Mammy said I’d ruin my eyes, reading under the covers wia torch but I didnae care. I was obsessed.
I sneaked the Famous Five under my sums jotter, took them out tae read at playtime when everyone else was skipping or playing tig. Every Saturday I was first at the library, pestering Miss Lafferty for a new book, every night I fell asleep imagining my life was like theirs. We stayed in a street of identical houses, visited my granny on a Sunday and went to Girvan for a week’s holiday in July. Nae country lanes or remote islands tae explore, nae adventures wi circus kids or smugglers.
Then one Saturday morning just as I was about to escape to the library Mammy said, ‘We’ve booked wur holiday. We’re going to a caravan this year.’
‘A caravan?’ My mind instantly filled with an image of a brightly painted wooden contraption, pulled by an old horse. I hugged her.
‘A caravan?’ Alan, my brother, who, since he’d turned thirteen, had been cultivating a long droopy sweep of hair which covered his permanent sneer of disgust. ‘God.’
Mammy ignored him, disentagled my arms which were wrapped round her neck. ‘Don’t strangle me, Katie. We thought it’d be a nice change. Fresh air.’
Alan sighed. He seemed to be allergic to fresh air nooadays, spent all his time in his bedroom, plugged intae heidphones wi the curtains drawn.
‘When will we get the caravan?’
Mammy looked confused for a minute then said, ‘It won’t be coming here, hen - it’s at the caravan park. We’ll go there on the bus.’
Alan sloped out the kitchen without saying a word.
‘Looks like a field fulla giant elasterplasts.’ So far my da had been showing about as much enthusiasm for the caravan holiday as Alan. He’d stared out the windae of the bus, ignoring Mammy’s attempts tae include him in conversations about the weather and the beauty of the coastline but when the rows of identical flesh-coloured metal boxes came intae view he exploded.
‘I don’t know what persudaded you, Eileen. We’ll be squashed thegether like sardines, next tae heaven only knows whit kinda folk.’
Mammy said nothing but her fingers tightened round the message bag perched on her knee. I felt a sinking feeling replace the tingle of excitement that had filled my belly since I woke up that morning. Even though a caravan park that you went to on the bus wasnae the same as a caravan you drove through the countryside, stopping to ask a farmer to let you stay in his field, it was still different fae living in a house. But with my daddy moaning, Alan sulking and Mammy upset, it didnae look as if it was gonnae be much of a holiday.
Inside the caravan I cheered up. There were bench seats, wee windaes to look out, a cooker wia cover you could use as a worksurface, everything you needed, all in miniature.
‘Stop turning the tap on and off, Katie. You’ll waste the water in the tank.’
I skipped round the van. There was a closed off bit at one end which had a wee double bed in it. ‘If you and Daddy are in there where will me and Alan sleep?’
‘The seat makes up intae two beds,’ said my mammy.
‘I’ll put up the tent. It’ll be far too cramped in here for us all,’ said my da.
For a few moments I could barely contain mysel for wondering which would be better, being in a the caravan or in the tent, but my da decided it’d be best for him tae sleep by hissel in the tent, which he pitched at the side of the van. ‘Safer that way. You never know who’s about.’
Later that night, after a tea of sausage and egg, us all squashed round the fold-up table, I drifted off to sleep in the bed next to my mammy, dreaming about what the next day would bring.
The beach was a five minute walk through the sand dunes, tan-coloured sand with a fringe of crunchy seaweed near the shoreline, and though it was only ten o’clock, families were already clumped across it. We set up camp in the cleft of some rocks. Mammy spread out the tartan blanket and covered it wia beach towel and my da constructed a shade out of an auld umbrella weighted doon wi stones. It was a lovely day - bright, wia breeze blowing in fae the sea - and I was in heaven. I spent ages building a castle wi my bucket and spade. Me and Alan used tae make them thegether, but the day he pulled on a perra shades and sat a few feet away fae us starin out tae sea. Da helped me with the castle for a while, digging a moat round the big pile a damp sand I’d collected, then went tae sit next to Mammy on the blanket, her reading her book, him daeing the crossword.
After the castle was done, I went doon tae the shore where my plastic beach shoes made ridged footprints in the damp sand. I hunkered doon and stared. Close up I could see how the sand wasnae actually sand coloured at all but made of different particles, some black, some bleached and some orange. I poked my finger in it, curled it round in a spiral, then stopped, horrified. I’d almost touched a blobby, squelchy jellyfish. It wasnae that big but it was yuchy, misshapen wi purple veins threaded through it. I ran up the beach.
‘There’s a jellyfish on the beach!’
My da looked up fae his paper. ‘It’ll no dae you any harm, just be careful.’
‘Wear your shoes when you go in for a paddle,’ added Mammy.
I looked fae one to the other. I didnae want to go back by mysel. It wasnae just that I was feart of getting stung, but there was something about the shapelessness of the thing, the way it had nae features, looked as if it’d been squeezed out of some gigantic tube and left there, dripping on the beach. My da sighed and pushed hissel to his feet. ‘C’mon, hen,’ he said and took my haund.
We examined it thegether.
‘Why does it look like that, daddy? Why does it no have a face?’
‘It’s an early form of life, like amoebas and that. They’re no as developed as the creatures that came later, insects and birds.’
We moved along a few feet to a wee pool. Tiny beasties skimming the glitter of seaweed and salt water. Above in the blue sky a seagull hung on a current of air.
My da gestured to where a group of children were playing with a beach ball, jumping in and out of the water. ‘Why don’t you go and make pals?’
‘Don’t want tae.’
‘Alan does his dying duck act while you go all shy on us. A caravan holiday will be good for the children says your mother. Some holiday.’ He turned and heided up the beach, past Mammy and Alan, back towards the site.
The famous five went tae a farm for their food. The farmer’s wife gied them cheese and ham and eggs fae her chickens. We went to the site shop, a low building made of corrugated iron near the main gates to the park.
‘You help your daddy. I’ll sort the washing. Mammy gied me the list and we set out across the grass.
‘Can I go round with the trolley?’
‘Aye on you go, hen.’
Da stationed hissel near the counter where a blonde wumman was sitting, flicking through a magazine. She lifted her heid and smiled at him. ‘That your wee lassie? She’s your double.’
The shop wasnae that big but there were two long rows of shelves and I wandered up and doon, putting in tinned meat, bread, bacon and kitchen roll.
I went up to the counter.
‘Da, there’s nae fruit or veg.’
‘There’s tins round the back of that shelf,’ said the wumman. Close up I could see the way she pencilled in her eyebrows, very dark in contrast wi the blonde hair. ‘We only have fresh stuff on a Thursday when the van comes.’
‘OK.’ I set off again, filling the trolley with tinned peaches, pears and peas. ‘I was glad I wouldnae be made to eat apples or oranges.’
Mammy wasnae too chuffed with the bag of messages we brung back. ‘You’d think they’d have a few bits of lettuce or some tomatoes for salad.’
‘Folk probably cannae be bothered on holiday,’ said my da.
The weather stayed sunny and days settled intae a routine. Mornings we’d have toast and cornflakes then heid doon the beach, return tae the caravan at lunchtime. Afternoons we split up. Alan had made pals wi another boy, Gary his name was, wore black fae heid tae toe. There was a putting green nearby and they hung about there every efternoon though they never done any putting. Mammy usually had a lie doon while I read my book, cooried in among the sand dunes. I loved that time, lost in my story, coming to noo and then tae glance across at the big sky and birling white clouds.
Da went aff on his ain, binoculars round his neck. I asked to go wi him but he wasnae for it. ‘You keep your mammy company.’
That first day he was only away for an hour, returning with a loaf and some cheese. ‘Picked it up on the way back, saves gaun out later,’ he said, placing it on the table.
‘Thanks,’ said Mammy. ‘Where did you get to?’
‘Oh just a wander. Fancy a game of putting, wee yin?’
My daddy’s wanderings took him further afield as the week drew on and he didnae came back till tea time, but he was cheerier, stopped moaning about being in the caravan. Sometimes he’d bring a few cans of beer or a bottle of wine back with him as well as the food.
I loved mealtimes round the wee plastic table. Mammy complained that the shop wasnae very good but I thought it was great having fry ups and boiled eggs and beans on toast, eating tinned fruit instead of fresh. After tea we’d go for a walk along the beach then heid back and play cards or ludo as the sky darkened outside.
On the Thursday after lunch, Mammy and me were washing up the dishes at the wee sink. ‘There’s only two sleeps and one and a hauf days left, Mammy. I wish we werenae gaun hame on Saturday.’
‘I’d lost count of the days - which reminds me ...’
‘I need to go to the shop and get some fresh fruit and veg - the delivery’s today.’
‘Daddy’ll get some on his way hame.’
‘By then there’ll be none left.’
She threw on her anorak. ‘Sky’s turning - hope it doesnae start tae rain. You stay and finish the dishes - I’ll no be long.’
I dried the dishes and put them away in the neat cupboards above the bunk. I loved daeing housework in the caravan, used tae imagine I was Anne waiting for George and the rest to come back fae the farm. When I’d finished I sat on the bench and looked out the windae. Spits of rain settled on the glass, getting heavier and heavier.
I turned round when I heard her at the door. Mammy’s anorak was dripping wet and her hair stood round her heid in frizzy damp curls.
‘Where’s the messages?’
‘Oh ... the shop was ... shut.’ She hung her anorak on the peg, standing with her back to me. ‘I think I’ll go and have a lie doon, Katie. You read your book, hen.’
She shut the door of the wee room behind her and I returned to the world of smugglers’ coves and lost doubloons.
When my daddy returned he placed a bag on the table. I opened it and spread out the contents; tomatoes, lettuce, bananas.
Mammy rinsed the tomatoes in the sink. ‘So the shop was open later then?’
‘Aye.’ Daddy cracked open a can.
‘Lucky you didnae get soaked this afternoon.’
He lifted the paper. ‘Took shelter for a while.’
We had salad and hard boiled eggs for tea that night. It was too wet to go for a walk and the rain battered doon on the roof of the caravan as we played snap.
‘I think we should just go hame the morra,’ said Mammy.
‘There’s nae point staying if it’s gonnae pour all day, hen. You’d be as well in your ain house.’ She turned to my da. ‘D’you no think so, Peter?’
‘It’s up to you. I never wanted tae come in the first place.’ He put doon his cards. ‘Well, better get tae bed, then, make an early start.’ He looked towards the door, but Mammy put her haund on his airm.
‘I don’t think you should sleep in the tent the night. Katie can stay in here wi Alan.’
There was a guddle of putting things away and making up beds but eventually Mammy and Daddy were in the room and Alan in the bunk across fae me, sleeping or pretending to. I didnae want tae go hame the morra but I couldnae be sad cause at last, I was sleeping all cosy in a wee bunk, just like the Famous Five. I put my heid under the blanket, switched on the torch and began to read.