Footsteps in the Ocean
Footsteps in the Ocean is a beautiful read with beautiful characters.Elizabeth Henry, Author
It has a heartwarming ending and wonderful descriptive prose of an alluringly old-fashioned Scottish island.
I was there!
Fresh air filled Jimmy Thompson’s nostrils and caressed his face. It seemed the cleanest thing to touch him in five years. He didn’t know whether this air was any different from the stuff that had blown at him every day as he had strolled the yard, but it certainly seemed different. It felt cooler, gentler, more inviting. But maybe that was just what freedom felt like.
Jimmy walked home. He did not want to be picked up. He wanted to walk the streets that he had prowled all those years ago. It was a long way from the prison to Faraday Road, and he was surprised that the route came easily to him. He passed the Indian takeaways, the kebab houses, the China houses, all smelling the same as he remembered – greasy, with the faint whiff of drains. He had not missed those. Nor had he missed the pavements, still dotted with dried-up gum and days-old dog shit.
Tinny cars passed by on the carriageway, and every now and then flashy four-by-fours overtook them. He looked at the number plates to see if he recognised any. Thankfully, he didn’t. Nevertheless, he pulled his grey hood down farther, until he could see only half of the street in front of him.
He heard the seagulls and saw one hop out of his way, beating at a rubbish bag. He fucking hated seagulls. He could never understand why they were here. It was Birmingham, for God’s sake, as far away from the coast as you could get in this country. And, still, seagulls circled and shouted at one another.
He had stared at them every day from his cell. They had sat on the posts of the prison walls, or flocked into the yard when everyone had gone inside, scavenging for anything they could find, and then they had flown away when they had realised there was nothing. Stupid birds. Yet, what he hated most about them was that, despite how stupid they were, or how aggressive, or how noisy, they had more freedom than he did. They could fly away from those walls whenever they wanted. But they always came back.
Jimmy started to feel a dull ache in his hips, and his heels hurt. He had not walked so far in years; his feet must have changed since the last time he had worn proper shoes. He did not stop though. It was nice to actually feel something. It was nice to feel the damp from his hoody chill his shoulder blades, to feel the cold of the October air sting his lungs. It was nice to smell the foulness of the city and to see how ugly it was. It was nice to hear car engines and horns, the undulating rhythms of Indian and Chinese languages – hell, it was even nice to hear those bloody seagulls as he chased them out of his way.
And suddenly, he couldn’t help but laugh. He laughed until his vision blurred and fat tears fell down his cheeks. He threw back his hood and stood in the middle of the wide, grey pavement, looked up to the iron sky and laughed until he was breathless. He knew people were staring. He knew cars had slowed down to gawp at the loon. But he didn’t, he couldn’t, care. He was free, and it was the best feeling ever.
‘You are soaking,’ cried Sue, Jimmy’s mum, as he stood on the doorstep, before she quickly ushered him inside.
She hugged him hard, despite his wet clothes and his polite protests that she shouldn’t get wet too. He had missed those hugs. He used to hate them – he used to hate everything she did. She was always too nice, too “touchy-feely”, she asked too many questions... He had been embarrassed by her. He was ashamed of himself for how he used to be. Now he held her close. He smelt her familiar soapy smell with the faint hint of sandalwood. She was so warm and soft, just how he remembered from his childhood, although now her hair was shorter and her body was rounder.
His father’s sharp cough cut the embrace short. Michael stood farther up the hallway, hands in his pockets. Jimmy thought how old he looked, and how small. Michael had always been a foreboding man and had refused to visit Jimmy in prison. Jimmy looked at him as if he were a stranger, as his father acknowledged him with a stiff nod. Slowly, Jimmy came before his father.
‘Dad, I’m sorry,’ he said, and hesitantly held out his hand. Michael shook it, and Jimmy thought he might even have seen his father’s eyes moisten, but he couldn’t be sure.
Then there was the usual fuss from his mother. She constantly tried to fill the still atmosphere with chit-chat, local news and comments about how awful the weather was, as she made a pot of tea and brought out a fruit cake she had made that morning.
They all sat in the living room, pretending to be more at ease than they really were.
Jimmy looked about him at the pink walls and the patterned carpet. His favourite painting was still hanging above the fireplace; it was an oil painting of the Island of Cree, where they always used to go for family holidays, until he turned thirteen. After thirteen, all the other kids had been going abroad and Jimmy had wanted to boast about his summer holidays just as much as anyone else. Scotland had simply not been good enough. But this painting brought back memories of sharp sea air, exceptional fish and chips and sitting on an old wooden bench on the beach.
‘Marmy’s dead,’ said his mum. ‘She only passed last week, and I didn’t want to spoil you coming back before I had to. I came down one morning, and she was still in her bed, poor girl.’ She reached into her floral pinafore for a handkerchief to dab at her eyes.
Jimmy remembered his old cat. She had been a present for his twelfth birthday, and he hadn’t had the imagination to name her anything but her colour – marmalade. To his surprise, Jimmy also started to shed a tear. He had never given the cat a second thought in all his time inside, but now it seemed dreadful that she should be gone: that a part of his childhood was dead, and that he had missed her death because of what he had done.
‘Oh dear... Oh, don’t cry,’ Sue clucked, and became even more upset.
There was an awkward silence as they both calmed themselves down. Sue poured everyone some more tea.
‘So, what are you going to do now?’ asked Michael. Sue hissed at him and sipped her tea. They had obviously been having words over how to deal with their son’s return.
Yet, Jimmy didn’t know what he was going to do next.
‘It’ll be hard to get a job, you know,’ said his father.
Jimmy could feel the familiar irritation rising in his stomach as his father slurped his drink and looked around the room, eyebrows raised slightly in indignation, avoiding Jimmy’s gaze.
‘Sally – you know old Sally the baker, where we get our loaves from – well, she said to me only last week she was looking for a baker after that other fella kept on turning up late,’ Sue beamed. ‘She always liked you – I know she did. I’ll give her a call tomorrow morning if you like.’
‘Thanks, Mum,’ Jimmy smiled.
Finally, after all the tea had been drunk and all the cake had been eaten, Jimmy had said that he was tired and that he could do with a bath. That was something he had dreamed of whilst he had been locked up – a nice hot bath. Of course, he never said that in prison. He would have been called a nonce. But now the cold damp had settled into his bones, and his joints creaked with every move.
His mum leapt at the opportunity to baby him and hobbled up the stairs as quickly as she could to run him a bath. He didn’t want to stay in the silence with his father, so he claimed that he wanted to have a look at his old bedroom.
It was just how he remembered. It was like being transported back in time to five years ago, to another life. His double bed had the same striped blue cover; his walls still had tatty posters of motorbikes and women half clad in leathers; his old coat was draped over one door of his wardrobe. Everything was exactly how he had left it.
‘I put it all back how it was,’ whispered his mum. She had found him standing in the doorway, expressionless. ‘They made such a mess when they searched it. They never bothered to put it neat,’ she tutted. She had always hated mess. ‘I’ve kept it clean, but that’s all. I didn’t go snooping.’
Jimmy turned to look at her face. He felt sick as he saw a flutter of fear and self-consciousness in his mother’s eyes as she looked at him. He hugged her hard. ‘I love you, Mum,’ he whispered into her neck. He felt her soften and go limp and then hug him back fiercely.
‘Now, go on,’ she nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes. ‘Your bath’s ready.’
In the blue, floral bathroom Jimmy peeled off his clothes and folded them into a careful pile. The steam from the bathwater had fogged the mirror, so he wiped it with his arm, then stared at his reflection. How he had changed. After such an emotional day, he looked older than his thirty years. Lines were etched onto his forehead, purple rings lay beneath his eyes, his skin seemed somewhat grey in the bright light from the bathroom bulb. He was not the skinny boy he used to be, but he was thankful for that. He was broader and firmer. He had worked out in prison and it showed, but then, so did all the regret he felt.
He saw the silver scar on the top left of his chest. He recalled how Carl had stubbed out a cigarette on his naked skin whilst two older lads had held him down, all because he hadn’t been as careful whilst delivering his round as Carl would have liked. He remembered the smirk on Carl’s face, the tang of the smoke mixed with the beefy smell of burnt flesh, and most of all, the fear that Carl could do much worse.
He pressed the scar gently, seeing if any pain lingered. It didn’t. But he would always have the reminder of what he once was etched onto his body.
Jimmy was woken by the doorbell. Through bleary eyes, he read the time on the clock as eleven in the morning. It was the longest lie-in he had had in years. As he gazed at his ceiling, he could hear his mum’s slippers brushing against the carpet. He heard her find the key and quickly unlock the door, not wanting to keep whoever it was waiting. Then he heard a voice he had wished never to hear again.
He ran downstairs, pulling together his dressing gown as he went.
‘Hey, Jimbo!’ Reese boomed. He was standing with his feet resting on the porch step, his hand casually on the door frame, and a sneer plastered on his face.
Jimmy quietly told his mum to go into the lounge, and she reluctantly scurried away.
‘What do you want?’ asked Jimmy, closing the front door so that he was stood in the confined area of the porch with Reese. He could smell weed and alcohol on Reese’s breath and a general sour body odour emanating from his stained grey tracksuit.
‘Heard you was out. Thought I’d say hello,’ he laughed.
Jimmy did not smile back. He could see Reese’s car parked on the kerb. Inside was a young girl, probably about sixteen, smoking a roll-up and looking at him with half-open eyes.
‘Anyway,’ Reese continued, ‘Carl wants to see you.’
‘No way,’ he said, and then noticed Reese’s shoulders tense. ‘You tell Carl I did what he wanted.’ Jimmy towered over Reese’s weasel-like frame and took him by the collar of his shirt. ‘I never want to see any of you again – do you understand?’
As he threw Reese off the porch, Reese tried to collect himself. His pride was hurt, and he peaked over his shoulder to see if his girl had seen his humiliation. She hadn’t or at least, if she had, she had not seemed to notice; she was still staring bog-eyed through a film of silver smoke. Reese puffed himself back up, spat at his feet and swaggered back to his car, muttering to himself. As he pulled off, Michael appeared, carrying a bottle of milk and a newspaper.
‘Who was that?’ he asked.
‘No one,’ replied Jimmy. He stormed upstairs, threw on some clothes and then fled from the house.
He needed some space. The home that he had longed to return to was stifling. Reese had made the whole situation even worse. Just when Jimmy thought he was free, that piece of scum had come back to remind him of the life that he was trying to get away from.
He walked aimlessly down streets he knew so well and others that he did not recognise. What could he do? How was he ever going to get rid of his past?
Just then, a car buzzed by. The engine was too loud; the vibrations from it made his chest feel hollow and, as he glanced up, he saw the black BMW stop just ahead of him, but the engine was still roaring. Panicking, he searched for an exit, a backstreet that he could run down and get away, but he knew that it was too late; they would still find him. So he carried on walking straight towards the waiting car.
As he drew nearer, the front passenger window rolled down. Behind it was Carl. It had been so long since Jimmy had seen him. He remembered him as scar-riddled and fierce. Now, a wrinkled, sharp face, dotted with blue tattoos, smiled at him.
‘Good to see you, Jimbo,’ he purred.
Reluctantly, Jimmy faced him square on. He tried not to be scared of him, but old memories made his insides flip, although his face remained smooth and silent.
‘You coming down to Old Billy’s tonight?’
Behind Carl, a heavier-set man was at the steering wheel. He was younger than Carl and glared at Jimmy, but he never said a word. In the back seat was Reese and his girl. Reese must have gone to Carl as soon as he had left Jimmy, but now he was respectfully silent in Carl’s presence and just stared smugly. Jimmy shook his head.
‘Got some great opportunities for you,’ Carl continued, sounding serious and business-like. But when Jimmy didn’t reply, his tone became more forceful. ‘You should come to Billy’s.’
Suddenly, Jimmy’s shyness vanished. He thought of all those years he’d spent in prison protecting that manipulative, evil man, and his anger overcame him. He stepped closer to the car so that he was only a few inches away from Carl’s ugly face. ‘I did what you wanted me to do. I played my part. It’s over now. Leave me alone.’
For a moment, Carl’s face was a mask, then slowly the corners of his lips turned up and a wispy laugh was forced through them. ‘Well, I’ll leave you to think about it.’
Before Jimmy could tell him he wouldn’t need to, the BMW thundered away from him, and the blacked-out window was rolled up. He stomped back home, feeling the adrenaline and frustration gripping his body threatening to spill over into violence or tears. He crashed through the front door and headed for his room.
‘Where have you been?’ his father demanded.
‘What was all that about before?’ Michael shouted, but Jimmy had already shut and locked his bedroom door.
He heard his parents arguing downstairs. Michael wanted to know everything. Sue told him everything would be fine, that Jimmy was a good boy and that he was “finished with all that nonsense”.
Jimmy knew the strain he was putting on them, and wondered what life had been like for them whilst he had been in prison. Had they even talked about him, or had he been swept under the carpet, a hassle that was now out of the way? Had life been so much easier for them without him?
He decided that he needed to leave, so he trudged downstairs.
‘I’ve decided I’m going away for a while,’ he said. His parents stared at him uncomprehendingly. ‘I need to get my head sorted. It’ll be best for everyone.’
‘But–’ his mum started to protest but was cut short by his father.
‘I think that’s probably for the best.’
His mum looked at him with worry and asked where he would go. This he had not actually thought of. He faltered for a moment. Where could he go...? What exactly was he looking for...? Peace was what he needed, and freedom. And then he knew; the answer had been right in front of him, above the fireplace to be exact.
‘I’m going to Cree.’