They came to the cliffs, both furtively, for different reasons. He, looking for the safety of solitude to soar his arms and to run with the wind, growling the noises of aeroplanes over the high expanses of crumbling coast. She to watch him. Sniggering, quietly at first, she sank to her haunches and sat behind the long strands of weed.
He pulled his grey jumper over his head and used it as a gas mask, barking orders and stemming the blood from his flesh-wounded chest, all the time shooting down the imaginary enemy.
He had been up on the cliffs for an hour, happily believing himself to be alone. In front of him, land littered with accumulated rubbish, hemmed in by wire fences. Near the edge, as high as the land dared go, if he timed it right on a windy day, he could almost believe himself to be flying.
Occasionally, and only to confirm the illusion, a real plane would pass distantly overhead. Then he would stop and wave, waiting for his friend to pass before chasing after him, feet pounding, growling even louder from the back of his throat.
From her place of concealment, behind the thin strips of wire fencing, she sniggered again. Too loudly this time, because he stopped and stood still, his arms by his sides, peering through the gap in his jumper, his small dimpled face a picture of humbled embarrassment. An intruder had encroached upon his world and shattered the illusion until everything around him became nothing and himself. Now he stood, four feet ten in his shoes, with his baggy, tatty jumper too big, gathered in a woollen clump around his neck.
They fell quiet. He stared around, watching for any sign of movement. Soon she could contain herself no longer. The excitement and exquisite delight of spying for a while unperceived boiled over into a fit of giggles. She rolled over to one side, laughing hard and disturbing the long grass of the bank.
‘Who’s there?’ he shouted, reddening as he straightened his jumper until he wore it properly. ‘Who is it?’
At last, the mocking ceased and from amongst the high-grown weeds, she stood, with thinly disguised amusement, a small laugh threatening behind an obdurate smile.
‘What were you doing?’
She crossed her feet, standing awkwardly. ‘I was only watching you play,’ she said innocently.
He looked cross. ‘It’s not funny. It’s not fair. I was here first.’
‘How do you know, David?’ she asked, placing a mocking emphasis on his name. ‘I might have been sitting up here all day.’
‘Why did you have to do that? It’s not fair,’ David repeated, trying not to show how upset he was. ‘I come up here every day. I’m always alone here.’ He could not look at her for shame, but could see her approaching out of the corner of his eye. ‘Go away, Sally.’
‘So you do know my name!’ She sounded victorious.
‘Of course I do, stupid, I’ve seen you,’ David replied huffily.
He walked over to the edge of the ground, past the spot where a wooden bench had once stood in memory, until he could see the pebbles on the shore beneath as the tide faded out. He sat with his arms folded, looking out to sea, and became aware of Sally approaching him.
‘Go away. You’ve ruined everything.’
Sally plonked herself down where there was a flat area of grass.
‘I didn’t know you were allowed up here,’ she said, as if she had not heard him.
‘I’m not,’ said David. ‘I shouldn’t be here. You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he asked, cautiously looking at her and beginning to feel vulnerable again.
‘Well, I might not,’ said Sally with a teasing grin. ‘Why are you here?’ she asked, full of curiosity.
‘Our home’s busy. They won’t know I’m gone.’
‘There’s only mother and me. My daddy’s missing. That means he’s a hero,’ she said, full of pride.
David did not care to either agree or disagree. ‘When I’m big enough, I’m going to be just like your dad. I’m going to fly planes.’
‘No you’re not. You’re too young. My mother says one day it will all be over and everything will return to normal,’ said Sally.
‘Yes. My daddy will come home from abroad and bring me lots of presents, and the planes will stop flying and we can all eat what we like,’ she explained in one breath.
‘I doubt it.’ David shook his head. He did not want the planes to stop. ‘Not until I’ve flown, anyway. That’s why I’m practising.’
‘Does your dad not fly?’ Sally asked.
David felt angry, but not at Sally. ‘He stayed when the rest of us moved. I haven’t seen him since. Now my uncle is at home for the moment. Only I know he isn’t my real uncle. My mum’s not waiting for my dad any more. Not since she lost his photograph. That’s why I’m here. I’m waiting for him still.’
Sally thought about this for a moment, but soon enough her smile returned. ‘We’re having cake for tea tonight,’ she exclaimed.
David felt momentarily jealous. ‘No you’re not,’ he said, pulling up grass in his hands and sprinkling it over his feet.
‘We are. What are you having? My mother says you don’t eat properly. None of you do. And you don’t do anything normally. She says that you’re all responsible and that’s why my daddy’s missing and why the planes have to fly.’
David sat quietly for a while, listening patiently, rubbing grass between his forefinger and thumb until they were stained green. ‘What do you say?’
Sally smiled. ‘My mother would go mad if she knew I were here.’ She jumped up and grabbed David’s arm. ‘Come on!’
David shook himself free of grass, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. ‘Where?’
Leading him by the arm, Sally made for the steep bank that led down to the village. She held on to him and began to run, slowly at first, but gathering pace as they flew downhill, unable to stop or to slow, their momentum carrying them on as if they could run that fast forever.
Their joined hands pulled the other in different directions until they reached the gravel path which petered out into level ground. There, hands apart, they leant into the earth, breathing heavily into the still air, unable to move or speak for minutes. They had made it down in record time, flying like birds, leaving the world in their wake.
‘Come to our house,’ Sally said when she had found her voice between deep breaths.
David wiped the sweat from his forehead on the sleeves of his jumper and at once felt his brow begin to itch. ‘Your mother wouldn’t let me.’
‘She might for a while,’ said Sally hopefully. She began to walk in the direction of the village. ‘I want to show you a photograph of my dad. He’s a hero,’ she called back to David.
Composing himself and catching his breath, David set off to catch up with his friend, intoxicated by her assuredness, as she tramped her way through the village.
Mrs Kemp was everywhere at once in her kitchen. Her apron, sullied with flour, steamed as she moved, and the dislodged floor tiles cracked against their neighbours under the heavy tread of her feet.
They crept in through the back door and slunk over to the kitchen table, keeping one wary eye on the mother. This made David nervous. He did not like creeping unwelcome into somebody’s house and waiting to be greeted.
‘Wash your hands. Tea will be ready soon,’ said Mrs Kemp, shoving her fists into a lump of dough for tomorrow’s bread.
Sally’s hands were under the tap before her mother had spoken. She flooded her fingers and moved to one side to allow David through. He pushed awkwardly past and wet his hands under the running water.
Mrs Kemp turned in time to see. ‘What is he doing?’ She turned to David. ‘You’re not stopping here. Not in this house, you’re not. As if I haven’t enough to do.’
David stood where he was, fingers dripping water spots onto the tiles. He thought he recognised and understood the look the mother gave him. He had seen it often enough before.
Mrs Kemp now turned against her daughter. ‘Where have you been? I suppose you’ve been where I told you you mustn’t? You should be ashamed of yourself. To think of your own father missing. You haven’t heard the last of this.’
David blushed bright red and looked to the floor, his eyes beginning to well. He looked briefly to Sally, hoping to see in her a show of strength that had deserted him.
Sally stamped her feet. ‘I told David he could stay, mother. I said you wouldn’t mind. Why should you mind? He’s my friend.’
Sally had succeeded in taking her mother by surprise, but Mrs Kemp soon rallied.
‘You had no right saying those things, you little heathen. I’ve warned you before about his type.’ Mrs Kemp pointed an accusing finger at David, and her voice began to lose itself in self-pity. ‘And to think, your father missing. Your own father. How could you?’ She began to sob, reaching for a handkerchief concealed within the folds of her apron, which she snatched out and held up to her nose. Mrs Kemp turned her back on the children and took her anger out on the dough.
David was unmoved by the display. His only concern was to find his way out of the house. The air was thick with flour filtering downwards in the light, and he could bear it no longer.
Sally reached out and gently clasped David’s fingers in her palm and waited, smiling encouragement.
Mrs Kemp faced her daughter again and saw the sign of friendship. Her eyes bulged in anger and fright. ‘Get out! Get him out of here. Out! And as for you, you wicked heathen, you will not see that boy again. I forbid it.’
David did not wait to hear every word. He broke from her grip, threw open the door and ran out into the cooler evening air, defying the tears that began to roll down his face, and wanting to feel as he had an hour ago.
Slowly, the sun faded. David returned more in hope than for any better reason. He had gone home, only to find it still busy and unconcerned. He walked from his house to the cliffs, faster than usual, striding out and arriving flushed and breathless. He looked around but she was nowhere to be found. Not waiting for him at the summit, nor concealed behind the long reeds, nor laughing at him from a secret hiding place that he could not find.
The cliffs were darker now. The first cool night breeze made a stranger of him, and covered up the traces of enthusiasm.
A small, dented tin can took up most of the room in his trouser pocket. It dug into his thighs, which was something he had not noticed when climbing. Frowning, he removed it to take another look at it. Seated in his palm, a cylindrical can, dulled by air and water.
He turned, but saw nothing.
‘David?’ she called again, the plats of her bright hair made alive by the diminishing sun, appearing from beneath the hill. Again she called.
Hardly daring to respond, he stood and waited. Guilt began to settle in his stomach. What if there was more argument to come?
She saw him and started forward at a run, breaking into a stupid grin of happiness. It began to be contagious and he found himself joining in, throwing away his reticence and allowing the can to fall from his fingers as he stretched out his hands for her to clasp. She pulled him to the ground and they sat in a heap on the flattened bank, giggling like idiots and neither seeming likely ever to stop.
Sally forced out a few words. ‘I’m not supposed to be here. My mother says I’m forbidden to speak to you.’
David’s laugh contained itself within a smile. ‘I know. I was there.’
‘I don’t care, though.’ Her eyes fell upon the tin can beside David’s right foot. ‘What’s that?’
David felt his cheeks redden. He instinctively wanted to reach out to cover the tin but it was too late. It now looked so base and commonplace. He cursed himself for having the idea of bringing it.
‘Is it for me?’
David grabbed the tin and clutched it to his chest. It was cold to the touch, and he felt like placing it against his burning face. ‘It’s from my uncle. He gave it to me.’
Sally reached out her hand. ‘What is it? Can I see it?’
He clung onto the tin with tense, unmoving fingers, not wanting to let go. ‘It’s for you.’
Gradually, he lessened his grip, and passed the tin over to Sally, who took it gently, with great delicacy. David rolled backwards and sat on his hands. He sighed. ‘It’s for you,’ he repeated.
‘What is it?’ whispered Sally, her expectant eyes wide with curiosity.
‘It’s for your cake. It’s jam,’ he said, reddening again. ‘Only you don’t have to use it for a cake.’
Sally said nothing, but smiled and looked at the small, dented tin in her hands. ‘Jam?’
‘I thought you might like it. You do like jam?’
‘But your uncle gave it to you.’
‘That’s what mother says. Do you like jam?’
Sally’s eyes flashed with impulse. She bounced onto her knees and shook David’s shoulder.
‘Why don’t we eat it now?’
David shook his head. ‘I thought maybe you could use it in your kitchen. Besides, we can’t open it.’
Sally took a small penknife from the pocket of her dress and plunged the hooked blade into the rim of the can.
Even David was impressed. ‘Where did you get that?’ he asked wondrously.
Sally explained proudly. ‘My father gave it to me for good luck, before he went away,’ she said, then quickly added, ‘only my mother doesn’t know and you’re not to tell her. I hide it under my bed when I sleep.’
David placed a secretive finger over his lips as Sally battled with the tin. The rusty blade made slow progress through the metal seal as it ploughed its way around the edge. Finally, the cut hole was large enough for her to slide a knife through and lever back the top.
They stared together at the contents. It certainly looked like jam. Thick and black, with a thin film of red jelly congealed on the lid.
‘How do we eat it?’
Sally replaced her penknife. She needed both of her hands free to plunge her fingers into the can, taking care to avoid the rough edges. She drew them out caked in thick, red, sugary jam. She licked them all, slowly, one by one, making sounds of ecstasy.
They handed the can back and forth between them, each using up every finger long before it was empty, but carrying on in their moment of hedonism until every drop of jam had been eaten.
They sat with their mouths smeared with red jelly, neither caring much, their sticky fingers wiped against the settling dew on the grass. Alone, above the rest of the world, the friends were reckless and merry for one brief night after an age of strictness and grief.
At that time, the clouds sent a chill into the air and obscured the faltering sun. There, a day not like any other was quietly over.