I was sitting in a cafe in Huntington Beach, California at the weekend. This is not to brag; that is simply where I was. There was some surfing event taking place and the boardwalk was jammed with people, the vast majority young and out to impress. It was fascinating viewing. I was particularly intrigued by the tattoos most of the guys seemed to be sporting; many were of dubious quality and of the pseudo gangster variety, but there was also some beautiful artwork. I was already planning a tattoo-based story by this point, when the perfect character walked by: an old woman, dressed for some other season (it was hot out there), and carrying a metal detector in a very determined fashion. Hey presto! Story time.
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Mabel Delaney pushed on through the wave of naked torsos and pert breasts bobbing on their tide of bejewelled navels. To an outsider she appeared oblivious to the urgent youthfulness of the crowds around her; oblivious also to the sneering insults hurled at her by the strutting youngsters.
‘Hey, old lady, where’s your surf board?’
‘Who brought their granny?’
‘Soup kitchen’s that way.’
Mabel hoisted her metal detector under her arm like a lance and pointed it at a gap in the wall of gleaming skin and sun-bleached hair. As she moved, she was vaguely aware of flashes of ink on the arms and chests of the young men: names, phrases, lines of songs, needled into firm flesh; off-the-peg declarations for the emotionally illiterate.
Leaving the throbbing boardwalk, Mabel shuffled onto the beach and stopped. She adjusted the worn scarf round her neck, re-packed her wild hair under a faded cap and switched the detector on. An old sieve swung from her belt as she slowly made her way across the sand towards the shore line. Her route, like her expression, never varied: up and down, determined concentration etched into her sun-wrinkled face. Occasionally, she was forced to negotiate prostrate forms on the sand, muttering annoyances under her breath; occasionally, the forms answered back.
‘Fuck off back to the home.’
‘Crazy old bitch.’
‘Found your sanity yet, weirdo?’
Had she and Larry been as dismissive back then? Mabel couldn’t remember them noticing anybody else in those few brief months before the draft, lying together on the warm sand, kissing in gritty embraces.
Her headphones whined insistently and Mabel swooped down on the small patch of sand, piling grains into the sieve. Another quarter. She placed the coin into her pocket; later it would join the rest in the giant jar by her bed.
She continued towards the surf, passing more tattooed boys playing volleyball.
Larry had got himself ‘inked’ before leaving: “Semper Fidelis” on his left bicep; it might have been the Marine’s motto, but she knew he meant it differently. He’d had it done after she lost the ring and Mabel liked to think it was his way of saying it didn’t matter. In any case, Larry had promised to replace it when he got back.
Another whine. Another quarter. One day she’d get round to counting these damned coins; one day there might be enough to get her east to the memorial.
Mabel straightened up and rubbed her back. One last sweep and she’d call it a day; for today at least. She adjusted the headphones and set off, eyes down to avoid the midday sun. After five or six paces, the alarm went off again; simultaneously, Mabel collided with someone. She looked up at yet another smooth torso, unmarked save for his left arm.
‘Have you found something?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Might have.’
The young man knelt down.
‘I’ll give you a hand if you like.’
Mabel was momentarily shocked into silence.
‘Pass me your sieve then.’
He was reaching out, smiling.
Mabel read his tattoo: “Carpe Diem”. Not very original, but at least it was spelt correctly.
‘Do you know what that means?’
The man smiled again.
‘Of course. It’s my motto.’
‘It’s a good one,’ said Mabel, ‘if you mean it.’
‘Oh I mean it alright. Now, let’s see if we can find your treasure.’
Mabel laughed. It was an unfamiliar sensation.
‘It’ll probably just be a quarter. Usually is.’
He looked up and handed her the find.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘not even a quarter.’
Mabel brushed the sand off the dime.
‘There’s always tomorrow,’ she said.
‘Exactly,’ said the man, jumping to his feet and tapping his arm, ‘as it says, seize the day!’
‘Thanks for your help.’
‘No problem, better luck next time.’
Mabel clutched her ring finger. Maybe tomorrow. She dropped the coin into her coat pocket and heard it chinking against the others. She closed her eyes and pictured Larry, wiping the sand off his tattoo to show her the art work.
‘Semper fidelis,’ she whispered, allowing the words to be caught by the breeze and fly out across the waves.
© flyingscribbler 2011