The Wall

Mark Blackburn

2022 Short Story Competition Short List

 

The Wall
 

Every night in Stephen’s dreams The Wall grew bigger. As you approached it, it wasn’t so scary. You came down West Street and there it was at the dead end of the road – a normal brick wall a few feet high topped off with concrete, and beyond was the sea. You could see the Isle of Wight off to the right on a good day, and there was the Nab Tower straight in front – Stephen liked to pretend this was a ship, coming towards him. Or going away, depending how he felt on any given day.

Yes, so from the land side, The Wall wasn’t so scary. But the other side fell down to the beach below, unforgiving shingle with stones the size of boulders. It was at least a six foot drop, and that was on a good day. Despite the size of the stones, the angry sea could whip them around like marbles, and after a storm the distance down was even more terrifying. Terrifying, because everyone else in the gang had jumped off the wall, and Stephen hadn’t. Each passing day made him more of a coward, more of a target, and made the drop seem more impossible than ever.

It’s not like the gang were mean or anything. There were about a dozen of them, some kids who lived there all year round and some the blow-ins who came to their holiday homes each year. Tony was the first to do anything, and the first to have jumped from The Wall. He’d fallen over and yelled when he landed, and they all thought he’d broken his ankle, but he soon stopped blubbing. He got up and basked in the glow of having been the first. Over the next few weeks everyone else had – even three of the posh Bunting sisters who lived in the biggest house on West Street.

All of their games revolved around the beach. At low tide they’d go shrimping, crabbing and rock-pooling, or just make patterns, dams and complex structures in the sand (don’t insult them with the word ‘castle’). When the tide was really far out because of the full moon or something, you could see old ruins miles out in the sand; hundreds of years ago there’d been a village right out there, but over the centuries the sea had crushed its way in, turning solid walls into mere limpet-covered foundations.

One evening after a fish and chip family supper there was still some light in the mackerel sky over the ocean. With all the rest of the gang safely in their own homes watching telly, Stephen went outside and pondered The Wall close up on his own. The drop didn’t look too bad in the dusk; he considered jumping it there and then, just to get it done. But then he thought about it – there was no point, no one would see him do it, no one would believe him.

The next day was a glorious late summer day. Usually Stephen loved being here at the coast, free and full of friends, so different from the mean regime at school. But the other kids would NOT stop talking about The Wall, and how Stephen had to do the jump before the end of the holiday. They decided today was the day. The sun was shining, the tide was way, way out, the shingle was dry and there was no possible reason for him not to leap, at least as far as the gang thought. The baying chorus made clear he had no choice; it was time to jump.

He climbed up and shuffled to the edge. He could see the stones miles down beneath the toes of his Dunlops. The canvas shoes with their flimsy rubber soles aren’t going to help, he thought. But then a chorus of “Jump, jump, jump” throbbed behind him. His time had run out. He jumped. The kids down below on the shingle saw him plummet, a loose bundle of clothes and limbs. He crashed onto the stones.

But that wasn’t how it seemed to Stephen. To his amazement he didn’t plunge down to be bashed against the rocks, his thin legs snapping like Twiglets. No, instead, a kind wind seemed to lift him up, and the shingle below shrank away. At the same time, the tide whooshed out, to reveal the foundations of the drowned buildings he dreamt about. It went out further than he’d ever seen, in real life and even in his dreams.

As he watched, the seaweed and the barnacles dissolved from the walls, which started rising again, forming whole buildings; their roofs materialised as well, and then there were people! People and dogs picking their way along the tracks between the little houses! The whole little town under the waves had come alive!

He kept looking for a while, just floating a few hundred meters above, and then he realised he was going down again; just very slowly and it didn’t feel scary. Then a gentle warm mist started blowing in from the sea, and soon he could only see the tops of the roofs, then just a few pinpricks of light from a handful of scattered lanterns. And then it was all gone, and he was drifting back down to the beach.

The other kids, having merely see him crash to the rocks, had run down the slipway behind The Wall and then slowed as they approached the slim form spread-eagled stock still on the shingle. To their amazement and relief, the figure started to move.

Stephen slowly opened his eyes, to see another pair of eyes staring back at him; the deep sea blue eyes of Angie Bunting. He noticed there were specks of sea spray on the cheeks below them – or were they tears? “Oh my God, Stephen, we thought you were dead!” she cried, and reached down to hug him and pull him up at the same time.

“No, I’m fine”, he said. “Just fine.”