One Road In
Holidays always seemed to have the same impact on Mandy. She’d build them up, hundreds of blocks of excitement placed on top of one another until they’d inevitably fall down. Holidays were almost always better in her head than in real life. The way they turned out never lived up to the expectation she developed of them.
‘Come on grouch, put the book down.’ She raised her eyes over the top of the paperback to make eye contact with her dad. His face glowed a warm tinge of orange through her wide lens sunglasses. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy holidays at all, that wasn’t the case. Mandy might have been fifteen but she wasn’t entirely neurotic. She enjoyed the time spent with her family away from the greyness of the city, away from the constant chatter about work and money and mundane things like petrol and grass clippings. But at the end of the day, she knew these breaks were mere blips in her everyday life. They could be happy and joyous and blissfully ignorant of the real world and its problems for a week or two, but at the end of the holiday they’d return to their home with its endless flood of bills and chores. The reality of everything had that knack of breaking into the happiness of holidays and days out. And once it was in, no matter how hard Mandy tried, she was completely incapable of shoving it back out. God, maybe she was a bit neurotic.
‘Earth to Mandy, anyone home?’ A hand waved across her face, fingers fluttering in front of her eyes.
‘Sorry, what?’ she said, drawing her head up from the pages of her book.
‘Ice cream - yay or nay, Mands?’
‘It’s Mandy. And yay, of course,’ she replied with a grin. ‘You’ll always be Mands to me,’ her dad said, turning his attention to Mandy’s younger sister, Christine.
‘Right you, shoes on,’ he said to the younger girl.
‘I don’t see why I need shoes on to eat ice cream.’
Mandy snorted. Her sister was four years her junior, but was far more of a teenager than she had ever been. If she was this sassy at eleven, God help her family when she reached sixteen.
‘Oh no, I’m afraid I’m unable to pay for your ice cream in sarcasm. You’re going to have to come with me.’
It was the third time this had played out so far in the four days that the family had been at Rose Bay. It went like this: 1. Mandy’s sister refused to do as she was told, accompanied by a witty remark; 2. Mandy’s dad retaliated with added sarcasm, grabbing the youngest daughter around the waist and 3. The whole event ended with Mandy’s dad flinging Christine over his shoulder and sprinting towards the sea whilst she cried out, claiming to be sorry between hysterical bouts of laughter. They were currently on stage 2. Mandy slipped her headphones back over her plaited hair and jabbed her finger into the chunky play button. Synthetic sounds brimmed from the foamy ear pieces, spilling into her ears. She watched over the top of her book, smirking and enjoying the scenes in front of her. Somehow, it had yet to get old.
Her dad held her younger sister over his shoulder, her body flopping about and giggling as he sprinted down towards the water. Perhaps this was what happiness felt like. Perhaps she had already found it in moments like these but she was unwilling to allow herself to enjoy them, to live and relish them in the moment.
‘Ooh, Mum,’ she said, tugging the headset down to rest around her neck. ‘Do we have any pictures left?’
‘Yes I think so, check the beach bag,’ her mum replied, her own face buried into her favourite Jackie Collins novel, the corners of which were peeling and splitting with age. Mandy shoved her hand deep into the straw bag and rummaged around for the familiar cardboard feel of the disposable camera. Her dad had a fancy Olympus but refused point blank to take it anywhere near the beach. If so much as a single grain of sand makes its way into the complicated mechanics of this thing, I’ll blow a gasket, she imagined him saying. The camera emerged, a smudge of yellowing sun cream smeared on its front.
‘Ah great, three left. Smile.’ Mandy held up the camera and waited for her mum to tip her large sun hat back to reveal her tanned, freckled face. The camera clunked and creaked as Mandy slid her thumbnail into the grooves of the plastic wheel, churning the film onto the next available image. ‘Be right back,’ she said with a grin, running down to the water to find her dad dangling her younger sister into the salty waves. She clicked the camera, capturing Christine’s wide toothy grin. She wondered why she wasn’t able to hold onto her happiness like this camera held onto wonderful holiday images.
‘Just one picture left,’ she said to herself as she walked back up to her mum, her voice more sombre than anticipated.
‘We’ll save it, have a family snap when your dad stops torturing Christine,’ her mum replied. ‘Help me roll these mats up. We’re going to hire some of those ridiculous swan shaped pedalos after ice cream.’
Mandy began clearing things from the grainy sand, slotting them into the oversized beach bag. She wound the cable from her headphones tight around her yellow Walkman and placed it on top of her book. She quite liked the idea of a pedalo, the bizarre prospect of cycling across the top of the water and directing your swan to a far off land to explore. Even if they did look utterly ridiculous.
‘I want my own one, can I go in my own one? Dad? Can I?’ Christine whined between mouthfuls of silky white ice cream, remnants of the sugary substance clinging to the corners of her pink lips.
‘Well I don’t know, there are four of us so I was quite hoping we’d all go in one, to be honest, Christine.’
‘Oh come on, I’m 11 and you lot are embarrassing. I’m too old to come with you!’ Christine planted her hands on her hips, practicing her teenage attitude far before the beginning of her teenage years.
‘Your older sister is coming with us.’
‘Hey, don’t bring me into this,’ Mandy said, nudging her headphones away from her ears to hear her bickering family that bit clearer. ‘Besides, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there are spaces for four people - I don’t even know if these things will work with just one person in them.’
‘Yeah, you’ll end up going around in circles, Chrissy,’ her dad said, jabbing his finger into her side and sending her into fits of hysterics again.
‘We agreed - no more tickling! Please, no more!’ she screeched, swatting her dad’s hands away.
‘Well that settles it, we’re all together,’ Lorraine concluded, nodding towards a sunny yellow and white pedalo drifting in the water and spinning in slow, pronounced circles. Its lone pilot frantically pushed his feet into the pedals, making his already embarrassing situation worse and drawing a wave of laughter from those queuing for their own plastic vessel.
‘Fine,’ Christine groaned, clambering into the boat and jiggling up and down with excitement. Mandy sat to her right and glanced at her parents who were awkwardly sliding into the two back seats.
‘Right, let's go,’ Christine yelled, barely waiting for her family to sit down before driving her legs against the pedals. ‘This is your captain speaking,’ she mocked, bellowing into cupped hands and lifting her head high above her family. ‘Please make sure you keep your arms and legs inside of the boat at all times, or else the crocodiles will chomp them off.’
‘Who decided you should be the captain, huh?’
‘I’ll take no rude comments from the passengers, unless they fancy jumping overboard,’ Christine retorted, dodging the droplets that flew from her dad’s hands as he ran his fingertips across the top of the cool water. ‘Oi,’ ’— she said, scooping up her own handful of murky British water ’— ‘behave!’
The water was still, bar the splashes and droplets that flew through the air between Christine and her dad. Mandy and her mum continued to pedal despite their ribs hurting from laughing at the other half of their boat, and soon enough they were bearing up to the side of the luscious green island that was situated in the middle of the channel of water.
‘So what is this island, exactly?’ Mandy asked.
‘Not entirely sure. There was a sign at the top of the beach that said it was uninhabited by people but it’s full of birds and plants. That’s it essentially.’
‘Who knew there were so many beautiful shades of green? Look how wonderfully healthy all of the plants look.’ Lorraine gawked at the fauna from the side of the pedalo. ‘It is very small though. Doesn’t surprise me that no one would live on it,’ she said, leaning back into her seat and basking in the late afternoon sunshine. ‘The mainland is so close. Not much point living out here.’
‘Can we get off and take a look?’ Christine tilted her head, adopting her classic puppy-dog eyes that would be sure to work their magic on her parents.
‘Oh no, I’m not sure that’s the best idea,’ her mum replied. ‘It doesn’t look like we’re supposed to.’
‘Dad?’ Christine asked again. Her eyes widened in the way she was sure would twist her dad’s arm, but he didn’t budge. She puffed out her bottom lip and lifted her eyebrows.
The hardness in her dad’s face melted away. ‘I don’t think it would hurt, would it? Just a quick look?’
Mandy and Lorraine glared at him, unimpressed by his overruling. ‘Oh come on,’ he said, resting a hand on his wife’s knee. ‘Live a little. Besides, there are no signs telling us we can’t go on there.’
Mandy glanced at her mum’s more stern face and shrugged in agreement. ‘We can hop on, spot a bird or two, and hop back off again. No one would ever know.’ Her dad grinned at her, the playful nature of his personality twinging at the corners of his eyes.
‘Fine, whatever,’ Lorraine sighed. ‘But if we’re caught you’re dealing with it, Gavin.’
The girl’s dad saluted, pulling his back ramrod straight and planting a mock-serious expression on his face. ‘Right-o, pull over when you‘re ready Captain Christine. Prepare for landing.’
The pedalo veered to the right and curled round the back of the island, away from the potentially suspicious eyes of those manning the rentals on the mainland. The side of the plastic boat scraped along the edge of the island, smearing wet sand and mud up the smooth outer layer.
‘Whoah,’ Gavin jested. ‘Carefully does it. Is the pilot drunk?’
Christine chuckled, pushing Mandy out of her side of the boat and onto the green, overgrown island. She clambered over the centre console, landing on the island next to her sister. ‘Right, where shall we explore first?’
‘We’ll be on here for five minutes, then back in the boat, you understand me?’
‘Yes, Mum, or should I say, First Mate Buzzkill?’ Christine giggled, taking off into the thick layer of trees.
‘I’m going to wait here and make sure the boat doesn’t float away. Please, five minutes Gavin,’ Lorraine pleaded. ‘I mean it,’ she said, frowning through a grin that tugged at her lips and threatened to break her matronly facade.
‘Ye ma’am, you got it.’ Gavin leaned over and kissed his wife before darting off into the tree line behind his two daughters. ‘We’ll be back before you know it.’
Lorraine rummaged around in the beach bag for her book. How did her family fill this thing with so much stuff?
Where did it all hide, squashed in the corners of the multicoloured straw like a sand covered Mary Poppins holdall? Her hand passed by multiple bottles of suncream of varying strengths, the flimsy disposable camera, half finished packets of crisps, an apple, too many books for one child to claim to be able to read in an afternoon, and God knows what else.
‘Ah,’ she breathed, lifting the battered paperback up to her face and flipping the pages to her place. Why do you always read the same things? That’s what Gavin always asked. It wasn’t true. She didn’t read exactly the same thing all the time, but when they were on holiday she loved nothing more than to jump into her favourite novel. The words comforted her, their familiarity lulling her into relaxation. It might not have made sense to everyone, but she enjoyed it. And she was coming up to a good bit.
The pages swallowed her whole as they always did. It didn’t matter that she could quote this particular chapter word for word. The suspense between the lines, between the words that didn’t need to be written, those were what got her. The paragraphs drew her in, and soon she’d read close to thirty pages. Thirty pages at what, a minute or so a page? It took a second to dawn on her. She dug her hand frantically into her bag again in search of her old Casio watch.
‘Oh shit, oh shit,’ she mumbled, her mind immediately catastrophising the situation. ‘What. Is. The. Time?’ she uttered. ‘Ah.’
The watch floated to the top of the bag, summoned by her hand, to reveal itself amongst the debris of family life at the beach. 16:54. 16:54. What time did they get off the boat?
‘Oh my goodness,’ she uttered, the realisation dawning on her that she’d been waiting for her family for almost forty minutes. ‘Gavin!’ she yelled, holding onto the side of the pedalo in the thankfully calm water. No one answered. Lorraine strained her eyes into the thick blanket of trees and shrubs, desperately hoping to lock onto one of her family members. No one surfaced. She leant forward, away from the boat, eager to run off into the trees in search of her children but aware that the boat would likely drift away if she left its side. She couldn’t see anywhere sensible to tie the boat, and in turn felt tethered to it herself.
‘They’re just in there, they’ve lost track of time, that’s all,’ she whispered. ‘You’ve got to stop overreacting like this.’ She swallowed, a deep breath of fresh air. ‘They’re just in there,’ she repeated, a mantra meant to calm her down.
She squinted into the trees. The trunks and roots of the plants merged together, the varying shades of brown and green bleeding and morphing into one until she could hardly make out any space between them. Was that a light, or did she imagine it? She brought the watch up to her face again: 16:59. Oh God, those five minutes felt so much longer. ‘Gavin?’ she yelled again, spotting a hand on a nearby tree. ‘Gavin, is that you? Stop messing around, we need to get back.’
Mandy finally peered from around a tree and came running out to meet her mum.
‘Oh thank God,’ Lorraine exhaled, the words gushing from her mouth. ‘Where’s your dad? Where’s Christine?’
Mandy stared at her mum, unsure how to respond. ‘Mandy? Where are they?’ she mouthed.
‘I —.’ Mandy looked frantically to either side of the small island. ‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘As in, I’m assuming they’re still in there, but I don’t know exactly where.’
‘I’m not joking, Mandy. Where are they?’ Lorraine raised her voice, her face taking on the rosy tint of panic.
‘Mum, I honestly don’t know. I thought they’d be out here with you.’
‘Mandy, thank God! Where did you go?’ Gavin cried, bursting out from the line of trees and shrubs. ‘It’s so thick in there, you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. So much for seeing loads of birds. I saw sod all apart from a load of damp plants and bugs!’
‘Gavin?’ Lorraine interjected her husband’s exasperated rambling. ‘Where is Christine?’ Her jaw clenched and she finally moved away from the pedalo, letting it drift into the water. Mandy rushed over and grabbed the side of it before it made a break for it.
‘What?’ Isn’t she out here already?’ Gavin said, his eyes automatically darting back to the edge of the forest. ‘I left her with you.’ He turned to Mandy.
‘No, no you didn’t, Dad. She was with you the entire time.’
None of them answered Mandy’s statement. The three of them stood in their respective spots on the island, staring from the trees to the edge of the land until it dawned on them. Not one of them knew where Christine was. Christine, the eleven year old girl, was alone somewhere on the uninhabited island.
‘This island isn’t big,’ Mandy said. ‘She can’t have gone far.’
‘I’ll head back into the forest,’ Gavin replied, striding towards the tree line. ‘You two stay here in case she comes back.’ He moved swiftly into the trees, the darkening forest swallowing any trace of him.
‘I’m going to walk around the perimeter, Mum - she might have come out of the forest on the wrong side.’
Lorraine tried to argue, tried to say that didn’t want to risk another daughter getting lost, that Gavin had the situation under control, that everything would be perfectly okay. But something stopped her, something wedged her breath in her throat and forced her to remain silent. Despite the warm evening air, the hairs on Lorraine’s arms prickled and rose up to stand on end. There was something else on this island.