I’m standing at the top of the zig zag looking down over the spread of beach below. It’s early in the day yet, but people are already filing into place inside their beach huts (if they’re lucky enough to have one, which we are) or directly onto the sands, all of us drawn inexorably by the rare promise of clear skies and light breezes. I run ahead, eager to get to the bottom of the cliff face and strip off my shirt and launch my skin-lotioned body into the brine.
But it’s 9:30 and the sun is low and there’s still a slight chill on the wind, so we make a cup of tea (first things first) and settle in to await the sun’s ascendant warmth.
I was hoping my friend Paul would be here by now – his mother owns the hut directly next to ours. But so far we’re alone.
“Can I go play on the sand, Mum?”
“Go on then. Keep your shirt on till you get in the water though.”
I step down onto the sand and give it a few peremptory kicks: it’s fine and cool and deliciously infinite. I sit down and grab a handful and swipe away all but a single grain. It shines in the early light and I marvel at its perfection. “No way there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand” I say to myself, still stunned that my Dad could ever believe such nonsense.
A couple hours pass and Paul and his mum finally show up. We exchange the briefest of greetings before whipping off our shirts and sprinting toward the waves. The water is cold and littered with rags of seaweed, but we cast aside all reservations and splash right in. We swim as far as we can from land, laughing and spluttering in the spume, until we can no longer feel the sandy bottom beneath our feet.
“Swim underneath me!” Paul shouts. I vanish beneath the surface and with two or three large strokes arc down and through his legs and back up toward the sky, taking in a mouthful of water which I spit out as I resurface – it’s cold and thick with brack, and I relish its savor.
Paul laughs and takes his turn and returns to the surface with a handful of seaweed that he wraps around my face with one rude flick of his wrist. “Oi!” I shout with a grin, and swipe a sheet of water at his face with my well-practiced hand.
A few more minutes pass and we realize the current has moved us down the beach a couple hundred yards from where we started, so we swim to the shore and make our way back up the beach toward our huts, kicking wet sand at each other as we go.
Upon our arrival I run up to Dad in a frenzy of new excitement and ask “Can Paul and me go to the pier?” Bournemouth pier is about a mile west of us down the promenade – it contains, among other delights, an arcade brimming with electric wonders of every kind. My favorite are the coin-pushers, for which I believe I’ve developed a natural talent, having more than tripled my money on our last visit – I used my winnings to buy myself, my sister, and our two cousins each a rubber finger-monster with which we had formed our own version of the band The Buggles, singing “Video Killed the Radio Star” together the entire walk home.
“Not today son. We have to leave a bit earlier than usual, and we’re about to eat some lunch.”
I’m momentarily deflated, but Paul isn’t about to waste a second of our time: “We can go find lizards on the cliff…?”
I look back at Dad: “Can I?”
“Go on on then. But be back in 15 minutes. And be careful!”
We retreat to our huts to dust off our feet and put on fresh clothes, then regroup out back. “Let’s go,” Paul says, and we scramble up the wall separating the back of our huts from the rocky brush that inhabits the lower face of the cliff. The sun is in fine fettle by now, and the sand and scrub beneath our feet is properly hot – perfect lizard weather. Of all the creatures my friends and I like to hunt – frogs, newts, slow worms – lizards are the gold standard. Despite their relative scarcity, they seem wiser than the rest – more wily in their ancient, vermiculate skin. And so fast. To catch and hold one for any amount of time is a privilege beyond any price I can imagine.
We walk around for a few minutes and only distantly spot one or two lizards before they vanish quickly into the grass. We continue for a couple minutes longer but sense our time slowly coming to an end, and so we finally sit down on the edge of the wall to await the inevitable call of our parents to come back and eat.
Paul reaches absent-mindedly into his shorts pocket and pulls out a pen knife. I can see it has three different blades inside it – the handle is mother-of-pearl. “Whoa,” I say with quiet reverence, “can I have a look?” He hands it to me and waits as I expose every blade in turn, holding them up to the sun to catch its light upon each edge.
“Got it for my birthday,” Paul says. “Have you got one?”
“No,” I reply with a sigh. “I’ve asked, but I don't think I’m allowed yet.” I put the tip of one blade gently to my fingertip and give it a tiny, satisfying prick.
Paul gives me a moment or two longer and then says, “Do you know what blood brothers are?”
“‘Blood brothers’?” I reply with immediate uncertainty.
“Yeah, blood brothers.” He reaches to take back his knife and unfolds the longest blade, holding the point directly to the center of his palm. “What you do is, you cut yourself right here - we both do it. And then we put our hands together and our blood mixes and we’re blood brothers forever.”
I can only stare at him as I process what he’s telling me. Paul stares back. “What do you think?”
“You want us to be blood brothers.”
Alarm bells are ringing in my head, and yet something about his request seems primal and right and true, an initiation into something archaic but affirming.
Paul is still holding the blade to his palm, but even he seems suddenly unsure about what he’s suggesting. Sweat is glistening on his forehead – was that there before?
I nod my head slowly: “Go on.” I have no idea what my part in this is going to be, but I am definitely calling his bluff. I want to see him cut his own hand.
But I notice his attention has shifted: he’s staring wide-eyed at a patch of grass a foot or two away from where my hand is resting. I look down slowly and there’s a lizard right next to me – a big one, five or six inches at least, ladder-backed and shining in the glare.
I look back at Paul, and he nods his head, and he drops the knife, and as one, we lunge.