The Blade Artist

By: Irvine Welsh

1





THE BEACH




As he elevates her skywards, the bright sun seems to burst out from behind Eve’s head, offering Jim Francis a transcendental moment that he pauses to savour before he lowers the child. The hot sand will soon punish his bare feet, he thinks, turning away from the solar flare, and he’ll have to watch she doesn’t burn. Eve is fine for now though, her bubbling, machine-gun giggles urging him to continue the game.

The glorious thing about working for yourself, setting your own hours, is that you can always take time off. Jim appreciates being here on the deserted beach, so early at sunrise this July morning, with his wife and two young daughters, while everybody else sleeps off their Independence Day celebration hangovers. The beach is absolutely deserted, bar some squawking seabirds.

When he’d first moved to California, they’d stayed in Melanie’s two-bedroomed apartment in the small college town of Isla Vista, close to where she worked at the university campus. Jim loved the closeness to the ocean, and they’d regularly walk the coastal trail, from Goleta Point to Devereux Slough, sometimes only seeing the odd beachcomber or surfer. When first Grace then Eve had come along, they’d moved to a house in Santa Barbara, and the treks were curtailed in favour of shorter jaunts.

This morning they rose early, the tide still low, parking the Grand Cherokee up on the Lagoon Road. They walk in old sneakers, as the beach is littered with tar balls, produced by the nearby Ellwood Oil Field, the only point of attack on mainland American soil during World War II. Ambling down towards the ocean, they passed the low sandstone cliffs that separate the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus from the Pacific, towards the still, richer blue of the lagoon. The tide pools, and the crabs left stranded in them by the outgoing sea, mesmerised the girls, and Jim was reluctant to move on, sharing in their wide-eyed joy, which took him back to his own childhood. There would be more crabs to see later at Goleta Point though, so they roamed further, setting up camp under the cliffs, beyond which sat the university and Isla Vista. The storms in the night have combined with the holiday weekend and the college off-season to leave the beach bereft of human traffic.

The uncharacteristically severe weather has been easing off lately, but the unruly sea has created large sandbanks. If you aren’t inclined to wait for the tide coming in, those have to be negotiated before you get to the ocean. Jim has kicked off his shoes and picked up Eve, knowing that his three-year-old shares his habit of impatience, while Melanie has smoothed out the beach towels and is sitting with five-year-old Grace.

Paddling in the sea, Jim hoists Eve up, once again enthralled by the stream of chuckles this induces. Because of the sand dunes he can’t see Melanie and Grace, but knows that Eve can. High in his outstretched arms, she has her mother and sister in her line of vision as she gurgles and points their way each time he raises her above his head.

Then something changes.

It’s the kid’s expression. At the next skywards swing, Eve lets her hands fall by her side. She is looking in the same direction, Jim chasing her eyeline to the top of the sandbank, but there is confusion on the child’s face. He feels something thud inside him. Pulling her to his chest, he walks quickly up the dune, his bad leg heavy in the sand. But when Melanie and Grace come into his view, far from slowing down, he strides forward in greater haste.

Melanie is both relieved and scared to see Jim rising from the sand, in the hazy overhead sun bursting through the clouds, Eve in his arms. Perhaps they would go now, the two men who had emerged onto the beach from the gravelled paths that wound down from the cliffs above. She’d been vaguely aware of them, but had scarcely given it a thought, thinking they would be students, until they had come over and sat right beside her and her daughter. She had been applying suntan lotion to Grace’s arms and had started to do the same to herself.

— You need a hand puttin that stuff on? one of them asked, a crooked smile under his dark shades. It was the tone that chilled her; not leering, but cold and matter-of-fact. He wore a black tank top from which heavy muscles coiled out, and ran a hand over a close-cropped skull. His accomplice was a smaller man, with blond straggly hair spilling into piercing blue eyes, and a warped grin of rank malevolence.

Melanie said nothing. Those men were not students. Her previous employment had involved working inside the prisons they stank of. She felt paralysed by a terrible sense of cognitive dissonance, as she’d advocated freedom for such men in the past. Men who seemed plausible, reformed. How many of them would turn wrong when they got back into the community? While Melanie wasn’t easily fazed, the situation dripped with badness. Her knotted gut pulsed insistently, telling her that they were more than just pests. And Grace looked at her in appeal, urging her to do or say something. She wanted to somehow convey to her daughter that doing nothing in this situation was doing something. Melanie had looked onto the cliffs, down the beach, and there was nobody. This spot, usually so popular, now eerily deserted.

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