The Beach Hut
by Sian Hughes
Sian Hughes worked in publishing and journalism before taking a course in creative writing at OUDCE.
Her short stories have been published in literary magazines and won prizes in competitions (Freestyle; Matthew Prichard; Legend; Real Writers/The Book Place; Cinnamon). She has been shortlisted for the Asham, Fish and Raymond Carver Awards.
Sian won the 2008 Biscuit Short Story Competition with her story The Beach Hut, the title story in her 2009 short story collection, published by Biscuit.
The Beach Hut
This is an extract from the mid-section of Sian's winning short story; the complete story is included in, and gives its title to, Sian's short story collection, The Beach Hut, published by Biscuit.
Miss Proctor takes the train from Peterborough, changing at York. The bleak sweeps of moorland and wild coastline of the border country appeal to her. From Alnmouth a taxi takes her to Low Winterton, a village of grey stone fishermen's cottages, set back from the sea behind a golf course and ridges of dunes. The Crown and Anchor, where the taxi puts her down, stands in the central square. Miss Proctor books in, goes up to her room, changes her shoes and hurries down to the beach.
It is late June, late afternoon. Children's cries reach her before she has arrived at the first line of dunes. Higher ridges, behind the first, lead on to the beach, or so she imagines as, slipping and chattering, families struggle back over them, trailing windbreaks and shrimping nets, cricket bats and buckets. Between the banks of dunes, in a long valley where she now stands and to which the families are returning, are the beach huts, a row of about fifteen.
They do not, at first glance, resemble the smart huts of the property section, although most have once been painted in bright colours. Others are plain wood, like garden sheds. All show signs of current, if not present occupation, with pairs of beach shoes lined up outside, and towels laid out to dry. All except one.
Number Twelve is derelict. It sits low in the sand, its felt roofing buckled, its blue paint faded and peeling, though some attempt appears to have been made, probably years ago, at reparation. In confirmation, an ancient tin of paint lies outside the hut, rusting into the grass. Like a ship going down, Number Twelve lists a little to the west.
Miss Proctor has had no experience of family holidays and so surprises herself by a desire to cry. Crying for what? She takes a breath, steps cautiously on to the wooden platform and tries the door. It is locked. Her hut. Who has locked it? Who has the right? Miss Proctor, unreasonable in her disappointment, blames everyone but herself for failing to obtain that most essential of accessories to a new property - the key.
At the Crown and Anchor she is told there is a lad called Robbie Borthwick knows about those beach huts. Lives at Castle Cottages, number six.
A tall, slightly-built man in his late fifties is standing on a ladder burning the paint off a window frame. His blue workman's overalls are spattered with white paint. Flakes are in his greying hair, on his hands, and, when she reaches the ladder and looks up at him, his face. She waits for a pause: "Excuse me. Castle Cottages?"
"Is your son in?"
"I haven't got a son."
"Oh. Oh I see." Robbie. Lad. The words had suggested someone younger.
"You wanted something?"
"I have a beach hut here. But I haven't got a key and it's locked. I was hoping you'd be able to help me."
He looks at her. "You have a beach hut?"
"They're privately owned, those huts. I know all the owners. I don't know you."
"I was left it. In a Will. A lady called Mrs. Harding left it to me."
"Mrs. Harding's dead?"
"Ah," he says. He sits his blow-torch carefully on the window-sill. "I'd better come down," he says.
He won't come that day, he is too busy. Sundays he goes to dinner with his niece. Monday he has a job over at Alnwick. It might be finished Monday, it might not. He could probably get along Tuesday afternoon, round about ...
"What time did you say?" She struggles to hear his unfamiliar accent, pitched somewhere between Geordie and lowland Scots.
"Ah said, foor."
"Oh, four. Right. I'll meet you there. It's number twelve."
"I know the hut," he says.
Tuesday is raw and windy. She has walked twice out on to the beach and back again when she sees him coming. He wears his blue overalls. In one hand he carries a toolbox and a bunch of keys.
"I didn't know you had the key."
"I don't know that I do have the key. I have keys. One may fit."
He bends down and inspects the lock. Out of his box he takes a can of oil and sprays it into the keyhole, wiping it carefully with a rag. &Years since it's been turned," he says. He tries one key after another. Nothing. Finally he takes the tools out of his box and fishes around in the bottom.
"Got a few loose ones," he says. "You never know."
The second key slips easily into the lock and he turns the knob. The door opens with difficulty, creaking against the hinges, and jams half way. He puts his head round the door and peers inside. "Welcome to Number Twelve," he says.
She moves to go in. &No. Let me. The floorboards will be rotten."
He eases inside, feeling the boards with each step. Several give way. He beckons her in, indicating where she should place her feet. Inside, the hut is empty. Spiders' webs hang across the roof and in the corners. Mouse droppings lie among sand on the floor. Marram grass has forced its way through gaps in the wood and some has taken root. A narrow bench runs round the inside walls. Mouse droppings are here too, and yellow sticky balls of spiders' nests.
"Funny," she says. "I expected to find stuff in here. Shrimping nets. Kettles. Signs of a life."
"Oh no. They always cleared it out at the end of summer."
"The O'Hanlons. Mrs. Harding's family.'
'I wonder what I should do," she says, lowering herself to sit on the bench.
"Not that, for a start." He pulls her roughly back by the arm. He puts out his hand and presses on the bench. A piece splits off. He tears it to pieces and lets them fall to the floor. "Wood's rotten," he says. "Wet from the sand. It's blown up and drifted against the sides. And under the floorboards. That's why the marram's coming through."
"I thought sand was dry," she says.
"And how would grass grow in it?" He looks at her. "A lot you know."
"It doesn't look too bad from the outside," she says.
"That's the paint. It hides the true condition of the wood. You can't tell what it's like under the paint. But they all want their beach huts painted, don't they."
They close up the hut and walk back over the golf course towards the village. A white van, R.A. Borthwick, Carpenter and Joiner painted on the side, is parked in the square.
"You'll be selling, won't you?"
"In that condition?"
"No, not in that condition. You'll have to spend some money on it, but not as much as if you wanted a proper job."
"What would that cost me, a proper job?"
"A thousand, maybe more."
"That's a lot."
"Well, you won't do it, will you. You'll go back to London and decide it's not worth it."
"I'm not from London."
"Aren't you? You're not from up here."
"I didn't think so. There's nowhere like up here." He slides back the door of his van.
"Will you give me a couple of estimates, one for a proper job, one for a patch-up job?"
"I'm not mucking about doing estimates for nothing. I don't need the work. You let me know when you've decided." He starts up the engine and drives away.