The Last Prize

First published last century…

When the sea was as crystal clear as a fine elfin bell, with dancing eyes in the spray, real human children sported as deep as they liked with not one fear of drowning. Donny shrugged his shoulders and wondered whence such a thought had come.
The sea soared and sucked beneath the old pier, licking like grey fire the thick oaken stilts upon which its planking stretched for a good mile. On occasions, the wind whipped up its own vortices, like ghostly dervishes, around the under-hulks of this man-made ship- wreck—raising the fury of the sea in gobs of giant’s spit between the gaps in the boardwalk. Such gaps always gave Donny’s mother a dose of vertigo. It was indeed amazing to Donny that, after the many weathering decades, the pier still stood firm, with Variety House, Amusment Arcade and Dodgem Railway surely weighing its buck- ling skeleton ever closer to the sporadic sea-level below. He regularly stamped up and down its walkways, to test whether its purchase in the sea-bed was as dependable as the seasonal hordes of thoughtless holiday-makers evidently supposed it to be. Goodness knows what he would have done, if such tests proved his worst fears—drown, probably. Donny had never learned to swim, despite having been brought up here in Walton-on-Naze. Sea-water was an element that contained all the filthy impurities of mankind, Donny felt, in contrast to the cleansing force of fire. And at the time, he was only six.
His first girl friend was Linda. Their respective parents used to plump them down on the beach, to play together on their own, for hours on end—something that could not be risked nowadays, for sure. The two children ended up exchanging vests, at first by accident then by design. And during this period of time which Donny still finds it hard to convince himself happened, they held hands and wandered along the pier, chatting of their beliefs concerning the lands which lay beyond the seemingly endless horizon of sea.
“People over there,” said Donny, pointing to the shimmering margin of light and shade in the distance, “try to clean the sea—so, the further we can go towards them, the more we’ll be able to see what lives under the sea.” That was his favourite dream, as he pulled Linda along to the pier-head where, even in the hottest longest summers, cold lashes of wind took their hair in outlandish directions. “Look, Linda, can you see the fins of the ocean fairies? Their gills are golden and their gossamer tails joined each to each.”
She nodded, humouring him no doubt. In retrospect, Donny wonders if she actually understood his peculiar turns of phrase. Or even if he did, at such an early age. Her favourite dream was that the lands across the sea possessed no coast at all but were, simply, the natural continuation of thickening in the waves. He cannot recall her exact words.
“Thickening with what?” he asked, bemused. She tapped her nose—and he spent the rest of the day worrying what she had meant.
They never kissed. But that’s a lie, he tells himself. There was a kiss, if only one.
When the two children had finished chatting about other lands, they played the Machines in the Amusement Arcade. Then, most of the contraptions needed only one old penny—but, of course, nobody knew these coins were eventually to become illegal tender. Donny enjoyed flicking a small silver ball round a vertical display which he could in no way control once it had been released—to see if it fell in the ‘win’ or ‘lose’ cups, there being a lot more of the ‘lose’ variety . . . a bit like life, he was to suppose.
Linda played the spring-loaded Bagatelles, urging larger silver balls along horizontal runways into scoring slots, hoping they would bounce off the various obstacles into the bonus grooves and home-gulleys. There were then no finger-controlled ‘flippers’ to change Fate, no electronic bleeps and blurts to disrupt the calming roll of ball.
And, oh yes, the Crane. One had to guide the closing claws upon some loot with two uncooperative handles—but, again, unwieldy prizes such as a pack of cigarettes wrapped in a brown ten bob note slipped from their clumsy grip . . . like ambitions.
But it was all harmless fun. Even the bottle-top Bingo was amusing to the two children. Donny simply loved to watch his Uncle (who worked on the pier) trying to read the numbers off dancing ping-pong balls. His mouthy face was a real picture, not unlike one of those revolving clown-heads waiting for a rubber ball to be tossed into its gaping orifice. One could only laugh.
The rot soon set in.
Unswervable Fate brought in electronic gadgets. The bleeps and
blurts took sway. Screens with darting doobrees, grinning space- ships, synchronised missiles, exploding human heads, mad careering race-tracks. Linda immediately fell in love with one of these and spent hours manipulating the joy-stick, in search of the electronic treasure trove, out-guessing the chanceless options, entering deeper and deeper realms of interlocking digital dungeons. She stared, eyes glazed like a pinball junkie, hands moving across the dial so fast Donny could not even see them. It was almost as if control went both ways.
He tried to entice her back to the pier-head, told her it was the clearest day for ages and one could actually use the naked eye to see the lands which she herself had originally told him about—lands where they had, he maintained, built metal sea-rigs with giant stir- rers to quicken the thickening. But, no, she turned the other cheek.
Donny had spent most of one morning fishing from the pier-head with his makeshift rod. There were other loafers leaning against the green bars, pulling at the sea with a single bent nail—in hope of a sprat or two for tea. Donny had never caught anything, but suddenly he felt his arm muscles turn to knotted iron. From the side of his mouth, he told another boy, even smaller than himself, to hold on to the rod for a moment. Donny was only later to recall the boy’s whiter than white socks.
“Linda! Linda! I’ve caught a sea-fairy! I can see it smiling at me! It’s just as smiley and elfish as we said they would be!” He shouted as he reached the squealing Arcade. “Help me land it, Linda, please, please!”
Linda’s favourite amusement was silent, unlit. Either the man, in a peaked cap, who sat behind towers of old pennies in the Change Booth, had switched it off, for whatever reason—or it had broken down, having so many complicated innards. Linda was in the vicinity, however, standing by one of the few remaining older amuse- ments (the Crane, in fact) and she hooted with joy since, incredibly, its claws had actually picked up something, although Donny could not see quite what. He laughed with relief and, again, thought of the sea-rigs he had invented.
He kissed her lightly on a soft warm cheek.
She ran from the Arcade, with tears streaming, not even bothering to collect the prize which had thumped loudly into the near-disused delivery-hatch. He soon discovered her at the pier-head gazing out to sea. The little boy to whom he had entrusted the rod was nowhere to be seen, but Donny did not care. The other loafers turned their heads away, hair forking in the tugging gusts of an imminent Autumn: they did not want to be involved. He tried to take her hand, but she tore it from him and fled along the creaking boards.
“The Sea is Earth’s frock—its surf curdled ankle-sock.” He shrugged at the unbidden thought and, with eyes streaming too, he left the pier in pursuit of the twinkling backs of her knees.