You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
Disclaimers: This is a work of original fiction, so please don’t nick any of it. British setting so British everything else.
No sex, violence or even swearing. Well, not this time anyway.
There might be a very slight, passing resemblance to the BBC holiday camp classic Hi Di Hi; camp in more ways than one.
Synopsis: It’s the summer of 1958 and Midge Mather is spending it working as a Greencoat at the Greenacres Holiday Camp, the same camp that Ruth James has been persuaded to spend a week at.
Thanks, as always, to Sally.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
Midge Mather tucked the tails of her cream cotton short sleeved blouse into heavier weight cotton shorts before slipping on the forest green blazer, the breast pocket emblazoned with a golden, cursive embroidered G. As a member of the sports division she got to wear shorts rather than a pleated skirt, and for this she was very grateful. The combination of blouse, skirt and blazer was too close to her old school uniform, all that would be missing was a round felt hat and green and cream tie.
If she stood between the two beds and peered through the door way to the tiny bathroom, she could see an image she could never reconcile with being her own reflection. Non-descript brown eyes set in a face that was a little too angular, a little too uncertain of itself, to be called pretty. Not like her chalet mate, Simone Costello, who was studiedly beautiful. She looked like the sort of girls you saw in magazines advertising perfumes and cigarettes; in an entirely different league from Midge. Midge’s face was already brown, her dark hair cut short and easily managed. She ran her fingers through it, wishing that it didn’t feel so coarse. She frowned at the girl in the mirror who frowned belligerently back. No sense longing for silky blonde hair that cascaded to her shoulders: it was never going to happen.
The chalet smelt of cigarettes and chlorine. A forest green bathing costume hung next to a pair of nylons on the piece of string the girls had strung up in the bathroom. The bather would never be dry on time; Midge would have to slip it on cold and half wet, hating the clammy material that clung between her legs and made her irritable. Maybe she should find a way of putting it outside where the sun was hot enough to strip the paint from slatted woodwork. But if Sylvia Carmichael, head Greencoat, caught her, there’d be all hell to pay.
“C’mon, Midge, get a move on. We’ll cop it from Sylv if we’re late”
Midge turned around to see Simone’s face poking round the chalet door, her honey blonde ponytail swinging as the young woman jerked her head in the direction of the main gates. It was Saturday, and that was the day the new intake of guests arrived. Midge took a final look at herself in the mirror and then ran to catch up with Simone.
Ruth James stared out of the window as the bus rattled out of Broadhaven and into the neighbouring countryside. Across the fields she could make out the edge that dropped away and became the sea; the light was different to the east, the sky knew it was the end of the land even if no one else did.
“O Ruth, aren’t you excited?”
Ruth had to stifle a sigh. It was the twentieth time Jeannie had asked her this question since they’d got on the train at Liverpool Street station. She was glad to be out of London, that was true, lately she’d felt hemmed in, claustrophobic and oppressed; a strange longing niggling at her. But excited? Two weeks in Monte Carlo was exciting, a month in Capri; a week at a holiday camp on the East coast, however, was not her idea of thrilling. The sun was blazing in a fleet sized sky, but the North Sea glowered on the horizon, the thinnest film of blue covering gun metal grey, making Ruth shiver. But she forced herself to smile at her friend and pretend some level of excitement; easily mollified, Jeannie McIntyre sat back in her seat and sighed contentedly.
It was easy to be pulled along by Jeannie’s enthusiasm, had been since the day she’d appeared in Ruth’s office with a glossy brochure, her eyes as bright as if she were desperately trying to keep a secret. Ruth had been unconvinced.
“I don’t know, Jean, I think I’d rather go and stay in a guest house somewhere”
Jeannie had looked perplexed.
“Why would you want to do that, Ruthie? Kicked out just after breakfast and not allowed back until tea time. Nothing to do when it rains. At Greenacres, everything is organised for you”
“Yes, that’s what worries me”
“Aw c’mon. Everything laid on, lots to do, loads of people to meet and all for two quid for the week”
Jeannie was hard to resist with her big blue eyes, her heart shaped face and full lips that had long ago perfected a getting-her-own way pout. And it wasn’t as if Ruth had any objections to spending a week at a Greenacres holiday camp, not any that she could put into words. Jeannie was right about guest houses. Seven days of entertaining Jeannie was an exhausting prospect; organised events would take the young woman off her hands and give her time to sit in the sun in peace and quiet. It might not be Capri, but it was better than nothing. To Jeannie’s delight, she gave in very quickly.
Jeannie jerked forward in the seat, snapping Ruth out of her dream.
“Look, we’re here!”
As the green and cream buses pulled in through the wrought iron gates, Lenny “the Laughter” Lamont flicked away his cigarette and ran a comb through his brilliantined hair.
“Stand by your beds. Here come the Billies”
He said this with every new arrival. The first week, Midge had given Simone a puzzled look.
Simone sighed as Midge’s expression became even more confused.
Over the last four weeks, Midge had noticed how Lenny transformed from pinch faced misanthrope to smiling camp host in the space of a heart beat, as if a switch had been thrown. It was a ghastly form of professionalism that appalled and mesmerised her. Simone had told her that she could learn a lot from Lenny but she wasn’t sure she wanted to; not if it meant becoming like him.
Seeing the new intake of holiday makers swarming off the buses with excited, expectant faces made her happy. She’d admitted this to Simone one night as they both lay on their beds; Midge, hands tucked behind her head gazing up at the ceiling, Simone lighting a pastel pink Passing Cloud and observing Midge through the smoke.
“You won’t be so happy by the end of August, believe me”
Midge was quiet for a moment and then asked the question that had bothered her for a while.
“Why do you keep coming back every year if you hate it so much?”
Simone’s laugh was brittle.
“It’s not like I have an awful lot of choice, darling. A guaranteed job is a guaranteed job. Accommodation and meals paid for, it sure beats starving in a garret. Or going on the game”
But here Simone was on a hot Saturday lunch time greeting the campers like they were the most important thing in her life; here was Lenny joking and teasing the newcomers as if they were old friends. Midge shook her head and moved forward to meet the first influx.
Ruth waited impatiently to get off the bus. Everyone around her was chattering and laughing, including Jeannie who squashed up behind her, trying to push Ruth along with a hand in the small of her back. Ruth wasn’t keen on the press of it all, claustrophobia squeezing her chest. It was hot and airless and all she wanted to do was get a cold glass of water and have a lie down with her shoes off.
When it was her turn to descend the steps she was momentarily dazzled by brilliant sunshine. When her eyes cleared she was dazzled for a second time by an incredibly white smile. She narrowed her eyes so that she could make out the owner of the smile: a dark haired woman. It took her a couple of seconds to realise that the woman, who was about her own age, maybe a little younger, wore a Greenacres blazer and was holding out her hand. Ruth stood, bewildered, staring at the girl’s hand, unsure what to do. Before she could make any kind of decision, she stumbled, propelled forward by Jeannie. The same hand that been offered to shake now prevented her from falling. It was a nice hand, firm but gentle.
“There, no harm done”
It was a nice voice, soft and kind. Ruth looked up into the most incredible eyes she’d ever seen: brown and warm as milk chocolate buttons. There was that smile again. This time it included both Ruth and Jeanie.
“Ladies, welcome to Greenacres. I take it this is your first time?”
Ruth wondered how she knew but looking around she noticed that a lot people were wearing enamel pin badges with dates on them. Some were wearing quite a number. The young woman fished into the pocket of her cream shorts and pulled out a handful of red pins with 1958 printed on them in gold numbers, giving one each to Jeannie and Ruth. It was stupid to be so clumsy, for hands to shake quite as they were; ridiculous that she couldn’t fasten something as simple as an enamel pin. Fingers brushed hers. That soft, kind voice again.
“Here, let me. They can be a bit fiddly sometimes”
Ruth stood perfectly still as the girl pinned the badge to the lapel of her jacket. She briefly held onto both lapels before smoothing her fingers down them.
“There, that’s perfect. My name’s Midge, by the way, if there’s anything you need this week, please don’t hesitate to ask me. You can nearly always find me by the pool. And I hope you have a great stay”
And with just the hint of regret in her smile, the girl turned to the next people off the bus.
Simone’s attention was caught by a man who managed to make even a Greenacres uniform look stylish; she gave him a wave and he sauntered over to her, kissing her on both cheeks.
“Jerry, I was wondering if you were ever going to show up”
“I know, darling, so did I. For some reason Frankie wanted me down in Ilfracombe. Still, I’m here now”
Jerry Fulbright scanned the new arrivals, his eyes suddenly caught by a dark haired Greencoat he’d not seen before.
“Oo, who is that delightful little ingénue talking to Tom Collins?”
“That’s my new cellmate, Midge”
“Midge – ?”
“Don’t start, Jerry, she’s a very sweet girl. And something of a celebrity around here. She’s apparently some sort of a champion fiend in the pool, tipped for great things, maybe even the Olympics. And that’s not all – never mind, you’ll find out soon enough”
“Well, young Tom seems very taken with her”
“Hm, to be honest, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree”
Simone wished she could take it back as Jerry’s eyes lit up with an evil glint. She knew from experience that he wouldn’t let up until he’d dug out any scandal and gossip and spread it around the entire camp. Not just Broadhaven but most of the Greenacres camps dotted around the coast of the British Isles. He had the potential to make Midge’s life hell. A sudden fierce protectiveness came over Simone.
“Don’t you dare, she’s my friend”
Jerry arched an eyebrow.
“Simone Costello, such passion. Are you switching sides at half time?”
She looked over at Midge, who caught her eye and gave her a massive grin. God that girl has a gorgeous smile. She had a wholesome beauty Simone knew she’d never have. If you licked her skin, it would taste of sunshine. Simone had seen Midge naked more than once; the girl had an unconscious lack of inhibition brought on by half a lifetime spent in changing rooms, and wasn’t shy showing off her swimmer’s physique: strong, broad shoulders, streamlined torso, narrow hips and powerful legs. But it was Midge’s unawareness of her beauty that made her truly attractive; her genuine sweetness of character. If there was going to be a girl, it would be her. Not that Simone was going to admit this to Jerry. Instead she pretended to think about it for a moment before replying with a lascivious smile.
“O, darling, no. I’d miss cock even more than you would”
Jerry barked his laugh.
“Dear me, what a salty mouthed girl you are! The Navy’s loss is certainly our gain. C’mon, let’s save your little palone-omi from the tentacular grip of Mr. Collins”
Ruth woke at five the next morning. It was hot in the chalet, even with the window slightly open, and she never slept well in a strange bed. Jeannie was curled up and gently snoring less than six feet away. The sun was letting her know that she was at one of the most easterly points in the country as it started to flood through the thin curtains. It was no use, she wasn’t going to sleep any longer. With a sigh, she threw back the bedclothes; if she was awake she might as well explore the camp while it was quiet.
And it was quiet, eerily so. It was as if something happened to all the inhabitants in the night and she was the only one left, except as she neared the pool she could hear splashing. Very rhythmic splashing.
Ruth watched as a dark shape travelled half a pool’s length before breaking the surface, continuing in a crawl until it reached the shallow end where Ruth was standing. It was the Greencoat from yesterday, Midge. Just before the turn she became aware of Ruth and stalled; startled but smiling. She let her feet touch the bottom and stood up, water slicking her shoulders, bathing costume clinging to her breasts. She pushed wet hair away from her face, her smile as white and friendly as before. Ruth found herself blushing and didn’t know where to look.
“I didn’t mean to make you stop”
The girl shrugged.
“You’re up early”
“I couldn’t sleep”
Both women fell quiet for a couple of seconds. Midge ducked down in the water, letting if flow across her shoulders and chest.
“You’re like a seal”
“In the water, I hope. Not on the land”
“O no, no”
Midge turned over onto her side and flippered a couple of feet before returning to Ruth with a broad grin. Ruth was shy but cleared her throat.
“Have – have you ever heard of silkies?”
The girl shook her head.
“They’re Scottish folk lore. In the water, they’re seals but on land they take off their coats and become human. Legend has it that if you find a silkie’s coat, she’s bound to you forever”
Ruth hunkered down just a little behind the edge of the pool.
“But the silkie will always long for the sea, and if she ever finds her coat, then she’ll return to it without a backward glance”
Midge was watching her with big, round, seal brown eyes.
“What’s the moral of the story?”
“The moral? I’m not sure. Maybe that we should let beautiful things be themselves”
Midge dived under the water; when she resurfaced, she pulled herself up so she was eye to eye with Ruth.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?”
Before Ruth could reply, Midge launched herself backwards and started the smooth measure of the backstroke.
“Just be careful where you put your coat; there are some unscrupulous people around”
Midge might’ve laughed but Ruth wasn’t sure.
Simone sat back in her seat and watching in horror as Midge wiped a piece of fried bread around her plate, mopping up egg yoke before stuffing it into her mouth.
“How is it you can eat all that muck and not gain an ounce?”
“Eight hours in the pool”
Simone gave her a very deliberate up and down and raised an eyebrow. Her meaning was obvious, making Midge blush, which in turn made Simone laugh. She reached for her breakfast: black coffee and a cigarette.
“You ready for tonight?”
Midge gulped down a mouthful of tea and nodded.
“Good, I’ll see you later then. Make sure you let that go down before you go swimming”
Ruth closed her eyes and leant back in her deckchair, enjoying the sun on her face and arms. She was aware of splashing, the laughter and shouts, but it was simply background noise and didn’t disturb her. She didn’t know why she was drawn to the pool, but of all the places in the camp she could sun bathe, there seemed to be no contest. She’d set up her deckchair only feet away from where she’d earlier stood and watched Midge swim.
All morning she’d been aware of Midge; even when she couldn’t see her, she was around. It was as if the atmosphere were water and Midge cut through it, a strong butterfly displacing air and sending eddies that stroked up to and lapped around Ruth. With her eyes closed, Ruth could picture the dark haired girl slick with water, her muscles tanned, smooth and easy, flexing and relaxing. She had never seen anyone so completely in their element, as natural as it she’d been born in the water.
Ruth sighed and stretched her arms above her head, and left them there, clinging on to the back of the chair. She became aware of the air rippling around her and opened her eyes to see Midge standing in front of her. Raising her arms up had pulled her thin sleeveless blouse taut across her breasts; a blush crept over Midge’s face as if she’d been caught staring. Ruth didn’t move but smiled up at Midge. The girl ran a hand through her hair and then shyly smiled back. She was dressed in cream shorts and an aertex shirt rather than her habitual bathing costume. Her broad shoulders were still noticeable through the cotton, her strong brown legs a striking contrast against the pale shorts, socks and gym shoes. If anything, the rest of her body being concealed made it more exciting; Ruth’s memory filled in what was left secret. Something inside felt thick and slow as golden syrup; hot and indolent, Ruth’s smile became loose and lazy.
“You’re out of the pool, I see”
“Yes, I’m on life guarding duty for the rest of the day. Sit in my high chair and hope nobody gets into trouble. What are you reading?”
Ruth’s attention was drawn to the book that had been sitting unread in her lap for the last hour.
“O, it’s Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. It’s about a character who starts off as a boy in the Elizabethan era and goes on for about four hundred years. He changes into a woman about half way through”
“Some people actually think it’s a bit of a love letter”
Midge’s blush intensified but she was trying to appear nonchalant. The slow thickness shifted in Ruth again. She answered Midge’s unspoken question.
“Yes, to Vita Sackville West”
“The one who does the gardening?”
“Yes, the one who does the gardening. She’s also a writer and a poet”
Midge looked crestfallen, and Ruth instantly regretted making her feel foolish. She sat up and reached out to touch Midge’s arm, delighting in her sun warmed skin.
“It’s just a silly book. I’m only pretending to read it. Really it’s just an excuse to sun bathe”
Midge’s wide open smile was back.
“You should be careful you don’t burn, your skin is so fair”
Ruth lifted her arms above her head again, let her knees drop open and regarded Midge through half closed eyes.
“I’ll bear that in mind”
“Are you coming to the ballroom tonight?”
“I don’t know, should I?”
Midge cocked her head to one side, her smile as full and slow as Ruth’s.
“You should, you might be surprised”
“I like surprises”
“Then come to the ballroom at eight o’clock”
Midge started to walk away but then suddenly turned around.
“Hey, I don’t know your name”
“Okay then, Ruth, I’ll see you tonight. Eight o’clock, don’t be late”
To be continued in Part II
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