With all my talk of goings on at the Over-Fifties Club, I may have given you the impression that our community centre is a youth-free zone. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
‘The neighbours are complaining,’ Erica, the manager, says to Marlon, the youth leader, one Monday morning in July. ‘Kidzone is getting out of hand.’
‘I’m afraid the Yoof is stir-crazy,’ says Marlon. ‘Their exams are over. School holidays start soon and the sun’s shining, so they like to be out of doors.’
‘One more day of teenagers playing that din they call music and shouting at the tops of their voices, and I’ll have the Council on my back. Please, take them somewhere they can make a noise without disturbing the neighbours.’
Marlon’s cheerful face crumples like a popped balloon. ‘These kids can’t afford expensive trips.’
That’s when I walk past, on my way to a volunteer shift. I’m desperate to see the prizewinning displays at a flower show in the nearby coastal town. It closes soon, so I seize my opportunity. ‘We could take them to the Bay. It’s not too far, there are lots of amusements, and everything’s cheap.’
Erica’s eyes light up. ‘Brilliant idea, lovey. Tell you what, if you and your Over-Fifties go with them, I can tick a box for inter-generational activities.’
‘Sounds good,’ I say. ‘We’ll do it, on one condition: We don’t bring Sandy.’
Sandy, a fourteen-year old Dev Patel lookalike, is the naughtiest of the Kidz, which means, of course, that he’s also the most popular. Marlon has banned him from the club for a month, because he called me a ‘silly old goat’ when I confiscated his football which he’d just bounced off my head. It wasn’t an accident, because Sandy plays striker for his school team and, unlike his manners, his aim is superb.
‘Absolutely not,’ says Marlon. ‘Sandy stays in the sin bin.’
So, early on Saturday morning, Marlon and I wait, with twenty excited Kidz, for the coach that’s taking us to the seaside. Bub and Clive, the Posh and Becks of the Over-Fifties Club, stroll up with a group of their friends. Because a heatwave is forecast, many of the oldies are wearing shorts. The men’s shirts barely restrain their bellies, while the women’s summer tops flaunt bingo wings. It’s not exactly style central. Personally, I’ve made an effort with my appearance: I’m wearing a pale blue cotton shirt dress that’s perfectly matched with dangle earrings. My sandals are sparkly and my new straw-bag is knock-off Prada. I’ve even blow-dried my hair. If I say it myself, I look good.
We wait for the coach. Then, we wait a bit longer. At last, the dreadful realisation dawns that the coach isn’t coming. Someone, nobody will say who, booked it on mates’ rates from a friend of a friend.
‘They must have had a better offer. But all is not lost,’ says Marlon. ‘We can take the train. It’s only a ten-minute walk to the station.’
Most of the Over-Fifties suddenly remember that there’s tennis on the telly and drift away. Only Bub, her fiancé, Clive, and Clive’s mate, Raymond, are still up for a trip to the seaside.
‘I’m looking forward to today,’ says Bub. ‘I ain’t been to the Bay for years. Marlon, you take charge of the lads and we’ll keep an eye on the girls.’
On the train, the boys cluster around Marlon, while Bub and I try to get the girls’ attention. There are only three of them. The sisters, Ruby and Sonia, stylish in skinny jeans, long tops and headscarves, don’t look up from their phones. Kylie, who’s wearing pink trackie bottoms with a white bustier top, can’t take her eyes off Brian, a curly-haired boy who’s trying to break into Marlon’s charmed circle.
I have no idea what teenagers talk about, but I give it a go. ‘Have you ever been to the Bay, Kylie?’
‘What do you remember about it?’
‘Throwing up on the way home. Will you make Brian come over here, please?’
‘What for?’ says Bub.
‘He’s my boyfriend,’ says Kylie. ‘He was supposed to sit with me.’
‘Well, if he won’t come for you,’ says Bub, ‘He’s not going to come for us, is he?’
There are no more attempts at conversation until the first stop, where several teenage girls get into our carriage. They’re dressed in the same style as Ruby and Sonia, who greet them with hugs and kisses. They’re carrying family-sized food containers, picnic rugs and a three-year-old girl.
‘These are our cousins,’ says Ruby. ‘They’re coming with us on the trip.’
‘They can’t just turn up!’ I look towards Marlon for support, but he’s completely surrounded.
‘Why not?’ says Sonia.
Bub points at the three-year-old. ‘For a start, who’s in charge of her?’
‘That’s Dimple. Sara had to babysit,’ says Ruby. Bub and I look at each other in horror, but worse is to come. When the cousins sit down, a shady figure trying to hide behind them is revealed.
‘One of his mates must have sent him a text,’ says Bub. ‘Kids! They do my head in.’
I catch an expression on Ruby’s face that might be guilt, before her eyes drop to her phone. On the wall, I notice a poster. It’s advertising the magnificent display of bedding plants that’s attracted so much praise from all my favourite gardening programmes. I stare longingly at the gorgeous colours, hoping I’ll soon be able to slip away and see it for myself.
When our group leaves the train at the Bay, the boys are already on their way to the sea, moving so fast we can’t catch up with them. Bub sends Clive and Raymond ahead to alert Marlon about the extra girls, but they soon return, puffing and panting. By the time we reach the Prom, Marlon and the boys have commandeered a space half-way down the crowded beach and are organising themselves into five-a-side teams. Sandy hovers on the edge of the group until Marlon approaches him, waving his arms about. Next thing, Sandy is running across the sand towards us.
‘Hang on, mate,’ says Raymond, catching hold of the boy’s arm. ‘Don’t you like football?’
Bub slathers sun cream on Clive’s shins. ‘He does, but he’s excluded for cheek, ain’t you, Sandy?’
‘Marlon says I’ve got to go around with the girls. I hate girls.’ Sandy chucks a pebble at a seagull and all the girls giggle, even Kylie, who’s been waving at Brian. Brian isn’t waving back. As a result of Sandy’s suspension, Brian’s been allowed to play striker for the first time ever, so there’s no way he’s going to allow himself to be distracted by a mere girlfriend.
‘Well then,’ says Clive, ‘Let’s us boys go and have a game of crazy golf.’
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ says Bub, but Sandy is already marching off in the direction of the amusements, with Clive and Raymond strolling in his wake.
Meanwhile, Ruby, Sonia and their cousins are whispering together in the camp they’ve set up on a smooth bit of sand. On one of their picnic rugs, Bub and I sit and gaze out over the sea. The sky is cloudless. Small boats bob on gentle waves. It’s idyllic. Bub nods off with her sun hat over her face. I have high hopes of escaping to the flower show, which is only a short walk away along the Prom, until a voice behind me says, ‘Miss, will you mind the baby?’ There’s a chorus of giggles, followed by the sound of scampering feet. Before I have time to shout after the girls, a tiny hand has one of my earrings in a stranglehold.
‘Wee-wee,’ says Dimple.
She’s only three. Is this really a wee-wee situation, or something more dramatic? There’s no time to speculate, so I rush Dimple to the top of the beach and suspend her over a grassy patch. When her bare bottom touches a sea thistle, she squeals and wriggles so that a stream of wee ends up down the front of my dress. The footballers pause their football game to watch and give us a round of applause, laughing and gesturing. When I get back to the camp, Bub is awake. The cousins are out of sight, and so is Kylie.
‘Made their getaway, did they?’ says Bub. ‘And left you holding the baby. What a nerve. Aren’t Clive and Raymond back yet?’
‘No,’ I say, looking in the sand for my earring, and hoping Dimple hasn’t swallowed it.
‘I’d better go and find them,’ says Bub. ‘Then the three of us can look for Sandy and the girls. Are you all right here for a while?’
‘Er,’ I say, but she’s already out of earshot.
Marlon is refereeing a disputed point in the football tournament. After a lot of jumping up and down, which Dimple joins in, I finally get his attention. Hoping that his hand signals mean ‘Yes, I will keep an eye on the girls’ stuff,’ and not ‘You’re offside’, I pick up my bag and look around for Dimple’s push-chair.
There isn’t one.
I’m so close to visiting the flower show that I can almost smell the petunias. I say, ‘Do you like flowers, Dimple?’
‘Floof,’ says Dimple.
I take this as a yes. ‘You’ll have to walk.’
She fixes me with the stare of a stonefaced trader. ‘Bag. Want.’
Five minutes later, we’re on the Prom, taking a zigzag route to the flower show. It’s zigzag because, not only has Dimple insisted on carrying my bag, but she’s also determined to fill it with treasure. Her idea of collectables includes seagull feathers, a sock and half a yo-yo. I put up with this because I have no idea how to stop her, until she spies an ice-cream stand. ‘Lolly,’ she says.
At last, I’m back on familiar ground. I can cope with buying a lolly. We choose one each, mine a simple strand of orange ice, hers a complex, multi-coloured structure that’s probably won design awards. Dimple bites off a huge mouthful and instantly shrieks with brain-freeze. All the holidaymakers within range of her screams look at me, shaking their heads. When she stops crying, Dimple carefully inserts her lolly into my precious Prada knock-off. ‘Laters,’ says Dimple, setting off at a trot. I attempt to run after her. That’s when the strap of one of my sparkly sandals breaks and I almost go headlong. By the time I regain my balance, I’ve lost sight of Dimple. I’m beginning to panic when I see her a short distance away, holding Kylie’s hand.
Kylie is beaming with delight. She spreads out her fingers to show me the tattoo she’s just had done, using her older sister’s driving licence as ID. On the thumb of her left hand is the letter B.
‘I wanted them to write Brian,’ she says, ‘With one letter on each finger, but I couldn’t afford it.’
What can I say? I’m grateful to Kylie for fielding Dimple, so I settle for, ‘That’s nice.’
‘I can’t wait to get back and show him,’ says Kylie, walking on.
Can I allow a fifteen-year-old girl to suffer the boys’ sense of humour alone? When she’s wearing a bustier? No, I can’t. I abandon any idea of seeing the flower display and turn to follow Kylie. Dimple looks up at me, arms uplifted. ‘Carry,’ she says, and I have no power to resist. Her hands, sticky from the lolly, twine themselves into my expensive blow-dry. She won’t let go of my straw bag, which bounces between my shoulder blades, spreading the joy of melted ice and sugar as far down as my buttocks.
When we get back to the beach camp, the cousins are admiring Kylie’s body art while they unpack their picnic. They’re delighted to reclaim Dimple and have bought me a little wooden seagull to thank me for looking after her. There are wraps, samosas and tubs of biryani, enough to share, and it all smells wonderful. The football game has been paused and Marlon is breaking out family-sized bottles of pop.
‘Is Sandy with you?’ he says.
‘You’re supposed to be looking after the boys,’ I say.
‘I can’t take responsibility for Sandy,’ says Marlon. ‘He followed us without permission. But didn’t I see him wandering off with your seniors?’
‘Sandy’s not with them,’ says Kylie. ‘I saw the two naughty grandads sitting outside the Fisherman’s Friend, hours ago. Bub was telling them off.’
I make a mental note of the bit about naughty grandads. Then I say, ‘Well, they’re old enough to take care of themselves. Where are Ruby and Sonia?’
‘Come on girls, get busy with those thumbs,’ says Marlon.
But the cousins don’t even bother to text. They already know that the sisters stayed in the amusement park with Sandy after they left. Sandy said that, to get his own back for not being allowed to play football, he wasn’t going home until he felt like it. Ruby and Sonia said that, because everyone was being really mean to Sandy, they were going to stay with him. This matters, because Marlon is responsible for the girls, so he can’t leave without them.
To sum up: Sandy has taken control of Kidzone.
‘Well,’ says Marlon, ‘We may as well play a decider while we’re waiting.’
Kylie tries to show Brian her tattoo, but he’s scored numerous goals and is being mobbed by his team-mates, so she has no chance of getting his attention. I remember I haven’t eaten all day. Before the cousins pack up and leave, I manage to grab a single crumbling bhaji, a big chunk of which I drop on my pale blue dress, causing a stain that looks permanent. Dimple is carried away in her big sister’s arms, without giving me a second glance. I wonder if it’s too late to make a break for the flower show where I can feast my eyes on champion snapdragons, busy lizzies and begonias.
‘Do you like flowers, Kylie?’ I say, hopefully.
‘Hell, no,’ she says, ‘I get hay fever. Really badly. Like, the snot just pours out of me.’
Just then, I notice an odd little procession making its way towards us. It’s led by Bub, supported with some difficulty by Ruby and Sonia. Behind them, Sandy is walking between Clive and Raymond, who are leaning heavily on his shoulders. The Kidz look downcast, sulky and disappointed. The three seniors, on the other hand, are full of fun, singing ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ at the tops of their voices, while they weave and stumble across the slippery sand.
‘We couldn’t leave them in the amusements, pissed as newts, could we?’ I hear Sandy say as he swaggers back to the train station, linked by Ruby and Sonia. ‘They were making proper fools of themselves, trying to get on the kiddies’ gondola.’
‘You did the right thing in the end, and that’s what matters,’ says Marlon.
Bub is hanging on to me almost as tightly as Dimple did. I hope she won’t also ask me for a ‘carry’, as refusal is likely to offend.
‘It’s that Raymond’s fault,’ she says, ‘He always gets Clive pissed, and now he’s done the same to me. Mate, I admit I’m tiddly, but I must look better than you do. And what on earth have you got down your back?’
On the train, the boys, at the tops of their voices, carry on a conversation entirely made up of scores. Kylie finally manages to get close enough to Brian to show him his initial, tattooed on her thumb.
He looks at her from under his curls and says, ‘Girl, you’ve got great boobs, but you’re not half dumb sometimes. Anyway, now that I’m a striker, I can get any girl I want.’
Kylie cries all the way back to the community centre, where her sister is waiting to give her a bollocking for borrowing her driving licence. Raymond and Clive have stopped off at Raymond’s local for a hair of the dog, but Bub is there to give the girl a drunken embrace.
‘Don’t cry, babe,’ says Bub. ‘It ain’t so bad. The only problem is, you can only go out with boys whose names begin with B, that’s all.’
I can hear Kylie sobbing until her sister drives her away.
When the Kidz have gone home, Marlon, incredibly, sets off to referee an evening football match. At last, I’m alone to reflect on my misery which isn’t made any less by the fact that I brought it on myself. Thanks to Dimple, my dress is soaked in wee at the front and melted ice lolly at the back. My hair is a birds’ nest and the broken sandal strap has given me a blister. I have only one earring, and my lovely new bag is a write-off. Worst of all, I’ve missed the flower show.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s Sandy, the last person I want to see. Well, one of them.
I growl, ‘Are you still here?’
‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says, rummaging in his backpack.
‘I don’t want any of your tricks, Sandy,’ I say, ‘I’m not in the mood.’
‘You’ll want this,’ he says. He’s holding a small but beautifully coloured begonia rex. It’s suffered a bit from being in the backpack, but its roots are safe in a biodegradable pot. ‘I saw you looking at the poster on the train. My Mum likes plants too. I happened to pass the flower show, so I nipped in and got this for you.’
I’m gobsmacked. ‘Sandy, you must let me give you the money for it.’
‘Nah. It didn’t cost me anything. Nobody was watching the gold medal display, so I helped myself. I knew this must be a good one, because it was right in the middle.’ As he walks away, Sandy says over his shoulder, ‘Miss, I’m sorry I called you a name after I hit you with the football. But it was a good shot, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I say, placing the begonia in my bag with the remains of Dimple’s lolly. ‘It was a blinder.’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2.