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The Way The Pit Works

We went on holiday to the seaside every year, the three of us. Mum would wake me up before it got light. Once we were in the car, I'd watch for the dawn through the gaps in the houses. I'd tell myself that the sky only looked grey because it was really still night-time, not because it was cloudy. Some years I was right, but the year I'm thinking of, the year I was nine, the sun didn't appear at all.

By eight o'clock we were on the beach, Mum and me sitting on our macs huddled together under a blanket which still smelt of our dog, even though he'd been dead nearly a year. A thin, bad-tempered breeze blew sand into our faces and whipped up under my skirt. Dad was pacing up and down the beach looking for destroyers. I could picture them wading through the sea to smash the houses and caravans and people with their enormous sandalled feet.

I suppose I must have been getting fidgety. We couldn't get into our caravan until mid-day, so that was nearly four hours to wait. The beach shops and the amusement arcade didn't open until ten. Mum pulled the rug up over her arms.

"Why don't you go down to the water, Matty? See if you can find some unusual shells."

The sea was miles away. Miles of flat, puddly sand with no rock pools. Even the crumbling concrete groynes stopped short of where the water started.

"I'm cold. Isn't there anything else to eat?" I could hear the whine in my voice but I didn't care.

"No, it's all gone. I told you not to keep eating in the car. It's a wonder you weren't sick." Mum was always surprised at the number of things that didn't make me sick.

"Why isn't it sunny? I hate it here." I dug the toe of my shoe into the gritty sand and then kicked it out again, showering her with bits of damp sea-weed and lolly sticks. Her holiday shampoo and set had already been teased out of its rigid waves by the wind and was whipping about like the seagrass further up the beach. Now, like the seagrass, it was full of litter as well.

"That's enough! Any more and I'll tell your father."

She sighed and her face suddenly went old. She said, "I can't do anything about the weather."

It was never a good idea to annoy Dad. He didn't give you any warning, he just went from joking and laughing to angry and shouting in about one second. And he never got things wrong, so I knew it must be Mum's fault we were sitting there freezing on the beach. And he didn't seem fed up at all. In fact, he was pretending to shoot seagulls with a piece of driftwood which was shaped a bit like a rifle. I shrugged away from Mum and ran up to him.

"Dad, Dad, can we look for things on the beach?"

If there was anything interesting lying about, he'd find it. Even things which looked quite ordinary turned out to be interesting when Dad told you about them. But today the stones had no stories in them and the shells were just the abandoned homes of sea-creatures. Dad stuck his hands deep into his pockets and whistled as if he was walking along a street.

"Dad, can we go to the cafe?"

My voice made the word Dad into two syllables, the second on a falling note: Da-ad. Boredom had made me reckless. He looked down as though he'd noticed me for the first time and suddenly, before I'd even had time to flinch, he reached out a hand and ruffled my hair.

"It's not open yet."

Then he got that look on his face which meant that he was going to make something happen.

"Would you like me to show you The Pit?"

"Yes, Daddy. What's The Pit?"

For several seconds he looked at me seriously as if trying to weigh up whether I was ready to share his precious secret. The strains of summer music began to float across the sand to us from the caravan site as the holiday makers started to wake up and make their breakfasts:


Hey Mr tambourine man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to ...

"Come here."

He squatted on the sand and pulled me down beside him. As I watched, he began scooping sand out with his hand. Because we were high up the beach, the sand was dry and loose and kept sliding back into the hole, but eventually, it was the shape and depth he wanted, like a shallow ice-cream cone.

"Now, go and find me a flat stone, not too big and not too small."

I jumped up and in my hurry, my foot dislodged a miniature landslide of sand into the hole. I scrambled away expecting him to be angry, but he just clucked his tongue against his teeth and patted the loose sand back against the sides. I ran around the beach looking for the perfect stone. Mum was still huddled under the blanket. She'd lit a cigarette.

"Alright, love?" she called as I ran past.

"Dad's making a pit. He's going to show me how it works!"

Mum smiled and nodded and let a slow plume of cigarette smoke escape from her nose. I knew she wasn't listening to what I was saying - not the meaning of the actual words - she was just glad I'd stopped complaining.

I found an round grey stone, striped with white, but Dad said it was too small. Then a white stone which had glittery lumps on it, but that wasn't smooth enough. And then, after ages, I found a black stone, perfectly oval and about the length of my thumb. It glittered up at me like a black diamond from the edge of the puddle where it lay.

I turned to run back towards the pit, but straightaway I could see Dad wasn't there any more. I looked round the beach, shading my eyes with the edge of my hand as I'd seen Mum do. He was far away across the sand, walking towards the sea to meet the incoming tide.

"Look Dad, what about this one?" I gasped as I caught up with him.

"Yes, that'll do," he said, "But we'll never find the pit again. We'll have to dig another one. Tomorrow maybe."

"But Dad, you said -"

"I said tomorrow, okay?"

"Okay." I put the stone in my shorts pocket and did the button up so I wouldn't lose it.

It was nearly ten o'clock and the cafe had opened. Dad said we could go and have a fry-up. Mum found her handbag and put some lipstick on. Then she patted her hair, as though that might make it behave itself and we all trudged up the beach. Dad and I had sausage, egg, bacon and fried bread and tea. Mum had coffee and toast and another cigarette. She smiled and winked at me now she was warm again.

"Brighten up later, I expect," she said.

That night, I lay in my little box-like bed and listened to the rain drumming on the roof of the caravan. The noise reminded me of an old film I'd seen once and as I drifted in and out of sleep, I remembered, and sometimes found myself among, hundreds of girls in shiny costumes and top hats who tap-danced on a stage which suddenly turned into a street in America with real cars on it.

Sometimes the rain lost its breath for a few seconds when a gust of wind knocked the downpour sideways before it could hit the roof. Then the whole caravan would shift slightly as though some huge animal had leant against it.

When it went quiet, I could hear my parents talking. I couldn't make out what they were saying, because they were trying to keep their voices low, but I knew they were arguing. They must have thought I'd never heard them when we were at home, when they didn't bother about keeping their voices down. After a while, I heard Mum crying. I tried to make myself think it was the wind or the gulls, but I knew it wasn't.

The next morning, the whole caravan smelt of gas as Mum tried to get the stove alight. It had stopped raining, but the sky still looked like cement. Mum made bacon sandwiches and coffee with evaporated milk in it.

"D'you fancy going to the amusement arcade after breakfast? Doesn't look like it's going to be much of a day for the beach again."

"Yes. I mean, where's Dad?"

"He's had to go back to work for a day or two. He'll be back to fetch us."

"But he said he'd make the pit with me today. Why didn't he tell me he was going back to work? Mum?"

Suddenly my throat was hurting as though something too big to swallow had suddenly grown there, making it hard to speak. Mum didn't look at me and started tidying up.

"He must have forgotten all about it." Her voice came out thin. "We'll have fish and chips for dinner, shall we?"

That day, I played bingo at the amusement hall and won a pink fluffy poodle as a prize. Mum and I paddled in the sea when the sun came out in the afternoon. Then, just before tea time, I made friends with Lynn who was staying in the next caravan to us. Lynn had a round face with freckles and brown eyes and she wore her fair hair in a thick plait. She looked much more like a princess than me, with my floppy dark-brown hair and knobbly arms and legs. Mum seemed pleased I'd found someone to go round with and after that, she stayed in the caravan most of the time.

Lynn and I explored the beach and the shops along the road facing it. We lay among the damp dunes and ate peppermint rock and red liquorice. Sometimes she would be moody and then, no matter what I said to her, she wouldn't speak to me until she was ready to.

The next morning, Mum and I walked up to the grocer's. On the way back, she made me wait on the bench outside the telephone box. I knew she was ringing Dad even though she hadn't said. At first, she was facing me with the receiver up to her left ear, but then she turned her back to me.

When she came out, her face looked stiff and white. She smiled at me, but it looked like that thin icing you get on doughnuts - too thin and likely to crack.

"Well," she said brightly, "Your father's coming back this afternoon. That'll be nice, won't it?"

"Yes, mum."

But somehow I didn't feel pleased at all.

"My dad's coming today," I said to Lynn. We were sitting on one of the groynes on the beach, kicking our heels against the blocks of stone and the porridgy-looking mortar that held them together.

"He's going to show me The Pit. Look, you make it work with this." I showed her the black stone I'd found on the first morning.

"So? It's only an old stone. What's so good about it?"

"Well, look how sparkly it is!"

"It's not! It's all dull and dusty."

I looked at my stone. She was right. Now it was dry, all the gleaming blackness of it had faded. I licked a finger and rubbed it on the stone. Instantly, the surface sprang to life, minute twinkling facets set in the blackest velvet. It made me think of looking up at the stars on a moonless night. I held it out to Lynn.

"It's still just an old stone," she sneered. "Anyway, what's this pit thing all about?"

"I'm not sure. Dad's going to show me. You can watch too."

"I might, if I'm not too busy."

I sat on the top step in the caravan's doorway waiting for Dad to arrive.

"You might as well come in and eat your tea," Mum said. "You won't make him get here any quicker sitting there."

I fetched my plate of corned beef sandwiches and took them back to the doorway. At last, after I'd finished the sandwiches and eaten two apples, I saw Dad's car nosing its way between the rows of caravans. I jumped up.

"Mum, Mum, Dad's here!" I jumped up and down waving, making the rusty metal steps squawk loudly.

"Matty, stop that! You'll break them!"

"Dad, Dad! I'm here, I'm here! - "

I stopped calling, because I could see another head beside Dad's. The car stopped and he opened the door, while a woman with black curly hair got out the other side. I didn't know what to do, so I looked at Mum, who'd stopped in the doorway as though she'd just come onto the stage in a play. Dad came over to me and put his arm around me.

"Matty, this is Pam, a friend of mine." The woman smiled at me. She was quite pretty for someone nearly as old as my Mum.

"Hello, Matty. You and I are going to be friends."

Mum suddenly made an odd noise, sort of between a laugh and a choke. She was covering her mouth as if she was trying not to be sick. Then she spoke, and her voice was shaking as if she had been running a long way.

"You - couldn't - even - forget - her - for - a - few - days - !" she wheezed out painfully. Then she seemed to gather strength. "You've brought her here? I can't believe it, you -"

She turned and went back into the caravan, slamming the door after her. Father said to Pam,

"I told you this wasn't a good idea. You know how unreasonable she is."

"You go and talk to her," she said. "I want to get to know Matty."

I didn't want to go with her, but I didn't want to go into the caravan with Mum and Dad either. In the end we walked up the beach. I could see she was having trouble getting along in her high heels, but I didn't slow down. At last she sat down on a flat stone. I stood facing her, wondering what to do next.

"Come and sit by me, Matty."

I sat a few feet away and hugged my knees. They were dirty and striped with scabbed-over scrapes. I started to pick at them. I saw Pam noticing me picking, but she didn't say anything about it. Instead she said,

"Do you believe in ghosts? I'm sure all little girls do." I made a sort of noise that was neither yes or no.

"I was in a haunted house once. Do you want me to tell you about it?" I looked at her to see if she was taking the mickey. But she looked serious, so I nodded, just once.

"Well, it was a few years ago and I had been invited to stay with the parents of a school friend of mine." She talked in a kind of sing-song voice, as though I was about five years old. "They lived in a funny old house in the country. After we'd had our supper, my friend's brother said I had to be careful because the house was haunted by a poltergeist. Do you know what that is?"

I shook my head.

"It's a ghost that makes things move around all by themselves, sometimes quite big things like beds or wardrobes. But this one, the brother said, moved things around at night when nobody was watching. I asked him what sort of things and he said, clothes, jewellery, that sort of thing.

"Anyway, when I went to bed, I locked my door and it took me a long time to get to sleep. But when I did get to sleep I didn't wake up until my friend knocked on the door and told me breakfast was ready. I hurried to get into my clothes - but I couldn't find my shoes anywhere. In the end, I put on my slippers and went down in them.

"The mother asked me how I'd slept and I told her fine. But as I was talking to her, I noticed the high mantlepiece behind her, which had lots of china ornaments on it. And between two china dogs, propped up against the chimney breast, were my shoes.

"Everyone saw me looking at them and suddenly the brother burst out laughing. My friend told me he'd played a joke on me and not to take any notice. But I knew I'd locked my door and left the key in the lock, so it couldn't have been him."

"And what happened next?"

"Next? Nothing. They got the shoes down and nothing else happened."

She seemed to have lost interest in her story and began looking at her long red nails. Her story without a proper ending had made me feel even worse. Probably the brother had got in by the window anyway. She didn't need to pretend it was all so mysterious. She was just trying to frighten me because I was a kid.

"Why did you come here with my Dad?"

"Your father and I are good friends. He thought his family would like to meet me."

"But he said it was all your idea!"

"Well, sometimes men need a little push. You'll find that out when you're a bit older. I bet you've got lots of boyfriends already!" She winked at me.

Up to then, I'd had the feeling that I ought to like her because she was a friend of Dad's. Now I knew I hated her. Her attempts to be my friend were false like her bright red nail varnish.

As we walked back to the caravan, Dad drove up and jerked his head sideways to make Pam get into the passenger seat. Then he got out and came over to me. I couldn't tell what the look on his face meant.

Don't worry, kid," he said, "it'll be alright."

Pam leaned across the driver's seat and said see you tomorrow, love. Dad's head whipped round to her as though he was getting angry, but she looked at him hard and said,

"We can find a B and B. I want this sorted out."

I didn't know what to say, so I just carried on walking. I didn't look back until they drove off a couple of minutes later.

Mum spent the evening slamming around or smoking cigarettes on the steps of the caravan. She wouldn't talk to me and kept pouring gin into a glass and drinking it down in one mouthful, each time pulling a face as though she hated it. I ended up putting myself to bed. I didn't wash. Instead I wedged a toffee in my cheek. It would serve them right when all my teeth dropped out.

The next morning, I was woken by something tapping on the window next to my bed. It was Lynn. I glanced over at Mum. She was lying across the pulldown bed with all her clothes on. She looked as if she'd been shot. I went and looked at her and just as I was wondering if she really was dead, a long wheezy breath came out of her open mouth. I looked at the watch on her outstretched arm. It was nearly eight o'clock.

I put on my swimming costume and shorts and opened the caravan door. For the first time that holiday, the sun shone in an unbroken blue sky. Lynn said,

"Come on, I've got some stuff to eat."

We went down to the beach and ate cold sausages and day-old ham sandwiches, peeling off the slippery fat from the meat and throwing it to the seagulls.

"My Dad came back yesterday," I said.

"Yeah, we heard him and your mum yelling at each other. My mum said it's you she feels sorry for."

I hated Lynn and her mum knowing that. I'd been on the beach listening to Pam's stupid story while everyone on the caravan site had been listening to Mum and Dad fighting.

"So, he's cleared off again has he?"

"No, he'll be back later." I had to stop her thinking my Dad didn't care about me. "He's going to spend the day with me. On the beach."

"Oh yeah? And I suppose we'll finally get to see the famous Pit, will we?"

"'Course. And Dad's got this really nice friend with him. Pam her name is. She's got long nails and tells ghost stories."

Lynn looked at me. I could tell she didn't believe me about Pam. But I didn't want to give her and her mum anything else to feel sorry about. I just hoped Dad really would turn up.

A bit later, when we were getting tired of running in and out of the freezing sea, we flopped down on the sand. I wished I'd thought to bring a towel with me. It felt like ages since we'd left the caravan site and I was just thinking I ought to go back and tell Mum where I was, when I saw Dad and Pam coming across the beach towards me. Pam was carrying her shoes in one hand, but she was picking her way along as if she was still wearing them. She was the first to speak.

"Matty! We couldn't find anyone around at the caravan, so we thought we'd find you here!"

"Where's your mother?"

"I don't know. Still asleep when I came out."

"Well, we'd better let her sleep it off then," said Pam smoothly, with a look at Dad.

Pam took a plastic Tesco's bag out of her pocket and patted it flat on the sand before sitting on it with her legs slanted sideways.

"Dad, this is Lynn," I said, trying to ignore Pam. Dad was never usually interested in my friends, but for once he made an effort, asking her where she lived and whether she liked school. I got the feeling he was trying to put off talking to me. Lynn looked up into his face.

"Matty says you're going to show her The Pit today. Can I watch too?"

I wasn't sure if she was serious, or was just trying to make things awkward for me. But her eyes were round and innocent as she looked at Dad. He thought she really wanted to know, anyway. He took off his jacket and handed it to Pam. She laid it across her lap in exactly the same way Mum would have done, making sure it didn't touch the sand. Dad moved off a few feet until he came to a place where the powdery sand became a bit firmer. He squatted down, shaping the conical pit with his hands. I thought he was making more fuss than usual, because it wasn't just me and him.

"Now, we need a flat stone, not too big and not too small," he said. Before I could say anything, Lynn had jumped up and run off over the beach, scanning the sand for likely-looking pebbles. She knew I'd already got one, so I didn't know why she did that. I said to Dad,

"I found one the other day. Here it is."

I'd licked it as I took it out of my pocket and the dusty black was changed again into glittering velvet. Dad took it and turned it over and over in his palm, watching Lynn as she dipped down onto the beach and picked something up with a triumphant cry. She ran back to us and put a whitish stone, one which I just knew wouldn't do, into Dad's hand, next to mine. For a moment he clinked the two stones together. Then, whistling to himself, he stood up and threw one of them towards some gulls that were fighting over something near the water's edge. When he squatted down again, Lynn's stone was cupped in his palm on its own.

"Now," he said, looking from one to another of us, "we have the pit. And we have the stone which makes the pit work."

Lynn nodded and said yes?

"So the next thing is to insert the stone in the side of the pit ... the position must be just right or it won't work."

Dad propped himself on one arm and squinted sideways into the pit as though taking a precise measurement. Yes? breathed Lynn. Dad guided the stone into position about two thirds of the way up the pit.

"Now, it only remains to set the pit working. Are you both ready?"

"Yes!" we almost shouted.

"Quiet - quiet. Now, easy does it, here we - go!"

Dad turned the stone through ninety degrees. Lynn and I both leaned forward over the pit waiting for it to start working. A few grains of sand trickled down the side from where the stone had been turned. I waited for it to gather momentum. Lynn said,

"So, what's going to happen?"

Dad put on his most mysterious face. "The pit is now working." I turned my face back towards the pit to watch. I held my breath while I waited. Lynn straightened up.

"Nothing's happening."

"Yes it is," I said, desperate for it to be true.

"No it isn't. It's just stupid. And you're stupid to sit there looking at it." She gave me a shove. "I'm going to find my mum and dad. At least they're not barmy."

As the tears needled into my eyes, I looked at Dad who shrugged and got to his feet. Pam was getting up as well, brushing the back of her skirt with one long fingered hand.

"Come on Matty," she said. "We'd better get you back to your mother. She'll be wondering what's become of you."

The two of them started picking their way back up the beach. Then, just as they reached the place where the concrete road met the sand dunes, Dad turned and saw me still standing by the pit. I thought he was going to call to me, but instead he half-raised one hand, then turned again and carried on walking with Pam.