Morning crept up on Boscombe Beach like a girl, home late from a party: a little tousled, a little ablush; in the small hours, with a hazy memory at best of what happened the night before.
Andy and George had taken a boat from the boat house at Christchurch Harbour and tuckered out a bit to sea, not very far, just enough to get a good view. The completion that Stefano and Paul experienced on Studland Beach together in physical union, they, Andy and George, achieved on their boat in a serene, cerebral, perhaps even spiritual way: they sat next to each other, close, close enough to feel each other’s presence, but not holding hands or intentionally touching, just so close that what was between them was nothing more than proximity. And they watched in equal awe and wonder, equal to each other, equal to that of spectators elsewhere. They did not take pictures, or videos; they sat in the little boat they had ‘borrowed’, bobbing up and down a bit on the shallow waves of a calm sea with a subtle breeze coming in more or less from their left now, as they were facing the beach. They knew they had done a terrible thing.
Beautiful, outrageous. Gorgeous. And terrible. With dawn now creeping home on them too, George started the engine of the little boat and steered it straight to the shore where they landed not far from Boscombe Pier. Once again, nobody took notice of them, two pale, dishevelled teenage figures, as they wandered along the beach, absorbing the gash of a wound they had inflicted on it: hut after wrecked hut, smouldering in the morning haze. The odd fire still burning. Water puddles from where people had attempted to extinguish a blaze. Ruined belongings. Melted plastic crockery and disfigured chairs. Exploded gas bottles and broken glass. Splinters of wood, singed at the edges. Blackened, browned. And every now and then, not often, but here and there, the blue or amber flashing lights of ambulances and police. Surprisingly few fire engines. But ambulances and police. And yellow tape now, here and there, and blue and white tape too, and then, mixed into the smell of coal and sulphur and burnt wood and overheated metal, a different smell, an alien, unfamiliar one, sweet and pungent in equal measure.
Here is where George, instinctively, without noticing, took Andy’s hand, and when they had been walking slowly before, they now moved with hesitation, caution, peering between the people who in places gathered, in places stood forlorn, in places comforted each other, surrounded by those now busy, answering the call of catastrophe: the rescue personnel, the life savers, the paramedics and the competent bystanders turned volunteers. A sheet-covered body. A stretcher. A woman, terror in her eyes. The quiet, undramatic unfolding of disaster aftermath.
Moving through these scenes in silence, slowly, Andy and George, holding each other’s hands, began to sense that they had attained a kind of absolute: none, not one of the beach huts they passed was unscathed. All were damaged, most were destroyed. And the loss on people’s faces: they were only beach huts that had gone, not homes, not schools or hospitals, not museums, temples or shrines. But for the devastation written on these expressions, it might as well have been all of those. Cherished these huts had been, loved. The few, modest possessions each contained had meant more to their owners than treasures in a bank vault or safe. To some cynic much may have been tat, to these people — honest, unassuming people — they had embodied memories and harboured care.
Nothing epitomised their loss more poetically than a ceramic figure of a fat beach couple, grinning ear to ear, one a bucket in one hand with a shovel sticking out of it, the other waving a little flag, both arm in arm, both with their sun hats on, standing on a mound of sand with the omnipresent caption “Life’s a Beach” in thick letters embossed on it: its shards lay shattered on the ground next to the burnt shelf it had fallen from, and two disembodied chubby faces now simpered stubbornly from among char-stained debris.
George and Andy walked along the beach for a while, then went up to George’s flat, where his dad was out — presumably, they thought, outside somewhere, assessing the damage, talking to neighbours; they didn’t mention it or ask — they went and sat on George’s bed. Then George lay on his back and Andy did so too. And Andy turned over to his side and rested his head on George’s shoulder. And George put his arm around him a bit, and they fell asleep.
When they woke up it was four thirty in the afternoon, they had slept uninterrupted for nearly twelve hours. George’s dad sat on the sofa in front of the television, which had the news on, showing the scene outside no more than seventy yards from where he was sitting. George got up, used the loo, went into the kitchen, said, ‘hi dad,’ and poured himself a glass of water, took it back to his bedroom, where Andy now stirred. He gave him to drink from his glass, and Andy now got up too and used the loo, and then they both went into the living room and sat down on the other sofa, at a right angle to the one George’s dad was sitting on, and George’s dad looked at them both and said, ‘are you two all right?’
Andy nodded and George said, ‘yes,’ and then they sat in silence and listened to a reporter from the beach not seventy yards from where they were sitting, only outside, and there they remained sitting in silence as the reporter described the spectacular fire and confirmed that the number of casualties so far was twelve but could rise as there were some people missing, and several were in hospital with severe burns, and among the victims were two girls who were twins, aged five, and a picture came up showing two lovely, lively, smiling girls, aged around five, and there was also a dog that had died in the fires.
George’s dad was shaking his head in incomprehension and a nondescript anger, and Andy and George sat on their sofa at a right angle to him, and then George got up and went back to his bedroom and lay back down on the bed on his back again, and Andy followed him and lay back down on his back next to him, and this time George turned over and put his arm around Andy, and Andy turned towards him and put his arm around George, and they lay there, not really sleeping and not really waking and certainly not dreaming, their foreheads touching and their arms oddly entwined, but in a comfort all of their own, and an hour passed, or possibly two, and then the doorbell rang.