Yellow Beach

Wednesday, 12 July 2017 13:05 Derek K. Willis Mystery Short Stories
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George’s only concession to the sun had been to leave the top button of his shirt undone. Having turned eighty and lost his wife earlier in the year, George had travelled from Wisconsin because he had something final to do. Sitting on a blanket on the beach, with thermos and sandwiches, George looked out of place. But he knew this place.

George sipped coffee and viewed the scenes. Bronzed young bodies, some with six-packs and others with bare breasts, soaked up the sun. Fat middle-aged men and their fatter wives drank pale lager and smoked between chapters. Mothers suncreamed wriggling toddlers. Teenagers listened to music and eyed other teenagers. Children made sandcastles and chased each other along the beach, squealing.

George watched the waves hitting the beach. He was too distant to hear them crash, but he knew their sound. A young couple walked hand-in-hand, the surf washing over their feet. George remembered that feeling.

“Nice gelato! Nice gelato!” the vendor shouted, bent under the weight of his cooler box. George bought an ice cream because he felt sorry for the vendor, an African far from home. He thought how the vendor must have to hide from the authorities and sleep in a hovel because he was born in the wrong place. The vendor left and George watched him go. Thirty yards on, a long-limbed young man with an expensive haircut and leaning back on his elbows beckoned in Italian to the vendor. George saw the vendor’s reluctance as he handed ice creams to the young man and his companions: two greasy youths and four pretty girls. The vendor was waved away without being paid. The youths and the girls laughed.

The nearby scream of a child took George’s attention. The girl had been running and was hysterical as blood dripped from her foot. In moments George was there, calming the girl, asking her name, and pressing on the artery in her ankle to stop the flow. A crowd gathered to gawp. The girl’s mother pushed through and wrapped an arm around her daughter.

“Claire’s a brave girl and she’s going to be fine,” George said.

The paramedics arrived and took over. The girl was put on a stretcher and taken away with her mother. When the crowd had gone George rummaged in the sand with the toe of his tennis shoe, looking for the broken glass. He found what had cut the girl, but it wasn’t glass.

 

In the evening George was sitting at a café on the promenade. He’d finished eating and was drinking coffee.

“Can I buy you another?” the woman asked.

George looked up and saw the mother of the girl who had cut her foot.

“Oh,” George said as he stood. “How is … how is Claire?”

“They’re keeping her in overnight to watch for any infection. But she’s going to be fine, thanks to you.”

George invited the woman to join him and gestured to the waiter, a small man with a big moustache.

“Anyone with common sense would’ve done the same,” George said.

After a minute chatting, when the woman introduced herself as Celia and explained how she was a single parent from England and had only let Claire out of her sight for a moment, George reached into his jacket pocket.

“This is the culprit,” he said, placing a fragment of brass on the table. “It’s off a shell casing from the war.”

Celia picked up the metal and turned it over and over, feeling the edge.

“Surely by now they would have cleared them all,” she said.

“Believe me,” George said as the waiter brought coffees and slid the tab under the sugar bowl, “there were thousands of shells. I guess bits keep rising up.”

A group of noisy young people sat down at the far end of the café, behind George.

“Is that why you’re here?” Celia asked. “Because of the war?”

George lifted his cup and seemed reluctant to talk.

“I’m sorry,” Celia said. “That’s none of my business.”

George smiled. “It’s alright. I’m here because I have to apologise to someone.”

“Who is that?” Celia asked, leaning forward.

“I don’t know,” George answered, shaking his head and looking down. Celia reached for his hand.

“Back then,” George said, “the code name for Anzio Beach was ‘Yellow Beach’. I was nineteen and an infantryman. At first light we jumped from the landing craft and ran like hell …”

George stopped speaking, searching for the right words. He didn’t react to a plate smashing and the burst of laughter behind him.

“Five or six years ago,” George said, “for the first time in my life I saw a war movie. My wife had heard of a new movie called ‘Saving Private Ryan’, about the guys at Normandy. She’d been told the movie was the most realistic ever and wanted to see it and badgered me to go. She was right. The scene where they run up the beach is exactly right. Everything is in slow motion, like you’re running through molasses. And everything looks distorted, like tunnel vision. It was weird how you could hear the waves crashing but not the shells exploding. I guess fear messes up the senses.”

George took another sip and as he put down the cup his expression became pained.

“I’ve never told this to anyone, not even my wife,” he said. “When I made it to the beachhead my sergeant started hollering, saying I’d gotten one of the men killed. He said I’d frozen at the water’s edge and the guy who’d stopped to pull me forward was hit. I said I hadn’t frozen and no one pulled me forward. But the sergeant insisted he’d seen it happen. He said I should have the same name as the beach. He said I should be called ‘yellow’ for getting a man killed.”

Celia saw tears in George’s eyes. She squeezed his hand.

“I swear to God,” George said. “I didn’t remember anything the sergeant said had happened. But maybe I blotted it out. Maybe I had frozen and the guy was killed. If I got him killed I have to say sorry. If I don’t do that, I can’t face the men we lost. And I can’t face my wife. All these years I wanted to tell her what the sergeant said, but I was afraid to.”

George shook his head again and was quiet.

A commotion at the far end of the café broke the silence between George and Celia. George turned and saw a tall young man gripping the waiter by the throat. Then George recognised the expensive haircut, and saw the greasy youths and pretty girls laughing. Everyone else in the café seemed frozen. George stood and walked over.

“Let him go,” George said.

“Fuck off, old man,” the young man said, his eyes narrowing.

“Let him go or I will hit you,” George said, raising his fists.

“Is this a joke?” the young man jeered.

“I’ve only one punch left in me,” George said, moving his fists in circles. “But if you don’t let him go I will knock you out. Your two stooges will piss themselves laughing when they see you floored by an old man. And they’ll piss themselves again, in fear I have more than one punch left in me.”

The laughter faded.

The young man glowered and George kept a steady eye.

When the young man’s eyes dropped, George knew it was over.

“I’m not wasting time on an old man,” the young man hissed, and let go of the waiter.

“Make whatever excuse you need,” George said. “But be sure to pay your bill.”

The young man threw cash onto the ground and left, followed by the stooges and girls. Everyone clapped as George returned to his table. The waiter shook his hand, thanking him between coughs. Then the owner of the café arrived with glasses of champagne, pulled the tabs from beneath the sugar bowl and tore them up. George and Celia drank their champagne, happy to have met one another.

When it was time to go Celia hugged George. She now knew he hadn’t frozen on the beach. And she knew George knew that also, but needed to hear it from someone else. So Celia told George how in the fear and confusion the sergeant had mistaken him for another soldier. She told her friend he had nothing to apologise for.

 

George walked down the beach carrying his shoes. He’d considered throwing the fragment of shell casing into the sea, but instead dropped it in a trash can so it could do no more harm. In the pink of the sunset George closed his eyes and remembered that morning on Yellow Beach when he’d had a lot more than one punch in him. He thought about the men who’d died. Then, with the surf washing over his feet, George thought about the day he’d walked along Daytona Beach hand-in-hand with his bride.

 

 

 

Derek K. Willis, who lives in the northeast of England, writes short stories and novellas in a variety of genre, though mainly science fiction. In July 2016 his short story Yellow Beach was published in the inaugural edition of Hemingway Shorts, compiled by the Hemingway Foundation of Chicago, IL. Derek has published two science fiction novellas on Amazon Kindle – Ocean of Storms and The Amish Astronomer - as well as his short story compilation Yellow Beach and Other Short Stories.