∞² Revival

I resolve to dive in. Not the water – that’s way too cold for me, this time of year, early summer, just after the solstice and before the sea has been warmed by long days in the sun – but into the experience of it all. There, inside the experience, may lie a clue. If not a clue, then perhaps an insight, a truth. It could be random, it could be real. My research has yielded nothing. I have spoken to cafe owners and life guards; to beach goers and hut holders. To dog walkers (where they’re allowed, the dogs) and to joggers. Hoteliers, I spoke to, two of them. And two police officers, one a young woman, the other a young man, both attractive, both friendly, both clueless as to the origin of this tradition that is still, after all, fairly new; but a tradition nonetheless. Age has no bearing on the soul of a matter, be that a culture, a person, a people, a place: roots burrow deep, far deeper, we know, than the living thing that we see may suggest.

Everybody, of course, has a story to tell. Most of them charming, some of them harrowing, all of them sad, in a way. I’m surprised to find that is so. No matter who I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, and for so long? How sadness seeps through the seasons, irrespective of who you are. Here, many remember, with a scarred sense of fondness for how it all brought them together, the Solstice Spectacle several years ago now, when two youths had set fire to almost all of the beach huts along the seafront in the most brazen, most wanton, act of arson anyone could recall. Nobody refers to it now, as some ‘newspapers’ did at the time, as a ‘massacre’; and few people, though the sadness over the girls does prevail, the twins, who’d perished, aged five, having been put to bed in one of the larger huts, while the parents were sharing a rare moment of intimacy, just outside, in the twinkling night of summery stars, are weighed down now by sorrow.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents were at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took it for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late. The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that. ‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, ‘life goes on; has to, really.’ The young mother, who I know, although she doesn’t tell me, feels guilty for having left the girls in the hut while stealing, for the first time in weeks, maybe months, a bit of time just with her man, to enjoy, to inhale, to taste and to have him, in the freedom of the seaside air and after the long struggles for daily survival, in and out of the sun, smiles a wan smile of undying regret. She could have saved them, her eyes – though they be adorned by kind lines after all – tell me, pleading for my forgiveness. I have no need, nor do I have any gift of forgiveness for her, it has nothing whatever to do with me: I only feel love for these people, and thank them their honesty and their trust. ‘Thing is, we couldn’t have saved them,’ her husband, squeezing her hands, so in tune he senses her anguish without needing to ask any question, tells me: ‘it was just too quick. When this kind of catastrophe strikes you down you have to, if you can, just get up again. Kids die in accidents. In a car crash. If we’d been lying there with them, and had fallen asleep, we’d both be dead too?’ His voice inflexes a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

‘Boscombe & Bournemouth has had its fair share of tragedy,’ the old lady tells me, ‘maybe more than.’ She sits further down the beach, in front of her own hut, that is hidden a little, tucked away behind a bit of a bluff, and she nods at me sagely. I expect her to go on, but she doesn’t. There’s something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look that she gives me suggests that the time isn’t right. And so I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell. Some things are best left unspoken. Yet for a while. 

And so I take the plunge. The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll. I have never been naked in public. I’m innately shy. People don’t think so, they think I am confident, bold even. I’m not. It’s the last Sunday in June and I’m curious: will it happen. And how? The weather is glorious, hot: more than thirty degrees. I shower, smear sun cream all over my body, wear shorts and a shirt and flip-flops; the near compulsory hat, and the shades, and head out. It’s just gone lunch time and I expect to be disappointed. For a while it looks like I might be; and then, suddenly, unnoticeably almost at first, then more and more obviously and quite naturally, it happens. Here a naked person, another one there. A couple, a group, some talking, some smiling, without exception all sunning themselves and their bodies in the luxurious heat, they are strolling along the beach. As I get there, they are vastly outnumbered by clothed people, but the clothed people don’t bat an eyelid, with the exception perhaps of the odd tourist. I am on my own and I don’t know how to do this now, where should I stop to undress? I feel lost, I must look it, too. I need not fret, it turns out. A big burly man with a lot of hair on his chest and a belly protruding far over a very small penis beams at me baring the broadest of grins: ‘you look just like someone who’s come to stroll in the nude.’ For the duration of half a thought I want to say, ‘sorry? Who? Me? Oh no, don’t worry about me, I’m just looking for a place to buy ice cream.’ But his friend smiles at me too and I like her for that. She’s generous, kind. Their mutual friend, I assume, seems to be thinking about something, but he too gives me a nod of encouragement, and so I say: ‘Yes. I am.’

‘I hope you’re wearing sunscreen?’ the big man, who steadies my arm as I step out of my shorts asks me, and his friend cocks his head a little as if to comment, not strictly approving, but not dismissing either, my soft cotton trunks. I take them off too. And the shirt, and I put them all in a little backpack I’ve brought along for this purpose, and I step back into my flip-flops and put on my hat and say: ‘thank you. My name is Sebastian.’ We shake hands and they tell me their names and I put on my shades and we stroll.

∞ Pyromania

What little George needed to know about incendiary devices he learnt very quickly, and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily and determined, Andy was swift, small and silent, and quite original in his thinking.

The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George reckoned that with a few items of very ordinary household goods and some basic physics, he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and if he could do that he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.

Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confined this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:

‘Yeah you can run a test.’

‘Where would I run a test?’

‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’

That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.

‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.

‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’

‘Exactly. It’s miles away and nobody there would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to accidentally set fire to one of their huts.’

The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly realised. Of course they had to run a test.

Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising suspicion, or let alone alarm…

‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.

‘Great, where does he live?’

‘In London, of course.’

‘Of course.’

George told his dad, Andy his mother, they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them. Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.

There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely – though still wildly improbable – to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.

Bank Holiday was to be avoided, because of everything, there was just too much of a muchness about it, but Uncle Edward was around the following week and nobody minded.

The weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.

∞ Pyromania

George knew nothing about incendiary devices. What he noticed, however, over the next three or four days, as he was walking past these huts during the daytime, up and down the beach in both directions from his flat near Boscombe Pier, was that not all, but many of them must have, tucked away in them, a bottle of Calor or similar gas, used to fuel the mini-stoves. This would make his task, and that it had already turned into a task, of that he felt pretty certain, so much easier. It also prescribed his window of opportunity. The bottles, he reasoned, would be unlikely to be there out of, or come to much use towards the end of the season. And season was not yet in swing. It was early June, the sea temperature at around twelve degrees Celsius was not yet attractive to casual bathers (even if some hardy swimmers could always be spotted of a late afternoon or early evening), and so it would make sense, he believed, to strike at a significant-enough moment, soon. 

George’s one or two friends at school were not the kind you could make accomplices in what he knew was not going to be easy an undertaking and not one designed to make him popular with his relatively new neighbours or the holidaymakers who rented the huts for the summer or part of it. He had no confidant either. The time frame he had just set himself was clearly too short to acquire one too, and so he would have to rely on his own resources and relish the moment, when it came, most likely on his own. This did not make George sad, he was used to doing things on his own.

Except, there was a boy at school who liked and watched him more than he knew. Whether it was a teenage crush, or simple idolisation of an older, cooler, more worldly youth, or whether it was something else, neither George, nor the boy, nor their parents, nor the Earnest Psychologist would ever be able to tell with any degree of certainty, or authority, even though the Earnest Psychologist tried. The boy’s name was Andy and he was two years younger than George, just turned thirteen. He’d been aware of George for a good few weeks now, ever since George had arrived at school, as it happens, and he’d known, instinctively, that there was something special, something noteworthy, something edgy and therefore interesting about him. He half expected to find that he owned a snake or collected spiders or kept a diary in Esperanto.

Little Andy – he was remarkably short and remarkably nimble on his feet and swift with his hands –  surprised George as he was looking up small detonators on the school computer. George used the school computer for doing his research because he reasoned that on a computer used by teenagers of all predilections there were bound to appear search terms associated with blowing up stuff, without attracting the immediate attention of MI5.

‘What are you doing?’ Andy asked, in his forthright, unawkward manner that stood in such contrast to his shy demeanour.

George looked up (only a little up: Andy standing virtually came face to face with George sitting) and fixed his eyes straight into Andy’s:

‘I’m going to make some beach huts go bang.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘I’m just finding out.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Ideally: all of them.’

‘Wow.’

‘Exactly.’

‘All of them?’

‘Can you imagine?’

‘You’d see that for …miles.’

‘Exactly.’

‘When?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

‘Summer Solstice?’

‘Summer Solstice.’

Andy was already a conspirator. He didn’t know it yet, the Judge, on the counsel of the Earnest Psychologist, with appalled leniency in her eyes, would later abnegate it, but Andy knew, George knew, they were now in this together.

‘Isn’t that in three weeks?’

‘Better get a move on then.’

George shut the computer and stood up, now in is moderate but lanky length towering over little Andy. He ruffled his hair. Andy felt a shudder of delight charge through his young body. The fear of the forbidden paired with a first, inexplicable lust.