GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19

NICHOLAS PETTY
‘It is summer at Camp Pomodoro’ 

IT IS SUMMER AT CAMP POMODORO, where the terraces step into the sea and the olive trees gesture arthritically. Where ants burrow through the rock-hard earth and music thumps across the bay. It is summer at Camp Pomodoro and the Blakes and the Stamps are booked in for three whole weeks, fancy that.

The Blakes arrive in the afternoon when it is too hot to be pitching tents. Mr Blake sweats through the back of his shirt whilst the two boys, Peter and Mo, plan morning swims, every morning, no matter what. Mrs Blake sets out four chairs and a table and strings up a hammock between the leaning trees. They cook burgers and pork chops on a gas-powered grill. The sun drops all the way into the sea. Mrs Blake has a second glass of wine and says this is something close to paradise, isn’t it?

Mr and Mrs Stamp and their daughter, Anna, arrive after dark. Mr Stamp reverses their caravan between two fig trees and the campsite glows red then white then red then white with all his manoeuvring. He forgets which way he should turn the steering wheel. Branches snap and figs fall and his wife shouts stop stop and he shouts back that it’s only bloody fruit. They set out three chairs and a table and cook burgers and thin-skinned sausages on a gas-powered grill. The full moon reflects deep into the calm sea. Mrs Blake has a second glass of Baileys and says this is something close to paradise, isn’t it?

Peter Blake and Anna Stamp watch each other for days and then slowly converge on a lilo floating out on the water. They establish they are both fourteen and like music but not the same music. Peter decides it’s easier to talk to girls when you’re treading water.

Anna asks Peter why his little brother is a different colour to him and his parents. Peter tells her Mo is adopted but that doesn’t change anything.

Mr Blake and Mr Stamp bump into each other at the communal urinals. They both stare at the wall in front of them and Mr Blake hums the theme tune to the Antiques Roadshow. When they wash their hands in neighbouring sinks they make eye contact in the mirror. Mr Stamp says you drive twenty bloody hours and still end up next to some bloody Brits. Mr Blake’s laugh echoes harshly off the tiled surfaces.

Mo Blake spots an ant carrying a whole leaf. He runs to tell his mum but when he drags her back to the spot the ant has long since marched off.

The families agree to eat together on the final night. It began as a polite suggestion and snowballed from there. They start with plates of Galia melon and Prosciutto bought locally. Mrs Stamp says you’ve cut this up something fancy and Mrs Blake tries to take it as a compliment. Mr Stamp grates heaps of Parmesan onto his spaghetti bolognese because when in Rome. Mr Blake says we’re nearer Venice actually. Peter and Anna are allowed a taste of red wine and Mo Blake has something fizzy.

The mothers find they have two things in common: they both like cats and they both hate flying. The fathers talk about the fuel economy of their cars. The conversation loosens up eventually.

***

It is summer at Camp Pomodoro, where the terraces step into the sea and it’s something close to paradise, isn't it?

The Blakes pass the Stamps coming down on the motorway. Mr Blake says it’s them again can you bloody believe it they must have got the same ferry. When they’re passing Strasbourg Mo Blake has a nosebleed that just won’t stop. Mrs Blake says pull over pull over and Mr Blake tells her the hard shoulder is very very dangerous why do you have to be so bloody frantic all the time. They don’t talk again until after Innsbruck.

The Stamps overnight in Luxembourg. It rains. They discuss whether next year they should just get on with it and do the trip in one go.

Peter Blake and Anna Stamp play cards on a flat rock by the sea. Peter explains the rules of gin rummy badly and only when they start does Anna realise she’s played before. She loses a lot because she’s only collecting sets of queens and straights in hearts.

Mr Blake inspects the far end of the campsite, which was closed off last year for construction works. A small concrete building has been erected on the hard, dry ground. It’s covered in powdery dust and rusty spokes stick out of its flat roof as if the builders forgot to add the second floor. An old man sits in the shadow of its porch. His name is Mr D’Alessandro if his lopsided postbox is to be believed. Permanent residents are not to be trusted.

Mo Blake dives down to scrape a sea cucumber off the seafloor. It squirts out a silvery thread in self-defence and it both fascinates and disgusts him.

The families bump into each other at the local fish shop and they both buy far too much spigola whatever that is. They cook it on the gas-powered grills and push their fold-out tables together. Anna Stamp gets a bone caught in her throat and is mortified when she chokes her face red in front of Peter Blake.

At the washing-up sinks Mr Stamp compliments Mrs Blake’s new hairstyle. She doesn’t know what to say so she smiles and jostles the back of her short crop like a fifties poster girl. Mrs Stamp walks in on the exchange and the foamy bubbles fizzle and pop in the back of Mrs Blake’s hair for a long long time.

***

It is summer at Camp Pomodoro, where the terraces step into the sea and the toilet block now has wifi.

Peter Blake is half a foot taller and his voice can’t find one pitch and stick to it. He sits in the smell of urine and the hum of drain flies, checking his phone for nothing in particular. His little brother pesters him into swimming. They jump off the rocks into the sea and the shock of the cold makes Peter forget about the rest of the world. He doesn’t see the Stamps arrive and suddenly Anna Stamp is swimming towards him. They clutch an inflatable crocodile and catch up easily. Their thighs touch beneath the water, cold wet skin on cold wet skin.

The Stamps go for a hike in the Dolomites. They come to a steep section of ropes and footholds and Anna Stamp is halfway up them when Mrs Stamp says I’m not a bloody mountaineer and they have to turn around. On the way back down Mr Stamp realises the dark smudge on the map is actually compressed contours. He doesn’t tell his wife and instead promises to lodge a complaint with the Italian National Trust or something.

Mrs Stamp is sick with sunstroke for two whole days and Mr Stamp is attentive for the most part. When she’s sleeping he spends time with the Blakes but mostly Mrs Blake. Up close she looks tired and he senses a quietness in her.

It rains for two days straight and Mo Blake is crazy with boredom until his mum takes him swimming and it thunders and scares them both senseless.

Mr D’Alessandro sets up an easel and paints a vista that includes the Blakes’ tent. Mr Blake grumbles about whether a lonely old man like him should be painting stuff with kids in it but Mrs Blake tells him to calm down it’s not like he’s taking photos or anything.

There’s a blood moon and Peter and Anna kiss through all of its phases. They promise to text each other but don't agree who will send the first message so they both wait and wait and then forget about the whole thing.

***

It is summer at Camp Pomodoro, where the terraces step into the sea and Mrs Blake has lost all of her hair.

It’s the eyebrows that shock Mr Stamp. He didn’t realise those went too. The flesh is pale underneath. Like the ghosts of eyebrows he says to his wife. She tells him not to be so insensitive but he thinks he is being the opposite.

Anna and Peter talk about music again. These days they both like The Kings of Leon, especially their earlier stuff. Peter feels a strange flutter in his chest when he realises they have something so important in common. They discuss going to a concert together, somewhere halfway between Oxford and Nottingham.

Mr Blake is constantly fussing around Mrs Blake with handfuls of suncream. She tells him to relax so he takes out a lilo and floats on the sea. He’s so exhausted with it all that he falls asleep and wakes up half deflated and a few hundred yards out. He doesn’t tell his wife how tired he got swimming back because she’d be cross with him for being so reckless in the circumstances.

Mr D’Alessandro gets up each morning to watch the fishermen go back and forth as they check their nets. He watches Mrs Blake too. Mr Blake waves him away but he just waves back. Ciao.

Mr Stamp doesn't dare use the word terminal around Mrs Blake. When he asks how her recovery is going she just smiles and says there’s always hope isn’t there?

The Blakes go for a day trip to Venice. It’s hot and busy and they can’t wait to go for a swim later. They enjoy Saint Mark’s Basilica because at least it’s cool in there. Mo Blake begs a Euro from his mum and he puts it in the donation box so he can light a candle. She thinks he just wants to play with fire but in fact he’s whispering a quiet prayer.

On the last night Peter drinks six cans of lager and is sick into the washing-up sinks. He cries afterwards and Anna holds his head to her shoulder and says Coventry, that’s halfway isn’t it?

***

It is summer at Camp Pomodoro, where the terraces step into the sea and the Blakes will never be the same again.

It’s just Terry and the boys, Mr Stamp tells his wife. How sad, says Mrs Stamp. How very very sad. She was such a lovely lady, such a lovely lovely lady. Mr Stamp spends an evening staring at the same page of a thriller he was looking forward to finishing.

Anna finds Peter sitting on a rock by the water. The pain has made him more handsome, like he’s grown up ten years. They watch the sun drop all the way into the sea. Mo Blake comes and sits between them and they all silently pretend they are a young family.

Mr D’Alessandro invites Mr Blake into his half finished house. It is cool and tidy inside and it reminds Mr Blake of a certain shrine in Saint Mark’s Basilica. A table is covered in framed pictures of a glamorous Italian lady, from youth until middle age. Her beauty is at first fading and then frail but she still looks pretty in a headscarf. Mr Blake sees a painting of him and his wife and the boys by their tent. Mr D’Alessandro takes it off the wall and gives it to him. Per te, per te.

Peter and Anna talk about university choices. Peter hopes to study Politics at Durham and Anna hopes to study Marketing at York. By sheer coincidence their back-ups are Lancaster. They don’t yet know their exam results and they wonder what it would be like if they don’t get the grades for their first choices.

Mr Stamp is waiting for the right moment and he finds it when Mr Blake is standing alone at the water’s edge. He takes him a cold beer and they both stare out to sea. Mr Stamp says she was, and Mr Blake smiles and says she was, wasn’t she?

Mo Blake spends a lot of time with Mrs Stamp. They carefully dam a trail of ants, diverting it towards a stale loaf of bread. Mrs Stamp breaks open the crust to show that some have gone all the way inside. Mo Blake curls his hand into hers.

The Blakes and the Stamps eat together on the final night. Mrs Stamp serves plates of Galia melon and Prosciutto cut up something fancy. Mr Stamp grates heaps of Parmesan onto his spaghetti bolognese because when near Venice. Mo Blake is allowed to cover the bottom of his glass with red wine and Mr Blake makes a toast to his beautiful Sandra.

They won’t be coming back here, Mrs Stamp tells her husband, and he agrees.

The Blakes and the Stamps say goodbye and there is an unspoken finality to it all. The families bump into each other on the ferry and they go through it all again.

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