Things Found on a Beach
It’s not complicated. At that age their eyes swivel in whichever direction he wants them to look. Heads turn. It doesn’t take much – just a little point and a little paint. At the end of the day they’re satisfied. Legs crisscrossed under them, great hungry eyes pointed up him as the Professor performed, arms in the air, making new worlds and stories. He might lie for a living but you can believe him when he says he tried not to look at them when he was performing, even though there’s a peephole to do just that. The sigh and cackle of their reaction was usually enough to get by on.
And today Hunckle debuted. It was such an elegant design, the Professor wondered how he hadn’t got to it sooner. Not twisting his fingers to mock a human frame, not having to move unwieldy and vestigial arm with his thumb and little finger, this was going to be better than the alligator. So much more that he could do. Wrestling and other theatrics. They were going to love it. The alligator had always bothered him. It wasn’t like the little man to run away from anything.
The drive into town had been long. There seemed to b e more distance between each set-up and the next. You had to keep moving though. Just the way it was. Crayton revealed itself as the Professor came over a low rise, the town spread out like a sickle against the sea. The summer sun hit the whitewashed houses and blinded him for a second, burning a neat image behind his eyes that flashed up every time he blinked for the next nineteen minutes. Then straight to the sand.
They gather about him, young and eager. Curious. It’s a story and children like stories. You’d be surprised at the conditions they’d bear. He once performed to a single little girl who stood in whips of rain, as his tent flapped about him. He’d made it through to the end, of course, but he didn’t ask her to pay anything. Today was perfect. Not too hot, not too much of a wind. Enough to make them want to pay.
He hadn’t seen a beach quite like it. Not that the sand was unlike he’d seen before. He’d set up on pebble beaches before, and sand that was struck through with glass pebbles, so he was ready to expect anything. The sea wall was strange though. It looked as though it had been carved from one block of stone that swooped down in a perfect curve to the sand. There were defences cut into the stone, slots for cannon or guns, he supposed. They looked old. Interesting colours too, great swoops and swirls of pale ochre and mother of pearl. Maybe they painted it. The Professor didn’t know.
When Hunkle makes his debut there’s an audible gasp and a light clatter of hands against hands. He wiggles his fingers and the tentacles come to magical life. There’s a laugh. The Professor is pleased. It’s incredible what you can do with an old pair of gardening gloves. He had the idea in the last town up the coast. There had been a mural of some kind of octopus on the side of the Bed and Breakfast that he had stayed in. He had asked, but was just told it was an old tradition. He’d seen another couple of these murals as he drove into Clayton too, so he hoped that they would appreciate the local touch.
It’s amazing how far the story of the little man could stretch. The Professor liked to move the story around, inject a little surprise now and again, or he found himself getting bored. It was an old story, after all. You could cut the cast, juggle the murders, make something new and bold and brassy. That’s what he liked to tell himself, anyway. The little man always stayed the same at the heart of it. Struggle and anger made of wood and paint and cloth.
Of course it would take the little man a while to get used to Hunckle. The Professor will work out the script from audience reactions, but the end will be the same. There are cheers as he makes the sea creature dance behind the little man. Laughter as the children shout out where Hunkle is to the wooden figure in front of them. The Professor is smiling now, pleased, so very pleased with the reaction. When he has the little man finally see the octopus there’s a great flutter of laughter and clapping. That’s good.
The Professor doesn’t quite expect the screams when the little man start to wrestle with the octopus, and he doesn’t expect the crying that starts up when the cephalopod is beaten. He decides to get it off stage as fast as he can. Something’s wrong now, and he doesn’t want to lose his audience. The policeman dances on his hand now, and he and the little man banter merrily, desperately.
The Professor can’t hear a thing. Not the shuffling of bodies, not the unwieldy whispers of infants. Nothing. Not even tears relaxing into sniffles and snorts. He can’t have lost them all. He never does it, but there’s no sound at all, only the sigh of the sea behind him. Even as he carries on with the play above him, as the little man carries on with assaulting the policeman, he puts an eye up to the peephole.
There, in the sun-bright sand, the children are moving toward him. Stalking, one silent foot in front of another, hands hooked into claws, they come. Their parents stand behind them, arms folded, eyes black, and then the endless whorls of colour in the old sea wall.