At the far end of the not very large town, Billy and his sister Sally had just stepped off the train. Although Sally was smaller than Billy, she was wearing the oversized rucksack, while Billy dragged the case on wheels, because of Billy's back. There was nothing wrong with Billy's back, but it was important that it stayed that way.
"What do you think?" said Billy.
They looked around the station car park. There were several parked cars, and a cab rank with a waiting cab, the window half rolled down and a curl of cigarette smoke emanating above the No Smoking sticker on the glass. Here and there the tarmac was cracked and some weeds poked through. There was a thin layer of sand on top of everything, and an angry seagull sitting on top of a lamp post, although seagulls always looked angry, thought Billy. He wondered whether this counted as an original observation.
"Nice," said Sally, which was the right answer. Billy smiled.
"Why don't you take the bags," he said, "and find us a B&B. I'll head to the beach, soak up the atmosphere, get the old creativity going. Rolling," he corrected himself, liking the feel of the word on his tongue, thinking it was a better word, and then changing his mind, 'going' was better, less try-hard.
Sally headed off up the hill into town, the huge rucksack above her short, stocky legs making her look like a dung beetle, thought Billy. Although didn't dung beetles carry the dung balls upside-down? Maybe he meant another type of beetle. A scarab. But then beetles' legs were spindly, not stocky. No matter what the type. So he probably didn't mean a beetle at all. She just looked like Sally, carrying a big rucksack, and dragging a wheelie case behind her.
The beach wasn't far from the station. Even on a Friday, it was packed, it being the school holidays. Billy stood at the top of the strand wondering whether or not to take his trainers off. Walking on the beach in shoes felt wrong, but he hated putting his socks and shoes back on over sandy feet, and he could never get all the sand off no matter how much he tried. Then the sand would get everywhere in his hotel room, and later, if they moved into a flat, it would somehow get there too, spreading and spreading like… Germs? Butter? The Chinese? No, that was appallingly racist. He decided to take his shoes and socks off anyway. If he wasn't going to feel the sand beneath his feet, he may as well not have come.
He walked towards the water. The sand wasn't yet hot enough to burn. He enjoyed the way it felt, the soft yielding and yet the firmness beneath, the slight crunch. He scanned the horizon, took in the rise and fall of the waves, the pounding as they hit the shore, the inchoate cries of the seagulls as they swooped above - yes, he told himself, yes, this is it, finally, the place where I can write! But it was impossible to ignore the all-too-choate sounds of the human beings around him, babies screaming, kids demanding ice creams, teenagers pleading to go to the arcade, husbands and wives arguing over who forgot to bring the sunscreen. Also, he wasn't sure that choate was a word. It should be. If Shakespeare can make up words, he thought, so can I.
This made him think of his mother. He checked the pockets of his shorts. He had just enough change either for an ice cream or for a postcard and a stamp. He did send his mother postcards so that she would know he was still alive. He tried to choose ones that were vague enough, that gave the name of the county, rather than the specific town he was staying in. He never wrote much on the postcards. He couldn't bear to think of her analysing them, the way she used to with his school essays, comparing them to him: the original Shakespeare. A few generic phrases were enough. So that she would know he hadn't bothered to try.
He looked back across the sea. He imagined himself stripping off (maybe just to underwear, even in these last moments he wouldn't want to embarrass himself) and swimming out as far as he could go, and then further, until he exhausted himself, went under, the authorities might even think it was an accident. They said that drowning was a good way to go, although god knows who 'they' were. He doubted very much that people who had been brought round after almost drowning said, "That was great! I really want to do that again." It was just something that people said at parties, people who had no idea whether or not it was true. He was a cliche even for thinking it. And also, he was a strong swimmer. He might get further than he expected. He might reach France. Then there he would be, alive, in France, wearing only his pants (just as well he'd decided to keep them on.) There were so many things to consider. To be or not to be? Even contemplating suicide, that bastard had got there first.
He probably, he conceded, would not reach France.
He imagined Sally coming down to the beach and looking for him. He pictured her finding his clothes in a pile and waiting beside them for him to come back. Looking out to sea, trying to spot the dot that was his head. How long would she wait before she started to worry? To panic? And then, afterwards, how long before she didn't miss him any more?
He decided on an ice cream. There was a van parked up beside the road. The woman inside greeted him with easy familiarity. People often thought that they knew him, but they never knew from where. Billy knew. It was from the cover of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. His mother, the once eminent, now disgraced geneticist Eleanor Anderson, had grown him from DNA extracted from one of the bard's wisdom teeth. How she had obtained said wisdom tooth she wouldn't say, but she'd taken him to visit Shakespeare's tomb once, and he'd seen a security guard winking at her. It was an implausible story, except that he looked exactly like every drawing of Shakespeare he'd ever seen - the muddy hair fast receding from the domed forehead, the round brown eyes, the small, soft lips - while his mother was a tall, angular, narrow-blue-eyed blonde, or at least she had been, last time he'd seen her. Maybe she was grey now.
The melting ice cream dripped onto his hand. He should have bought the postcard.