Tom had chosen Whitby, a pretty port on the North East coast, for our first group weekend away. He had a rather tiresome interest in nautical matters and particularly eighteenth century swashbuckler, Captain Cook, but he had never been to ‘the town at the epicentre of Cook’s early career.’ ‘Cook was the finest British explorer, captain and cartographer,’ Tom had said, in his bombastic manner of lecturing us on things we already knew but were too polite to mention. Given what Tom had recently done we should have known that the trip was reckless. Months later we’d remember how he’d repeatedly praised the explorer for being a man ‘who learnt to command own ship.’
On that wet October Saturday we were unnerved by a change in our daily habits and slept badly and woke early and traveled North by the first train. To chill the bossy vibe of a school trip we’d made group travel plans, but booked individual accommodation. At the bottom end, creatives Fred and Maria had the Youth Hostel alongside the ruined Abbey, while the wealthiest among us, Kurt and Gemma, had a chic boutique cottage over-looking the harbour. It promised ceramic hair straighteners, and an in-room safe (for which, later, we ‘d be grateful) as well as Abbey views. The rest of us were in a range of mid price B&Bs, where the unbranded shampoos and body washes came bolted to the walls.
On the train up Yolanda revealed, to our considerable surprise, that she had used Airbnb to book a last minute houseboat. Or ‘a pad on a ship’ as she called it.
‘Motion could be a problem,’ Tom said, the first words that he’d spoken which weren’t about Captain Cook. Or perhaps they were about Captain Cook. Sometimes it was hard to tell what inspired Tom to speak when Yolanda was near.
‘I like idea of off grid, so could be good experience,’ Yolanda said. ‘That is my future plans.’
‘How did you find that?’ we asked, piqued by her daring and a certain secretiveness around its choosing.
‘It was right there, under ‘unique accommodation.’ It’s a proper boat, moored now of course, but it did sail.’
‘A boat! In October!’ Kurt exclaimed. ‘You’ll freeze to death.’
‘Perhaps I find a nice warm Whitby blanket,’ she laughed and Tom stared out the window, and we tried not to stare at him staring.
Six months ago Tom, hitherto a man of careful words, had confessed, entirely sober, and using what Gemma said was ‘ the excited despair of a boy band lyricist (‘I can’t get you out of my mind’. ‘But what am I supposed to do?’ ‘I’m so in love with you’ etc) his love for Yolanda, his wife’s best friend. The news had spread quickly. Not so much a trickle of gossip as a teenagey torrent of texting: Yolanda confided in puppeteer Maria, who asked advice of social worker Gemma, who let slip to the rest of us. We met up to know more, and babbled in whispers until Yolanda put up her slender, bronzed hands and sighed, ‘Asi es la vida.’ That’s life!
Unexpected and inappropriate declarations of love had happened to Yolanda before. She is beautiful and Mexican and doesn’t look 49, perhaps because she is a yogi, who cycles and runs, swishing her long black ponytail as she glides. For reasons we never understood, she is, or was, long-term single. ‘She refuses to wither within a long-term relationship,’ Gemma decided. Of course, despite ‘Asis es la vida’, Yolanda soon felt terrible for telling what should have been kept a secret, but ‘Muy tarde ahora.’ Too late now!
As the train ripped through Doncaster Yolanda comically detailed the Airbnb’s toilet arrangements. ‘I don’t care about bucket. I like to do things different,’ she laughed. ‘That’s opportunity for me.’
‘Has it got electricity?’ Fred wondered. ‘You might need to bring some candles?’
‘Make sure you have batteries,’ Kurt said.
‘I always have batteries,’ she laughed, and the men stared at her to see if she meant what they thought she might. Jaya went to the buffet car for wine. Everyone, except Jaya, Tom’s lovely hard-working midwife wife, and all of the men in our group, knew that Tom was in love with Yolanda. The men didn’t know because none of us had told them about Tom’s Bomb (as it had become known). According to Maria, Tom had wept, clasped his head in his hands, offered to re-plaster Yolanda’s bathroom, and shown her an agonised haiku he’d written on the back of a train ticket. For some reason it was hard to pass this news on to our men folk without insult and mockery.
Of course we felt uneasy about Jaya’s ignorance, but what choice was there? To cut her and Tom out, like catty teens? To tell her that the man she’d married twenty-six years ago and with whom she had a sixteen year old child, was in love, and had been for two and a half years, according to his tearful confession, with her best friend? We went over and over it, together and in private, and there really was nothing to be done but for us to carry on as normal. Yolanda said she was putting it behind her, and we agreed that there was no more to say. ‘Asis es la vida.’
But even before the train got to York the secret gave off such a rancid perfume it made regular breathing difficult. To lighten up we enthused over the green fields and brown streams. The boats and trees, which fizzed behind drizzle. At home we live on traffic-choked city streets and half our kids have asthma, so sunshine on chunky Yorkshire livestock was fresh and real and by 8.30am we were each unscrewing another dinky bottle of Pinot Noir.
The reason we had chosen to go away together at all was because one of us (Kurt, in IT) has a second home (a Cumbrian lakeside barn: bought long ago when the economy was better and we were younger and more financially reckless). Last spring six of us had headed north to sit round Kurt’s wood-burner. We’d sourced, and carefully cooked, good local food and stayed up late and played vinyl and smoked weed (Gemma’s son, Caspar, mocked us for calling it dope or pot). We’d been spontaneously affectionate with one another. We’d had uncomplicated stoned sex with our spouses. And because that weekend at Kurt’s had made us feel freer and younger, and because (did we mention this?) we’d had easy sex, we’d decided to take it further, looking for more spontaneity, more adventure, more chats, more air, more wine, more sex, more weed, further from home. So we’d gone for this full weekend party. Which was all arranged and paid for before Tom’s Bomb and we’d foolishly progressed with our plans despite it.
By the time the train passed Middlesborough we were gently pissed, and privately we women felt lucky that we were all fifty-ish and trusted one another. If such a selective passion had detonated within any sisterhood we were part of thirty, or twenty, or even ten years previously, emotional shrapnel would have spiked us all causing instant heartbreak. It is tribute to our age and experience, (and the fact that none of us were capable, or desiring, of being impregnated) that not one of us was in the slightest bit envious of Yolanda. The last thing any of us wanted was a stray emotional firework landing in our own bone-dry marriages. And, though we liked him, and of late felt sorry for him, none of us fancied Tom, who is prone, when he does get verbal, to being a know-all, particularly in matters of DIY, miles-per-gallon, world history, supermarket price comparisons, Game of Thrones, regional government and all natural and mineral elements of planet earth. He has a habit of shaking open ordnance survey maps to prove a point.
This might suggest we were boring mid-lifers. We were not. Even though our parents are dead or dying, and our jobs unsatisfying, and our finances thinner than we’d ever expected, between us we still held popular and stylish parties: generous fun scheduled on birthdays and for all the major festivals; Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas and both summer and winter solstices. New Year is a biggie (in fact, Gemma thinks that it was at our New Year animal-themed fancy dress 2013, when Yolanda slinked in a ginger body suit with a stiff tail attached, that Tom first fell for her). It was common for those of us not born in the UK; Yolanda, Jaya and Fred, to cook their national dishes. Fred might do a Jerk Chicken or Jaya her special pakoras or Yolanda those chimichangas. We shared what we had. Copious rhubarb, kale and butternut squash were the bountiful delights of Kurt and Fred’s allotment attempts to raise their increasingly low spirits. All were received gratefully, particularly by puppeteer Maria who often claimed to be saving money by starving.
If all this is all somehow giving the impression that we are wealthy, that’s wrong. We are English and middle class, yes, but of the twenty-first, not the twentieth century, variety. We’re mostly stuck in small Edwardian terraces bordering affluent areas (expect Maria and Fred who bought far away in a ghetto of low house prices and high car insurance). We had weekend breaks in lieu of proper pension provision and those parties instead of life insurance. Yes, we liked the arts but only went to the theatre when Maria got us free tickets to the flops (we didn’t mind seeing flops because we agreed that the best bit about going to the theatre was the dressing up, the bar in the interval and the pub afterwards). We all attended regional state comprehensives except Tom, (who, from the age of seven, went to a much-hated boarding school, which is probably the twisted root of his understanding of cartography, and his lovelorn inappropriateness towards Yolanda). We all fear that what we have won’t keep us in red wine in old age because none, hell, none of us, not one, own so much as a shoe cupboard in London though three of us studied there and most of us have lived there at some point, dammit! If only! How different our lives would have been if only we’d bought there then and….
We woke to Whitby’s rain-streaked harbour with a gasp. That earthy collision of dark water, sky, stone and the sooty silhouette of a ruined Abbey, which rose up behind the cliff-top graveyard like the stage set for a spooky show. ‘Don’t let this cause any despondency,’ Tom said, as we exited the station, ‘but by the time Cook was our age he’d circumnavigated the globe three times.’ As made our way to the town, stalked by seagulls big as pelicans, Kurt assured us the town was not in the middle of a zombie invasion, but said our visit coincided with the annual Goth festival. ‘Held to celebrate Whitby’s place in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,’ Tom added unnecessarily. We took pictures of the ghouls to post to Facebook, then after we had flung our bags in our rented rooms we raced to the harbourside, where gusts of salty wind rolled in from the North, whipping Styrofoam chip cones and greasy wrappers along the rain-glistened street. ‘I wonder what they get out of it,’ Fred said as we pushed through the army of undead crossing the swing bridge.
‘It looks like a lot of hard work,’ Kurt agreed, glancing at a wrinkly white-faced grandmother wearing a basque; an ice cream cone in one hand and an antique parasol in the other.
‘Fun,’ Yolanda said, shouting to be heard above the wind. ‘A change to the normal.’
Because it was too early to go direct to the pub and because we were all feminists and didn’t like the idea of splitting up and the men going to the Captain Cook Museum and us women going to the jewelers to price up the jet (the town’s prized black gem) we all headed to the museum. ‘You know Cook discovered Hawaii,’ Tom shouted back to us as he marched ahead into the lashing rain.
‘Discovered, Tom!’ Fred exclaimed. ‘Not the right term.’
‘Hasn’t been married to me for thirty years taught you anything,’ Jaya added and we wondered if she was reminding him of their legal union at the beginning of what even she, the ignorant party, intuited to be a dangerous weekend.
In the little museum we peered respectfully at Cook’s barkcloth waistcoat and the illustrations of native seacraft of the Polynesian islands. We considered how turtles – ‘a delicacy for Cook’s seamen’ – tasted. ‘Like a rubbery crab,’ Tom informed us, though when challenged he admitted he’d never actually tasted a turtle. ‘Slippery, wet, a little salty and delicately fishy,’ Yolanda murmured, and Fred said, ‘Hmm, I think I remember that taste,’ and we giggled like teenagers as Tom blushed and stared at his feet.
As some of us had our own lovelorn, wimpy sons, we felt as much pity and concern for Tom’s masculine decline and delusions, as we did amusement. At the time of his confession of love for Yolanda Tom was midway through a hard year; his father had died after a long, gnawing cancer. Brexit jitters had ended his European funded job and he’d panicked himself into an unsatisfactory new role with a ruthless multi-national, before walking out, leading to six months of unemployment, during which time he’d unexpectedly failed his grade four piano exam.
In the museum library Tom used an eye glass to read, in a gentle lilting voice, from a faded, velvet-soft letter written in 1772: ‘I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.’ We gathered around and stared at the frail inky words and felt speechlessly sad.
Over a pub lunch of foamy fish, hard chips and gassy bottled beer, we returned to the subject of Cook. It seemed the safest place to go. ‘At twenty-nine he was surveying the St Lawrence River. Every place he stopped he befriended tribal chiefs and he foraged for exotic fruit in the rain forests, you know, places untrodden by human foot.’
‘Is a Hawaiian foot not a human foot, Tom?’ Jaya reminded him gently, then nuzzled against his shoulder and laughed. We knew she loved him as she’d told us several times. Could she confess to love so freely because she was religious and so more naturally faithful than the rest of us? Or was it just the HRT? Either way, given what we knew, it was awkward to hear her warm declarations of marital love.
‘By the time he was my age he’d kicked the bucket,’ Kurt said, wiping the froth from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I read that in the museum.’
‘Killed on a trip to chart the course of the planet Venus,’ Tom nodded
‘The planet Venus,’ Yolanda said, turning to Tom. ‘How romantic.’ She had a straw stuck in the neck of her beer and she sucked it.
‘Let’s have night out and not talk about our children,’ Yolanda had insisted several months back. We’d taken this badly: as a criticism. Had we spent our forties successfully dampening our desires, lowering our romantic expectations and working hard to keep our feelings on an even keel simply for our ungrateful kids? If so, even if it was for the sake of what we truly, helplessly loved in our lives, it seemed Yolanda’s inference was right, a big error had been made. Though it must be said, the one childless couple in our group, Fred and Maria, didn’t seem to be living through an age of sexual or intellectual discovery either. While we mothers nagged about music practice and agonized over screen-time and grades, Fred and Maria talked of their parents, though both sets were long dead.
‘Who wants another drink?’ Kurt said, though we’d already discussed the dangers of the coastal pub in autumn; cosy boozing too early. A Frisbee, a kite and a cricket bat had been packed as a corrective but outside the seagulls cawed and the wind was whipping up needles of icy rain and in the pub that fire was roaring. Kurt cut through a crust of Victorian witches and wizards to get to the beer.
‘It’s about the unexpected,’ Tom muttered as we drained our dregs and waited for more. ‘We’ll never know what it’s like to lay eyes on a new land.’
‘Whitby’s new enough for me. I have no need to conquer,’ Maria replied. She was facing down a viscous menopause with just weekly yoga and a foul tea made of black cohosh root, and was frequently blunt and irritable.
‘But a place so beautiful, so alien to everything you’ve known before,’ Tom said too loudly, squeezing his fingers into a fist. ‘How can that not be mesmerizing? The difference – God it must have been…’ Hot passion in his voice caused several of the undead to turn from the bar and stare.
‘Oh I’m too old for difference,’ Gemma said. ‘I’m like Maria. I feel worried when they move the tights section in M&S.’
‘But to come across the golden natural world! To watch it rise before you out of the blue ocean,’ Tom cried, standing up to help Kurt distribute the beers. ‘The white sands, the azure sky. The Pacific!’ He spread both arms high and wide, like a preacher. ‘And after overcoming so many obstacles. Yet still you forge on. And you are rewarded with – pure natural beauty.’ And he sank his furious gaze on Yolanda who glanced at Jaya before turning away.
‘Did they have women on these boats?’ Gemma asked as Kurt stumbled to the bar again.
‘He was making a map of its passage,’ Tom said, wiping his eyes with his sleeve, ignoring Maria, still gazing between Jaya and Yolanda. ‘Venus.’
‘No, Gemma, they didn’t. It was very much a boy’s adventure,’ Maria said sharply.
‘I think they tended to have rampant sex with the local women whenever they arrived at a new place,’ Gemma said.
‘How do you know that?’ Fred asked.
‘I saw it in a movie. That’s how I know most things.’
‘Mutiny on the Bounty!’
‘Actually sexologists…’ Tom said, blowing his nose. ‘Sexologists,’ Tom continued, ‘have done quite a bit of research into this whole thing.’
‘No. Human desire.’
‘Steady on, Tom.’
‘Hawaii is particularly interesting because it was of course non-Judeo-Christian, so the islanders saw sex in a purely…free way. Very differently to Cook and his Western crew tainted by years of English moral rectitude.’
‘How so?’ Kurt asked, clapping Tom on the shoulder with his palm.
‘Less guilt and shame, I guess,’ Fred said, and Maria stared out the window, and suggested we go to the whalebone arch after all, as we were getting too drunk too early. ‘Or there’s a good Mountain Warehouse.’
‘Sinless,’ Tom nodded.
‘And I believe they also carried out human sacrifice,’ Maria said.
‘No, that was The Wicker Man.’
‘Hawaii too,’ Maria said. ‘All those islands. Slavery and human sacrifice and infanticide alongside your lovely sunlit sexual innocence.’
‘There’s often a worm in the free love apple,’ Jaya sighed.
‘It’s always been the white man’s dream to go native,’ Gemma said. ‘But I didn’t know you knew so much about it, Tom.’
‘Well, yes, actually I do.’ Tom nodded. ‘It’s interesting that sex outside of non-committed relationships was completely acceptable throughout the Polynesian islands. They were world famous for indulging their sexual appetites. In fact they were trained for it, both men and women, from a young age and…’
‘Trained! Really? How?’ Fred asked, leaning forward and cupping a hand behind his ear.
‘Good God,’ Kurt laughed. ‘Steady on, we’ve only just had lunch.’
‘By older members of the community, I imagine,’ Yolanda said. ‘Happens in Mexico too.’
‘They train you for sex?’ Fred asked quietly, his eyes locked on hers.
‘Pretty much,’ Yolanda nodded. ‘Being good at sex is considered a useful life skill. Essential in fact.’
Luckily at that moment the landlord appeared with a new log for the fire, and we watched it fizz and sizzle, as the flames rolled around its rim of moss, hissing and licking.
‘So how exactly are you trained?’ Fred asked. We laughed, though heat ran through us all. It could have been a blaze of menopause or the new log on the fire but really it was the sex-in-middle-age-cat, out of the bag and under the table, curling its stiff, stubby tail between our legs.
‘Didn’t they have penis statues everywhere? I read that in a brochure once,’ Kurt said, as Yolanda leaned forward and purred at the fire.
‘Well, penises and vaginas,’ Tom said, settling his rubbed glasses back onto his red nose.
‘It’s not actually a hugely phallocentric culture,’ Jaya said and Tom nodded and readjusted his glasses.
‘Where did you do all this research?’ Gemma asked, looking round at us with her hands spread wide, like she was balancing an invisible tray.
‘On the internet, I bet,’ Kurt said. ‘All that time you thought he was looking for that new job.’ We didn’t normally refer to the six long months of unemployment Tom had suffered, or, according to Gemma, ‘enjoyed,’ after his father’s death.
‘There’s a twenty foot vagina statue in a cave on Hawaii,’ Tom said.
‘If we had wifi I’d check that,’ Fred said.
‘It’s true,’ Jaya said. ‘He showed me.’
‘Not everything on the Internet is true,’ Gemma reminded us.
‘Ach, stone vaginas, I mean, don’t get me started,’ Kurt said, in an attempt at an American mobster accent. Then he quickly went to the toilet without even glancing at Gemma.
‘Let’s go,’ Gemma said, and stood up, grabbed her handbag and marched out of the bar.
Grumbling against the weather we followed her outside to where the rain was heavy and the daylight dim, turning the crowds of Goths to a murky swarm on the wet pavements. The sea, rougher and horizonless now, seemed a foggy grey infinity. The earlier rain had turned our hair frizzy and we were beginning to miss the kids We should already have gone for a bracing walk along the harbour, followed by beach Frisbee, vigorous kite-play and a jolly wander round the craft shops. ‘I read that there’s a lovely independent bookshop,’ Maria said sharply, typing into her phone. When Kurt appeared she marched away.
‘It’s a shocking crime how many bookshops we’ve lost in this country,’ Gemma said, hurrying to catch up with Maria. ‘Personally I refuse to use Amazon.’
Far away on the windy, empty beach we saw a striped deckchair, and, cradled in it, an old woman.
In the bookshop we wandered along the shelves trying not to brood. With some resentment each of us bought a full-price hardback, before agreeing with Kurt that we needed the toilet and so might as well have another drink. ‘Can we go somewhere with wifi?’ Gemma cried. ‘I need to check in at home.’ But already Tom and Kurt had dipped into the nearest ghoul-filled bar. ‘In Hawaiian mythology, Kapo, the Goddess of Fertility has a detachable vagina,’ Tom said as he pushed through the throng of neon skeletons in the doorway.
‘Well now that would be useful.’ Maria said and we all agreed.
‘Detach it. Hand it over and consider it job done.’
That bar’s zombies were noisy and we had to yell to be heard, either that or we were just shouting because we were drunk and weary. We knew we’d probably not be arsed to go for a meal now but Gemma found some wifi and took a group selfie and sent it to Caspar with the caption ‘Cheers, darling!’ Instantly he texted back, ‘Wow lucky Whitby.’
Caspar had never got over seeing his Pilates mum sucking through a pack of Marlboro Red at the World Cup all-nighter, and had famously called us ‘sad old fuckwits.’ All our children considered our gatherings with typical teen sourness. They attended our parties early, scoffed the most expensive food, and then left quickly. Kurt’s daughter, Elsie, slammed our Chinese New Year do as having ‘a veneer of cheer.’ But, at the time, we thought so what? We’d blown them our best years and our parties gave us something to list and plan and shop for. To structure our house maintenance around. The chance to be drunk in company, and to behave better to our spouses in public than we did in private, and to be seen as energetic, in company, with friends. And if our weekends and parties did, as Elsie said, ‘truly stink of middle age’, well it was denial with a beautiful Mexican woman dressed as a ginger cat nibbling from a Waitrose Luxury Party Platter.
‘Well, non-Western cultures are less harsh on us single parents,’ Yolanda said, waking us all up. ‘For us a baby is a blessing even if there isn’t a daddy around.’
‘You make it sound like England’s stuck in the 1950’s,’ Maria replied coolly and glanced at Gemma who nodded.
‘Babies get raised by the whole family,’ Yolanda continued. ‘It’s only here, in this hypocrites’ paradise, that marriage is so sanctified. Think of that horrible word, ‘illegitimacy.’ Tom nodded down at the table and Jaya stroked Yolanda’s arm comfortingly. HRT had allegedly made Jaya not only calmer and more tactile, but it had reawakened and strengthened her sexual drive.
‘I don’t think that term’s widely used anymore,’ Maria said.
‘No, it’s not,’ Gemma agreed.
‘The word might not be but the attitudes behind it are,’ Yolanda said and there was a murmur of agreement from Tom.
‘So, it was only when the European missionaries arrived that all this sexual freedom stopped?’ Kurt asked.
‘If it has stopped,’ Fred grinned. ‘Might be worth checking on Trip Advisor.’
‘First Nation people have always been eroticized,’ Gemma said. ‘Take Gauguin in Tahiti.’
‘Wasn’t he a paedophile too?’
‘Well, I read in the museum that he married a thirteen year old,’ Maria said. ‘If that’s what you mean.’
‘Either a bohemian or a paedophile depending on your point of view.’
‘Or your sex.’
‘That’s a movie too isn’t it?’
‘Now he is an actor I do rate. No need to detach the vagina for that one.’
‘Wasn’t it Nastassja Kinski as his wife?’
‘Tess of the dirty D’Urbervilles. Remember that? That girl ruined me for ever.’
‘More inappropriate eroticising of young women, Kurt.’ Gemma sighed, and took out her reading glasses and opened her new hardback at a random page.
‘I think feminist revisionism is somewhat problematic here,’ Fred said.
‘Agreed,’ Jaya said. ‘We can’t judge people of the past by the standards we have today.’
‘But you’d think all those Tahitian women had to do all day was sing songs and have sex,’ Maria said.
‘Yes, possibly, so,’ Tom nodded. ‘But there are many studies attaining to the authenticity of Cook’s accounts.’
‘Apparently Cook writes about seeing girls – young women – happily having sex, in public,’ Jaya said.
‘Spontaneously,’ Yolanda added.
‘Lemmeattem’ Kurt said, as though he were in another pub at an entirely other stage of his life.
‘Happily according to whom!’
‘It was very common, Maria. Odd now, granted, but sex between friends, between the same genders, between different age groups, between relatives even was simply not a problem for the Polynesian peoples.’
Tom, Yolanda and Jaya nodded. ‘Do you mind if we go now. And don’t talk about the issues around prepubescent sex,’ Gemma said, putting her book down so hard on the table our drinks slopped over. ‘I’m on holiday.’ But too late. The sex cat had its arse in our drunk red faces and was beginning to whine and hiss and claw.
Night had fallen. High waves were beginning to shatter against the harbour walls. Blue floodlight, which bathed the ruined Abbey above, glittered on the quaking black seawater. We loitered in a restless knot. ‘You know what,’ Yolanda said quietly, her exotic voice gently stroking the tension in the English air. ‘Tonight we dress up.’
‘I only bought jeans! Did you all bring a suit?’ Kurt exclaimed.
‘No, Kurt. Listen.’ Yolanda said, placing a silencing smooth dark hand on his pale hairy forearm, and moving him back from the edge. ‘Not smart. The fancy dress. We party.’
‘No!’ we exclaimed, zipping our anoraks up firmly and thrusting our fists into our pockets. ‘No way. Not again’
‘We can’t be only ones dressed as middle-aged mommas,’ Yolanda said. ‘Look around you.’ She swept her hand towards a group of half-dressed young vamps trotting into town, and we felt truly insulted. We’d thought carefully about what to pack for a costal weekend break. We’d even consulted Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog, then tried to recreate the suggested LA-style relaxed waterproof-chic via Boden and the John Lewis website.
‘Goths, you mean,’ Fred asked, glancing at a nearby couple in black latex crunching through a sack of nachos.
‘It take not much energy,’ Yolanda purred. ‘Just creativity.’
‘We have energy and creativity,’ Maria snapped. ‘What we don’t have is any cobwebs or fangs.’
‘Have we got any weed?’
‘The shops sell nothing but,’ Kurt said. ‘Haven’t you noticed?’
‘He means cobwebs not weed, Fred.’
‘I’d like to see you as a convincing skeleton,’ Gemma scoffed, then shivered, more with panic than cold.
‘It’s no the same as Halloween,’ Yolanda said softly, as Kurt, began to peck at his phone.
‘I need a cape and a cane,’ he muttered.
‘Don’t you even think Edward Scissorhands,’ Marie said, pointing a crooked finger.
‘Well, why not?’ Fred snapped back, ‘we’re meant to be having fun aren’t we? Seriously, have we got any weed?’
‘You’re no Johnny Depp, darling.’
‘There’s fancy dress shop,’ Yolanda said calmly, pointing towards the glittering town. ‘I see it from my ship.’ We’d all forgotten about her boat. ‘On harbourside.’ She stroked at her phone for a moment and then handed it to us, ‘Look.’ We stared at a garish sign: Hey Fancy Pants.
‘It’ll all be sold out,’ Maria said. ‘And anyway I don’t like fancy dress.’ Because we all knew Yolanda was a great dresser-upper. Just as make-up and fancy dress greatly aged us, it youthened Yolanda.
‘After forty it always feels such an effort.’
‘Doesn’t that apply to everything, Gemma?’ Yolanda said quietly, hanging her head back to stare up at the bright full moon. ‘Your whole entire existence?’ Tom nodded and inhaled heavily, and we understood. If we had one scrap of youth left, it was to be found in some grim, certainly not quite willingness, but rather a stubborn determination to still give new things – which increasingly disturbed us – a last go.
‘It’s Dia de los Muertos. So, we have party. In honour of all lost loved ones.’ She put her hand on Tom’s shoulder and slowly massaged and his eyes caught the golden glisten of the orange streetlight. ‘Steady, tiger,’ Jaya said softly and put her arms around both of them and smiled and swayed, back and forth like the surging sea below. Yolanda’s parents, who had never left Mexico, were both long dead. Jaya’s father was alive in Mumbai, but her mother had died a year ago. ‘Off you go. One hours ‘til shops shut,’ Yolanda said. ‘Make best of it, amigos. Anyone want to come with me?’ Tom snapped upright but Gemma had already grabbed Yolanda’s wrist.
‘Are there charity shops?’ she wailed. ‘And we need an off-licence.’
‘Of course,’ Yolanda laughed. ‘It’s recession Britain, right?’
‘Every man for himself,’ Kurt yelled, and stormed away across the swing bridge.
Two hours later, on seeing Yolanda re-enter the bar, several of us instinctively took off our varifocals. Whether the reason was to see her beauty less sharply or to free what threads remained of our own, we didn’t know, but instantly we recoiled a little. Fred rearranged the iron cross which was resting high on his belly mound, and reached for his Gothic cane, which was indistinguishable from a walking stick. Kurt tugged at the studded collar he’d buckled around his slack throat. Above it his big face and jowls make him look like ‘grumpy dog’, which was the caption we’d put on Facebook.
At first we thought Yolanda was wearing a ceramic mask, but as she came closer the ivory skull twinkled and smiled and we saw that the newly painted porcelain visage was her own. Some of us quickly zipped a fleece over our already disintegrating costumes. Around her glittering eyes were pink patches, stitched with spikes of silky black, which speared into the ivory gloss on her cheeks. The ghoulish needlework was repeated around her purple lips, so her face created the theatrical effect of a sewn-up, sexy corpse. When she pouted her mouth appeared tightly stitched together. Her hair was scraped back into a glossy ballerina bun. Of course the situation was made much worse by the way the rest of us had fallen foolishly back on the cheaply eroticising punk trends of our distant youth – gel in the hair, black nail polish, red lips (on downturned mouths) a rag roll of white gunk over our fallen cheeks, and, pinched into our plump torsos, tatters of torn cloth revealing too much puckering flesh. We’d hung tin crosses and chains around our crepey necks, though even the youngest of us were saggy as rag dolls. We looked like a bunch of geriatric trick-or-treaters.
Still, Yolanda took photos and praised all our flimsy outfits. As she stood before us wearing a man’s black suit, white shirt and black tie. From the breast pocket poked a tiny skull. Tom came in next in a white shirt, waistcoat and pair of breeches, and though Hey Fancy Pants had might have intended Captain Hook rather than Captain Cook, his raunchy fully limbed pirate was oddly impressive. Somehow he’d managed to be more Adam Ant than Jeremy Clarkson. A tricorn hat covered his bald patch, and the heeled knee-high boots meant he stood taller and prouder. He seemed to have biceps. Hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, he smiled at Yolanda. It was only a moment later that we noticed Jaya at his side, comically dropping one hip to display herself in a brown squaw outfit. ‘Pocahontas,’ she said. ‘It’s all there was left. We’ll have to say it’s irony.’
‘Well, let’s get this death party started.’ Kurt said, grasping his cane and struggling up on aching knees.
Behind a line of black-clad crows we crossed the swing bridge and wheezed and puffed our way up the one hundred and ninety-nine steps towards the Abbey. Wind howled. The rain had stopped but as we moved higher towards the misty graveyard the tempest swirled stronger and great gusts muzzied the Goths’ long hair. Behind us waves smashed higher and burst as spray over the road. Ahead the blue floodlight and the silhouetted throng of tall vampires and skinny ghouls, held the seedy promise of a nightclub. ‘Are they real,’ Kurt said, pointing his iPhone 7 up into the air. ‘Bats,’ Tom nodded and we all took out our phones and traced the quick black flashes as they cut and stabbed the night.
‘We need some weed,’ Fred gasped, as panting and yawning we reached the top of the steps and pushed through the stone doorway into the grassy Great Hall of the open-air Abbey. Kurt found a shadow beyond the floodlight and Yolanda said we would set up an ofrenda, which, she explained, was an altar where the dead would be honoured. Kurt spread out his satin cape and we sunk down on it and unpacked the supermarket booze and sloshed it into the toothbrush tumblers we’d borrowed from our hotel bathrooms. Fred identified a knot of young Goths as possible druggies and headed their way. Tom remembered that he had his father’s watch on, and a photograph in his wallet. He placed these on the slab of stone, which was to serve as the ofrenda. We were secretly startled by Tom’s photograph; his own face was a pink replica of his late father’s.
From her suit pocket Yolanda took tea lights, which she placed in a jam jar, taken from her other pocket (later we’d think this suggested she’d planned the whole debacle more fully than it seemed at the time). She placed a photograph of her own doppelganger mama by the photo of Tom’s father, and Jaya took from her finger a golden ring, which had belonged to her mother. We shared out more alcohol, stared at the flickering candles, listening to Yolanda softly murmuring, in Mexican, a prayer for the dead. No one had ever talked to us of our griefs, which we kept as hidden as the truths of our sex lives and it was late and dark and we were drunk and cold and missing our babies and because of all this havoc inside some of us cried.
An hour later a crowd of assorted drunks, punks and parents had gathered around the ofrenda, elevating our grief picnic to an official performance group. Bats circled above. A bearded old wizard appeared and mumbled spells for the occult until Yolanda spoke softly through her sewn-up mouth about Dia de los Muertos and the ragged audience listened, spellbound by more than just her face and voice. Captain Cook stood behind Pocahontas fondling her ear lobes, nuzzling her neck, whispering, staring at Yolanda. Then he stretched out an arm and swept it high across the misty blackness, as Jaya arched her neck to see where her lover pointed. We didn’t want an affair with Tom, God no, but we missed flirtation. We missed being fancied. Pre-fifty all our relationships had included humour, challenge, confession, laughter, wit, and the ripe, warm fruit of this fertile bush was flirting. Now it was as if one key ingredient had been withdrawn from every dish we tasted and prepared. On that dark cold cliff top, with our hair gone frizzy and our old skin flayed by the north wind, this seemed a subtraction as dramatic as the loss of, salt, or sugar or onion. Now, facing the deep iron sea, we knew it wasn’t just a flavour at all: it was a core nutrient that had nourished and sustained us.
A young onlooker arrived with a white face, purple eye sockets and a noose around his neck. We were excited but frightened by the presence of these strangers, which is why when a scrawny vampire, with brown fingernails and white plastic daggers for teeth, handed us his marijuana we shared it immediately, as we watched Tom shake open and stroke flat on the grass, a map. Generously, we thought then, the vampire rolled us another, fatter, joint. Sucked between our dry lips it felt thick as a cigar. Soon we were lying down to stare at the broomsticks curling across the copper moon and the last thing we remembered was Maria roaring that weed wasn’t weed anymore, oh no it was a giant, fee fi fo fum and so strong that it could snap you in two.
We woke cuddled together at dawn. Bones jellied, eyeballs burning, fingers tingling, dew-covered, coughing and dazed, our bags, phones, purses and keys gone. Stolen. Lost. Even our ruinously expensive varifocals were taken, replaced by several pats and puddles of vomit. We weren’t surprised. In fact we weren’t even annoyed. Demented, we laughed (later when we began to cry and rage and panic we Googled this eerie, early hysteria to discover it to be the effects of excessive dopamine).
Sick in our hair, stinking of sweat, fetid breath steaming, we spent a long time feebly stumbling through the dawn mist, peering and stroking at slain bodies looking for Yolanda and Jaya and Tom. The frosted stone ofrenda was still there, but the photos of their dead doubles and Jaya’s gold ring were gone, replaced by scorched tea-light tins, empty beer bottles, fag butts and not a furry black sock but a decapitated bat. ‘Some sick fuck’s eaten its head,’ Gemma cried.
When we couldn’t find them on the battlefield we tried to believe they’d drifted, drugged, back down the steps. Maria spun us a sickly hope they might have our varifocals, phones and credit cards safely on their bedside tables as Gemma wriggled into a fetal ball on the wet grass and sobbed.
Our tickets home were booked for 5pm, twelve hours time. Fred and Maria stumbled over to their hostel and the rest of us blurred back to our B&Bs, clutching at one another like eyeless Gloucesters. If a glorious east coast sunrise dyed that new day in iridescent pinks and purples, we didn’t lift our pounding heads to notice. Back in our rooms we ravaged the complimentary cookies and shortbreads, sucked sugar from sachets, drank cold hot chocolates and collapsed. When we assembled, five hours later, stubbly, sore, starving and still lobotomized, there was no sign of Jaya, Yolanda or Tom. Just sheepish Kurt, who clutched an armful of new golf clubs, and his red-eyed wife, who cuddled a top of the range Nutribullet.
Maria arrived next with hostel rolls. Then puffy-faced Fred with muffins. We sat on a seafront bench and ate in foggy silence. As we came back to life we remembered Yolanda’s houseboat was moored outside Hey Fancy Pants, and Kurt set his iPad, which he had sensibly secured, together with his credit cards, in the in-room safe (he wasn’t the wealthiest of us by accident).
For many months we came back again and again to the scene outside Hey Fancy Pants, and wondered if we imagined what we saw. Later Caspar said the potent levels of tetrahydrocannabinod in the bad vampire’s joint could still have been causing hallucinations twelve hours later. Perhaps, as our brain receptors were shot, our memories were freaks. Maybe we’d ‘monged-out’ as Elsie said and Caspar agreed because his research suggested we were lucky not to have ended up fully paralysed on a ventilator in A&E.
But what we remember is that Hey Fancy Pants was there, and in front a line of boats with just one sloshing gap. On the boulder in front of the empty mooring was a damp tricorn hat. ‘Don’t let this cause any despondency’ Maria whispered, sinking to her heels, ‘but by the time Cook was our age he’d circumnavigated the globe three times.’ Even so we still thought, as did the North Yorkshire police, that they’d be there, shamed, confused, hung-over, when we got back to our city later.
Months pass and we have no more parties, no more weekends away. We stay home to finger the weekend for clues, thumped around by the shocking first stages of grief. Suicide, abduction, insurance fraud and murder are all considered, but really we knew it was love. The only crime that had been committed was against morbidity itself. Then their houses go up for sale and we are jealous. Their children are officially removed from the school register and we are angry. Their workplaces say they’ve tended their resignations in writing and Kurt and Gemma announce they are divorcing. Fred confesses he’d been in love with Tom for several years and in recent months he’d told him so in many drunken voicemails. Maria, unable to afford leaving or counselling, begins a course of HRT and takes up Park Run. Soon the weekend goes beyond talking. We stop meeting up to speculate and begin to lose touch.
Now we feel them when we are alone. Sleep comes late, if at all, and always soundtracked by the crack and creak of sail and rope. Office days drift by on a dizzying fantasy of another life lived better elsewhere. If this sounds half familiar, it was to us too; we were tossing, panting, aching through another more painful, more restless, more fiercely anguished adolescence. In the early hours, in the grip of a sea dream or a wild menopausal urge, each of us are far away: powering through the tumbling waves, the rolling black night, on through the wind and darkness, eyes shut, limbs twisted, skin warm and wet, waking to sun dazzle and soft white sand, the lapping of foam on flesh, feeling love, love, love. As charting Venus we go on besides them in our mortal dreams, hunting for the new, together under the sun and stars.