a fight.
‘It is scary though.’ I wasn’t about to be argued out of my best psychological theory. ‘It’s about control. All the things that matter the most are the things we have the least control over. Love – everyone wants it, nobody understands it, and once it’s got you, you’re buggered.’
‘Buggered?’ The grin was back.
‘Well, y’know. You can’t control who you fall in love with or whether they’ll return the favour or how it’ll change your life.’
Jonah shrugged, ‘Granted.’
I stuck up two fingers. ‘Death – there’s no escaping that one. Although, it’s not death itself that’s the problem. Once you’re dead, you’re dead, so fuck it, right? No, it’s the actual dying that scares people, the loss of control. And then there’s madness.’
‘I’m not scared of madness.’
‘Never thought your mind would unravel at the slightest touch? Never thought you could end up being one of those crazy fruit loops wandering the streets shouting at your imaginary enemies and smelling of wee?’
Jonah laughed. ‘No, never.’
‘I put all my craziness into my music,’ he said. ‘Music is big enough to contain anything I need it to. It’s my sanctuary.’
I gazed over the fast disappearing sand. ‘I need that. I need a sanctuary.’
Jonah watched me thoughtfully. We had been walking in a shambolic way along the beach and had almost reached Cullercoats. He stopped to pick up the stick discarded by the overexcited spaniel we met earlier, and drew a large circle in the sand. He stood in the centre and waved for me to join him. I didn’t know what he was up to, but obeyed.
‘I think it’s only scary if you make it so,’ he said.
‘Easy for you to say.’ The old defences were sliding back into place.
‘D’you think you could run your business if you were crazy?’
‘It’s not that simple, Jonah. Things can seem fine and then, Bang. Most people have no idea how precarious everything is, especially their own sanity.’
‘Have you seen a doctor?’
I took a step back. His face was pure innocence; he didn’t know, how could he? But it was like he had taken a knife and slashed open my guts. I stood there, blank, staring at him while my intestines piled around my feet.
He moved towards me, concern and confusion in his eyes. ‘Zoe, I didn’t…’
I spun away and stumbled out of the circle. ‘You can’t make me see a doctor.’
The sea roared in my ears as I tried to run but the uneven sand kept throwing me off balance. Jonah was shouting apologies and imploring me to come back when I remembered I had no way of getting home. He was driving and I had no money left for the Metro.
I turned around and slowly walked back to the circle in the sand where Jonah waited, shivering, hands in his pockets, wind smacking his dreadlocks into his cheeks.
‘You can’t make me see a doctor,’ I said, unable to meet his eyes. ‘You just can’t.’
‘I won’t,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
He rested his hands on my shoulders, gentle and reassuring, and lifted my face to his. ‘Tell me about it.’
I had to look away. The waves tearing up the beach pulled at me. To be churned about and smashed to pieces on the rocks would be a relief.
‘My dad was an artist,’ I said, eyes fixed on the sea. ‘That’s how Mum met him, in a gallery shop in Brighton. Daniel Popper. Completely unknown, mad and dead. A true artist. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. Hanged himself. We were nine.’
I told the whole tale and Jonah listened so selflessly I almost forgot I was talking, like he’d climbed inside my head to share the nightmare.
Danny and I were walking home from school with Mum. A day the same as every other. I was carrying my Sleeping Beauty lunch box which I’d covered with drawings from my favourite TV show: Monkey. There was Monkey himself, with his magic wishing staff, Pigsy with his silly piggy nose, and Sandy with his skull necklace. I liked the horse too, but it wasn’t a real horse. It was a dragon in disguise, obviously.
I’d spent the day pondering what the clever man on the show said: ‘Like a mountain, a good man is visible from afar.’ Knickers, or rather Mr Nickelson, was as big as a mountain, so you could see him from a distance, but I didn’t think that was what it meant.
Danny was kicking a stone along and we were both holding Mum’s hands. We arrived home, Danny gave his little stone a final kick and it thwacked against the front door. Mum yanked his arm and tutted. She seemed to communicate mostly in tuts and sighs, a kind of Mummy Morse Code. I had learnt to decipher it early. Mum unlocked the door and we all went in.
The first thing I remember seeing was Dad’s feet in mid-air. One of his laces was undone, dangling like the light switch in the bathroom. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Why were Dad’s feet in the air?
Mum fell down on the floor between me and Danny, like she’d fallen asleep. I looked up and Dad was hanging from the second floor landing, a rope digging into his neck and his purple tongue sticking out, like he was playing a joke, pulling a face to make us laugh.
Jonah’s warm fingers touched my hand. I looked at him and finished my story. ‘After the funeral we left Brighton and moved north, as far away as we could get. Mum couldn’t stand being there, dealing with the nasty looks and people muttering behind her back, as if madness was contagious.’
Jonah’s arms were around me before I could stop him. The wind was determined to push us over, like an invisible sumo wrestler, but Jonah dug in his heels and held me tight. I fought the tears gathering in the reservoir in my heart. They’re always there, if I let myself feel them, but I never cry and had no intention of starting now. I pushed against Jonah and wriggled free of his embrace.
‘He was 33 when he died. I was 33 in September. What if I go the same way? Maybe this is how it starts, with the zoning out and the visions.’
‘You’re not your dad,’ he said softly.
But I wasn’t listening. ‘I don’t know what to do. Danny’s doing my head in but I can’t go back to Mum’s, I’d end up murdering her, or… I need to get myself sorted but it’s just fucking chaos, in here.’ I whacked my fingers against my stupid forehead. ‘I’m terrified that the next trance will be the end of me and I’ll float off, like a lost balloon, never to be seen again.’
‘You need somewhere to tie your string,’ said Jonah. ‘Tie it to my finger.’ He held out one finger and waggled it.
I stared at him like he was the one losing his mind. Into the awkward silence erupted a shimmering series of pings from Jonah’s mobile. He ignored it.
‘I have a spare room,’ he said. ‘I could use some help with the bills. You’re welcome to stay. It could be your sanctuary.’
I stood very still and watched the churning sea. The offer sounded casual enough but I could feel something else underneath. Or was that wishful thinking? He pulled his phone out of a pocket and flipped it open. Irritation bubbled in his eyes and he snapped it shut again.
‘Problems?’ I said.
‘Just my ex.’
‘Ah, the bitch.’
We grinned at each other and I relaxed; this could work.
‘What d’you say?’ he said.
‘Give me a week to smooth things over with Danny.’
We walked out of the circle in the sand and up the beach to the steps.
‘For someone who’s just dumped you in one of the shittiest ways possible, she does seem very keen to keep in touch,’ I said.
‘She wants me to pick up my stuff from her place.’ He made it sound like she was asking him to give her slimy uncle a thorough bed bath with his favourite flannel.
‘I could come with you. Bit of psychological warfare?’
Jonah chuckled and took my hand, giving it a squeeze.
Behind us, the tide rippled forward dissolving the line in the sand, leaving no trace we were ever there.
We drove back into Newcastle, aiming for the red, white and blue triangle of the Byker Wall, jutting into the sky like a Lego-brick ski jump. Jonah left the van in the Morrisons car park under the watchful eye of the CCTV, and we walked to the estate past endless discount stores and shuttered shops.
From the outside, the Byker Wall looked like a brightly coloured prison, but once inside it opened out, with muddy grass and trees enclosed by ranks of blue or green balconies and walkways. Jonah ducked into a stairwell and I followed, bracing myself for what was coming.
He stopped at a door and took a deep breath, no doubt gathering his thoughts. I hung back, loitering on the walkway overhanging the courtyard. Despite the weakness of the winter sun, it had warmed through the wooden rail running around the terrace. I leaned into it and let the warmth ooze through my old coat and into the small of my back.
Jonah knocked. We waited. No response.
He got on his knees and looked through the letterbox, calling out, ‘Nisha, it’s me.’
I cupped my hands to the window and peered in, but couldn’t see anything through the net curtains. I joined Jonah as he stood up and hammered on the door again.
‘Why’d she text and say come round and then not be here?’ he said.
‘I think she’s playing silly buggers,’ I said, rather unhelpfully.
Jonah shot me a look so mangled and strange I started to wonder what I was getting into. Admittedly, it was a bit late to begin worrying, considering I’d just agreed to move in with him, even just as friends. He seemed so harmless and sweet, but they were the ones to watch, the ones you never saw coming. I decided to tackle it head on.
‘Why did Nisha dump you anyway?’ I said, trying to sound casual.
‘She was a cow.’
‘Yes, but apart from that.’
Jonah pushed past me onto the walkway and leaned on the railing, glowering at the leafless trees below.
‘It’s just that, despite you being Mr Nice Guy, and I’m very grateful and all that stuff, it’s just… well, for all I know, Nisha could be lying in there in bits and this is some ruse you’ve cooked up to get an alibi to cover your tracks, ‘cos really you’re this crazed axe murderer and you’re planning on turning me into dog food next.’
Jonah was shaking. His hands gripped the wooden rail as he vibrated with laughter. He turned to face me, grinning like an escaped lunatic.
I shrugged. ‘I had to ask.’
He calmed down. ‘Fair enough. For the record, I asked Nisha to move in with me, thought it would be better than living here, but she said no. After that, it kind of fell apart.’
‘And now you want your stuff back.’
Jonah sunk onto the wooden bench on the walkway and rested his head against the sill of the window above, rubbing his hand over his face. ‘I can’t even remember what she’s got.’
I went back to the front door and peered through the letterbox. In the hallway, I could see a cardboard box on the floor containing an ornate picture frame, an orange bear wearing a sombrero, and what looked like the sleeve of a shirt. It was hard to tell in the gloom. Someone, presumably Nisha, had written the word ‘Oxfam’ on the box. Jonah appeared and crouched beside me.
‘I think she’s offloading your gifts.’ I said, and stood up.
Jonah looked through the letterbox and whimpered. ‘That’s my purple shirt. I wondered where that’d got to.’ He stood and gave me puppy dog eyes. ‘I love that shirt.’
‘It’s just a shirt.’
‘Is that the sum total of your relationship?’
‘Doesn’t look good, does it?’ he said, as we left the estate.
We walked back down Shields Road, dodging pushchairs and drunks. I glanced up at Jonah. He was deep in thought, a frown scrunching his face, his poetic soul brooding on his latest humiliation. I felt duty bound to cheer him up.
‘Promise me something?’ I said.
‘Promise you’ll never give me a sombrero wearing bear.’
He laughed all the way back to the van.
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Images: Tynemouth; On the beach; Choppy Waves; Monkey