Mandy is not invited in, so hovers on the back doorstep, unsure what else to do. She considers following Susan into the darkened kitchen, but the surprise squall of a woman’s voice repels her on the threshold; it is followed by the staccato rattle of Susan’s footsteps scurrying up the stairs. Peering in, she can make out the silhouetted hulk of an overweight woman, hunched over a table. She almost calls out hello, but thinks better of it. Instead, she kicks around the yard, waiting for her new friend to emerge from the shadows.
The neglected garden is untidy. Strewn across the concrete slabs, are children’s plastic buckets and spades with cracks and missing handle and the blue wrinkled body of a punctured inflatable dolphin. Beneath the grey stone wall are pots of withered plants, dried up, like crisp strands of seaweed on the tideline. She notices someone she hadn’t seen before; on top of the wall is stretched the sunbathing body of ginger cat. It clocks her lazily with one yellow-green eye and then goes back to sleep. Glad of the company, Mandy walks over to stroke it.
Inside the house, Susan examines her bikini bottoms with dismay; a Rorschach ink blot of blood, coats the inside of her thighs, and her gusset is rusting metal red. She runs cold water in the sink to soak them and rummages in the laundry basket for yesterday’s swimsuit. In the airing cupboard she sifts frantically for sanitary towels, hoping her mum has only hidden them. She shakes a box of her mum’s tampons, but finds only the folded paper instructions inside. Exasperated, she balls up toilet paper into a makeshift pad and slips it inside her swimming costume. She covers herself with an almost clean pair of denim cut offs and heads back downstairs.
“Mum, I’m out of towels,” she whines, thrusting the empty box at the woman, who looks up from her magazine and slowly lifts a blank, suet pudding face towards her daughter.
“So, buy me some, or give me the money to get some.”
“Buy your own. I don’t know what you do with them, you get through so many. Are you eating them?” She laughs at her own joke.
The woman gives a bored shrug and resumes her reading, as if the conversation is already over. Susan gives up and makes for the sunlight. It’s the same battle every month and she knows the old bag will relent and buy her the cheapest pads she can find, next time she goes shopping, but never enough, and meanwhile she’ll have to go without. She stomps towards the back door.
“And stop stealing mine!”
Her mum’s voice brings her to a halt. Susan spins round, sees her mother’s smirk, thinks, “you fat, lazy, evil old cow,” but says nothing and slams the door shut behind her.
Outside, Mandy hears it all and glows with embarrassment. She stops petting the cat’s pink cupped ears, perfect as sea shells, and looks at Susan. She had seemed so cocky, when they first met in the dunes, but now appears younger, smaller. Still, even at twelve, Susan has the grown up body she covets, and hanging out with her makes Mandy feel more important.
Mandy notices the change of outfit. The strapless swimsuit, ruched over the bust, and denim shorts; their white fringed horizon accentuates the curve of Susan’s hips and rounded thighs. She is wearing dirty pink jelly shoes on tanned feet and Mandy compares them to her own white ones, burnt pink as forced rhubarb around the thong of her flip flops, after months of being hidden by grey school socks. Susan, on the other hand, looks as though she is carved from wet sand; her skin is dusted with white crystals and burnished brown. Her dirty blonde, beach grass hair, is sea salted and windswept.
It is the third day of Mandy’s holidays, but Susan is here for the whole summer and is already established in the tiny resort. Earlier, as they walked up the beach towards the lifeguard’s hut, a gang of older boys nodded towards her, shouting something she couldn’t make out. Mandy had noticed her walk change then, her body held straighter, chest thrust forward, pretending not to have seen them.
“Is this your cat?”
Susan runs her fingers through her long hair, pausing to scratch the scalp with her fingernails. “No, it belongs to a crazy old cat lady down the road. She has dozens of them. Don’t touch it – they’re crawling.”
She walks quickly out of the gate, with Mandy trailing behind her. Once away from the house, she slows her walk and pivots her head to examine her rear.
“Can you see anything?” She smoothes a tanned hand down over her backside.
Mandy shakes her head. She hasn’t started yet. Already, Susan has crossed over the mysterious line into womanhood.
“ Swimming’s out, unless I can cadge some money for the machine in the pub toilet.”
“My mum would lend you some, or I could say it’s for ice creams?”
Her friend’s eyes light up like slot machines down on the seafront.
They head off down the lane that runs along next to the campsite where Mandy is staying. Its boundary wall is herringboned slates and along the top there are bursts of ferns and a fur coat of grass and mosses.
They climb a wooden gate and head across the field of multicoloured tents, patchworked with ochre rectangles of dead grass.
“Which one’s yours, again?” Susan asks.
Mandy points towards a blue four berth with clear plastic windows.
“They’re all on the beach,” she says. “Let’s go and find them.”
“No. Let’s not.”
Susan’s expectant face is tinted blue, as Mandy unzips her mother’s hold all. Her guts are all knotted up with the fear of being caught. It seems silly, she’s often rummaged through her mum’s chest of drawers at home, but the intention here is different. There’s nothing in the floral wash bag - just an orange plastic disposable razor, a stiff parcel of soap wrapped in a dried out flannel, a roll on deodorant. Her mum doesn’t bother with glamour when they’re camping.
“No, sorry – there’s nothing.” She zips up the bag and tries to remember what position it was in when they found it.
Susan is lying on her parent’s airbed, casually stretched out on her dad’s sleeping bag, her straw-like hair spread over his pillow. Mandy feels unsettled by it.
“Let’s go,” she says, wobbling to a stooped standing position on her mum’s side of the bed.
“No, try your Dad’s stuff now.”
“He’s not going to have jam rags.”
“We can just look.” Susan laughs. She is already sitting up now, unzipping his rucksack.
She tips the bag’s contents out onto the inflatable mattress; mostly t-shirts, shorts and balled up socks. Mandy squirms as Susan holds up a pair of y-fronts in front of her grinning face.
“Stop it, now. Come on.” Mandy can’t keep the pleading out of her voice.
“You’re so boring,” Susan sneers and picks up the clothes, ready to shove them back in the rucksack. “Hello, what’s this then?”
A small plastic canister is hidden inside one of Mandy’s dad’s walking socks. Its nylon string is coiled round it and Susan pulls, so it unwinds like a yo-yo. She twists the two halves to unscrew it.
A roll of notes falls out between two sets of knees. One pair bronzed and womanly, the other pair skinny - the white faun legs of a little girl. Mandy suddenly sees how grown up Susan is. The same age, but different. There’ll be no sliding down sand banks with her this summer, or digging moats round castles.
Her stomach does a somersault as Susan peels off a handful of tenners, furls them tight and tucks them into her cleavage. She watches the dusty pink soles of her jellybeans disappear through the tent flap.
When the tears stop, Mandy wonders how she’ll explain the heart-shaped stain, on quilted blue nylon, Susan has left behind her.