I am thin and awkward. I can't help it. Trying to gain weight, but probably too nervous. Mom claims I live on air, though in contradiction, she tells me that I can't.
"At least it doesn't cost anything," I answer, "And it's not going to run out."
She doesn't live on much herself, and nutritionally, as well as in other categories, failed the Good Mothers diploma. She failed the Good Enough Mothers diploma in most areas, really. Flying colours and a chorus of trumpets attended her award ceremony for the Barely There Mothers Award, but following form, she failed to attend it herself.
So this summer she accepted a friend's offer of a house at the beach for a whole six weeks. General idea being that we'd have some mother-daughter bonding time. Everything together - cooking, reading, shopping, strolling along the sand, watching sentimental movies. The poor friend, Philippa, had to go to Europe to attend a series of book launches and interviews for her already wildly successful first novel. Publishers had engaged in a bidding war for it, so it was famous before it had ever been read. I commiserated with Pip about her tour, telling her that I'd heard Europe is awful. Everything's really old, and people speak funny.
"Thank you Iz-bo. I'll try not to have too bad a time," she'd replied, with heavy sarcasm.
There was a condition associated with the house, and it was hairy, smelly and slobbery. An Alsation. Years ago, it had been magnificent, now it was barely continent.
"Hal needs two walks a day, and a teaspoon of this special elixir the vet made up, along with plenty of water and regular brushing."
Regular could mean anything. If it's once very two months, his next due session could fall outside of my care-taking period.
"Oh, that was a bit imprecise, wasn't it? Brush him every day to get burrs out. And mix the supplements into his dinner. No dry food - it makes him constipated. We have a standing order at the butcher, just turn up there and say you're at Philippa's place minding Hal. No cooked meat. He loves swimming but make sure his coat is completely dry before he sleeps. And a good brush after the swim so that he doesn't get eczema... Look I've made a little list of notes for you."
Handing me what is surely a manuscript for her next book. Please let it be called How To Not Kill An Elderly Dog Even When You've Got No Canine Experience And The Dog Is On Its Last Legs.
"Really, Izbo, don't look so worried. He's got a lovely nature. He's a big pussy cat, really. And he just loves it when you rub his belly."
Cat-avoider here. Just short of a cat-detester. No that's a bit strong. More accurate to say I don't see the point of them. And I'm not getting anywhere near that manky dogbelly.
With a flurry and kisses, Philippa has gone to the airport. The kisses were for Hal, by the way, not me or my mother.
Renee and I look at each other, both heads of hair still blowing in the breeze Pip's departure has whipped up.
"I'll unpack," Mom says kindly. "Why don't you take Haraldo out?"
Already, we're not doing something together.
Haraldo is snoozing in his basket in the living room, which I may have to move to the laundry, but his rheumy old eyes look kind of excited when he sees the leash in my hand. He bounds up, and staggers.
"Oh, God, fancy keeping you alive in this state when you could be in the Happy Hunting Ground chasing - um, whatever it is you'd like to chase. If you could only run," I mutter, holding up the slip collar. His eager muzzle finds the way in to the chain loop.
"No rush, Bo-Bo take your time," Mom says. "I'll put our clothes away, and sort out the groceries, and plan something for dinner. Air pie? With sky pastry and a cloud filling?"
I haven't consulted the manual, but it appears Hal knows exactly where he's going. He plods along next to me, not pulling at all, and holds his head up. He used to be a police dog, Pippa told me when she first got him. They retired him from active service when his handler died. Apparently, Hal took a bullet, but he didn't take the right one. His was removable, and non-fatal, but his handler's was neither. Hal has a medal.
The house we're staying in is on a rise and overlooks a lonely stretch of coast. This town has a few thousand people, but it's not a tourist destination, because development is prohibited. The inhabitants here are well-educated and militant and any applications for high-rises are met with stony and steely objections. Even fast-food juggernauts and clothing chain stores have failed to penetrate the wall. Artists, writers and recluses come to this place. People who like a quiet life. Apparently it's very cultured and community-minded though. Lots of dinner parties.
Pippa: "Oh, I have an invitation for Friday night, but obviously I can't go. You two go. They're lovely people and I've already told them I'm sending surrogates."
Contemplating this. I am shy, but Mom isn't. She makes a bizarre claim about herself - "Oh, I could talk the hindleg off a donkey." If you happen to come across a three-legged donkey, you'll know Renee has already passed by.
Thinking too much, and not paying attention. Hal has sprung to more life than he has so far shown, and I had no grip on the leash. He's run off.
The narrow path before me is worn into long grass and I have no difficulty following, as the sea's murmur ahead would guide me anyway. Plunge through low shrubs, duck under branches, calling.
In seconds the way has cleared and I'm on the sand. It's very, very hard to run on sand, though not for Alsations. Ahead of me, Hal is charging towards another dog. It's a bit smaller than him, black and white. I don't recognize anything except labradors and poodles, and it's not one of those.
Hal comes to an abrupt halt, standing stiff-legged, tail out like a pennant, and so does the other dog. If Hal decides he doesn't like it - won't there be a blood-bath? He is trained to kill.
From somewhere close by, two boys appear as I still struggle to run, still shouting.
I don't register much, focusing on the animal I am supposed to be responsible for.
Hal stalks to this other dog, and does the peculiar thing that these animals do. Sniffing its rear end. Gross. Reciprocation. Grosser. Some tentative tail-wagging, and I am almost there now. And then, to my astonished eyes, the other dog melts. It goes all bendy, and fawns. It rubs its head under Hal's chin, and sidles alongside him. It's either young, and recognizes his seniority, or it's a girl and is flirting disgracefully.
The sudden cessation of pounding footsteps tell me that the two boys have arrived, and Black-White must be their dog. She suddenly leaps away, with what could only be called a huge grin on her face, and before Hal can respond she's back, rubbing herself on him again. He looks absurdly pleased, and waves his tail like a flag. Hers is tucked low, and the tip of it is wagging fit to fall off.
The boys laugh. I look at them. Not boys. I can't guess ages but they're not kids. My heart had been going hard with the exertion of trying to pick up any sort of speed on such an unstable terrain as sand. Worrying that Hal, who probably has a bite like a crocodile, would tear a gaping hole in the little pretty puppy. Now, my heart is thumping to fulfill the demand of my brain, which has dictated that I blush scarlet. There is an instruction that as much blood as possible be forced north.
Because the boys are both tall and lanky. One has brown hair, one blond. Both in jeans. One a checked shirt, the other a grey t-shirt. And their faces! So beautiful, both, and different but equal. If I allowed myself secret dreams, they have the sort of looks the boys I would secretly dream about would have. Never have I laid eyes on boys this good looking in real life.
Brown raises an eyebrow at me. "Our dog likes your dog."
"Hal." Reduced to inarticulacy.
"That's your name?"
"He's a beauty. Actually, we know him. You must be staying at Philippa's house. She said there'd be people there while she was away. This little sweetheart here is called Suzy. We got her from the shelter a couple of days ago. That's why she hasn't met Hal yet. Looks like they're going to get along just fine."
Blond speaks. "I'm Jas, and this is Edward. We live a couple of streets from you."
Expectant pause. Am I supposed to shake hands or something? Oh, they're waiting for my name.
"Isabella." The awkward is out in force. Absolutely my defining characteristic right now.
"So," Brown says, after another pause. "Normally, Hal and Philippa walk to the far end - see those rocks over there? - and then Pippa stops in at the cafe for a coffee, and then they walk back through town. Everyone stops to say hi to Hal, he's a bit of local personality. Is that what you're going to do?"
"I don't know. I didn't read the instructions before I came out."
Brown and Blond both frown and bend closer, trying to catch my voice. It's so quiet, nearly danced away by the light wind.
"Instructions?" Blond asks, smiling. "From Philippa? That would be right."
Hal and Suzy are now cavorting - well, Suzy is. She's sinuous and playful, winding herself around him and nipping at wherever she can reach. He's dignified, standing with his neck arched and tail high, and allowing her liberties.
"She's still a pup, eight months old, full of energy," Brown remarks, following my gaze. "She's a honey."
Iz-bo, open your inner dictionary, and find a word or two. A sentence would be even better. You are full of words for school assignments, and during exams have to raise your hand asking for extra sheets. Ideas spill and won't be quenched. Streams and streams of them.
"Are you on holiday too?" is a start. Too bad it's idiotic, since Blond already said they live here.
"Yes," Blond says. "From university."
Without me noticing, we've started walking. Hal is next to my left leg, Suzy is everywhere at once, and Blond is on my right. Brown is ahead, walking backwards.
"You might trip up," I warn him. Blond sniggers.
"You'd tell me if there was something behind me, wouldn't you?" Brown asks, and I open my mouth to do just that as a pinto flash stills into Suzy at the back of knees. I'm not quick enough and he's a tumble of long legs, curses and laughter. Suzy is happy to have him at her level, and there is doglick on his face.
"Hey man, that was hilarious. I am totally going to train Suzy to do that several times a day," Blond says, and Brown lunges for him. Now they're both in the sand, wrestling. Is this what boys do?
Trading good-natured insults. "Get off me, you gay bastard." "Stop holding my hand." "If you tear my shirt I'll..." "You'll what, wimp? You're not strong enough to do anything." and so on.
They get up and brush themselves off.
"Well, that was mature," from Blond.
"It takes two. You're older. You should be the bigger man and walk away from confrontation."
I'm fascinated and baffled. Vaguely remembering from times ago at school when boys wanted to impress girls, and they'd get really silly. The silliness wasn't impressive to girls, although the boys rolled over one another on the ground throwing fake punches that sometimes got real. Sorting out alphas. I don't know why two boys who must be around twenty or so would behave like this now on a beach in front of a reticent girl with no figure and a verbal block.
Along, along. Walking with people I've never met before. I'm not normally incautious, but surely Hal, attack-trained and a protector, would alert me to any threat? He knows these two, he did give them a cursory sniff when they first came up to him. He's not worried.
They chat to me. Well, Blond does.
"Are you at school?" he asks.
"What are going to do now?"
"I'm waiting on hearing back from U-Dub."
"What did you apply for?"
"God, Jas, give her a break, and stop prying. She only wanted a quiet walk on the beach."
They must be brothers. Would friends talk like this? I know very little about guys. No brothers, no boyfriends. Not even a dad. Oh, there's a male around now. Hal is in my life - if that counts. Not really, it doesn't.
"Sorry Isabella. Shut up, Edward."
"This is where we turn off for the cafe. Do you want to come with us? It's fine to take the dogs."
"I didn't bring my wallet. I don't have any money," I answer.
"Oh, we can afford a coffee."
Close quarters now, sitting at a table near the door. The dogs are outside, Hal lying head on paws, because he is obedient, Suzy lying with a lolling tongue and sparkling eyes next to him.
Our voices are softer without having to raise them. Theirs are deep and musical and I'm glad they both talk a lot. I like hearing them.
Blond forgets, or decides to ignore Brown's ban on questioning me, and says, "How long are you here for?"
"Six weeks," I answer.
"Cool," he says. "We can take you around, introduce you to some people, show you the sights. It'll be fun."
Six weeks of fun. With me?
Don't they have anything else to do?